When Bill Gates recently told a meeting of state governors that U.S. high schools are obsolete, an online discussion group was organized among educators to debate the issue almost immediately. At the same time, another Internet group was embroiled in a topic, Correcting home-school misconceptions about the public schools, and a third was addressing, Do you support educational vouchers?
These targeted, special interest Web-based affinity groups were set up quickly and easily, thanks to the free technology of "Google Groups" that has launched online discussions on almost every conceivable topic, including schools.
Educators throughout the United States have regularly visited Internet chatboards to exchange professional information that helps them do their jobs better and discuss issues that affect their districts. To illustrate, the many themes at administrators.net and teachers.net --threaded, so posts on specific topics can easily be reviewed--have included bullying programs, homework policies, job interview techniques and classroom management. Other educators have kept up-to-date with colleagues by participating in e-mail discussion groups through organizations such as the National School Boards Association and many districts send out their own electronic newsletters.
However, administrators, teachers, parents and students in countless districts are now setting up specialized Web-based discussions through Google Groups, and also Yahoo Groups, Groups@AOL and MSN Groups, as well as ICQ Groups that require the extra step of downloading free ICQ software. While most of the existing groups are open to anyone, others restrict membership but allow postings to be read, and some can only be accessed by passwords. The services have different communication features that affect how people express themselves and interact, so it makes sense to compare applications.
For example, the Google Southern Arizona Brown Bag is designed for educators from school, district and state levels to discuss issues they face, and New York's Ossining Union Free School District Dual Language Program provides support for parents of students enrolled in that program. Similarly, the Yahoo Westbrook-GlenGrove PTA in Illinois was established to enhance communications among parents, students and staff members at both schools, and Michigan's Ann Arbor Families for Autistic Children's Education and Support is open to families of children with autism. AOL also hosts a group for the Greenwood High School Marching Band in Bowling Green, Ky., and the MSN Teachers Cafe offers a place where teachers can vent, ask for help, offer advice, and discuss the challenges of teaching.
Recently a new type of affinity group arrived on the Internet, following in the footsteps of Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Known collectively as Wikicities, users create Wikicity pages on whatever interests them, and visitors can add to and edit the information they contain using tools included at each site. Wikicities offer powerful collaboration opportunities.
For example, Paul Allison, a teacher in the East Side Community High School in New York, founded the High School Online Collaborative Writing site as one of the first Wikicities for schools, to "build on what we already know about collaboration and language and take advantage of the unique features of this new media environment." So far, 10 other high schools in New York have joined the group. "Collecting student work online is a challenge, but well worth the effort," he says, "and I am enjoying the work of deepening computer literacy."
Your staff can use the resources below to visit, browse and join online communities on scores of topics that will benefit your district. But since it is so easy to start new groups, you also need a clear sense of identity and purpose, or else your group may be counted with too many others that are lonely outposts waiting for colonization.
Odvard Egil Dyrli, firstname.lastname@example.org, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.