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, 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 beneļ¬t 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.