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Using online forums to foster communication and reflective practice for students on practicum
University of New England
This paper reports on the development, implementation and results of a project which used an online course delivery tool to facilitate communication and foster reflective practice for student-teachers during their final practicum placement across a wide area of northern New South Wales. It identifies the needs which were to be addressed, outlines the format of the online facility which was set up for the project and the training provided to participants. It then discusses preliminary findings on the efficacy of the project in meeting its aims and looks at what might be done to make the project more successful in its further development.
In 1999, students in the final semester of their Bachelor of Teaching Program at the University of New England had a long practicum placement which occupied most of their final semester of formal study. As part of the practicum experience all students were required to plan and present a five-week teaching program in a Key Learning Area (KLA) such as Maths, Science, Creative Arts, English etc. or a research project in some area of professional interest. Much of the planning and development of these programs was to take place while students were still on campus in the first weeks of their final semester. As UNE is a regional university, many of the students would then be scattered widely across the northern part of New South Wales during their period of practicum placement. This paper describes a project which was intended to enhance this period of placement in schools in several ways.
The context of the project
From previous experience with these long practicums a number of issues had been identified which needed to be addressed. These included:
- While a number of students undertaking practicum can be located at schools relatively close to the University in Armidale, many are scattered widely across the north of New South Wales. In this final period of their pre-service training, the student teachers have been largely cut off from the collegial support of their peers and the academic support of the university teaching staff for all but the first five weeks of the semester. Even those in or near Armidale, who were able to base themselves in their usual homes or colleges, lost the daily contact with their peers and lecturers which was so much a part of their lives during most of their teacher training period. Deprived of their peer support and interaction with lecturers during the final semester of their teacher training, students reported a sense of isolation.
- Because the applied curriculum unit has a relatively low EFTSU allocation and the distances between schools can be considerable, there are not the funds available for lecturers to spend as much time in schools as they would like and as has been possible in the past during this practicum period; time which would have been spent observing, talking with and assisting their students. Some lecturers are able to make more time available to their students than others either for reasons of the students' proximity to Armidale or because of their other teaching commitments at the time. As a result, the degree and type of lecturer support received by students has been decidedly uneven.
- Communication between lecturers and students in forms other than face-to-face contact has been largely restricted to telephone or fax, the former not easy to achieve given that students are in the classroom for much of their practicum, and the latter not conducive to developing a dialogue.
- Lack of direct contact with student has meant that there is limited opportunity for supervising lecturers to help students develop a depth of reflection about their teaching and about teaching in general. The 'tyranny of distance' resulting from the relative isolation of student teachers in the regional and rural area of NSW means that the opportunities do not exist for extramural interactions between students where there might be some informal reflection-on-action (Schön, 1983). There is not much chance for most of these students to meet a colleague after school at the local pub or coffee shop.
DEETYA's National Competency Framework for Beginning Teachers (1996) includes 'Reflecting, Evaluating and Planning for Continuous Improvement' as one of five main areas of teaching competency (Frid, Reading & Redden, 1998, 326) and these are certainly skills which should be developed in our pre-service teachers. As explained by Osterman & Kotterkamp, 'Professionals engage in reflective practice to develop awareness of their own performance and to improve the quality of their practice' (1993, p. ix). Frid, Reading and Redden (ibid., 328) point out that 'it is through this process that (student-teachers) develop towards being reflective professionals'.
A vital part of becoming reflective practitioners is the process of what Furlong & Maynard (1995, p.48) call 'putting into language' this reflection-on-action. (Brookfield, 1995). The teaching staff of the School of Curriculum Studies and the Director of School Experience agreed that the period of practicum experience provided an ideal opportunity to enable students to develop their reflective practice in an environment which was relevant to the processes of reflective practice.
Van Manen (1977) and Kemmis (1985) identify three forms or stages of reflection building from the basic, technical/practical levels to the higher level of critical reflection which van Manen identifies as the political and moral/ethical dimensions or which Kemmis identifies as critical/emancipatory reflection. It is this range of meaningful reflection that supervising lecturers aim to achieve, taking the student-teachers through the processes of what Schön (1983) identifies as 'reflection-on-action' by getting them to think about and talk about their teaching experiences.
