Virtual Learning Communities as a Canvas for Educational Reform

Sheryl Nassbaum-Beach has started a new discussion over on the TechLearn blog, titled Virtual Communities as a Canvas for Educational Reform. She poses the following questions at the start of her article:

How do we promote the knowledge, skills and sense of urgency for 21st Century teaching and learning among all teachers in our schools? How do we come to the place we are willing to change ??? to risk change ??? to meet the obvious need for better alignment between “school as we know it” and the needs of 21st Century learners?

Sheryl claims a burgeoning body of opinion suggests that virtual learning communities are becoming the venue through which agents for change operate. – which is a statement that rings true for me, although I see the evidence as being more circumstantial and anecdotal than empirical at this stage. That aside, I do agree with Sheryl that the online environment is creating an enormous potential for bringing about large-scale transformative change in our schools and educational institutions.

The traditional view of communities as groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly (loosely taken from Wenger) leads to a strengthening and affirmation of these ideas and practices, forging a community identity and sense of belonging and purpose etc. BUT, as Wenger also points out, after a while , such communities can become very intro-spective and protective of their identity, leading to a resistance to change. This is where I see the virtual world, in particular the web2.0 technologies, creating some great opportunities.

At the 2004 NECC conference Malcolm Gladwell spoke about the importance of the ‘mavens‘ and ‘connectors‘ in the emerging world – noting the importance of people with the ability to make links between ideas and people, and who are good at ‘gathering’ up important pieces of the puzzle and making sense of them. Wenger refers to the idea of “boundary workers” – those who work in the boundaries between established communities – asserting that these are the people who are essentially change agents, refreshing and introducing new ideas to the communities they move between.

In the Web2.0-enabled online environments we now inhabit, those who are the mavens and connectors, many of whom are also boundary workers, are provided with a range of tools and opportunities that make it easier and more effective to carry out these roles. An RSS aggregator, for instance, enables a single person to monitor and contribute to a wide range of communities in a fraction of the time it may have taken previously.

So – I see these two distinct advantages of virtual communities:

  1. linking people with common purpose and practice in a way that they can support each other and grow in depth in their understandings and practice, and
  2. enabling connections and sharing ideas across and between communities, leading to transformation of ideas and understandings, and eventually practice.

If you have a moment, visit Sheryl’s post and see what other thoughts are being shared in response to what she has written.

3 thoughts on “Virtual Learning Communities as a Canvas for Educational Reform

  1. A really nice summary of the advantages of the “disproportionate influence” one can now have thanks to social media and the potential dangers of that.

    As someone who’s job is to aggregate opinion in the Scottish teaching community and see how our curriculum can be tweaked and poked through technology without upsetting too many people, I’ve found that social media is a great ‘talent spotter’ for the teaching profession.

    However, I also spend a fair bit of time sorting out the genuine talent from the “all talk no walk” crowd. While communities of practice are often set up towards a defined goal you’ll always get some who pretend to mavens, while really being cuckous. It’s not always as easy to spot them in a virtual world as it is F2F, depending on you virtual/digital literacy skill.

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  2. Virtual communities are an interesting concept. I have greatly enjoyed attending NECC in 2005 and 2006 and was very disappointed to miss it this year. Happily I could attend virtually and added anything to do with NECC to my RSS aggregator…. As it progressed I became aware that anything that was of importance was happening in the edubloggers lounge (and maybe in second life) and so by virtual attendance I wasn’t missing a thing…. BUT, I had a few plane trips to make, so I also subscribed to podcasts of sessions that took place live, and discovered that there was a whole wealth of knowledge and discussion happening in them that I would never have tapped into if I had just followed the hype of those in the virtual world. Left me feeling very pleased that I subscribe to an eclectic mix of blogs and podcasts or I could end up puddling round in a very confined pond….

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