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Facilitating a blended learning environment
5.1 Chapter overview
5.2 Synthesis of findings
5.3 Strategies for the facilitation blended learning communities
5.4 Limitations of the research project
5.5 Implications for inservice teacher educators’ practice
5.5 Suggestions for further research
This research project has probed into the use of blended learning communities for the professional learning of ISTE within a New Zealand context. My research question was
“How can blended learning communities be facilitated to support the professional learning of inservice teacher educators?”
To address this question, I formed a blended learning community consisting of two learning environments; face to face meetings and an online wiki, and used this to support the research participant group, known as Isteam. Isteam met physically in regular face to face meetings and ‘met’ virtually online in the wiki. By analysing the discussion that took place in each environment, I was able to see how each was used by both the participants and me, and how my facilitation strategies and Isteam responses interacted.
This chapter will firstly synthesise the findings conveyed in chapter 4 using the three themes that emerged from the research. These were; building knowledge, social relationships and pedagogical capabilities. These themes will be used to show how the blend of face to face and online discussions developed deeper understandings as participants became more engaged over the duration of the research project.
Following this synthesis, I will identify the nine key strategies that I used and describe how I specifically facilitated these to bring about the changes and encourage richer professional learning for ISTE within the blended environment. This list of strategies, the key outcome of this research project, will clarify how I was able to work across the face to face and online environments and take advantage of their different strengths to significantly raise the professional learning of this group of ISTE.
I will conclude this chapter with considerations for how this work may impact on the future of ISTE professional learning and practice and offer suggestions for possible further research that may follow on from the work discussed here.
In this section I will explain how each of the learning environments evolved using the three themes identified above to describe the shifts that occurred in the ways they were used. The Isteam professional learning community functioned across both face to face meeting and online wiki environments but in quite different ways. A key finding from this research project was that while the face to face meetings developed collective knowledge, the online discussions were used more for personal knowledge. Despite this apparent separation of purpose, the learning that occurred in each environment relied on the learning that happened in the other. Neither environment on its own would have achieved the combined collaboration and reflection that Garrison and Vaughn
say is necessary for higher level cognitive learning.
Garrison and Vaughn
(2008, p. 28)
point out that face to face learning is “collaborative before it is reflective” while online learning needs to be “reflective before it is collaborative.” Isteam used the face to face meetings to learn as a group; firstly to build their knowledge about Web 2.0 environments, professional learning communities and research, and then to collaboratively unpack their growing understandings from the work they were doing. As they became masterful of these aspects, they began to challenge their own and each other’s thinking and construct their own new knowledge together.
In contrast, the wiki was initially used to practice personal knowledge and build skills. The wiki was a much more personal learning environment despite the fact that anything placed there was shared with other Isteam. Once Isteam were more comfortable with their own online capabilities, they began to share individual outcomes with each other. In the later stages of the research project, Isteam began using the wiki to critically self-reflect on the various challenges each was facing while trying to establish their own blended learning communities. By the end of the research project, Isteam were starting to ‘talk’ collaboratively online about their shared learning and strategies for using blended learning communities effectively.
5.2.1 Isteam blended learning community themes
Three themes emerged from the analysis of the discussions in face to face meetings which were used to guide the more detailed content analysis of these meetings and the online discussion page of the wiki. These themes were:
about technical concepts and skills, research practice and professional learning community content knowledge.
Building social relationships
to develop trust and confidence
Building pedagogical capability
to encourage and support critical self-reflection on personal and collective practice
The two graphs below are a reminder of how these themes contrasted between the face to face meetings and the online discussion page. As these graphs show, the relative proportion of each of the themes is different in each of the two environments but all were present in each one.
Comparison of themes evident in three face to face meetings
Comparison of themes evident in online discussions
Each of these three themes will now be discussed through comparing how they manifested themselves in the face to face meetings and the online discussion page.
126.96.36.199 Theme one: Building knowledge
Of crucial importance to the success of this blended learning community was the heavy front-ending of knowledge to ensure Isteam had enough information to be able to succeed in
project’s goal of using blended learning communities to support
professional learning. Isteam needed this knowledge at the beginning of the project to ensure they were comfortable with the way they were expected to work, and tapped into more knowledge as needed throughout the research project.
The overwhelming proportion of all discussion in face to face meeting at the beginning of this project was building collective knowledge, and while this reduced over time it was still just under half of the discussion content at the end of the research period. The knowledge emphasis was on building common understandings: Isteam unpacked new content knowledge, learned how to manage the wiki and other Web 2.0 tools, and learned how to gather, analyse and make use of data in appropriate ways to ensure they were able to achieve their goals. Face to face meetings proved to be a good vehicle for the collaborative sharing of ideas and information and for building group confidence and competence.
In contrast, the wiki was used by Isteam mainly to develop personal rather than collective knowledge. It was used to practise learning and identify what each individual needed to know next. Isteam accessed the wiki when they were on their own and had time available and this allowed them to practise away from the pressure of others who may have had stronger or different skills. During the early phase of the project much of the online discussion related to ‘how to’ questions and answers. As Isteam became more confident, this knowledge discussion shifted from building personal knowledge to sharing personal practice.
