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

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.