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					                                Individual Work for Ikarus




Teachers as Learners in Online Learning
 Communities: Impacts and Reflections




             Chiu, Shu-chuan

             Taipei, Taiwan



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I.        Introduction
         With the ubiquity and increasing importance of Information and Communications Technology

(ICT) in our daily life, educational systems also direct their reforms to integrating ICT into teaching and

learning. It has been acknowledged that traditional literacy only is insufficient for our learners. If

schools have to bear the responsibility to prepare students for the future working skills, ICT, an

indispensable medium diffusing knowledge, should be infused into our curricula cleverly. And most of

all, it should be used appropriately to enhance students‘ critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

         This sounds pretty a challenge for most teachers, whose pre-service training programs failed to

prepare them for the digital era. If teachers have strong beliefs in traditional ways of delivering

knowledge to their learners, using ICT is regarded an extra burden. As a result, it is not uncommon to

find resistance to technology in educational setting. However, a shift from teacher-centered to

learner-centered paradigm has been emerging ever since technology was introduced to the teaching

professional. Faced with the trendy shift role from traditional teachers to facilitators, highly

self-regulation modern teachers, novice or experienced, have had the desire for pursuing more

knowledge not only within their own disciplines but also instructional theories involving technology to

deliver their teaching more effectively and efficiently.

         While there are many opportunities for teachers to learn ICT, this article is meant to provide

alternative choices of professional development for effective technology use for those teachers who are

interested in strengthening their own ICT competencies and further integrating the skills into teaching.

The author is going to share her personal experiences of taking part in learning activities of several

online learning programs. Among them, one particular learning community is presented as an example,

and impacts and reflections of online learning are shared in the end.


II.       Teachers as ICT Learners

A.        The Needs for Teachers to Learn ICT

      According to the white paper released by Bertelsmann Foundation and AOL Time Warner

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Foundation for 21st Century Literacy Summit (Bertelsmann Foundation, 2002), four important

components are required for teachers, students and employees in face of the new century: 1)

Technology Literacy, 2) Information Literacy, 3) Media Literacy and 4) Social Competence and

Responsibility. As the paper points out, while information and knowledge matter more than ever, it is

necessary for us to extend our traditional literacy and to enhance our knowledge and critical thinking

skills.


     Apparently, today, teachers all over the world face the same challenges from the education reform as

well as the need to use technology. Traditional approaches of delivering knowledge have long been

criticized for they only spoon feed the learners and are in lack of inspiring and motivating life-long

learning. New teaching paradigms evolve and revolve along with the advancement of technology and so

education reform and technology infusion have become inseparable. For instance, to engage learners

more fully and deeply, inquiry-driven projects with the help of technology, a new teaching model,

proves to be more powerful than traditional, teacher-centered, curriculum-directed methods.


     But how can teachers model what we ourselves haven‘t learned? How can we get our students

perform tasks that will require deft use of technology while we are still novices when it comes to

technology use? And how about teaching our students to make meaning from immense sources of data

from the Internet, craft communications into convincing forms according to audience, and know how to

conduct ―just-in-time‖ research in a high-speed, global, digital environment? The answer, as Serim

(1996) suggested: ―by experiencing for ourselves that which we desire for our students.‖ This indicates

the needs for us teachers to transform ourselves into learners. However, the learning context for our

professional growth should enable us to transfer the experiences to our teaching. Can traditional

professional training programs on ICT come to our rescue?


B.        Traditional In-service ICT Training Programs


     Taiwan, like many other parts of the world, reckons the importance and power of ICT and has

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invested a lot, mostly in the infrastructure and some in teacher training programs on ICT. It is not

difficult for teachers to find in-service and face-to-face ICT workshops, where they learn computer

skills, ranging from basic Word processing, PowerPoint presentation, e-mail, Internet searching to more

complicated techniques such as web page creation or multimedia (image/audio/video). Nevertheless,

traditional professional development has been criticized as being fragmented, unrelated to classroom

practice and lacking in the focus and follow-up that teachers require (Bull et al. 1994, Corcoran 1995).