Knowledge discussion was an even more dominant theme on the wiki in the beginning than it was in face to face meetings, but unlike the face to face meetings, it quickly faded away and became almost insignificant at the end of the research project.
While the wiki proved to be a good place to practise personal skills and demonstrate learning, it was not a particularly useful platform to build research or content knowledge. It seems that without the speed and spontaneity of response, participants lacked the ability to feed off the ideas of others.
188.8.131.52 Theme two: Building social relationships
Almost without exception, the existing research about professional learning communities
(e.g. Garrison & Vaughn, 2008; Wenger, 2001)
points to the essential nature of building social relationships if the community is going to be successful. However building social relationships within the Isteam blended learning community was not something that was a deliberate goal in the beginning of this project, probably because we were all colleagues and in most cases had been working together for some time so we didn’t consider it necessary. What hadn’t been factored into that unconscious decision was the difference between relationships within a familiar face to face environment and those that are necessary for an online environment to function effectively.
However the data only showed that Isteam did not actively build social relationships amongst the group
the face to face meetings. There were no activities designed to allow the group to get to know each other, no talk designed to overcome barriers, and very little non-work related social chat. When discussing this finding with Isteam, one suggested that the data did not show the relationship chat that was dealt with
the meetings, the lattés that were sometimes purchased on the way, or the group dinners that were had if we were all working together away from the home office. To this extent the type of face to face meetings data gathered (taped discussions) did not paint a full picture of what may have been happening in terms of building social relationships. Transcripts from the audiotapes were also not able to record the subtle use of “physical cues and vocal intonations”
(Garrison & Vaughn, p. 52)
that are commonly used to convey trust and support when people are physically together. Meetings were jovial occasions (at times laughter made transcribing the tapes difficult) but they were intense and focused. Essentially the group was building social relationships within the overall research project, but did not use the discussion within these face to face meetings to do so.
In contrast, the wiki demonstrated steady and significant increases in social relationship discussion. Garrison and Vaughn (2008) suggest that participants need to “project themselves socially and emotionally as real people” (p. 28) to develop ‘social presence’ online and although it didn’t happen immediately, once Isteam began sharing non-work related events online such as catching up after a weekend, they realised how valuable this was to their ability to engage. Talk like this was comfortable and non-threatening as it was not focused on their deeper knowledge; they didn’t need to really ‘know’, in an academic sense of the word, what they were talking about to be able to write in this way.
Small personal online successes were demonstrably acknowledged by other Isteam as each realised how significant the learning was. When they shared their own work, compliments flowed freely. The discussion on the wiki was entirely positive; this environment was not the place for any degree of conflict. Isteam used the wiki to build each other’s confidence and recognise success, and that was vitally important to the sustainability of the overall research project.
What was very clear was that online social relationships needed to be deliberately constructed. As Garrison and Vaughn
suggest, a group may already know each other or meet regularly face to face, but their ‘social relationship’ does not automatically transfer to an online environment without conscious design.
The two environments were used very differently for this theme of building social relationships. Face to face meetings were focused, timed events that met an agenda; online discussions were individual encounters without such limits. Isteam needed to work hard to build each other’s confidence to make sure the online environment was effectively used, and they recognised this. Clearly tacitly understood ways of behaving meant the face to face meeting environment did not need to have the same social relationship building effort put into it.
184.108.40.206 Theme three: Building pedagogical capability
Garrison and Vaughn (2008) use the term ‘cognitive presence’ to describe the “extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and conversation in a critical community of inquiry” (p. 28). Isteam referred to this type of discussion as pedagogical talk as it related to the way they thought about their practice. This talk took quite a while to occur in either the face to face meetings or the online wiki environment.
As already said, the initial phase of the research project was heavily used to build knowledge but simply learning about other people’s findings and the ‘how to’ of research and Web 2.0 environments was not sufficient to shift thinking in the way Annan et al.
claim was necessary to alter practice. This required a high level of cognitive discussion involving critical reflection, collaboration and inquiry
(Garrison & Vaughn, 2008)
, and all of this required knowledge, trust and confidence.
The face to face meetings were an easy environment to begin pedagogical discussions. Garrison & Vaughn say face to face learning requires “verbal agility, spontaneity and confidence”
(2008, p. 31)
. By being together Isteam were encouraged to justify their thinking to each other in a fast moving interchange of ideas from the start of the project.
Face to face meetings were also a good vehicle for sharing artefacts such as data and evidence. Quantitative and qualitative data from the questionnaire and the wiki were explored when we were together and effectively used to identify patterns and challenge thinking. Each Isteam shared stories about the progress they had made since the last time they had been together and as this happened, the rest of the group teased out the strategies they could identify from the stories. From this they began to challenge the facilitation actions being described and collaboratively develop ways they could adapt them to suit their own blended learning communities. As a result of this, the group developed a table of strategies that would eventually sit within the three themes of building knowledge, social relationships and pedagogical capacity in teacher blended learning communities. This table of strategies became the key outcome of their INSTEP project.
