Category: Professional practice
|Teaching and Learning Forum 2006 [ Refereed papers ]|
School of English
eLearning & Web Support Unit
Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology
The aims of a 2004 Ministry of Education funded professional development initiative pilot project, Teaching for Teachers for Tertiary (T4T4T), were to encourage effective tertiary teaching and to investigate the role of online environments in tertiary teaching. This study, involving 3 mentors and 20 tutors, was carried out at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology (CPIT), one of the participating institutions. The central research question under investigation was to identify the conditions under which an online discussion environment was successful in fostering CPIT staff professional development in teaching and learning. The study was conducted as an action research project involving two cycles in which data on the benefits and limitations of the participants' involvement was collected by means of questionnaires, interviews and focus groups. At the conclusion of the first cycle the major benefits were identified as the value of inter-institutional debate on learning and teaching and the gain in confidence in using technology. Problems identified included issues with using technology and participation in the community of practice. These issues were addressed for the second cycle of the project. It was found that conditions for maximum effectiveness of an online professional development community promoted a 'mixed mode' model and identified the need for very clearly defined outcomes, strong practical focus in discussion and resource sharing, a well organised, easy to negotiate online environment, technological support and skilled development and maintenance of the participating community.
Under what conditions is an online discussion environment successful in fostering CPIT staff professional development in teaching and learning?
The focus of our action research fell within the category of practical action research (Carr & Kemmis, 1986) and, in particular, a more recent categorisation called evaluation action research (Mouton, 2001, as cited in du Toit; 2004; Dick, 1998) in which we would, in reality, be evaluating our experience within the larger T4T4T project and its management and development over the ensuing months. Our action research design was further informed by Reason's (2001) strategies for action research and practice, categorisation of "second person action research/practice" which described this approach as the "ability to inquire face to face with others into issues of mutual concern" and the investigation into "how to create communities of inquiry or learning organisations".
Our research design would plan to include at least two cycles which would cover four phases based on Kemmis & McTaggart's (1988) commonly used model:
One of the main questions we had as mentors was about our role. Was it to respond to requests for help or to be proactive in suggesting topics for discussion? We decided that our major CPIT specific roles should include assisting our CPIT participants by:
All participants were invited to complete a paper based survey and 13 people complied with the request. In addition, a total of 16 participants were interviewed using a structured interview format.
From the first round of data gathering and analysis, it was discovered that people's expectations of participation in T4T4T differed. There seemed to be three identified groups emerging:
Participants who were happy to 'lurk' and read and absorb the professional discussion that was occurring across the institutions and to 'dip their toes in' when and if things which interested them arose.
Participants who were involved in Special Interest Groups and were generally satisfied with these as an avenue of involvement eg. the English Language teachers.
Participants who would have liked more individual attention and specific guidance in subject areas/discussion they had chosen to involve themselves in.
They also recommended a more focused structure for the discussion so that the site didn't become just a chatroom. They suggested that the discussion could be channelled into tertiary professional development topics, and provide recommendations for access to expertise on these topics. It was also felt that the climate and etiquette of discussion should be attended to, although there were no specific suggestions about how this might be done. It was also suggested that the mentor-researcher role be clarified, with some participants requesting that the mentors be more direct in assisting them to critically reflect and create learning from their contributions to the discussion. Almost all of the responses requested that some face to face meetings to be continued.
Approximately four of the 20 participants were using the T4T4T project to surf and 'lurk', read other people's ideas, share and receive ideas for resources. Some of them said that they did more reading than posting. The expectations of this group were generally being met by the project and they were requesting better organisation and summaries to allow them more efficient access to what they needed from the site. Most felt confident with the technology but not always confident at posting anything or contributing to the online discussion.
This group's main activity was beginning to focus on activity within the Language Special Interest Group. Some members also participated in the general discussion and whole T4T4T site set tasks prior to the Special Interest Group being established. The opinion of a significant number was that the amount of discussion posted was overwhelming, lacked coherent organisation, and a significant amount of it tended toward academic 'posturing' as they put it, rather than focusing on practical professional development. The general feedback from this group of 11 tutors was unanimous about the value of having a mentor they could relate to both online and face to face. The online discussion was generating a climate of enthusiasm for discussing teaching and learning specific to their teaching content that flowed over into their face to face dealings and contact with each other. There was a climate of trust and confidence in the mentor for dealing with both pedagogical and technological issues.
