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, 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.