The wiki environment was much slower to show this level of pedagogical discussion. Isteam had expected this to be almost instant but in reality they only really started talking reflectively online in the last two months of the research project. Isteam suggested this was because by this time they had internalised the knowledge they required, relaxed ‘socially’ online, and reflective talk was now part of the way they communicated as a group face to face so it was easier to keep this going online.
The key difference in the way the two environments were used for developing pedagogical capability was that the discussion on the wiki was about becoming
reflective while the face to face discussion was more about the growth of the
collaborative ability to critically reflect on
collective knowledge and learning outcomes. However, as Garrison & Vaughn
suggest, by the end of the research project both environments were, at almost identical levels, being actively used to combine collaborative and reflective discussions which enabled the construction of significantly different pedagogical schema.
The following section will describe the strategies used to build professional learning through using blended learning communities and identify the specific acts of facilitation that were used within this research project.
Identifying strategies to facilitate blended learning communities for the professional learning of ISTE was the intended outcome of this research project and this section will identify these and address how they were used. As a result of this research, I have identified the following nine strategies.
The facilitator of a blended learning community needs to:
Contextualise the learning
Build participant knowledge
Create shared artefacts
Build community relationships
Use data and evidence from the learning community
Use challenging questions
Provide collective and personal opportunities for learning
Vary the pedagogical approaches
I will discuss each of these strategies in more detail in this section. Firstly I will explain the thinking behind each one through making connections to current research. For each strategy I will then list the specific acts of facilitation I used to develop them within this research project. Lastly, I will give one example from the research project to put that particular strategy into context for the reader.
While the face to face and online environments wove together to strengthen the learning opportunities, at times different facilitation was required to make the most of each learning environment. The different personal or collective focus of each environment was a key reason for this within this research project. While Isteam may have used each environment differently, it was the weaving of both that proved to be vital to the overall success of the ‘professional learning experience’. As a result, the strategies that follow will be discussed through a blended lens rather than separating them into face to face meeting and online learning environment strategies.
220.127.116.11 Contextualise the learning
Strategy: Build the blended learning communities within a meaningful context.
It is important to have a clear focus at the beginning of the work. The participants will share a common concern, problem or need, and this must underpin the blended learning community’s identity. Garrison & Vaughn say
that effective professional learning communities emerge from environments where learning is situated and authentic. Timperley et al.
add that professional learning occurs within the social context of the educator’s practice. This context helps participants to develop the meaning and implications of new knowledge through negotiation amongst the participants.
My acts of facilitation:
Created a blended learning community for Isteam so they were able to directly transfer their learning to the teacher blended learning communities they were developing.
Looked for and used material from Isteam’s teacher wikis to exemplify new concepts and learning.
While each Isteam reported back on their outcomes in the face to face meetings, I challenged the others to make connections to their own work and think about the implications for their underlying research question.
Used new Web 2.0 tools rather than traditional approaches whenever possible. For example when Isteam needed baseline data they were shown Survey Monkey, when they wanted to brainstorm in workshops they were shown Skrbl, and in preparation for workshops they were encouraged to use their wikis to collate material.
Made Isteam complete their baseline questionnaire online to scaffold how Survey Monkey worked.
Using a blended learning community to support Isteam’s learning
building blended learning communities was fundamentally the most effective strategy for this project. Each Isteam had to develop an online learning community as part of their own INSTEP research. This added to the contextualisation of the research as it gave them a way of testing strategies and new learning as it arose. It also provided data that informed their decisions. Contextualising the learning in this way ensured Isteam were all experiencing and able to share similar outcomes and concerns, and that these were highly relevant to their needs.
18.104.22.168 Build participant
Strategy: Build up the participants’ base knowledge first before expecting them to engage in critical reflection on their own practice.
The early phase of building a professional learning community, as Wallace and St Onge
(2003 para. 11)
say, is when the “foundation pieces on which the community is built” are laid down. Timperley et al. (2007) also identified that new information was front-loaded early in the process and through using a range of activities this knowledge was able to be translated into practice. They found that without in-depth content knowledge and skills, including the ability to inquire into the impact of their teaching on students’ learning, there would be no base upon which to build the deeper understandings, nor would the shifts in practice prove to be sustainable.
Part of this foundation building requires identification of the participants’ prior knowledge and needs
(Wenger et al., 2002)
so the knowledge resources can be designed to suit. Identifying the learning needs of the participants is recognised as a key element in the ‘teacher inquiry and knowledge-building cycle’ outlined by Timperley et al.
(2007, inside front cover)
in their Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration.