A third identified group of three participants had agreed to participate in the project with the expectation that they would be mentored or supervised personally by the mentors. They had expected defined protocols to be adhered to in the online environment, eg. timely and specific responses to their postings, an environment of trust, building of relationships within small interest groups, and a more personal, professional relationship with a mentor which challenged and extended them professionally. Not only did this not occur in the first three months, but some found the quantity and quality of the general discussion daunting and unsafe. This rapidly led to them opting out quite early on in the project.
We could see quite clearly that our participants had differing expectations of how the project would meet their professional development needs. However, for most of our CPIT teachers, participation in the project was providing a stimulating professional development opportunity in terms of inter-institutional and intra-institutional interaction on teaching and learning issues and clarified that their main interest was in discussing practical teaching situations rather than theorising. It also highlighted that their involvement and, in particular, their willingness to post items on the site was largely influenced by the climate and quality of the online interactions.
The findings also highlighted that the participants' involvement in T4T4T was improving their knowledge, ability and confidence in using technology and e-learning, and that they preferred a 'mixed mode' participation in which face to face interactions were as important as online interactions.
These factors, which were rated as highly influential by our CPIT participants, are also reflected in studies of similar projects. Wilson & Stacey (2004) highlight sound motivational structure, a well-structured knowledge base, a focus on workplace practices, interacting with other staff, sharing of knowledge, participating in authentic contexts and critically reflecting on the experience as essential principles in the design of online staff development. Spratt, Palmer & Coldwell (2000) state that the key positive outcome from their project at Deakin University was related to collegial, non threatening discussion which is also inherent in the notion of 'communities of practice' identified by Beaty, Cousin & Deepwell (2002) as being central to the success of a similar project at Coventry University.
At this point one of the major concerns for us as CPIT mentor-researchers was that, in spite of the wealth of research literature on building online communities and the importance of maintaining communication and discussion within the community (Salmon, 2000, Brook and Oliver, 2003), a considered decision had been made that the design of the T4T4T project would be action research, which meant that it would develop in response to participant feedback along the way. This created a tension between the mentors and project leaders wishing, at times, to structure the project using research based knowledge and avoid some of the pitfalls, and allowing the community to evolve throughout the project, with the resulting issues and frustrations.
We provided all CPIT participants with a summary of findings from Cycle One of our research. In response to issues of their workload and the quantity of material on the site, we also provided some suggestions for managing their involvement in T4T4T for the remainder of 2004. This included a challenge to participants to log on and view the site activity for at least five minutes twice a week, and to make two posts, or reply to at least two, within a two week time frame. We also provided information on some new technical developments, how to negotiate the site, and requested that participants continue to journal, record and reflect on their experience. A supporting document on journaling and reflection was provided and they were given technical advice on where they could record their material. We continued to have face to face lunch meetings, send emails and conducted a 'hands on' technological workshop which covered some of the new developments within T4T4T and facilities now available within the Interact LMS.
We acknowledged to those who had hoped for individual guidance and mentoring that those needs were highly unlikely to be met due to the way that the project had developed, but encouraged them to join one existing topic area or Special Interest Group and to attend face to face meetings.
Further data collection was carried out at the end of the year, and repeated the methods used in Cycle One. Responses from those who had chosen to leave the project during the year were also sought.
I now ask myself why I teach in the way I do and communicate this to others. Before, I remained self reflective but not sharing with others.In addition the participants found intra-institutional networking, professional development and support occurring beyond the T4T4T interaction in face to face contexts extremely valuable.
Increased ICT capability was again quoted as a major benefit with seven participants (including two mentors) reporting an increase in confidence since being surveyed in Cycle One, in using the Web for teaching resources, and for their own professional development and research.
In addition they quoted their experience and insight of T4T4T as a professional development tool which was evolving in response to learner needs, as increasing their awareness of numerous possibilities for developing and utilising e-learning in their own teaching. Their experience of 'blogging' for the first time was a major learning experience, which they were keen to apply.
Improved organisational features of T4T4T, along with participants' own organisational strategies were also quoted as strong indicators of assisting continued involvement. Some examples of organisational strategies used were: timetabling specific times each week to go on to T4T4T, keeping a journal, weekly email summaries and highlights from the project leader.
The second major finding was the participants' difficulties with the site development on the Interact LMS. They felt that the technical development of the T4T4T site was 'out of sync' with the needs of the participants. Many of the most useful features were only developed later in the life of the project following feedback from Cycle One, thus giving all participants limited time to fully utilise them before the conclusion of the project.
I found it hard to gauge the level of personal disclosure so that I could participate safelyResponses to posting were also quoted as an issue. If there was a delay in response to a posting, or no response at all, it was reported as resulting in a lack of motivation to post again. Personal work circumstances continued to be an issue with almost every participant mentioning the lack of time available to engage in the project.
