Professional Online Communities
What can professional online communities contribute to learning, networking, and capacity building? How do we know that our online resources have impact on the field? And what insights are being gleaned from work so far of six NSF-funded professional development web sites? Those were among the questions explored during the May 2008 meeting of a CAISE Inquiry Group on Assessing Impacts of Informal Science Education (ISE) Professional Online Communities. UPCLOSE, the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments, meeting organizer and host, has now documented the discussions in a rich website complete with slide presentations and interviews, available here.
Among the group's findings:
- Virtual means of sharing and extending knowledge are essential to efforts to build connections across the ISE field.
- The broad and diverse ISE community will be best served by having our services and assets find them through sub-community circulations, rather than expecting them to find us and become members of "our" world.
- Websites (or more accurately web services and infrastructure) need to offer well-designed affordances for personalization and participation and enable the broad circulation of customizable information.
- Understanding existing community needs and practices is essential before we develop tools to support professional development.
The Inquiry Group also considered how to evaluate successful professional online learning communities, especially those serving multidisciplinary ISE communities, including the applicability of the NSF Framework for Evaluating Impacts of ISE Projects. The Framework, the group concluded, is strong for measuring changes in knowledge or "know-what" aspects of individual learner impacts, but less helpful when it comes to considering, at both the individual and community level, the vital "know-who" social aspects of professional development and "know-how" growth in professional practice which characterize some the most important potential impacts of online communities.