My acts of facilitation:
Used a baseline questionnaire to identify Isteam needs so I could plan accordingly
Became the helpdesk – online and face to face
Used opportunities that presented themselves to use Web 2.0 tools to broaden Isteam’s technical knowledge (e.g. using Survey Monkey for the questionnaire)
Modelled new tools that I thought Isteam would find useful by putting them online. For example, putting pictures into a moving slideshow (Bubbleshare) or embedding Teachertube videos. This created ‘how did you do that?’ questions
Was available on Skype if necessary when away from the office
Built the capacity of others and provided opportunities for them to be used to solve problems, often by directing others to them
Put a help page on the wiki and encouraged Isteam to contribute as they identified their own ways of solving technical issues
Deepened their relevant professional knowledge by using other research to scaffold learning, particularly around building Isteam’s content knowledge of professional learning communities and online learning communities
Used the collaborative environment of the face to face meetings to build confidence, particularly around using the wiki
At their request, worked with individual Isteam outside of face to face meetings and personally showed them how to do specific tasks such as analysing their data or increasing their proficiency with Web 2.0 tools
Isteam asked for a significant input of knowledge at the beginning of this research project, particularly around technical skills and facilitation strategies. Such knowledge was generally introduced and unpacked face to face, and tested and practised online. In both environments the demand for it was strong in the initial phase and quickly dropped away as Isteam became more self-reliant. One Isteam commented in the summative questionnaire that this initial focus on knowledge was “vital to the success of the project and my ability to scaffold my teachers.”
Face to face meetings were the most appropriate platform for Isteam to come to understand the information and generate their new knowledge or ‘knowledge capital’
(Lai et al., 2006)
as Isteam could learn from each other. This also ensured there were common understandings amongst the group. However to consolidate this shared learning, the wiki was used to practise the new learning. Without the wiki, skills learnt in the face to face meetings would not have had the opportunity to become tacit knowledge that Isteam could draw on when working with their own teachers. With this practise platform, any problems were able to be recognised within the group and dealt with before ‘going public’ with teachers. Once Isteam took any strategies they had learnt into their own online learning communities, they were then able to see evidence of the effect of these on the learning of their teachers and share this back with others Isteam.
22.214.171.124 Create shared artefacts
Strategy: Create a shared artefact that all participants contribute to.
Lai et al.
found that building a “knowledge repository” (p. 45) where examples of best practice could be easily accessed would support the learning of participants in online learning communities. Once gaps in knowledge are identified, the participants will collaboratively generate the material for such repositories or artefacts. As the learning community matures, participants will take collective responsibility for the artefact. By engaging in a worthwhile activity such as the shared creation of an artefact, the value of the community is endorsed.
My acts of facilitation:
Suggested and created the Strategies Page and seeded it with a few suggestions to get it started
Encouraged Isteam to ‘put it on the Strategies Page’ when one came up with a new barrier or strategy
Encouraged Isteam to write notes on the page discussing how the strategies had worked
Referred to the Strategies Page frequently in my comments on the Discussion Page and in face to face meetings
Recognised Isteam efforts when they contributed to the Strategies Page
Isteam frequently identified the barriers their teachers were having to engaging online in the early phase of the research project so we developed a shared Strategies Page where we could list the ‘excuses’ and develop strategies for addressing these. Ministry of Education (2008) says that “learners actively construct knowledge by confronting and solving problems,” and the Strategies Page was the artefact that resulted from confronting their problems. It also gave them a way of getting over the deficit thinking that was proving to be a barrier to them moving forward.
The Isteam Strategies Page began as a repository that was strongly managed by me, but as they began to develop their own strategies, Isteam took control of this page and have used it as an artefact to show the outcomes of their research. They have since reformatted this page as a handout for other ISTE who wish to use blended learning communities to support their teachers.
126.96.36.199 Build community relationships
Strategy: Create opportunities for participants to feel part of the community.
Sustaining professional learning communities relies on “purposeful and respectful relations that encourage free and open communication”
(Garrison & Vaughn, 2008, p. 15)
. Valuing and recognising all input from participants is vital to ensuring their continued engagement and contribution. Providing achievable and engaging activities which are not able to evoke academic criticism and encouraging social chat are some ways to minimise the apprehension about contributing online. Garrison and Vaughn say that such activities also provide opportunities for collaborative conversations that allow participants to make connections with each other.
My acts of facilitation:
Monitored the research wiki daily and commented on Isteam’s online contributions.
Rewarded online efforts through comments (often jocular) and chocolate fish, real ones and virtual ones, which were wryly sought after. Their tangible value was irrelevant, it was being acknowledged for achieving targets and milestones publically and light-heartedly that was the important factor.
Modelled social chat. Talked about the weekend, the earthquake, the new pup’s antics etc.
Used informal language online. ‘Typos’ were part of the online genre (wikis don’t have automatic spellchecking) and were accepted by all Isteam, including the ones with a literacy focus to their work.
Used the responses to the ‘name the pup’ competition to help Isteam recognise the impact of such activities on their levels of engagement.
Found examples of Isteam building social relationships in their online learning communities. Pointed these out to all Isteam to make them aware of what they were already doing and to showcase what this looked like for the others.
