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, 23 October 2011

Small steps

I've not posted for a while as I have been focusing my attention on writing my thesis. This takes a lot of concentration and commitment. Moreover, I feel one has to maintain a regular speed in order to keep ideas at the fore of one's mind and to keep,a holistic view. The latter is not easy; for the last two years I've been working on my research, taking one small step at a time. Never really knowing where I might end up, but feeling somehow confident that I was going in the right direction. Now I have to recall the journey and explain why I did what I did when.

So far I have nearly finished one of the main chapters presenting the results and my interpretation. My supervisor has given me her feedback, with some really useful suggestions for change.

I now realise what a major challenge thesis writing is, but I am determined to finish as soon as possible and aim to submit around end of January next year. Guess what I will be doing over christmas!

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

BERA conference presentation

I presented my research yesterday at the British Educational Research Association (BERA) annual conference in London - you can find my presentation here: http://www.slideshare.net/holmebn/holmes-online-learning-communities-bera. It was a nerve-racking experience, but I survived and the reaction of the audience was positive. Phew.

The questions asked at the end were interesting. Here is what I remember (thanks to Barry and Moira for reminding me) with my answers.

o Were the teachers involved in the Learning Event (LE) participating in their own time or were they released from their teaching?

 Most were learning in their own time and trying to applying what they were learning directly in their teaching practice.

o Could I comment on the quick learning we get from, for example, Google compared with the longer term learning suggested by my research?

The teachers had benefitted from being able to apply what they were learning in their everyday teaching practice, talk about it with their peers in the LE and reflect on it. However, this required time, opportunity and commitment from those involved. 

o What was the age range of the pupils being taught by these teachers?

The teachers involved were teaching children from primary school level to upper secondary level. We used pupils' age as one of the criteria when splitting the participants up into small groups at the roundtables in the Staff room .

o Did the research show anything about how easy it is for pupils to learn about ICT compared with students in HE?

No, this was not part of my research.

o To what extent was critical discourse dependent on the tutors presence?

The results suggest tutor interventions provoked discussion, reflection and critical thinking. However, there were examples of them taking the  initiative and of critical discourse being provoked by the teaching presence of the participants themselves. 

o What are the next questions that I am trying to answer?

I have started writing up my thesis and if anything I am going through a process of reducing and distilling what I have, rather than adding to it. So the key thing for me at the moment is to confirm the research questions on which my research is based.

o What gap are you filling through your research?

Most research on online communities seems to focus specifically on one aspect - the cognitive, the social  or the teaching aspects, for example. And a lot of research using the Community of Inquiry model is quantitative. My research addresses all three presences in a holistic approach and is mainly qualitative.

In talking about the future, I mentioned the potential to create an  eModeration course for teachers on the basis of the LE and what we had learned. 

The conference is continuing and I am enjoying listening to other researchers talking about their work, especially were it relates to teachers, their use of ICT and their professional development.


Saturday, 3 September 2011

Being 'competent' in applying Web 2.0 tools in teaching practice

In analysing the response of the teachers to the final questionnaire after the Learning Event (LE) on web 2.0 tools and collaboration, I realised that I was asking their opinion about whether or not they felt more competent without asking them what they meant by being competent. To remedy this omission, I recently asked those who had answered the questionnaire and had kindly given their email addresses to answer a few additional questions. I had a terrific response with 25 teachers replying.

My first question was 'In your opinion, how would you describe being 'competent' in applying Web 2.0 tools in your teaching practice? I coded the replies, grouping them around several keywords. The following table summarises the responses (note that the answer from a teacher may have several keywords associated with it, but a keyword may be used only once per teacher):

Attribute of competence (keyword)       Occurrences
Knowledge of teaching practice                          20
Knowledge of web 2.0                                        7
Confidence                                                        5
Aptitude and attitude                                          5
Skills                                                                 3
Experience                                                         2
Autonomy                                                          1

So when the teachers talk about feeling competent in the use of web 2.0 tools, these results suggest that they are mainly referring to having the necessary knowledge about the pedagogical use of the tools in their teaching practice. They also think that knowledge of the tools themselves is important, as is feeling confident and having the right aptitude and attitude for their use. Being skilled in the use of the tools, whilst mentioned, seems less important.

I find this result to be interesting as it reflects the focus of the LE on teaching practice rather than the tools, per se; though one could argue that being skilled in the latter is a prerequisite for being good at the former.

In subsequent questions I asked the teachers to say what skills, knowledge, aptitude and attitude are associated with using web 2.0 tools in teaching practice. I linked aptitude and attitude together as I find the difference between the two to be too subtle to warrant separate answers.

The coding of the answers for skills yielded the following keywords:

Skills needed for use of web 2.0          Occurrences
in teaching practice (keyword) 
Design, plan, organise and teach                     12
ICT and technical                                           10
Language and communication                          5
Learning, researching, creativity                       5
and innovation
Critical thinking and metacognition                   1

The answers confirm that whereas technical skills in the use of web 2.0 are important, equally important is having the pedagogical skills to use them effectively in one's teaching practice.

The coding of the answers for knowledge yielded the following keywords:

Knowledge needed for use of web 2.0         Occurrences
in teaching practice (keyword)
Teach, collaborate, use tools in practice                 11
Web 2.0 and ICT                                                   9
Languages                                                            2
Own capabilities                                                    1

Here again we see that knowledge of web 2.0 tools and ICT in general is important, but equally (or perhaps more) important is knowledge of how to use them to teach and collaborate.

Finally, the coding of the answers for aptitude and attitude yielded quite a variety of answers as the following keywords show:

Aptitude and attitude needed for use            Occurrences
of web 2.0 in teaching practice (keyword)
Collaborate, cooperate, share, teamwork                  6
Open to change, flexible                                           6
Creative, innovative, desire to improve                      5
Desire to be competent, to learn                               4
Believe in ICT                                                          3
Listen, communicate                                                2
Serious, dedicated, committed, responsible               2
Patient                                                                    2
Help and support pupils                                            2
Leadership                                                              1
Global perspective                                                   1
Safety conscious                                                      1
Culturally sensitive                                                   1
Courageous and self-confident                                  1

There are some overlaps between these keywords and it was not easy to allocate them. Nevertheless, they reflect the importance for the teachers of having the aptitude and attitude to collaborate, share and work with other teachers; to be open to change in their teaching practice; to be creative, innovative and have a desire to continually improve; to have the motivation to continually learn; and to believe in the benefits of using technology.

In their final comments, the teachers reflected on the importance of competence in the wider context of lifelong learning and the forever changing world in which we live. They recognised that it is a never ending challenge to be competent and that it is very time consuming. They mentioned the importance of having institutional support for their professional development and how such Learning Events are invaluable.

Last but not least, the teachers expressed interest in knowing the results of my questions and that is why I am being so open about them here. I hope this analysis will provoke further thought and discussion, and I wish to thank everyone who replied.

I leave you with this final thought, is having competence in something the same as being competent? As one teacher indicated: 'Is nice to have a competence but is more important to be competent'.


Saturday, 20 August 2011

Professional competence

My research looks at the influence of online communities on learning and I have been investigating in particular the case of an eTwinning Learning Event for teachers. One of the aspects that I have been investigating is competence development and I have been reading work by Eraut (1994; 1998) to understand better how the meaning of the term has changed over the years.

