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Category: Professional practice
Teaching and Learning Forum 2006 [ Refereed papers ]
Improving tertiary teaching: An online approach to professional development

Jan Kent
Adult Education
Alan O'Neil
School of English
Nicki Page
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.


For a period of ten months in 2004, the authors were involved as mentor-researchers in a Ministry of Education pilot research project entitled Teachers for Teachers for Tertiary [T4T4T], a web enabled professional development program designed specifically to encourage effective tertiary teaching and investigate the role of online environments in tertiary teaching. Participants for the project were recruited from member institutions of the Canterbury Tertiary Alliance [CTA], an existing network of tertiary providers comprising Christchurch College of Education, Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology [CPIT], Lincoln University and the University of Canterbury.

Background to the study

At the commencement of the T4T4T project in February 2004, a culture of professional development in tertiary teaching and learning was becoming quite well established at CPIT, with a significant number of academic staff completing the formal qualifications offered by the institution ie. a Certificate in Adult Teaching [CAT] and two diplomas. While the gaining of tertiary teaching qualifications is desirable, ongoing and continuing professional development is even more desirable. However, for lecturers within tertiary institutions such as Polytechnics there is a tension between staying current, expert and credible within the industry/professional areas they represent, and participating in further professional development in tertiary teaching and learning.

Research question

For our own CPIT focused research project within the entire T4T4T project, the aim was to examine the factors and environment required to encourage tutors from CPIT to discuss teaching and learning in an online forum. We were interested to investigate what conditions would emerge as those most influential in keeping CPIT participants involved and interested in the project. The over-arching question under investigation was:
Under what conditions is an online discussion environment successful in fostering CPIT staff professional development in teaching and learning?

Research design

Action research

The study was conducted as an action research project, in which the personal opinions and experiences of all the participants were sampled. Although a variety of models of action research exists, there would seem to be reasonable agreement by most authors on a core set of defining characteristics which include: participation by all involved, focus on change, its practical nature and the involvement of a cyclical process (Denscombe, 1998, as cited in Costello, 2003). It was intended that the study be exploratory in nature and no specific hypotheses were being tested. We felt that the flexibility afforded by an action research process would allow us to gather data from our participants, and cooperatively plan whatever actions could be implemented at CPIT to meet our emerging needs as and when they were required.

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:

Two cycles of inquiry were completed between February and November, 2004.

Recruitment of participants

We, the recruited mentor-researchers, planned to invite CPIT academic staff members who already held a minimum adult teaching qualification to participate in T4T4T as we were reluctant to increase the workload of those staff who were already engaged in professional development activities, particularly those attending courses. We made the assumption that there was more likely to be 'buy in' from staff who had previously engaged in teaching and learning discussion and study, and were committed to their own further development. One significant subgroup of participants (11 in total) were part time teachers who taught English Language to international students and did not have access to supported professional development under normal circumstances.

Cycle One: Getting started

Planning the initial phase

As CPIT mentor-researchers, only one of us was expert in online technical skills, one had moderate experience and the other was a beginner. None had used Interact as a learning management system [LMS] before, and all of us were therefore learning to use the online environment and assisting in the development of the T4T4T project as it progressed.

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:

We planned to gather data from a number of perspectives after three months of participating in the project. This would include surveys and interviews with CPIT participants, and mentor-researcher journaling, reading, discussion and reflection. The survey of CPIT participants would be carried out in order to obtain some baseline data on such things as teaching experience and professional development, information and communication technology (ICT) and e-learning related competencies and experience. The interviews would ascertain their experiences of the initial phase of the T4T4T project in terms of benefits, issues and concerns, and assistance required for the next phase.


Until the CPIT site within T4T4T was developed, our main form of communication with CPIT participants was at face to face lunch meetings, via email, and individual consultations on request. As mentor-researchers we reflected on our own experience of participating in the online discussion, and met regularly to discuss our experience of the project and to share any unsolicited feedback or requests from CPIT participants.

Observation - results and findings

By the time we ran the surveys and interviews in May 2004, three of the original participants had withdrawn and three new participants had joined the project, thus retaining our total of 20 participants. The three people who withdrew because of high workloads, did so reluctantly. The three new participants had joined as a result of enthusiasm for the project by participating colleagues.

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:

Group One
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.

Group Two
Participants who were involved in Special Interest Groups and were generally satisfied with these as an avenue of involvement eg. the English Language teachers.

Group Three
Participants who would have liked more individual attention and specific guidance in subject areas/discussion they had chosen to involve themselves in.

Benefits of participation in T4T4T

Two major themes of what were seen as benefits of participation emerged from analysis of the data. These themes could be broadly categorised as individual professional development and the potential of T4T4T as a professional development tool, and learning about e-learning. Participants felt that there was significant value in being able to identify and contribute to ideas and issues currently being discussed and debated within the other participating institutions. There was also a strong interest in seeing how effective T4T4T would prove to be as an online professional development tool, how it would encourage discussion and reflection on learning and teaching issues, and the roles that would develop for the mentors and participants. The second major theme which emerged was related to e-learning, and identified the opportunity to experience and reflect on e-learning as a possible teaching method for the participants' own students and , in particular, the issues around their own confidence in using technology.

Concerns and issues which hindered involvement

Two prominent themes relating to concerns and issues emerged from almost all responses. One of these was related to issues of using technology and negotiating the Interact site - its size and complexity, and the sheer quantity of postings. The other was related to the online community in which the major issues identified related to the quality of online discussion such as lack of confidence and self consciousness in posting. A significant number of responses were of the opinion that a high proportion of the discussion lacked practical focus and tended toward 'academic jargon and waffle'. Participant and mentor expectations of their roles and relationships were also quoted as major issues which curtailed their ability to participate fully. Lack of time due to high workload was also a common concern.

