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Elearning, efacilitation, ecommunities, epedagogies: a

professional standpoint based on evidence

I currently work as the Director of Information and Communication Technology for


Ringmer Community College, a small specialist school in East Sussex. I have been
teaching for the past seventeen years mostly in the fields of Design & Technology and
ICT. I also work as a co-ordinator across a local consortium of schools within a
Leaning Skills Council funded Increased flexibility programme for the 14-19
Curriculum. I have a strong interest in the collaborative nature of online learning and
am currently studying at MA level in Education with research projects completed so
far on collaborative workspace environments and their use with students. I gained a
best Practice Research Scholarship (BPRS) in 2001 which helped instigate a journey
which I am happy to say is still continuing through fellowship of Mirandanet and
support from Sussex University, Ultralab at the APU and IOE, London University.

E facilitators are catalysts that can make online learning happen. The role of such a
person is a difficult one to define initially and indeed could change dynamically if the
online context demands it to. E facilitators listen, draw out, pull apart and to some
extent guide the e learner.

An example of a recent post suggests the importance on online socialization within


any online group: (The original post contained a cartoon image of a giant mouse
operating a computer using a small man as an input device)

Sorry Tom just having a break (Half term). Sometimes computers (or their peripherals) start to take
over.
Back soon
Up to Snowdonia to sit on some high mountains and hang by flimsy threads off perilous cliffs.

regards

Dai
Within this post I was merely adding some social skills to the conversation in the way
of both humour and visual imagery. I was amazed by the responses to this type of
post. This use of both elements seemed to enable better socialisation and therefore
helped myself and others to share more knowledge.

I believe that Salmons model has some merit used within the context of my
experiences of e facilitation. The group of fellow e learners that I became part of
seemed to move well through the stages with others helping online with any stage 1
access issues and moved through easily to stage 2 socialisation , helped by the use of
metaphor and virtual cues , these are similar to visual cues except they are used within
the virtual environment. They may be emoticon based or use strong imagery such as
hyperlinked graphics.

I believe that our group became a cohesive one but this very importantly was
bolstered by face-to-face meetings. I felt that stage 4 knowledge construction stated to
be reached during some of our more lengthy contributions and summaries. The
following post extract shows a deeper level of communication and certainly for me
helped me to rearrange my knowledge construct of difficulties in efaciliatation:

Re: The Human Touch

Hello Chris, Mark and Dai,

I see the beers did the trick then Chris! I'm interested in this thread that's developing about thinking
out loud and reframing. I think Chris has pinpointed an important issue here that is - context and
purpose. In reading the Preece chapters she notes that different communities have different
characteristics and that challenging postings may well be productive within a professional community
whereas they can be quite damaging in a community whose purpose is to support members as in
medical online communities. I think in this context as Chris notes where we have all met, I can think
aloud. However, I had a go at engaging one of the contributors to the teaching assistants debate in the
main forums and found myself thinking much more carefully about how I framed my contribution. The
fact that I was engaging a complete stranger made it much more critical to choose the right words. I
agree Chris that the context is critical.

By the way I've been 'lurking' for a few days and then for some reason I couldn't log onto the site last
night. I wondered if it was something I'd said!!

Keith

The evaluation of the process as a whole is complex one. Did the group get what they
needed form the process? Was the process useful with regards to learning? I think that
any course needs criteria to evaluate against. Online learning courses can be difficult
to analyse and perhaps various types of evaluation can occur (Preece p300-340). I
believe it would have been useful to have agreed a form of evaluation and some
criteria with the group before we started meeting online. I would like to collect
feedback from the group and ask if learning did take place. This would perhaps show
the differences in face-to-face and non face to face learning contexts. As a peer group
with little intervention from any type of mentor or coach I believe the task is a
difficult one. Perhaps face-to-face and non face-to-face learning has no differences in
this regard. All learners need feedback and guidance from time to time. The physical
differences are dramatic and as such can to some be alarmingly un user friendly. To
others it can serve to reduce barriers to learning by suiting lifestyle and work
commitments and reducing travel.

Efacilitation is indeed a complex role, which requires a range of interchangeable


skills.

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.

(DENI 1999)

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:

 Regularly face-to-face meetings to ‘ground’ groups


 Rapid quality movement trough the socialisation stages using ‘Virtual Cues’
and metaphors
 Regular participation of a core group, enough participants to keep discussion
 varied
 Agreed success criteria and mid and endpoint evaluation discussions published
before tasks commence
 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.

Start with a question...

Can online forums support the professional reflective


process?

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;

Task:

Create a website and discussion area for use by CPD tutors and invite a range of staff
from diverse groups to join in discussion.

Group one

This will be a group of PGCE students within their second teaching practice
placement.

Group two

This group will be a small group of GTP students attached to the college.

Group Three

This group will be a mixed experience qualified teacher group. It will include newly
qualified staff and experienced teachers of different levels.

Expected outcomes

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.

Context

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

Methodology

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:

Staff Interview

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.

Observational Log

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.

Evaluation

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.
What I have learnt from the year of practice based research tasks about
elearning in general and efaciliation in particular

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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Lave J. and Wenger E. (1999) Situated Learning. Legitimate Peripheral Participation


Cambridge University Press

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