TeleLearning: Knowledge-Building in Networked Communities
and the Shaping of Teachers' Professional knowledge

Thérèse Laferrière, Laval University, Alain Breuleux, McGill University, Robert Bracewell, McGill University, John Willinsky, Larry Wolfson & Gaalen Erickson, University of British Columbia; Frédéric Legault, Laval University;


Introductory comments

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) are often linked to lifelong learning, and to the social and economic future of nations. The acquisition of lifelong learning skills makes more and more sense to educational policy makers, and new technology is bought to support access to information, and communication activities in the classroom, therefore, fostering a new vision of schools, and school learners. The image of the learner -- as an attentive and quiet human being-- is fading as learners gain autonomy through connectivity. Educators are both empowered and confronted by the possibilities, emerging meanings (e.g., flexible learning), and consequences of telelearning in the lives of individuals, and in the future of classrooms.

Telelearning is defined as the use of multimedia learning environments based on powerful desktop computers linked by the information highway. Multimedia may include any combination of text, graphics, photographs, audio, video, animations and music within the context of the learning environment. The TeleLearning research program includes the study of the professional knowledge which is acquired mainly through a network of technological media defined as complementary or linked to various other networks. These networks reach far beyond a school or a university and include among their active participants, teachers, students, undergraduates and various other experts from a number of schools and universities.

Educators and teacher educators are pressed to rethink widely spread practices based upon this past Century's model of excellence-- the assembly line -- for mass production: fragmented work responsibilities, discrete tasks, same requirements for all, same schedule for everyone, etc. This "old technology" has supported the educational principle of equality of access for nearly 50 years. Today, the new technology that is available is promising more for all, provided problems level-one (access issues) are resolved, and possibilities and problems level-two (pedagogical ones) are faced and worked through. For instance, one of the consequences of lifelong learning is that the gap between instructor and pupil is very much reduced since we are adapting and learning on a continual basis.

Studio A provides many examples of situations in which school learners teach to school teachers, and /or members of the community. (See John's presentation).

Pedagogical problems related to one's representation of the role of the teacher are ones preservice teachers must confront in TACT : A Virtual Community of Support and Communication for Preservice students. As their awareness of how computers support individual and collaborative learning grows, their understanding of what it means to be a teacher expands in significant and, at times, dramatic ways.

The knowledge of expert teachers is also being confronted, as R. Bracewell's presentation will illustrate. The "knowledge" referred to in our projects grows out of the sharing and shaping of experiences in ways facilitated by the increased information, communication and collaboration. The whole research program is aimed at assisting pre-service teachers while gaining knowledge and skills of a practical or intellectual nature which they are called upon to master, in order to accomplish the tasks and functions expected of them now or in the not too distant future.

At their best, the newest technologies support communities of learners and activities of a constructivist nature. Our colleagues of OISE/UT have designed places to learning which foster collaboration, and more authentic learning -- The CSILE Team was part of the Schools for Thought experiments.

In our studies, perspectives that support the activity and learning of pupils also support the activity and learning of instructors, including teacher educators. The integration of such perspectives will be exemplified by A. Breuleux' s presentation of the McGill TeleLearning Institute: knowledge as an object, practices (collaborative communities), and technology as a tool, etc.

The Educating the Educators research program of the TeleLearning Network of Centres of Excellent (TL-NCE) seeks to accelerate the process through which the uses of new technology for learning progressively shape -- as did the old technology -- the practice of a growing number of educators. Researchers are integrating pedagogy and technology in collaborative, university-school and workplace environments to achieve enhanced student learning and the creation of a radically different teaching environment from the one that prevails today. (Illustrations, taken out of the PROTIC experience, will follow).

The objectives of this symposium-table

We will report on the current status and findings of three knowledge-building projects that study how technology may enhance opportunities for information, communication and collaboration for teacher learning, and contribute to shape emerging practices. We will focus on the following aspects:

1) what professional knowledge is required in a collaborative community, and what knowledge results from participation in the community,

2) how telelearning tools support the creation of functional and collaborative communities of inquiry;

3) how the uses of new technology for learning shape the practice of participants.

We will conducted this symposium as a case study. Our brief presentations will be structured around the four key actors within such a community : the teachers, the pre-service students, the school students, and the teacher educators. Across these four domains, each presenter will discuss knowledge-building as a function and as a goal of community, with the tensions and alignments between these two perspectives.

We will also tackle the research methodological questions of establishing (1) what counts as community and what counts as knowledge building, (2) the role that TeleLearning plays in shaping the practice of participants. Here the discussion will compare methods of assessing indicators of community engagement, levels of interaction, skills acquired, exploring the tension between the descriptive, interactive, and analytical functions of research, with a focus on increasing the "usefulness" or "functionality" of this form of inquiry.

The play between knowledge and community building functions that mark the larger project will be introduced as a methodological question guiding the analysis.

Finally, we will discuss the methodological question of establishing the nature of the supportive role played by the technologies, whether in offering a form of scaffolding, or opening channels of communication, or providing greater means of documentation, etc.

The discussion will then start with our lead discussant, Dr. Charles Myers, from Vanderbilt University.

After his first comments, the discussion will be opened to all participants in the room on the factors affecting the community- and knowledge-building capacities of such learning environments -- across institutions and distances.

