The Role of Online Communities of Practice in Promoting Sociotechnical Capital Among Science Teachers

Published in: Educational Technology Research and Development [Epub September 2017]. doi: 10.1007/s11423-017-9541-2

Posted on on October 31, 2017

by Rita T. Karam, Susan G. Straus, Albert Byers, Courtney Ann Kase, Matthew Cefalu

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Research Questions

  1. How often do teachers participate in collaborative activities in virtual communities of practice (CoPs), and how does participation vary over time?
  2. What factors lead participants to engage in collaborative activities in virtual CoPs?
  3. Does participation in collaborative activities in virtual CoPs predict the generation of sociotechnical capital (i.e., climate, collective identity, commitment to the group, and situated knowledge)?
  4. Do participation and sociotechnical capital predict virtual CoP participants' job outcomes (i.e., self-efficacy for science teaching and science teaching practices)?

This study explores the diffusion of Web 2.0 technologies among science educators and the ways that these technologies are used to build teacher professional communities of practice (CoP) in life sciences and physical sciences. We used surveys and web analytics collected over a 21-month period to examine factors that motivate teachers to collaborate in these CoPs and the extent to which collaborative participation contributes to the development of sociotechnical capital and job outcomes, such as instructional practices and self-efficacy for science instruction. Results showed that only the lack of co-located peers at teachers' schools predicted CoP participation. Participation did not predict job outcomes, but it did predict some aspects of sociotechnical capital, such as a cohesive climate and situated knowledge. In addition, sociotechnical capital was associated with job outcomes, including use of inquiry-based instruction, use of inquiry-based classroom activities and teacher self-efficacy.

The lack of effect of most of the antecedent variables in predicting participation and the relatively minor role of participation in contributing to sociotechnical capital and job outcomes may be explained by floor effects on participation due to infrequent and ephemeral engagement of CoP members. Although participation rates were generally low, the positive association of participation with sociotechnical capital as well as generally favorable ratings of sociotechnical constructs suggest that online CoPs may have value for distributed science educators. Future research should address whether persistent participation by individuals is needed to build and sustain sociotechnical capital in online CoPs and to enhance development of participants' teaching attitudes/practices.

Key Findings

Most study participants had low levels of collaborative activity in the CoPs studied.

  • A large percentage of survey participants (about 80% in life sciences and physical sciences) had no collaborative activity in the one-year time period.
  • Among those who did collaborate, the rates of participation were low, with many collaborating only one time.

COP participation was fleeting.

Although teachers were invited to participate in the study based on having had some past activity in the Learning Center in the nine months prior to the survey, 40% of the survey respondents had no such activity, individual or collaborative, during the study period.

Collaborative participation had a small to medium effect and was positively associated with sociotechnical capital.

In both the life sciences and physical sciences, teachers who participated in collaborative activities four or more times reported the development of a more positive climate, a greater degree of situated knowledge, and stronger group identity and commitment.

Collaborative participation was not associated with job outcomes.

Sociotechnical capital was associated with job outcomes, although in varied ways within each CoP and the effects were small.

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