I've been interviewing teachers recently who took part in the Learning Event (LE), via Skype. In particular, those who I interviewed before they started and who managed to complete the event, and were able to contribute to the final reflection.
A few things have struck me from these discussions. Firstly the enthusiasm they portray from their experience. For several of them, this was more than just a LE addressing web 2.0 tools, it was a life changing experience that has opened up new avenues in their teaching practice. I've heard from teachers who used such tools for the first time, but were able to try them out with fellow teachers in their schools and saw a marvellous reaction from their pupils. For them, this is the start of a new adventure which has only just started. It is gratifying to see how happy the teachers are when they are able to provide something new for their pupils, that engages them and increases their personal kudos as teachers.
Secondly it is interesting to see the extent to which their initial expectations were met. Many expressed their original goals in terms of learning about new web 2.0 tools. They learned about these, but more importantly they also learned about how to use them in their teaching practice, they shared concrete examples with their peers and they developed personally in terms of their own competence.
So everything sounds perfect? Well not exactly. The experience from these pioneering few is not necessarily representative of the majority. As I said in my previous post, this transformation only happened (generally) for those that managed to complete the course and invested time and effort in the activities. The others still learned, but perhaps not at quite such a deep level; they learned about the individual tools but not necessarily about how to use them in their teaching practice and the lack of collaboration, of 'learning-by-doing', meant that they didn't develop their own competence to quite the same degree.
So I've also been asking those teachers who didn't complete why they thought this was. Their answers reflect a complex picture of busy teachers with difficult personal schedules meaning that they had insufficient time to be able to invest themselves in the time-consuming collaboration, of teachers so new to online collaboration that they simply felt left behind by the experience (to the extent that the LE could have a negative impact on their motivation), and of some who simply did not expect this type of LE and were expecting to be more autonomous, independent learners, following the LE at their own pace.
I also noted that for some teachers the learning philosophy of reflection-in-practice is not something they have previously experienced. Indeed their own teaching style is more instructional and they in turn expected the tutors/facilitators to be more instrumental in summarising the learning outcomes of the group.
This run of the LE has, I feel, managed to achieve a level of collaboration that was missing or was less evident in the previous run earlier this spring. As such, needs have arisen that we had not anticipated. These included, at a certain point, a need for Tiina and I to raise the issue of netiquette and awareness of what might be considered to be inappropriate behaviour in an online community. On reflection I feel there was a need for the small groups that we had set up (the Round Tables) to openly discuss and agree what they expected from each other in terms of contribution, timing, etc (this may have helped addressed the legitimate concerns raised by Daniela in her comment on the way the groups were established). As it was, the absence of such an agreement led to some groups experiencing frustration - examples from my analysis include:
- some participants contributed whilst other didn't, leading to a sense of inequality or even resentment for the effort invested;
- several natural leaders emerging within a single group who (in retrospect) might have been rather dominant in their approach to setting up blogs, Google docs, etc as places for the group to collaborate;
- perhaps unsympathetic replies (or certainly less supportive messages) to peers who arrived late in the group to find ideas had already been "decided", etc.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Certainly my feeling is that for every innovation we employ in learning, there are important disadvantages that may emerge. These may be in terms of uncomfortable power shifts within the group, of the different starting levels for the participants (experienced collaborators compared with inexperienced novices) leading to unequal opportunities for growth and feelings of inadequacy, of reinforced teaching presence (such as clearer guidelines) for some leading to the loss of a valuable learning experience for others (who might have learned more through initial failure), etc. So each new innovation leads to a rebalance of the pros and cons, and to the need for us to reconsider our teaching practice. Nothing can be taken for granted.
Food for thought, and there is certainly plenty of fodder for me in the data from this experience!
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.