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A Virtual Water Cooler: The Ecology of an Online Community of Practice to Support Teachers’ Informal Learning


Students with visual impairments require accessible instructional materials and differentiated instruction to meet learning needs that are impacted by vision loss. Teachers of students with visual impairments (TVIs) are responsible for addressing the specialized needs of learners who are blind or visually impaired, which include instruction in the use of technology. This area of instruction is crucial among the other tasks of a TVI, because students who are proficient technology users can more independently access classroom content in a timely fashion and report improved postsecondary and employment outcomes. However, a majority of TVIs remain unprepared to use and teach technology. Although challenges in technology adoption were similarly identified and largely overcome by general education classroom teachers, several barriers remain unmitigated for TVIs.

This dissertation addresses and tackles this discrepancy. Among the many challenges found in TVIs’ work, the lack of an organizational space is discussed as a major factor that results in a dispersed practice. Based on this premise, the study reinforces teachers’ needs for regular, informal interactions that can support ongoing learning and advancement of basic skills learned in training. The study examines a group of TVIs who communicated in an online forum for one year following a face-to-face technology workshop. Findings of how this forum provided opportunities for learning support recommendations for the use of online communities to deliver ongoing and informal professional development. In carrying out research in this area of study that has been mostly anecdotal to date, recommendations for objective measures were also developed to more accurately evaluate TVI learning and implementation of technology.

The study adopts a mixed methods approach to analyze online informal TVI interactions around what is referred to as a virtual water cooler (VWC). The VWC concept was conceived to bridge theoretical constructs in several areas of the literature, including communities of practice, social networks, workplace organization, and computer supported collaborative learning. Initial analyses of online teacher interactions confirmed that this group of teachers indeed behaved as a community of practice according to Wenger’s (1998) dimensions—domain of interest, practice, and community. Observational data (messages posted on the Yahoo Group) were coded, and it was found that 68% of the communications exchanged between teachers were characteristic of a CoP. Social network analysis (SNA) noted the ebb and flow of participation and expertise among members of the group and contributed further evidence that this online forum was a CoP that emulated face-to-face informal teacher interactions. Lastly, interview data were analyzed to identify the mechanisms by which this VWC supported the development of an online CoP and its benefit to developing TVIs’ technology proficiency in using the iPad with students. The results included evidence of teacher learning, support and encouragement of colleagues’ technology use, along with changes in pedagogy related to how technology was implemented with students.

Regarding practical implications of this research, this VWC was found to overcome barriers of time and professional isolation in learning and using technology as reported in the literature. The VWC provided an avenue for on-demand professional development, moral support, and resources on a case-by-case basis that extended beyond the basic knowledge learned in the iPad workshop. Overall, the VWC served as an online community of practice that advanced knowledge gained in initial technology training, provided informal and ongoing professional development, and ultimately influenced several TVIs’ teaching practices.

Implications for research practices were also found in this study. Self-reports of technology use were found to be unreliable and recommendations support use of more objective measures to evaluate TVIs’ technology proficiency. Measures to determine the efficacy of technology training also support needs for longitudinal rather than immediate evaluation measures following a workshop. Based on TVIs’ implementation of the iPad and changes in their overall practice in the year following the initial training, membership to a CoP was found to be effective in supporting TVIs’ technology proficiency.

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