Collaborative Reflective Learning: Lessons Drawn from the TEMPUS/ESCalate Projects

Elena Luchinskaya
Manchester Metropolitan University

This paper assesses the usefulness of online reflective journals as a means of enhancing our understanding of the learning process in an international context. This research is based on the results of a three year EU TEMPUS project (2002-5) coordinated by Manchester Metropolitan University and a follow-up ESCalate project (2005). The aim of these projects was to establish a Centre for Social Policy at Udmurt State University, Russia and thereby encourage international professional learning and knowledge transfer among lecturers in higher education, social work practitioners and policy makers in Russia. During the course of the project, participants from the Udmurt republic took part in a series of mobilities to the UK during which they learned how welfare systems operate in different countries. They identified potential and priority areas for development of social work capacity at the regional level where the UK experience gained might be put into practice. As part of the project, a group of ten participants were asked to contribute to online reflective journal writing related to their experience while working on the project. This paper explores the difficulties of using such a technique in Russia where academics and practitioners are unfamiliar with reflective practices and outlines the benefits of using this approach. It demonstrates how Russian participants in the Tempus/ESCalate projects were influenced by the socio-cultural context when participating in online text based professional dialogue. It also suggests that the qualitative analysis of the online discussion provides us with insights into issues and problems related to the use of e-learning technologies and methodologies in international professional education.

Collaborative learning, reflective journals, international professional learning

The development of new computer technologies broadens opportunities for new ways of teaching and learning. Computer-mediated communication encourages collaboration by

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providing a shared environment for learning and by bringing together participants who are geographically dispersed and supports asynchronous communication between participants. At the same time new computer technologies make it possible to modernise traditional and well established methods in teaching and learning by applying them in new contexts. This paper explores the use of online reflective journals as a tool for the collaborative construction of knowledge in the field of social welfare in Russia. Reflective writing is a well known technique in the professional education of teachers, nurses and social workers (Moon, 1999, Bolton, 2001) which helps to improve the learning process or performance, to refer to social issues on a larger scale and to make connections between theory and situated practice. This paper assesses the impact of the socio-cultural diversity on the process of international professional learning using the approach and ideas of Russian philologist Mikhail Bakhtin.

The works of Bakhtin and the Bakhtin circle (Bakhtin, 1981, 1984, 1986; Volosinov, 1986) demonstrate the dialogic nature of all texts which extends to all uses of language. What we say, write or think encapsulates the voices of others. For Bakhtin (1981, p. 13), “the ideological becoming of a human being…is the process of selectively assimilating the words of others”. The central issue is thus “who is doing the talking?” which has been reframed by Holquist (1990) to centre upon, “who owns meaning?” Dialogue involves a tension between centripetal forces which represent “authoritative” discourse and centrifugal forces which represent “internally-persuasive” discourse. Authoritative discourse aims to impose a particular meaning in specific socio-cultural settings. According to Bakhtin “The authoritative word demands that we acknowledge it, that we make it our own: it binds us, quite independent of any power it might have to persuade us internally: we encounter it with its authority already fused to it - it demands our unconditional allegiance” (1981, p. 343). Centrifugal forces, on the other hand, represent the “internally- persuasive discourse” that is exploring, questioning and reflecting on experience. These competing discourses are in constant dynamic conflict. Bakhtin’s notion of dialogicality provides a new perspective on the learning process. Learning is seen as the process when “two or more voices come into contact” (Wertsch & Smolka, 1993) and social knowledge building takes place through the collaborative exchange of utterances.

Collaborative learning can be described as a “learning process where two or more people work together to create meaning, explore a topic, or improve skills” (Harasim, Hiltz, Teles & Turoff, 1995, p.30). This process occurs through a set of collaborative activities that enhance learning efficiency. In this paper learning is viewed as a social process which consists of a dialectical cycle of personal and social knowledge building. Figure 1 below based on Stahl (2000) provides a representation of this cycle and defines its typical phases. Moving through the different phases of this circle discussion, argumentation, clarification – results in the formation of shared language created through communication. Negotiated agreement of participants on common understandings, issues and conclusions results in the establishment of their shared

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collaborative knowledge. The new shared knowledge can be represented in publications or other cultural artifacts

Fig. 1: Collaborative knowledge building process (Stahl, 2000). According to Stahl’s concept (2000), individual and social dialectically constitute the learning process. It is evident that the cycle of personal understanding starts on the basis of tacit pre-understanding. Our interpretations are shaped by our culture, language, history, politics, social environment and social interactions. But at the same time, our personal perspective or voice (Bakhtin, 1981, 1984, 1986) is multivocal, populated by many perspectives or voices of others. To resolve the over-emphasis on our personal understanding we may need to create new meanings collaboratively. We will apply the model described above in the following case study to illustrate how computer-mediated communications support the prominent stages of this process, analyse issues arising during this process and explore the impact of the socio-cultural diversity on the degree of international collaboration.

