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

Saturday, 17 April 2010

eTwinning Learning Event

 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.


  1. What is interesting is that many of the participants have become friendly with each other through the Learning Events. Hence the social aspect of these courses seems to be growing. Something I feel is worth trying to follow.

  2. Hi Anne, yes it looks like the Learning Events are helping to incease the social capital of the eTwinning community

  3. Today another eTwinning Learning Event has come to an end - I enjoyed it. Group work worth following - my opinion...

  4. Great news Daniela. The events seem to be a real success

  5. Hi Brian, interesting blog and observation of the learning event. I attended some 3 – 4 eTwinning learning events so far and this was maybe the best one, since there has been a real interaction among participants (in the others, you usually just had to complete your task & write your feedback in the forum, often ignoring the follow-up: so, it wasn’t much of a real community).
    Anyway, this LE can be taken as an example of how eTwinning works, and how this kind of communities develop in time. I’m personally interested in communities of practice and I’ve been reading about – and experiencing – them for a while now. It’s funny as I met the real thing first, then learnt about Wenger’s theories and I was thrilled by how theory and reality went together. In fact, about two years ago, I created an eTwinning project for teachers (LLT – Lifelong Learning Teachers) which turned out to grow as a community of practice – without us knowing what a CoP was at the time. Then I was introduced to Wenger’s studies and I was like – Wow! That’s us!
    From then on, I’ve been looking at the ups and downs of our little community (about 70 members) and at the eTwinning larger one, in a different way. And I’ve been re-reading my experiences and the eTwinning action’s evolution (can you remember the “eTwinning goes social” turning point? well, I definitely do!) from a different perspective.
    Of course, it’s just my personal interest and experience, not a formal study. But I can see some challenges in the future (both for my projects and for eTwinning). Maybe you can help me here with your experience and research:
    - how do we keep members involved over time? (it’s easy in a Learning Event like this, set in a limited time, but what in a project developing in months, or even years? Do you think that an e-CoP is doomed to a limited life? That members have to come and go continuously?)
    - is it possible to keep the involvement without a task/reward structure? Just to share ideas and grow together as teachers? (have you considered the possibility of having here people interacting so often and continuously, mainly to get their diploma?)
    - how do we get to involve new members? (you noticed yourself, lots of members already knew each other. This is due to the fact that we are always the same group of active members – both in LLT and in eTwinning, it’s just different numbers. It looks like a static community.)
    - how do we deal with “silent members”? (those ones that register but don’t say anything? Do they actually count as members? We don’t do anything about them.)
    - least but not last: is this exciting world (LLT, Learning Events, eTwinning) really representative of the whole learning community? Are we representatives of the “average” EU teacher?
    Ok… loooong post, but I’m really interested in the topic. And I love Web 2.0 and believe in the effectiveness of e-learning communities. It’s just that sometimes I wonder if we’re going to hit an impasse. And I don’t know how to overcome it.
    I know you may not have time to answer so many questions, but I’m really looking forward to getting to know more about your opinions and experiences, both for me and for my students (CoPs work for them as well).
    If you got here, thanks for reading :) and thanks for sharing your papers!

  6. Laura,

    Thanks for such an interesting comment. It's so motivating to meet someone else who is interested in the topic and clearly so motivated.

    I am really not sure I am the best person to answer your questions. I am certainly happy to have a go giving my opinion, but I hope that other people reading this will contribute theit thoughts. After all, I am sure there is no right or wrong answer.

    I'll think a bit and then get back to you. Anyone else?


  7. Hi Brian, I just opened my mailbox and found Anne's message, of course I felt very interested in answering the questionnaire,then entered your blog, what a nice surprise to check someone observing, annalysing and making comments on our work! First of all I must say I'm really impressed by your research. As a teacher, becoming a member of the etwinning comunity helped me after many years of wandering alone in the desert, I mean, all of a sudden, without the tedious burocracy of most Comenius projects procedures, this platform gives you the chance to see what's going on beyond the walls of your school. This has been my second learning event this year, the first one about multiple intelligences was good, but this has been far more "hands on" and really interactive. BTW, my group got the approval for a project, we all feel very enthusiastic about it. Well, congratulations again for your work, I hope to be able to be of some help.

  8. Hi Julia, observing was great fun. I was impressed by the level of involvement and the enthusiasme of everybody.

    Hopefully my research will contribute to our understanding of online communities, so thanks for your contribution.


  9. Hi Laura,

    Coming back to your previous post and your comments about CoP, I see that you have noticed a change in the direction of eTwinning, what you call the ‘“eTwinning goes social” turning point’. It would be interesting to know what inspired you to make this observation?

    Regarding the questions you posed, here are some strictly personal thoughts:

    ‘- how do we keep members involved over time?’

    Would it be right to say that a CoP should remain active as long as it members are involved and that waning interest is perhaps an indication that it is time to consider moving on. After all, CoP are meant to be dynamic communities, coming and going as interests develop, with individuals following various trajectories across and between them.

    ‘- is it possible to keep the involvement without a task/reward structure? Just to share ideas and grow together as teachers?’

    I would have thought intuitively that participants are involved in Learning Events (LE) for quite different reasons than say the more flexible and longer term eTwinning Groups. I’ve not had time to observe the latter yet, but it seems clear that participants are motivated by an LE for very practical reasons: to learn a new topic, to get practical tips and to share good practice. I imagine that part of the negotiations that take place within more typical CoPs, like the eTwinning Groups, include an agreement between the members as to what they hope to achieve, how and when. This negotiation will continue over time and expectations may change as the group matures. As you suggest, I would expect there to be task/rewards involved, however I would not expect these to be the same for everyone.

