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


Whenever there is a need to renew people's view of society, there are actors that quickly focus on schools as a microcosm of society, and inevitably dream of the teacher education reform that could help make a difference. Teacher education is this special place where human hopes and frustrations co-exist. Teacher educators have found many ways to rationalize, and interpret the discourse that challenges their status, well-being, or ways to contribute. On the whole, however, they are inclined to respond to those whose expectations are meant to improve teacher education.

With the advent of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), we entered a new era of educational reform. New technology has been 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. Hopes are to make learning more flexible (open learning, authentic learning, distance learning, etc.), and create knowledge repositories in "Cyberspace" (European Commission, 1997).

At their best, the newest technologies are of a constructivist nature, and support inquiry-oriented 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 researchers were instrumental in the development of a Vision Statement of the Learner in the 21st Century prepared by a group of Canadian educators. The group put forward the notion of interconnected learning communities as capturing the learning context that computers linked to other computers can support. Our research projects unite around the notion of networked learning communities. In this paper, we uncover some of its meanings in our own work as teacher educators, ones related to the understanding of :

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.

As we reflect upon our own experiences of, allude to our changing lives as teacher educators and researchers in an emerging network of interconnected learning communities, and invite you to join in, the intricate interplay of social and electronic networks in shaping the future of university-school teacher education reform is likely to manifest itself.

Perspectives/theoretical background

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.

Basic beliefs and assumptions

As diverse interests and many expectations are at stake, we take an active role in defining, in partnership with other educators, the use of new technology, while other colleagues are expressing doubt in the methodological and political choices that are being made. It is our belief that positive attitudes toward both tradition and transformation are necessary, and that schools are in a transition period, one both precipitated and enabled by the new technology now available (see the meaning of TACT as an acronym, Patterns of connection, AERA '97). The likelihood that that the new technology (the network model) will replace the old technology used in high schools for instructing large student cohorts (the factory model) is the impetus behind our R & D program.

We do not assume a separation between the human being and technology (see Husserl's notion of co-constitutionnality). For instance, even with all the attention given to technology, Kennedy (in Daedalus, 1993) noted that nowadays, the message is "nonutilitarian". He explained : [The message that we now hear] emphasizes our obligations to care well for our students, to provide the kind of education that will produce leaders and not followers, and to be a shelter for new ideas and a force for social improvement. We should hear in it an encouragement to reexamine our assumptions, to be prepared to do away with old paradigms ­ in short, to redesign ourselves in a way that is faithful to first principles." (p. 150).

The educational activity we are engaged in regarding the integration of information and communication technologies in the classroom -- and the design of a new learning environment -- is grounded in the following assumptions:

The infrastructure we are developing (multi-site research collaboratives) is closely linked to the inquiries we are conducting. The objects of our studies and the tools we develop in order to do so are the results of a co-construction. In other words, knowledge and technology are not seen as separated from one another, but closely bound; learning, teaching and research co-exist.

Theoretical perspectives

Philosophically situated in Dewey's conceptualization of learning through experience (continuous and socially interactive; see also Vygotsky, 1978; Bruner, 1996; Brown, 1997), the researchers seek to understand, from a socio-constructivist perspective, the potential of on-line progressive and collaborative reflective discourse for teacher education. The notions of community of practice and situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991), and of knowledge building (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993) are central in our understanding of university-school teacher education reform. Knowledge building is clearly the key construct. Learner-driven delivery systems, simulations and games are not excluded. But collaborative knowledge-building is fostered, that is, personally and socially constructed and reconstructed teacher knowledge through the experience of increasingly more public teaching and reflective practice.

Computer-supported collaborative learning research (Hall, 1997) offers impressive first-generation research results related to knowledge acquisition, teacher empowerment and professional development.

Innovative practices

Building on the PDS model

The Holmes Group's main legacy, the Professional Development School (PDS) is our point of departure. Their idea was to renew the education of educators in collaboration with practitioners in the field. Voicing a commitment to quality education for all children, this Group took steps to better position its institutional members for contributing to the fundamental changes necessary to transform public schools. Forced to acknowledge that research is not the only key to an authoritative knowledge base for education, the Holmes Group recognized the necessity to improve the quality of academic studies in relation to their clinical application. Every PDS was to participate in the education of professional educators (teachers, counselors, and administrators), and in the redesign of the content of teacher education around the developing knowledge base about professional practice. The Holmes Group's long term perspective was to provide an infrastructure for "going back to school", one that will support collaborative research with practitioners, student teachers' supervision, induction and professional development activities.