The results presented here are based on the project coordinated by Manchester Metropolitan University. This was a TEMPUS funded project aimed at establishing ‘A Centre for Social Policy at Udmurt State University’, Russia. It sought to encourage international professional learning and knowledge transfer among teachers and lecturers in higher education and social work practitioners in Russia. Academics, practitioners and policy makers participated in a cycle of mobilities between the Russian Federation, United Kingdom and Finland (2003 – 2005) during which they learned how welfare systems in different countries operate, how policies are designed and

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implemented, what constitutes the roles of local authorities and their relationships with local communities, how non-governmental organisations provide services, how social workers are trained, what the issues of current provision of social welfare are and what the ways of its improvement and future development are. The acquired knowledge allowed for the transfer and dissemination of best practice, the implementation of new approaches and the formation of new structures in the provision of Russian social services. The role of the established Centre was central to these processes. A diverse range of participants - academics, practitioners, policy makers – collaborated in identifying potential and prioritised areas where the experience gained could be put into practice. In calling for radical changes in social welfare provision, this collaboration focused upon current needs and allowed for the development of new strategies. As part of this project, a group of participants were asked to contribute to online reflective journal writing. This activity funded by ESCalate was aimed at encouraging reflective and collaborative international professional development.

The virtual learning environment that was used was Basic Support for Collaborative Learning (BSCW) which is freely available on the web. BSCW provides a flexible and user-friendly environment for building collaborative knowledge. Each participant has his/her own workspace and at the same time, a group mediator creates a shared space for collaborative activities. The mediator distributes documents and links to the web resources and sets up and invites the participants to join in the discussion. In this way participants can see the shared folders which contain shared resources or discussions in each personal workspace. The participants used the BSCW tool to post their own journal entries and reply to the entries of other peers, comment on documents and provide their reaction to current events. Email was used to correspond directly with a mediator. The mediator of this collaborative research activity was based in the UK and entries were in both Russian and English languages. All entries were translated into both languages. This helped the participants, especially from the Russian side, to express themselves more freely and fully and at the same time to overcome language barriers. A group of ten participants took part in this research activity. Six contributors represented academics from Udmurt State University who were involved in the EU TEMPUS project. Their main contribution to the establishment of the Centre for Social Policy was curriculum design and the development of programmes for practitioners and policy makers in the area of social policy and welfare in Udmurtia. The other four participants included three practitioners (two social workers and one psychiatrist) and a Deputy Minister in the Federal Government. Such a diverse range of contributors provided the author with an opportunity to gain insights into a cross-section of personal reflections and a fairly complete picture of the learning process. The participants were asked to keep a journal and exchange reflective writings with peers including the mediators. As this technique was unfamiliar to Russian colleagues, they were given some advice on how to approach this task e.g. to describe their experience and focus upon significant issues in terms of decisions, successes, failures, challenges and to explore means of repeating or resolving problems or mistakes.

