Roles and identities in online large course forums : implications for practice

I vividly remember my first foray into a large online forum. I was a class teacher at the time: teaching French and Spanish in a sixth form college. I had only just purchased my own laptop and was excited about the potentialities of teaching languages using IT.   My first experience of a large online forum came about thanks to the Association of Language Learning. Their online forum was designed to be used by all members as a way of networking and flagging up and sharing good practice and teaching resources. I still remember breaking out in a sweat as I tentatively made my first posting; very much aware of the fact that I may be talking to hundreds if not thousands of people!  I found seeing my own posts online to be both satisfying and cringe making – did I really say that in response to that……

Working full time in a distance learning environment as I have for some considerable time now, you tend to forget how much those who aren’t used to this environment may agonise over a single post. Of course, times have changed since my first online foray; many students of varying ages already have experience of talking online via Facebook, Twitter and other social apps. They already have experience of creating an online persona: of articulating their own personalities online. Yet this is not always of benefit when transferring the type of interactions used on e.g. Facebook, to a more formal academic forum.

In a recent paper written in collaboration with Jo Haycock a very experienced Associate Lecturer working at The Open University UK, we explored what elements of online participation enhance learner identity and sense of agency, and how student to student contact online helps or hinders this. Identity has been strongly linked to learning by many researchers (Baxter, 2012; Davies & Thomas, 2004; Erikson, 1968; Henderson & Bradey, 2008; Lave & Wenger, 1991) and a strong and articulate online identity is often associated with an individual’s perceptions and capacity to feel good online (Turkle, 1993). Sherry Turkle was one of the first to investigate how it felt to engage in online interactions in her well known book Life on The Screen: Identity in the age of the internet and Gilly Salmon took her work much further in her early studies of online forums (Salmon, 2002).

With the advent of MOOCS (Massive Online Courses) and recent articles which have shown that increasing numbers of students are choosing online offerings (Newton, 2013), such as a the one describing a recent survey by The Guardian (Ward & Shaw, 2014), which,

‘Suggests that parents are now open to cheaper alternatives to the conventional full-time university route: a majority (57%) said internet-based courses in which students watch lectures online are a good idea.’

we felt it was a good time to consider how being online makes you feel and how this may impact on your studying staying power. Our review of the current research into online large forums revealed some of the fascinating insights that have already come out of a number of recent studies . As you can see from list below, they all link strongly to student resilience and perceptions’

  1. Learners adopt the cultures and practices of the community (Soden and Halliday (2000)
  2. Effective interactions involve full engagement with the posts of others (2000)
  3. Cultural differences may impede full integration (LeBaron, Pulkkinen, and Scollin,2000)
  4. Although vital for online integration, student to student communication has lower percieved value than student to tutor communication (Loizidou-Hatzitheodolulou et al, 2001)
  5. Moderator contribution and rate has an impact on motivation and integration (Mazzolini and Maddison, 2003).
  6. Cultural differences may impede full integration (LeBaron, Pulkkinen, and Scollin,2000)
  7. Communicative learners feel responsibility for group processes but are not necessarily the best learners (Hammond,1999)
  8. Familiarity with online forum participation aids swifter integration with other online forums (Zembylas,2008)
  9. Peer Facilitation can encourage deeper levels of participation and concomitant feelings of integration (Hew and Chueng,2008)
  10. Successful creation of online presence aids retention and participation in online forums (Ardichvili et al ,2003.Angelaki et al,2013).
  11. Effective conflict resolution, either by students or tutors aids integration (and the converse)

(Baxter & Haycock, 2013)

The list above shows that for students, online forums are not just about the cognitive but are very much influenced by the affective dimensions of learning too. For example; although one study revealed that student to student interaction has lower perceived value than student to tutor interaction, Hew and Cheung’s study indicated that peer facilitation (students helping other students), actually encouraged deeper levels of participation and feelings of belonging to the academic community (Hew & Cheung, 2008). A number of studies including our own, revealed that feelings were very important: if a student felt alienated or foolish or if they didn’t feel that the person they were online was a true representation of their personality, they tended either not to engage with forums or in a worst case scenario;they withdrew from study.

