Continued professional development (CPD) through professional dialogue is difficult to maintain over diverse groups. Groups such as PGCE, GTP and existing teaching staff of varying levels of experience have a valid contribution to give any professional development group. Time to talk within any stage in the profession is always at a premium. I would like to enable staff to develop professional dialogue after focused professional sessions on issues. The time to talk is sometimes difficult or impossible to find as the groups of people involved are diverse and on different time allocations and levels of professional experience. I would like to change the reflective professional dialogue that in part takes place as a plenary of s session to an asynchronous online activity.
Author: Dai Thomas
Publication Date: 2003
Start with a question…
Can online forums support the professional reflective
The question outlines above forms the key to my research area. I have been interested in the use of collaborative systems for some years and I have completed research projects on their use with students. I have over these years felt that my own reflective process has been enriched by using online tools and in particular the asynchronicity of online forums. In this study I aim to find out if such forum’s could indeed support professional reflective practice within my organisation.
In order to investigate further I have designed a simple set of tasks to enable online participation;
Create a website and discussion area for use by CPD tutors and invite a range of staff from diverse groups to join in discussion.
This will be a group of PGCE students within their second teaching practice placement.
This group will be a small group of GTP students attached to the college.
This group will be a mixed experience qualified teacher group. It will include newly qualified staff and experienced teachers of different levels.
I would expect teachers from the diverse groups involved to maintain a higher level of professional dialogue and the reflective practitioner element of continued professional development to be promoted. I would hope that the staff involved would gain ideas and confidence of issues discussed. I would expect all groups to feel that their professional reflective process has been helped by discussion online.
Ringmer Community College is a successful specialist technology college cosseted by the Sussex Downs. It has 900 NOR and around 60 staff. The school is highly successful with over 65% A* – C GCSE passes in 2002. The school has an excellent reputation for staff development and Initial Teacher Training (ITT). There is currently a core program of professional development opportunities for all staff that occurs on a weekly basis. This session is coordinated by a professional tutor and is mainly a series of hour-long seminars on various professional development issues such as teaching and learning to ICT. The PGCE cohort that is attached to the college attends these sessions. The college has recently applied for ‘teaching school’ status. This emphasis on training and development is an important part of the college ethos. GTP and newly qualified staff are also invited to attend and the sessions are open to any staff member. The sessions are usually well delivered and attended by some of the above groups. The time limit on these professional development sessions sometimes leaves little time for professional dialogue
I am in this instance more interested in the qualitative data gained from staff interview and observation. I would like to triangulate some of these results by using diverse groups and gain various perspectives on the use of the technology and it’s difficulties.
I would like to collect data using the following instruments:
I will interview a range of staff and gain feedback from their experiences with the forum’s. Interview will be recorded by audiotape and transcribed.
I will keep an active log of observations of the discussion groups through out the research period and then attempt to summarise this to feedback to my conclusion and analysis of discussion posts I would print transcripts of the discussion to illustrate my analysis.
I will evaluate my research by making a critical comparison between results and my expected outcomes. The final self-evaluation questionnaire will also help me define how far my own learning has been extended and help me to critically reflect on the process of research within e learning. The results will be disseminated by using the Mirandanet ejournal system. I will
also use local networks to disseminate this work. I have a growing contact group within East Sussex and run websites which could be used to link to the ejournal site. I would like to perhaps present papers at next years Technology colleges Trust (TCT) conference ‘vision 2020’ and other appropriate conferences. (678)
Research observations and notes
The observations so far reveal that the initial uptake in use of the forums was good but the issue is sustainability. Most participants have not used the system for some time; the direction of this use (facilitation) is the factor that seems to critically effect the use of the forums and the level of conversation that takes place there.
Some participants are still at a stage of technology acceptance, that is, they are still finding difficulties in understanding why they should use the system or they find it technically difficult to access.
