About my research

My research was set in the context of the European Commission’s eTwinning initiative and it looked specifically at the use of eTwinning Learning Events (non-formal learning). It examined how the community influences the development of teachers’ competence in online collaboration and discourse, and it considered the contribution of social aspects and online moderation.

I am very grateful to my supervisor, Dr. Julie-Ann Sime from Lancaster University, and to my eTwinning soulmate, Tiina Sarisalmi, for their invaluable support. And to my examiners, Prof. Marilyn Leask from the University of Bedfordshire and Dr. Don Passey from the University of Lancaster, for their valuable advice.
Keywords: online learning communities; community of inquiry; online collaboration; content analysis; social presence; social ties; teacher training

Friday, 24 December 2010

Teachers' expectations

I've started to analyse the data from the Learning Event (LE), looking firstly at the transcripts of the interviews that I held with some participants before they started. I held 8 interviews over Skype and 43 by email, asking the same questions in all cases. The first question was What are your expectations for this event? and using Atlas.ti, as an experiment, I've coded the replies.

The image above shows a section of a reply to the first question from a participant, submitted by email. On the right you can see the codes that I've applied, which on this occasion are Web 2.0 and tools and Digital skills and competence - you will probably need to click on the image to expand it and read the information . The other codes you can see, for example Channel were added automatically by Atals.ti as I imported the data and represent the headings for each chunk of data - in this case, whether the information was submitted by email or by Skype.

The overall coding results from the 51 participants are as follows:

In other words, there were 25 instances of participants including reference to the use of Web 2.0 and its associated tools in their answers to the question on What are your expectations for this event?. Similarly, 20 people made reference to using these tools in their teaching practice. Some of the codes could possibly be combined, for example Cooperation and collaboration could be joined with eTwinning project, as one is usually done within the context of another. This is easily achieved with the tool.

The results in themselves are not too surprising. They reflect a full range of expectations, with a focus mainly on learning specific web 2.0 tools and gaining experience of using them in their teaching practice. What perhaps will be more interesting is to compare these to results obtained from the final interviews were the same questions were asked.

This experience of using content analysis techniques and Computer Aided Qualitative Data Analysis Software (CAQDAS) was interesting but also raised a number of concerns for me that are to some extent echoed by Enriquez (2009). Analysing dialogue using coding schemes tends to focus your attention on the detail, the individual words, perhaps at the expense of seeing a bigger picture. Indeed, in an attempt to keep one's coding scheme limited, in order to achieve parsimony, one is encouraged to group together different expressions under the same heading. Yet they may hide important different latent meanings that would add depth to the analysis if they were surfaced rather than suppressed. I also note that the very process of coding using a CAQDAS leads you to quantitative data results - for example, in the case above, it is convenient to report that only 20/51 respondents (i.e. ~40%) referred to learning how to use web 2.0 tools in their teaching practice as an explicit expectation, but what does this result actually mean?

Enriquez (2009) raises discontent with the prevailing use of content analysis in online discourse, suggesting that the written word only reflects part of the context for knowledge production. In order to have a fuller picture, one should take into account the external environment for the discussion (the situation of the learner), the internal environment (text in chats is of a different nature to that in forums), the temporal structure (asynchronous is different to synchronous), the purpose of the discussion (topic or  project related, for example) and the characteristics of the members of the group (experience of online collaboration, English skills, etc), to mention a few. In order to do this, she proposes the use of genres as an alternative to content analysis. Whereas I find her arguments compelling, I do not fully understand how genres could be applied in practice (she refers us to other papers for examples of application). I would also say that I will be comparing two very similar situations, the LE held earlier this year and the recent one, where several of these variables will be largely stable. I therefore feel that it should indeed be useful to analyse the content, though my recent experimentation has highlighted to me the dangers of getting to bogged down with the coding and the use of a tool which makes simplifications so easy to implement.


Enriquez, J. G. (2009) 'Discontent with content analysis of online transcripts'. ALT-J: Research in Learning Technology, 17 (2), pp.101 - 113

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

More than just a Learning Event

I've been interviewing teachers recently who took part in the Learning Event (LE), via Skype. In particular, those who I interviewed before they started and who managed to complete the event, and were able to contribute to the final reflection.

A few things have struck me from these discussions. Firstly the enthusiasm they portray from their experience. For several of them, this was more than just a LE addressing web 2.0 tools, it was a life changing experience that has opened up new avenues in their teaching practice. I've heard from teachers who used such tools for the first time, but were able to try them out with fellow teachers in their schools and saw a marvellous reaction from their pupils. For them, this is the start of a new adventure which has only just started. It is gratifying to see how happy the teachers are when they are able to provide something new for their pupils, that engages them and increases their personal kudos as teachers.

Secondly it is interesting to see the extent to which their initial expectations were met. Many expressed their original goals in terms of learning about new web 2.0 tools. They learned about these, but more importantly they also learned about how to use them in their teaching practice, they shared concrete examples with their peers and they developed personally in terms of their own competence.

So everything sounds perfect? Well not exactly. The experience from these pioneering few is not necessarily representative of the majority. As I said in my previous post, this transformation only happened (generally) for those that managed to complete the course and invested time and effort in the activities. The others still learned, but perhaps not at quite such a deep level; they learned about the individual tools but not necessarily about how to use them in their teaching practice and the lack of collaboration, of 'learning-by-doing', meant that they didn't develop their own competence to quite the same degree.

So I've also been asking those teachers who didn't complete why they thought this was. Their answers reflect a complex picture of busy teachers with difficult personal schedules meaning that they had insufficient time to be able to invest themselves in the time-consuming collaboration, of teachers so new to online collaboration that they simply felt left behind by the experience (to the extent that the LE could have a negative impact on their motivation), and of some who simply did not expect this type of LE and were expecting to be more autonomous, independent learners, following the LE at their own pace.

I also noted that for some teachers the learning philosophy of reflection-in-practice is not something they have previously experienced. Indeed their own teaching style is more instructional and they in turn expected the tutors/facilitators to be more instrumental in summarising the learning outcomes of the group.

This run of the LE has, I feel, managed to achieve a level of collaboration that was missing or was less evident in the previous run earlier this spring. As such, needs have arisen  that we had not anticipated. These included, at a certain point, a need for Tiina and I to raise the issue of netiquette and awareness of what might be considered to be inappropriate behaviour in an online community. On reflection I feel there was a need for the small groups that we had set up (the Round Tables) to openly discuss and agree what they expected from each other in terms of contribution, timing, etc (this may have helped addressed the legitimate concerns raised by Daniela in her comment on the way the groups were established). As it was, the absence of such an agreement led to some groups experiencing frustration - examples from my analysis include:
- some participants contributed whilst other didn't, leading to a sense of inequality or even resentment for the effort invested;
- several natural leaders emerging within a single group who (in retrospect) might have been rather dominant in their approach to setting up blogs, Google docs, etc as places for the group to collaborate;
- perhaps unsympathetic replies (or certainly less supportive messages) to peers who arrived late in the group to find ideas had already been "decided", etc.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Certainly my feeling is that for every innovation we employ in learning, there are important disadvantages that may emerge. These may be in terms of uncomfortable power shifts within the group, of the different starting levels for the participants (experienced collaborators compared with inexperienced novices) leading to unequal opportunities for growth and feelings of inadequacy, of reinforced teaching presence (such as clearer guidelines) for some leading to the loss of a valuable learning experience for others (who might have learned more through initial failure), etc. So each new innovation leads to a rebalance of the pros and cons, and to the need for us to reconsider our teaching practice. Nothing can be taken for granted.

Food for thought, and there is certainly plenty of fodder for me in the data from this experience!


Saturday, 11 December 2010

What an experience

The revised Learning Event (LE) on web 2.0 tools and collaboration finished recently and what an experience it was. We tried out some of the ideas that emerged from the first LE earlier in the year and I participated as a facilitator in the Staff Room and in the final reflection. I was again impressed by the level of enthusiasm and commitment of the teachers involved.

It will take me several months to analyse all the data - and boy is there lots. So what can I say from what I see so far? Well I think we can consider it a success as far as the participants were concerned. The final questionnaire conducted by the European Schoolnet shows 66% indicating that the event was excellent and 30% very good (n=127). There was a terrific response to my final questionaire with 87 replies that is 58% of those that started the event. Here is a summary that I added to my presentation at Online Educa:

I need now to follow this up with more interviews and with an analysis of the discourse in the forums. However, from what I have seen so far, it appears that those teachers who persevered until the end - trying out what they had learned in their own teaching practice and then sharing their experience with their peers in the final reflection - learned not only about the tools but also about how to apply them for teaching and about the consequences for their own professional development. Whereas those that finished after the first 12 days of activity tended to learn only about the tools. If this can be confirmed in my analysis then it will be a significant result as this is precisely what we were aiming to improve.