While these ICT workshops, designed and delivered by ICT coordinators or computer teachers, may

have a place in skill development, they seldom teach teachers how to really apply those skills to their

disciplines. When teachers walk ―out‖ of those ICT seminars, they find ―learning computer skills‖ is

one thing, ―using those skills in class‖ is totally another. It proves that ―teachers have not always

benefited from the isolated ‗one hit‘ nature of the training workshop stile in-service‖ (Stuckey, 1999).


    The implications for effective teacher development for the use of ICTs in classrooms can be

summed up using the words from the document released by Commonwealth of Australia (2001) Making

Better Connections: Models of Teacher Professional Development for Integration of Information and

Communication Technology into Classroom Practice:


   ―...effective teacher development in regards to the use of ICTs in classrooms requires systemic and

   institutional attention to the interconnectedness of specific strategies…to the broader issues of

   school reform (professional development embedded in teacher daily work), teacher‘s sense of

   professionalism (teachers as learners/researchers connected to a community, ongoing, based in daily

   work, connected to student outcomes) and a clear focus on student learning outcome‖ (p 22).


    In other words, there is a much deeper connotation underlying teacher professional development for

the ICT use than just acquiring technical or hands-on skills. Teachers are expected to become learners or

even researchers through effective professional development and feel more competent and confidence

in terms of employing emerging technologies in their daily work. The existing models such as


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sit-and-get training sessions, one-time-only workshops, conferences, etc., which only offer ―mechanical

use‖ of curriculum and technology, prove to be inadequate to meet the challenge to upgrading the skills.

Then, what else can help teachers to be more productive use of ICT in the classroom?


C.        Online Professional Development for Effective Technology Use


     Actually, for teachers to learn together in coherent and sustained ways, professional development

structures can take such forms as teacher networks and collaborative, university-school partnerships,

action research groups, or teacher study groups. Over the past ten years, the scale of professional

development is changing under the influence of Information and Communications Technology. Online

Professional Development (OPD) has emerged and infused a new meaning to professional development.

In World Wide Web, we can find a lot of researches or documents regarding this field in the recent years.

For instance, EdTech Leaders Online (www.edtechleaders.org/who/research.html) has a lot of articles

on the topic of online professional development. University of Delaware also dedicates a portion of its

website (http://www.oet.udel.edu/martec/research.html) to numerous research papers discussing OPD.

There, Grant (1996) articulates the new definition of professional development in a technological age as

follow:


     ―Professional development…goes beyond the term ‗training‘ with its implications of learning skills,

     and encompasses a definition that includes formal and informal means of helping teachers not only

     learn new skills, but also develop new insights into pedagogy and their own practice, and explore

     new or advanced understandings of content and resources.‖ (p. 1).

     There are successful examples of designing and implementing online professional development in

such developed countries as the United States. For example, Education Development Center (EDC:

http://main.edc.org/) hosts a center for professional education (http://www2.edc.org/COPE/index.htm),

which has been organizing different educational projects. One of the projects, EdTeach Leaders Online

Program (http://www.edtechleaders.org/), has offered professional workshops on technology integration


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for K-12 schoolteachers since 1997. The goals of these online workshops for professional development

are well-illustrated by a group of researchers of the online workshops held by EDC (Kleiman, et al.,

2000, p. 1):

        1) To help teachers learn to use technology to enhance teaching and learning,

        2) To create an online community of learners in which participants share information and learn

               from each other.

        3) To closely link each workshop‘s activities with its participants‘ ongoing professional

               practice.

        4) To address specific practical needs articulated by the audience for a workshop topic, while

               building upon relevant theory and research.

        5) To provide information and resources that will be of continued value to participants in their

               professional practices.


    The goals above also well explain why we move professional development online. In Taiwan,

teachers who enjoy the high speed and convenience of Internet access should take advantage of the web

for OPD. Online professional development helps move beyond the prevalent training paradigm,

constructing professional development in such ways as ―deepen the discussion, open up the debates,

and enrich the array of possibility for action‖ (Little, 1993, p. 148). Online professional communities of

technology use, in particular, provide learning environments for educators to study learning theories

underlying teaching approaches of integrating ICT into teaching, to explore the potentials of ICT and to

share innovative experiments of how they diffuse ICT in the classroom teaching.


