Creat ive Educati on
2012. Vol.3, Supplement, 125-129
Published Online December 2012 in SciRes ( ce) DOI:10.4236/ce.2012.38b026
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Empowering Teachers for Innovations: The Case of Online
Teacher Learning Communities
Onno De Jong
Karlstad University, Karlstad, Sweden; Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands
Received 20 1 2
Implementing innovations in classrooms often evokes a variety of recurrent difficulties, especially feel-
ings of resistance among experienc ed teachers. Modern teacher education aims at reducing their opposi-
tion b y empower ing th ese t eacher s f or develop ing new know ledge, beli efs , and sk ills . A grow ing number
of these teac her courses is designed as teacher learning c om m unities (TLC-s). A specific category of them,
online networks, is the scope of the present paper. Main values and attributes of these communities are
addressed. This is followed by presenting some leading principles for designing TLC-s. Important prin-
ciples are: (i) creati ng s ubcom munit i es w ithi n lar ge-sca l e online net wo rk s, (ii) combini ng onl ine a c ti viti es
with face-to-face meetings, and, (iii) facilitating more equality in online group participation. These prin-
ciples are illustrated by examples of real practices. Finally, main conditions for successful new online
TLC-s are presented. Prospects for advanced studi es of practic es of these c om mu nities are also gi ven.
Key words: Teacher Learning; Onli ne Communit ies; Network Design Principles; N etwork Practices
Education in many countries is strongly influenced by the
growing demand from society to prepare students for a chang-
ing world in which t hey are able to actively parti cipate in com-
plex societal discussions and difficult societal decisions. Stu-
dents also need to develop interpersonal skills and professional
attitudes, such as being able to work in teams, to communicate
effectively, to criticize constructively and to uphold ethical
behavior. In responding to the many challenges of the changing
world, education is developing a range of new ideas and prac-
tices for teaching and learning (De Jong, 2007). Although these
responses vary from country to country, some are shared be-
cause of a common interest. Main innovations in current educa-
tion are the implementation of inquiry-based and prob-
lem-based approaches that provide students opportunities for
active learning, collaborative as well as self-directed, and for
acquiring valuable knowledge and life skills required in their
future careers and for further education. Another main innova-
tion is the implementation of context-based approaches to bring
new issues from society and technology into the classroom for
developing critical thinking and enhancing the relationship
between the world inside and outside school. Finally, a range of
new technologies is introduced for supporting or transforming
current educational practices, for instance, interactive software
for students, interactive whiteboards for classroom discussions,
computer-assisted instruction (CAI), and Web-based inter active
learning environments.
Teachers are the most important factor for effectively and
successfully implementing innovations in education. However,
these imple mentations often evokes a vari ety of recurrent diffi-
culties, especially feelings of resistance among experienced
teachers. Modern teach er educatio n aims at reduci ng this oppo-
sition by empowering these teachers for developing new
knowledge, beliefs, and skills (Stolk, De Jong, Bulte & Pilot,
2011). A growing number of these teacher courses is designed
as networks. A specific category of them, online networks, is
the scope of the present paper.
The structure of the paper is as follows. The next section
deals with important factors that contribute to difficulties in
implementing innovations in classrooms. Thereafter, main val-
ues and attributes of online teacher learning communities are
addressed. This is followed by presenting some important
leading principles for designing these networks. Finally, condi-
tions for establishing new online networks are presented and
prospects for advanced studies of online network practices are
given. Note: the term ‘teachers’ in this paper does not refer to
student teachers or beginning teachers but to experienced
Difficulties in Implementing Innovations in
Difficulties in implementing innovations in classrooms can
be caused by a complex of related factors. Some of the most
important factors are given below.
Firstly, the hindering factor of the local school context of
school, subject department, and available time, money and
other resources. Success in implementing changes in teaching
depends strongly on the culture of the school, especially re-
sponses of school management and attitudes of teacher peers
(Jones, 1997). School management and teachers have to discuss
and develop and discuss a joint vision on an innovative ap-
proach. However, the existing culture and discourse communi-
ties in many schools do not support a critical examination of
teaching practices. Subject department meetings often provide
few opportunities for meaningful reflection and professional
growth. The availability of sufficient time is also important. It
is well-known that many teachers express concerns about the
amount of time it takes to incorporate innovations in their les-
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
sons. Moreover, they often complain about a lack of money for
appropriate tech nological equ ipment and facilit ies issues.