39% of the teachers who started the LE completed the final activities, that is 59% of those that were still active after the first 12 days. This is a really good result; I was talking to a friend of my who delivers face-to-face training courses for HR professionals in the UK and she remarked that it is always a challenge to convince participants to come back to the course after a period away. Indeed, given that these figures only reflect postings to the forums (contributions), the number actually involved will have been higher as I am sure there will have been some who will have read the postings and benefited from the experience of others without posting themselves (lurkers). Such vicarious learning is surely valuable.

The quantitative results are useful in terms of offering immediate feedback. However, my research is primarily qualitative in nature and so I must now press on with the time consuming task of walking through the interview scripts and forum dialogues, coding and analysing. Onwards we go ...


Friday, 10 December 2010

Busy, busy, busy

I realise it has been a while since I posted a message, only I have been so busy and I am only now finding the time.

I've just been visting the campus at Lancaster University and I was struck again by the positive feeling one gets from being there. The intellectual discussions in the bars, the students with their heads in books and the serendipitous meetings with interesting people. I was able to have a very useful meeting with my supervisor Julie-Ann and a discussion with Maria, another tutor on the course. Both chats help me to refocus my thoughts. It was also great to meet John, a fellow student, and to exchange references, ideas and tips. One of the reasons for my visiting the campus was to attend a short course on Atlas.ti. It was really useful as a reminder of what the tool can offer and how to take advantage of its powerful functionality. I am now keen to get on and use the tool to help analyse my data.

I recently gave a presentation at a workshop (PED74) at Online Educa. It was good to give a public airing to my work. There were several teachers in the audience and I saw reassuring knods of approval as I spoke. A very useful and rewarding experience. Incidently, for my fulltime job I participated in a couple of workshops on assessing learning in a digital world (AP18 & AP33). The first involved an insightful discussion on the need for a change in assessment approaches for online learning in a web 2.0 environment. After my opening presentation there was one offered by Thomas Ryberg (presented by me as he was unfortunately stuck in snow in Denmark) and an intervention by Kiran Trehan. Both did an excellent job at highlighting some of the challenges associated with this new way of learning. Thomas explained how learning with web 2.0 implies much more than just a new environment, it means a change in culture to participative, active learning involving such possibilities as contributing to the design of the learning and the definition of the assessment criteria. Kiran reminded us of the expectations of online learning in communities and by referring to some concrete examples from a course run at Lancaster, was able to highlight some of the darker elements asssociated with power, inequality and the ubiquitous search for consenus. The second session introduced some relevant EU funded projects under the Lifelong Learning Programme that are faced with these challenges and are looking at practical ways forward. This was the first time we had brought academics together with practitioners and it really worked. The presentations should appear on our Agency's web site in the near future and I will add  link here when they do.

Last but not least, I've been very busy following and facilitation the revised Learning Event with Tiina, but this warrants a seperate posting so I shall stop here for now.


Friday, 5 November 2010

Coding a Community of Inquiry

I've been continuing my reading of papers concerning the coding of transcripts in online discussion forums, focusing for the moment on the Community of Inquiry framework (Garrison et al, 2000).

In a review of the use of the theoretical framework, Garrison (2007) raises a number of issues that I feel I should take into account when carrying out my coding of the Learning Event (LE):
  • Social presence is necessary but not sufficient for critical thinking and the successful development of a community in an online environment. 'social presence must move beyond simply establishing socio-emotional presence and personal relationships.  Cohesion requires intellectual focus (i.e., open and purposeful communication) and respect.' (2007, p.63). In analysing the social presence, we should look beyond the quantity of interactions to their quality in terms of establishing a climate of open communication, of collaboration and of community cohesion.
  • It is interesting to see how social communication changes over time as the participants become more confident and comfortable with the community. Hence, I should also code the date of the messages
  • Some studies have suggested that gender may effect the nature of communication, especially if there is a lack of a balance in the group (as in our LE), so I should also code the gender associated with the messages.
  • The impact of the instructor/teacher/tutor is emphasised in several studies, so I should be particularly attentive to interventions from the two tutors, to the description of the activities and to the instructions given in the forums. That said, I do not necessarily agree with the emphasis placed on the role of the tutor, but prefer to be more open to the teaching presence being reinforced through the messages of the participants themselves (initiating solutions, guiding their peers, etc)
  • There is suggestion that critical thinking may be encouraged by the tutor being quite transparent in linking the activities explicitly to the stages of critical thinking. There is even the suggestion that the tutors and the participants should self-code their messages as they post them. Whereas this might serve as an interesting research activity, I feel that it would be focusing the attention of the participants too much on the process that they are following rather than the end goal of learning and trying to achieve a useful, practical outcome. That said, it may be useful to reflect on this for the final activity (Reflection) due in three weeks' time.
  • The question is raised as to whether the coding scheme should remain at the category level or go down to individual indicators (see the table that I presented in an earlier posting, showing the various categories for the three presences and the possible indicators). I need to do more reading before deciding the level to adopt, however I like the idea of keeping it simple and practicable by remaining at the category level if this is feasible.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T. & Archer, W. (2000) 'Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education'. The Internet and Higher Education, 2 (2-3), pp.87-105

Garrison, D. (2007) 'Online community of inquiry review: Social, cognitive, and teaching presence issues'. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11 (1), pp.61-72

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Analysing dialogue in an online forum

In an earlier posting I looked at coding schemes that could be useful for analysing the dialogue within the online forums of the Learning Event (LE) that I am following. I concluded that the choice of scheme would be both challenging and crucial to my research. I am now looking in more detail at possible schemes, starting with the one that is perhaps the most obvious , given that I am basing my work on the Community of Inquiry model put forward by Garrison et al (2000).

Garrison et al (2000, p.89)
This coding scheme aims to give a balanced view of an online community from the perspective of all three presences; cognitive, social and teaching. There would distinct advantages in my maintaining such an holistic view - we have introduced changes to the LE that could effect all three presences, I wish to keep an open mind about the impact of this action research and '... few  studies  explore  all  three  presences  and,  more  importantly,  interactions among  them' according to Swan et al (2008, p.2). I also wish to apply a relatively simple coding scheme as I am on my own and there is a lot of data to analyse. But perhaps more importantly, I am using a qualitative data approach meaning that I am looking out for meaningful examples in the narrative rather than trying to undertake a complete statistical analysis.

Garrison et al's coding scheme provides some examples of the indicators I should be looking for when I analyse the text. In related papers, that I have yet to study, they expand upon this so I should have sufficient guidance on how to apply their scheme effectively and consistently (Rouke et al, 1999; Garrison et al, 2001; Anderson et al, 2001;

Here is an extract of a discussion of the type I shall be analysing in the staff room:

'What do pupils need to learn to be prepared for the 21st century?'
Participant X:  
In e-learn magazine I found these skills: 
search and 'find' skills for finding the right information when it's needed
critical thinking skills to extract meaning and significance
creative thinking skills to generate new ideas
analytical skills for solving problems and making decisions
networking skills to identify and build relationships with others who are potential sources of knowledge and expertise, within and outside the organization
people skills to build trust and productive relationships that are mutually beneficial for information sharing
reason and argument to extract meaning and significance
the ability to validate data and the underlying assumptions on which information and knowledge is based

Participant Y:

I agree with it, X, but the problem with my students, at the moment, is : how to make them understand they need to think. It' s hard work. They are bombed and attracted by the surrounding media and in most cases their attention is only given to appearance. I think that our job as educators has become much more essential and aimed at teaching them they are the true and creative protagonists of their knowledge 

Tutor Z:

What an interesting thread, now we are really getting down to the interesting part

What is our role as educators in a learning world full of technology? I've heard different views: facilitators ('guide on the side') or orchestrators (taking a more active role, a bit like a conductor leading an orchestra). 

Participant Y:

I think as I've already affirmed in another thread that technology helps and facilitates a lot of processes but it's wrong to think it's a solution to the school problems. I have to admit that, as to my experience, in some cases and for some students it means wasting time and having fun. So, in my opinion, our task is that of trying to teach them the positive and negative effects of ICT involving them in projects which help them know better some of the tools they can use for didactic purpose. When aware of the opportunities, they are very skilful and able in producing material and in helping the teachers, too

Participant X:

I think we have to manage both roles: Too much control and you loose knowledge, because the pupils don't get the chance to explore (believe me: They find a lot of tools and information). Too much of the guide role and the students get lost, not having a frame to develop in...

Within this short extract, we find examples of Cognitive presence: information exchange, connecting and applying ideas; Social presence: emotions and self-disclosure, recognition; and Teaching presence: identifying agreement, injecting content from outside of the community, etc (and the latter not just from the tutor). This highlights the richness of the dialogue taking place and the challenge for coding.


Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D. & Archer, W. (2001) 'Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context'. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5 (2), pp.1-17

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T. & Archer, W. (2000) 'Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education'. The Internet and Higher Education, 2 (2-3), pp.87-105

Garrison, D., Anderson, T. & Archer, W. (2001) 'Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education'. American Journal of Distance Education, 15 (1), pp.7-23

Rourke, L., Anderson, T., Garrison, D. & Archer, W. (1999) 'Assessing Social Presence in Asynchronous Text-based Computer Conferencing'. Journal of Distance Education, 14 (2), pp.50-71

Swan, K., Richardson, J., Ice, P., Garrison, D., Cleveland-Innes, M. & Arbaugh, J. (2008) 'Validating a measurement tool of presence in online communities of inquiry', eMentor, 2 (24), p.88. (ONLINE - http://www.e-mentor.edu.pl/_xml/wydania/24/543.pdf - accessed 06.03.2010)

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

So far so good

Finally held 9 interviews using Skype on Sunday and received 46 contributions by email. A wonderful response and a lot of data to process, so I will not start until the end of the  first intensive period of the Learning Event (LE).

The LE itself has started in earnest and the staff room is buzzing with activity. In addition to the usual hellos and welcome messages, I am already seeing evidence of reflection and critical thinking. People are posing questions, replying with possible answers and relating it to their own experience. Wonderful.

My role is to facilitate and act as a catalyst in these forums. It is a delicate balance between stimulating and encouraging with challenging questions/comments, and allowing the community to develop naturally. I am currently following the approach advocated by Salmon (2000) that moderators should be active at the beginning of an activity and gradually step back as the collaboration takes off. But I also have Dillenbourg whispering in my ear that I should be orchestrating learning, rather than simply being a 'guide on the side'. I hope I have the balance right.

My concern is that the flurry of postings in the staff room represents a temporary interest and that as participants settle down to the cognitive activities, they will forget to visit the staff room. As in the physical world, one has to decide how best to use one's time and going for a chat with colleagues is something that sometimes has to come second place to marking homework, etc. I only hope that people see the value of the social contact and of the meta-cognitive discussions, and make an effort to keep this aspect going.

Tiina and I are sharing our thoughts as we go along and I realise that this will be very important data for my subsequent research analysis.


Dillenbourg, P. (2008) 'Integrating technologies into educational ecosystems'. Distance Education, 29 (2), pp.127 - 140
Salmon, G. (2000) E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online, Kogan Page.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Great expectations

We have now registered 210 participants from 19 different countries for the Learning Event (LE) that starts tomorrow. Yesterday I contacted by email those who had indicated in the registration process their willingness to be interviewed - in reality I also contacted several who had said No, due to a mix-up with my email lists. Oohps, but they were very supportive in their replies.

I had intended to interview just a few, but as so many replied positively, I have finally arranged for 12 interviews today by Skype or telephone. Plus 45 participants have offered to email me a reply to my questions.

Having started the process, I can see that I get more in-depth answers through a conversation than I do by email. Mainly because with the former I can test my understanding and prompt the person to continue with their thoughts, whereas by email people have a tendency to be brief. On the other hand, the advantage of getting replies by email is that it is already written-up.

Learning English is emerging as a main motivation for participants. This may be a challenge, a catch twenty-two,  as one needs to be capable of participating in the discussions in order to share and learn.  Indeed, a desire to share and learn from others is also emerging as a common expectation. People seem to recognise the importance of social contact and are looking forward to meeting new friends. On the other hand, few have yet to come to terms with the implications of the community as a whole and how it may evolve.

Several people have expressed concerns about their availability and ability to contribute to the LE, as they have busy schedules. Hopefully as the LE progresses they will see the advantage of asynchronous online collaboration precisely for its flexibility in terms of time and place.

We shall see. It's all very exciting.


Friday, 22 October 2010

Report on teachers' vision of the future of learning

An interesting report had just been published on the views of teachers on the future of learning

The Future of Learning: European Teachers’ Visions. Report on a foresight consultation at the 2010 eTwinning Conference, Sevilla, 5-7 February 2010
    * Authors: Kirsti Ala-Mutka, Christine Redecker, Yves Punie, Anusca Ferrari, Romina Cachia, Clara Centeno
    * EUR Number: Technical Note JRC59775, Publication date: 10/2010

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Presentation of research

On Monday I had the pleasure of presenting my research to a group of teachers and academics, via Skype, at a workshop at Lancaster University. I've not had the feedback from my Supervisor yet, but certainly from my perspective it went well. There were some interesting and relevant questions at the end, which at least suggested that people were listening.

I must say I was somewhat less confident the evening before. Having done I dry run of the presentation, I felt it was too much like an academic paper - rather dry and not terribly engaging. So I reworked it with more of the spoken voice in mind, and it was a lot better. Phew.

There is nothing like having to present your ideas to focus your mind and test your own understanding. I realised as a result of this exercise that I need to be more familiar with, for example, the Community of Inquiry framework - how it is used by others and its main criticisms.

So overall a rewarding experience which has helped me to be well prepared for my presentation at Online Educa in Berlin in December.


Sunday, 17 October 2010

The staff room is born

After months of reflection and preparation, the virtual staff room emerges ready for the start of the Learning Event on 25 October. Tiina and I have been working together to decide how best to integrate this social space into the learning environment and the cognitive activities. I think we have achieved a nice balance between keeping it informal as possible, whilst giving sufficient guidance and explanation that participants will understand what we are trying to achieve and what we expect from them.

The round tables are in place within a discussion forum and registration opens 19 October. Soon afterwards we should have access to information which will allow us to allocate the ~200 teachers for the welcome session.

Exciting times ahead!


Sunday, 3 October 2010

Practical stage

I am entering a practical stage in my research when it is time to put into action some of the ideas emerging from the previous cycle of my analysis. Together with Tiina, I am preparing for the next Learning Event entitled 'Exploiting Web 2.0 eTwinning and Collaboration', due to run from  25 October - 5 November and and 26 – 27 November (the latter is a final activity for reflection, after teachers have had an opportunity to apply what they have learned in their teaching practice).

The advantage of action research is that you get to see or even try out some of your ideas. This is both engaging and daunting; what if it all goes wrong? Of course it won't - he says positively - after all, there is no right or wrong way of doing things in education and anything we try out will yield useful results for the future. There, I feel better already.

So having set-up the forum for the staff room in the environment for the Learning Event, called the eTwinning Learning Lab,  I have today been preparing the 20 tables for the sub-groups. Instead of simply numbering them, which would be rather boring, I've given them names of colours. However, to issues come to mind:
- it's not easy to find twenty-five colour names - luckily the Internet came to the rescue and this site helped 
- we face the question What if the teachers don't like the colour of table to which they have been allocated?. Colours represent emotions, so we will have to be prepared for someone expressing a wish to change tables; easy to implement, so no problem as long as such request are few.

Some other good news, I have now submitted by presentation to Online Educa Berlin (session PED 74, Friday 3 December, 14:30- 16:00) for inclusion in the conference CD-ROM. Nice to see this finished. Moreover, I shall chance to practice as I've been invited to present my work to a group of teachers in a workshop at Lancaster University on 18 October via Skype. This will be really useful experience.


Monday, 13 September 2010

Consensus, difference and 'multiple communities' in networked learning

Continuing my exploration of differing views of online learning, I came across a paper by Hodgson and Reynolds (2005) in which they question the propensity for learning communities to focus on harmony and the avoidance of conflict. They posit that many of the protagonists of learning communities emphasise collaboration, the building of trust and shared values, loyalty and the pursuit of common goals at the expense of recognising and valuing differences. As a result, students who hold differing opinions or values are often under pressure to either conform or effectively be ostracised by the community. This may lead some students to under perform (to lurk rather than participate as a dissenting voice), to undergo frustration or to feel marginalised.

In their critique of community, the authors suggest that the pursuit of shared beliefs, desires and goals in adult learning may be a reaction to the rhetoric of individual, autonomous learning (that we saw in the early days of elearning) and the sense of isolation and social fragmentation associated with it. The emphasis on social constructivism and situated learning in the context of culture (Vygotsky, 1978), together with the advent of social technologies supported by the web 2.0, have fuelled interest in the use of social groupings to support learners (learning communities, communities of practice, etc) and pedagogy that embraces group work (collaborative projects, peer learning, etc). This may entail joint responsibility for the design, planning and evaluation of course content and direction, with an emphasis on consensus. The authors question whether 'the concept of community as commonly applied is either realistic of desirable' (Hodgson and Reynolds, 2005, p.16).

In his paper on teaching online, Anderson (2008) emphasises the importance of discourse for effective learning and the value for individuals of occasionally experiencing cognitive dissonance. This concurs with Hodgson and Reynolds' view that the airing of differences is good and should be encouraged rather than suppressed. It also concurs with theories on innovation (OECD, 2008) and knowledge management (Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995) were variety is recognised as being good for generating need ideas and for ensuring that organisations have the necessary absorptive capacity to respond to change.

