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Building Community Using Online Tools for Collaboration
by Susan Brooks-Young
Collaborative, interactive learning has always been important in meeting students' educational needs. Bring collaborative learning into the internet age with online virtual learning communities.
The urgency for developing and implementing instructional strategies that will help students learn responsible, effective use of new technologies that impact communication and collaboration is growing. The K-12 edition of the 2009 Horizon Report ( states that technologies of this type will move into mainstream use in K-12 education over the next one to five years. How well prepared are you to use these tools with your students?

One approach that has garnering increased attention among educators is the use of wikis, blogs, and social networks to create online learning communities. Frequently called Virtual Learning Communities or VLCs, this strategy has its roots in adult education but is making inroads in K-12 classrooms. How are VLCs best described, and what resources are available?     

A Quick Overview

Experts say that Virtual Learning Communities can take a variety of forms, depending upon the needs they are created to address. These groups may be formal or informal in structure. Membership is not normally limited by geographic location, but is often restricted based on other criteria. What differentiates today’s VLCs from earlier online groups is context—once limited almost entirely to post-secondary distance-learning programs or online courses, K-12 classroom or school-specific VLCs in which members have face-to-face relationships are becoming more popular. The VLCs most frequently created for K-12 environments are typically designed to provide support to members as they learn about a particular subject or topic.

The 2009 Horizon Report mentions numerous tools, both free and low-cost, that teachers can use singly or in conjunction with one another to develop robust, highly engaging online work spaces for students. Depending upon the age and needs of students and the amount of time the teacher can devote to the VLC, these tools range from simple blogs, to wikis, to online platforms offering a variety of capabilities.
Various tools for creating blogs and wikis have been discussed at length in previous columns, so additional space won’t be used here. Readers who would like to view a more complete list of Web 2.0 applications can find one at In the meantime, a sampling of online platforms educators can use to develop VLCs includes:

   • Ning ( An online platform which offers ad-free networks for teachers working with students ages 13 to 18 and is popular with educators because of the range of tools and ease of use.
   • Tapped In ( An online platform designed to provide workspace for K-12 educators. Teachers are also welcome to create VLCs for K-12 students.
   • Elgg ( An open-source program that makes it possible for education institutions to host their own social networks.

In talks with educators who are exploring use of online platforms, Ning is frequently mentioned as the tool of choice. For this reason, the examples provided later in this column are based on use of Ning.
The technologies that make VLCs accessible to learners of all ages are relatively new, but the foundations on which these groups are built are well-grounded in learning theory. Leading education experts from Dewey to Gardner emphasize the importance of collaborative, interactive learning that takes place in an environment where top priority is given to meeting student needs. It is not, therefore, surprising that the most successful emerging K-12 VLCs are those in which there is a clear connection between learning and relationships, interaction is encouraged, and collaboration is built on common goals and shared artifacts.
The most effective VLCs are those which allow teachers to engage with students in new and different ways. These teachers choose and administer the tools used to support the online VLC. They assume responsibility for organizing the group, model engagement and collaboration, and set the stage for behavioral norms within the community. And, in instances where these teachers also regularly meet with their students in face-to-face settings, they plan strategies for merging online and face-to-face activities.    

Classroom Examples

No matter how well-grounded in research Virtual Learning Communities may be, the bottom line is determining how well the approach works in teaching and learning. Kevin Jarrett is technology facilitator at Northfield Community School in Northfield, NJ, and Nancy Caramanico is director of technology K-12 for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Both of these educators spent the 2008-09 school year working with teachers or students in VLCs. I met with Jarrett and Caramanico during the recent National Educational Computing Conference (NECC), where we spoke about their experience with VLCs.

The Northfield Community Middle School newspaper (more of a media club) is crafted by members of an after-school club. This publication was taken online in 2007-08 using Apple iWeb, and in 2008-09 Kevin Jarrett became the club’s advisor. His vision: to leverage state-of-the-art social media and multimedia tools familiar to many of the students.

