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A professional development course was designed to address the diverse student needs that teachers face, through what the research suggests is one of the most credible (from the teacher's perspective) sources of information - colleagues. To address location and time issues, the course was conducted via the Internet. It provided communication and information resources through this media and was referred to as the On-line Professional Development (OLPD) course.
The first time the OLPD course was run conclusions from participant feedback and facilitator observations suggested that teachers did not have high technology skill bases; were hesitant communicating with other participants; and, large colleague populations and did not structure their time to 'attend' to the course. In 2001, the course was run with a number of changes, referred to as OLPD MkII. The facilitator implemented structures to scaffold participants' technology skills and communication procedures, and addressed time management issues in order to tackle the issues identified in the first running of the course.
OLPD MkII ran in 2001 with teachers participating (n=16) from two education systems spread across the central west to the central coast of New South Wales. Data were collected pre-, mid- and post-participation and are currently being analysed. Facilitator/Researcher reactions suggest that contrary to the widespread hype that online learning is the saviour of education systems, critical and profound issues are eroding common held assumptions.
Are we on fertile ground or is it just a fetid swamp? This article paper endeavours to discuss some of the preliminary findings arising from this research.
Professional development in this paper is used to describe the deliberate construction of processes to extend the initial professional education and training of teachers. Its aim is to help educators incorporate new knowledge with existing understandings to continually refine conceptual and practical skills (Guskey & Sparks, 1996). Professional development is a matter of high priority and integral to educational change and reform (McRae, Ainsworth, Groves, Rowland, & Zbar, 2001).
Traditional teacher professional development involved short burst face-to-face delivery methods using a transmissive approach. In later years there has been a growing trend for workshops and collaborative models located within face-to-face modes. In both forms, the transmissive and collaborative, research suggests there is minimal impact on classroom practice without structured long-term follow-up (Sparks, 1994; Loucks-Horsley, 1995).
A rapidly growing body of research is emerging studying teaching and learning using the Internet. Some research has focussed specifically on teacher professional development and issues such as the types of participants who choose courses using information and communication technologies (ICTs) and comparisons with face-to-face delivery methods (Schrum, 1992). Other studies have focussed on what happens to participants in such courses. Issues such as the nature of the online activities, rate of participation in discussion (Drot-Delange, 2001), the factors affecting participation, whether such courses influenced existing professional interactions and personal and professional growth (McMahon, 1997), the type of communication, group processes and social environments have been analysed (Fahraeus, 1999). Later studies appear to concentrate on the micro-level identifying the features of computer mediated communication (CMC) that best facilitate collegial discourse and collaboration (Hawkes, 2000), or predictors for CMC use by teachers (van Braak, 2001).
The context for this professional development program is the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream classrooms in Australia. Since the Australian Federal Government 1993 Anti-Discrimination Act, many students have been progressively integrated into regular schools. The down-side of this educational initiative driven by social justice principles, is that the vast majority of teachers in NSW graduated from their pre-service teacher training before subjects addressing integration and inclusion were included in that training. Many teachers feel they are ill-prepared to deal with the integration of students with special needs. The need for professional development programs has been long recognised by systems and these have tended to be delivered in the face-to-face mode.
Thus, the two OLPD projects reported here sought to investigate teacher professional development using the Internet in an Australian context. The studies aim to identify and understand the interaction of curriculum, pedagogy and evaluation in the context of a teacher professional development course, which is designed on the principles of constructivism and is conducted and delivered using the Internet.
The model seemed to capture many of the key features of successful interaction using the ICTs. It appeared to be congruent with much of the research literature that identified many of the successful features of professional development experiences of teachers. Specifically, this literature espouses the need for content to be grounded in the reality of the teacher's context; communication with colleagues in similar situations; sustained follow-up; and, action research pedagogy where teachers can reflect on their practice (Abdal-Haqq, 1996; Corcoran, 1995; Dawson, 2000; McRae et al., 2001; Loucks-Horsley, 1995; Huberman & Guskey, ; Solomon Joan & Tresman, 1999). ICTs were seen as the medium that would overcome a number of issues that negated equity of access to all teachers eligible to participate in professional development programs.