Eraut suggests there is a difference in perception as to what competence means, depending on the context and who is using the term. He suggests that if a member of the public were to use the term competent to describe someone who had offered a service, it would imply that the quality of what they had received was good and that the statement, used in this context, relates to a high level of performance. He suggests, however, that the scope of the competence is very specific. For example, if we heard that a solicitor is competent in handling divorce cases we would make no assumptions about her ability to handle fraud cases.

On the other hand, if an employer were to describe a member of staff as competent, this would perhaps suggest that they were good at their job, but not necessarily excellent. Eraut cites Pearson:

If we can think of a continuum ranging from just knowing how to do something at the one end to knowing how to do something very well at the other, knowing how to do something competently would fall somewhere along this continuum (Pearson, 1984, p.32, cited in Eraut, 1994, p. 167)

Eraut goes further, 'Where there is need for extra quality or expertise the description 'competent' is tantamount to damning with faint praise' (Eraut, 1994, p.166). So according to the context, competent can have the positive meaning of 'getting the job done' or the negative one of 'adequate but not excellent', he suggests.

For professional development, which is the subject of my research, Eraut explains that competence has two dimensions, scope and quality. A professional's competence will change over time, as they become more specialist in new areas according to the needs of their work. In some cases, they may become proficient or even an expert. Often, however, a professional strives to be simply competent in an area which is necessary for their work, but not core – an example would be becoming competent in the use of ICT without expecting to become an expert in it. Again the level of quality associated with being competent will depend on the context. For example, a school teacher who is competent is likely to be held in high regard as his work involves little supervision and a degree of autonomy.

Eraut takes us through the development of the term competence, from the days of behaviourism when competency-based training (CBT) was in vogue, especially in the US, through to contemporary use for cognitive psychology. With the former, there was a focus on normative behaviour and it was important to have a clear definition of what was expected of the professional. Indeed, CBT was criticised for the tendency to break down the professional role into small, well defined tasks. One example is teacher training, where Eraut describes the mistake that was made of trying to atomise the teaching process into micro activities with autonomous objectives. Thankful, such approaches are now less popular as a more holistic and flexible approach is taken to teaching.

The focus on ability to perform specified tasks to an agreed level of performance reinforced the importance of qualifications as a means of recognising competence. Moreover, for certain skills and professions, the professional associations played a leading role in certifying whether a person was qualified and competent, eg certified account.

Eraut describes the move towards general competence, changing the emphasis from training professionals to do what is required of them, towards educating them to be capable of doing it. Often the latter is associated with personal qualities and hence the trend towards assessment centres and other tools to help with the recruitment of competent staff. Here we see also the link with the EU's definition of eight key competences that need to be taught to all school children (EU, 2004), where competence is referred to as ' a combination of skills, knowledge, aptitudes and attitudes, and to include the disposition to learn in addition to know-how' (2004, p.3).

Cognitive psychology seeks to distinguish competence from performance, according to Eraut. Citing Messick (1984) he explains how performance relates to how someone acts under specific conditions in a particular setting, for example when one undertakes an exam. Here one is subject to a particular environment, the exam room, and may be motivated, stressed, distracted, etc depending on how one feels at that instant in time. Whereas competence refers to what one is able to do under ideal circumstances. In otherwords, competence reflects one's potential. So competence can only be inferred from performance.

Eraut goes onto explain the difference between competence and competency. However, I am still left wondering what the difference is in reality. From what I understand, competence reflects a general capability of a person. Whereas competency reflects specific capabilities in a particular vocational context. At least that is what Eraut argues. The situation becomes less clear when one uses the plural; is the plural of competence competences or competencies? I have seen both used interchangeably, sometimes within the same document.

Returning to my research, in my questionnaire to all participants of the Learning Event, I asked them whether they felt more confident and competent as a result of having followed the session. The answers were generally positive and whereas there seems to be little doubt that competence has developed, what this means in practice is open to interpretation. For I failed to ask the participants how they would define competent – is it a level of quality and performance that reflects a high level of teaching practice, or is it middling someone between not capable and proficient. Perhaps it is not too late to return to the respondents to ask them to clarify their perception and to check it with my own.


Eraut, M. (1994) Developing professional knowledge and competence, Routledge.
Eraut, M. (1998) 'Concepts of competence'. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 12 (2), pp.127-139
EU (2004) Key Competencies for Lifelong Learning, a European Reference Framework Brussels, European Commission. (ONLINE - http://ec.europa.eu/education/policies/2010/doc/basicframe.pdf - accessed 13.06.2009)

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Know thyself

A recent paper by Akyol and Garrison (2011) has helped me to understand better the differences between critical thinking and metacognition. Whereas definitions are never black and white, and several authors have offered their views as to what they mean, I have come to the conclusion that I have been using the terms interchangeably and without really understanding the subtle differences.

Put simply, critical thinking is about effective learning. It is about ‘thinking about thinking’ (Akyol and Garrison, 2011, p.183) and sensemaking; ‘critical thinking is evaluating ideas for their quality, especially judging whether or not they make sense’ (Martinez, 2006, p.697).

Metacognition, on the other hand, is something more. It is about understanding learning in the wider context, about developing strategies for learning and changing direction when learning doesn’t work. ‘Metacognition must, therefore, go beyond simply thinking about thinking and awareness. Inquiry-based metacognition must include self-corrective strategies which make it an essential element of critical thinking and higher learning’ (Akyol and Garrison, 2011, p.184).

Clearly the two are closely related. In realising the difference between the two, I myself have experienced critical thinking. In deciding that I need to learn more about the topic and change some of my research thinking, I have experienced metacognition. Moreover, Akyol and Garrison’s paper argues that metacognition is not an individual activity, but is achieved in a social context in which one is able to check and adjust one’s interpretations:

‘metacognition is seen to mediate between internal knowledge construction and collaborative learning activities. Discourse is necessary to reveal knowledge, misconceptions and learning strategies. Discourse critically reveals and collaboratively supports the development of metacognitive knowledge and strategies’ (Akyol and Garrison, 2011, p.185)

So by presenting my thoughts here, in my public blog, and inviting reactions, I am facilitating my own  metacognition.

The authors go on to propose a construct for analysing metacognition in an online community that builds upon the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework (Garrison et al., 2000). This has three dimensions:
° knowledge of cognition – referring to awareness of yourself as a learner, for example knowing what you know and what you don’t know, and knowing under what conditions you learn best
° monitoring of cognition – being aware of thinking and the learning process, and taking responsibility for your learning and that of others
° regulation of cognition – taking action to change the course of learning and achieve meaningful learning

Interestingly, the paper proposes that learners who ask questions of others, who check progress of the group and facilitate collaborative learning are demonstrating monitoring of cognition and regulation of cognition. In other words, metacognition is associated with learners exhibiting teaching presence according to the CoI framework.