A firm believer in the use of Web 2.0 tools to communicate and collaborate, Jarrett chose the Ning platform for the 2008-09 “T-Bird Times.” This flexible social media environment provided much more than an online presence for the school newspaper. It gave student correspondents a place where they could work together at any time, either at school or at home, and offered a venue where they could present content for all the world to see using multiple media formats.

Students covered school events, profiled teachers, and produced traditional news stories with a new-media spin using tools like Google Docs, Voicethread, Animoto, and Glogster. During the course of the year, as students’ curiosity took over, focus shifted from covering school news to exploring their personal interests using these tools. Jarrett explains, “It was clear members of the club wanted to adopt more of a ‘media’ focus, so that’s what we did!” Students created videos, designed digital artwork, worked with digital photography, and more. In June, the group presented its work in Washington, D.C., at the 2009 National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) at a student showcase. The club plans to expand operations next year with more correspondents, additional Web 2.0 tools, and a new design incorporating even more interactivity.

In 2008-09 the Archdiocese of Philadelphia launched its new technology plan. Recognizing that ongoing professional development for administrators and teachers is crucial for the success of new technology initiatives, Nancy Caramanico arranged for every high school in the archdiocese to have a team participate in a year-long training program. Bracketed by face-to-face meetings in the fall and spring, the meat of the program involved online activities supported by a VLC created using the Ning platform.
Team members became so engaged in this Web-based environment that several launched VLCs in their classrooms. For example, Sandra Young (Bishop Shanahan High School) is moderator of a school club that produces Visions Art and Literary Magazine. She also teaches a course called Morality and Social Justice. Young used a wiki for the magazine VLC and Ning for the class VLC.

Mary Harkins, principal at Archbishop Wood High, and Eileen Goldsmith both teach American history. Each used Ning with students as they studied the Great Depression and imperialism respectively. Instead of the traditional “read the chapter and answer study questions” approach, students assumed the roles of historic figures of the time and used the social networking aspects of Ning to create profiles for their characters, post video and photographic artifacts, and communicate online with one another in character and in context.

Each of these educators reports extremely positive results using VLCs. Students who normally were quiet in class participated fully in the online activities, and responses were more creative than work done in previous years—perhaps because students could read one another’s work and build on each other’s ideas. Unanticipated benefits included the ability of teachers to communicate publicly and privately with students via the Ning group, and the fact that time stamps on all posts eliminated questions about when assignments were completed. All three plan to continue use of online VLCs next term; and Harkins, along with many of the other principals in the Archdiocese, has begun using Ning VLCs with faculty members.
Elementary teachers in the Philadelphia Archdiocese learned about VLCs and Ning at an annual technology conference. Although they did not have the long-term cohort training experienced by the teams at the high school, some of these teachers decided to give Ning a try. For example, math teacher Rita Stebbins (Holy Child School) created a VLC for her 8th graders, encouraging them to post and respond to questions about math and to research and blog about various math topics. Stebbins’ 7th graders are looking forward to a Ning group of their own in the fall. Another example from grade 8 is provided by Elaine Carboni, who created a Ning VLC for her language arts class at St. Gabriel School. Students used Ning as a platform for discussing novels they were reading in class. In fact, students found this working environment so enjoyable, they asked Carboni if they could post discussion questions! Like the high school teachers, these teachers both plan to expand and enhance use of Ning VLCs in 2009-10.

Signs of Success

In closing, it’s important to stress that these positive experiences are the result of teachers’ careful planning and diligent monitoring of student activities while online. Without this level of care, problems could easily arise. Specifically, these educators set clear expectations for student behavior, provide strategies for dealing with problems online, and monitor all activity in the VLC.

Yes, this is a different, even more intense approach to daily work with students, but it’s hard to argue with success. When students are e-mailing teachers during the summer to find out when they can get going on next year’s assignments, you have to think that this could be the start of something good!

A former Catholic-school teacher, Susan Brooks-Young spent 23 years as a teacher and administrator. She now works as a professional consultant and author. Her latest book is
Making Technology Standards Work for You: A guide for School Administrators, Second Edition (ISTE, 2009). Susan invites your comments at

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