As John Cotton Dana said, “Who dares to teach must never cease to learn”. It is imperative for teachers to constantly update their knowledge and learn new skills that could be applied in their classrooms and make some positive change immediately. Schools and districts usually provide regular opportunities of teacher professional development, and actively encourage teachers to attend workshops and conferences. Research has shown there is a positive correlation between teachers’ seeking professional development and their students’ performance.
One of the latest trends for using educational technology to improve professional development is learning through online communities. Online communities for teacher professional development may take the form of forums, chat rooms, bulletin board, web blogs, or taking an online course through class management software such as Blackboard. Online learning communities allow teachers to connect to and facilitate with their peers outside their work place. Duncan-Howell conducted a study among 98 teachers who participated in online communities for professional development (2010). These teachers reported the following advantages of learning through online communities:
- Online communities provided flexibility of time and convenience of place.
- The asynchronous nature of online communities gave teachers time to think, reflect and compose their answers.
- Online communities offered wide range of communication and rich experience with educators across the world.
Online learning communities also offered economic advantages: teachers can make use of the freely available online resources and networks, and save the cost of traveling and hotel if they attend a conference somewhere else.
Online learning communities are especially effective for meeting teachers’ needs for immediate classroom application and problem-solving. They could suggest good novels for grade-level reading, discuss behavior management strategies for particular problems, share useful online resources and websites, exchange experiences on technology implication and ask for advice on technique problems. The topics are closely related to teachers’ real life classroom practice, and the responses through online communities can be very fast.
According to the same study of Duncan-Howell (2010), the disadvantage of using online communities reported by teachers is interestingly the same as the one of the advantages: the flexibility of time may cause time management issues. It seemed that careful management is needed to sort through the emails and threads.
From my personal point of view, I am attracted by online courses because I could save my time spent on traveling to classrooms, and manage my own learning based on my schedule. Blackboard, as the class management software we are currently using for most of the graduate courses, has provided many benefits that support the collaborative learning among students. I like the features that allow students to share their thoughts, questions, and products, as well as the features of recording everything in the system for me to look back later, even when I am finished with a course.
As a non-traditional learning mode, Blackboard SMU is not necessarily accepted and liked by all professors and students. It gave me a bad time when I first try to be familiar with it, but now, I am very glad to see I have learned how to use it and make the best out of the community created by it.