So how does this impact my research? Well the scheme that I have used for coding cognition in the online discussion forums was proposed by Garrison et al (2001). It posits that the two upper levels of cognition, integration and resolution, are evidence of critical thinking. I have tended to think of this as metacognition and whereas it is an important element for metacognition, it is not the same. I would need to look further at the messages to look for evidence of a change in learning strategy or for reflection on what the learning means in the wider context. This certainly exists in some cases where critical thinking is in evidence, but not in all. Moreover, Akyol and Garrison’s paper suggests that in looking for metacognition, I should also consider the combination of cognitive presence and teaching presence. In other words, a learner who exhibits critical thinking and is facilitating collaboration and the learning of the group is more likely to be undergoing metacognition.

The question for me now is what is the relationship between critical thinking, metacognition and competence development, as it is the latter that I am trying to demonstrate? But that is perhaps for another day …


Akyol, Z. & Garrison, D. R. (2011) 'Assessing metacognition in an online community of inquiry'. The Internet and Higher Education, 14 (3), pp.183-190
Garrison, D., Anderson, T. & Archer, W. (2001) 'Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education'. American Journal of Distance Education, 15 (1), pp.7-23
Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T. & Archer, W. (2000) 'Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education'. The Internet and Higher Education, 2 (2-3), pp.87-105
Martinez, M. E. (2006) 'What is metacognition?', Phi Delta Kappan, 87 (9), p.696. (ONLINE - http://www.gse.uci.edu/person/martinez_m/docs/mmartinez_metacognition.pdf - accessed 10.08.2011)

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Tell me again what you did?

A book by Murray (2006) provides some useful guidance on how to start the sometimes painful process of writing one’s final thesis. I found one particular set of questions, original proposed by Brown (1994), to be quite useful for me in trying to express in a concise way what I have done and what I have achieved.

Here goes:

1. Who are the intended readers? (list 3-5 names)

Academic panel and external examiner
Research community
eTwinning organisers

2. What did you do? (50 words)

I observed a group of teachers undertaking non-formal learning in an online community. Based upon my analysis, in a re-run of the event, we added a staff room, increased facilitation at key points, provided a period to try out ideas in practice and then held a final reflection.

3. Why did you do it? (50 words)

Applying the Community of Inquiry model (Garrison et al., 2000), I noted that informal social interaction was low and the community did not really develop. The teachers learned about web 2.0 tools but not necessarily how to apply them in their teaching practice.

4. What happened? (50 words)

Working closely with the tutor (action research), we saw the level of interaction increase, the teachers exchanged examples of using tools in their practice and I observed evidence of critical thinking and competence development. Ties developed between teachers, however the community quickly died when the learning activities stopped.

5. What do the results mean in theory? (50 words)

Results suggest that increased teaching presence (facilitation, peer support) and social presence (interaction in staff room) had a positive impact on cognitive presence (meta-cognition). Applying ideas in teaching practice and reflection with peers improved competence development. Social ties were strong but the community was ephemeral.

6. What do the results mean in practice? (50 words)

Teachers need time to try out what they are learning in practice. It is beneficial for learning to have more active facilitation at key points, backing-off as peer support takes over, and a final period of reflection. Learning communities exists for as long as they serve the purpose of learning.

7. What is the key benefit for readers? (25 words)

My research shows what can be done practically to help competence development in online learning. It is only an example and certainly not a panacea.

8. What remains unresolved? (No word limit)

° Are the results specific to the context in which they were analysed, or are some lessons applicable in other, similar situations?
° Where is the appropriate balance for facilitation? In the right situation, as I believe we have shown, increased facilitation can stimulate critical thinking and reflection. However, too much facilitation can stifle creativity and possibly make learners passive.
° Are communities specifically aimed at learning different than those for knowledge sharing or practice (eg Communities of Practice)? Is it the focus on purposeful learning that makes them ephemeral?

Answering these questions in fewer than 50 words was a real challenge, but useful.


Brown, R. (1994) 'Write right first time'. Literati Club, Articles on Writing and Publishing, Special Issue for Authors and Editors, 1995, pp.1-8

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T. & Archer, W. (2000) 'Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education'. The Internet and Higher Education, 2 (2-3), pp.87-105

Murray, R. (2006) How to Write a Thesis, Open University Press.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

The case in question

It has been a while since I last posted due to travelling and a period of ill health. I feel I need to get back into the habit of writing but its not easy; its rather like having had no exercise for a while, with the muscles complaining when I start jogging again. Its also alarming how much one forgets so quickly. Maybe its my advancing years, but I feel I need to speed up if I am ever going to finish my PhD. 

I have been reading about case studies and I've come to the conclusion that they useful for my work. Yin (2009) suggests that case studies are appropriate when you are principally answering how and why questions, rather than than who, what and where; the former being more exploratory in nature. He also suggests that case studies are suitable for examining contemporary events when relevant behaviours cannot be manipulated and the researcher has little or no control. He adds that case studies are usually associated with in-depth investigations of a real-life situation where the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not obvious. Such situations call for multiple methods in order to collect sufficient data and to be able to verify one's analysis through triangulation. This view of case studies concurs with that of Denscombe (2007) who suggests that case studies encourage mixed methods that allow relationships and processes to be analysed, rather than just outcomes. Denscombe adds that case studies are suitable for natural settings which are likely to exist before the research takes place and continue afterwards. Whereas the Learning Events (LEs) that I studied where of fixed durations, they were part of an ongoing programme and my research was looking at only two examples, albeit related. 

Both Denscombe and Yin recognise the typical criticism often levelled at case studies, namely that they provide little opportunity for generalisation. Yin notes that critiques claim that they lack rigour, take too long and produce very long unreadable documents. Though he adds that this is usually due to the inexperience of the researcher rather than the approach itself: 'in doing a case study, your goal will be to expand and generalize theories (analytic generalization) and not to enumerate frequencies (statistical generalizations)' (Yin, 2009, p.15).

VanWynsberghe and Khan suggest that case studies are neither research methods, methodologies or design. Rather they define them as 'transparadigmatic and transdisciplinary heuristic that involves the careful de-lineation of the phenomena for which evidence is being collected (event, concept, program, process, etc.)' (2007, p.2). By transparadigmatic they mean that they may be relevant regardless of one's research paradigm. They use heuristic to mean that case studies encourage a focused, in-depth approach to researching a phenomenon. They go on to suggest seven key features of case studies (p.4):

1) Small N: they address a small sample, with the researcher being careful to clearly define the boundaries of the case
2) Contextual detail: with sufficient information as to give the impression of actually being there
3) Natural settings: where there is little control over the context, 'Case study is uniquely suitable for research   in   complex   settings  ... because it advances the concept that complex settings cannot be reduced to single cause and effect relationships'
4) Boundedness: case studies address a clearly defined situation, bounded in space and time
5) Working   hypotheses   and   lessons learned: the researchers uses her/his past experience and skills to generate a working hypothesis that helps to surface the phenomenon as the study progresses
6) Multiple data sources: referring to the work of Yin, they also suggest that case studies encourage the use of mixed methods and triangulation
7) Extendability: 'Case studies can enrich and potentially transform a reader’s understanding of a phenomenon  by  extending  the  reader’s  experience' 

All of this would appear to apply well to my research of the LEs. Moreover, Koshy (2010) suggests that case studies are an appropriate way of writing up and disseminating the results of action research.