Waited until Isteam were comfortable online before beginning to use Annan et al.’s
While the discussion in the face to face meetings of our Isteam blended learning community did not demonstrate the need to build relationships, the online environment strongly showed the need to implement ways of doing this. We had not recognised this was necessary until the ‘name the pup’ competition, but once this event had occurred and the effect was recognised, building social relationships became a major focus of the work. By using the Discussion Page results and Wikispaces statistics to investigate what had happened during this ‘verbal’ volley, Isteam were able to recognise how important such fun activities would be to their own online learning communities. One Isteam said she didn’t realise “how much social stuff was needed at first especially when good face to face relationships already existed.” This event challenged the existing schema of the whole group as Isteam had previously felt their teachers knew each other well enough for this not to be necessary. Once this was realised, the way Isteam managed their online learning communities changed.
188.8.131.52 Use data and evidence from the learning community
Strategy: Take advantage of the evidence and data that is generated from within the community to help participants make sense of their practice
Timperley et al.
found that professional learning communities helped teachers to analyse the impact of their work on student learning but that they needed to use evidence to “ground teachers’ deliberations in the realities of practice” (p. 204). Through negotiating and debating meaning and testing evidence of its effectiveness, they found that participants created mutual understandings of new knowledge and achieved more effective practice. Blended environments allow facilitators to model inquiry-based learning both online and face to face and challenge participants assumptions and beliefs through helping them make sense of data. The dissonance created through such evidence-based challenge leads to shifts in practice (Timperley et al. 2007).
My acts of facilitation:
Taught Isteam how to use Survey Monkey and how to develop worthwhile questions.
Showed Isteam how to do a thematic analysis. Encouraged them to do this to identify patterns in how their wikis were being used at the beginning of the project.
Fed data from my findings back to the group (all questionnaire findings were available to them via a shared Survey Monkey account).
Showed Isteam how to use the statistics from the Wikispaces environment to identify causes of spikes in ‘views’ and ‘edits’ data. Used this source of data to challenge Isteam’s thinking.
Asked Isteam to use the statistical data from their own wikis to identify trends and patterns. Encouraged them to share these findings in the face to face meetings.
Encouraged Isteam to be able to use evidence whenever they fed back about the behaviour of their online learning communities.
In this research project the individual teacher wikis and the teacher baseline questionnaire were the artefacts. Once data were being generated through these, Isteam shared and made sense of their findings in the face to face meetings. This opened up a pathway towards generating new collective knowledge.
Wikispaces (the wiki platform used for this research project) provides a variety of quantitative data in the form of tables and graphs that were excellent for challenging Isteam practice. These allowed Isteam to identify peaks in viewing and relate these peaks to events on the wiki. By having this level of clear and easily accessed data, it was easy to spark conversations about Isteam practice that may have been at the root of any significant events.
Timperley et al. said that collaborative planning and shared analysis of evidence were some of the catalysts for the development of new knowledge in professional learning communities, and they also included peer observations in their list of catalysts. While actual observations were not possible for Isteam as they did not work collaboratively in schools during this project, by virtually sharing evidence of their work with the whole group through the wiki, each Isteam had an insight into each other’s practice. Such evidence did give Isteam a basis for comparison and critical reflection and the ability to challenge each other about how they had achieved various outcomes.
184.108.40.206 Use challenging questions
Strategy: Use challenging questions to encourage participants to think about the issues themselves and invite others to offer ideas.
Where online learning communities had previously fallen short was in being able to facilitate sufficient challenge to shift existing schema. Simply learning about other people’s findings was not enough to shift thinking in the way Annan et al.
claimed was necessary to alter practice. Garrison and Vaughn
say that the facilitator needs to weave both social and cognitive presence online and face to face through using stimulating questions to move participants beyond merely exploring the issue. Without challenge, participants run the risk of reinforcing the status quo
(Timperley et al., 2007)
My acts of facilitation:
Modelled asking reflective questions in face to face meetings and writing reflective questions online. Used questions such as “so what makes you say that?” or “how do you know that?” to challenge Isteam.
Brought Isteam’s data to their attention and questioned them about its implications
Gradually weaned Isteam of being able to get ‘the answers’ from me.
Put new material up online with questions around it to show how this strategy worked.
Kept the pressure on Isteam when there were no contributions online
Talked about Isteam practice that I had seen and then posed questions for others to think about.
In this research project, challenging questions were used strongly in the face to face meetings. Isteam shared their outcomes from their online learning communities in these face to face meetings and supported each other to understand the implications of their own practice. Initially discussions involved me simply questioning Isteam and individuals responding to me, but as time moved on the questions became more challenging, the questioning role became one we all took on, and responses were generated across the group. As one Isteam said, “it’s the group cross chat, it’s more important than we realise.”
The cross-group questioning encouraged Isteam to think about and make changes to existing practices by making them think about what
were doing about their teachers’ levels of engagement. Often this questioning was intense, making Isteam take ownership and responsibility for their teachers’ behaviours, but it was clear from the smiles when their personal breakthroughs occurred.
Challenging questions were also used on the wiki but with an additional purpose. Often they were used to motivate and keep the focus going; however the questions were less personally challenging in this environment. This was not the place to put personal pressure on individuals. Isteam said these challenging questions were vital to ensure they continued to move forward. As one Isteam said, “they gently gave the hard word if nothing much was happening ... at times we all needed that.”
