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

Thérèse Laferrière (Laval University) & Alain Breuleux (McGill University)


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

Charles B. Myers, Vanderbilt University


Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) are often linked to the social and economic future of nations. Lifelong learning skills are perceived as crucial, and the development of a new vision of schools is underway. In North America and also in the rest of the world, information, communication and collaboration through networks are on the rise, making learning more flexible ("open and distance learning") and creating knowledge repositories in "Cyberspace" (European Commission, 1997). At their best, the newest technologies are of a constructivist nature, and support leading-edge pedagogies. These developments contribute to create higher demands for education, both quantitative and qualitative, and to pressure educators and teacher educators to rethink their practices. Teacher educators involved in the TeleLearning Network of Centres of Excellence (TL-NCE) share the belief that educators must have a say in the orientation and the conduct of initiatives that are exploring the possibilities and limits of information-, communication-, and collaboration rich learning environments.

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.


The proposed interactive symposium (Symposium/Table) 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. The "knowledge" referred to in these projects grows out of the sharing and shaping of experiences in ways facilitated by the increased information, communication and collaboration. The 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.

In one research project, a virtual community of support, and communication for pre-service teachers is built and evaluated as it is rooted in authentic learning contexts (professional development schools) spread throughout Canada (see Another project assesses the degree to which students using new information technologies are learning while providing service to others within their school or their community (see The third project focuses on the knowledge teachers use in the process of implementing information and communication technologies in their teaching (see

The objectives of this interactive symposium are to demonstrate

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.

Scientific and educational importance

Taylor Northrup & Little (1996) have reviewed the instructional technology benchmarks for teacher preparation programs that are in the process of being established. One quickly sees that the emphasis is put on the technical rather than the pedagogical dimensions in professional development activities. It is the research team's belief that basic technical expertise is a necessary though insufficient step for new technology to support new pedagogies and result in a positive impact on student learning. Moreover, this insistance on pedagogy takes on an added significance with the advent of "push technologies" (see and in the context of education reform, as some of us argue for teacher empowerment and reliance on teacher judgments, including their decisions as regards student learning (Little, 1993).

Little (1993), Darling-Hammond (1994), and Seashore Louis, Marks & Kruse (1996) all underline the importance of collaborative environments for the professional development of teachers. The school-university association referred to above, and the intensive use it makes in the training of the teaching undergraduates, of the technological media already linked to a vast network, creates a radically different teaching environment from the one that prevails today. And this multi-year research program is showing the way to the intentional and deliberate use of technology to foster professional knowledge at a number of intersecting levels.

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.

Structure of the session

This interactive symposium will be conducted as a case study. 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. They 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, there is 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 the lead discussant, and then 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. Further on-line discussion will be announced, and resources be made available.


Bereiter, C. & Scardamalia, M. (1993). Surpassing ourselves: An inquiry into the nature and implications of expertise. Chicago : The Open Court.

Breuleux, A., Bracewell, R.J., & Renaud, P. (1995). Cooperation, sharing, and support between specialists in producing technical documentation. Technical Communication, 18, 155-160.

Carr, W. & Kemmis, S. (1986). Becoming critical: Education, knowledge and action research. London: Falmer Press.

Darling-Hammond, L. (1994). Professional development schools: Schools for developing a profession. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Dewey (1938). Experience and education. New York: Collier Books, 1963.

European Commission (1997). Conference on school education in the information society, Greece, Sept.17-19.

Harasim, L. (1995). Learning networks : A field guide to teaching and learning online. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Little, J.W. (1993). Teachers' professional development in a climate of educational reform. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 15 (2), 129-152.

Scardamalia, M., Bereiter, C. & Lamon, M. (1994). CSILE: Trying to bring students into world 3. In K. McGilley (Ed.), Classroom lessons: Integrating cognitive theory and classroom practice, (201-228). Cambridge: MIT Press.

Seashore Louis, K., Marks, H.M. & Kruse, S. (1996). Teachers' professional community in restructuring schools. American Educational Research Journal, 33 (4), 757-798.

Taylor Northrup, P. & Little, W. (1996). Establishing instructional technology benchmarks for teacher preparation programs. Journal of Teacher Education, 47 (3), 213-224.