About my research

My research was set in the context of the European Commission’s eTwinning initiative and it looked specifically at the use of eTwinning Learning Events (non-formal learning). It examined how the community influences the development of teachers’ competence in online collaboration and discourse, and it considered the contribution of social aspects and online moderation.

I am very grateful to my supervisor, Dr. Julie-Ann Sime from Lancaster University, and to my eTwinning soulmate, Tiina Sarisalmi, for their invaluable support. And to my examiners, Prof. Marilyn Leask from the University of Bedfordshire and Dr. Don Passey from the University of Lancaster, for their valuable advice.
Keywords: online learning communities; community of inquiry; online collaboration; content analysis; social presence; social ties; teacher training

Saturday, 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)

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Social presence supports cognitive presence

Shea and Bidjerano (2009) conducted a survey of more than 2000 higher education students participating in a fully online learning network across 30 different institutions. They wanted to know whether teaching presence and social presence are linked to cognitive presence, as suggested by the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model (Garrison et al., 2000).
Using statistical analysis of the results (factor analysis, Structural Equation Modelling - SEM, and chi-square automatic interaction detection - CHAIAD analysis) they posit that their results show a correlation: ‘As predicted by the CoI model and confirmed by the SEM analysis, both teaching and social presence play a major role in predicting online students’ ratings of cognitive presence.’ (Shea and Bidjerano, 2009, p.549). They argue that 70% of the variance in cognitive presence can be linked to the students’ reports of their instructors’ skills in fostering teaching and social presence, and that the latter (social presence) is dependent on the former (teaching presence).
The authors further posit that the social presence element associated with comfort in online discussion was the most significant item correlating with cognitive presence; low levels of comfort in online discussion were strongly correlated with low levels of cognitive presence. In other words, in order to achieve critical thinking (high cognitive presence) students need to feel comfortable with discussing online. In addition they report that cognitive presence is significantly influenced by the participation of the instructor and by his/her attempts to focus the discussion.
These research results suggest that instructors have a significant effect on the success of an online learning community and the ability of learners to experience epistemic engagement
.. it is crucial to assist learners to gain comfort and confidence in the online discussion format in order to foster cognitive presence. Without this comfort, epistemic engagement in online learning suffers. A sensible approach would be to encourage students to reflect on their comfort levels with online discussion. If some students report lower levels of comfort, one strategy would be to promote reflection on why they feel this way and how they might overcome this discomfort, at the same time emphasizing that facility with online discussion appears essential to productive learning in this environment.
(Shea and Bidjerano, 2009, p.551)

These results are similar to what I experienced during the Learning Event last year on web 2.0 tools and I wondered to what extent this is reflected in my results: in my final questionnaire is there a similar correlation between social presence and cognitive presence? In one of the survey questions, question 13b, I presented the respondents with a list of five activities and asked them to rate them in order of importance:
13b - Which statements best describe your experience of posting messages?
Number them in order of importance, from 1 to 5 (1 = most important, 5 = least important)

I enjoyed reading the comments of others
I enjoyed posting comments and giving feedback
I enjoyed receiving feedback
I enjoyed asking questions to clarify my understanding
I enjoyed socialising and making friends

It is likely that those who put the last of the five options - socialising and making friends – first (i.e.1/5) in their list of choices felt comfortable with online discussion. Whereas we cannot argue the contrary for those who put it last (5/5), it would be interesting to see the relationship between these answers and cognitive presence.
Cognitive presence is associated with critical thinking (Garrison et al., 2001) and the final reflection that we held at the end of the LE was a specific activity aimed at encouraging the sharing of experience, reflection on practice and increasing understanding. One of the questions in the survey, question 31c, asked respondents whether or not they found the final reflection useful in this respect. The question was posed as a dichotomy of two equally valid responses and the respondent was asked to what extent they agreed with one or the other:
31c - What best describes your experience of the time allowed to apply ideas in your own teaching practice and the final reflection activities in the Learning Event?

Statement E     
Statement F
I found it not very useful to share my experience with others in the final reflection

 I found it really useful to share my experience with others in the final reflection

It is likely that those who chose statement F rather than statement E experienced higher levels of critical thinking. So how do the results of question 31c relate to those of 13b? The graph below illustrates (click on image to make it larger):
The graph shows that the majority of respondents who indicated that they mostly enjoyed socialising found it really useful to share their experience with others in the final reflection. Whereas those that put socialising with others at the bottom of their list of preferences were less certain of the value of the final reflection. These results neither prove nor disprove the arguments put forward by Shea and Bidjerano, but they do correlate with the idea that social presence supports cognitive presence.
In my research I am using my final questionnaire to guide my qualitative analysis and whereas I am not intending to use statistical analysis, I found the paper by Shea and Bidjerano interesting. One area where I would tend to disagree is with the emphasis on the involvement of the instructor. It is true that the instructor or tutor can greatly influence the performance of an online community through their design of the environment and the cognitive activities. However, when it comes to participation in the community, much of what is prescribed by Shea and Bidjerano as being instructor intervention can be achieved equally well by the learners themselves providing the teaching presence by leading a discussion, guiding others and threading the discussion in their contributions.
I finish with a final observation from Shea and Bidjerano:
Additionally, qualitative research that examines the nature of the discourse in online threaded discussions would shed light on the kinds of instructional conversations that lead to social and cognitive presence as well as those that result in lower levels of engagement and learning. It is only through such varied research approaches that we will gain further insight into the ways that online education can benefit from ongoing advances in technology, pedagogy, and the science of learning.             (Shea and Bidjerano, 2009, p.552)

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
Shea, P. & Bidjerano, T. (2009) 'Community of inquiry as a theoretical framework to foster ‘‘epistemic engagement” and ‘‘cognitive presence” in online education'. Computers & Education, 52, pp.543-553

Sunday, 16 January 2011

BERA Annual Conference 2011, 6th – 8th September, Institute of Education, London

I am thinking of submitting an abstract for the British Educational Research Association (BERA) annual conference in London in September. It looks like a good event to present my work and the process  of producing a paper will give me something for which to aim. A short abstract is due by next weekend.

I may also have the opportunity to work with Tiina again for a workshop at the eTwinning conference, scheduled for 31 March - 2 April in Budapest, Hungary. This would be great as the recent Learning Event has given us a rich source of material and experience to call upon when discussing web 2.0 and moderation skills.