The changes to Isteam practice that emerged were based on their ability to critically reflect on their shared evidence which had not been possible earlier when Isteam were just sharing personal feelings and impressions. Timperley et al.
say that the most powerful shifts happen when prevailing discourses are challenged, and the combination of strategies involving using their own data and evidence with challenging questioning appeared to be what enabled this shift to happen. As this challenge and evidence-based reflection grew, the level and intensity of pedagogical discussion also grew to finally become the dominant discourse of face to face meetings.
220.127.116.11 Provide collaborative and personal opportunities for learning
Strategy: Use the face to face environment for collaborative learning and the online environment for personal learning.
If professional learning communities are to go beyond merely assimilating information, participants need to “collaboratively explore and reasonably question organisation and meaning of subject matter”
(Garrison & Vaughn, 2008)
. However participants also need the flexibility and freedom to construct their own meaning and confirm understanding, and as Lai et al.
found, the time to participate when they are ready. Timperley et al. (2007) said that professional learning communities where participants were supported to collaboratively process new understandings and analyse the effect were significantly more effective in changing teacher practice. They also found that the learning process itself needed to be both collective and personal if participants were to truly change.
My acts of facilitation:
Asked Isteam to share their practice at each meeting and encouraged others to ask questions and make connections to their own work
Facilitated the wiki to support personal reflective thinking and the face to face for generating understanding and ideas
Developed a shared artefact that showed the collaborative efforts of Isteam
Encouraged Isteam to practise new learning online as soon as possible
Modelled critical reflection online
Modelled challenge face to face
Provided private pages on the wiki for Isteam to personally reflect as well as pages for group collaboration
Isteam used two learning environments, face to face and online, which allowed me to provide for both their need to question and explore collaboratively and the need to construct personal meaning. The asynchronous online environment provided time and opportunity for personal reflection and rigour
(Garrison & Vaughn)
without the group’s expectation of a quick response. The synergy and challenge of working collaboratively in face to face meetings generated the type of conversation necessary to unpack individual understanding and build new group knowledge.
18.104.22.168 Vary the pedagogical approaches
Strategy: Think about what you want to achieve and be flexible with the pedagogical approaches you use to support your learning community.
Through providing a range of activities with multiple opportunities to learn, participants have a better chance of succeeding in their professional learning
(Timperley et al., 2007)
. This requires flexible thinking around the pedagogical approaches used for facilitating learning. The online environment will more than likely exhibit an ‘exchange thinking’
approach when it is first launched. While this may go against the grain of what is considered to be good facilitation, it is during this time that knowledge is being heavily front-loaded so it is important for the facilitator to have strong pedagogical content knowledge. To ‘be the expert’ and provide such support speeds up the process and gets participants’ levels of competence to a point whereby they can contribute confidently.
Once the building blocks are in place, the facilitator needs to provide repeated opportunities for participants to develop their own knowledge as a result of the work they have been doing. At times, Garrison and Vaughn suggest, facilitators will need to ‘manage’ the environment to ensure all participants are actively taking responsibility for their learning. Collaborative projects will be one strategy that will encourage group learning.
My acts of facilitation:
Used facilitator driven top-down approaches to build technical knowledge
Modelled different ways of facilitating online, e.g. how to use questioning strategies, and then asked Isteam to think about my approach
Modelled critical reflection of my own practice online – exposed myself as a learner
Changed the pedagogical approach depending on the focus. For example, technical knowledge was usually developed through expert/novice transmissive approaches, while we co-constructed our new content knowledge around blended learning communities
Provided multiple opportunities for joint sharing of learning outcomes and building of artefacts
Provided individual support when necessary
Strongly managed the face to face meetings and the wiki initially and then gradually reduced the amount of direct leadership
Provided different pages for different purposes online – some were used transmissively, others were used collaboratively.
Transmission teaching coupled with participants having direct, hands on experience in a face to face environment was a necessary facilitation strategy to build the initial knowledge base for Isteam. One Isteam commented about this phase that “we would have come to these (Web 2.0 skills) but not nearly so quickly.” Another referred to my “expert's tool box for successful online environments” as being essential for ensuring Isteam were able to work with teachers successfully within a short space of time.
22.214.171.124 Give feedback
Strategy: Value participants’ efforts by giving worthwhile feedback and feed forward as soon as possible.
Lai et al. found that feedback emerged as “key to ensuring the sustainability of the online community” (p. 31). The online environment needs to be constantly monitored and deliver immediate value to participants. This is where participants feel the least sure so any input from them must be recognised as soon as possible. Online feedback doesn’t mean just answering questions; it means showcasing participants’ efforts, engaging others in their shared stories and taking their contributions to the next level.
My acts of facilitation:
Monitored the wiki through using the Wikispaces ‘notify me’ facility which sent emails whenever changes had been made online (all Isteam had this function turned on as well).
Provided online feedback as soon as possible – usually the same day.
Monitored Isteam’s teacher wikis to find examples of good practice to share with the others online as a way of recognising their efforts
Made open suggestions about potential next steps and invited contributions from other Isteam
All written correspondence was via the wiki. No other form of written communication was used between face to face meetings.
