About my research

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

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

Monday, 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 :)