Online Learning Communities of Practice

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) will publish in the next few months a report on “Online Learning Communities of Practice.” I’ve been asked as a member of the Emerging Technologies committee to share what I know or what I can discover on this topic.

Here in Pittsburgh there are several projects that bring together students from different districts to share information or to collaborate on joint projects. Two of the projects, the Gigapan Project and Classroom Salon, reside at Carnegie Mellon University. The Allegheny intermediate Unit (AIU) coordinates AlleghenyCONNECT, another student-centered project bring communities of learners together .

The Gigapan project connects students and educators from around the world to have a dialog around images captured through a robotic technology developed at Carnegie Mellon for the Mars Rover mission.

According to the Gigapan web site: The GigaPan Youth Exchange project combines cultural inquiry, NASA imaging technology, and social media to let secondary-school students experience something of the life of their peers around the world. Using the GigaPan robotic camera and image exploration platform, the group of students are growing into a community of technologically aware young people who are knowledgeable about their own environment and understand and care about the problems their contemporaries face.

Gigapan image of Pittsburgh

The Gigapan camera captures images that are stitched together to create a panorama that allows students to zoom in or zoom out to discover details that they normally would not discern. Several schools in the Pittsburgh region have joined this global initiative. South Fayette School District has tapped into this technology to have conversations with schools in French-speaking regions. The Propel Schools have connected with other urban schools to have conversations about similar and different environments.

The Classroom Salon project uses documents for shared conversations. According to the web site: “… [Classroom Salon]


Last year fifth grade students in the Quaker Valley School District and the South Fayette School District discussed mathematical problem solving. Students went online to have a conversation on how they would solve a problem. This year students in an A.P. English class at Fox Chapel Area High School are using Classroom Salon to analyze works of literature and to work as peer reviewers on student research papers. Classroom Salon allows the teacher, Jane Mather, to flip the conversation. The students go online to provide their insights and then they meet in real-time to clarify their answers or insights. According to Jane Mather, “The text is on stage. We’re all watching the same show.” Students particularly like to read their colleagues’s responses before the class discussion to better form their own opinions about the text.

The AlleghenyCONNECT project taps into the power of video-conferencing to create online communities. Many of the virtual field trips are one-time affairs, but there has been an ongoing conversation with several global partners led by Hampton High School. This year the focus was on ““Global Water Matters.” For the past two years Hampton has worked with several local high schools and international Schools in Islamabad, Pakistan and Tbilisi, Georgia. The relationship with Tbilisi spawned a trip by educators to visit their counter-parts truly building a global community of practice.

According to Tim Devin, the project manager for the AlleghenyConnect project,

It has taken a few years for the classroom teachers to embrace the new distance learning capability provided through AlleghenyCONNECT.  In the first semester of the 2011-2012 school year we had ten unique student experiences hosted at Allegheny County school buildings that engaged students in fifty schools across the United States and in six other countries. Our local students had dialog on a number of different topics including “water matters”, “national education systems”,  and “the holocaust”  with students in Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia, Islamabad, Northern Ireland, Canada, Tanzania, and Greece. Now the teachers and the students are beginning to share their own unique ideas and develop their own sharing opportunities.

In today’s world more and more opportunities will develop for communities of practice. It’s no longer just one school or one district. Now the world is the playground for new opportunities for collaboration and communication.