The online environment was monitored daily and any contributions were commented on as soon as possible. Where I saw an example of something I was trying to encourage, I would highlight it and pose some questions around what may have led up to the event. Feedback was always totally positive as it is easy to misinterpret written comments. Isteam recognised that feedback was affirming and encouraging and this was “important for confidence, reassurance but also for moving us on in a variety of different ways.” Feedback online was used to suggest strategies and scaffold learning to enable them to solving problems themselves.
To conclude this section on strategies and their facilitation, I wish to reiterate that the nine strategies listed above rely on the blended nature of the professional learning community as they span both environments and effectively weave their strengths together. While each environment is part of the overall community, at different times each has specific needs that have to be catered for and strengths that can be taken advantage of. These strategies are not new in terms of facilitating learning, but their specific relevance to building effective blended learning communities needs to be considered and designed for.
The next section will outline the limitations of the way this research project was structured and the impact these may have had on the findings.
There were several limitations of the research project described here that need to be recognised. These were: the form of data that was analysed, the size of the research group, the time frame of the research project, and lastly, possible issues around being a practitioner/researcher.
Data that informed this research project were gathered through several means: audio taping and transcribing face to face meetings, written contributions to the Isteam wiki, and written comments in baseline and summative questionnaires. Written forms of data such as these may not have captured some of the practices that could have influenced outcomes in this research project. In particular, those social behaviours that are tacitly understood as building relationships such as sharing food, body language, etc., were not captured. This has been identified in the discussion about social relationship building, but as the findings from the face to face meetings show very low levels of this type of discussion while other research around professional learning communities suggests a very different scenario, this factor needs to be recognised as a potential limitation of the findings.
The nature of action research is to explore an issue or problem and develop solutions specifically related to that situation. As the data that are generated emerge from that specific problem they are not generalisable to another setting or to a wider population. This sole use of emergent data also precludes the use of data outside of the boundaries of the research project which may have provided different insights into the interpretation of the findings. The findings discussed here are specific to the group of ISTE involved in the research. This group consisted of five participants (including myself) and the size of this group must also impact on the ability to transfer the findings to different situations.
This research project spanned approximately six months and a lot of the research around the life cycles of professional learning communities suggests that this may not have been long enough to generate the levels of confidence and cohesion necessary for real critical thinking to develop. While this blended learning community did strongly show this type of talk was happening, it would have been interesting to see how far it could have developed if the timeframe had been longer. The prescribed timeframe also meant that the third and final “transformation or disengagement” phase that Lai et al. found
was imposed on the learning community rather than arriving there naturally.
As mentioned earlier, the size of this research group was small; there were four other ISTE and myself. As the researcher and also a participant in the group, it could be argued that I was in a more powerful position and this may have affected the behaviour of the other participants. In part this was addressed by having one of the other ISTE as the ‘leader’ of the group because of her role as the INSTEP co-ordinator, and all participants including myself held equal positions within the university. However, as I was the person with job-related responsibilities and therefore perceived deeper knowledge in this area, the others had looked to me as the one to lead the professional
The following section will outline some potential implications of the findings from this research on the practice of ISTE.
While this research project has worked with a small group of ISTE to support their professional learning within a blended learning community, the implications of this research can be considered by other ISTE in their work with teachers. I will use this section to describe some of the possible impacts this work could have for ISTE.
ISTE are increasingly being expected to work in wider geographical regions which impacts on their ability to provide timely face to face support for teachers. Traditionally workshops have been offered as a way of addressing this problem but these had tended to employ pedagogical approaches that are dated and recognised as not being effective in shifting practice. Professional learning communities are becoming widely accepted as being a valuable tool in the kete of professional development and through using a blended approach these learning communities can be enhanced through the added personal reflective learning advantages that online environments can provide
(Garrison & Vaughn, 2008)
The online aspect of the Isteam blended learning community has been shown here to have provided opportunities for more frequent ‘contact’ between Isteam and the facilitator, suggesting that ISTE could use them to sustain the professional learning they provide teachers between face to face visits. However ISTE cannot simply replace their face to face meetings with online variations of these and expect good outcomes. Nor should online learning communities be seen as just an add-on to existing professional learning communities. They need to be planned for within a holistic overview of their professional learning programmes. Without this holistic overview, the online environment quickly becomes a place for transferring information rather than for deeper learning.
ISTE need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of both online and face to face environments in order to make the best use of the synergies provided by their blended use. If they are aware of these ways of functioning and their roles in facilitating effective professional learning, then blended learning communities will be a strong tool in the professional development kete of the future.
Effective facilitation of blended learning communities for educational purposes requires a new way of thinking about our practice. A lot of time is required to support blended learning environments and the facilitator response needs to be as immediate as possible if the initial inertia is going to be successfully overcome. ISTE will need to put aside a disproportionate amount of time in the ‘formation’
(Lai et al., 2006)
phase of the learning community’s development, with the understanding that this will change as participants find their natural rhythm and become engaged in the ‘sustaining or maturation’
(Lai et al., 2006)
phase. There were several instances where Isteam considered their communities were ‘not working’ due to the lack of response from their teachers, and without their involvement in the research project, they may well have decided to discontinue at that point. Interestingly, several months later it is now their teachers they worked with who are insisting on the continued use of this model.