III.    Experiences of Online Learning Communities for Professional
        Development

    Kleiman et al. (2000) categorize different types of OPD into five major models: broadcast

approaches, self-paced independent study courses, college lecture course models, tutorial models


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and learning community models (see table 1).


Broadcast Approaches                     The interaction is primarily one-way—between the

                                         teacher and the class.

Self paced, Independent Study Courses These programs mainly encourage the learners to interact

                                         with the content rather than with the instructor.

College Lecture Course Models            They are a combination of the previous two models, with

                                         more but limited means of communication among

                                         learners.

Tutorial Models                          They have more active and ongoing interactions between

                                         each student and the instructor.

Learning Community Models                Communities put most emphasis on interactions among

                                         all the participants, allow community members to

                                         communicate through both synchronous and

                                         asynchronous channels.


                    Table 1: Five OPD Models (organized by the author of this article)



    Among those models, they believe that the learning community approach ―is most appropriate

for providing learning opportunities for teachers and administrators in which the goal is both to

inform and to help them improve their professional practice (p. 8).‖ The author has had some

experiences of taking part in international online professional development programs. And she did

benefit most from the community model in online professional program. The following table

presents brief introduction of some of her online learning experiences.


Edward‘s Internet Workshops      The website offers free workshops for web developers and language

                                 teachers on different topic related to ICT, instructional tools and



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                          software. They are delivered in self-paced, independent study

                          approaches which only involve interaction between learners and the

                          content.

i*EARN (International     i*EARN offers several professional development programs a couple
Education and Resource
Network)                  of times each year. These subject-specific courses, such as creative

                          arts, creative writing/language arts, social studies or ESL/EFS, are

                          not free but scholarships are possible. The courses involve using the

                          Internet and networking. The delivery way is like the tutorial model.

                          Interactions and communications among participants and courses

                          tutors are expected.

EVonline Sessions 2003    Electronic Village (EV) Online Sessions from TESOL

                          (www.tesol.org) are held annually prior to each TESOL Conference.

                          The free online courses presented by EVonline sessions in 2003

                          include ―Reading Online,‖ ―Basic and Intermediate Workshops for

                          Using the Internet in Class,‖ ―Creating an Online Magazine to

                          Publish Student Writing,‖ etc., all inviting participants to get

                          practical hands-on experiences of integrating ICT in English

                          teaching. In one of the courses, the participants even formed a

                          learning community even after the course was over. (See Webheads

                          in Action)

Webheads in Action:       Webheads in Action was an online community formed about one and

Communities of Practice   half years ago by a group of teachers and professionals who

                          participated in one of the TESOL EV Online 2002: ―Communities

                          Formation Online and Its Role in Language Learning.‖ Even though

                          the course was over, the community strives, where members find the

                          sense of belonging and exchange professional and personal support

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                                 through asynchronous message board and two synchronous chats

                                 every week. In 2003 community members organized another course

                                 for EV online sessions, ―Communities of Practice Online: reflection

                                 through experience and experiment with the Webheads community of

                                 language learners and practitioners.‖ Now, anyone who is

                                 interested in interacting online is welcome to join this established

                                 community of ESL learners and facilitators to learn more about how

                                 to make most of ICT.

Ikarus: Teaching and Learning Ikarus is a 3-month online course, focusing on how to teach and

in Virtual Learning              learn in virtual learning environment. It really engages its

Environment                      participants in active participation with its intense group tasks and

                                 weekly quizzes. It is the first virtual learning environment that

                                 requires the author to devote a lot of efforts and time, to work with

                                 other collaboratively, either synchronously in chat rooms or

                                 asynchronously in forums. Therefore, she would like to articulate on

                                 Ikarus as an example and model to show how teachers can benefit

                                 from online professional development.



IV. Application of Learning Communities with Technology: Take Ikarus
       for Example
     Ikarus is a Europe-based online course for professional development. The author of this article took

part in the semester-long course by chance, but surprisingly benefited a lot from the process. From this

experience, she saw the value of using technology to add authenticity to teacher learning and the

dynamics of collaborative group learning.



