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, 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.