CHI 99 Online Communities Workshop
Position Paper

Mark Schlager, Patricia Schank, & Judith Fusco

Center for Technology in Learning
SRI International
333 Ravenswood Avenue
Menlo Park, CA 94025B
Email: [schlager, schank, jfusco]

Research Summary

We are beginning the second year of a 3-year NSF Research in Education Policy and Practice project designed to establish an on-line teacher professional development (TPD) research testbed called TAPPED IN. Our research goals are to (a) investigate the resources and technological support that TPD efforts need to conduct professionally valuable on-line activities; (b) develop innovative TPD models that integrate face-to-face and asynchronous interaction with collaborative synchronous on-line activities; and (c) identify social, motivational, and technological factors that contribute to (or obstruct) the success and evolution of our on-line TPD community concept.

Our research design is based on our theoretical conjecture that self-sustaining on-line professional development communities require (a) the participation of multiple organizations offering a variety of high-quality activities in association their own mission, (b) community-wide activities through which individual members can "learn the ropes" of the community and its culture, contribute to, and take ownership of the community, and (c) a persistent shared environment that supports a natural flow of communication (e.g., from real-time conferencing to email and discussion boards) and the creation and manipulation of discourse-support artifacts. One component of our research deals with understanding the kinds of on-line activities and content that TPD organizations representing different perspectives and approaches can develop to achieve their goals and support teachers more effectively. A second component of our research addresses the issues of sustainability and scalability of our model, and the impact that such a community can have on SME&T education reform.

Research Methodology

Our methodology can be described as a "design experiment." The project interweaves research in the design and implementation of TPD activities and technical capabilities that we conjecture will help establish and sustain on-line TPD communities. We are developing and using quantitative and qualitative instruments including surveys, activity logs, interviews, and discourse analysis tools to address these aspects of our model. For example, we have conducted discourse analyses on meeting transcripts and are about to send out a survey to all our members. The transcript analysis shows that even with a group that uses the technology minimally over a period of several months, the structure of their meetings shifts from a focus on the technology and group norms to a predominantly task-focus, similar to dialogue captured in face-to-face meetings (Olson, et al., 1992).

We also continuously collect data on our member activity (e.g., objects they access, rooms they visit, when they log in and out), with their consent. All TAPPED IN members are informed of (and agree to) such research data collection efforts when they apply for membership. Strict confidentiality is maintained and the content of conversations is never recorded without additional explicit permission from the participants.

Our membership and list of partners has grown steadily. As of January 1999, we have 14 tenants and over 2500 members with an average of over 60 log-ins a day over the past three months and a growth rate of approximately 100 new members each month. As membership has grown, our monthly login rate has remained steady at approximately 15% of the membership logging in per month. For example, in July, 1998, 378 different members (out of 1700+) logged in a total of 2784 times for a total of 1900 hours. Members log in every day of the week and almost around the clock (from around the world). Logins are relatively equally divided Monday through Friday and shrink by about two-thirds on weekends. Approximately half of our members describe themselves as K-12 teachers. The balance is composed of relatively equal proportions of researchers, university faculty and graduate students, staff developers, school support and administration staff, and preservice teachers.

Other indicators that we are succeeding include regular attendance at community-wide activities by our members and the evolution of a group of "community elders" who volunteer to staff a help desk and provide other services. Indicators that we are having an impact on the TPD community writ large are that we are seeing TAPPED IN events posted on other on-line TPD venues and websites, and we receive new requests from groups wanting to use TAPPED IN weekly.

Future Directions

Beyond sustaining our growth and participation levels, our next big push for the community will be to (a) integrate school librarians into the community and (b) develop ways to support teachers bringing their students into TAPPED IN. We need to develop a guidebook for those who are thinking of starting or joining an on-line education community. We need to better understand the factors that indicate an organization is ready for an online community, or if they have to change their ways of doing business too much to be successful. We also need to understand the level of technical vs. human support needed in an online community. When can technology replace some of the support humans now give, and what kind of human support can't be replaced by technology? Technologically, we are releasing a new Web user interface this spring with a new shared sketchpad. We have plans to more fully integrate the synchronous and asynchronous modes of communications and to add collaborative filtering/recommendation support so that users can benefit from what others have found to be valuable.

Other Important Issues for the Field

We are concerned about the implications for both our community and public education should we (and other similar projects) succeed beyond our wildest dreams. Will TPD be transformed to a more effective balance of formal and informal activities or will the public school system be affected in less positive ways? What happens when all the organizations that work with teachers want to be tenants in their regional TAPPED IN? Will it transform the gathering place from agora to flea market that is no longer hospitable to or useful for teachers? Will communities compete rather than cooperate? Will we need to incorporate member screening, policing, and governance as other on-line communities have found necessary? What do we do about disruptive students (we have had a case of that) or adults? Will the ability to engage in TPD activities on-line cause school districts to reallocate TPD budgets and how? Will teacher’s unions denounce the on-line communities as competing with their interests or as a subtle way to get teachers to put in more hours without being paid? Will teachers who attract more students into their online courses command higher salaries? Will these developments affect movements such as home schooling, charter schools, or commercial models for K-12 education? We do not claim to have answers (or even the right questions). But, we hope that those who study these social and policy issues watch us out of the corner of their eye and help us make midcourse corrections on the chance that we do succeed in getting what we wish for.

Selected Publications