A.       Course Introduction


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   The main organizer of this online seminar is Saarland University, Germany, which is in

collaboration with several other institutes: Stockholm University (SU) and Royal Institute of

Technology (KTH), Sweden; Center of Future Studies, Austria; Florida Education Center, Valencia,

Spain and Foundation for Research and Technology – Hellas.

   The Ikarus session in 2003, with the title of ―Teaching an Learning in Virtual Learning

Environments,‖ is designed for students and professionals throughout the world, who are interested in

working and discussing the subject of teaching and studying in virtual learning environments (VLEs).

This year, more than 1,700 people applied for the course and about 250 applicants were accepted. The

diverse backgrounds of the participants—students, teachers, trainers, professors, instructional designers,

technical professionals from all over the world—fill the course with unexpected vitality and inspire

interesting conversations as well as serious debates over a variety of educational and instructional issues.

During the course, participants can acquire the necessary knowledge and abilities to work with

Internet-based virtual learning environments. This course requires active participation, which consists

primarily of collaborative work in groups. Of course, individual work and reflection are expected and

required. Generally speaking, communication and interactions play a major role in this working

environment. Teacher learners discuss important issues related to the seminar topic in

disciplinary-oriented and interdisciplinary groups. After the three-month course program, participants

are expected:

          to find, analyze and to evaluate existing environments.

          to find and work with relevant literature from various disciplines.

          to explore and discuss potentials and problems connected to VLEs.

          to view the topic from different perspectives (legal, pedagogical, technical and economical).

          to discuss relevant issues with other students and experts in disciplinary and interdisciplinary

           groups. (Ikarus, 2003)




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B.        Tasks of the courses are briefly introduced as following:
     Week Date                 Study group                           Group work

     1      03/03 – 03/09      Introduction

     2      03/10 – 03/30      Research Phase Individual work

     3                                                                                Quiz 1

     4                                                                                Quiz 2

     5      03/31 – 04/27      Evaluation                            Group work 1 Quiz 3
     6                                                                                Quiz 4

     7                                                                                Quiz 5

     8                                                                                Quiz 6

     9      04/28 – 05/11      Reflection                                             Quiz 7

     10                                                                               Quiz 8

     11     05/12 – 05/30      Design                                Group work 2 Quiz 9
     12                                                                               Quiz 10
     13                                                                               Evaluation

                               Table 2: Ikarus Course Schedule (Ikarus)


    Introduction Phase: Not evaluated, this phase offers the possibility to access and test the learning

     environment. It is also a period in which participants socialize with one another.

    Research Phase: In this phase, each participant is assigned to a study group based on their

     disciplines with a purpose to exchange information and to discuss issues related to the work field

     they have chosen.

    Evaluation Phase: This phase starts off the first group work. Participants are divided into

     interdisciplinary groups of 5-7 people. The mission of the group work is to evaluate two Virtual

     Learning Environments. At the end of the phases, groups are required to hand in written results of


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       the collaborative group work in HTML.

      Reflection Phase: After the four-week group work, members return to their own original study

       groups to share their previous learning experiences and reflect on the process of the collaborative

       group work.

      Design Phase: The course ends with another project work on the design of an online course from a

       technical, pedagogical, legal and economical point of view.

      Individual Work: Participants are required to summit research paper no more than 5,000 words on

       a topic of their own choice. The topic must be related to their discipline (for the author, it is

       pedagogy.) The proposed topic has to be approved by the committee before individuals start to

       work on this paper.

      Questionnaire and quizzes: The weekly quizzes are meant to enhance learners‘ Internet searching

       skills. The test results are taken and updated each time a quiz is fulfilled. Additionally, The

       participants will be asked to give a written evaluation at the end of the course.



C.        The Characteristics of Ikarus in a Learner’s View

      Wenger (2002) defines a community of practice ―a group of people who share an interest in

something and come together to develop knowledge to set up a practice around the topic.‖ He further

articulates three important elements in the definition: 1) community members share the common

domain, 2) they come interacting and building relationships, 3) most of all, they are learning together

and practicing the things that interest them.