Case Study A:
Teacher A is an established teacher who owns their own computer at home and has an internet connection. They also have an allocated College laptop and radio network access whilst within the college campus. Teacher A’s use of the system has so far been poor. They have been given details of the system shown how to access it and they still come up with reasons for non use such “I can not get in to the system”
I believe that this teacher has only tried to access the system once and has given up. I have facilitated by asking then to retry whilst I have been watching over them. They seem to not see the point of using such a system. This is obviously and important point. Belief systems of the users of any such electronic forum are as key to participation as technical skill and confidence.
When interviewed teacher A was unclear on the point of discussion held online. They seem to have, although computer literate, no concept of what the technology could do to extend discussion. Teacher A thought is would be more beneficial to have more face to face meetings.
Case Study B:
Teacher B is an established teacher who owns their own computer at home with Internet connection. They also have an allocated College laptop and radio network access whilst within the college campus. Teacher B has used the system well and has tried to develop discursive points about the use of Interactive White Boards an their impact on teaching and learning.
Others have used the system well and have tried to follow up work on interactive white board professional development sessions with discursive points. When Interviewed teacher B understanding of the possibilities of using an online environment was at a good level. They saw the use of this system as a “Time saver “ and “Thought provoking”.
Within these two simple observations we can start to see a dichotomy of belief systems. This, I believe, is one of the most important factors affecting the successful use of online forum use in developing professional practice. The sustainability of such a system relies on participation at regular intervals and like any ‘twilight hour’ some will attend development sessions and the level of participation in any activity will differ from person to person. The participant’s level of ‘wanting to take part’ is key to this process.
A number of users of the system have asked for instruction on how to use some of the advanced functions of the forum. A user guide of some sort would be an important feature in the next interactive space I set up.
Some of the participants who do take part in the forums start to lose confidence in the forums when other participants don’t take part regularly. This ‘ adverse group effect seems to be another important issue.’ One of the teachers interviewed commented “ I would check the forum every week to find new addition and become disappointed when there was none”
As a facilitator this was acted upon by gentle reminders and task setting within face-to-face discussion. The level of participation would improve for a short period of time but soon tailed off again.
My work so far has lead me to reach new levels of reflective thought about my own practice in education and especially my own and others methods of gaining continued professional development. The teacher who is a ‘life long learner’ is perhaps one that is fully equipped to take on the complexities of modern education and the ever-changing nature of knowledge.
At the heart of becoming a teacher is, above all else, being a learner, a life long learner. To learn, one has to ask questions, of oneself and of others, and to know that this process is valued and shared across the school. Reflecting on teaching provides a focus for analysing and developing learning and teaching.
The use of e-communities to generate reflective dialogue between teachers has been a fascinating journey into a complex field. The very fact that I have been myself taking part in a community of good practice (Lave & Wenger,1991) and taken part in ‘reflective action’ (Dewey 1933) has given me a better insight into a process which I have developed since starting teaching sixteen years ago. The advantages of e-learning for developing reflective processes are still being researched. There have been some important developments highlighted by recent research projects (Ultralab 2002)
The aim of my research was to see if my own experiences with e-facilitation within a community of practice could help to develop professional reflection. Teachers within their careers develop various states of professional competence as they move through each stage of their experience this feeds the ‘constructive spiral or professional competence’ (Pollard 2002)
Reflective and collaborative activities are social by nature and have been studied for some years (Vygotsky 1978). This model of learning from others is one that I have observed in both students and teachers and is enhanced by extended thinking time in asynchronous discussion forums (Thomas 2002). The observations that I have made during the research period are not quantitative in nature and seem to be congruent with the ‘reflection-in-action’ (Schon 1983) that is by its very nature contain ‘confusing messes’.
The difficulties of access to technology and appropriation is a strong feature of observations from some teachers and one that is widely documented ( Dwyer et al, ACOT Report 8 1988)
The belief system and motivators of the participants and their reason for entering the e learning task was a focal point within my observations, ‘Self actualisation’ (Maslow & Lowery,1998) is the basic human need to fulfil ones self and meet your potential. This sometimes needs to be developed in individuals and a more guided or facilitated introduction to e learning is required.