In many ways this reminded me of when I was teaching languages, particularly with my adult learners who tended to learn a language for communicative purposes rather than to gain a qualification. The parallel was apparent with those learners who felt they couldn’t be themselves in the foreign language: that they couldn’t articulate who they fundamentally were in the foreign language, and, as a result they dropped out of class. Later research in this area supported this, and found that those that felt comfortable in their self-representation in the foreign language, often went on to use the language as a means to employment (Baxter, 2004)

Our research indicated that the tutor or moderator can have a substantial impact on student feelings about online participation in large forums: they can mediate conflict and engage in a type of ‘engueulade’[1] which can actually strengthen the tutor student relationship. In addition, our research supported a number of other studies which outlined the need for tutors and forum moderators to address student expectations of forum engagement right from the very outset. On the module under scrutiny, students were offered a number of forums: some with a social purpose (largely unmoderated), some with a clear academic function. Students often seemed to become confused by this; expecting levels of tutor moderation in the social forum which were only offered within the academic focused version. This type of misunderstanding proved highly detrimental to the students’ future engagement and in some cases impacted negatively on their experience of the course itself.

If identity is core to learning and learning to identity, it is vital that research into this facet of online learning is considered when designing online learning environments. To negate it is to risk losing many who would otherwise profit from this way of learning.

References.

Baxter, J. (2004). Investigation into motivational factors behind using a second language as a means to gaining employment. Retrieved from http:/www.cilt.org.uk/research/statistics/labourmarket/accessed 060906

Baxter, J. (2012). The impact of professional learning on the online teaching identities of higher education lecturers:the role of resistance discourse European Journal of Open,Distance and E-Learning 1(2).

Baxter, J., & Haycock, J. (2013). Roles and student identities in online large course forums: implications for practice. International REview of Open and Distance Learning 15(1).

Davies, A., & Thomas, R. (2004). 6 Gendered identities and micro-political resistance in public service organizations. Identity politics at work: resisting gender, gendering resistance, 10, 105.

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton.

Henderson, M., & Bradey, S. (2008). Shaping online teaching practices: the influence of professional and academic identities. Campus-Wide Information Systems, 25(2), 85-92.

Hew, K. F., & Cheung, W. S. (2008). Attracting student participation in asynchronous online discussions: A case study of peer facilitation. Computers & Education, 51(3), 1111-1124.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate periperal participation. Cambridge Cambridge University Press

Newton, D. (2013). Online students and teachers are no different from the rest of academia The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog+education/online-learning

Salmon, G. (2002). Moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online. London Routledge.

Turkle, S. (1993). Life on the Screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Touchstone.

Ward, L., & Shaw, C. (2014). University education : at £9000 per year, parents begin to question its value, The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/feb/26/university-education-parents-question-value


[1] Engagement in argument offers a level of mutual respect that was not present before the argument took place. (Adamson Taylor1999 Culture Shock)

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Lesson Observations and teaching style: counting caterpillar legs or producing butterflies.

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Lesson Observations and teaching style: counting caterpillar legs or producing butterflies.

The recent publicity and debate surrounding Ofsted inspections and lesson observations is an interesting one: not least in terms of the function of inspection. The 2012 Inspection Framework does put a great emphasis on teaching and learning; and rightly so. It also structures inspections in such a way that inspectors may have to fit observation of 50 lessons or more into just a two day period during which time inspectors are also expected to explore teachers’ professional development plans.

During the course of the ESRC inspection project : Governing by inspection http://www.education.ox.ac.uk/governing-by-inspection/ the three research teams based in Sweden, Scotland and England, interviewed a considerable number of inspectors and engaged them in discussions about their work: the challenges it brings and their own expectations of the role, whilst investigating inspection as a means by which to govern complex education systems (Ozga, Baxter, Clarke, Grek, & Lawn, 2013). The research revealed a number of challenges inherent within lesson observation as part of the inspection process; not least of these was the communicative challenge of conveying inspection outcomes to schools: in both written and oral form.