I rest my case, at least for now :)


Denscombe, M. (2007) The Good Research Guide: For Small-scale Social Research Projects, Open University Press.
Koshy, V. (2010) Action research for improving educational practice, 2nd ed., London, Sage publications Ltd.
VanWynsberghe, R. & Khan, S. (2007) 'Redefining case study'. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 6 (2)
Yin, R. K. (2009) Case study research: Design and methods, 4th ed, Sage Publications, Inc.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Knowledge of practice

It is interesting how things can all of a sudden come together.  After weeks of coding the messages in the LE forum and generally looking at things at the meta-level, I decided to dig deeper and read again the teachers messages in the final reflection. I am encouraged to do this by the results from the coding which suggest that participants showed evidence of meta-cognition towards the end of the LE, during this session. The graph below is representative; it shows the results of coding for a participant from her/his first to last message, using the four levels proposed for Cognitive Presence in the CoI model (Garrison et al., 2001). The levels Triggering event and Exploration reflect cognition, whereas Integration and Resolution reflect meta-cognition, according to Garrison et al. Messages 25 onwards were during the final reflection, when we increased the teaching presence by asking participants specifically to post their reflections on what they had done in their teaching practice, what they had learned and the consequences for the future.

Reading the contributions I am encouraged by the depth of thought. The following are representative:
Using blogs, my teaching practice became more active and colaborative. Students had time for reflecting and correcting their mistakes, they became more independent and creative. They were motivated and they learn for 'pleasure and for knowing' not just for 'obligation'.
In general, social networking provides new ways to connect and share information and create networks of interest.  So, while in more traditional learning environments much of this must be orchestrated and planned by the instructor and organized through the grouping and pairing of students, when using a social networking tool this level of connection can happen immediately.
So social interaction and relationships can be an integral part of learning more than ever and can certainly enrich the learning experience for our students.  What is vital to realize however, is that the motivation created by these kinds of networks must be maximized by the instructor to benefit the students in their growth and development as learning community participants.  It is important to move students beyond social interaction to the kind of learning communities that are dynamic, rich, and very much reflective of the students who are participating.
Participants' comments, final reflection
Whilst reading through the teachers' comments I have also been looking at a paper by Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1999). They differentiate the learning that teachers undergo in training institutions, such as universities or teacher training colleges, called knowledge-for-practice, from what they learn in situ by trying out innovations in their teaching practice, called knowledge-in-practice. The first is formal knowledge and theory, including codification of wisdom in practice. The latter results from reflection in practice. Whereas the two are important and are clearly inter-related, the authors also suggest that there is a third type of knowledge that they call knowledge-of-practice, which is 'generated when teachers treat their own classrooms and schools as sites for intentional investigation at the same time that they treat the knowledge and theory produced by others as generative material for interrogation and interpretation'  (Cochran-Smith and Lytle, 1999, p.250). I see this as knowledge generated at a meta level, linking formal and informal, work and life, so that teachers see themselves both as learners and teachers in a community of practice with their peers; or as the authors suggest 'working within the contexts of inquiry communities to theorize and construct their work and to connect it to larger social, cultural, and political issues' (1999, p.250).
I see the community that we formed in our LE as engendering knowledge-of-practice, as reflected in the postings of the teachers in the final session. They seemed to be connecting their prior knowledge to what they had personally experienced in the LE as learners and to the consequences for their own teaching practice. They are seeing their role as teachers as being inextricably linked to their role as learners and the need for them to continually develop their own digital competence and online facilitation skills.
This links nicely to the workshop that I am attending here tomorrow in Seville at the JRC-IPTS, where we shall be looking at teacher collaboration and competence development as envisaged in 2025. I see online learning communities of teachers being the norm in the future, with teachers sharing their experience and knowledge with peers across Europe, generating knowledge-of-practice. With this in mind I shall continue to read the final reflections of the teachers in the LE, as I feel they will continue to inspire me.
Brian in Seville.

Cochran-Smith, M. & Lytle, S. L. (1999) 'Relationships of Knowledge and Practice: Teacher Learning in Communities'. Review of Research in Education, 24, pp.249-305
Garrison, D., Anderson, T. & Archer, W. (2001) 'Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education'. American Journal of Distance Education, 15 (1), pp.7-23

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Non-task sociability of CSCL

This paper builds upon previous studies that show that non-task related exchanges between students can have a significant impact on students enjoyment of CSCL, on creating a sense of community and learning outcomes (Abedin et al, 2011). And when CSCL is successful, such interactions can form a significant part of the discussion; Dewiyanti et al ( 2007) showed that 33% of interactions in such a CSCL environment were non-task related.

The context for the Abedin et al paper was a part-time postgraduate general management degree course offered by a large Australian university. Average age of the students was 36 years old with an average of 10 years' work experience. Amongst the online forums established for the course was a seminar room where the learning activities took place and a coffee shop to foster informal, social interaction. The latter is similar to the Staff Room that we established in our Learning Event for the same purposes.

They define on-task interactions as including instructional and learning activities, such as group learning, and pedagogical questions and answers. Non-task interactions, on the other hand, are about socialising and are not directly related to course content; eg jokes, compliments and greetings.

They developed a series of items for assessing non-task sociability and consulted researchers in the field to seek their opinion and to revise them. Based upon these, they conducted a quantitative survey of students, firstly in a pilot and then in a main study, asking their opinion and applying factor analysis to the results. They then assessed the relationship of non-task sociability to learning outcomes, which they defined as pedagogical effect, student interest and perceived learning.

The results of their analysis suggest that non-task sociability strongly affects student interest, which in turn leads to a higher willingness to participate in online discussions and to being intellectually challenged. Similarly there was a strong link to pedagogical affect.

It would be interesting for me to analyse the messages in our Staff Room to see to what extent they were task or non-task related. I suspect that, compared with the other forums in the Learning Event, the percentage of non-task was higher and may be one of the reasons why the addition of the Staff Room was perceived as being useful. As Dewiyanti et al indicate a 'CSCL environment with a higher perceived level of nontask sociability increases satisfaction of the course, bonds students together by fostering a sense of community and avoids development of a sense of isolation' (p.10, Dewiyanti et al, 2007).


Abedin, B., Daneshgar, F. & D'Ambra, J. (2011) 'Do nontask interactions matter? The relationship between nontask sociability of computer supported collaborative learning and learning outcomes', British Journal of Educational Technology, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. (ONLINE - http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2011.01181.x - accessed 15.05.2011)

Dewiyanti, S., Brand-Gruwel, S., Jochems, W. & Broers, N. J. (2007) 'Students' experiences with collaborative learning in asynchronous Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning environments'. Computers in Human Behavior, 23 (1), pp.496-514

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Impact of learning communities on teachers' practice and student learning

 I received some useful feedback on the abstract that I submitted to BERA for their annual conference in September in London (http://beraconference.co.uk/) - it was accepted by the way and I shall be presenting in the afternoon of Tuesday 6 September.

One of the reviewers indicated that they missed the benefits of participation for teachers in the online community and that it looked 'like a project designed by and for researchers rather than relevant to teachers'. I guess the good news implicit in the comment is that what I wrote clearly reads like a research paper. The useful thing I need to note, however, is the need to reinforce the benefits of online communities for continuous professional development (CPD) of teachers.