PDSs are meant to be places for collaborative inquiry on teaching, teachers, students, and classroom learning(see NCATE's Draft Standards). Because educators of educators are unlikely to succeed if their efforts are spread in too many schools at once, and in order to increase results (for instance, improved learning outcomes), the Holmes' strategy concentrated the efforts and resources in a limited number of schools. The Holmes Partnerships took on (1995) the implementation of this strategy in a way so that researchers and practitioners can model the praxis ideal, that is, a knowledge base / practice based dialectic using exemplary schools as clinical sites, and influence the state of the profession at large, its art and culture. Fullan, Galluzzo, Morris and Watson (1996) in their evaluation of the Holmes Group 1985-1995 activity, stressed, on the one hand, that the teacher education reform's agenda is critical, and, on the other hand, that there are many political and practical forces inhibiting future development. For instance, Bullough et al. (1997) pointed to the deep concern of discipline-driven researchers about the perceived high costs of continued investment in PDSs, to the field-focused researchers' perception that the institutional reward systems discourage involvement with the field, and to the difficulty of serving multiple and competing masters, those within the schools and within the academy (p. 87, 89) -- see also Clifford and Guthrie (1988), and Goodlad (1990). Bullough et al. goes on stressing that "internal cultural divisions are deep and must be bridged if reform is to continue" (p. 93). To this end, they suggest extended conversation and vigorous leadership. Academics have been encouraged to do so for quite some years (see Boyer, 1989), and, as demonstrated by Curry, Wergin and Associates (1993), other professionals' educators are facing similar challenges.

Our strategy builds on this model. By integrating electronic linkages as part of the model (TL-PDS), we aim at strengthening communication and collaboration between the social actors that are transforming teacher education at local sites. At Laval U, a network of 135 associate schools belonging to 21 different school districts is electronically linked (85%), thus allowing for information exchange, communication and collaboration between the student teachers, schools, school-based and university-based teacher educators, and the university to be enhanced. The R & D research focus is on two school districts and, more specifically, a few schools and classrooms where kids' access to computers (intranet and Internet) are not considered to be a problem. At McGill U, 30 schools are involved in on-going professional development activities that include site-based university courses, and a summer institute designed from a partnership. At UBC, a community of practice involving preservice teachers, school-based and university-based teachers has been established.

The collaborative design of educational activities is the managerial perspective adopted for developing, sustaining, and scaling up pedagogies well-adapted to the many diverse needs of children (see Wagner, 1994). We are increasingly focusing on the basic patterns of interaction between the teacher, the students, and knowledge. Our working hypothesis is that electronically networked classrooms (1) are both precipitating and enabling teachers to vary their teaching style. This hypothesis recognizes the qualitative difference of new technologies (networks), and builds on Gitlin's question (1995), who himself built on Michael Apple's (1986) discussion of classroom interaction, "Is it possible that teachers persist in seeing teaching as telling, in part, because they are 'trained' that way in teacher education institutions, have historically been limited to facilitating goals determined by others, and have largely accepted this role because to do otherwise would further intensify their work?"

Designing a computer-supported collaborative community

The TeleLearning Professional Development School (TL-PDS) project is the design of a virtual community of support and communication for preservice teachers, one addressing the possibilities, challenges, issues, and limits of the infusion of computers in learning environments. The TL-PDSs were initiated in four communities (Quebec City, Montreal, Vancouver and, soon, Toronto) which provide experience in different settings and contexts, with the aim of building both local and national linkages.

The cultural challenges of introducing new technologies while linking them to pedagogies that engage the learner in high-level tasks, were faced by merging local professional development initiatives involving both Anglophone and Francophone universities and schools from three Canadian provinces. Researchers were committed to the same R & D program, but each site was to evolve according to its own local forces, and social and political dynamics at play.

To achieve the goals of designing collaborative communities, to learn to be part of a network has already proven to be essential. The research network, supported by potent technologies, has become a requirement for the educators, learners, and researchers who co-design innovative telelearning practices, and investigate the learning taking place within the resulting networked learning communities. Productive patterns of information, cooperation, coordination and integration were established within and between the sites (face-to-face and online).

The TL-PDS now bridges traditional teacher education settings and school sites through fully operational professional development web-sites (PDWs), ones that support information, connection and collaborative learning within and between sites. These are: TACT , (Télé-Apprentissage Communautaire et Transformatif/Technology for Advanced Collaborative Teaching), at Laval U; Studio A (which provides assistance to school learners when they are teaching to school teachers, and /or members of the community) located at UBC, and McGill TK (Teacher Knowledge). At the PDSs, the integration of TeleLearning technologies for on-line collaborative knowledge-building (Virtual U, see Harasim, 1995) and CSILE, see Scardamalia, Bereiter & Lamon, 1994) is underway. For instance, Virtual U's Vgroups allow anyone registered to access, using any computer linked to the Internet. Vgroups are limited to 20 participants. One may also reengage in a task where he or she left off (unread messages are recorded, a file may be left on, etc.). This way, many of the inconveniences of transporting and linking a computer to the web, or disquettes, or the fact of not owning a computer are diminished. WebCSILE supports collaborative learning (see the Flight data base, and the Alphabet data base). For both of these platforms, technical help is available.

