Several articles in this issue of the Journal of Nursing Education report on the importance of interaction and collaboration in promoting learning in online courses. As the number of online courses in nursing multiplies, integration of the evidence for best practices in course design and implementation will become increasingly important in creating effective online learning communities and their next iteration - online communities of professional practice.
Online communities of professional practice (OCPP) are formal or informal groups whose purpose is to generate, test, and disseminate knowledge and best practices in a profession (Norris, Mason, & Lefrere, 2003). Using pervasive technology environments, and learning management software with capabilities for interaction (e.g., discussion, chat, e-mail), educators, preceptors, learners, clinical experts, members of professional nursing organizations, and even clients can be linked in a context-rich learning environment. Online communities of professional practice in nursing provide opportunities for knowledge acquisition, just-in-time learning, and closer fusion of learning and clinical practice. Using distance education strategies, place-bound and teacher-centered classrooms are evolving into learner-centered environments emphasizing the relationship of clinical knowledge to clinical practice and smoother transitions into professional practice roles. Critical thinking, clinical reasoning, and authentic problem generation, testing, and solution replace memory and application as the norms for learning.
Building on the successful strategies of online courses, OCPPs provide a virtual space for contextualized learning. For example, in one OCPP, nursing students, practicing nurses, clinical preceptors, members of a local chapter of the professional nursing organization, nationally recognized nurse researchers, and a teacher-facilitator meet in the course to help participants prepare for entry into a nursing specialty. In this OCPP, students enrolled in educational programs earn academic credit, while RNs seeking new knowledge, considering a career transition, or preparing for new practice roles within the specialty earn continuing education contact hours. Members share the responsibility for maintaining the learning environments and collaborate to solve hypothetical and real clinical problems. Experts, peers, classmates, and the teacherfacilitator pose questions and share resources. Evidence for best practice emerges from this dialogue. In postconference discussions, staff nurses contribute practical wisdom; researchers contribute preliminary findings from their research and provide examples of how nurse-generated science shapes clinical practice; and preceptors offer feedback about a particular patient example. Web links to practice standards, demonstration of clinical skills, and examples of policies and procedures are located in an online resource center. Situating students as legitimate members of the professional community guides their learning until they are ready to assume a more central role, while teacher-facilitators, mentors, and preceptors provide encouragement and support.
Teaching and learning in OCPPs call for new technical and pedagogical approaches to designing courses and facilitating dialogue and inquiry. Constructivist, sociocultural, and learner-centered models provide principles for designing and facilitating online communities (Bonk & Cunningham, 1999). For example, in focusing on the learners' construction of reality, faculty course designers create real-world contexts in which learning can be meaningful and students can test and clarify their understanding of new information. Faculty also design courses with opportunities for students to select their own experiences and seek guidance for clinical practice. In these models, the focus of assessment and evaluation of learning is on individual attainment of learning goals, is continual and cumulative, and is provided by the teacher-facilitator, as well as the clinical experts and students.
Creating online courses and being a member of an OCPP alter both faculty members' and students' roles and responsibilities. Several articles in this issue note the significant gaps between students' and faculty members' current computer and information literacy skills and those desired in practice. It also may be worthwhile to consider the need for developing a "teaching-learning literacy" that includes, among other skills, the ability to teach and learn in OCPPs. Collectively, the articles in this issue describe the successes educators have made in distance learning, but also make a compelling case for the need for continuing to develop information-age literacy skills for both faculty and students. Being members of OCPPs, and the promise of improved learning, require the acquisition of these skills and abilities, and the development of a science of nursing education demands continued research into these innovations.
- Bonk, C., & Cunningham, D. (1998). Searching for learner-centered, constructivist, and socioculturel components of collaborative educational learning tools. In C. Bonk & K King (Eds.), Electronic collaborators. Mabwah, NJ: Erlbaum, Morris, D., Mason, J-, & Lefrere, P. (2003). Transforming e-knowledge. Ann Arbor, MI: Society for College and University Planning.