Secondly, the hindering factor of the experienced teachers
themselves . Many of them show resistance towards imple-
mented innovations and feel that they do not have enough ex-
pertise, for instance, insufficient knowledge and skills regard-
ing appropriate new guidance for their students (Bliss, Askew,
& Macrae, 1996 ). Another examp le is regarding the use o f new
technologies. Man y teachers, at least in t he rich count ries, p os-
sess personal computers, they connect them to internet at home,
and have a positive attitude towards Internet use (Tekerek and
Ercan (2012). However, it is well-known that many of them,
especially older teachers, are not very familiar with the use of
student computer software and similar ICT tools for education
because they are not grown up with them. Dori and Barnea
(1997) even found that teachers are not willing to introduce
computer technologies in their lessons because of their fear off
Thirdly, the hindering factor of the usual in-service courses.
Smith and O’Day (1991) indicated that many of these courses
often do not provide sufficien t dep th and scop e to give t eachers
the experience to make major changes in their teaching ap-
proach. They do not focus very well on the (practical) needs of
teachers. The usual courses do often not create many opportu-
nities for meaningful interactions with peers or the teacher
educator. For instance, Galanouli and Murphy (2004) investi-
gated an ICT-competence teacher course and found that the
course did improve teachers’ confidence in using ICT, but that
many teachers were not satisfied with the communication ele-
ment, especially the use of discussion forums to deliver online
training. Many teacher courses create largely short-lived
changes in teachers’ classroom strategies. In other words, the
impact of these courses is often washed out quite soon through
the lack of ongoing support.
In conclusion, simply dumping innovations in the school is,
in it s elf, unlikely to transform teaching practices. Teachers n eed
guidance and empowerment for engaging in productive discus-
sions and innovative teaching. Their professional development
should be embedded in teacher courses that are based on mod-
ern views on teacher learning.
Teacher Learning Communities
Networks of Teachers
Many modern courses for teacher professional development
are influenced by socio-constru ctivist views on learning. They
conceive teachers as active and reflective practitioners and
create conditions for collaborative and self-directed learning.
Several studies of effective attributes of these courses suggest
that int eracti on amon g teach ers is primary in facilitating teacher
change processes (Connelly & Clandinin, 1988; Day, 1987;
Heller, Daeh ler, Wong, Shinohara, & Mirat rix, 2012). Discuss-
ing and sharing experiences with colleagues similarly engaged
are very fruitful learning activities. Collegial talk possesses a
strong motivational character. Structuring communication be-
tween teachers can contribute to help teachers interpret cur-
riculum innovations and to provide a context that builds profes-
sional learning. This has stimulated the interest in establishing
teacher courses that are designed as interactive networks:
teacher learning co mmunities (TL C- s).
Teacher learning communities are networks to which par-
ticipants feel they belong and in which they feel accepted. The
core group of a TLC consists of teachers but other groups can
also be involved, for example, designers of networks and cur
ricula, teacher educators, and, in case of use of modern tech-
nologies, ICT specialists. In the past decade, the number of
TLC-s that use Internet for effective communication and col-
laboration has increased. These online communities provide
attractive opportunities for teachers, for instance, they can de-
cide from where and at what moment they communicate with
members of the network. The communication can be synchro-
nous, for instance the use of audio-chat an d videoconferen cing,
or asynchronous, for instance the use of e-mails, discussion
forums, and video sharing.
Values of Online TLC-s
The value of non-online TLC-s for teacher professional de-
velopment has b een specified by several scholars (Adams, 2000;
Putman & Borko, 2000; Wenger, 1998). In this paper, the most
important of these values are adapted for online TLC-s. They
are summarized in Figure 1.
Another important value of online TLC-s con cerns th e extent
of interactions between participants of non-online in-service
courses after the courses are finished. This value is illustrated
by the following example. Fine (1993) reported about an online
project, called Computer-assisted Writing Project (CAWP
On-Line). This project functions as a follow-up of a course for
improving the teaching of writing through computer-assisted
instruction. The CAWP On-Line project aims at empowering
teachers who h ad finish ed the cou rse to b ecome expert teach ers
who are able to encourage non -participating peers to try inno-
vative teaching methods. For that purpose, a computer-based
conference and related services are established that includes
e-mail facilities, online discussion centers, and access to rele-
vant online data bases and other resources. The study indicates
that approximately half of the potential users did in fact become
high users of this follow-up project. In conclusion, the given
example suggests that a follow-up of in-service courses by
online TLC-s can provide important and fruitful ongoing em-
power ment fo r teachers.
Attribut e s of Online T LC-s
Main attributes of non-on line TLC-s have b een address ed by
Cochr an-Smith and Lytle (1999) and McLaughlin and Talbert
(2006). In this paper, the most important of these attributes are
adapted for online TLC-s. They are summarized in Figure 2.
* Providing flexibi lity of time and location
* Reducing teachers’ resistance to innova tions
* Enhancing teachers’ self-efficacy in new teaching
* Developing new experti se with peers
* Facilitating tea chers’ co-ownership of innovat ions
Figure 1.
Main va lues of online teacher learning communities.