Individual presentations

Project 7.3 TEACHER K (un joli clin d'oeil à la Division K, Teacher Education of AERA, our host here today). Teacher K project focuses on the knowledge teachers use in the process of implementing information and communication technologies in their teaching (see

Project 7.2, ITMP (Information Technology Management Program) assesses the degree to which students using new information technologies are learning while providing service to others within their school or their community (see

Project 7.1, TACT (TéléApprentissage communautaire et transformation / Technology for Advanced Collaborative Teaching) stewards the development of a virtual community of support, and communication for pre-service teachers, one which is built and evaluated as it is rooted in authentic learning contexts (professional development schools) spread throughout Canada (see



Perspectives/theoretical background

The notions of community of practice and situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991), and of knowledge building (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993) are central in all three research projects. A recent domain in cognitive science (Computer-supported collaborative learning research, see CSCL conferences) presents interesting results on which we can build -- results related to knowledge acquisition, teacher empowerment and professional development.

Philosophically situated in Dewey's conceptualization of learning through experience (continuous and socially interactive; see also Vygotsky and Leontiev), the researchers seek to understand the potential of on-line progressive and collaborative reflective discourse for teacher education. Knowledge-building is fostered, that is, personally and socially constructed and reconstructed through the experience of teaching and reflective practice. The notions of teacher education as a continuum (see Fullan) and professional development as inquiry-oriented, school-based, and continuous (see Fenstermacher, Lieberman, McLaughlin) are applied.

Technology is seen as a tool, and a lever for professional development -- as technology is now associated with a different view of knowledge as well as to collaborative learning and teaching. Collaboration is introduced as a viable and productive innovation : teams of learners, preservice teachers, inservice teachers, and faculty members engaged in knowledge-building professional communities (Intranet- and Internet-enabled).

Mode of inquiry, and methods

A critical-emancipatory action research methodology (Carr & Kemmis, 1986) is used to foster, document and interpret the extent and nature of support, communication and collaboration among learners, student teachers, teachers, and teacher educators. Multiple research perspectives are shared (assumptions, questions, methodologies, and discoveries), both enabled and precipitated by telelearning.

The research is being conducted in connection with student practica (three to twelve week long). The design of educational situations is a continuous process. Participants are asked to write their expectations and plans governing their teaching and learning activities, and to build on one another's discourse with respect to pedagogical content. The investigations, through multiple perspectives, of the ways new technologies may be used are supported by two leading edge technologies for on-line collaborative knowledge-building (Virtual U, Harasim, 1995) and CSILE, Scardamalia, Bereiter & Lamon, 1994).

On-line writings and dialogues occur in groups limited to 20 participants or less, and reflect student teachers' practical experience in the planning, implementation and evaluation of educational activities, including computer-supported ones. Collaborative problem setting and problem solving are encouraged, and facilitated. Participants are invited to record difficulties, misunderstandings as well as to document successes. Knowledge webs are open to all (see, for instance,; Materials developed at one site may be found useful at another site.

On-line forums and dialogues are analyzed, and reinvestigated in face to face and further on-line discussions. Journals are kept, and stories are told. Some are co-authored. Ways in which participants construct, share, and reconstruct a given discourse or narrative are also documented. Early interpretation of the materials has lead to more emotionally engaging, and structured discussions.

These teaching and research activities help us understand the changes in student teachers' thinking and doing while learning takes place in a networked classroom. Collaborative knowledge-building is seen as the ultimate function of networks (Intranet and Internet).

Data sources

Data is gathered on-line (websites: Tact, Studio A, Virtual U and CSILE). Individual and group semi-structured interviews are conducted (audio- and video-tapes) at regular times. Fieldnotes are also compiled on the planning and development processes and contexts of the activities and materials, and on professional conversations with student teacher(s) and/or teacher(s). Narratives based on these records are constructed. Materials produced and published on-line are classified and reviewed. They are also focus groups which are facilitated by neutral moderators who are familiar with but not associated with the experiences of the teachers' candidates.


A preliminary review of the data focuses on the extent and nature of support, communication and collaboration among the participants. Content-related themes point to the enculturation process into these new practices as well as implicit socio-cultural well-entrenched conceptions of what it means to be a teacher. The TeleLearning environment, as technology, acts as a catalyst for role changes. It becomes apparent that creating sustainable learning communities among educators requires the establishment of rituals, habits, and patterns (See Patterns of Connection, AERA 96). Process-related themes stress the pragmatics, present quasi-immediate results, and reconceptualized courses of action. Altogether, TeleLearning is found to support the cohabitation of educators at different levels of technology practice, to increase "mobility" across different sites, and to promote collaboration in design, implementation, and inquiry.

Further analyses of the on-line conversations, using cognitive discourse analysis methods (see Breuleux, Bracewell, Renaud, 1995), will focus also on characterizing the different sources of knowledge required of participants to engage in successful knowledge-building communities, and what knowledge results from participation in these communities. Observations on how we see our own practices as teacher educators changing, and recommendations for further research and development on emerging knowledge-building professional communities will also be made.



Concluding comments

Theme 7's approach to teacher education is one of a number of initiatives world-wide that seek a fundamental transformation of teacher education programs that incorporates computer technology to raise the quality of instruction and student learning (see for example reports by the Holmes Group, 1995; Fullan, 1996; National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, 1997a, b).

Theme 7's commitment to building learning communities ensures that it is not succumbing to the trend of instructional technology benchmarks currently being established for teacher professional development activities, one which places its emphasis on the technical rather than the pedagogical dimensions.

Further on-line discussion will be announced, and resources be made available.



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