I am observing and participating in an eTwinning Learning Event for around 200 teachers entitled ‘Exploiting Web 2.0 - eTwinning and Collaboration’. The online community runs from 12 until the 24 April. Supported by a teacher who is an expert in this area, activities are set every day for the participants to use web 2.0 tools and to share their experiences, whilst working towards the common goal of devising an eTwinning project. Tools include blogs, wikis, bookmark sharing sites, collaborative web documents (Google docs), online video and slide sharing, etc. Forums are used for the teachers to set up small working groups and to post their comments.
The event is centred on learning-by-doing, with peers, in the context of eTwinning practice. It is well organised, focused and demanding. It’s quite a challenge to keep up with the activities, on top of one’s daily work, however the asynchronous nature of the learning means that you can easily catch up if you fall a little behind.
Interactions are in English and the participants are mainly non-native English speakers, though some of them teach the subject.
Each evening there is a flurry of activity as participants turn from their daily teaching practice to take part in the event. The first activity alone led to around 170 posts from participants introducing themselves and commenting on the thought-provoking YouTube video Shift happens. This degree of activity presents quite a challenge if you are interested in reading and commenting on the work of others. One evening I was unable to enter the forums and the friendly message ‘This page is under technical maintenance please come back in a few minutes’ was either a result of unfortunate timing or a reflection of how busy the system was.
It was difficult for me to introduce myself, not being a teacher, and this was compounded on the second day when we were asked to split into small groups reflecting the age groups that we teach. Where was I to go? Do I a) adopt a false persona and enter a random group, b) ask the organiser to create a special group for me or c) recognise that I must sit out on this part of the exercise. I decided on the latter: a) would have been unethical and b) would have meant that, as a researcher, I was asking the context to be changed to reflect my needs. An interesting quandary for phenomenological research when one has a different identity!
Looking through the nature of the interactions, I see several types of message:
° Hi this is me and this is my contribution
° Building upon an earlier contribution of someone else
° Encouragements like. ‘yes, we are all really busy and it’s ok to be tired’
° Requests for help, and replies
I also noted, during the introductions, that there were some messages that referred to existing relationships and how good was to be working together again. Often these related to previous face-to-face encounters or collaborations on line, in the context of eTwinning. Indeed, a lot of the social chit-chat seems to be between participants who already know each other. It would be interesting to try to identify social interaction between participants who were previously strangers and see if this is increasing over time.
Observing the data is quite a challenge as, due to the very nature of the event, it is spread across several tools and environments: in forums, blogs, wikis, etc. And messages are increasingly referring to off-piste interactions by email, which of course we cannot see. My conclusion is that it would be impracticable to do a systemic analysis of the dialogue across this event. And many of the interactions anyway, at least so far, tend to be short, individual and without follow-up. Perhaps the sub-group work will be interesting to follow over the following days.
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.