As luck had it, I came across a paper recently that reviewed the impact of professional learning communities (PLCs) on teaching practice and student learning (Vescio et al, 2008). It looks at the results of 11 studies that attempted to correlate participation in PLCs with improved practice and student achievements. They describe the move away from more traditional CPD, which mainly consists of knowledge acquired in training colleges or universities - what they describe as 'Knowledge for practice' (referring to work by Cochran-Smith and Little, 1999), to 'knowledge of practice' acquired by teachers applying ideas in their own classrooms through collaborative inquiry.

The paper cites Newmann et al (1996) in describing PLCs as having five essential characteristics: shared values and norms; clear and consistent focus on student learning; reflective dialogue; sharing teaching practice and a focus on collaboration. When I think about each of these characteristics, I see them as being present in the online learning community (the Learning Event, LE) that we held last year.  Indeed, the changes that we put in place, based upon an earlier LE, were to offer the teachers the possibility to try out what they had learned in their own teaching practice, to reflect with their peers on the results and to collaborate in terms of sharing good practice. The focus of the  LE was clearly on student learning, the teachers making their motivation to improve their teaching practice and student achievements quite explicit in their discussions. Moreover, as Vescio et al posit, teachers see a clearer connection to their own teaching practice if they experience the opportunities themselves as learners.

Vescio et al's paper is mainly about PLCs within schools, aimed at reforming teaching. Our LE was an online community for teachers from across schools, in different countries. Whereas this may not lead directly to a change in the culture within a school and a reform of teaching practice, it does provide a valuable source of inspiration for pioneering teachers. Indeed, it emerged from my interviews that for some of the teachers this was the only form of cooperation they had with peers; as one teacher remarked 'I have much more contact with my colleagues in eTwinning than with my colleagues at school'. Such a cross school community can be an advantage, as Vescio et al note: 'learning communities also cannot be insular, focused only on making   explicit   the   practical   wisdom   teachers already  possess  about  teaching'  and ' it is important that we seek external perspectives from other constituents (e.g. families, citizens, educators working outside our immediate environment,   educational   research,   sociological research) so that all aspects of our practice be can be interrogated as an integral part of our efforts' (Vescio et al, 2008, p89)

In conclusion, the paper notes that 'participation   in   learning   communities   impacts teaching practice as teachers become more student centered' and 'when  teachers  participate  in  a  learning community, students benefit as well' (p.88). They note that working collaboratively is the process that underpins a learning community, rather than the goal which remains improving student learning.

The paper calls for more research in which the teachers 'develop collaborative relationships with researchers to help document the impact of their efforts' (p.89) and more empirical evidence of the impact of learning communities on teaching practice. My analysis of the results of the LE will hopefully yield some evidence of impact in terms of the improved competence of the teachers involved, changes to their teaching practice and impact on student learning.


Cochran-Smith, M. & Lytle, S. L. (1999) 'Relationships of Knowledge and Practice: Teacher Learning in Communities'. Review of Research in Education, 24, pp.249-305

Newmann, F. M., Wehlage, G., Secada, W. & Marks, H. (1996) Authentic achievement: Restructuring schools for intellectual quality, Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Vescio, V., Ross, D. & Adams, A. (2008) 'A review of research on the impact of professional learning communities on teaching practice and student learning'. Teaching and Teacher Education, 24 (1), pp.80-91

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Coding blues

Coding discussions in forums can be such a laborious process and I find myself going around in circles. Was that 'thank you Fred' evidence of teaching presence, facilitating discourse, or just a friendly reply to a fellow participant? Was that passing comment about the 'value of blogs for children' an indication of meta-cognition or a subjective statement?

As I traverse the dialogue in a forum I realise that I am seeing only the tip of the iceberg and will never really know what went on behind the scenes, in people heads.

One thing I can say for sure is that tutors, teachers, facilitators of online learning really need to encourage participants to express themselves fully in a forum and not just make passing remarks. Everyone needs a voice in their heads saying 'why do you say that?', 'what makes you come to that conclusion?', 'please explain your thinking!'. Otherwise other participants will never really understand the basis for your assertions and therefore, one could argue, critical thinking will not take place.Moreover, researchers will have a hard time coding the dialogue!


Collaborative tools

I presented to a group a of colleagues at work this week on good practice, tips and hints for managing online collaboration and communities. My desire was to balance the presentation by our IT department on the tools to be used (Ning, Wiki, CIRCABC, etc) with some reflection on the organisational issues.

It was quite a challenge and the preparations took me for than 1.5 days. Why? Because I realised there is so much one can say on the subject that it is very hard to know where to start; especially for an audience with mixed levels of knowledge on the topic.

I decided it was necessary to go back to some of the roots of learning theory, emphasising the move in thinking from behaviourism and instruction, through to cognition and social constructivism. My reasoning being that some colleagues were interpreting the use of social networks as tools for chit-chat and making friends, rather than as tools to support the fundemental process of learning. And as such, where questioning why we are investing resources in them.

The most interesting slide for me to present, and one which raised considerable interest, showed the results of my coding of the Staff Room in our recent eTwinning Learning Event for web 2.0 tools. The graph shows messages posted over time (number per day) for both participants (the teachers) and the tutors (Tiina and I), in relationship to the activities taking place. Without going into too many details at this stage, the results suggest:

° interaction took place when it was needed for the cognitive activities and less so during the three weeks when participants were applying what they had learned in their own teaching practice. In other words, discourse was purposeful
° the level of interaction was significantly influenced by the level of tutor interaction, the former generally following the latter. This was more pronounced at the start of the LE than at the end
° tutor interaction was significant at the start but tailed off towards the end
° the community was ephemeral, being largely dormant during periods of individual practice and dying off quickly after the final reflection activity had finished

The reaction from the colleagues was that they were not surprised with the results. Nevertheless, they served to emphasise that we shouldn't have too great expectations when setting up online communities. Learning in communities is purposeful and participants will quickly move on once they perceive that there is no longer immediate added value in discourse for their learning. I wonder to what extent the same can be said for other types of community - such of Communities of Practice - which are perhaps less focused on individual learning as the primary goal.


Monday, 25 April 2011


As an epilogue to my previous posting, I think it is worth sharing the experience that I am having in reading two books in parallel, using two quite different technologies.

The first, by Savin-Baden, arrived by post approximately one week after being ordered from Book Depository in the UK - a wonderful service that offers books on the continent, and elsewhere, at competitive prices and NO POSTAGE. Fantastic! As ever with a new book, I enjoyed sifting through the pages to get a feel for the contents and carried it studiously in my Bench bag until such time as I had a few minutes to read an excerpt.

The second, by Becker, was mine within seconds of my finding it on the web and downloading it to my iPad. To be more precise, selecting it and buying it online from Amazon.com (apparently, Amazon.co.uk has IPR issues with buyers living in Belgium; I say living, as I was in Spain at the time of purchase). Taking my lightweight, slim iPad with me everywhere, I have access to all my academic papers and, more specifically, my newly downloaded book by Becker. The highlighting is not easy but - and here's the delight - my highlighted text is available anywhere online via Amazon and, moreover, having downloaded the Kindle app for PC, I have access to my book on my desktop complete with the highlights that I did on the plane. Moreover it was easy to cut and paste them to my previous posting.

On the other hand, for the paper book, I had to find the relevant page and highlight, and retype in the text (I guess I could have scanned it and used character recognition software, but that would have been too onerous).

