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

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

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

School-teachers' learning community

Came across this relevant and interesting paper by Hlapanis and Dimitracopoulou (2007) in which the University of Aegean in Greece implemented a learning community for in-service teachers from the Dodecanese Islands. Formal learning in a variety of e-learning courses was complemented by informal learning in through collaboration. They produced a case study of how the community was created and how it evolved, based upon research using mixed-methods, including quantitative data from Social Network Analysis (SNA) of the communication between participants and qualitative data from semi-structured interviews of students (the teachers) and instructors.

They used e-moderators - ‘teachers who design, facilitate and direct the cognitive  and  social  processes  for  the  purpose  of  realizing  personally  meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes’ (Garrison and Anderson, 2003, p. 49) - to continuously facilitate a discussion between participants and to engender a feeling of community.

They conclude, inter alia, that:
  • The creation of a community of learners does not happen automatically or suddenly but rather as a result of specific actions of all participants.  It took around 4 to 5 weeks for the community to develop and become self-sustaining
  • The use of e-moderators was essential for the community creation and evolution. They used a mixture of low and high intervention styles, at various points, as appropriate to the stage of evolution of the community and its degree of autonomy.
  • The data collected helped the instructors understand when the community took off and when intervention was necessary. Reports on group activity were made available to everyone in the community to help with self-regulation - however, the research was largely inconclusive as to whether this aspect was positive
There are remarkable similarities between these results and the implications arising from my research on the recent Learning Event.


Garrison, D. R. & Anderson, T. (2003) E-learning in the 21st century: a framework for research and practice (London, Routledge).
Hlapanis, G. & Dimitracopoulou, A. (2007) 'The School-Teacher's Learning Community: matters of communication analysis'. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 16 (2), pp.133 - 151

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Report from my research on the LE web 2.0

Here is a first version of my report. I'd welcome any comments or suggestions for improvements.

Following this Learning Event has been an enlightening experience for me, both in terms of the results obtained and as a research experience. When I started I was convinced that I would find that socialising and making friendships would be really important. And whereas it proved to be an important contributing factor, participants indicated that they were mainly focused on completing the (cognitive) activities and meeting new people. On further reflection this seemed to be due, at least in part, to the very short duration and intensity of the LE (only twelve days) and a focus on trying out the tools. People were pragmatic and learning was mainly individual (though supported by the group).

The LE gave the participants an opportunity to try out online collaboration and group work, supported by social technologies. However, one of my reflections was that you need much more time to build the trust, shared values and reciprocity associated with a community. So the seeds were sown, in terms of strengthening ties, but they failed to blossom into a community before the close of the event. To carry this forward the implication is that one would either need a longer LE or one could bring the group back together again at some point in the future to share and discuss their experiences, through further planned activities. I feel that simply leaving the LE environment open for further discussion would not work.

This connects well to another reflection I had. If we wish to support teachers to develop their competence in online collaboration and group leadership, then more reflection on the process itself would be needed. I found this meta-reflection missing from the LE. The literature I reviewed suggested that this learning to become autonomous and meta-reflection may need a stronger teaching presence at key points during the LE. That is a moderator or facilitator to support reflection, guide learners who were experiencing problems and generally encourage collaboration.As the group becomes confident and competent, the teaching presence gradually fades into the background.

Concerning the research process itself, I learnt the importance of getting the questions right in the questionnaire, of avoiding dichotomies when respondents see both scenarios as existing in parallel and of the considerable time taken to analyse the data collected. I'll be much better prepared for next time.

Last but not least, I learned how incredibly enthusiastic teachers can be about online learning and about wishing to develop their own competence. I look forward to continuing my research with eTwinning.

Want to know more? Read my report and let me know what you think.