One of the most successful strategies that came out of this research was the use of community-sourced evidence and data to inform and challenge participants. This material was easy to source and shifted Isteam’s interpretation of events significantly. ISTE are comfortable using evidence and data to show the impact of their work when milestone reporting to the Ministry of Education, but the use of community-sourced evidence and data to challenge teacher thinking and practice could be a stronger focus.
A clear message from this research project is that ISTE must upskill with regard to the use of Web 2.0 technologies. At the beginning of this research, Isteam were asked about their confidence and skill with a range of these tools and this was clearly limited. As a result of the research, they are now considerably more confident and knowledgeable and are seen as the new ‘tuakana’ for other ‘teina’ within the workplace. Without the levels of skill Isteam now possess or at least easy access to them, leading blended learning communities may not have a successful outcome. By broadening this resource base of people, the universities would be supporting the practice of a wider range of ISTE in their goal of improving teacher practice.
I will now offer some suggestions for future research leading from these outcomes that could provide worthwhile information for ISTE and the institutions they directly and indirectly work for.
In the research project described here I have worked with a group of ISTE from within one School Support Services region of New Zealand. It would be interesting to scale this project up to see how a national project that used the same blended learning communities approach could be managed. Several interactive websites are being developed by Ministry of Education at present through TKI (Te Kete Ipurangi) and these are attempting to get ISTE and teachers to share practice and build capacity, but as yet, these have not yet shown much more than what Potter
describes as “exchange thinking.”
Some of the facilitation strategies described here to encourage Isteam to engage online may be applicable to a larger more widespread group although it may be that the heavy emphasis on the role of face to face meetings suggested here would need to be thought about and other strategies considered. Simulating face to face meetings online through using programmes such as Skype or using video conferencing equipment may be able to go some way towards overcoming this problem, but I suspect there will still need to be some element of face to face required.
A clear next step from this project is to continue Isteam’s investigation of the use of blended learning communities to support the professional learning of teachers. Isteam developed a set of strategies to overcome barriers to teacher engagement; these could be further explored by a now more experienced Isteam using the benefit of hindsight and a new group of teachers. These strategies also need to be tested with other ISTE to see if they are able to be applied to a wider range of learning communities.
Exploring the facilitation of blended learning communities to grow the professional learning of a group of inservice teacher educators (ISTE) was the focus of this research project. As a result of this work, three professional learning discussion themes were identified:
building knowledge, building social relationships
building pedagogical capability.
Several strategies for facilitating effective blended learning communities also emerged that were necessary to ensure the progress of the ISTE’s learning discussion towards building pedagogical capability where there was considerable critical reflection and engagement. In the early development phases, significant facilitation was required to build ISTE’s knowledge and social relationships in both their online and face to face environments. Growing ISTE’s pedagogical capability relied on having these building blocks in place first.
The first theme to emerge from the online and face to face discussions was building the ISTE’s
around research and context as well as their confidence and competency in using online collaborative technologies. Facilitation of this required the use of a range of online and face to face opportunities particularly in the early phases of this community’s development. Using strategies such as ‘creating shared artefacts’ and ‘contextualising the learning’ helped to build sufficient depth of knowledge to ensure the ISTE were able to gain the most from the blended learning community.
While the face to face and online learning environments blended together, the research showed that the
the ISTE had in the face to face meetings did not transfer into the online environment readily without conscious and active facilitation. Strategies that focussed initially on non-context related activities were used to build community relationships so participants became engaged and learned to ‘talk’ comfortably online.
Once the ISTE had mastered the necessary knowledge and had strengthened their online social relationships, they were challenged about their
practice. Facilitation strategies that involved using ‘data and evidence from the learning community’ and ‘challenging questions’ encouraged participants to develop their pedagogical thinking. One of the ISTE said such challenge was “vital to ensure we reflected on our practice, met challenges head on and continued to move forward.” The strategy of providing ‘collective and personal opportunities for learning’ through the blended approach was important as the knowledge and social relationships they had already built helped to support them to critically reflect on their professional learning and practice issues.
Face to face meetings afforded more opportunities for building ISTE’s collective learning while the online environment supported the personal reflection necessary to build confidence and capability. By blending the inherent strengths of the face to face and online environments and by providing ways to overcome each environment’s potential weaknesses, this group of ISTE benefitted from a learning community that was both reflective and collaborative. In line with Garrison & Vaughn’s (2008) thinking, this blended approach led to a measureable shift in both process and outcome.
The outcomes of this research project indicate that the synergies created through combining face to face and online professional learning communities outweigh the potential offered by either environment on its own. This group of ISTE have significantly shifted their beliefs and practices with regard to the use of blended learning communities in their work.
As a result of this research, blended learning communities have piqued the interest of other inservice teacher educators at Massey who recognise their potential for embracing and addressing the demands of working in the 21st century.
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