The delivery model presented in Figure 1 below is comprised of three key design elements:
Figure 1: The Professional Development Delivery Model
(Model adapted from (McKinnon et al., 1998)
The Curriculum Resources Delivery System is an interactive relational database related to the inclusion of students with special needs based upon the text by Foreman ((Foreman, 1996).
The Needs Driven Pedagogy recognises that participants, all experienced teachers, have unique experiences and context-based needs. An action research framework that is well-used in professional development underpins the pedagogy. In this case participants document their beliefs and experiences, have guided interaction (modified at a personal level) with the resources; take, enact, modify the information to suit individual contexts and analyse and apply it by writing context based assignments. Finally participants are asked to evaluate the information and their learning and report these both to the group and to the facilitator.
Significant Others include the other teachers using the communication system and specialists who provide participants with the support and guidance they may require as they work with the program.
The Communication System connects the participants in varying ways with each of the three design elements located at the vertices of the triangle. Means of communication include electronic mail, electronic Forums and web sites on the Internet as well as telephone and facsimile.
The authors/researchers were also participants in the study. In OLPD, both authors acted as facilitators and researchers. In OLPD MkII the first author was the main facilitator and researcher.
Both versions of OLPD were designed as discrete professional development courses. Credit can be negotiated towards one subject in either the Master of Education or Graduate Diploma level programs at the hosting university.
A Web Browsing program which enabled participants to access not only email, but also the curriculum delivery system and the course outline which had links to external search sites and databases, extra readings, contact information as well as course schedules and assignment outlines.
A closed electronic Forum was set-up using private email addresses and was created on the day. This was hosted by one of the free services (eGroups/Yahoogroups) and facilitated group communication. It was the main means by which the facilitator initiated discussion.
The OLPD projects both used a longitudinal mixed-method design, that is the data was collected at timed intervals in the course and used qualitative and quantitative collection methods. The several sources of data collection included, individual participants completing pre and post-participation questionnaires to gather demographic, experiential and evaluative data. Further data were also gathered individually in face-to-face interviews at the commencement of the course, by telephone mid-way and in focus groups at completion. Documentary data were gathered through submission of participants' assignments, the storage of all online and written communications, field notes of verbal communications (generally telephone conversations) and logs of participant navigations through the relational database.
In an effort to measure any movement by participants in their self-efficacy toward interacting with a student with special needs, a self-efficacy instrument as developed and used by (Hickson & Smith, 1996)) with modification to language, was administered pre and post-participation in the course.
Statistical analysis, transcription, analysis and coding of interviews is currently being undertaken to report on the larger project. This paper reports from the perspective of the participant observer, namely the facilitator/s of the course. These views are based on the researcher's role in the management and delivery of the course and as the facilitator of, and mentor for the participants (teachers).
|No of participants||24||17|
|Geographic Spread||Country Teachers||13||4|
|Job Designation||Regular C/Room Teachers||17||11|
|Other than C/Room Teachers|
(Executive/Support/One teacher Schools)
|Successful completions||9 (37%)||8 (47%)|
|Formal Withdrawals||10 (42%)||5 (29%)|
|Participants who did not complete,|
however did not formally withdraw
|5 (21%)||4 (24%)|
Table 1 shows some of the key demographics of the participating teachers in both courses including the completion rate. Observation of Table 1 shows the low completion rate for both courses, although demonstrates that the OLPD MkII was more successful if success is gauged on completion rate.
Issues arising from OLPD and planned interventions with OLPD MkII or Entering the Swamp... The researchers observed the conduct of OLPD in 2000 through interviews and communications with participants as well as the monitoring of online discussions. From these observations, issues were identified, in many instances they were also communicated to participants for validation at the post course focus groups, where the researchers and participants formulated possible course modifications to overcome the issues.