Using online communication for reflective practice
Three years ago the UNE adopted WebCT as its major tool for course and unit delivery via the Internet. WebCT offers a comprehensive range of tools and various forms of communication between individuals and groups across widely distributed locations, which was not previously possible or economically viable. By mid-1999 there was a growing pool of academics and students who were comfortable studying and communicating by this means.
With an understanding of what was possible with computer-mediated communication the Director of School Experience realised that this medium offered a level of communication with students on practicum placement that had the potential to solve many of the problems previously identified. Especially, the technology offered the opportunity to make use of the potential for communication to enhance students' reflective practice. Osterman & Kotterkamp, (1993, p. 19) make the point that the process of reflection is a collaborative effort.
Three factors made this project possible:
- all government schools in NSW now have at least one internet terminal;
- all but one of the schools used for practicum placement were prepared to permit teaching students to use the school's internet facility for the purposes outlined for the project; and
- the processes planned requires no proprietary software at the user end other than a web browser and WebCT, the course tool to be used, is neither browser nor platform dependent.
In discussion with the various stakeholders, a format for a project was agreed upon. By using an online bulletin board, collegial communication and contact between students and lecturers was economically possible. All student teachers on practicum were expected to participate. What was expected of the students in terms of quantity and quality of communication and how students were to provide evidence of reflective practice were clearly communicated to the students in the lead-up to the practicum period.
The aims of this project were to use one or more online forums:
- to facilitate an increased level of communication between students and between students, their curriculum studies (KLA) lecturers and the Director of School Experience prior to and during practicum placement;
- to reduce the sense of isolation of students in their new environments;
- to provide a means of enhancing students' reflective practices during this period, integrating their academic learning about teaching with their practical teaching experience; and
- to provide a vehicle by which students could develop and/or enhance their information technology skills in a practical way and to demonstrate these in line with the requirements of the NSW Department of Education and Training for beginning teachers.
Structure of the website
Because the project focussed on communication, the website used only the communication tools offered by WebCT and only two of these - bulletin boards and private email - were selected. Two subsidiary tools were also included, enabling students to access instructions on use of the bulletin board tool and to change password if they felt the need. It was decided that synchronous communication in the form of a 'chat room' would be neither convenient nor appropriate. This is because of the widely differing demands on the time of the various participants both during school hours and afterwards and the strong probability that a number of students would not log on to the website until they were back at their homes at the end of the day. The essentially ephemeral nature of chat room communications was also a disincentive because these communications would not be available to the larger group.
Asynchronous communication in the form of bulletin boards has the advantage that:
In addition, bulletin board postings can be collated and archived or printed by students, lecturers or the Director of School Experience.
- all communications in the various forums would be available to all members of the forum for the duration of the project;
- participants in forums have the opportunity to consider and even revise what they want to say before posting messages for scrutiny by their peers and supervisors;
- if used properly, the 'threaded' messages can be seen in context and the structure of responses is obvious, unlike messages in email or listservs
In the bulletin board area, each student was able to access two forums for communicating in the context of their practicum. The main forum in WebCT is, by default, available to all students in the unit and all the registered supervising lecturers. The main forum was intended to be used for communications of a general nature, be they social, informative, reflections on teaching generally, or asking the broader audience for ideas or assistance.
Each student was to be enrolled in a single KLA-specific forum to which only those students listed in the group and appropriate KLA lecturers would have access. It was in these KLA forums that it was expected the deeper levels of reflective practice would take place, with students discussing their teaching experience and educational issues, guided or encouraged where necessary by the KLA lecturers. A 'Technical Help' forum was also set up so UNE staff or technically competent fellow students could easily identify pleas for assistance without having to scan hundreds of postings. In addition, a 'Staff Room' forum was created wherein supervising lecturers could discuss issues privately.
What were students required to do?
In addition to any social interaction, reporting on experiences and situations encountered, asking questions, or pleas for information, ideas or assistance, students were told that they were expected to contribute a minimum of five 'meaningful' postings reflecting on their experiences or other educational issues. A 'portfolio' of these and related postings was to be compiled and printed by students and submitted to their supervising lecturers at the end of the practicum to demonstrate both their reflective practice and their IT competence in this aspect of the activity.
Induction/training - Staff and students
It was clear from the outset that, if this project were to work, all participants would need to know how to access and use the bulletin boards. To this end, the five-week period at the start of the final semester was the ideal time for some basic training. It also gave students and lecturers the opportunity to start using the online communication tools in the context of their project preparation.
