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, 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.

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