Addressing the issues

Both mentor-researchers and participants made the following suggestions about how some of the issues might be resolved. Suggestions for improved organisation of the Interact LMS to make it more manageable included filtering out and categorising texts and recommended resources, and also providing regular summaries of discussion topics.

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.

Requirements from the CPIT site/ mentors

There were very few responses to this question about participant requirements from the CPIT site/ mentors. They included the use of regular email messages to highlight discussion which may be of particular interest to CPIT staff, some direction on how to approach and manage their time and discussion on the T4T4T site, and to continue the face to face meetings.

Mentor-researcher reflection and discussions

Our own observations and reflections largely mirrored the participant data we had received in terms of both benefits and issues arising from involvement in T4T4T. From our reading we found that similar projects undertaken at Deakin University (Spratt, Palmer & Coldwell, 2000) and Coventry University (Beaty, Cousin & Deepwell, 2002) highlighted similar themes in terms of benefits and issues.


On analysing and reflecting on the data from all sources, the benefits and issues raised appeared to be different for each of the identified groups of participants, and were related to their expectations of the project.

Group One
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.

Group Two
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.

Group Three
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.

Cycle Two

Planning and action

We were able to use the analysis of data gathered from Cycle One as a strong basis for discussion at the main T4T4T project mentor-researchers' forum, and made recommendations for changes and developments to the T4T4T site. Our recommendations, along with those from other participating institutions, resulted in a number of new developments in organisation and management of the project from May, 2004.

Developments in T4T4T - May to November

The project leader emailed weekly summaries of discussion, sent out information about new Interact developments and organised 'special events'. These were also posted on the T4T4T site. A major new development was to provide a sub-site for a Knowledge Base which was intended to be a repository for participants' 'stories' about what they had tried and applied in their teaching and learning. Templates were provided as frameworks for recording a variety of teaching and learning activities, eg. deep or quick thought, action learning, action research, glossary, reflection on practice, and websites. A 'tag' function was provided in order to manage and track particular items of interest for participants.

Developments at CPIT - May to November

The CPIT site on Interact was not developed as fully as planned due to time constraints. Data from CPIT participants indicated that it was not a high priority for them. Despite 'joining' the CPIT space at the outset, they clearly demonstrated that they preferred direct email and face to face communication from the CPIT mentors.

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.

Observation - results and findings

From the focus groups, a number of major themes were identified about both the benefits and shortcomings of the T4T4T project. These themes largely reflected those from Cycle One and were supported by participant comments in both the survey and interview data.

What's hot? Benefits of being involved in the project

Inter-institutional networking at a practitioner level strengthened participants' perception of being part of a wider culture of people within tertiary education who were passionate about education and related issues. Participants felt that the sharing of resources and experience both broadened their knowledge base and improved their practice, with a number of them feeling encouraged to carry out small action research projects within their own teaching environment. They also felt that it encouraged them to share more with colleagues. As quoted by one participant:
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.

What helped to keep up involvement in the project?

Major themes which identified factors contributing to continued involvement included community building, ability to achieve professional practice goals, and organisation of the T4T4T site. The role and function of the mentors was listed as important. Participants in the Language Special Interest Group found that having a mentor on site was a positive influence and provided very effective motivation and encouragement helped by 'gentle reminders' to keep being involved. Face to face meetings continued to be mentioned as being important for meeting other CPIT participants and the mentors. All participants indicated a strong desire to learn or achieve personal goals which would impact on their teaching and attributed the achievement of some of these during the T4T4T project as an important factor in their continued involvement.

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.

What's not [hot]? Shortcomings of the project

A major finding about shortcomings of the project was the lack of clear direction about what would really engage participants in the community at the commencement of the project. Too many changes in community building activities at the start of the project appeared to confuse and demotivate some participants. These included all of our Group Three participants, some of whom made tentative forays back into the site at the later stages, but failed to engage again with the project. They were strongly influenced by a lack of clarification of mentor and participant roles at an early stage.

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.

What hindered involvement?

Community related issues were again strongly stated as being problematic, especially the 'culture' of the online discussion. Typical of a number of responses was the statement below:
I found it hard to gauge the level of personal disclosure so that I could participate safely
Responses 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.

Mentor reflections

As mentor/researcher participants we were regularly meeting as a focus group and reflecting on our own and our participants' experiences of being involved in T4T4T. Many of our reflections mirrored the successes and concerns of the participants with some additional issues for us in our role as mentors. The mentor role and related protocols and strategies for participation remained problematic for us throughout the project. As the project progressed, lack of any overt discussion or consideration of these contributed to people's confusion about the roles and relationships and the developing culture of the online community. This was disappointing in light of the wealth of research literature on building successful learning communities. (Wenger et al 2002)

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

Conclusions and reflection

What was the impact of T4T4T on professional development of the CPIT participants? At the conclusion of Cycle Two, the data we had gathered showed that the T4T4T project's aims had been achieved to some extent and in differing ways for most of our CPIT participants. For the majority of us, we had participated in 'a professional learning community of tertiary teachers with a common purpose of improving teaching and learning in tertiary contexts,' and our involvement in the project had contributed to 'our knowledge of what makes for effective 'E-learning' in tertiary education' (Ultralab South, 2004).

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: kentj@cpit.ac.nz

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.

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