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e-mentoring, peer mentoring, social software, blogs, podcasts, Wimba Voice Board, pre-service teacher education
Project team members
Mark J. W. Lee, Catherine McLoughlin, Jo Brady, Rupert Russell
Background and context
A new model of pre-service secondary teacher education commenced with the introduction of the Graduate Diploma of Education (Secondary) program at the Canberra campus of the Australian Catholic University in 2005. It marked an innovative collaboration between the university and a cohort of experienced secondary school teachers in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and its surrounding region. This partnership was forged to allow the student teachers undertaking the program to be inducted into the teaching profession with the cooperation of leading practitioners from schools in and around the ACT.
In the preparation of novices for the teaching profession, an enduring challenge is to create learning experiences capable of transforming practice, and to instil in the novices an array of professional skills, attributes and competencies. Another dimension of the beginning teacher experience is the need to bridge theory and practice, and to apply pedagogical content knowledge in real life classroom practice. During the one-year Graduate Diploma program, the student teachers undertake two four-week block practicum placements, during which they have the opportunity to observe exemplary lessons, as well as commencing teaching. The goals of the practicum include improving students’ access to innovative pedagogy and educational theory, helping them situate their own prior knowledge regarding pedagogy, and assisting them in reflecting on and evaluating their own practice. Each student is paired with a more experienced teacher at the school where they are placed, who serves as a supervisor and mentor.
In 2007, a new dimension to the teaching practicum was added to facilitate online peer mentoring (Allen, Russell, & Maetzke, 1997; Topping, 2005; Colvin, 2007; Terrion & Leonard, 2007) or among the pre-service teachers and provide them with opportunities to reflect on teaching prior to entering full-time employment at a school. The creation of an online community of practice (CoP) (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998) to facilitate this mentorship and professional development process forms the context for the present case study. While on their practicum, students used collaborative web logging (blogging) and threaded voice discussion tools that were integrated into the university’s course management system, to share and reflect on their experiences, identify critical incidents and invite comment on their responses and reactions from peers.
Participants and tasks
The online mentoring (e-mentoring) activity and supporting technology framework were initially trialled with the 2007 GradDipEd (Secondary) cohort. There were 19 student teachers in the cohort, whose age ranged from 22–43 years. Some of the participants had already had teaching experience, and their technical skill and comfort level ranged from those with adequate experience and comfort using the Web for communication those who felt very comfortable and used a variety of telecommunications tools on a daily basis.
During the course of their four-week practicum, each participant was required to reflect and report on a total of three critical incidents that occurred in his/her classroom, in both text and voice formats. Each week, the participants were asked to write a 200–300 word report, as well as to produce a 90-second voice recording containing different content to the written report, about a significant critical incident, issue or problem that occurred during that week. The report was to include a description of the context of the incident, as well as an account of both the actions of the students in the class and the student teacher. In addition, the participants had to identify questions or areas in which he/she required advice or assistance, inviting his/her peers to respond.
On a weekly basis, each participant was also asked to respond to at least one other student teacher in writing as well as orally, commenting constructively on his/her postings and providing helpful comments and support. The author of the original posting in each case was also expected to respond to the feedback received. Two lecturers, including the coordinator of the practicum unit, also provided a limited amount of input into the discussion, particularly during the early stages of the exercise.
At the conclusion of the practicum, the participants completed a capstone task in which they each created a two-minute podcast recording to be shared with the rest of the student teacher cohort, reflecting on the highlights and challenges of the practicum experience. These summative recordings were played for all participants and their lecturers to hear at a face-to-face debriefing session.
Learning community framework
A social framework for learning is achieved through dialogue and participation in a community where there is mutual accountability, as members attempt to share views and seek new meanings. Wenger (1998) formalizes the dynamics of a CoP by describing a number of defining properties and characteristics, which may be used to design and/ or evaluate professional learning environments. These defining characteristics were embedded in the design of the online learning community for the novice teachers involved in the present case study as follows:
Design question: Will the system support the required mutuality?
Interaction and mutual exchange are facilitated through blogging and voice recording facilities
Design question: Will the system support the desired competencies among participants?
Implementation: Blogging and voice recording tools enable sharing, communication, and reflective discourse
Design question: Does the system support continuity?
Implementation: Blog posts and voice recordings generated by participants can be sustained beyond the duration of the practicum
Design question: Does the system allow reflection among participants?
Implementation: Blogging and voice recording tools allow participants to reflect and review their own and others’ ideas
Design question: Does the system allow the exploration of ideas?
Implementation: In combination with appropriate instructional scaffolding, blogging and voice recording tools can be used to allow students to explore convergent and divergent ideas
Design question: Does the system support the desired coordination to enable the community to function?
Implementation: Web-based tools within the context of a course management system (CMS) enable feedback, communications, storage, and retrieval of ideas and messages
Does the environment allow for control, moderation, and evaluation?