In England the changes made by the 2012 inspection regime, on the surface, appear to be something of a return to the HMI (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate) form of inspection, with an emphasis on development and on teaching and learning as core to the inspection process. But we are not living in the period 1945-1984, a period when, as Stuart Maclure pointed out,

‘The Inspectorate was not like the rest of the Ministry. It was not neat and tidy. HMI’s were a disparate group of talented individuals. For much of their time they acted as such, dependent on their own professional initiative and controlling their own time. (Maclure, 2000:105)

But even then, resting on individuals’ professional judgement was far from unproblematic, as John Dunford describes in the case of Madeley Court in Shropshire, in which the criteria for judgement by HMI in school inspection were different from the philosophical basis on which a school was being run (Dunford, 1998:111): a pressing issue for the current inspectorate given the number of free and academy schools within the current system.

The post 1992 inspectorate Ofsted, was deliberately designed to be a very different beast from its predecessor. Founded on the principles of John Major’s Citizen Charter which advocated amongst other things, transparency of practice in the public services; the agency developed a series of criteria inspection frameworks from 1992-2009 which meticulously detailed 29 criteria on which schools were to be judged. This was accompanied by voluminous sets of handbooks designed to be read by both inspectors and school staff, and aimed again at opening up not only the secret garden of education to public scrutiny, but the equally secret garden of inspection. (Maw, 1995). The initial frameworks never appeared to set out to define good and bad teaching styles, but over a twenty year period they began to take on a life of their own. To understand how this came about it helps to understand the way in which Ofsted was and is structured.

When the agency was first developed many of the HMI that had been employed full time, were made redundant. The shortfall in HMI and the far more regulatory nature of the new inspectorate gave rise to an organisation whose day to day operation was run by numerous sub-contractors. In the early days this amounted to well over a hundred tiny agencies that were contracted to perform inspection (Baxter & Clarke, 2013). It is not difficult to imagine how difficult it must have been to attain consistency of practice across such a devolved system. In 2009 the contracts were streamlined and awarded to three main contractors: Serco, Tribal and CFBt. (Ofsted, 2009). To a certain extent this did streamline operations but meanwhile, due to the 2005 Education Act which implemented a multi -agency approach advocated in the Every Child Matters paper,(DFE, 2003), the agency was tasked with integrated inspection which added the inspection of all children’s services 0-18 and, following the inception of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 the inception of a new agency on the 1st April 2007. The new agency brought together: the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI); the Commission for Social Care Inspection (CSCI); Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Court Administration.

The considerably extended remit of the new agency rendered it more powerful than ever; rendering it an  inspectorate of both national and international renown: a study carried out early in 2011 revealed that 45% of the UK population had heard of the agency (Baxter, 2014). But as the agency broadened, so did the vast industry that had developed around it, offering everything from; how teach the Ofsted way, to a full package of consultancy for schools on, for example, how to present your school in such a way as to gain a higher grade at inspection. Added to this, many local authorities and consultancies offering training either post or pre inspection, had developed checklists instructing teachers (and heads) how to get a 1 in teaching observations.

The 2012 Framework not only reduced the amount of judgements but has also brought back the idea of professional judgement, creating a superficially simple framework that in many ways, occludes the super complexity of the job it is tasked with: judging schools that are in many cases autonomous and lack post inspection LEA support in cases in which they are judged to be failing; schools that form part of complex academy chains or federations or schools or schools that have for example recently been taken over by chains with little knowledge of local contexts.