     The large number of participants and the large scale of the course design somehow makes it difficult

for Ikarus to live up to the expectation of every participant; however, from the author‘s point of view, it

has successfully brought people together to build up the sense of community, to work together and to

practice things that interest them. The characteristics of this online course include:

     1. Real purpose and audience along with elaborate communication

     Undoubtedly with participants and guests from all over the world, there are real purpose and

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audience in this web-based course. The participation mainly takes the form of asynchronous forums and

the correspondences reflect genuine exchanges of opinions and comments. Besides, the virtual learning

environment of Ikarus has the feature of synchronous chats, which facilitates real-time communications.

Through extensive and elaborate communication, participants share what they know and how they think

and even teach each other. Either forum messages or chat logs are easily accessible. A special feature is

worth mentioning: a group library, built in each group forum, is able to collect all the attached files in

the messages automatically and arrange the files in a chronicle order. This function is not only

user-friendly but also a proof to show the process of group collaboration.

   2. Integration of content, skills and levels of thinking

   It is also true that during the learning process, participants build upon prior knowledge to integrate

content knowledge and research skills into learning. In this learning community, people really search

for in-depth understanding through systematic research and inquiry by using a variety of sources.

Instead of considering the moderators the sole source of knowledge or information, most of the

community members are willing to make contributions and to learn from each other. It seems to be a

common and nice practice that moderators and participants form an equal-level learning partnership in

online learning environment. Contrary to the traditional classroom setting, here in Ikarus, learning takes

place almost every where and from different directions, even a café in this virtual campus an ideal place

to have knowledgeable debates. The levels of thinking are not confined since there is no standardized

format or answer to the discussion questions or debates.

   3. Flexibility in content, strategies, products and time

   Flexibility marks one of the characteristics of this online learning environment. First of all, time

allotment is flexible for different students. Even though there is a deadline for each task, participants

can choose the most suitable time for them to log in the course, to post and to respond to the messages.

Secondly, the performance assessment stresses the importance of the learning process rather than the

final product only. The assessment tasks in each stage allow participants to choose the content and

strategies on their own.

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     4. Collaborative learning process

  One of the special qualities that make Ikarus so impressive is the authentic collaboration within a

group. Through collaborative learning, group members go through a path filled with brainstorming,

cooperation, arguments, negotiation, and compromises. To complete their task, they have to take care of

many issues such as group formation and morale, emerging leadership, timetable arrangement, member

responsibilities, and so forth. Furthermore, online collaborative tools are introduced and employed,

which is beneficial for learners who are pursuing effective technology use in teaching and learning.

     5. Self- reflection and peer-reflective feedback

     Ikarus learning process emphasizes reflection, self- and peer-evaluation, which are rarely seen in a

traditional and standardized classroom. Formative reflections and feedbacks are precious in authentic

learning because they provide possibilities for further improvement. During the process, they also help

shape self-regulation and motivate extensive explorations and experiments. In Ikarus, there are great

people from different fields and disciplines, whose insightful reflections become valuable sources for

peer scaffolding.



V.        Impacts and Reflections

     When teachers become learners in online learning communities, what kind of impact do they

receive? The goal of a learning community is to ―advance the collective knowledge and in that way

supports the growth of individual knowledge‖ (Scardanalia & Mereiter, 1994). When teachers form a

learning community, they bring into their professional expertise and knowledge. When they engage in

conversations with other members, the social perspective plays a vital part in the community. Learning

is not just about content but about sharing and practice, just as what Jaffee (2003) puts, ―…learning

requires not just the passive reception of content but also an active process of engagement, application,

syntheses and authentic understanding.‖ Learning then proves to be fundamentally experiential and

fundamentally social (Wenger, 2002; Gilroy, 2001), rather than self-exploring anymore.



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    Wenger‘s assertion differentiates learning communities from traditional professional development

by highlighting the importance of a holistic, interactive participation from the members involved.

Kleiman et al. (2000) give a more comprehensive list of the benefits of online learning communities:

they are convenient, cost effective and provide not only multiple modes for learning but also ongoing

connections to participants‘ practice. In addition to engaging educators in using new technologies, they

provide chances for interactions with colleagues and mentors not available locally. And the open social

dynamic encourage reflective discussions.


    Taken all together, online learning communities accommodate a wider range of information

exchanges, experience sharing and technology use. The influence is profound, either in terms of

pedagogy, technology or language.

