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By teachers – for teachers sites: A new way of providing peer support and professional development?

Paul Keown has written about his personal experiences with, as well as his research into, virtual communities of practice (VCop). It makes great reading as Paul describes the various spaces that might be created and used in a VCoP, and the actual experiences he had with helping to facilitate one. Paul closes by saying "The response of teachers to I2C indicates teachers see the value of a ‘by teachers – for teachers’ site as a ‘new’ way of provided one another with support and professional development - as a reworked version of the old subject association." Your thoughts? Please leave Paul questions and comments below :-).

I would like to talk about a range of things I see happening in the whole area of teachers using online technologies to take part in ongoing professional development. I have been working with a number of colleagues over the past 15 years on this issue as shown in the timeline (Figure 1). As Fig 1 shows we began work very soon after Waikato launched online teaching in 1996. In 1997 after cutting my teeth using Top Class to teach first my social studies online class, Lex Chalmers, Robin Peace and I developed an online version of our Geographical Education Masters paper in 1997. Since then we have used 4 different platforms for our virtual (or online) communities of practice (VCoPs). These are shown in red in Fig 1. I began my PhD study on VCoPs in 2002 and conducted 3 VCoPs during 2003 and 2004 (1 with geography teachers, and 2 with SS teachers). I use the term “community of practice” in the sense defined by Wenger 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” (Wenger, 2005).

Figure 1 – Timeline of Communities of Practice work at Waikato

Using the findings from my study Lex and I began to develop a local geography teachers group VCoP with the “In the Styx Project” in 2008 using Moodle. One of the most enthusiastic people within that group was Janey Nolan a geography teacher at Hamilton Girls High school. In 2009 Janey expressed interest in seeking a Royal Society award in order to run a VCoP for geography teachers. In late 2009 I came across an article in the online Journal Education Week that made a real impression on me. The article by Elizabeth Rich tells of a young teacher positioned at the pre-service in-service boundary (Rich, 2009). The beginning teacher had completed a degree in secondary English education and was anxious about what might be awaiting her in her first school. She stumbled upon The English Companion Ning and was excited by the materials and ideas there. “But staring at pages of groups, forums, curricula, and multimedia resources”, she started to panic. So she started a discussion under ‘New Teachers’ entitled ‘HELP!!!’ She explained she was about to start teaching a book called Walden and wrote, "I am in the overwhelming process of preparing for the year and I am STUCK. There are no instructional materials for the class and the last teacher isn't too keen on sharing. I have NO CLUE where to start. Any help would be great." She reported to Rich that in less than 12 hours, “there were roughly 60 responses from novice and veteran educators from across the country”. The young teacher summed her experience up by saying "I cannot believe the help and support I got on the Ning. It's really been an incredible resource"(Rich, 2009). This led me to suggest to Janey as she applied for a Royal Society Teaching award that she use Ning as the platform for her proposed VCoP.

Janey was successful in gaining Royal Society support and worked under the supervision of myself and Lex Chalmers to establish and run “Isolated to Connected” in 2010. (Note: if this link does not provide a sign up option email me and I can provide you with access to have a look around the site). Janey was the full time facilitator of this community during that year. Figure 2 is a screen shot of part of the front page of Isolated to Connected. Ning is ‘typical’ social networking site, The ‘main’ page is the ‘front door’ of the community and highlights recent activity in the community. The top bar of the main page includes 10 function buttons. These different sections are important for the ‘work’ of the community in different ways and nature of each of these 10 dimensions of the Ning Community structure is briefly discussed below.

Figure 2: Screen Shot of the Isolated to Connected Community Ning Page

Each member has their own home page accessed through the ‘my page’ button. Members can load a photo and a brief profile. This page also has a ‘wall’ where members can write messages to the individual member. This is semi-private space as these messages do not show up in the public space of the front page. The ‘members’ page lists all members on the site, and as in other social network sites, individuals can become friends. The full list of members can be searched.