In proposing different forms of social groupings for learning, the authors refer to the 'politics of difference' (Young, 1986) and of participation in a pluralism of overlapping communities with differing philosophies, values and social relations. They envisage a situation in which sub-communities contribute to discourse, not just through 'sharing or reconciliation', but through 'talking-back', 'defiant speech', etc (Hodgson and Reynolds, 2005, p.18). They refer to Young's (1986) metaphor of 'city life' as capturing well the ethos of valuing and respecting difference. They reiterate that if pedagogy is to reflect less hierarchical, more participative principles, based on equality and democracy, it should also avoid the 'more coercive characteristics of community' (2005, p.18).

In terms of the virtual staff room that we are about to create for our future eTwinning Learning Event, this paper encourages us to think of several sub-groups in the room, with overlapping and flexible memberships, ultimately determined by the participants themselves according to their interests and values.

I finish with the quotation given from Kolb which I liked:

'Quiet places online are possible, and would be very valuable. But we also need busy yet educational places, and places that encourage deconstructive moves that foreground the process of inhabiting and being online, making this available for critical awareness and revision.' (Kolb, 2000, p.132)


Anderson, T. (2008) 'Teaching in an online learning context', Theory and practice of online learning, 2nd ed, pp.343-365, AU Press

Hodgson, V. & Reynolds, M. (2005) 'Consensus, difference and 'multiple communities' in networked learning'. Studies in Higher Education, 30 (1), pp.11 - 24

Kolb, D. (2000) 'Learning Places: Building Dwelling Thinking Online'. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 34, pp.121-133

Nonaka, I. & Takeuchi, H. (1995) The Knowledge-Creating Company. New York, Oxford University Press, Inc.

OECD (2008) Innovating to learn, learning to innovate, OECD. (ONLINE - http://www.oecd.org/document/7/0,3343,en_2649_35845581_41656455_1_1_1_37455,00.html - accessed 17.03.2010)

Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in society, Harvard University Press Cambridge, MA.

Young, I. M. (1986) 'The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference'. Social theory and practice, 12 (1), pp.1-26

Friday, 10 September 2010

Deceit, desire and control

In her paper on online identities, Bayne (2005) helps us to remember that working online can also have it's drawbacks. It is so easy to be swept away with the current enthusiasm for online learning and communities that it is good to read this type of reminder from time to time about the possible darker side of the internet.

Bayne solicited the opinion of both students and tutors working in an online environment and found quite contrasting views. The students expressed rather negative concerns about their ability to manage successfully their online identity, whereas the tutors were more positive and confident. In addition, the paper shows a clear mismatch between the perceptions of tutors as to their role in online learning compared with the students; the former emphasising power relationships and traditional student–tutor hierarchies, the latter an equalising of power relationships and a flattening of hierarchies.

The students indicated how easy it is to project a false identity online, by giving a false age, lying about one's gender, or simply acting out of character. But far from finding this exciting or powerful, as one might have expected, students discussed their concerns at being able to project an identity with which they felt comfortable. They used words such as danger, deceit, and even 'pervy' to describe what they were at pains to avoid. One student describes how, having created a false character, one can be easily be drawn into believing it, so that the alternative self takes over. Thereby expressing fears of a loss of control and balance.

Another student talked about how they would say things online that they would not necessarily say in a face to face environment, often later regretting it:

"Sometimes in a tutorial you think ‘O, I don’t think that should be said’ ‘cos you’re like, like you’ll get shot down, whereas [online] you just type it in anyway, and press the button, ‘cos it’s not like you’re actually saying it at all, so it’s not you, it’s like you’re just a name, people won’t attach it to, like, who you are." (Bayne, 2005, p.33)

I can certainly empathise with this, having myself sent emails in the past that later, in the cool light of the day, I have regretted. Indeed, I have now developed the habit of preparing replies to contentious or emotional messages but not actually sending them until after a suitable cooling off period; often changing my mind before doing so.

Another student talked about her concerns with loosing control over her identify. She suspects that others don't always perceive her as she would like them to, misinterpreting her intentions. Bayne comments that our identity is socially constructed and, as such, is only partly under our direct control.

All these concerns reflect student anxiety, which is clearly not a positive situation for learning online. As Bayne says nothing about the age of the students or when the research was conducted in her paper (a major weakness) it is difficult to know if this is more of a phenomenon that is less likely to be today. Was the study concerned mainly with students who had to adapt to new technologies and social software (so called digital immigrants)? Would we expert the same result today with students who have grown up with technology as an integral part of their daily lives (digital natives)?

The tutors offered quite a different view to the students, suggesting that they were much more comfortable with managing their identities online and seeing the positive aspects of being able to behave differently (Bayne refers to this as metamorphosis). The tutors talked about the advantage of having time to think and react to student comments, unlike in a face-to-face classroom environment where they are under stress to perform as the all-knowing, powerful teacher. The tutors talked about reinforcing their authority, of establishing the traditional student-tutor relationship and of gaining respect. In contrast the students talked about seeing the tutors differently online, rather as other participants than tutors. One student mentioned that respect for a tutor was not automatic or evident online.

So whereas the students see the dangers of metamorphosing online and perceive a lack of control over their identity, the tutors seem to be happy but acknowledge that they behaviour in a more authoritarian manner. Bayne asks if this is a reflection of the equalising, democratising power of the internet, with the tutors exaggerating their behaviour online in an effort to recreate the face-to-face environment of the classroom, applying traditional pedagogies instead of recognising the transformative nature of the internet.

I must say I was quite surprised by these comments as they do not correlate with the views of tutors and teachers working online that I have heard. Again, may be this study is showing its age. I certainly like to think so.


Bayne, S. (2005) 'The identities of learners and teachers in cyberspace', in Land, R. & Bayne, S. (Eds.), Education in cyberspace, pp.26-41,

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Content analysis and coding schemes

De Wever et al (2006) reviewed fifteen content analysis schemes used to analyse the transcripts of online asynchronous discussion groups. Their paper focuses mainly on issues of validity, reliability, unit of analysis, etc and concludes that standards are not yet in place to ensure sufficient quality, coherence and comparability. Although rather technical, it presents a good starting point for my thinking about which coding scheme I could use for the analysis of the data that I shall collect in the next eTwinning Learning Event (LE) on web 2.0 tools.

Content analysis aims to 'reveal information that is not situated at the surface of the transcript' (De Wever et al, 2006, p.7). Transcripts are analysed using a 'research methodology that builds upon procedures to make valid inferences from text' (Anderson et al, 2001 cited in De Wever et al, 2006, p.8). The authors of the paper assert that content analysis should be 'accurate, precise, objective, reliable, replicable and valid' (p.8); that is be free of bias, have sufficient granularity between categories, avoid subjectivity, be coherent in the way it is applied and be repeatable. They emphasise the importance of content analysis schemes being underpinned by an appropriate theoretical basis, but indicate that this is not always the case. They stress the importance of having an appropriate choice for the unit of analysis (the level at which coding is performed). They also place a lot of importance on researchers declaring the level of reliability of their work, for example by have individual researchers had their coding cross-checked and what was the degree of difference between researchers working in a team (termed inter-rater reliability). Sadly, they note, this data is often not provided.

Henri's (1992) work was pioneering and her scheme has been used in many research projects, either directly or as a basis for further developed coding schemes. It is based upon a cognitivist approach to learning, which recognises cooperative learning, collective knowledge and interactivity. As such it addresses both the social interactivity of a group of learners and the cognitive development of individuals. The unit of analysis is the unit of meaning, leaving it up to the researcher to define whether this is a sentence, a paragraph or a whole message. As a well rounded and thoroughly tested scheme, this may well be a good choice for my analysis – leaving sufficient scope for me to ultimately place my focus on the social, cognitive or meta-cognitive elements.

Newman et al's (1995) scheme focuses more on group learning, deep learning and critical thinking. It builds upon Henri's model and Garrison's five stage model for critical thinking. It uses indicators that represent both positive and negative contributions to a measure of critical thinking. The unit of analysis is again the unit of meaning, though only relevant text is coded (this must be difficult to manage, in practice, as it sounds very subjective). A drawback would appear to be the authors' suggestion that some indicators can only be encoded by experts in the domain. Nevertheless, this scheme may be useful if I decide to focus on meta-cognition.

Gunawardena is known for her pioneering work on social presence and the model that she has jointly proposed (Gunawardena et al, 1997) focuses on the social construction of knowledge in computer mediated conferencing. It looks at the phases of a discussion and tries to measure the knowledge constructed. As such, it would appear to be less appropriate for my analysis, unless I decide to change my focus.

