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Teachers learning about and with ICT as collaborative design

Twenty years ago already “CERN announced that the World Wide Web would be free to anyone, with no fees due” (Wikipedia) and since then I, as many educators and educational researchers, have been observing and participating in the phenomenal changes that occurred in the way we work, learn, and play. Perhaps now is a good time to reflect on what has changed so far, and what we are prepared to make happen next in term of digital literacy for teachers.

The participatory nature of the web is the first feature that comes to mind, at least in my case. Already in 1994 I developed with Marco Silva the idea that participatory design could be a productive way of engaging teachers and researchers in the use of the Internet in classrooms. Since then, I have been involved with colleagues in North-America and Northern Europe in the collaborative design of interventions to implement and investigate ICT-supported learning in elementary classrooms. More recently with support from UNESCO Bangkok I have participated in international collaborations involving schools in South-East Asia and Canada.

The key concept in all these initiatives is collaborative design. Collaboration and design have been increasingly promoted and explored in the years following the emergence of the WWW mostly because of the alignment of network technologies, a growing interest for the socially situated and communal nature of work and learning, and the development of design-based research as a promising approach to foster innovations in education. The notion of “communities of practice” has certainly provided useful conceptual tools to understand teaching as composed of a joint enterprise, a shared repertoire of knowledge and artifacts, and mutual engagement in community activities, roles, and relationships.

More recently I have started using the term practice shift to describe the gradual change (as opposed to radical) that can be observed as teachers appropriate digital tools in support of learning, both their own learning and that of their students. I find the term practice shift respectful of the existing expertise of teachers, and it also reflects the adaptive nature of this expertise as new circumstances such as pedagogical innovations and digital tools become meaningful to them. Meaning-making is key: teachers, like any professionals, adopt resources that make sense to them.

From this perspective that combines network technologies, situated learning, communities of practice, and design-based research, the notion of “teacher training” is replaced by “professional learning communities”, putting more emphases on teachers’ ownership and leadership in setting up the goals and methods of their learning. The advantage of making practice shifts as an outcome of professional learning communities is that the shifts are scalable and sustainable. Teachers who understand why and how their practice shifts will not stop after the initiators of an innovation leave their school. Teachers who share with others the conjectures, dilemmas, challenges and success involved in their practice have a much stronger sense of efficacy and more positive beliefs about change.

What I see happening in the professional learning communities I have worked with is a process of populating a communal space of visible, emerging practices. Here is how it works. Teachers with expertise and leadership in their community start exploring new ways of teaching and learning with ICT. Thanks to their expertise and leadership, they are confident in sharing their explorations with their peers. And because they have legitimacy within their community of practice, others view their exploration as meaningful and potentially relevant to them. What is key is to overcome the private and isolated nature of teaching as a practice. That is why the notion of publicly visible practice is important: others need to be able to witness the emerging practice in its integrity: what are the goals, the tools, the different roles, the outcomes, and the relations between these different dimensions of the activity. And that is where the collaborative, network technologies of the Web become a central asset: by using tools such as multimedia datasets, digital videos, discussion forums, and social media, it becomes possible to make the emerging practice visible and understandable by a wider circle of peers. Technology, then, is no longer simply an object of learning for the professional community but it becomes also a very powerful tool to support any professional learning. In one project that we are launching now in Canada, with support from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council, this expansion is at the center of our participatory design research: a professional learning community that has started with a focus on learning about ICT is now moving to learning with ICT.

Thinking of the 20th anniversary of the web as a free platform also reminds me of the challenges we face today to make learning an equitable opportunity for all. I hope that the successful learning I see happening in the professional learning communities around me will also happen in other regions of the world. As we navigate today on the web or on the planet, we must pursue the noble objective of bringing equity to the forefront of our global reality.

By Alain Breuleux, PhD, Associate Professor, Associate Dean – Infrastructure, Faculty of Education, McGill University