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How effective is an Online Community of Practice for Professional Development of freelance English teachers?

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Literature overview

Research on the roles of CPD framework has been widely carried out over the years. Mann and Walsh (2018) highlight that CPD can be equated with lifelong learning. One never ceases to learn, irrespective of how many years of teaching experience one has. They add that learning might occur in both formal and informal settings – however, for the purpose of this study, I will focus the literature on OCoPs and informal CPD frameworks.

Vescio, Ross and Adams(2008) argue that at its core, the concept of a PLC (Professional Learning Communities) rests on the premise of improving student learning by improving teaching practice (p 82). Similarly, Bostancioglu (2016: 21) suggests that an OCoP can potentially provide teachers with elements of effective professional development (PD), such as; collaboration, opportunities for mentoring, and sustainability over time.

Traditional forms of CPD (Continuous Professional Development) have been widely used by teachers. According to Day (1999:4) quoted by Borg(2015), CPD can be understood as any natural learning experience that includes the development of knowledge, skills and emotional intelligence which contribute to the quality of education in the classroom. Simon Borg(2015) suggests that CPD can have a positive and sustained impact on teachers, learners and organizations when inquiry and reflection are valued as central professional learning processes. He continued, stating that CPD should also engage teachers in the examination and review of their beliefs. It is indisputable that CPD is a fundamental path for the teaching professional, but my key question is ” how can it be fostered effectively and sustainably by independent teachers?”.Borg(2015) also states that CPD is often equated with talks, workshops and courses that teachers attend.

Due to the nature of the freelance work, many freelance English teachers may feel isolated without having access to a staffroom setting. Thus, as Mann and Walsh (2018) argue, there is a need for CPD to be more collaborative, evidence-based and dialogic. They advocate a more collaborative approach to CPD. Likewise, one of the main concerns of freelance teachers in regards to CPD is participating in relevant, affordable and stimulating activities that will foster their professional and interpersonal growth. Another concern is to “integrate into teachers’ professional practices in such a way that it does not feel like a burden or additional chore”(Mann and Walsh 2018). This claim is supported by Day et al’s study of more than 45,000 teachers (2006: 123 cited by  Mann and  Walsh 2018) where he states that “teachers across all professional life phases felt that heavy workload, a lack of time and financial constraints were important inhibitors in their pursuit of professional development.”

The British Council Continuing Professional Development Framework has been created to “enable teachers to understand and plan their own professional development”.The Framework is grounded in four developmental stages: Awareness, Understanding, Engagement and Integration. It is paramount that freelance teachers take responsibility for their own professional development and in doing so, find a safe, friendly and judgement-free environment that offers the conditions they need to grow. One way of doing that may be through using technology to facilitate their professional development. Padwad and Parnham (Forthcoming 2018) suggest that the use of digital tools for CPD has become even more viable due to lower cost and greater accessibility, even in remote locations around the world.

Consequently, as the world evolves, new models of CPD should not only take place but also be acknowledged, celebrated and validated by the wider teacher community. Vescio, Ross and Adams(2007) observe that over the past 20 years there has been a paradigm shift gathering momentum with regard to the professional development of teachers. I believe that, by “gathering momentum”, they highlight the rising availability of the internet and its new forms of networking and interacting with other teachers. They also point out that “one model that has evolved as a way of supporting this paradigm change is that of professional learning communities.”

Mann and Walsh (2018) argue that “professional self-development is likely to be longer-lasting, deeper and ultimately, more fulfilling.” This has proven to be true in my own experience as a developing teacher. Research suggests that successful collaborative efforts include strategies that ‘‘open’’ practice in ways that encourage sharing, reflecting, and taking the risks necessary to change (V. Vescio et al. 2008). Mann and Wash also claim that “working independently of a teacher education course gives teachers unique opportunities to investigate their practice and gain closer understandings of local context.”

Although I have benefited greatly from attending conferences and speaking in workshops, there is no denying that the biggest transformations in my teaching practice occurred as a result of being an active member of two Facebook OCoPs, which I will discuss in depth in the next section. With that in mind, and due to the fact I have been a freelance teacher for nearly seven years, I set up a Facebook OCoP in 2013 with the purpose of providing informal CPD, “in the wild” (Mann and Walsh 2018), “where teachers use Reflective Practice(or CPD) as part of their professional practice, working alone or with other colleagues.” They add that the term “in the wild” aims “to capture the idea that reflection is not something which is restricted to pre-or in-service teacher education programmes”.

The Facebook group falls into the category of an OCoP (Online Communities of Practice) which aims to connect teachers from around the world and overcome time and geographical barriers. This concept was developed by Lave and Wenger in the 1990s, in which they described a CoP as “a group of people who share a concern or passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Wenger & Trayner, n.d., p. 1). This definition highlights the three fundamental characteristics of CoPs that Wenger et al. (2002; 2009) introduces, which are; a) shared domain, b) community and c) practice,(cited by Bostancioglu 2016).Regular Facebook posts and comments shared between a core group of members who feel comfortable sharing and asking for advice, help and support with issues concerning their classroom practice are some real examples of practice that I see in the group I moderate.

Learning within OCoPs and CoPs can be explained by social theories of learning such as the Sociocultural Learning theory(Vygotsky, 1978) and Situated Learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991). These theories highlight the importance of social interactions in the development of cognition.