The first key challenge inherent within the observation of teaching and learning is as our study revealed, to be found in the communicative elements of the inspectors’ work. The inspection criteria may well state judgements must not be made on the basis of particular teaching styles, but in a system which relies upon the extensive experience of inspectors, many of whom are in service head teachers, it is highly likely that individuals will base their judgements upon what in their considerable experience tells them is good teaching,this in combination with  information that permits them to gain an impression of how successful that teaching has been over time. This may well be a good basis upon which to proceed, but it is one thing to judge a lesson and yet another to be able to articulate that judgement in a way that whilst not judging teaching styles, does involve making a judgement on the teaching. The communicative element of the work of inspectors has been recognised by those tasked with their training, and is indeed the focus of a great deal of intensive work on the part of both Ofsted and its contracted agencies (see for details Baxter & Hult, 2013), but nevertheless, the communicative challenges inherent within the inspector role remain considerable.

The second key challenge for inspectors is located within the history and culture of the organisation itself : inspectors do not go into schools with a ‘clean slate’ they carry with them the baggage of an organisation that has evolved against the political, historical, economic and social background of the country in which it is placed. The teaching profession has a long memory and although Ofsted may have said Farewell to the Tick box inspector;  the minds of many teachers he lingers on; producing the type of misunderstandings, myths and confusion around inspection that have never really never gone away. These were particularly well summed up some thirty years previously, in the words of Ann Jones, then head of a very successful school in Hounslow, who describes here her experiences of inspection in 1984 under the then HMI:

In the HMI inspection of my school in 1984 by a team of 29 delightful intelligent inspectors, I was constantly caught in a tension between the traditional and the transitional. There was a sense in which they seemed to be counting caterpillar legs, whereas we were trying to produce something quite different, namely, butterflies. Furthermore, they caught us at the chrysalis stage when it was rather difficult to judge what would come out at the other end. We found ourselves backtracking to produce evidence of caterpillar legs. However, in my view, our caterpillar legs were not very convincing because we were in the process of giving them up and moving on to a new way of working. So there was this built in tension between what we were trying to do, what we thought we were expected to have done and what we were doing.

 I expect this is a common dilemma for schools (Jones, 1987:203)

It may be that although teaching styles themselves are not being judged, that during the communication of the basis upon which the inspector judges lessons, it appears that in praising certain elements of the lesson whilst questioning others, that inspectors are almost certain to favour elements that are core to certain teaching styles and not others. Overcoming this communicative element whilst creating a convincing narrative that is shared by teachers and that, in addition, may be considered to be developmental is perhaps where the real challenge lies.

References

Baxter, J. (2014). An independent inspectorate? Addressing the paradoxes of educational inspection in 2013. School Leadership and Management http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/tY4sKEuNn6NBQAggrGkM/full.

Baxter, J., & Clarke, J. (2013). Farewell to the Tickbox Inspector ?Ofsted and the changing regime of school inspection in England. Oxford Review of Education 39(5), 702-718.

Baxter, J., & Hult, A. (2013). Professional training for professional inspection: contrasting inspector role, professionalism and development in England and Sweden Paper presented at the ECER Conference : Creativity and Innovation in Educational research Istanbul, Turkey.

DFE. (2003). Every child matters  Retrieved 121213, 2013, from https://www.education.gov.uk/consultations/downloadableDocs/EveryChildMatters.pdf

Dunford, J. E. (1998). Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools Since 1944. London: Woburn Press

Jones, A. (1987). Leadership for tomorrow’s Schools Oxford: Blackwell.

Maclure, S. (2000). The Inspectors’ Calling Oxford: Hodder and Stoughton.

Maw, J. (1995). The Handbook for the Inspection of Schools: a critique. Cambridge Journal of Education, 25(1), 75-87.

Ofsted. (2009). Press Release: New inspection contracts signed, Ofsted Retrieved from http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/news/new-inspection-contracts-signed

Ozga, J., Baxter, J., Clarke, J., Grek, S., & Lawn, M. (2013). The Politics of Educational Change: Governance and School Inspection in England and Scotland Swiss Journal of Sociology, 39(2), 37-55.