The other schemes of interest to me are the three relating to the Community of Inquiry model, which has so far inspired my thinking for the next LE. Rouke et al (1999) propose a model for analysing social presence, in which the unit of analysis is the thematic unit. Garison et al (2001) propose a scheme for analysing cognitive presence, in which the unit of analysis is the entire message. And Anderson et al (2001) propose a scheme for analysing the teaching presence, which looks at the message or sub-messages. Together, these three schemes would link well to the theoretical model of the Community of Inquiry. However, coding would be a challenge with three different schemes being applied in parallel, using different units of analysis. I could decide, for example, to use only two of the schemes – for social presence and cognitive presence – relating to my two fundamental research questions, however this would leave out the important dimension of teaching presence and the influence, in particular, of the moderators - of which I will be one.

This paper has made me realise that the choice of coding scheme is not going to be easy, yet it is fundamental to my research. Clearly I have a lot more reading to do around the subject before I take a decision.


PS: There is a nice table summarising the differences between the fifteen coding schemes, however I've decided not to include this in my posting for copyright reasons.

Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D. & Archer, W. (2001) 'Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context'. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5 (2), pp.1-17

De Wever, B., Schellens, T., Valcke, M. & Van Keer, H. (2006) 'Content analysis schemes to analyze transcripts of online asynchronous discussion groups: A review'. Computers & Education, 46 (1), pp.6-28

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 15, 7–23.

Gunawardena, C. N., Lowe, C. A., & Anderson, T. (1997). Analysis of a global online debate and the development of an interaction analysis model for examining social construction of knowledge in computer conferencing. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 17, 397–431

Henri, F. (1992). Computer conferencing and content analysis. In A. R. Kaye (Ed.), Collaborative learning through computer conferencing. The Najadan Papers (pp. 117–136). London: Springer-Verlag.

Newman, D. R., Webb, B., & Cochrane, C. (1995). A content analysis method to measure critical thinking in face-to face and computer supported group learning. Interpersonal Computing and Technology, 3, 56–77.

Rourke, L., Anderson, T., Garrison, D. & Archer, W. (1999) 'Assessing Social Presence in Asynchronous Text-based Computer Conferencing'. Journal of Distance Education, 14 (2), pp.50-71

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

eModerating in online problem solving courses

I came across a short paper by Vlachopoulos and McAleese (2004) in which they describe their research on the use of two extremes of facilitation style for eModerating in an online problem solving context; low or a non-directive style and high or a directive style. Their aim was too see to what extent facilitation styles (teaching presence) influenced student learning.

They analysed the messages posted by the tutors online using the coding scheme proposed by Anderson et al (2001), based on the Community of Inquiry model. Interestingly they also coded the reflection journals of the tutors, using the sentence as the unit of analysis and coding into only one of two codes: either positive attitude or negative attitude. The data was processed with the aid of NVivo.

The results showed a direct correlation between high moderation styles and significant levels of participation from students. More interestingly, perhaps, they also found that students' discourse in forums with a low moderation style tended to be less focused on the subject of the learning – the inference being that the moderators encouraged students to participate and to stay on track. However, the study was unable to demonstrate that this had a positive impact on students' learning.

I found particularly interesting the results pertaining to the moderators, who found it difficult and rather artificial to purposely adopt a low moderation style. The reflective journals showed a significant level of frustration and negative attitude, with tutors concentrating on their own needs rather than those of the students, for example questioning their role as teachers. The authors conclude that a singe style of moderation is not appropriate and that teachers must use the style that they feel is most appropriate for the learning context, the needs of learners and their stage of development in online discourse, with a view to keeping the discussion focused on achieving the learning outcomes. As such, they find Salmon's five stage model for eModeration (Salmon, 2000) to be too prescriptive.

The paper closes by proposing a general definition for eModeration:

' … e-moderation is an activity in which someone, not necessarily the teacher, facilitates a discussion in the virtual environment, making interventions that are designed to encourage the discussants to engage with and achieve an overall aim' (Vlachopoulos and McAleese, 2004, p.405)


Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D. & Archer, W. (2001) 'Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context'. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5 (2), pp.1-17

Salmon, G. (2000) E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online, Kogan Page.

Vlachopoulos, P. & McAleese, R. (2004), 'E-moderating in on-line problem solving: a new role for teachers?', 4th Hellenic Conference with International Participation, Information and Communication Technologies in Education, Athens University of Athens. (ONLINE - http://www.epyna.gr/show/a399_406.pdf - accessed 15.08.2010)

A comprehensive framework for Action Research in education

McPherson and Nunes (2004) propose a view of action research (AR) in an educational context that is comprehensive and systemic in approach. They argue that only by taking a holistic view of the context for learning can a researcher hope to arrive at useful conclusions.

The authors argue that AR is particularly appropriate for the researching of online learning, 'an ideal research methodology for the study of educational informatics' (2004, p.10). AR mirrors the learning philosophy of experiential learning and reflective practitioner that is often used and it avoids the situation in which we have 'the mere recording of events and formulation of explanations by an uninvolved researcher, typical of positivism' (p.8). They give a brief overview of AR frameworks, concluding that the seven stage model offered by Cohen et al (2000) is perhaps one of the best for AR in education. However, they then largely dismisses this framework as being 'too generic … its major drawback is failing to provide clear links to the pedagogical, ethical, institutional, policy and even administrative issues that often constrain this type of research' (p.18). Instead they propose their own comprehensive framework that is more systemic in nature.

(McPherson and Nunes, 2004, p.28)

Their evaluation framework is equally comprehensive, covering the achievement of the programme's objectives, the quality of the course material, tutor support, the environment, face-to-face elements and measurement of the achievement of students' expectations.

For someone, like me, embarking on AR on a small scale in a focused project, this framework is rather daunting and frankly would need a team of researchers to implement. The authors explain that their framework is addressed at elearning courses in HE and this may explain the complexity. Does all AR in a learning context need to be so all encompassing?

Can we argue that this framework, devised prior to 2004, does not seem well suited to learning that integrates formal and informal learning, with a lower teaching presence and peer learning in social online communities, taking advantage of social technologies (networked learning)? In particular, the framework assumes that there is instruction, educational content and a curriculum, elements that are less important, perhaps, in a CPD event for teachers in a learning community.

Cohen, L., Manion, L. & Morrison, K. (2000) Research Methods in Education, Routledge.

McPherson, M. & Nunes, M. (2004) Developing innovation in online learning: An action research framework, Routledge.


Sunday, 5 September 2010

More than 'guide on the side'

In his analysis of teaching presence - as described in the model of Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000) - Anderson emphasises the essential role that teachers play (2008). He criticises the view espoused by some experts that online learning requires teachers to adopt more the role of a facilitator, acting as a 'guide on the side' rather than a 'sage on the stage'. Such a black and white view, he contends, is troublesome: 'The self-directed assumption of andragogy suggests a high degree of independence that is often inappropriate from a support perspective and which also ignores issues of what is worthwhile and or what qualifies as an educational experience' (Garrison, 1998, p.124 cited in Anderson, 2008, p.358).

Anderson believes that teachers have an important role to play in passing on relevant knowledge to learners, motivating them through their own enthusiasm for the topic, and setting an example of the type of scholarly contribution that is expected through their own postings. Consequently he dismisses the suggestion of Salmon (2000) than an e-moderator does need extensive subject expertise, but may be at a similar level of knowledge as the persons they are moderating.

After all the papers I have read on the changing role of teachers online I find this rather refreshing and a timely reminder that a good online teacher is first and foremost a good teacher. This fits more with my own experience from school where I found the best teachers to be the ones that inspired me and gave me a yearning to learn more. And of my experience as an OU tutor where my own experience and stories seemed to be of value to the students.

Anderson differentiates between online discourse and online discussion; the former reflects the participants' ability to express their views and present their arguments through critical thinking, whereas the latter may simply be social intercourse. I find this distinction really useful when considering the argument put forward by Anderson that teachers need to know more than the students and the yet situations may arise in which the students are more knowledgeable and confident with communicating online than are the teachers. The teachers may indeed be concerned about their ability to use the technology effectively, however when it comes to discourse, their maturity, knowledge and experience is likely to be more important than the advanced ICT skills of their students. Raising the level of student discussion from simply making observations and agreeing with each other, to critiquing and building upon what others say is an important role of the e-teacher and an essential ingredient of teaching presence.

An aspect that Anderson highlights as being important for critical thinking and intellectual growth is cognitive dissonance:

'Discourse also helps students to uncover misconceptions in their own thinking, or disagreements with the teacher or other students. Such conflict provides opportunity for exposure to cognitive dissonance which, from a “Piagetian” perspective, is critical to intellectual growth.' (Anderson, 2008, p.35)

An important role of the teacher would therefore be to encourage the airing of differences of opinions and debates about topics, with a view to helping students to cope with cognitive dissonance as a fact of life and as something that enriches discourse. This fits nicely with the views expressed by Hodgson and Reynolds (2005), that learning communities should support and facilitate differences of opinion, rather than 'manage' or suppress them.