The focus of my small-scale study is to provide an initial understanding of the professional impact of the Online Community of Practice (OCoP) that takes place in the Facebook Group called “Private English Teachers – Reloaded”. Additionally, as a founder and moderator of this group, I aim to provide statistics of the group’s dynamics and its 3,456 members’ engagement.

My texting context – Running an OCoP of over 3,000 members

 OCoP introduction and background

 As mentioned in the previous section, I have created a Facebook OCoP with the intention to find other like-minded English teachers. In 2013, when I created the Facebook OCoP titled “Private English Teachers Reloaded”,  I had been a full-time freelance teacher for three years and felt isolated and a little demotivated by the lack of interaction amongst my peers. In pursuing that safe sharing place, the group then started in August 2013 with 30 members, who were friends I invited to join the group.

The group comprises, to date, of 3,456 members (2,169 active members) who joined the group voluntarily and have to answer three questions to check their authenticity. The questions are read by moderators and profiles verified in order to protect the OCoP from spammers and people who are not teachers. Teachers from different backgrounds are accepted: from novice to more experienced ones. There are four moderators who approve, delete or block users and, from my experience, this is important to keep the group engaged and supportive. The importance of the moderators was considered essential by one member as seen in picture 1. The moderators of the OCoP are my personal friends who were chosen and invited by me to help me organise the group.  New members are highly encouraged to read and follow the rules which are “pinned” on the main page of the group.

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Ricardo mentions the importance of understanding the different contexts that teachers work. Furthermore, he says that he finds the crowdsourcing element invaluable, that is, collaboration at its core. It was surprising to observe the positive effect of the moderators as an important element of teachers’ participation. In picture 2, we can observe the group’s code of conduct which was written by myself.

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Groups’ engagement

Teachers’ engagement is one of the core principles of effective OCoP, without it, there is no sustainability and consequently, the OCoP may eventually die out. Dede, 2006; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Lock, 2006; Wenger, Trayner, & de Laat, 2011 explain that “teachers’ engagement and resultant learning are structured around the construction of common aims, collective actions and shared meaning-making between members”. It is interesting to observe how teachers share experience and good practice through “live Facebook videos” as shown in picture 5. It proves the claim of Schlager, Farooq, Fusco, Schnak, & Dwyer(2009) that “participation(…)in certain cases has enabled teachers to develop more diverse networks and engage in richer discussions than they do in face-to-face settings.”

In order to understand how the benefits are perceived by the group’s members, I posted two questions in its forum and some members voluntarily contributed with answers. The questions posted there were:

1) What are the benefits of Facebook communities of practice such as this one?

2) How can this group be improved to foster teachers’ reflective skills?

I will illustrate some comments made by members in an attempt to claim the perceived benefits gained from the teachers. However, irrespective of teachers’ perceived gains, my initial research questions are:

How can this OCoP be fostered effectively and sustainably by independent teachers?   and
How effective is an Online Community of Practice for Professional Development of freelance English teachers?

Their answers illustrate some core principles of OCoPs. Mariana said “I see Facebook communities as a place to share experiences and learn with our colleagues. We also discuss issues related to our teaching practice and I believe it can help me improve my teaching skills.” Mariana’s comment “learn with our colleagues” illustrates the reflective dialogue that Newmann (et al., 1996, p. 182 cited in Vescio, Ross and Adams 2007) sees as a striving force to ‘‘extensive and continuing conversations among teachers about curriculum, instruction, and student development’’.

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In picture 6 below, Julyane mentions the confidence and support she finds in OCoPs compared to the lack of them six months ago. Again, the word “share” is a common one which indicates the “deprivatization of practice” coined by Newmann PLC et at (1996) “that makes teaching public and focusing on collaboration.”( cited by  Vescio,  Ross and Adams 2007). As some say “sharing is caring”.

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Silas, in picture 7 below,  states that he feels more equipped to handle English-specific challenges that his learners face, which resonates with the idea of growing professionally. To my delight, he adds that for the first time in his life he has a CPD plan which was composed of people who earned his respect on Facebook. This visible admiration for other professionals clearly links to the “inherent characteristics in learning communities that worked to promote changes in teaching cultures” (Vescio, Ross and Adams 2008:84). He feels highly motivated and supported by his peers – thus, I am confident to claim that CPD has been transformational for him.

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Michelle (picture 8 below) says she has been learning a lot since she became part of the aforementioned OCoP. She then refers and “tags” two other members which demonstrates respect and shared opinion. Her comment “I think that having study groups as Maria Ruiz suggested would be a nice opportunity to overcome the spotlight feeling Silas Couto mentioned on his post” exemplifies what collaboration means for Michelle. Michelle’s comment can be grounded on the assumption that, as Buysse, Sparkman, & Wesley(2003) state, knowledge is situated in the day-to-day lived experiences of teachers and best understood through critical reflection with others who share the same experience  (cited by Vescio,  Ross, and Adams 2007)

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My final comments

As an OCoP’s founder and moderator, I find it challenging not to interfere with the data analysis when evaluating the effectiveness’ perception of teachers’ professional growth. Vescio, Ross and Adams (2008: 90) warn that ” to build a strong case, we must guard against the danger of researching ourselves”. However, they added a footnote in which they state that they understand how difficult it is to operationalize their own recommendation.

 

A huge thanks to Ricardo, Julyane, Silas, Michelle and Mariana for giving permission to publish their answers publicly.

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