The need for ‘common ground’ (Preece 2000) was clear from the observations and posts within the period of research and I found it useful to relate stages of discussion development using Salmons model (Salmon 2000).
True knowledge construction (Salmon 2000) is very difficult to gain within any environment and particularly hard online. There needs to be a number of catalytic factors involved before groups start to enter the later stages of this model.
Factors involved in reaching higher Salmon Model stages:
q Regularly face-to-face meetings to ‘ground’ groups
q Rapid quality movement trough the socialisation stages using ‘Virtual Cues’ and metaphors
q Regular participation of a core group, enough participants to keep discussion varied
q Agreed success criteria and mid and endpoint evaluation discussions published before tasks commence
q Key facilitation to targeted group members either online or face-to-face
The process of reflection on action taken during a classroom activity has helped me form my teaching beliefs over the past years. Perhaps it is these beliefs and values that are key to establishing professional practice as an educator.
Teaching is a professional action that is built upon values. Beliefs and knowledge.
(Saloman & Tresman, 1999)
I believe that e learning methods can be used to support the professional reflective process. For some teachers this will mean a cultural change within the way that they work and communicate, learning new skills in online collaboration. For others it will mean almost instant access to “time saving” and “thought provoking” materials and knowledge. E learning enables values, beliefs and knowledge to be more easily formed and teachers to enter more easily into the role of “reflective practitioner” (Schon, 1983).
The power of a well-facilitated and sustainable online community is perhaps an unknown quantity for UK education. The various stakeholders in their design and funding need to think carefully about the economies of scale of locally formed and home grown opportunities that are being utilised by schools and their cluster communities.
Schools now need the flexible funding to support e learning across the school community. The recent government initiative of e learning credits, a 50 million pound investment in e learning materials does not allow for the time to develop free resources available, such as open source software for e learning applications and groupware solutions. In fact the funding can only be spent on expensive software solutions, which sometimes do not allow for customisation that most schools would find useful.
I have used open source solutions for my research task such as PHP BB, this has allowed me to develop my own community with little or no funding and also control and customise my community solution to the needs of my organisation and its users. I have also used solutions such as Mambo Server technology, Moodle groupware, Groove Workspace and PhpWebsite.
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References & Contacts
Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think. A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process (Revised edn.), Boston: D. C. Heath.
Dwyer, D., Ringstaff, C. & Sandholtz, J. (1992). Teacher beliefs and practices part 1: Patterns of change. The evolution of teachers’ instructional beliefs and practices in high-access-to-technology classrooms first – fourth year findings. ACOT report #8. California: Apple Computer Inc.
Lave J. and Wenger E. (1999) Situated Learning. Legitimate Peripheral Participation Cambridge University Press
Maslow, A., & Lowery, R. (Ed.). (1998). Toward a psychology of being (3rd ed.). New York: Wiley & Sons
Preece, J. (2000) Online Communities: Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.
Pollard, A. , ( 2002). Reflective Teaching. London, Continuum
Vygotsky, L. S. 1978.Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Thomas, D.,(2002). Computer Supported Collaborative Environments and their effect on Meta Teaching, Mirandanet
Salmon, G., 2000. E-moderating: the key to teaching and learning online. London, Kogan Page.