WebCT is an easy tool to learn so all students were given a one-hour hands-on session in the computer labs where they were walked through the processes of logging in to the forums, creating a message thread and posting replies. The same opportunity was offered to teaching staff who had not already been involved in developing online resources for their units.
Before the practical induction, all students attended a session where the parameters and expectations of the project were clearly spelled out by the Director of School Experience.
It was planned that, towards the end of the practicum, a feedback questionnaire would be sent out to students and participating academic staff so that the Director of School Experience and other interested staff could get some understanding of the effectiveness of the project. Feedback would be sought on students' understanding of the aims of the project, on the ease of access to the tools required, problems encountered, frequency and types of use and participation and any changes in these across the duration of the project, and the degree to which the activity contributed to their reflective development. In addition, the survey would provide an indication of any development of IT competence which may have been attributable to the project.
How well did the online forums achieve their aims?
The project certainly was successful on a number of levels. During the period of the project a total of just over 1000 messages was posted by students and staff, addressing a wide range of subjects. A number of postings were of a chatty nature, with students talking about their placements and events with the children they were teaching. Many postings were about teaching-related issues such as successful lessons or activities they had observed or taught themselves, 'disasters' they felt they had perpetrated, asking for and sharing ideas and help with resources for lessons, and so on. Certainly, the aim of enabling ongoing communication between students and between students and their lecturers was achieved. And it was clear that aim of reducing the sense of isolation was also achieved.
In reviewing the nature of the communications which took place over the period of the activity it is clear that the area least well addressed was that of reflective practice, especially the higher levels of reflection. The KLA lecturers did monitor their students' postings and a number of them responded to some of the questions and issues discussed. Some of the staff attempted to stimulate discussion of a reflective nature but this appears to have been neither general nor particularly instructive. The lack of understanding, and perhaps commitment to the reflective aspect of the project is borne out by the responses in the feedback questionnaires received from the academic staff.
In response to a question asking the lecturers to identify their understanding of the aims of the project, all identified some aspect of contact or communication with students on practicum. None mentioned the reflective practice element. Nevertheless, in the feedback, some did indicate that they had tried to prompt students to use the forums to discuss issues of a reflective nature while some more simply attempted to urge students to participate, perhaps with a view to ensuring that the minimum number of postings required was attained.
Student perceptions of the environment
The above view of the purpose of the project closely mirrors that held by the students themselves. Some 39 questionnaires were received back from the 132 students who had participated in the project. Of these over half identified the purpose of the project as communication, a majority of the others identified variations on the idea of support or help, while a smaller number identified the function as facilitating an exchange or discussion of ideas. A very small number recognised that the forums would enable discussion of teaching issues while only one included reflection in the answer.
In response to a question about the perceived nature of their postings at different stages of the project - pre-prac, early prac and at the time of surveying near the end of prac - it was clear that there was a shift in focus. In the pre-prac period the postings were seen to be mostly in the nature of 'chat' with a lesser number about routine teaching issues and a smaller number on reflective practice. This balance started to change as students got further into their practicum. In the early stages the types of postings were seen to be about the same for each area. Late in the prac the balance had moved slightly in favour of reflective practice, largely at the 'practical/technical' end of the spectrum but there was still a significant element of chat, despite the expectation that students would become increasingly reflective.
It is perhaps not too harsh a criticism to say that the aim of enhancing the students' reflective practice was not significantly achieved. Detailed analysis of the quality of the postings and responses will, I believe, bear this out. The students had various understandings of what constituted 'being reflective' about their teaching or about education in general. Most responses to this question identified aspects relating to strengths and weaknesses of their teaching practices and thinking about how to improve their teaching. Only two respondents thought that reflection included considering what the children got from the lessons. Certainly, fewer than a third of the students who responded to the questionnaire felt that their understanding of reflective practice had changed as a result of the activity.