Implementation: The online environment allows for mediation, joint control, and monitoring by instructors
For the text-based components of the learning experience, the participants used a web logging (blogging) facility within the Blackboard online learning environment. Although blogs were originally designed to allow individuals to maintain their own personal journals or diaries and make them available for public viewing, shared or multi-author group blogs have found numerous uses as computer-mediated communication (CMC) tools to support learning. Such blogs can serve as powerful collaborative and shared publishing applications for generating dialogue and promoting the sharing of ideas.
To facilitate voice-based peer-to-peer interaction, the students used the Wimba Voice Board tool. This tool allows the creation of threaded, asynchronous audio discussions that are also integrated into the Blackboard environment. A major advantage of the Wimba Voice Board is that apart from standard voice recording and playback equipment (sound cards, headsets and microphones), it requires no specialised software other than a Java-enabled web browser. It also simplifies the process for users, by providing an easy-to-use, browser-based recording and playback interface that eliminates the technical overhead of having to use separate applications to record, edit and upload/download the audio content.
Supporting and managing the project
The project was made possible by an ACU Teaching and Learning Development grant, which provided funding for equipment, training of students in use of the technology, and administrative support. The project was of particular interest to the university because of its alignment with the overall institutional strategy of technology integration in teaching. It also incorporated one of the underutilised features of Blackboard, namely the Wimba Voice Board.
Immediately prior to the start of the practicum, the students were issued with headsets with built-in microphones, for use with the Wimba Voice Board in their respective schools or at home. A one-hour, face-to-face training session was held to assist them in becoming familiar with how to use the Web-based tools and equipment to participate in the activity. The session was conducted by a university information technology support officer, who was also responsible for setting up the tools within Blackboard, as well as overseeing the technical facets of the project in general. Hard copy materials were also provided to the students, containing step-by-step instructions on how to use the various functions of the system.
Two academic staff members of the School of Education were present at the training session to provide advice to the students on how to plan and structure their written reports and recordings. The learning processes and tasks that students accomplished, i.e. creation and recording of critical incidents, were integrated into their course and formed part of the course assessment/grading system. Throughout the project, tutors were available to offer technical advice and support and to discuss concerns with students. They monitored the blog and voice board, but did not intervene directly in the discussion.
Project evaluation and outcomes
The results of a formal evaluation exercise incorporating questionnaires and focus group interviews, as well as anecdotal feedback received from students and staff, attested strongly to the relevance and effectiveness of the adopted approach to e-mentoring. The use of the university’s course management system (Blackboard) as a platform for the exercise proved successful as it provided participants with both text and voice-based CMC and social software tools embedded within an environment that was safe and familiar to them. More importantly, the creation of a sense of community for students when on practicum was deemed to be worthwhile and positive by all participants. The support, mentorship and sharing of ideas and experiences with peers on the issues and problems they faced created strong bonds between students, a sense belonging to a wider group and an opportunity to share critical, often humorous moments. Without these human elements, the practicum would have proven a lonely, isolating and perhaps intimidating experience for many of the participants.
In particular, the students found the sharing of voice-recorded episodes of classroom incidents while on teaching practicum to be very motivating, reassuring and supportive. The critical success factors were the ease of accessing the voice recordings, the sense of immediacy and social presence conveyed by the recordings, and the reflection on critical episodes that were exchanged. The fact that the voice-based discussion was threaded and asynchronous lent itself very well to the distribution of participants across numerous, geographically dispersed schools, and their inability to hold real-time meetings.
As novice teachers, the participants gained a sense that the reality of school teaching means that classroom management issues are commonplace yet complex, often unpredictable and unexpected, and that they need to possess the skills to deal with these issues. In addition, by sharing these experiences they also reflected deeply on their own practice and emerging competencies in an open, honest and unashamed manner, knowing that other students had also undergone difficulties. Skills in self-refection and critical self-appraisal are essential in many professions, and the authors believe that open learning environments in which CMC tools, especially those that form part of the Web 2.0 (O’Reilly, 2005a, 2005b) movement, are used to connect students, enable communication and create dialogue are essential steps in creating a learning community where these processes occur spontaneously.
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References & Contacts
Allen, T. D., Russell, J. A., & Maetzke, S. (1997). Formal peer mentoring: Factors related to protégés’ satisfaction and willingness to mentor others. Group & Organization Management, 22(4), 488-507.
Colvin, J. (2007). Peer tutoring and social dynamics in higher education. Mentoring & Tutoring, 15(2), 165-181.
Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
O’Reilly, T. (2005a). Web 2.0: compact definition? Retrieved from http://radar.oreilly.com/archives/2005/10/web_20_compact_definition.html
O’Reilly, T. (2005b). What is Web 2.0: design patterns and business models for the next generation of software. Retrieved from http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/a/oreilly/tim/news/2005/09/30/what-is-web-20.html
Terrion, J. L., & Leonard, D. (2007). A taxonomy of the characteristics of student peer mentors in higher education: Findings from a literature review. Mentoring & Tutoring, 15(2), 149-164.