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Middleweb: A Dynamic Internet-Based Professional Learning Community

Carolyn Faulkner-Beitzel, Marsha Ratzel, John Norton, Bill Ivey, Beverly Maddox

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The MiddleWeb virtual professional community emerged in the year 2000 as an outgrowth of MiddleWeb, a large website dedicated to middle grades reform. It is supported by grants from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. The community thrives through a collection of interrelated email listservs, which are moderated by MiddleWeb editor John Norton and volunteers from
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among the community’s 600 members. The authors believe MiddleWeb demonstrates the potential of an Internet-based professional learning community to support personal growth, professional development and school improvement. They also argue that such a community’s listserv-based environment removes many traditional barriers to true professional communication, including time constraints, and reduces the professional isolation that so often stifles teacher development. The listserv format differentiates professional development since it allows for follow-up and reconsideration of topics according to individual members' needs, something a single session in-service by its very nature does not provide. The authors acknowledge that many listserv groups fail to develop into true virtual professional communities and identify six conditions they believe are necessary prerequisites to such development.

Odd Ducks...Birds of a Feather...MiddleWebbers.... Any of these phrases might describe our Internet virtual community — a gathering point in cyberspace for over 600 educators who hold common beliefs that go well beyond our mutual commitment to provide efficient and effective classroom instruction. In little more than three years’ time, the MiddleWeb listserv community has developed its own shared culture, populated by educators who embody the core values and practices necessary to teach and influence young minds.

“The MiddleWeb listserv continues to be a resource that helps me to be reflective about my thoughts and practices.” - Chris Toy, Principal, Freeport Middle School, Freeport, Maine

“The professional ‘cyber-community’ supported by MiddleWeb helped me find the courage to return to teaching after a difficult and ultimately unsuccessful first year. The educators who make up our wide-flung community provided the support, concrete help, mentoring and cheering section I needed to re-enter the classroom.” - Joanne Payling, 2nd Year Teacher, California

Middle Web LogoOur group of middle school educators has grown into a tribe of teacher-learners ambitious to improve their craft. Each of our 600 members found their way to the MiddleWeb website. Friends referred some; others say they were surfing the Web, searching for a professional network they couldn’t quite define. One way or another, they discovered the listserv’s archived conversations and recognized that “These are my people.”

The Internet offers many opportunities to communicate with individuals who share a common interest – chatboards, newsgroups, small email rings, and email listservs. In the education field alone, there are hundreds of listserv options run by diverse groups including university centers, education associations and content-area groups. Some smaller lists are labors of love, supported through the volunteer effort of one or more teachers. While we acknowledge email listservs may not be for everyone - the daily influx of email and the constant stimulation of fresh points of view overwhelm some visitors and they quickly depart. But, for those who can adjust to the continuous flow of ideas, an email listserv offers a greater opportunity to join in discussions with other professionals in ways that were never possible before the emergence of the Internet.

Sustained conversation around professional theory and practice is scarce in most schools, hindered by institutional and time constraints. Listservs remove many of those structural barriers to professional communication. Since listservs are “asynchronous,” they breach the time barrier that so often stifles communication among teachers in so-called “real time.” As noted in the school reform work of Michael Fullan, removing this time barrier is key to creating and sustaining lasting educational improvement (Sparks, D., 2003). Free to communicate as their own schedules allow, teachers who participate in listservs can establish professional connections as quickly as they can type. Listservs can remove other barriers as well, including the barriers that often arise through a natural human tendency to categorize and stereotype. In a virtual community, no one is tall or short, bright-eyed or wrinkled, black or white or brown. People are judged by the insights they bring to the table (or, in this case, the computer monitor).

Despite these advantages (and all of the listserv choices available on the Internet), it has been our joint experience that few listserv groups evolve into true professional communities. MiddleWeb, and perhaps a few dozen others, are the exception, not the rule. Based on feedback from our members, most of whom have participated on several other Internet listservs, we have identified several conditions that seem to be necessary prerequisites to the establishment of a virtual professional community:

  1. A shared affinity (in our case, middle grades education)
  2. A moderator or revolving group of moderators who are skillful at maintaining the momentum of the conversation(s), able to quickly solve technical problems and head off disputes, and attentive in ways that assure that everyone who participates feels their opinions are valued and their questions are addressed
  3. A mission statement that defines the boundaries of the listserv’s conversation
  4. A code of behavior that is gently but firmly enforced by the moderators
  5. A permanent record or archive of the community dialog
  6. A critical mass of listserv members who are knowledgeable and insightful, and who possess the skill to communicate their expertise via email


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Meridian: A Middle School Computer Technologies Journal
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Volume 8, Issue 1, Winter 2005
ISSN 1097 9778
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