Educators must be more than information experts; they must be collaborators in learning, seeking new knowledge and constantly acquiring new skills alongside their students.
—Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology
(National Education Technology Plan 2010)
As the world grows continually more competitive and complex, America keeps asking its educators to do more. The nation demands better teachers, and more teachers, and a transformation of educator practices and the education profession. Teachers are being tasked to improve education so that the nation and its citizens can innovate and thrive.
America has set clear and ambitious goals for education during the next decade:
- Leading the world in the proportion of college graduates so that Americans can stimulate economic growth, contribute to our democracy, and compete and prosper in a global economy
- Closing the achievement gap so that all students graduate from high school ready to succeed in college and careers
In his 2011 State of the Union Address, President Obama set a new goal of preparing 100,000 new teachers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields during the next 10 years. He urged young people to make teaching a career choice—and challenged Americans to respect teachers as “nation builders.”
In many respects, this is a supreme compliment. It is an explicit acknowledgment that educators are the nation’s best hope for preparing students to meet rising expectations for college and careers. It is a call to shape a new generation to take on challenges that could make or break the nation’s future. It is a belief in educators’ creative capacity and professional desire to learn and grow with their students.
How will America transform the education profession to support today’s teachers—and prepare tomorrow’s teachers—to reach these goals? How will state, district, and school leaders develop their knowledge and skills to create world-class systems? How can we foster the professional experiences educators need to help all students meet rising college and career expectations? How can we engender respect for educators and education?
How can we improve professional excellence and the excellence of the profession?
The U.S. Department of Education is spearheading exploration of this two-pronged question. Clearly, it is critical to address the needs of both individual educators, who must strive to develop their professional knowledge and skills throughout their careers, and of the profession, which bears much of the responsibility for meeting America’s commanding education goals.
To that end, among other initiatives, the U.S. Department of Education is supporting research into online communities of practice. Online communities already show strong potential to empower educators to collaborate, share resources and practices, access experts, extend their own learning, and solve problems more efficiently and systematically.
This research is grounded in the National Education Technology Plan 2010 (U.S. Department of Education, 2010), which offers a compelling vision of connected teaching to meet the need for more highly qualified teachers and a collaborative, empowered teaching force:
In connected teaching, classroom educators have 24/7 access to data about student learning and analytic tools that help them act on the insights the data provide. They are connected to their students and to professional content, resources, and systems that empower them to create, manage, and assess engaging and relevant learning experiences for students both in and out of school. They also are connected to resources and expertise that improve their own instructional practices, continually add to their competencies and expertise, and guide them in becoming facilitators and collaborators in their students’ increasingly self-directed learning. Like students, teachers engage in personal learning networks that support their own learning and their ability to serve their students well (p. 40).
Online communities of practice support teachers’ learning, enabling them to “collaborate with their peers and leverage world-class experts to improve student learning” (p. 42) and “extend the reach of specialized and exceptional educators” (p. 44) (U.S. Department of Education, 2010).
Collaboration is an effective approach for strengthening educators’ practices and improving the systemic capacity of districts and schools—and, ultimately, improving student learning.
The U.S. Department of Education’s research into online communities draws inspiration from educators around the world for whom collaboration is a core strategy for achieving systemic results.From Boston to Long Beach, from Singapore to Saxony, collaborative practice is central to significant, sustained, and widespread gains in student outcomes, according to the 2010 McKinsey Company report, How the World’s Most Improved School Systems Keep Getting Better (Mourshed, Chijioke, Barber, 2010).
Like countless other professions, education is increasingly a field in which people must nourish their knowledge and skills or risk seeing them go stale. Knowledge and skill-building expertise are distributed widely—up and down the vertical ladders of organizations; across geographic, disciplinary, demographic, industry, and time boundaries; and in physical and virtual spaces. Changes in professional practice and significant increases in impact depend on teams of people working together, people empowered with knowledge and skills that are complementary—and that go beyond what any one person alone can bring to the table.
In education, teachers and leaders now share accountability for every student’s performance. Many problems that education systems face are complex, requiring better communication and coordination across stakeholder groups and among levels of organizations—top-down and bottom-up, across grade levels, disciplines, and schools—than exists today.
Technology provides opportunities to scale educators’ interactions—broadly and efficiently. Equally important, technology enables educators to spend their time more productively. Online communities offer educators valuable professional experiences that are more personalized, relevant, and timely for their top-of-mind concerns.
This report is not another “ask” for educators. Instead, it focuses on how the education community can give teachers and other educators the professional tools they need today to become a teaching and leading force of unparalleled excellence tomorrow—and for many tomorrows to come.Working Definitions
Personal (or professional) learning network (PLN): A group of people and information sources that can help an individual reach personal or professional goals. For an educator, a PLN guides learning, points to learning opportunities, answers questions, and contributes knowledge, experiences, and resources that respond to individual needs (Tobin, 1998; Warlick, 2010).
Community of practice (COP): “Groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (Wenger, McDermott, Snyder, 2002). True communities of practice have three core elements (Wenger et al., 2002):
A domain: A shared area of interest (e.g., science instruction or inquiry-based learning or autism spectrum disorder) to which members are committed and in which they have a shared competence that distinguishes them from other people.
A community: In pursuing the domain, members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information. This social dimension is a hallmark of true communities of practice.
A practice: As a result of pursuing the domain together, members develop a repertoire of resources—experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems—that together define the practice of their profession or area of shared interest.
An online community of practice supports these three core elements with technology-based platforms, tools, features, and configurations, removing barriers of time and space.