The issues are complex and in many cases inter-related, much like the mangrove roots in a swamp -many of the roots of one theme are entwined with another for a certain period and then seem join to another separate theme. The metaphor of a swamp seemed apt at the time much of these issues were being identified. From the outside when approaching a swamp, there is a grouping of trees - a dense lush green canopy of glossy leaves. This appeared to be the promise of an online professional development - lush and fertile, until we entered. Once inside, it was hot and steamy, completely engrossing, and we were not sure of the way out. Branches of the mangroves hindered our progress, we were constantly pushing back a branch, and if we chose to identify it and follow it through, the tree lead to a mass of entangled roots, at that level it was not pleasant - hot, steamy, and dank - the smell of decomposition hung in the air.
A summary of those issues follows in Table 2 and the question that arises here in keeping with the title of this paper is "Is this a fetid swamp?".
|OLPD||OLPD MkII Intervention|
|Academic Performance Expectations
|Collaboration and Interaction
For those with after-hours access at home, issues ranged from sharing telephone lines/Internet access with other family members (particularly teenage children), to being too tired to sit at a screen when forced to study late at night (after family duties/providing children with access first).
The latter issue of when, where and how a participant can connect to the Internet is a foundation issue to successful participation in an online professional development course. The importance of the issue appears to increase with lower levels of technological skill - those with low skills feel completely overwhelmed when things do not go right. This almost begs the question "Do we need to mandate a minimum skill level prior to acceptance to such a course?". The additional question of how this could be done for the large numbers of teachers in the system is an additional problematic issue. How would you do this - a standardised test, self-assessed checklist? Would this then create inequitable access which online delivery is supposed to resolve?
Structured tasks that addressed communication - buddying; grouping and one-to-one tasks were unsuccessful - in many instances participants did not reply to personal emails for varying reasons. This lack of response gave the sending party a negative experience, shaking their sometimes very fragile confidence levels. A sense of everyone for him or herself developed despite the best attempts of the facilitator and not the collegial discourse hoped for. Personal emails to the facilitator conveyed messages such as "I've sent six emails to XX and no reply, so here's my part".
Others just didn't feel the need to communicate - they were happy being passive learners within their own framework. Many confirmed in their interviews that they would behave in a similar fashion in face-to-face situations. They were content to be observers.
All participants, even some who 'dropped out', felt more knowledgeable on the rights, processes and access to resources for students with special needs. The information from the curriculum resources area was copied and shared with some participant's school-based colleagues and in one or two cases, even distributed to outside agencies. There appeared to be a ripple effect.
All teachers who completed the course agreed that their technological skills had improved and expanded. Many stated that they would now feel more comfortable using ICTs in their pedagogical practices, They claimed that they had a firmer understanding of how the technology worked and felt more confident in accessing the wealth of information available to them through the Internet. A sense of using technology to teach technology was evidenced quite strongly.
Participants in both versions of the course wanted continued access to the curriculum materials, and in many cases, ongoing contact with colleagues. Suggestions were made to the administrators of one system to compile lists of mentors and contacts, for teachers to resource when they next encountered a need to access information and support to include a student with a special need.
As a work in progress, this paper is merely reporting a formative view - that of the perspectives of the researchers' observations. The broader project seeks to include the perspectives of participants however further data analyses is needed to include these.
The data collected from this study is complex, rich and deep, and needs to be seen in the context of a more global picture. The growth of digital media and its application has exceeded many people's expectations and perhaps their fears, nevertheless, it does have many positives from a flexibility perspective, enabling users to tailor their access to resources to suit idiosyncratic needs in a much more time efficient manner than the past.
The how and why we use technology needs to come under our scrutiny. We need to make sure that the decisions we make about its use in education are not the result of commercial hype, but rather the result of firm understandings we have of how to improve the human condition. The data from this study continue to be analysed and reflected upon. Theories are still evolving but they will and must be grounded in reality, for it is in the reality of the system, school and classroom that future participants will practice their art.
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|Authors: Vickie Vance, Charles Sturt University. Email: email@example.com|
David H. McKinnon, Charles Sturt University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please cite as: Vance, V. and McKinnon, D. H. (2002). Teacher professional development online: Fertile ground or fetid swamp? In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/2002/vance.html