So, as you may have guessed, I am convinced about the advantage of an eBook and of having my notes / highlights synchronised across devices. But a word of caution; no reading the iPad during take off and landing, or on the few occasions that the sun actually shines in Brussels and one is lured into the garden by the thought of recharging one's vitamin D. Ah well, you can't have everythin


Finding one's own voice

I am reading a couple of books in-between other things and whilst travelling. The first is by Becker (2007) and is to do with how social scientists write or rather how they should write. The second is by Savin-Baden (2008) and concerns the context, time and place in which people learn - what she calls 'learning spaces'.

Both place a lot of emphasis on the need for researchers to write on a regular basis.  Savin-Baden highlights how when and where we learn has changed dramatically over the years, as the nature of learning has changed (less information transfer, more applied knowledge in practice; less individualistic, more social) and technology has advanced (social networking; any place and time connectivity) to support boundless learning. She refers to 'liquid learning' and whereas the term sounds rather like new marketing hype, the message behind it is clear - lifelong, lifewide learning unhindered by physical or temporal constraints; moreover, learning that is 'characterised by emancipation, reflexivity and flexibility' (2008, p.26).

Savin-Baden refers to constrained learning spaces ('striated'), such as a traditional lecture theatre or VLE, and contrasts these to more open, flexible spaces ('smooth spaces'):

Students here would be encouraged to contest knowledge and ideas proffered by lecturers and in doing so create their own stance towards knowledge(s). Yet the movement is not towards a given trajectory, instead, there is a sense of displacement of notions of time and place so that the learning space is not defined, but becomes defined by the creator of the space' (Savin-Baden, 2008, p.14). 

She also refers to 'writing spaces' and addresses the challenge of a Ph.D. student writing up their thesis (a challenge that I can easily associate with!):

Writing up a thesis is often a large writing challenge and for many this is a space in which they learn to write and develop an academic voice. Yet, as academic tradition goes, the textual voice of a thesis must not be too strident; there must be a sense of humility in the writing, since one is not yet deemed to have 'arrived' (Savin-Baden, 2008, p.37)

In describing writing spaces, she writes refreshingly about the problems that writers often have in getting started. Mistakenly they look to others for the magic formulae for overcoming 'writers' block' as if it were some external agent or force, rather than an individual challenge.

There seems to be an assumption that there are hints and tips about how to go about creating writing spaces or the task of writing itself; short cuts that help to avoid the struggle and pain. Yet this is one of the main challenges of being in a writing space that no one else can create or inhabit. As writing spaces are our own spaces where we also have to deal with our own disjunctions (Savin-Baden, 2008, p.40-41)

Moreover,  writing spaces should be places where we adopt our own stance, find our own voice so that we may offer our opinion on what we have read. This, for me, is the real challenge and this is where I turn to the other book by Becker  (2007). He too writes about the problems that individuals have in writing; in this case, social scientists. They are characterised, he says, by writing that is too hesitant to take a stance and uses all sorts of convoluted ways of getting to the point. However, he posits that the reason for doing this is the fear of rejection, of criticism by others, of not being perfect. Hence these writers will go to great lengths to emphasise that their writing is a first draft, a work in progress and something that still needs refinement. Furthermore, they may take pride in using a special language that sets them apart as an academic

While I personally find scholarly writing boring and prefer to spend my time reading novels, academic elitism is a part of every graduate student’s socialization. I mean that academic writing is not English but written in a shorthand that only members of the profession can decipher. . . . I think it is a way to. . . maintain group boundaries of elitism. . . . Ideas are supposed to be written in such a fashion that they are difficult for untrained people to understand. This is scholarly writing. And if you want to be a scholar you need to learn to reproduce this way of writing. (Becker, 2007, p.30)

This reflects some of my own experience with academic writing, which is often written in the third person, with convoluted expressions and a propensity to create new words to describe something that has been said before but may be perceived to be old fashioned or unsophisticated. I should add that I see this often in my own institution where departments will use different terms when referring to the same idea in order to mark their territory. As Becker suggest, power and identity seem to play an important role.

Living as an intellectual or academic makes people want to appear smart, in the sense of clever or intelligent, to themselves and others. But not only smart. They also want to appear knowledgeable or worldly or sophisticated or down-home or professional—all sorts of things, many of which they can hint at in the details of their writing (Becker, 2007, p.31)

My reading of the two books continues, however I already feel humbled by having a mirror held up to me.


Becker, H. S. (2007) Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article, University of Chicago press.

Savin-Baden, M. (2008) Learning spaces: creating opportunities for knowledge creation in academic life, Open Univ Press.

Sunday, 10 April 2011


I've been reading a paper by Akyol and Garrison (2011) on assessing metacognition in an online community of inquiry. Whereas Persico et al (2010) found that an additional code was needed to record metacognition in the critical thinking cycle underlying cognitive presence in the CoI model (Garrison, 1991, Garrison et al, 2001), Akyol and Garrison suggest that it is inherent in the model (see figure). They argue that metacognition is 'intended to provide the knowledge, awareness and strategies to critically assess the learning process' (Akyol and Garrison, 2011, p.4) and that, in an online community, it is a collaborative process where learners' internal and external processes are constantly being assessed. Moreover, metacognition is not only about reviewing  and changing one's own learning, but also that of others. As such, inherent in metacognition is the notion of learners assuming some responsibility for teaching presence.

Practical inquiry reflects an iterative process between the individual and the shared; between 'reflection and discourse, and analysis (insight) and synthesis (understanding)' (Akyol and Garrison, 2011, p.5-6). As such, learning involves sharing and justifying one's ideas in a group context.

Critical thinking/learning cycle (Garrison, 1991, p.293)
In order to assess metacognition, the authors of the paper propose indicators based upon three dimensions: knowledge of cognition - this is a relatively static state that reflects awareness of self and knowledge about metacognition; monitoring of cognition - the reflective part of learning, where one attempts to consider the bigger picture; and regulation of cognition - when one takes action to control and modify the learning process (Akyol and Garrison, 2011). Their results indicate that most of the messages in the online learning forums that they analysed demonstrated one of the three phases of metacognition, however there was predominantly a move from monitoring metacognition to regulating metacognition over time. As they rightly suggest, this results is perhaps to be expected and reflects a group that is successfully learning collaboratively.

What could be the implications be for my analysis of the learning in the eTwinning LE? Good question! So far I have suggested having a code for metacognition in addition to the four that reflect the stages of critical thinking proposed by Garrison (1991). As this could be construed as being redundant, I may decide instead to have two codes for each of the two stages of critical thinking related to the higher levels , that is integration and resolution, to distinguish between metacognition relating to the general use of web 2.0 tools and metacognition relating to their use in teaching practice. My feeling is that if I code the forums using just the single codes, I shall fail to see this important distinction - my perception, reading the forums, is that the teachers this time took their thinking to this extra level, thinking about the consequences for their teaching practice. And it would be important to show this if I am to illustrate that competence development took place.