* Collaboration in a supporting network
* Common interest in pra ctice problems
* Commitment to network goals and efforts
* Try-out of new teaching strategies and materials
* Discussions and re flections on experiences
* Sharing of new expertis e and best practice s
Figure 2.
Mai n attrib utes o f o nline teach er l earning com munit ies.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Online Communities: Design Principles and
Designs of online teacher learning commun ities are based on
one or more principles. For instance, the principle of duration
has an influence on the decision to design a short-termed or
long-termed TLC, the principle of span functions as a base for
deciding whether a TLC involves teachers who come from the
same school or from different schools, and the principle of
setting influences the decision to design a TLC that includes
very loose arrangements or more formalized arrangements. In
this section, some important leading design principles are more
elabo rat ed.
Creati ng Subcommunit i e s within Larg e-scale Online
Communit ie s
Large-scale online TLC-s have the profit of providing a
broad range of electronic resources and tools for developing
and sharing expertise and experiences for (potential) use in own
practice. However, they have the risk of evoking commu-
nity-wide discussions that do not fulfill the specific needs of
each teach er . This is illustrated by the following example.
Baek and Barab (2005) reported on a large online project,
called the Inquiry Learning Forum (ILF) that had about 10,000
postings to ILF forums in the mid-2000s. This project provides
science and math teachers a variety of tools for developing,
sharing, and improving inquiry-based teaching practices.
Teachers can virtu ally visit each others’ classrooms through the
viewing of online video vignettes. In these visits, teachers can
get an overview of the lesson context, the lesson plans, and
examples of student work. They can also hear or read the pre-
senting teachers’ reflections on the lesson. Teachers can be
involved in online discussions with each other regarding the
observed lesson and can pose questions to the presenting
teacher. ILF has portal areas for obtaining help and feedback
from teacher educators and technology experts, and there is a
resource library for software, classroom tools, and relevant
documents. One of the most interesting findings of their study
shows that teachers who were very motivated regarding their
professional development and acknowledged the importance of
reflection lost a lot of interest when discussion sites and site
contents were not directly related to their daily teaching. Be-
cause of this project outcome the design of ILF was partly re-
structured towards smaller networks within the larger project
space. Each of these networks had the opportunity to work
together on a particular topic of common interest. This change
improved the involvement of teachers and stimulated their mu-
tual discussions.
In conclusion, the example given suggests that the impl e-
mentation of subcommunities within large-scale projects can b e
to be an effective way for fostering meaningful professional
discus s i ons and deve l opment.
Combine Onli ne A c tivities wit h F ace-to-Face
Teachers who communicate with other part icipants o f a TLC
by only using online facilities are often not very satisfied about
this situation because they experience relative isolation despite
the opportunities of online chats. As a consequence, it can re-
duce teacher involvement and can function as a hindrance to
develop a coherent community with commitment to goals and
efforts. However, combining online discourses with face-to-
face meetings may contribute to foster productive TLC-s.
Based on this idea, several online TLC-s were designed that
inters perse online activities with face-to-face contacts between
the participants. The following examples are an illustration.
Some time after the initial rollout of the ILF project (see
preceding subsection), the decision of the management was to
try to improve the quality of the project by implementing face-
to-face workshops and other meetings in the project (Barab,
MaKinster & Scheckler, 2004). This brought together teachers
who had previously interacted only online. This effort contrib-
uted to generating more meaningful interactions and reflections.
The face-to-face components of the project were crucial to its
success, b ut the online acti vities were also cru cial, which led to
a strong cooperation among participants .
Ruopp, Gal, Drayton and Pfister (1993) investigated a project,
called LabNet, that focused on implementing an innovative
(pro j ect -based) science teaching approach. The teachers inter-
acted with each other from time to time in face-to-face small
groups in their own regions but more often through computer
conferencing. They also used conferencing for receiving em-
powerment from their teacher educators and scientists. The
results show that the teachers’ willingness to try out innovative
teaching was increased. They even encouraged
non-participating colleagues to explore the innovative teaching
In conclusion, the examples given support the idea that the
combination of online activities and face-to-face meetings can
provide synergy for producing fruitful teacher professional
Facilita ting More Equality i n Online Group
In many online TLC-s, the setting of goals, topics, and/or
methods of communication is often strongly influenced by a
specific group of participants: the experts. Their expertise re-
gards areas as teacher education, network and curriculum unit
design, and ICT systems. Many participating teachers have
ambivalent feelings towards this situation. On the one hand,
they feel that it is easy to follow the experts, on the other hand,
they are adult learners and, for that reason, they like more
self-directed learning. (Candy, 1991). To solve this ‘agenda
setting dilemma’ (Richardson, 1992) it is important that teach-
ers and experts of an online TLC share influence and contribute
to network activities in an equal way. The implementation of
this idea is illustrated by the following examples.