The ability to use the technology and, in particular, the T4T4T site management continued to be quoted as a significant demotivating factor for a number of participants. The very nature of the total project as a pilot meant that the site was continually being developed in response to feedback from participants as the project progressed, and many participants found the navigation of the site too cumbersome and time consuming.
As CPIT mentors we all felt that there was a need for guidelines and protocols to assist the learning taking place in the threaded discussions, and to assist the smooth running of those threads. Because these had not been established, what we got was 'what we got' and we had to work what emerged in terms of the tone, length and focus of the threaded discussions. We felt that developing a suitable writing style was also an important skill to be developed by all participants.
The initial design and structure of the T4T4T site was a major factor which we felt strongly influenced the ensuing development of the project. Because T4T4T was a pilot project, the site had been developed with an initial structure which would be extended and modified as data about participants' needs became available. Although initial material to assist mentors and participants get used to the site was effective we felt that, for any future project, there would need to be a more solid and focused structure in place at the beginning. Although the management of the site and project developed slowly and new features were added over time, unfortunately, the pilot project concluded before many of the issues were resolved. However, the advantage was that much useful theoretical and practical material about e-learning became available and this was equally as valuable as the experience of developing the site. The strong consensus from all mentors was that blended/mixed mode delivery of the project was preferable to online delivery
For the three mentor-researchers and 16 participants who actively participated in the project until its conclusion, the study highlighted the following positive outcomes for this pilot study.
In line with the major aims of the entire T4T4T project, discussion and interaction both on and off line resulted in stimulation and motivation in pursuing teaching and learning matters, and changes to practice for a significant number of participants. This was encouraged by a feeling of being 'up to date' with current issues, and increased collegiality within our own institution and between institutions.
Greater confidence and ease in using technology and e-learning motivated and encouraged both mentors and participants to see new possibilities and to try new e-learning strategies in their own teaching. The research reinforced the need for knowledge of the importance of site organisation, community building and establishing etiquette for both inter- and intra-institutional participation.
Strongly identified conditions for success in using an online community to improve professional development amongst tertiary teachers pointed to having a very clearly defined purpose and outcomes, possibly linked to some form of goal or motivating incentive such as a qualification gained as a result of participation. A strong practical focus in discussion and resource sharing, community development and maintenance which is closely linked to the roles of all participants, and mentor or leadership role/s being clearly defined and executed within the community were also identified as major factors for effective participation. A 'mixed mode' model was seen as preferable and, to be effective, the technological aspect of such a project requires a very well organised, easy to negotiate online environment or LMS supported by technological support and training for all participants.
These outcomes and findings are likely to have been shared by participants from each of the participating institutions although, from time to time, we became aware of some inter-institutional differences in focus and expectations of the T4T4T project. The results of this study have given us valuable insight into some of the conditions under which an online discussion environment is most likely to be successful in fostering professional development in teaching and learning at CPIT and similar tertiary institutions, and may be of value to others interested in pursuing a similar approach.
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|Authors: Jan Kent M Ed (Distinction), Dip Tchg is Programme Leader and a Lecturer in Adult Education, and a staff development consultant at CPIT. She has been involved in consultancy work in a number of tertiary institutions in New Zealand and Samoa. Her main areas of specialisation are: adult learning, staff development, assessment, principles of teaching and learning, research and supervision.|
Jan Kent, Adult Education, Faculty of Humanities, Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology, PO Box 540, Christchurch, New Zealand. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alan O'Neil BA, DipSLT, DipTchg is a Principal Academic Tutor in the School of English at CPIT. He teaches academic and general English to new migrants. He has taught English in secondary and tertiary institutions in France, Germany, Malaysia, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates. He is a former editor of the TESOLANZ Journal. Current interests include e-learning, colloquial English and cross-cultural communication.
Nicki Page PhD is the manager of the eLearning & Web Support Unit, CPIT. She has been directly involved in distance and online learning in the tertiary sector for many years. She gained her PhD in Music Education but has spent her subsequent professional life in the ICT and information literacy arenas. She is a currently Vice-President of the Distance Education Association of New Zealand [DEANZ]
Please cite as: Kent, J., O'Neil, A. and Page, N. (2006). Improving tertiary teaching: An online approach to professional development. In Experience of Learning. Proceedings of the 15th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 1-2 February 2006. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2006/refereed/kent.html
Copyright 2006 Jan Kent, Alan O'Neil and Nicki Page. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.