Akyol, Z. & Garrison, D. R. (2011) 'Assessing metacognition in an online community of inquiry', The Internet and Higher Education, In Press, Accepted Manuscript. (ONLINE - http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2011.01.005 - accessed 24.03.2011)

Garrison, D. R. (1991) 'Critical thinking and adult education: a conceptual model for developing critical thinking in adult learners'. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 10 (4), pp.287 - 303

Garrison, D., Anderson, T. & Archer, W. (2001) 'Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education'. American Journal of Distance Education, 15 (1), pp.7-23

Persico, D., Pozzi, F. & Sarti, L. (2010) 'Monitoring collaborative activities in computer supported collaborative learning'. Distance Education, 31 (1), pp.5 - 22

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Postcard from Budapest

I'am in Budapest for the annual eTwinning conference, with around 600 teachers, pupils and support staff from across Europe. These conferences are always great events for networking and for meeting pioneering teachers using technology in the classroom, but this year was made rather special by the presence of pupils from schools involved in eTwinning projects.

We had an inspirational presentation from Tim Rylands with an array of free web 2.0 tools that can be used by teachers to inspire children and to encourage them to be creative, to collaborate and to share. His presentation was notable for me on for three points:
  • inspiration: how good teaching can inspire pupils and this is precisely what I remember from school
  • standing still: the need for learners to stop every so often, to simply take in what is happening around them and to reflect
  • getting beyond the 'wow factor': raising the level of pupil's engagement and critical thinking beyond the simple enjoyment that they get from using technology; this again resonates with the work I am doing in my research, although I am mainly focusing on adults (the teachers themselves)
Tiina and I held a workshop entitled eLearning 2.0 in which we combined our thinking on learning online, in communities with peers. Rather than focus on web 2.0 technologies, much to the disappointment perhaps of some participants, we looked at the pedagogical and organisational consequencies for teachers. Tiina presented good practice from her perspective as an expert teacher in this area and I reinforced this with results from the Learning Events held with teachers last year. My contribution was purposefully non-academic and perhaps more direct or prescriptive than one can be in an academic journal. Any way it went very well, according to the feedback we received; so well we did it twice addressing around 80 teachers in total. Phew

My thanks to Tiina for a great collaboration. It is always a pleasure to work with her :)


Saturday, 26 March 2011

Critical friends

I've just spent a few days at Lancaster University, meeting with my supervisor and with my fellow students. I am struck again by how valuable it was to meet with fellow researchers who are happy to listen to my ideas, critique my approach and offer me useful suggestions. This mutual support was also extremely valuable for reinforcing my confidence that I am on the right path.

It is important now for me to focus my work around my two original research questions:

In a virtual environment for teachers’ continuous professional development:
°     How does an online community support the development of teachers’ competence in online collaboration and discourse?
°     How do social aspects, such as social presence and social ties, contribute to this collaboration and discourse?
These questions should act as lenses through which I analyse the data that I've collected and write up my results. The end may be still some way off, but I can nevertheless see the light at the end of the tunnel - thanks to the support of my critical friends in Lancaster.


Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Coding an online forum

I've been applying the Community of Inquiry (CoI) conceptual framework (Garrison et al, 2000) to the online discussion forums of the eTwinning Learning Event (LE), coding the dialogue in an example discussion thread according to cognitive presence (Garrison et al, 2001), teaching presence (Anderson et al, 2001) and social presence (Rouke et al, 1999). Figure 1 below shows an extract (click on the image to see an enlarged view), with the participants names blocked out:
Figure 1. Extract of the example discussion, stored and coded in Atlas.ti 

In the example I have used the message as the unit of analysis, coding each with what appears to be the most relevant classification from the three presences. If there is no evidence of a presence in a particular message, then I have coded it as Other. Figure 2 below shows the coding results from the example which contained 11 messages in a single thread:

Figure 2. Summary of the coding for the example discussion
 It has been a useful process and I have noted the following from this first trial:
  • Coding is a very subjective process and the results will depend heavily on my interpretations. This is not made easy by the fact that one only sees the explicit part of the learning process, that is surfaced by the learners and codified in their messages to the forum. I am sure that a lot remains tacit and unexpressed.
  • Reading Garrison et al's paper again (2001) helped me to see the messages not as individual, unconnected thoughts, but as part of an ongoing process. To be successful at coding you need to see what happens before and afterwards
  • The cognitive presence model of Garrison et al (2001) is premised on learning involving critical thinking. Nevertheless it reminds me rather of single-loop learning (Argyris and Schön, 1978) and in line with the thinking of Persico et al (2010), in their application of the CoI model, I added an additional code to capture meta-cognition. Meta-cognition is important for competence development.
  • Social presence is very difficult to assess and intuitively I feel that a message which starts with a 'Hello Carla' or 'Hi everyone' but makes no other reference to people or the group, does not exhibit sufficient social presence to warrant coding.
  • Teaching presence seems more straightforward, however one needs to be vigilant for mesages reflecting support and encouragement by peers, as these are also valid examples of teaching presence.
  • Atalas.ti certainly helps with the management of the process. It does not help with the coding, however, which remains an intellectual, time consuming activity.
  • I chose an example thread to code which is quite long (eleven messages) but yet representative of what we can see in the forums. The results of the coding (Figure 2) suggest that critical thinking took place, as there are three messages reflecting integration and resolution. In addition, two messages suggested metacognition, with the teachers reflecting on what they had learned as a result of the LE. This suggests that the LE did indeed lead to competence development.
So overall a positive first foray into the world of online discussion coding.


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

Argyris, C. & Schön, D. A. (1978) Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective, Addison-Wesley Reading, MA.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T. & Archer, W. (2000) 'Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education'. The Internet and Higher Education, 2 (2-3), pp.87-105

Garrison, D., Anderson, T. & Archer, W. (2001) 'Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education'. American Journal of Distance Education, 15 (1), pp.7-23

Persico, D., Pozzi, F. & Sarti, L. (2010) 'Monitoring collaborative activities in computer supported collaborative learning'. Distance Education, 31 (1), pp.5 - 22

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, 15 February 2011

Pearls of wisdom

I've been spending a lot of time of late transcribing the interviews that I held with a few teachers after the Learning Event (LE) last year. It can be quite a laborious task which brings you close to the data but risks creating a feeling of 'I cannot see the wood for the trees'. Today I had the pleasure of writing up a long discussion that I had with a more mature teacher via Skype with a camera. I feel that the quality and depth of the dialogue is a reflection of the stronger feeling of connectedness and intimacy that we had, thanks to being able to see one another.

