Developing our human capital: a mixed-method study of teacher use of online communities

This study examines teacher use of online communities and the effects they have on teaching and learning in the classroom. Research suggests that different types of communities positively influence organizational and individual learning for professional practice. The Internet has made available many types of online communities connecting an ever increasing number of individuals through more specialized interests. At the same time little is known about the depth of the individual experience in gaining knowledge and learning new skills in this online venue, and particularly what transfers to practice. The purpose of this study was to examine the use of online communities, through the perceptions of the user, as an important tool to improve and support professional practice. This study used two research themes to identify and describe this experience through the lens of the individual teacher experience. First, two existing models of organizational learning (Professional Learning Communities and Communities of Practice) were used to frame the value of communities to professional learning. Second, three theories of human development (self-efficacy, social, and human capital) were used to uniquely situate the individual teacher experience. Convenience samples of teachers in one large urban school district who use online communities were surveyed about their online community use (n=44). From this sample, a select group of teachers completed an open-ended semi structured electronic text based interview (n= 1 0), and of these teachers some participated in a semi structured open-ended one on one interview (n=7). Additionally (11) online community sites identified by study participants were observed. The mixed method approach allowed for the collection and analysis ofboth quantitative and qualitative data. Analysis of the data shows teachers do perceive that using online community contributes to practice. This was particularly evident for building human capital in the form of increased knowledge and skills, and building a more student centered practice. Self-efficacy and social capital were also increased as a result of using online communities. A model is provided to show the cycle of online community use and points of benefit to the individual user of online communities.