    Pedagogically speaking, the learning can be compared to a process of self-reexamining

and –rediscovery of participants. The learning context mirrors their teaching environment and arouses

the awakening of professional consciousness. How teachers learn in a collaborative and sharing

community exactly reflects how we expect our students to learn in the classroom. Though face-to-face

instruction is different from virtual learning in many aspects, it is the learning theories underlying

online learning that bring new meaning to classroom practices.

    Viewed from technological perspective, online learning certainly requires effective use of

technology in the authentic setting. Learning how to integrate ICT into teaching no long remains

fragmented or isolated. Instead, through the online courses, especially in the community form of

learning for ICT-integrated skills, the learners learn the applications of new web-based tools for

communication and instructions through using them personally.

    Concerning language proficiency, where else could be more perfect for non-native English

learners or teachers to sharpen their language skills in a virtual learning community where the diverse

backgrounds of participants are demanded to have intensive inputs and interactive communication in

the universal language—English? Learners benefit more if they participate more actively and view


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postings and chatting (virtual text/voice meetings) as the opportunity to practice their English.

    In Taiwan, there ARE some websites designed for teacher professional development, such as

EduCities (http://www.educities.edu.tw/), K12 Digital School (http://ds.k12.edu.tw/), but little focus is

put on OPD for technology use. Smart Creative Teacher (http://sctnet.edu.tw/) does employ the concept

of community learning, but for English teachers, the World Wide Web provides a channel to global

connection. Since not every program features community and collaboration learning on the web, a

process of exploration and experiment is encouraged. Even so, when choosing online courses or

communities, teachers can refer to Driscoll‘s list of four broad principles that provide a framework for

teachers to think about how technology can support their instruction: 1) learning occurs in context, 2)

learning is active, 3) learning is social and 4) learning is reflective (Driscoall, 2002).

    For local teachers who are novice ICT users, a blended model of professional development with a

mixture of online communications and face-to-face meetings seems to be more practical and less

threatening. The model can start small, within a school, for example, and then expand to a regional

community. The community can be subject-based or interdisciplinary, depending on the needs of the

community members. This community of practice could follow the model of ―Webheads in Actions,‖

where community members, experts or novices, teaching and sharing their ICT-integrated experiences.

This model can work as a transitional stage before moving teachers up to pure online learning

communities. The ultimate goal of online learning communities outlined in this article is to support

professional development for technology use, so online learning through using technology on a regular

basis is still a preferred model.

    For a majority of teachers who are not good at English, we rely on the government to combine

difference sources together, official or private teacher training organizations, universities, educational

research centers, etc, to provide free training courses like Ikarus. Right now, National Sun Yat-sen

University offers distance courses in their cyber university (http://www.nsysu.edu.tw/dl/). It would be

great if it can design more courses for teacher professional growth on ICT on the subject basis. Ikarus

will be a good example of online courses of this sort and most of all, the collaborative community in the

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course should play a vital part of the course. Rewarding systems for participation should be taken into

account. For example, teachers will be more motivated if they are accredited by enrolling in the courses.



VI.      Conclusions

      There is no denying that more and more educators are catching on to the trend of teachers as

learners, especially with the assertion and implementation of educational reforms. However, in Taiwan,

OPD with the learning community model is a field which still receives little attention. Most of the

funding and efforts are devoted to integrating ICT into teaching in terms of heavy investment in

infrastructure—hardware such as computer and its periphery facility and a small portion on teacher

training courses. While most of the workshops offer only hands-on skills without ongoing support,

teachers often feel the way of learning ICT in teaching isolated and fragmented. A systemic and

systematical dimension of teacher professional development of technology use is still a long way to go.

Given a high Internet access rate from both home and workplace, it is really a pity that educators or

schools lose sight of the potential advantages of online professional development. We hope through the

experiences shared as well as the models presented above, the potential advantages of online learning

communities can be valued by individual teachers who are enthusiastic about pursuing further and

broader version of professional and personal growth. It would be even more ideal that government-led

and-sponsored OPD can be implemented to provide teachers with systemic, quality in-service training

and on-going support.




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         Individual Work for Ikarus




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