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.
1. Who are the intended readers? (list 3-5 names)
Academic panel and external examiner
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.
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.