These findings bear out research by a number of authors such as Admiraal et al (1998) who report that, in similar activities in other countries, student teachers exchanged immediate experiences of classroom practices but were less inclined to reflection, discussion on teaching issues, debates on the application of the learning or exchanges on pedagogical content. In hindsight, it is clear that if those planning the project had been aware at the time of these and other reports, which only subsequently came to our attention, a greater effort would have been made to educate and motivate the lecturing staff. It was these latter participants who, by nature of their greater experience in teaching and their professional function in the field of teacher education, should have been more of a driving force behind the reflective practice component of the project. Paulsen (1995) identifies the important roles of these teaching staff at this important stage of the students' developing reflective practice as being 'explainers', 'tutors' and 'facilitators' rather than the more passive role of 'observers'.
Information literacy skills
What of the aim to develop students' information literacy skills? Given that very few of the students prior to the project had used WebCT or any other dedicated course delivery tool, it is fair to say that some level of increased skill was achieved in at least this area. Perhaps not such a significant increase was achieved in overall computer competence. Very few students reported any major or ongoing problems with access although one or two indicated that problems they encountered led them to virtually give up trying. As these were notably different experiences to the majority it is likely that their problems were caused more by their acknowledged low level of computer competence than any 'system' problems. Eight students (21 %) reported a significant increase in competence and confidence in using a computer. This included at least one who had evaluated his competence as 'high' at the start of the activity. An identical number (21 %) thought that the activity had not resulted in any improvement while the 58% remaining felt that there had been a slight improvement.
Responses to the project as a whole
The main criticism of the project, from both students and staff, centred, unsurprisingly, around the time commitment necessary to participate at the level that was expected of the participants. However, two thirds of the student respondents indicated that the time cost of the activity was either about right or insignificant.
The overall response to the project by both student teachers and academic respondents was that the project had very definitely been worthwhile and should be continued in future practicums. Additionally, almost all students indicated that they would like to see a similar forum available for ongoing communication with their peers during at least the first years of teaching after completing their training.
The project will be repeated in some form in the revised Bachelor of Education program currently being developed. The keys to its more successful implementation will be ensuring that:
The online forums will be the vehicle by which students can continue their collegial contact with peers and teaching staff and, importantly, put into language their reflection-on-action in the context of their immersion in real day-to-day teaching and, in so doing, enhance their development as teaching professionals.
- the participating academic staff achieve a consensus of what is meant by 'reflection', especially 'critical reflection', and that they develop ways of teaching and enhancing these skills across the program in an integrated way, both prior to and during the practicum;
- the BEd program includes a structure in which there is time for students to develop reflective practice skills and in which the development of these skills across units and across years is valued by the students and can be monitored and assessed in some way
- during future practicum placements, the supervising lecturers, initially at least, take a more active role in the bulletin boards, stimulating and motivating the development of higher levels of reflective practice.
Admiraal, W.F., Lockhurst, D., Wubbels, T., Korthagen, F.A.J. & Veen, W. (1998). Computer-mediated communication environments in teacher education: Computer conferencing and the supervision of student teachers. Learning Environment Research, 19(1), 59-74.
Brookfield, S.D. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
Frid, S., Reading, C. & Redding, E. (Ted) (1998). Are teachers born or made? Critical reflection for professional growth. In T.W. Maxwell (Ed), The Context of Teaching. Kardoorair Press, pp. 325-350.
Furlong, J. & Maynard, T. (1995). Mentoring Student Teachers: The Growth of Professional Knowledge. Routledge, London.
Kemmis, S. (1985). Action research and the politics of reflection. In Boud, D., Keogh, R. & Walker D. (Eds), Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning. Nichols Publishing Company, London, pp. 119-163.
Osterman, K.F. & Kotterkamp, R.B. (1993). Reflective Practice for Educators: Improving Schooling Through Professional Development. Corwin Press, Newbury Park, California.
Paulsen, M.F. (1995). Moderating educational computer conferences. In Berge, L. & Collins, M.P. (Eds), Computer-mediated communications and the online classroom, Vol III. Hampton Press, Kresskill, NJ, pp. 81-103.
Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. Basic Books, New York.
van Manen, M. (1977). Linking ways of knowing with ways of being practical. Curriculum Inquiry, 6, 205-228.
|Author: Lewis Gratton, University of New England, Armidale|
Phone (02) 6773 2317 Fax (02) 6773 3269 Email: email@example.com
Please cite as: Gratton, L. (2001). Using online forums to foster communication and reflective practice for students on practicum. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 306-313. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/aset-herdsa2000/procs/gratton.html
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