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The participants recorded their journal entries each week for a period of several months during 2005. The accounts were immediate, not retrospective, as it was important to explore learning in process and journal entries took the form of relatively free writing (rather than a formal, structured report). After the start of discussion the participants were required to post their entries, reply to the mediator’s comments or comment on the opinions of their peers. The mediator had to be very skilful as they could affect the way the participants responded. He/she observed and facilitated the discussion by encouraging dialogue and clarifying questions, stimulating participation by making remarks and providing support by sharing similar problems. The role of the mediator will be discussed more fully later. Practically all the contributors involved pointed out in their journal entries or through the emails sent to the mediator directly that they were experiencing problems with deciding on what issues/questions to address. Some of the incidents were too insignificant in their view to discuss, or it was difficult to identify an incident to reflect upon. In their search for a starting point the participants were waiting for the mediator to direct them. This shows that it takes time for the participants to reflect but also that they needed to learn how to write reflectively and critically. As our discussion unfolded so did the learning process. A few of participants became more confident in their own critical analysis and as a result their writings became more free from the dominant authoritative voice. One of the most interesting issues raised during the online discussion was the role of local communities in the provision of social services. During their mobilities to the UK, the project participants had the opportunity to visit local authorities in Manchester and to familiarise themselves with their role in the delivery of social services in such areas as fostering, care for people with disabilities, the elderly, etc. Russian colleagues were very positive in reflecting on some working practice models of such a community based social practice and at the same time were quite critical about the current situation in Russia where such provision has not been developed yet, or where the local communities are passive or are not part of the social services provision structure. Our participants demonstrated an awareness of the constraints on local authorities in Russia and the inability of agencies to deal with social problems. Many entries revealed a strong scepticism about the possibilities of adapting the forms and structures experienced in an Udmurtian context. Other issues highlighted included a shortage of Russian and translated western literature on social policy, both in terms of text books and research, a lack of theory underpinning traditional Russian approaches to social work teaching and practice and the role of the embryonic voluntary sector in the delivery of social services in Udmurtia. The construction of such dialogue, the exchange of opinions and the development of critical thought revealed that further progress in building collaborative knowledge required mediation of the language of academic discourse. A good example was the notion of “social policy” and how it is perceived in Russia and the UK. One Russian participant noted that

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“in Soviet times social policy was solely perceived of as one of the aspects of governmental activity…and did not often include culture, ecology, housing, health care or education. …the notion of ‘social policy’ was narrowed down to ‘social security’ (pension, support to people with disabilities etc.) Such a perception of social policy can still be found today.” (M.) Our online dialogue highlighted this issue of clarification of terminology as central to the success of the whole process. It is the area where historical, political or cultural diversity needs to be addressed because if we assume the same terms have the same meaning in different contexts then this might lead to misunderstanding and confusion. It was also pointed out that the lack of adequate terminology can influence outcomes when participants where disseminating gained knowledge through workshops or talks. One of our contributors wrote: “I started to give lectures on the theme of the ‘Voluntary Sector’ to various audiences, but the problem is that there is a great lack of adequate Russian terminology. Periodically it is necessary to use English words (with my pronunciation!!?) else embed the English term into something which sounds vaguely Russian.“ (N.) In the following section we will draw on examples from the journal entries to provide evidence on the benefits and drawbacks of collaborative knowledge building.

In analysing the posted entries, we looked at the tension between authoritative and internally persuasive discourses, meaning construction and what audience (community of learners) addressed. At the beginning, the entries represented an example of a report writing genre and reflected a formal academic voice which was hardly surprising as this is a well established technique in academic circles and the newness of online journaling activity also reinforced this trend. This report writing genre left less room for creativity, was more rigid and as a consequence was more “safe” to use. It is an example of “authoritative” discourse. This genre did not work well and so participants explored other ways of interacting with the audience via the introduction of the dialogic mode. As a result, the tone of writing became more personal and less authoritative over time. The following examples show the multilevel addressivity evident in the extracts. In the first instance, participants address their colleagues while at the same time sharing their critical views of the current situation with welfare provision in Russia, and at a deeper level criticise the policy makers who allow this situation to happen. Thus one participant stated “In my opinion, we can’t talk about multi-agency activity at a republican level in contemporary Russia. Business behaves as a predator –it shifts all social problems onto the state and at the same time escapes paying taxes in full. Private capital does not often provide social security for its employees in full