An important approach for creating more equality consists of
neutralizing the dominant influence of experts by giving teach-
ers the opportunity to propose their own topics as common
themes of interest. In the context of the ILF project, Barab,
MaKinster and Scheckler (2004) reported on teachers who
shared a common interest, form a subcommunity, and brought
in their own topics for discussion and further collaboration. It
appeared that topics proposed by the teachers themselves were
more popular than those introduced by system designers.
Another approach for facilitating more equality consists of
developing equal participatory design activities. Rodrigues
(2006) presented a study of an online community in which sci-
ence teach ers worked in teams with t eacher educat ors and other
experts to design resource materials involving various new
technologies that are used by the teachers with their classes.
The participants had face-to-face communication on a regular
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
base and worked together online at other times through partici-
pant s blogs and shared online spaces. As a result, teachers were
effectively able to reform their practice in the intended way.
The teachers appreciated the direct relevance of the tasks un-
dertaken to their classroom teaching. This contributed to en-
hance their feeling of co-ownership of the innovative project
and ownership of their personal professional development.
In conclusion, the examples given suggest that promoting
more equ alit y of teachers and experts can contribute to improved
teachers’ involvement in online TLC-s, and, for that reason, to
a successful implementation of innovations.
Towards Online Teacher Learning Communities
for Tomorrow
Conditio ns for Successful New Online Communities
From an analysis of the studies presented in the preceding
section, it is possible to suggest main conditions for successful
new online TLC-s. Some of these conditions are also valid for
non-online TLC-s. For instance, the important conditions of
setting clear community goals and desired outcomes, taking
care that all participants hold or develop a similar perspective
on teaching and learning, clearly evaluating the community
processes and outcomes, and getting support from the local
school context. Additional important conditions are more spe-
cific for online TLC-s. They are listed in Figure 3.
The first condition in the list regards the factor of available
time. It takes considerable time for many teachers to become
familiar with conducting discussions within an online environ-
ment. They need sufficient time to participate in community
activities, to reflect on the own practice, and to see and under-
stand how peers handle innovative teaching pr actices.
The second condition is regarding the factor of available re-
sources. Teachers need to have access to computer-based re-
source materials and easily usable resource libraries of high
qual ity that fit th e goals o f the communit y. Moreo ver, access to
Web 2.0 networking tools can support e-portfolio communities
and blogging can be used for promoting reflective discussions
about fear and frustration in the process of change. It is clear
that t eachers need to have In ternet -connected computers in their
school or classroom. This is not a big problem in the rich indu-
strialized countries. For example, in the USA, about 95% of the
public schools were online at the end of the last century (US
Department of Education, 2000). However, the availability of
resources is a real big problem in many poor developing coun-
The third condition in the list regards the factor of trust and
safety. Teachers who join an online TLC often express a fear of
showing their thought and practices to unknown colleagues’
examinatio n in a semi-public space (Rodrigues, 2006). This can
hinder tru st need ed for act ive parti cipati on. Est ablishin g a face-
to-face meeting at the beginning of an online project can con-
tribute to foster feelings of psychological safety and accepta-
* Suff icient ti me f o r online te a cher participation
* Access to high-quality Internet-connected resources
* Culture of trust among the online participants
* Internal subcommunities in large-scale online projects
* Combination of online activities and face-to-face meetings
* Equality in online group participation
Figure 3.
Conditions for successful new online teacher learning communities.
The final three conditions regard factors that already have
been addressed in the preceding section.
Prospects for Advanced Studies of Online
Community Pra ctice
The presence of online TLC-s is quite young in the field of
in-service teacher education. As a consequence, not so many
empirical -based studies have been undertaken to examine
TLC-s practices. For developing more research-based online
TLC-s it is important to set an ‘Agenda of Research’. The fol-
lowing items can be the core of this agenda.
* Longitudinal studies that examine the impact of online
TLC-s on teacher s ’ knowledge, b eliefs, and reflective activities;
* Long-term investigations of how online TLC-s empower
teachers i n developing new classroom practices;
* Research into factors that contribute to success or failure of
onlin e TLC-s;
* Investigations of the impact of online TLC-s on learning
proces ses of participating experts.
Finally, a useful research strategy is provided by t he design-
research approach (Cobb, Confrey, diSessa, Lehrer, & Schauble,
2003). In the context of online TLC-s, this approach will fo-
cus on exploring the usefulness and consequences of course
frameworks and related network programs. Both are optimized
in several cycles of development and research, especially
through a repeated process of implementation, testing, revision
and retesting. In this context, educational researchers will also
become participants of the networks under consideration. This
will be another enhancement of online communities focusing
on teacher professional development for tomorrow’s education.
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