Anderson talks about the need for assessment of online learning to reflect the underlying learning philosophy. Learning that encourages active participation and knowledge sharing should also give students a say in the way they are assessed. Furthermore, he states that research shows that in order to have an active online learning community you need to have an assessment/certification process that assesses and rewards participation. He gives the example of two practical frameworks used by teachers to be open and transparent about their expectations for contributions and the criteria by which they will be assessed. I find these frameworks to be rather prescriptive, for example indicating that postings should be between one and three paragraphs, should not appear too concentrated in time and should be grammatically and syntactically correct. Anderson does concede that some teachers may feel uneasy with such a prescriptive approach, but warns that alternative approaches based upon subjective assessments can leave students feeling unhappy. An approach increasingly being used involves asking learners to reflect on their own performance and to assess themselves in a final posting.

What does this imply for the forthcoming Learning event on web 2.0 tools in which we shall be asking teachers to reflect on what they have learnt in an informal staff room? Is it realistic to expect busy teachers to undertake this additional activity without some form of incentive? Should the final certification some how reflect this participation?


Anderson, T. (2008) 'Teaching in an online learning context', Theory and practice of online learning, 2nd ed, pp.343-365, AU Press
Garrison, D. R. (1998). Andragogy, learner-centeredness, and the educational transaction at a distance. Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), pp. 123-127.
Hodgson, V. & Reynolds, M. (2005) 'Consensus, difference and 'multiple communities' in networked learning'. Studies in Higher Education, 30 (1), pp.11 - 24
Salmon, G. (2001) E-moderating: The key to teaching and learning online, Kogan Page.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Action Research

I've been thinking further about my possible involvement in the next Learning Event (LE) for web 2.0 as a moderator and my concerns about how this would effect the validity of my research, and in particular the comments from Laura in response to my posting - many thanks Laura for your valuable input. I went back to my notes on Action Research and realised that this is precisely what I have been practising so far and that my participation in the future activity, as a researcher, is not only allowed, it is actually required as an integral part of the methodology.

Action Research involves researchers working together with practitioners to use the results to implement change. Rather then having external 'experts' observing the practice of 'subjects', often associated with a scientific of positivist approach, the two collaborate together as equals in process of change (Cohen et al, 2000). Action research is often used in local projects of a social nature, for example for research involving teaching practice and professional development (Denscombe, 2007). The advantage of Action Research is that you get an insiders view, that is holistic and covers the whole social context rather than the view of a detached outsider. However, it is only Action Research if is is collaborative, often through 'self-critical communities of people participating and collaborating in all phases of the research process' (Cohen et al, 2000, p.300). But does this imply that all 200 teachers in the LE need to have a say in how we design and carry out the event? Luckily Cohen et al also state that 'The view of action research as solely a group activity, however, might be too restricting' (p.301) and they indicate that it can involve a small group or even a single teacher in a 'teacher-researcher-teacher' movement.

I have been working closely with the domain expert for the event, Tiina, and our collective thinking has led to a proposal for the next LE that, I believe, benefits from our collaboration and offers something with which we both can feel comfortable. Involving the teachers themselves during the event in an ongoing reflection and discourse on what they think of the LE is also compatible with an Action Research based approach. Furthermore, the researcher may have a legitimate role as facilitator in the process, as a 'guide, formulator and summariser of knowledge, raiser of issues' (Cohen et al, 2000, p.301), 'a resource to be drawn upon as and when the practitioner sees fit' (Denscombe, 2007, p.127).

There are some drawbacks of this approach and the researcher needs to go to great pains to avoid biasing the research - this involves reflexivity, when the researcher has to be open about her/his own feelings and ensures that the overall project remains democratic, with symmetry of power and respect for each other as equals.

Action Research usually involves cycles or spirals of plan, act, observe, reflect, with several iterations of experimentation. In practice, this is often limited and in my case I will have gone through two iterations, using the first LE to observe, analyse and propose changes and the second LE to try out the ideas.

From my reading of Action Research I've picked up some useful ideas. I must keep a diary of what happens and I should continue to be open about what I am thinking (through this blog perhaps). I would like to encourage Tiina to keep her own diary and to be my critical friend throughout the process. Instead of keeping the research aims in the background, we should be open about what we are doing and why we are doing it, seeking the opinion of the participants as an ongoing process of reflection. This could be usefully done within the staff room. I suggest collect data from as many sources as I can practicably manage, always ensuring informed consent from the participants and the right to with draw from the research.

If all goes well, I should have enough data to analyse what happened and to write a case study - the typical output of Action Research (Gray, 2004). Whether the results will be generalisable or too context specific is debatable (Cohen et al, 2000), however it will be a useful research exercise that should contribute to understanding more about learning communities.


Cohen, L., Manion, L. & Morrison, K. (2000) Research Methods in Education, Routledge.
Denscombe, M. (2007) The Good Research Guide: For Small-scale Social Research Projects, Open University Press.
Gray, D. E. (2004) Doing research in the real world, London, SAGE Publications Ltd.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Understanding teachers' Continous Professional Development (CPD)

I've read a couple of papers recently that are helping me to understand better CPD for teachers and why eTwinning may be so successful.

Guskey (2002) suggests that research points to most CPD as being ineffective in bringing about the desired fundamental change in teachers' beliefs, attitudes and practice. He points out that what primarily motivates teachers to learn is a desire to improve the learning outcome of their students. Adding that they are also very pragmatic, seeking specific, concrete and practical ideas. Programmes that do not take this into account are doomed to failure. He suggests that the underlying model that is often used with teachers' CPD is flawed: based on the ideas of Lewin (1935) it presupposes that in order to change teaching practice we must firstly address teachers' beliefs and attitudes in order to obtain their commitment and enthusiasm to subsequently implement new programmes. Guskey proposes an alternative model based upon the premise that one has to firstly demonstrate the practical and concrete benefits of innovation, and the positive impact on students' learning outcomes:

'The crucial point is that it is not the professional development per se, but the experience  of  successful  implementation  that  changes  teachers’  attitudes  and beliefs. They believe it works because they have seen it work, and that experience shapes their attitudes and beliefs' (Guskey, 2002, p.383)

Guskey (p.383, 2002)
Boyle et al (2004) also suggest that whereas traditional CPD approaches, such as attending a course, a conference, etc, may spark the interest of teachers, they are largely insufficient to lead to sustainable change to what teachers teach and how they teach. They note that for a lot of teachers, 'professional development appears to  be  still  characterized  by  fragmented  ‘one-shot’  workshops  at  which  they  listen passively  to ‘experts’ and  learn  about  topics  not  essential  to  teaching' (2004, p47). They suggest that CPD that favours peer learning is far more likely to be successful:

'In  comparison  to  the  traditional ‘one-hit’ workshops, these types of activities are usually longer in duration, allow teachers the opportunity to practise and reflect upon their teaching and are embedded in ongoing teaching activities' (Boyle et al, 2004, p.48)

The findings from their longitudinal study suggest that the most common longer-term CPD activities for teachers involved the observation of colleagues (peers) and the sharing of practice, and that these activities led to one or more aspects of teaching practice being modified.

The  conclusions of Guskey and Boyle et al fit well with the approach adopted in eTwinning, where the basic premise is that teachers primarily learn from each other, through concrete activities (often joint pedagogical projects) in an environment that supports longer-term collaboration and relationship building. The conclusions also support the ideas that we are putting forward for the revised LE in the autumn, namely: more support for peer reflection and sharing, and a longer period in which teachers may try-out the ideas in their daily practice.