The McGill TK web-site reflects what teachers do as they implement telelearning tools in the learning environment. Studio A is being developed with high school learners. TACT is being conducted in connection with student practica (three to twelve week long). Materials developed at one site may be found useful at another site as such, or are adapted. The design of educational situations is a continuous process. For instance, student teachers are asked to write their expectations and plans governing their teaching and learning activities, to build on one another's discourse with respect to pedagogical content, and to use multiple perspectives. Collaborative problem setting and problem solving are encouraged, and facilitated. Student teachers engage in reflective analysis on the planning, implementation and evaluation of educational activities, including computer-supported ones, collaborative inquiries into the teacher's and the learner's roles in networked learning environments, and other knowledge building activities. These collaborative spaces on the web are managed in ways as to preserve the confidentiality of those struggling with specific issues or problems. Digital materials (texts, images, and video clips) are produced, and shared by the student teachers working in networked classrooms with those working in classrooms with a lesser or no access at all to computers (intranet & Internet).

All websites have also a public access. Materials that present the rationale behind telelearning activities, and various resources are made available, including illustrations of what can be done. Presentations and workshops are opportunities to discuss with members of the educational community topics such as the value of networks or the influence of computer supported collaborative learning on student teachers' representations of the role of the learner and of the teacher (see SchoolNet, 1996; AQUOPS, 1997; TPI-III, 1997), school resources (AIES, 1997; SAI, 1997) and CEA (1998), and policy making (CMEC, 1997; CERIS, 1998). (See the List of Acronyms, to be developed.)

The TeleLearning Professional Development School (TL-PDS) project creates a new place, one extending the conversation for school-university teacher education reform.

Engaging in dialogue among ourselves, and with practitioners

Creating community in teacher education is an undertaking
that requires tolerance, openness, respect for differences,
and a capacity to accommodate to differences

(Fenstermacher, 1994, p. 329).

As mentioned earlier, existing innovative teaching and learning projects, some of which were already making use of telelearning tools, were the departure point of the R & D team for studying the development and effectiveness of new pedagogies using telelearning tools: Laval's network of associated schools; Information Technology Management Program (ITMP) and Studio A; McGill Applied Cognitive Science Laboratory's activities; UBC's Teacher Development Labs (TDLs); OISE/UT's Computer-Supported Intentional Learning Environments (CSILE); Athabasca's distance learning activities with SoliNet; Education Network of Ontario (ENO); Writers in Electronic Residence (WIER). (See the List of Projects, link to be provided).

By inquiring into these innovative practices (see listing and others) and sharing results, we build our knowledge on the education of educators for networked learning communities, while strenghtening our social network. A State-of-the-Art Statement is jointly being developed. The electronic network is providing us with numerous possibilities (from e mail messages to desk-top videoconferencing) for voicing our different perspectives, sharing and integrating research results.

Inquiries with teachers led to similar early research results regarding the changing representations of the role of the learner and of the teacher in networked communities. (See Bob's, John's and Therese's papers.)

Integrating telelearning tools into our own teaching and research and activities

Reflecting back on our own experiences, here are some of the ways academic activities may be transformed :

Modes of inquiry, data sources, and methods of analysis

Naturalistic, ethnographic and other action-research methodologies (see Carr and Kemmis, 1986) are used in order to document and interpret the extent and nature of support, communication and collaboration among learners, student teachers, teachers, and teacher educators. 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).

Data is gathered on-line (Tact, Studio A, Virtual U, and WebCSILE). On-line forums and dialogues are analyzed, and results reinvestigated in face to face and further on-line discussions (see Fortier, Lavoie et Laferrière, 1998). Early interpretation of the materials has lead to more emotionally engaging, and structured discussions. Journals are kept, stories are told face-to-face or on-line. Some are co-authored. Ways in which participants construct, share, and reconstruct a given discourse or narrative are also studied for further facilitation of collaborative knowledge building. Narratives based on these records, and case studies are being constructed.

Questionnaires are filled, and individual and group semi-structured interviews are conducted (audio- and video-tapes) at regular times. 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.


The educator and trainer's critical role in establishing networked learning communities and environments. This is the major emerging theme, and the one reflected in the title of this paper. This research being both of a design and an empirical nature, our findings are continuously reinvested for further human validation (Moustakas, 1967) by participating teachers and student teachers.

