FULL TITLE: Investigating the Role of Voluntary Online Communities of Practice in Second/Foreign Language Education
This research study explores online professional learning by second/foreign language (also known as world language or communicative language) teachers through their participation in Internet-based (virtual) collaborative communities of practice (CoP). [Keywords: communities of practice, online professional learning, language education, Ukrainian]
The technologies of Web 2.0 have proven to be transformative in education, and more specifically in foreign language learning (Harrison & Thomas, 2009). They permit both teachers and students to create and participate in multi-platform collaborative learning environments. Such environments have been shown to promote active and creative language development (Bonwell & Eison, 1991; Wang & Vasquez, 2012). However, while the use of technology in language learning is well established, it has not been an easy upward trajectory due to the ongoing issue of teacher self-efficacy, both in the adoption of technology and the development of technological pedagogy (Hur & Brush, 2009; Kyonghye & You-Kyung, 2013; Murugaiah et al., 2010; Pino-Silva & Mayora, 2010; Wesely, 2013). This is particularly important, since a teacher’s sense of self-efficacy has been shown to influence both teachers’ actions and student outcomes (Beck, 2014; Chacón, 2005). For these reasons, the finding that teacher collaboration is an effective intervention in the area of teacher self-efficacy is promising and also bears importance for this study (Kyongye & You, 2013; Henson, 2001; Mann, 2005). Research results show that teacher collaboration contributes to improved teaching practice, increased self-efficacy and also collective efficacy, greater readiness to experiment with new skills, and greater commitment to continuous improvement (Kyongye & You, 2013; Henson, 2001; Mann, 2005).
Related research dating back to the 1990s in the field of TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) demonstrates that informal study groups support and enhance teachers’ professional development (Bailey, Curtis, & Nunan, 1998), since teachers’ knowledge and practice construction are not only individual, but also social (Nishino, 2012). As a result, the more recent spread of virtual online communities of practice (CoP), in which teachers can share their pedagogical knowledge (Rogers, 2000; Stevens, 2006), is viewed as an significant development, because of the increased opportunities for teacher interaction and learning unhampered by issues of time or place (Lord & Lomicka, 2008). Through virtual teachers’ networks, which Stoll and Louis (2007) call professional learning communities, educational professionals can learn new practices and generate new knowledge (Harris & Jones, 2010). For example, more contemporary research looking at Facebook groups indicates that individual language teachers are initiating reciprocal, highly-motivated language learning and teaching communities through diverse applications, such as Skype, iChat, and Google Talk (Eamer, 2013). This research also concludes that the existence, success, and increasing number of these self-organized CoP for language educators suggests that those teachers, who have resisted the use of synchronous computer assisted language learning in their programs, are likely soon to find themselves obsolete (Eamer, 2013).
The proposed research study will investigate the role of voluntary (also known as informal, spontaneous, self-¬organized, self¬-generated, non¬-mandated, or non-¬intentional) online CoP in second/foreign language education, in order to better understand the professional and pedagogical benefits of online communities of practice for teachers. More specifically, it will look at the opportunities for and challenges to professional learning within such communities and how these differ from school-based collaboration for professional development. Research to date on teacher involvement in voluntary online communities of practice for the purpose of professional learning is limited (Amin & Roberts, 2008), and for second/foreign language teachers there is less still (Fraga-Cañadas, 2011). This is due to the relative newness of informal virtual online communities as a professional learning option, their diversity, and in the second/foreign language field – their modest number. Nevertheless, owing to increasing interest in teacher collaboration for ongoing learning, the range of investigations about communities of practice is growing and their results are encouraging.
The social relationships among language teachers in voluntary online CoP will be investigated for evidence of participatory knowledge construction (Salomon & Perkins, 1998). The current research will look specifically at the experience of Ukrainian language teachers to determine what value, if any, there is in these communities as continuous professional support for language educators challenged by political, economic, geographic, demographic, or curricular conditions. The focus of this investigation will be teachers of Ukrainian language in Canada and Ukraine, for the purpose of comparing and contrasting their feelings about and experiences in voluntary online communities of practice for ongoing professional learning. The area of Ukrainian language education is interesting for several reasons. Since the fall of the U.S.S.R. and, more specifically, the declaration of independence by Ukraine in 1991, the three Western provinces of Canada (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta), which have a significant population of Ukrainian origin, have signed memorandums of agreement (MOU) for educational, cultural, and economic development with the government of Ukraine (Tavares, 2000). In addition, agreements are in place for Canadian students to participate in language testing for certification from Ukraine (Ivan Franko National University, 2015). In Ontario, with over 330,000 individuals of Ukrainian origin, supported by the Canadian Heritage Languages Institute Act (1991), the Ukrainian language is studied in twenty schools and programs (Duff, 2009; Ukrainian Canadian Congress National School Council, 2012). Also, in November 2014 the Canadian Bureau for International Education signed a ground-breaking MOU for cooperation with the Union of Rectors of Higher Educational Institutions of Ukraine (Bezo & Dalkie, 2014, November 21).
However, although Ukraine has undergone a cultural-educational renaissance during the years since its declaration of independence, this has been followed by more recent restriction of and disruptions to traditional Ukrainian language education under former President Yanukovych, exacerbated by the even more recent annexation by Russia of the Crimea and its military invasion of eastern Ukraine. As a result, teachers in Ukraine are turning increasingly to digital tools and environments for educational support unconstrained by issues of time, place, circumstance, or cost, in an effort to establish meaningful professional collaboration with colleagues locally, across the country, and around the world (Kutsyurba, 2013).
The current study will gain a better understanding of the role of voluntary online communities of practice for second/foreign language educators, as regards both teacher and student learning, by addressing the following questions:
• What factors contribute to valuable professional learning experiences for second/foreign language teachers engaged in voluntary online CoP?
• What are the challenges faced by second/foreign language teachers to participating in voluntary online CoP for the purposes of professional learning?
• In what ways might voluntary online teacher CoP provide emotional support and thereby improve second/foreign language teacher self-esteem?
• How could the experiences in voluntary online CoP contribute to improved language teacher technological self-efficacy?
• How do second/foreign language teachers involved in voluntary online CoP create pedagogical approaches which help them to integrate technology use into their own teaching?
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