Boyle, B., While, D. & Boyle, T. (2004) 'A longitudinal study of teacher change: what makes professional development effective?'. Curriculum Journal, 15 (1), pp.45-68
Guskey, T. R. (2002) 'Professional Development and Teacher Change'. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 8 (3), pp.381 - 391
Lewin, K. (1935) 'A Dynamic Theory of Personality', New York, McGraw Hill

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Applying ideas emerging from research

The online learning event (LE) for teachers that I followed in April is being repeated in October/November and this is an opportunity for me to apply some of the ideas emerging from my research. Working with the teacher and domain expert, Tiina, who runs the event, I've been exploring what changes we could apply. It's quite an opportunity but at the same time quite a challenge. These were the ideas that emerged from the previous event:
  • The cognitive activities of the event could be usefully reinforced by social activities to foster the development of a community and provide opportunity for shared reflection on the process of collaboration, thereby supporting competence development 
  • The event could be lengthened to give more time for teachers to apply ideas in their own practice, reflect on their experience and share stories. This will also give more opportunity for social ties to strengthen and the community to develop 
  • The teaching presence could be reinforced at some key points, to provide more structure/guidance and launch the participants on the process of collaboration and reflection 

And in response, this is what we are thinking of doing for the new event:
  • Create a virtual staff room where teachers can socialise informally, reflect on their experiences and share their thoughts with their peers. The aim is to support reflection in practice, meta-cognition and higher-order learning. 
  • After the LE cognitive activities have finished, allow a further period of (say) one month for teachers to try out what they have learned through the LE in their own teaching practice and then reconvene them for a debrief. They will be encouraged to their share stories, think about what they have learned and reflect on what it means for their own competence development.
  • During the one month of practising, leave the LE virtual staff room open to support ongoing reflection and the development of a peer community
  • Reinforce the moderation (teaching presence) at key points, for example during the final activity, to encourage reflection and stimulate discussion
I would again collect data, having obtained the permissions of the participants, and analyse it to see what lessons can be learned. However, I shall also be actively involved as a moderator (supporting Tiina) and therein lies a fundamental question with which I am currently battling: is it a valid research proposition to be both actively involved in this exercise as a participant and as a researcher? How can I ensure that my results are not influenced or biased, and hence my research conclusions rejected?

Answers on a postcard please :)

Food for further reflection, that's for sure.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

What learning tasks lead to collaboration

In their paper entitled 'CSCL in teacher training: what learning tasks lead to collaboration', Lockhorst et al (2010) examine the challenging question as to which activities encourage teachers to collaborate online, as opposed to learning on their own. They also try to relate the nature of the task to the depth of learning that occurs.

Referring to the research literature, they remind us that several studies have shown that teachers working together often fail to collaborate and that 'collegiality alone seems not enough for teacher collaboration and collaborative skills are needed such as the ability of collegial enquiry and reflection' (p.63). Teachers have strong professional beliefs that can lead to conflict and teachers need to learn how to use their collaborative skills to take advantage of their differences to stimulate debate. In this respect I am reminded of some wise words used by our former European Commissioner for education, Jan Figel' "Divers systems, shared goals" - valuing and embracing diversity (EU, 2008).

Lockhorst et al also remind us of the dilemma as to how much structure and guidance should be present in online learning activities - what I referred to as teaching presence in previous postings (Garrison, 2007). Unstructured, ill-defined tasks are known to stimulate collaboration and encourage negotiation between learners. This in turn stimulates critical reflection and deeper-learning. On the other hand, research also shows that ill-structured problems can lead to participants working in a disorganised manner, spending more time on trying to understand the problem than on solving it. This can lead some learners to feel disorientated, demotivated and even disaffected, especially if they are not familiar with Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL).

Having researched three initial teacher training programmes at the University of Utrecht, using a mix of quantitative and qualitative analysis, they arrive at several tentative conclusions:
  • Tasks designed to yield a group product without individual interest of the participants lead to less participation compared with tasks requiring reflection on one's own practice. However, this might be compensated for by having more structure in the learning tasks (i.e. increased teaching presence may encourage collaboration in activities that are less related to individual practice).
  • Similarly tasks calling for more reflection and peer feedback lead to greater interaction between participants (not too surprisingly). Interaction can be encouraged through the use of  'more complex tasks with prescribed roles and directions addressing controversial positions of group members' (p.75).
  • In order for communication between participants to be focused on the content (rather than organisational issues, for example) the activity should be as straightforward as possible. They suggest that participants more experienced in CSCL may require less structure.
  • Personal perspectives, reflections and experiences trigger a deeper level of learning. Relating learning to teachers' own practice leads to greater engagement and motivation.
They conclude by suggesting that:
... even the most complex CSCL task in our study ... needed a certain level of structure (cf. Dillenbourg, 2002; Sorensen & Takle, 1999) to show a high level of student participation and interaction, a high proportion of content- related communication, a deep level of communication and a high level of organisational communication. (Lockhorst et al, 2010, p.76)
So on balance they lean towards more structured activities (a greater teaching presence) in online learning communities, apart from when the participants are already well versed in this type of environment and are able to quickly address organisational issues in order to focus on the problem in hand.

Finally, it was interesting to read that they had used Atlas.ti extensively in their analysis of the data and to see another example of a data coding scheme.


EU (2008) Education and Training 2010 – Diverse Systems, Shared Goals, The European Commission, Directorate-General for Education and Culture.  (ONLINE - http://ec.europa.eu/education/policies/2010/et_2010_en.html - accessed 30.05.2008)

Garrison, D. (2007) 'Online community of inquiry review: Social, cognitive, and teaching presence issues'. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11 (1), pp.61-72

Lockhorst, D., Admiraal, W. & Pilot, A. (2010) 'CSCL in teacher training: what learning tasks lead to collaboration?'. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 19 (1), pp.63-78

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Online communities for teachers' professional development

Duncan-Howell's paper (2010) examines three online communities involving teachers to see to what extent they are facilitating professional development (two in Australia and one in the UK). She concludes, from an online survey completed by the participants, that indeed such communities offer a rich source of professional learning, that teachers consequently spend more time in professional learning and the outcomes are satisfying for the participants. Whereas the data obtained is from the participants themselves and is not backed up (triangulated) by other independent sources, the results are interesting and some aspects concur with my own reflections - notably on the short-duration teachers online community (learning event) that I followed.

She compares the results with more traditional teacher professional development (PD) where the research literature suggests that there has been less success - harder for teachers to follow in terms of timing, courses tend to be prescribed by school management rather than designed to reflect teachers' needs, workshops tend to be too short and there is insufficient opportunity for collaboration (e.g. Guskey, 2002). Research suggests that skills taught in traditional PD are not being taken up in the classroom; there is too much focus on theory, and teaching practice is not changing as a result. Overall there is a perceived lack of relevance. Online communities, on the overhand, tend to be more teacher driven and more clearly linked to practice. This motivates the teachers to continue their participation, sometimes for periods spanning several years.

Referring to the likes of Boyle et al (2004) she suggests that the collaborative nature of online communities helps teachers to be less insular and more receptive to sharing practice with their peers. In particular, referring to the literature, she suggests that one of the secrets to the success of online communities is their longevity, the way in which they afford critical reflection in practice and the social space that they provide . This concurs with one of the tentative conclusions I reached in my research on the 12 day learning event (LE) that was focused on developing skills in the use of web 2.0 tools: a longer period is needed to engender a community and support critical reflection, backed by a social space in which the cognitive activities can be complemented by social ones. That said, the LE I followed involved more formal learning, PD being the clear stated intention of the LE. Online communities, on the other hand, are often not specifically focused on learning - though it is a clear consequence. Another result from the survey that concurred with my own analysis was the importance of the emotional support offered by the teachers to each other and the 'sense of belonging and camaraderie' (Duncan-Howell, 2010, p.336). I linked this in my analysis to issues of social presence and the relatively strong ties that developed between participants.

In speaking about communities, Duncan-Howell refers to a definition offered by Leask and Younie (2001):
Online communities (for professional development) may be using any form of electronic communication which provides for the opportunity for on-line synchronous/asynchronous two-way communication between an individual and their peers, and to which the individual has some commitment and professional involvement over a period of time.
                             (Leask & Younie, 2001, p. 225)
In her analysis, Duncan-Howell noted that whereas the teachers surveyed indicated a clear preference for face-to-face environments for learning, they also confirmed that online communities provide a good environment for PD. She concludes that perhaps it was a question of terminology and that teachers do not instantly associate PD with learning. I encountered a similar issue in my survey, where I felt that the use of the terms training and professional development led the respondents to focus their feedback on the cognitive rather than the social activities, the latter being (perhaps) perceived as time-wasting or not what one is supposed to do when involved in PD.


Boyle, B., While, D. & Boyle, T. (2004). A longitudinal study of teacher change: what makes professional development effective? The Curriculum Journal, 15, 1, 45–68.

Duncan-Howell, J (2010). 'Teachers making connections: Online communities as a source of professional learning'. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41 (2), pp.324-340

Guskey, T. R. (2002). Professional development and teacher change. Teachers and Teaching, 8, 3/4, 381–391.

Leask, M. & Younie, S. (2001). Building on-line communities for teachers: issues emerging from research. In M. Leask (Ed.), Issues in teaching using ICT (pp. 223–232). London: Routledge Falmer.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Discourse analysis in a CoP

It was interesting to read in Thomson et al.'s paper (2009) how they had applied discourse analysis to a short term (seven weeks long) online community of practice, based upon the Interaction Analysis model of Gunawardena et al (1997). The workshop involved 20-40 participants, 3 facilitators, 4 mentors, 3 guest speakers and 3-4 researchers - a significant investment in support staff, even excluding the researchers (cf the 200 participants and 1 domain expert involved in the eTwinning Learning Event [LE] that I followed).