Four aspects of the site were well used by members – photos, videos, forums and groups. The ‘photos’ page is a place where members can post photos that reflect themselves as individuals, or more importantly photographs that will be of interest and practical use to other members of the community in teaching. The ‘videos’ page similarly allows members to upload video clips. In the I2C community members used this function as a site for sharing valuable teaching resources and ideas. The forum and group functions are vital locations for dialogue, the lifeblood of a VCoP. The ‘forum’ function contains ‘open’ forums and discussions that are readily available to all members. Anyone can start a forum or a discussion. The ‘groups’ function allows members to form a group around a topic or issue. Within the group members set up discussion of interest to them. Members who have not joined a group cannot post in these discussions.

Three other aspects of the site were used less often. The ‘events’ page where planned community events can be advertised has been used intermittently to advertise face to face meetings, the community Tsunami Unit wiki (see below). The ‘blogs’ page where any member can set up a blog, was only used by a small number of participants. However, these few blogs were very effective and were each ‘featured’ for a time on the front page of the site. The ‘chat’ function which opens a chat room where members can discuss in real or synchronous time was only added later in the life of the community, and again has not been used much.

Isolated to Connected (I2C)


  • 60 of these (71%) posted a comment into the site.
  • 43 (51%) made 3 or more posts and engaged in a discussion or conversation.
  • 20 (24%) have made 7 or more posts, and
  • 7 (8%) have made 19 posts or more.

In analyzing the nature of the interactive discussion aspects of the site we found that teachers used a variety of different types of discussion. The most popular places on the site are shown in Figure 3. The most popular discussion was on Web-2 Tools in teaching. This discussion was authored and facilitated by one of the “core members” of the community, Philip Cranston of Katikati College. The second most popular discussion space was Janey Nolan’s Q&A page. As the full-time facilitator members regularly asked Janey questions and received prompt answers. These often directed people to other parts of the site.

Discussion Spaces

It is interesting to note though that these discussion spaces were only posted to by 7 and 6 members respectively. I think this (and the facts that as shown in the bullet point facts above, just 32% of the members made 7 posts or more) shows well how a relatively small number of people make most of the postings on a site like this and that many people are content just to draw from such a site and don’t necessary post material to the site. The figures above show 49% made two posts or less.

Figure 3 The Most Popular Discussion Spaces by number of Posts

Figure 3 also shows that the Walls of the three biggest groups on the site were quite popular. These “level” groups were associated with the three National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) levels of the New Zealand Qualifications Framework. These groups were all initiated by Tony Hall of Hamilton’s Fraser High School, another core member of the community. Within these groups a range of individual topics were listed such as the three last items on Fig 3 – volcanoes, planning, population. However, the walls of the main groups were surprisingly popular as a place to post questions and raise issues. Often people were then directed to a group, or someone (often Janey as fulltime time facilitator) would set up a specific discussion in response to wall postings.

The last four rows of Fig 3 refer to quite specific discussions and forums. The “Updated Standards” discussion was initiated by Josephine Mapleston of Hamilton Girls High. This forum is notable because it raised a policy issue for the geography teaching community, in contrast to more resources, activities and teaching ideas basis of most discussions. Josephine’s question sparked a lively discussion about the wording of the Extreme Natural Events (ENE) draft standard. The issues and ideas raised were sent on to the Ministry of Education (MoE) along with a suggested wording change. Members of the community were gratified to hear that this material was considered very helpful by the MoE and that indeed our suggested wording change appeared in the final version of the standard!