Saloman, J. ,& Tresman, S. (1999)
Department of Education for Northern Ireland, 1999, The Teacher Education Partnership Handbook
Schon, D. A. 1983.How professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books
“I have found this year a fascinating insight into discovering the advantages of elearning. The task of efacilitating was one that I had done before but I now feel that I have a growing understanding of the issues involved in developing a sustainable community of learners. I hope to draw some conclusions from the reading I have completed and the conversations I have taken part in over the year to reflect on the process of my own learning and possibly issues, which have arisen. Some of my early experiences of elearning and efacilitation was through the readings of Nancy White and others at http://www.fullcirc.com . I had dabbled with hosting on line discussion for both teachers and students through various activities at work. I enjoyed the time to reflect on initial posts on the group forum activities. These initial postings enabled me to analyse the ways in which contributors took part in discussions and relate some of this to theory such as ‘grounding’ (Preece) and stages of socialisation (Salmon). The activities, which I set up within my own organisation, enabled me to see the difficulties of sustainability of communities and explore some of the motivational factors involved in forum participation. The cultural factors involved in participation is also something that I am aware of but would need to explore further. The part that ICT and online communication takes in an individual teachers life is an important factor. The recent government consultation on elearning, ‘Towards a Unified e-learning Strategy’ as in other documents such as ‘Transforming The Way We Learn’ all paint a utopian picture of ICT use within the education system. The reality is of course very different. It will take many years for the teaching profession to establish fully embedded ICT use within its daily activities. There those that also query the notion of ICT use as a panacea for the modern education system. Peter Twining during a recent interview also talked about the nature of using ICT and the effect it has on teacher reflection. This models my observations during this and other studies: P twining: I have a tension and it’s the tension to do with I think ICT changes the nature of what you’re doing, and so..there maybe times when I think that actually you can’t do some stuff without ICT, you can’t really these days be ? and all that, almost anything in sort of anything…engineer without engaging ICT, it’s changed the nature of history and it’s change the sort of data analysis that we do, it’s changed almost every aspect of science and what have you and the way we think about things, and multi media representation and hypermedia linking and those sorts of things do change the way that we can think and represent our ideas. So there are new things that we cannot engage with without engaging with ICT okay, and for those then inevitably…ICT is necessary okay, there are a lot of other things that ICT may help us to engage with, so for example you know in a traditional primary classroom we have a lot of kids sat round tables er…all doing the same activity in parallel, they’re not actually working together they’re all individually doing the same task sat round the table, okay, you stick a computer there with the kids and the chances are they will start to talk to each other and they may probably need some support in this but they’re more likely to start being encouraged to collaborate and work together, now we could have done away with the computer and just taught the kids to do a collaborative activity, but the point is bringing in the computer tends to lead to a change in the way a teacher operates which kind of encourages collaborative activity. D Thomas: It’s a catalyst. P Twining: It’s a catalyst. Maybe she has to engage them in it because there’s one computer and lots of kids and the only way she can operate is for them all to work around the computer but it acts as a catalyst. But she could have got the same effect without the technology it just happens to facilitate …and white boards are kind of doing the same thing you know, we can carry on thinking we’re doing the same stuff as we’ve always done on our chalk and talk and actually it’s a Trojan mouse, you’ve bought this thing that allows you to do the same thing and suddenly what you’re doing is actually slightly different, and maybe it becomes radically different, without you realising or even noticing the changes taking place. DThomas: Sometimes I’m working on a white board in the classroom and it’s exactly how I’m feeling, again just because this lump of electronics is there, I think people sometimes feel that that’s going to be the answer to their teaching issues…excellent this is it. It’s all about deconstruction and reconstruction of practice. You will work in different ways, but there’s no way without good practice and hell a lot of support you’re going to use that piece of equipment effectively. The key is that you know, because you’ve got this new piece of kit you have to start thinking again about how you organize your teaching and what you do, if you haven’t got the piece of kit you wouldn’t have to think about it, but…if you had realised before the piece of kit came in just how much thinking you were going to have to do about your practice you would probably never had let it in the door in the first place. That’s what I just started to say actually, the idea ..is it actually the piece of equipment that’s having the effect or reflective process within the teacher, and the piece of equipment is just a catalyst as you said, it’s a starting point, it creates reflective process… Perhaps this is the key to my learning within this study. My reflection in action is as an important part of my observational data as any other. Perhaps more work needs to be carried out on the reflective processes of teachers and their promotion. Elearning can, I am sure, act as a catalyst for reflective professional dialogue but as we can see opens up a complex mix of factors that have to be right for the catalyst to work. Culture of the school, attitude of teachers, appropriation and access to technology, embedded use of ICT in daily practice and good facilitation of the collaborative group. All these factors have to be thought about before designing elearning use. I have gain a huge amount personally from this study and I have moved forward within the ‘constructive spiral or professional competence’ (Pollard 2002)
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