Several reflections were provoked by the discussion:
  • It is perhaps harder for more mature teachers to express themselves online and to feel connected with their peers via their writing. As my interviewee said "may be this is a matter of being an older generation, but anyway I find it really funny just writing my ideas all the time and sending them, as if I were a writer instead of a teacher". She mentioned that as a teacher she has spent thirty years of her life talking and therefore moving to writing is not easy for her. She had noticed that it seemed to be more natural for the younger teachers. This can make online collaboration quite a frustrating experience for the more mature teacher, especially if they have little time to spend online.
  • Despite the lack of time for participation, reading the contributions of others and seeing what they have to share can be very useful (lurking). It can be motivating to see that some teachers have clearly mastered the use of technology with their children and are really adding value to learning "I could get this from the level of the conversation they held". That said, in order to really learn something you need to be applying it: "it is very difficult for me to build-up an ability unless I am using it everyday".
  • Developing a community is more than just posting messages and replying to people, "I suppose I still can’t feel the web community as a real community"; "Simply reading or writing to someone else doesn’t mean we are in the same room or in the same train of thought, and we are understanding each other in the way that we are supposed to really". On the other hand, the LE did engender a feeling of connectedness and it was interesting to see some teachers still posting messages to the forum once the event was over: "at the end there were messages of people asking for help saying 'what is going to happen now?', 'are we being left on our own?', 'is it finished?' ".
  • The situation in some countries concerning the availability of internet connected PCs is far from ideal and for my interviewee she explained that there is only one lab in the school, with ten PCs which often have problems maintaining their internet connection. She is able to use the lab for only a few hours per week and this changes both the opportunity for learning with ICT and the way one learns: "They have to plan everything in their books, in their exercise books. We plan everything ahead, we write, we draw, we do everything by hand and then we go to the PC".  So what we see in these circumstances is that the children are not using the PC to create and produce ideas in situ, but rather they use it to transpose what they have already produced in advance. So ICT is not transforming learning but transposing it.
  • Despite the resistance perhaps of colleagues and parents to using PCs and the internet, my interviewee was convinced that ICT could help to bring teachers and pupils closer together: "even ten years ago they (pupils) were much nearer to us, now they are really just going away because they are using different tools as a means of getting to know each other or just playing around".This concurs with the feedback that I have received from other teachers on their experience of using web 2.0 tools: it seemed to increase pupil motivation and the respect they have for their teachers (pupils are impressed with their 'cool' teachers who know about technology).
  • However, my interviewee reminded me that simply using ICT doesn't improve learning, "being happy with your being very skilled with all the tools that you have learned to use doesn’t mean that you are empowering the way you are teaching children". She reminded me of the fundamental values of teaching and of the need to ensure that we use ICT appropriately to add value. This is why it is important to allow teachers to try out what they are learning in their everyday teaching practice and then to reflect on it with peers.
  • She reported that she had found the staff room useful as a familiar place to come back to and reorient oneself "I found myself going very often back to the staff room just to be able to understand what was going on, because I thought that was the best way, the best place to try and understand if I was being left behind by my lack of time or whatever"
  • Finally she suggested that the LE could be improved by embedding activities which demonstrated progress to the participants, in terms of their own skills, and by having occasional synchronous meetings with visual contact for the round-table groups.
Food for thought indeed.


Saturday, 29 January 2011

eLearning 2.0

A paper by Lim, So and Tan (2010) compares learning online using web 2.0 technologies (what they call eLearning 2.0) with learning before the advent of social media (eLearning 1.0). They remind us that web 2.0 brought with it a paradigm shift in the way users interact with content, moving from consumers to contributors in a 'social and participatory web'. 

They suggest that to put eLearning 2.0 into practice we need to understand how tools that are primarily aimed at entertainment can be used for educational purposes. Moreover, the underlying learning philosophy needs to embrace the web 2.0 ethos of participation and community-based social practices. However, this may be at odds with formal learning where the emphasis is often on traditional literacy practices, individual learning and personal performance; what the paper refers to as a cultural contradiction. 

We may also face a ‘”digital dissonance” in which neither teachers nor students fully recognize and use the potential of emerging technologies for learning’ (p.206). Indeed, if one is used to learning in a conventional way it may be difficult to change your ‘cultural belief’ that teachers are authoritative sources of knowledge:

To transit from eLearning 1.0 to eLearning 2.0, it requires a shift of learners’ identity to that of a knowledge builder and a shift of teachers’ identity to that of a critical friend or co-learner. In terms of power and control in learning, learners need to embrace empowerment given the space to construct learning, while teachers need to become comfortable with fluidity and uncertainty. (Lim et al, 2010, p.208)

This is hard to achieve if teachers continue to instruct, give lectures and direct discussions. And if instructional designers continue to determine learning paths, focus on individual learning and assess individual performance. ‘Our notion of knowledge and knowing should shift from an epistemology based on possession to an epistemology of practice’ (p.207). 

These messages concur with those give by Ryberg (2010) in his presentation at a workshop at Online Educa last year that focused on new ways of assessment, where he emphasised that simply using web 2.0 tools for learning does not imply that the underlying process is following the web 2.0 ethos. One has to move away from knowledge as acquisition to knowledge as participation. Referring to the work of Dohn (2009) he asks the following pertinent questions:

What happens when:
-       Internal goals of participation, communication, knowledge construction, and knowledge sharing subsumed under external goal of acquiring the knowledge and competence necessary for their future working life
-       Dynamic and distributive views on knowledge and competence enrolled in an individualistic, objectivistic view of knowledge and competence
-       Learning as participation understood as a means for realising learning as acquisition
                                Ryberg (2010, slide13)
Lim et al (2010) go on to present the results of their research on a course concerning the integration of web 2.0 into the curriculum for pre-service teachers and in particular a three week period in which they worked together on a wiki. Their observations show a propensity for the teachers to focus on grammatical edits and changes to the form of the text, rather than ‘knowledge edits’ that reflect critical thinking. In addition, there was a tendency to cooperate in a task-orientated way rather than collaborate to build collectively knowledge. They noticed an absence of higher order discourse that would encourage reflection and critique, and remarked that changing someone else’s text was at times perceived as being rude. 

They note that these results concur with other research which suggests that peer-to-peer interaction in online communities mainly focuses on lower-level cognitive tasks than on critical collaborative discourse. They go on to suggest that that the instructor can influence the level of discourse by encouraging learners to use dialogue that questions, critiques, challenges and builds upon the contributions of others. 

My experience of the recent eTwinning Learning Event for teachers and the results emerging from my analysis seem to concur with these arguments. Left alone to discuss informally how to carry out activities, the teachers would often take a pragmatic approach in which the first ideas to emerge were adopted by the rest of the group and the focus was on completing the activity. Whereas in forums where initial questions were presented in a manner that encouraged reflection and critique, and where the tutor would participate in the dialogue (if he/she felt it was necessary) the discourse reached a higher level. Here there was evidence of critical thinking with participants building upon the contributions of their colleagues and adding in their own experience. In other words, an appropriate level of teaching presence seemed to act as a catalyst for critical collaborative discourse. And by appropriate I don’t mean instruction or the tutor leading the discussion, but rather preparing an environment that is conducive for collaboration and contributing to the dialogue when it falters or to encourage reflection through questioning; leading learners to autonomy – Boud (1988). 


Boud, D. (1988) 'Moving Towards Autonomy ', in Boud, D. (Ed.), Developing Student Autonomy in Learning, pp.17-39, London: Kogan Page

Dohn, N. (2009) 'Web 2.0: Inherent tensions and evident challenges for education'. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 4 (3), pp.343-363
Lim, W.-Y., So, H.-J. & Tan, S.-C. (2010) 'eLearning 2.0 and new literacies: are social practices lagging behind?'. Interactive Learning Environments, 18 (3), pp.203 - 218

Ryberg, T. (2010), 'Social Media Practices and Assessment Irreconcilable Differences or True Romance?', Assessing Learning in a Digital World, Online Educa, Berlin European Commission. (ONLINE - http://eacea.ec.europa.eu/llp/events/2010/online_educa_conference_berlin_2010_en.php - accessed 20.01.2011)