    ‘- how do we get to involve new members’

    The research that I have seen suggests a variety of mechanisms including starting with an initial face-to-face session so people can get to know each other, encouraging buddying where experienced members team up with less experienced ones, ensuring that socio-emotional interaction is supported (Kreijns et al., 2003), etc. But perhaps the most significant, is the ideas espoused by Wenger et al that inexperienced people may start on the fringes, but with time and experience they will gradually move to the centre becoming more active. This implies a longer term investment than might be possible, for example, in the LEs.

    ‘- how do we deal with “silent members”?’

    Lave and Wenger (1991) refer to this as ‘legitimate peripheral participation’. They see nothing wrong with silent members. They may contribute later as the group develops. If you have not read their book, I can recommend it.

    ‘- least but not last: is this exciting world (LLT, Learning Events, eTwinning) really representative of the whole learning community? Are we representatives of the “average” EU teacher?’

    I would say that we are more representatives of the future than the present; pioneers in a world that is rapidly changing. As Eric Hoffer wisely said “In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists”.


    Kreijns, K., Kirschner, P. A. & Jochems, W. (2003) 'Identifying the pitfalls for social interaction in computer-supported collaborative learning environments: a review of the research'. Computers in Human Behavior, 19 (3), pp.335-353
    Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge University Press.

  10. Dear Brian,
    Two reasons for this post:
    1. I am a member of the eTwinning project for teachers LLT – Lifelong Learning Teachers, founded by Laura and Monika, and I am very interested in the discussion here as well. Thank you for the recommended reading!
    2. I am looking forward to seeing you again in Villasimius in 3 weeks' time!

  11. Same here Daniela. As much as I appreciate virtual discussion, you cannot beat meeting face-to-face. See you in Italy.


  12. Hi Brian,
    thanks for your answer. It's extremely interesting to read your opinion, first of all because you are the expert here (you have a wider perspective in your observation than that of any individual teacher) and then because it doesn’t happen so often in my everyday life to talk about these topics, even if I (we) experience CoPs all the time.
    So here are my thoughts - very personal as well, as I think there's no general truth to be found here, just personal impressions.

    You asked me how I noticed the eTwinning change of direction during the last couple of years. Let's put it this way: in my experience, eTwinning changed from "tool" to "community". I had been working on eTwinning for a while before this change, I had found some good partners for me and my pupils, we had built profitable projects together. In short, we had played and had fun on eTwinning. And it turned out to be a valuable game and a successful tool.
    Then there was the "eTwinning goes social" campaign: it looked like they just changed their portal and desktop, but it was much more. A whole new environment was created from then on - a place of faces (can you believe how motivating it is for teachers and pupils the simple fact of actually being able to see your partner?) and people you could feel as "real". Of course, it was not just a matter of putting a photo under your name: everything became more personal, for me and my students. You were not just working in a project, you were showing something of yourself as well, and your partners were doing the same. Life/school/job melted a little bit. And things got more creative - at least, that's how we felt.
    That's why our interest (mine, and my pupils') shifted from the projects to the sharing. Before, we worked on eTwinning, now we work "with" eTwinning, and not necessarily into a project. That's difficult to explain to a non-teacher: it's my didactics that changed, dealing more with the learning-together process and less with a specific subject. With my partners, we create more flexible pathways than before, then we follow our pupils, just trying to give a direction to their cooperative learning (what Tiina did with us in the Web 2.0 LE). Some of our colleagues were rather skeptic, but it works, both with pupils and teachers: the results are measurable via any formal or informal assessment test. And that's all this was about, as being successful in my teaching (why not, while having some fun) is what I'm looking for.

    So, the "social" eTwinning made a huge change in my everyday teaching, as it put together my passions (my husband would say addictions, but that's another story): people, didactics & the web. The projects for teachers (LLT was only the first), the Les etc. are just another aspect of this interest in growing together. And another phase in my "trajectory" across eTwinning.

    That's all about me, but I believe lots of eTwinners share my same experience.

    I think I'd better stop here for now. I'd like to talk some more to you about CoPs and your answers, but I've got to put my ideas together first. I'll think about it and write again in a while.

    Thanks again, have a nice weekend :)


  13. Hello,
    i got here a bit too late, unfortunately, but since I'm very keen of there Learning Events, I have to say a few words.
    I've been taking part in 5 so far, starting from March 2009 and I have noticed a change in them too, in this social aspect. There is much more emphasis now on commenting and giving feed-back, and also in group work.
    For me, an enjoyable Learninglab is a very precise balance between a few elements:
    1. The number and the type of the submitted learning materials
    2. The hands-on tasks (in terms of quantity, variety, difficulty)
    3. The examples given by the moderator
    4. The mutual communication of the participants
    5. The constant feed-back and support from the facilitator
    6. The reflection of the given topic- a sort of crystallization.
    Not easy to blend all these, and from all these points of view I enjoyed the Lab on web 2.0 as well as some of the other labs- and I have to mention the one on Geogebra and the one on Podcasting.
    One more thing- I think that the huge number of people enrolling for the Labs shows one common denominator of the etwinning teachers- the passion for learning, since in some countries, including mine, the certificates are of no official use up to now.
    Sorry again for my late comment.
    Best regards.