On the one hand, the establishment of networked learning communities is a work of macrodesign, and we made significant progress in identifying the circumstances that lead to successful and sustainable learning communities. Local implementations require time, flexibility and adaptation at both the university and the school settings. 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. Findings also point to uncertainties and tensions regarding conflicting social expectations, high standards for all learners, and schools-within-schools projects, emphasizing the importance of thinking of technology transfer as a cultural activity that involves designing new learning environments.

On the other hand, at the micro level the data that has been gathered on educators documents a range of changing attitudes, changing teaching practices including collaboration with students and experts, and expansion of educational resources. As teacher educators, our understanding of professional knowledge has grown to include higher-level inquiry and social skills. (To make a link to Bob's findings; to corroborate with teachers' quotes and video clips while working with student teachers). To better understand the changes in student teachers' thinking and doing while learning takes place in a networked classroom, a new research project has been submitted (Laferrière, Legault and Breuleux, 1998).

The changing role of learners is clearly mirrored in the changing role of teachers in a community of learners. To guide the learner in his or her interaction with knowledge requires much presence to the other, telepresence included, deep understanding of the subject matter, and a capacity for dialogue (Buber, and others) with individual learners, small groups (See pictures of student teachers), and the learning community (the classroom) as a whole (see video clip).

Yet, our understanding is that what we are seeing are glimpses of a potential paradigm shift, yet to transform the style of the teacher, and the well-entrenched teacher-dominated interaction (teacher-student interaction). Let's recall here Cuban's study (1984), showing that more open and progressive styles have not been implemented on a large basis throughtout the past Century (1890-1980). We are finding that the traditional style weights heavy in student teachers' representations of teaching, even among those involved in the design of the TL-PDS. They see the lack of generalizability to the real world of the Protic experiment --each kid having a laptop, high-spead connection both at school and at home, access to peripherals, such as an electronic projector, and to experts interested in what is happening in these rare classrooms (external validity issues).

As we design the TL-PDS , we find (case studies) that 20% of the student teachers combine high positive attitudes towards 1) knowledge, 2) method, 3) others, 4) the unknow, and 5) technology, thus making them ideal-type candidates for classrooms that emphasize computer-supported project-based and inquiry learning (see Figure I, with scores ranging from 14 to 23). For instance, Sandy has much method (inquiry, writing and reflective analysis), but is very content-oriented, has little experience in learning group learning and is uneasy with co-planning with the students. Ken is highly flexible, creative, dynamic and resourceful, but likes to improvise, use the electronic projector, and have the attention on himself in a classroom. Frankie scores the highest; he is, after eight weeks of student teaching, the most at ease with inquiry- and project-based approaches to learning. Classroom learners' own ratings of these students corroborated our own ratings.







 Knowledge  4  4  3  3  4
 Method  4  2  4  4  5
 Others  1  2  3  3
 Unknown  2  5  3  3  4
 Technology  3  4  4  4  5

Figure 1. Preservice professional knowledge : Basic skills

We are now considering these five presage variables in our conceptualization of the entry level for learning to become an educator's capable of establishing networked learning communities and environments. Similar criteria, plus experience in project-based learning and community work are now applied by the school board committee that is selecting the inservice teachers as new such classrooms are opened. This is to be considered as knowledge that is resulting from participation in the community of educators that are attempting to develop the potential of networked classrooms. 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.

The data establishes the degree to which telelearning technologies support, extend, and challenge current methods of preparing educators and trainers, just as it points to how new methods are beginning to emerge. (See illustrations). (Here are to be included the transitional objects Alain's is researching on).

We use collaborative technologies on a broader scale than originally planned. Telelearning tools are 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. Our sites are found to be instrumental in both problem-setting and problem-solving processes related to the integration of information and communication technologies in professional development schools (PDSs), and in learning communities (school-based or university-based).

We suggest that the TeleLearning environment, as technology, acts as a catalyst for role changes. 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.

The question of how the uses of new technology for learning shape our own practices is also looked at, and as we change the way we do things -- see above -- , we seem to be playing an intricate role in also shaping the future of university-school teacher education reform (see Alain's materials).

Further developments of methods and processes to design and evaluate sustainable learning communities supported by the increasingly sophisticated and elective use of telelearning technologies will include the search of a new order when it comes, for instance, to telepresence and classroom management.

Reflecting back upon our experiences in an emerging network of interconnected learning communities, there is a sense of rare excitement, and connectedness. Our research program is meant to accelerate the exchange of research results within the TeleLearning teacher educators network, and the use of that knowledge within Canada. We are working at the creation of more collaborative and continuous learning cultures. Fullan et al. (1996) pointed to that necessity in their report on the Holmes Group's strategy. International partnerships with other teacher educators networks sharing the view to harness the networking capacity in a collective framework for social development are welcome.


(1) In an electronically networked classroom, both the teacher and students have access to information, and may engage in communication with others from outside the classroom, and/or collaborative learning activities.


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