Computing at School Scotland (above): teachers learn about programming in primaries using iPads (pic David Gilmour)
Intrigued by teacher communities, researcher Kristen Weatherby sets her sights on Computing at School
For years we’ve talked about teachers being isolated in their classrooms and tried desperately to get them to form or join communities with their peers. Professional learning communities (PLCs), personal learning networks (PLNs), communities of interest, communities of practice (COPs), virtual communities, online communities, interest groups and knowledge communities, to name but a few.
This work has not been in vain. Teacher collaboration is a good thing. And the 2013 results of the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) indicate that teachers who report collaborating with colleagues also report significantly higher levels of confidence in their own work (self-efficacy) as well as higher levels of job satisfaction.
In addition, when teachers report stronger inter-personal relationships with other teachers in their school, they are less likely to suffer the otherwise detrimental effects that challenging classrooms of students might have on their job satisfaction or feelings of self-efficacy.
CPDL needs 'frequent and meaningful engagement for teachers'
Furthermore, the newly-released report from the Teacher Development Trust shows that effective continuing professional development and learning (CPDL) should include ongoing support and follow-up activities that offer frequent and meaningful engagement for teachers. According to the report, CPDL should build a shared sense of purpose among participants, which might be achieved through activities that provide peer support.
There should also be consistency between the environment in which the CPDL takes place and the teacher’s own school and classroom context. All of which can be provided by a well-designed and implemented learning community.
The increased use of technology in education has moved many learning communities online, which can be both a help and a hindrance. Some researchers extol the benefits of online or virtual communities, saying they can raise teacher competence levels, advance pedagogical and teaching skills and satisfy a professional development need. There’s no doubt that some online communities can provide these things as well as exposing teachers to new ideas and providing networking opportunities. Sounds like utopia, doesn’t it?
But researchers also find that online communities present many challenges for teachers. Many communities are poorly designed, such that the technology platform limits or prohibits the community from forming, or makes its resources less accessible.
Some are simply content repositories masquerading as communities; teachers log in to download or upload resources without any real interaction with their peers. And then there’s the issue of trust. I’ve heard this many times from teachers I’ve interviewed: You just don’t know who is on the other side of the computer. Teachers need to have the knowledge and competencies to be able to judge whether the person or resource they are interacting with is high quality. Otherwise, these communities could just be spreading mediocrity – or worse.
CAS started as a Google group and now has 19,000 members
Still, there are brilliant examples of online communities that exhibit many of the good and few of the negative characteristics of their genre. One such example is the online community supporting the computing curriculum: Computing at School (CAS). CAS started as a Google group of like-minded professionals who supported the development – and then the implementation of – the new English computing curriculum. It is now a UK-wide robust online community with nearly 19,000 members and a digital habitat that is continuously evolving to meet the needs of its users.
The main features of the site are the discussions, resources and events sections. Discussions are grouped into level taught or geographical region and are lively and informative – and often quite technical. For those members who are less confident in their technical prowess, there is even a discussion category called “No Question Too Simple, Small or Stupid.” Some discussions continue for months with hundreds of posts. Often teachers are asking questions about certain tasks in the curriculum and how other teachers are handling them.
In the resource area, CAS members can upload, download, comment on or even edit and re-post resources. The system prompts members to rate or comment on resources they download, and thus there are a lot of comments on resources. They’re easily searchable using plenty of filters provided in the community.
Chief among the many things that make the CAS community work are the events. CAS mixes in-person events with the online community, which is something that research shows is vital in building trust and rapport between community members. For the remainder of June, there are around 100 events scheduled for teachers all over the country, including trainings, CPDL and “Hub” meetings. There are more than 100 face-to-face teacher Hubs, run by volunteer teachers, who meet regularly so that teachers can share experiences, receive training or discuss challenges.
'Struck by the professional generosity and collegiality'
I attended my first Hub meeting in Reading last week and was struck by the professional generosity and collegiality of attendees, many of whom are still isolated as the only computing leads in their schools and are eager to learn more about what their colleagues are doing with the new curriculum.
I have just scratched the surface of CAS here and will be studying it much more in the months to come as part of my own doctoral research. If you are already a member of CAS, you can contribute to this research by responding to the survey that is on the front page of the site. The CAS team will use the results of the survey to make improvements to the community, and I will be using the data to study the impact CAS has on classroom teaching.
If you’re a computing teacher and you’re not a member of CAS, what are you waiting for?
Kristen Weatherby on Twitter
The annual Computing at School Conference for Teachers of Computing takes place on June 20 at the University of Birmingham’s School of Computer Science in Edgbaston.