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(wages are not paid regularly and in full, paid leave in the private sector is more of an exception even if they are a norm according to the Labour Code)” (N.) and another responded “Well,.. I agree… in my opinion, public organizations play a very modest and virtually non-existent role. Public organizations in Russia today, as Lenin said, are ‘a great national zero’. There are plenty of them but in reality only a few are active, the level of their involvement in the social problem solving and their effectiveness varies.” (P.) From the above we can see that the evolving reflective writing has appropriated a dialogic nature of discussion. The responses of the participants show a frustration with a polyvocality of the western pluralism and democracy that is not present in contemporary Russia. From this analysis of the texts it is evident that the process of meaning construction still bears the inherited feature of Soviet times in that it is more collectivist oriented and authority approved than individually produced. This historical, cultural and institutional context influences the way in which the discussion evolved. Russian participants were cautious in expressing their individual opinion in the presence of the authority showing their subordination to the authoritative voice. This is in turn raises the question “who owns the meaning?” (Holquist, 1990). This analysis of the journal entries shows that the use of the scientific language related to the social sciences and the associated science speech genre by some of the participants caused some problems amongst other colleagues. The practitioners, policy makers and some academics were unable to participate in the discussion of theoretical questions due to the lack of knowledge in this field. This explains the fact that some of the proposed topics for discussion were not taken further. For instance: “N, is of particular interest that you highlight the different conceptions of social policy in Russia and Britain. This is a theme in which I have a personal interest. I noticed…that the academic social policy work taking place in Russia tends to have a strong historical tradition; it seems to develop from a tradition of empiricism. Social Policy in the UK has developed from a more sociological tradition and is founded on theoretical perspectives such as academic Marxism, functionalism, post-modernism. Perhaps you could comment on this?” (R.) Russian participants agreed that knowledge of theory would be of benefit to the all parties participating in social welfare provision and training. In this study we are looking at the knowledge building process which occurred through the use of written language. The critical evaluation of experiences gained and the resulting practices were an integral part of this process. In the process of constructing their evaluation of the present, participants referred to the past and also evoked links to the different social contexts. When analysing these references we can see how in
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search for the authority, established rules or recognised opinions they invoke the particular voices in their writings. In relation to Bakhtin’s question “Who is doing the talking?”, the answer is not always obvious and straightforward. At a simple level, it is the person making the online contribution but deep down we can also hear the voices of the others who populate the utterances of the participants, voices that are coming from the past, from the participants’ cultural and historical heritage and their direct experience. The examples cited above show that Soviet “official science” view of social policy as well as hidden representatives from the local authorities impacted upon the way the participants made their judgements. These hierarchically structured evaluation approaches exist alongside more dynamic and less structured evaluation framework. The latter is based on the multivoiced nature of conversation with peers, exchange of opinions and exploration of their practices. The evaluation is more immediate with appropriation or debating of the perspectives of the other colleagues, with metaphorical and ironic references.

The mediator is a key figure to a successful the learning process. In large and homogeneous groups of participants the facilitator role can be performed by one of the participants. As already mentioned our project included 10 participants from a diverse range of professional backgrounds who were new to online journaling and consequently needed support and encouragement from the mediator. In our case a person who took on a role of a mediator was an English academic. He/she observed and facilitated the discussion focussing primarily on participants’ collaborative learning and their own reflective and critical thinking process but playing a background role while doing so. At the beginning of the project, the participants felt confused and unclear about what they were supposed to do. The use of computer mediated communication based on the web application they were not familiar with did not make the process easy. From the very start of the online activity, the mediator was facing a challenging and an important task to make this project happen. He/she had to create a welcoming environment, to reassure the participants that he/she would provide support with the activity and technical issues and to encourage them to make their initial contributions. The mediator used the VLE e-mail communication tool to welcome them to the project and to invite them to join the discussion, encouraging them to participate and respond to the comments of their peers. A subsequent message was distributed briefly after the first one which gave clear directions how to access the discussion area and set up an initial topic of the discussion. The first entry of the mediator specified the activity in a simple request for the contributors to respond to the comment by introducing themselves and telling about their involvement in the TEMPUS project. It took some time for the participants to familiarise themselves with the VLE, on how to navigate a shared workplace, leave comments or respond to someone’s writing. Although technical support was available, the fact that mediator experienced the same problems and was determined to overcome them, encouraged them to be more patient and positive about the activity.