Co-Construction of a Teaching Unit

A separate ENE standard discussion looking at ideas about how to teach the new standard was also one of the most popular discussions (see Fig 3). Further as we moved into the second half of 2010 Janey and I decided that it was time to do some quite focussed ‘work’ in the community. It was our view that while a lot had been achieved with all the photos, videos, power points, forum and discussion material posted in the first half of the year, this was quite disparate. So we felt it would be a good idea to develop a ‘project’ for the community to complete together. As Janey’s interest area was the natural processes dimension of geography, and the community had raised issue with the ENE topic we decided to co-construct a unit that would meet the needs of the curriculum (The New Zealand Curriculum [NZC]) and of the associated NCEA Standard. At the time (pre the September Canterbury earthquake) many schools were talking about developing a Tsunami unit and so this became the focus. This, we felt, would become a unit that would help any geography teacher or department that picked it up to teach this topic. Indeed we had informal feedback from some schools that this was the case and they had used it as a start point for their own school units on the topic. We conducted this work through a separate wiki on the PB Works site. (Note: this site should have a sign up option – if you have trouble, please email me). A link to this unit is visible in the bottom left of Fig 2.

Working Across the Pre-Service In-Service Divide

Another interesting aspect of I2C is that we have been able to connected teachers across the pre-service and in-service divide. In both 2010 and 2011 we have introduced our graduate diploma in teaching geographers to the site. We found that pre-serve teachers were able to benefit from this. For example I have just seen one pre-service teacher who had adapted an activity on producing “volcanic cakes” to open up superb discussion around the volcanic processes. In-service teachers have also benefitted. One of our 2010 students posted a number of power point presentations she had prepared on practicum. An in-service teacher was so impressed with these he posted a ‘well done’ message and said he was going to use them as part of his revision programme in the lead up to the NCEA external exams. Two other benefits were:

  • Pre-service teachers could, at least to some extent, market themselves as good prospects for a job and school departments could see some very good potential staff members in action.
  • Three new teachers in 2011 returned to the community early in their first year of teaching to ask for help and advice in similar fashion to that outlined by Rich above. In each case other teachers responded with ideas and advice.

So what? What now?

From the 1960’s to mid 1980s teacher subject associations were strong. Progressively since the early 1990s such groups have declined. In more recent times the MoE has dramatically scaled down its funding of teacher professional development in many areas – including geography. Isolated to Connected has developed in an age of social networking and uses many of the open-ended, participator, self drive aspects of Web 2. The response of teachers to I2C indicates teachers see the value of a ‘by teachers – for teachers’ site as a ‘new’ way of provided one another with support and professional development - as a reworked version of the old subject associations.

I see VCoPs like I2C as a dynamic and exciting way to:

  • Share resources such as photographs, videos, power point presentations, activities, units etc.
  • Introduce teachers to new teaching approaches, tools, and strategies in a focussed and situated form
  • Discuss, dialogue, debate and take action on subject and topic issues
  • Help each other answer questions and solve teaching problems
  • Act as a platform for joint unit writing, resource development etc.

I see I2C type communities as having a great deal of potential for teachers to network to provide for themselves the kinds of services subject associations and the MoE have traditionally provided. I hope that such communities will develop in various learning areas and regions around NZ to provide teaching communities with the items listed in the five bullet points above.

Paul Keown

Paul is a contract Educational Consultant and Developer, and can be contacted by email at

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Comment by John Birnie on November 18, 2014 at 12:16

Kia ora rā - interesting to read this. I'm an ex-teacher (English, te reo Māori) and what I see here looks really good. Really detailed presentation - thanks Paul. Interesting to see the importance of face to face as well.

Comment by Paul Keown on October 1, 2011 at 10:05

Hi Janey,

Yes the I have always meet up with the pre-service teachers prior to them joining I2C. Some of them are in my own teaching group so they know me well - others are from the group taught by another person but I have an introduction to I2C session with them.



Comment by Janey Nolan on September 29, 2011 at 8:23

Hi Paul

Great to read your post Paul.

I agree that VCoPs are a dynamic and exciting way to introduce teachers to new teaching approaches, discuss and solve teaching problems but the inclusion of face to face sessions alongside a VCoP works best. Similarly at Te Kura - the Correspondence School where we are working with students from a distance if we can meet our students face to face students complete their work more readily.

Paul with your pre servive teachers you had face to face sessions where you built a relationship with them as well as working on line didn't you?

Have an excellent week.



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