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Learning Communities: SchoolNet at the Forefront

An international symposium on learning communities was recently held in Barcelona. SchoolNet was represented in recognition of its attempts to establish communities of learners and teachers using ICT's. The spotlight fell on a number of learning communities throughout the world. It is worthwhile noting that SchoolNet's approach to educator development, and the role that learning communities play in this approach, attracted some interest.

The symposium categorized learning communities on several scales, viz.

  • The classroom as a learning community

  • The institution as a learning community

  • Territory as a learning community, with some reference to learning cities

  • Learning communities in virtual networks

Thankfully the symposium did not become pre-occupied with how a learning community should be defined, but recognised the interrelationship between learning communities on all scales. For instance virtual networks could be used to link learning communities in classrooms with each other, thus extending the learning community throughout a city, country or even globally. The African Proverb "It takes a village to raise a child" was prominently quoted in the symposium documentation. The recognition of the global village places this proverb in a new global perspective and ICT is the enabling technology in most cases.

It was also soon evident that ICT can be as enabling a factor as it can be disabling. There is recognition that ICT will only effectively link the global communities if suitable telephone networks exist. This bestows a sense of privilege on all communities that can be connected. However, it is noted that learning communities in developed nations have also had to suffer the limitations of reliable technical infrastructure. Technology will provide as much a risk as an opportunity for learning communities.

You may ask, "Have I not had a learning community in my class for years, even without technology?" Yes, it is hardly a new concept. Much literature about learning communities exists, but essentially a few key ideas define any learning community:

  • A common learning purpose is recognised by all who are part of the community

  • Interaction takes place between members of the community

  • As a result, its members feel a sense of community.

I am sure that you will realise that this may well exclude many traditional classrooms from being called learning communities. However, I would not like to suggest that learning could only take place in a learning community. At the same time it must be noted that the concept of learning community is in line with some key ideas that lead the present efforts to rethink and transform learning. Establishing such communities in a virtual (computer-mediated) sense is in developmental stage worldwide. SchoolNet therefore finds itself at the forefront of groundbreaking experiences in the educational world. As such, teachers and mentors participating in the educator development programme are faced with special challenges and responsibilities.

Some of the key ideas that typify new approaches to learning in learning communities are:

  • The concept of learning as a constructive process, with learners as the main creators of their own learning;

  • Consideration of learning as a social process, supported by inter-personal relationships and placed with a context and cultural frame;

  • Awareness of the importance of links between schools, other educative contexts and also the importance of the role of the community as an educative agent;

  • The importance of a collaborative, participative education that prepares for active citizenship;

  • Characterization of learning as a life-long process.

These key ideas form some of the basis of the new South African curriculum as well.

SchoolNet is therefore well positioned to facilitate the provision of infrastructure and educator development materials that not only encourage the achievement of new approaches to learning, but also to develop the culture of virtual communities of teachers and learners. How does it achieve this?

SchoolNet have developed an approach to educator development with the support of SCOPE. Central to this approach is the mentor-assisted distance learning programme. The materials place some emphasis on the learning that takes place between a community of teachers who are grouped according to the modules that they are studying and communicate with each other by e-mail. The sharing of ideas and experiences and the feedback and collaboration that results enhances the learning. The learning outcomes seek to encourage reflection on current classroom practice with ICT and encourage attempts at using ICT in new and meaningful ways in the classroom.

A critical enabling factor to the formation of these learning communities will be the culture of e-mail use that the teachers have to develop at an early stage in the process. This is achieved, firstly through a practical introductory programme, and then through common purpose of the module. However, this is not sufficient to create the sense of community. A significant factor is social interaction amongst the group's members. Mentors play an important role in facilitating this, but often individuals in the group spark a sense of community by triggering a sense of trust and belonging through open and supportive e-mail to the group. A risk factor that is currently jeapordising this process in many groups is the lack of time teachers have to participate on a regular basis. A variety of telephone and computer-related technical problems also cause disruption in the sometimes fragile processes of community building. These are challenges that have to be faced, but they are worth facing if the participants can catch a glimpse of the value of a mature virtual learning community. Once it is experienced, the participants are quite likely to sustain such communities and participate in new communities with different purposes. It is this process of establishing the culture of virtual learning communities and establishing ongoing contexts for such communities to form and evolve, that finds SchoolNet at the forefront of exciting new and challenging ventures in South African education.

What can teachers participating in SchoolNet's programme do to ensure that they contribute to learning communities, and thereby their own development and the success of the programme?

  • Realise that the real value of the distance learning modules lies in the interaction between group members, and not in the completion of activities per se;

  • Plan time so that they are able to access their e-mail regularly (a culture of regular e-mail use) and contribute to the group's discussions, thereby building the sense of community;

  • Be patient - learning communities take time to evolve;

  • Maintain new and lasting friendships by e-mail once the modules end, thereby sustaining the community;

  • Participating in new communities as the opportunity and need arises.

In participating in e-mail learning communities educators are not only helping  SchoolNet to activate its mission statement, but they are also placing themselves in situations that will help them grow professionally in a lifelong way.

G Roos
29 October 2001


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