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I feel that I will have to make a couple of entries myself before I am completely comfortable with it (VLE). If you are experiencing initial anxieties, I can empathise! (Mediator) The mediator also provided guidelines on how often the participants should make their entries and emphasised that their participation was important: I was in touch this week to ask you for two reflective journal entries. These are the most important aspects of our journal keeping project!! Please submit your entry over the next two weeks. If you are having problems accessing the website, simply send your reflection as an email to me. (Mediator) At the beginning of the project the mediator acknowledged the posted entries in order to encourage further responses and at the same time to evaluate and delicately direct the online dialogue. As the discussion unfolded and became more steady and independent, the mediator focussed his/her attention on making interesting or controversial remarks or readdressing questions to the different participants to stimulate the discussion. Have you noticed any differences between British and Russian understanding of social policy issues, including the way that issues are communicated? (Mediator) When there were moments when the mediator felt the participants were inactive and did not respond to each others’ comments, the mediator served as a model and left his/her own entry to ensure that the discussion was kept going and interaction facilitated: A critical moment for me on the project came in observing the manner in which practitioners in the domain of social policy find responses to problems in areas where the state has withdrawn completely, such as mental health, or drug abuse. . . There is much to be learned here not only by academics such as myself, but also by practitioners in these fields in the UK as the state continues to 'hollow out' and welfare becomes privatised. I would welcome your thoughts and those of our colleagues on this issue. (Mediator) If some of the participants could not respond to a comment, the mediator would try to persuade them to contribute either through private email or by mentioning this in an online discussion: Dear I., If you are in touch with L., I would be very grateful if you could help her to overcome some of the problems … and to encourage her to make her entry. (Mediator) If the question of the proposed discussion was unclear to the participants, the mediator’s role was to clarify or modify the question, for example:

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My next two messages as mediator… will ask you to reflect on a specific aspect of your learning on the project. This will involve thinking of a 'critical incident' i.e. a problem that you have faced in your professional work and how your learning on the project helped you to overcome it. Would you please try to think of some of the problems and obstacles that you have faced in making use of your learning on the project? You might want to think about cultural differences, or organisational or financial problems, possibly differences in learning styles between the UK and Russia etc. Please leave any thoughts on any area of your work. (Mediator) Although every effort was made to encourage the participants to contribute to the online activity, some of them were more reluctant to participate. Even when the mediator sent them private messages with suggestions on how the person could approach the task, the response was limited. As pointed out in Hulme (2005), some of the colleagues who did not actively participate in online journaling did not feel that the BSCW server provided them with the sufficient level of security to express their views on the changing practices in social policy in Udmurtia. At the same time some of the participants were quite cautious in making open critical reflections using Internet access in Federal ministries or other governmental organisations. Instead they preferred to send private emails directly to the mediator from private addresses where they expressed their views more openly. Nevertheless, the proposed online activity was a useful experience. It shed light on the issues of international professional learning, allowed scholars to acquire valuable qualitative data on the process of collaborative knowledge building and enabled them to assess how socio-cultural contexts influence this process.

This study has demonstrated the potential of using online journaling as a tool in collaborative knowledge building in an international professional learning context. Although the author has focused on only one circle of knowledge building process as proposed by Stahl (2000), the qualitative data used here provides scholars with important information on how this process evolved. Using Bakhtin’s theory, this article demonstrates how Russian participants in the Tempus/ESCalate project were influenced by the socio-cultural context when participating in online text based professional dialogue. In discussing the issues a conflict between centripetal and centrifugal forces and between authoritative and internally-persuasive discourses was evident. The participants sought an “authoritative voice” to use in writing their journal entries. In their understanding critical reflection should bear this authoritative angle to it and in this sense it was the required one. In their search for this authority they looked to the mediator to provide them with the “right” perspective. Hulme (2005) attributes this to the culture of Russian public sector organisations and the inherited need to adopt the “given” authoritative voice in all “formal” forms of written communication. It is also evident that computer mediated communication is a useful tool for studying reflective writing. In this case study, participants of the online dialogue shared their views on how they envisaged the role of the Centre for Social Policy operating as a professional learning resource with the focus on the building of social work capacity. Our online

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discussion provided an opportunity for the academics and practitioners to talk to each other and as a result to identify several key points for the future work of the Centre such as the development of a theoretical approach to understanding social policy and a comparative analysis of international social policy practices. The results of this study will serve as a basis for curriculum design for the programmes offered by the Centre for Social Policy. The results allowed Russian participants to realise that the problem of incompatibility of practices to Russian context stemmed from the absence of a legal framework for social work intervention.

Thanks to Tony Sargeant (Manchester Metropolitan University, UK), Prof. Robert Hulme (University of Chester, UK) and Prof. Christopher Williams (University of Central Lancashire, UK), who worked with the author on this EU Tempus project and Prof. Rob Hulme who was linked to the ESCalate project for their support and encouragement.

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Cambridge, MA. WERTSCH, J. and SMOLKA, V.N., 1993. Continuing the dialogue: Vygotsky, Bakhtin, and Lotman. In Daniels, H. (Ed.), Charting the agenda: Educational activity after Vygotsky. Rutledge, London, 69-92.

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