01 SES 04 C, Systemic Professional Engagement and On-line Approaches
Aim of the paper
The aim of this article is to investigate the features of the conversation between education professionals (teachers, teacher educators, school heads and ministry staff) engaged on an online professional learning community (OPLC), having diverse cultural backgrounds while sharing the common goal of being able to promote various aspects of democratic principles and understanding within European schools. The paper offers a descriptive and analytic view of the cognitive, affective and procedural elements found in the conversation, i.e. the qualities of the collaboration that occurs within the conversations between participants. It focuses on activityseen as objective and on the observable features of the interaction between participants, through a comparative approach of two cases - moderated discussion threads (MDT), and has revealed important results concerning the role of moderators in conversations occurring in OPLCs.
Educators are learning though talking (McPhee, 2015) and asynchronous web-based discussion platforms may ‘assist shared reflection and problem-solving for teachers to discuss their teaching’ when the conditions are there to favour participants’ engagement. Teachers within the OPLC learn through conversation (Gadamer, Vessey, & Blauwkamp, 2007; Laurillard, 2002; Pask, 1976)with peers and moderators, in a distributed environment and international context (Hildreth, Kimble, & Wright, 2000). Online conversation is here the main medium for the learning process.
Firmly based in social constructivist learning theory, the authors adopt a holistic approach to transcript analysis where interaction is observed within the context of the conversation: OPLCs contain and are sustained both by context, and by the social interaction opportunities they offer (Fahy, Crawford, & Ally, 2001; Gunawardena, 1997). The paper speculates that the features of the conversation arise in a large part from its moderation: the authors investigate moderation styles (attitudes and communicative behaviour), arrangements (team or individual moderator), and moderators’ part in guiding members towards on one hand the co-construction of knowledge within learning activities considered as a central ingredient to professional development and practice (Järvelä et al., 2014; Lockhorst, Admiraal, & Pilot, 2010; Prestridge, 2010) or towards conflict and controversy (Johnson & Johnson, 2009) considered as the crux of democratic culture on the other hand.
Inspired by Fredericks et al.’s (2004) and Järvelä et al.’s (2016) concepts, the paper characterizes engagement as a multidimensional construct uniting behavioural, emotional, social, and cognitive components, and includes participants’ actions (interactions) and expressions (speech acts) proving a sense of belonging, willingness to place effort in collaboration, knowledge construction and valuing practice oriented learning.
Previous research on computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL) and quality of knowledge construction supports the construction of the conceptual approach to the features of the conversation, namely co-regulation and the interplay between motivation, emotion and cognition, such as: quality of knowledge construction (Newman, Webb, & Cochrane, 1995; Zhu, 2006) and design principles supporting the ability to instigate and sustain critical thinking in a community of learners (deNoyelles 2014; Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001; Järvelä, Järvenoja, Malmberg, Isohätälä, & Sobocinski, 2016; Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, & Archer, 2001). Finally, the paper analyses structural features of the conversation through the study of involvement, overall and individual involvement (including lurking), intensity (size, density, rhythm, pace), cohesion and attentiveness of members to each other (Henri, 1992), topical persistance, turn-taking (Wiemann & Knapp, 1975).
These studies present design elements that sustain online dialogue and therefore can be relevant to understanding moderators’ roles, area in which the paper takes special interest, i.e., what works and what doesn’t for gradually moving into ‘thick’ narrative as opposed to ‘thin’ narrative that misrepresent problems into oversimplified matters (Mc Niff & Whitehead, 2010).
(Research questions below)
Methods Based on the theories that have been traced, the research questions are: • What are the patterns of member's activity observed in two MDTs’ on the platform? • What do the patterns indicate about the nature of interpersonal interactions and moderation styles in the conversation? • What do the patterns suggest about the moderators’ role to enhance engagement, and the depth and quality of collaboration? The authors are both researchers familiar with the online platform and members of the OPLC and community of practice. This means that this research is set into a realm of immersive research. The findings are based on existing conversations between participants belonging to an invitational European online professional community revolving around education and democracy. In this paper, the authors use data from two different MDT’s, one focusing on cooperative learning and learner autonomy and the other on conscious communication in education. As opposed to other discussion threads spontaneously opened by individual members that are not moderated, these MDTs are conversations that are facilitated by one or a team of moderators. They therefore offer a framework for supported conversation and contain much greater interaction between participating members. The authors purposefully selected the two MDT’s based on length, content and popularity of the threads. The discussions took place between 2012 and 2013. The material, postings of members of the platform in these two MDTs, was analysed using a mixed methods approach. Therefore, the findings are presented both in tables and figures with numbers and rates and as well through the thematic analysis of the conversation. The figures and tables offer a descriptive and comparative viewpoint, while the thematic analysis offers deeper analysis and flexibility in relation to a) analyses of conversation and, b) theoretical and epistemological perspectives (Braun & Clarke, 2006). The process for the thematic analysis was an iterative and multiphase approach, starting with and inductive approach afterwards supported by a theoretical approach using the developed framework.
The findings show complex patterns of interactions between participants. Different forms of interaction were observed but also different styles and behaviours of moderators that may have impacted the development of the conversation. A large portion of the posts in MDT1 were related to co-construction of knowledge while both conflicts and controversy were more common in MDT2. Participants collaborated differently, with smoother, calmer interaction between members in MDT1 compared to more heated discussion and tension in MDT2. The level of intensity and density in MDT2 rose in parallel to the heated conversation. Participants reached, a deeper level of cooperation in MDT1 and started cooperatively to create content and knowledge for educators. The moderators in both MDTs’ applied different styles when guiding the participants in their communications and impacted differently the flow and the size, rhythm, pace, density of the conversations as well as the cohesion of interaction and overall engagement of participants. Moderation in MDT1 focused on methods that motivated turn taking and gave participants time and space to interact at their pace. This reinforced scaffolding of content brought in by participants and supported co-construction of knowledge. In MDT2, moderation was intense with postings occurring at all hours, several times a day, particularly when the conflict arose. This activity impacted the interaction between participants and the authors conclude that turn taking and scaffolding supports co-construction of knowledge and explicit creation and sharing of new knowledge (thick narratives) whereas controversy may support higher engagement but results in unequal access to participation as the conversation was overtaken by members involved in the conflict. The study is of particular interest to researchers and practitioners interested in online communities with a focus on professional development in education in that it will offer insight into affordances for the design and moderation of online conversations for PLD.
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