October 1996

Root Page of Article: Enhancing Professional Development in Special Education Through the Web, by Jennifer A. Gold


In a 1993 report by the U.S. Department of Education (Means, et al) L.M. Harasim (1990) discusses the many advantages of online networks:

  1. communicating and sharing information,
  2. encouraging collaboration and active participation,
  3. bridging the gap between time and distance, and
  4. providing opportunities for reflective written thought.

NCIP, too realizes the potential of online communication for educators. For the past four years, NCIP has housed a telecommunications network called NCIPnet, first on a separate dial-in bulletin board service (BBS) using FirstClass software, and now through a series of newsgroups linked to a news server from NCIP's Web site.

A major component of NCIP's professional development model, NCIPnet consists of facilitated discussion forums focusing on issues surrounding technology and students with disabilities. As an online network, the goal of NCIPnet is to create a community of educators from around the world who work in similar environments and who are confronted by similar situations. Through NCIPnet, these educators share knowledge and experiences, and pose questions about assistive and instructional technology. NCIP staff hopes that by offering educators a place to exchange information and build knowledge through collaborative dialogue online, practitioners will utilize a medium that offers a meeting place for those who may otherwise never have an opportunity to meet. Indeed, having access to colleagues in the field holds tremendous promise in fostering professional development.

In addition to providing access to others in the field, what makes NCIPnet unique, is its discussion leaders--experts who facilitate conversations and ensure high levels of information dissemination and interactivity at all times. Serving for three-month terms in each of the forums, participants on NCIPnet appreciate having access to experts in the field. One NCIPnet participant (a teacher) emphasizes the importance of being able to communicate with these experts.

"Jennifer J... comes to mind. ...I'm not going to pick up the phone and call Jennifer J... and say, 'Hi, I'm Barbara S... and I teach in Brockton, and I have a question for you.' But I can do that on NCIPnet. So, having that resource of people out there that are at a different level than I am--more knowledge, more experience, quicker answers--is very helpful."

Realizing the importance of providing educators access to experts in the field, NCIPnet also houses online events in which experts in a particular area facilitate conversations for a six-week period around a particular topic.

Although people are not required to commit to an online event, they can read and/or contribute to conversations at any time during the period; many find the events extremely valuable. For example, a school specialist who recently participated in an online event wrote, "I really enjoyed the forum... and the information I gained is going to send a student to Camp Courage this summer! Yay! Networking is so useful!"

The final two components of NCIPnet are (1) an archive containing compiled conversation threads of past discussions, and (2) an ftp site for the storage of additional resources such as research articles, papers, and product information.

These are important components, since NCIP takes into account that educators have limited time; for people who may be unable to log on for a week or month, they are still able to access past discussions. Also, people appreciate being able to access complementary sources of information quickly and easily. --

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