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.
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.