Main points that I noted from the paper:
  • Anecdotal evidence emerged of strong ties forming even in such a short term CoP. This matches my observations from the LE
  • Several discourse analysis models were examined and Gunawardena et al's model was chosen. That said, results showed that the model 'used alone, would not capture the full measure of messages posted' and the open ended and free-form dialogue observed in the CoP 'is less readily analysed by frameworks based upon goal orientated debate style interactions' (p.7).
  • Using several researchers to code data can lead to discrepancies in the way the data is coded, so called 'inter-rater reliability'. I won't have this problem!
  • The study of the dialogue in the forums misses the private chats and discussions that take place outside of the environment, yet the results show that such discussions are often referred to in the dialogue by the participants
  • The level of interaction by the participants gradually increased from the lower range, identified by Gunawardena et al, to the medium to high range. Yet the workshop leader's presence remained high (significant teaching presence). The proportion of participants playing the various roles (thought leader, mentor, facilitator, etc) remained largely constant despite the increase in the level of the dialogue
  • The follow-up survey of participants suggested that where there was more interaction there were triggers for more-in depth conversations and higher learning
  • The paper encourages further research in the analysis of discourse in online CoP, especially with larger samples. Good motivation to continue ....

Gunawardena, C., Lowe, C. & Anderson, T. (1997) 'Analysis of a global online debate and the development of an interaction analysis model for examining social construction of knowledge in computer conferencing'. Journal of educational computing research, 17 (4)

Rourke, L., Anderson, T., Garrison, D. & Archer, W. (2001) 'Methodological issues in the content analysis of computer conference transcripts', International Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education (IJAIED), 12, pp.8-22. (ONLINE - http://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-00197319/ - accessed 18.07.2010)

Thomson, R., Reeves-Lipscombe, D., Stuckey, B. & Mentis, M. (2009) 'Discourse Analysis and Role Adoption in a Community of Practice'. (ONLINE - http://cpsquare.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/stuckey-etal-aera-discourse_analysis.pdf - accessed 11.07.2010)

Using Atlas.ti

I decided to take the plunge and download the trial version of the Computer Aided Qualitative Data Analysis Software (CAQDAS) Atlas.ti. Having watched several useful videos explaining the features, I thought the best way to try it out would be to read a paper, link it in the system and record the useful quotations that I found.

Call me old-fashioned, but my first step involved a paper printout and a highlighter pen. I find this more relaxing for the eyes and certainly more portable. Then I recorded some of my highlighting in the pdf file using the tool PDF-XChange viewer; I find this useful for future reference, though if I could  ever get use to working directly online it would be quicker.

After loading it into Atlas.ti as a primary document in a project that I had created for my literature review, I selected a few paragraphs that I had identified as useful quotations (in green) and saved them in the Quotations manager - eg, there was a reference made to the development of strong ties even in a short duration community, so I saved this with the code Strong ties.

I can see that linking in relevant papers and saving the useful quotations in a central place will be useful for the literature review. However, after reading a paper one clearly has to take the decision as to whether or not it is sufficiently relevant to the research as to warrant coding it, as it takes effort - I would say around an hour to read the paper, highlight bits, save in Atlas.ti and mark-up quotations.

Based upon this experience, I think I will continue with the trial and some other papers. Then decide whether to continue. But first impressions are positive and I can already see the value of the tool for coding the qualitative data that I will collect later in surveys, interview transcripts, forums (web pages saved as pdf?), images, etc

Monday, 12 July 2010

Keeping a grasp of the bigger picture

As I read more papers - which provide enticing references to yet more papers - I wonder about keeping track of the bigger picture and indexing what I am seeing. So far I have used the mind mapping software MindManager, together with EndNote for referencing. Very good tools, but not enough to hold my thinking together.

In thinking about how best to process the qualitative data that I will collect in the future, I've been wondering about using a CAQDAS package such as Atlas.ti or NVivo (possibly the former as it is used by my university). I understand that any package requires a certain amount of investment to simply set it up and I would still need to define my coding scheme (after all it cannot do everything!). But the more I look into them, the more attractive they look: I see that these packages can be used to manage one's portfolio of sources (docs, pdf, images, video) and for building up a literature review and citation index.

So is the investment in such a tool worth it (I mean in terms of effort as, for example, Atlas.ti offer a competitive price for students) and will it really help me? Do other PhD students have experience of using these tools to support their research?

Would love to hear comments from users, good or bad.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Online learning Communities

A book by Barab, Kling and Gray (2004) on virtual communities for learning contains many papers relevant to my research, including one by Riel and Polin (2004) called 'Online learning communities: Common ground and critical differences in designing technical environments'. They note that the term community has become somewhat of a cliché in the world of online learning, confirming what several other writers have said including Grossman and Wineburg (2000) who noted that: 'Groups of people become community, or so it would seem, by the flourish of a researcher’s pen.  In this sense, researchers have yet to formulate criteria that would allow them to distinguish between a community of teachers and a group of teachers sitting in a room for a meeting.' (p.6).  

Riel and Polin suggest a rather long definition of community that encompasses: variety in terms of participants age, experience, etc; culture defined by norms, values and routines; artefacts produced from joint activity and individual sensemaking; and multi-generational, in terms of members coming and going. They caution that communities are not always healthy contexts for learning. They may be dysfunctional, enforce conformity, closed to new participants, scattered and isolated. And in these cases, learning may be more problematic: 'simply labelling a group as a community neither ensures that it functions as one, nor that it is a beneficial, cohesive unit in which learning will take place readily' (p.18). These sound like very wise words and ones that we as researchers would do well to remember.

Riel and Polin  propose a typology of three 'distinct but overlapping forms of learning within communities' (p16):
  • Task-based: groups of people working together intently over a limited period of time on a particular product. Focus is often on diversity of experience to solve particular, challenging problems through collaboration. Participation is often mandatory, for example as part of a course, and the output a one-off (not meant for further revision).

    Whereas I can recognise such a grouping and see it as a rather loose community, I feel instinctively that it is too prescriptive to limit this type to fixed products.
  • Practice-based: usually based around a profession or discipline, these groups focus on sharing and developing good practice. Participation is usually voluntary. The focus is on knowledge in use rather than on the process of knowledge development. The group is dynamic and lives through several generations of members. Products (stories, procedures, routines, etc) represent work in progress, the reification of the group's knowledge and are meant for further revision.

    This is the classic Community of Practice as proposed by Wenger. It represents the cornerstone of many modern-day knowledge management strategies for organisational learning.
  • Knowledge-based: here the focus is on the use and reuse of knowledge in a never ending cycle, as proposed by the likes of Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) and Brown and Duguid (1991). Products are produced only so far as necessary to express the current state of thinking and to help the dialogue and knowledge development to continue through further cycles. As such reports are meant to invite comment and revision. In such communities, there is considerable focus on the process of knowledge development and group collaboration.

    We can see examples of knowledge-based communities in research. The problem is often, however, that in order to attract sponsorship and funding they are obliged to produce useful products and cannot simply continuing developing knowledge in isolation from practice (quite right too!)

Learning organisation, represented by the intersection of the three types of community (Riel and Polin, 2004, p.40)

I find these typologies to be useful in identifying perhaps extreme examples of communities, however in the majority of cases examples of working communities for learning are a hybrid of all three types; effectively collaborating in joint activities, producing useful outputs related to practice and helping to advance the state-of-the art in domain knowledge.

I am wondering into which category I would place the recent Learning Event that I followed. It was tasked-based in that it focused on completing specific activities in a limited period, producing outputs that were one-off and including a group of teachers that was fixed over the duration. On the other hand, the outputs were only the by-products of the process of learning and the focus was on knowledge development - though this was at the individual, rather than the group level. Similarly, emphasis was placed on concrete practice and real life contexts, so in this respect the community was practice based. Perhaps this only serves to illustrate the fragile nature of the classification scheme proposed by Riel and Polin.


Barab, S., Kling, R. & Gray, J. (Eds.) (2004) Designing for virtual communities in the service of learning, Cambridge University Press.

Brown, J. S. & Duguid, P. (1991) 'Organizational Learning and Communities-of-Practice: Toward a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation'. Organization Science, 2 (1), pp.40-57

Grossman, P., Wineburg, S. & Woolworth, S. (2000) What Makes Teacher Community Different from a Gathering of Teachers?, Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, University of Washington. (ONLINE - http://depts.washington.edu/ctpmail/PDFs/Community-GWW-01-2001.pdf - accessed 10.07.2010)

Nonaka, I. & Takeuchi, H. (1995) The Knowledge-Creating Company. New York, Oxford University Press, Inc.

Riel, M. & Polin, L. (2004) 'Online learning communities: Common ground and critical differences in designing technical environments', in Barab, S., Kling, R. & Gray, B. (Eds.), Designing for virtual communities in the service of learning, pp.16-50, Cambridge University Press