Using computer-mediated communication to form a knowledge-building community with beginning teachers
Brian Ferry, Julie Kiggins, Garry Hoban and Lori
For over a thousand years universities operated on the assumption that information would be stored centrally and scholars would come to this central store of knowledge and collaborate to produce more information that would be stored at this site. Modern storage of information in digital form and the use of telecommunications allows scholars and students to access information from any location that connects to the Internet. Thus, instead of people coming to the information, people now can have the information come to them.
When information comes to people via the World Wide Web, there are many potential benefits. Such benefits include: direct access to a broad range of information; access to learning environments outside normal lecture and tutorial times; greater opportunity for experiencing a variety of instructional strategies including small group discussion and collaborative projects; and exposure to a forum for expressing and sharing ideas (Lockyer, Patterson & Harper, 1999). While the technology allows greater access to stored knowledge and distributed personal knowledge, some researchers claim that education that is based entirely on such technology can contribute to a loss of community. For example, Besser and Bonn (1996) assert that it is difficult to build collaborative relationships among students. However, their view is not shared by Romiszowski and Mason (1996) as the review of the literature that they conducted showed that the technologies allowed for genuine conveyance of human communication and learners were able to develop relationships regardless of the reduced cues associated with computer mediated communications. Reeves and Reeves (1997) add to the debate and state that "despite all the interest, little research evidence exists to support claims for the effectiveness of Web-based instruction" (p.59).
The context of this study allowed the researchers to make a contribution to this debate by providing learning-centred research evidence regarding the effectiveness of the Web as a means of instruction. During the study, the communication capabilities of the Web were used to support the development of preservice teacher understanding of the values, norms, and habitual ways of seeing which belong to the teaching profession (Schon, 1983). This learning process relied upon effective integration into a community of practice (i.e.the teaching community) and was facilitated through immersion in the discourse of the community (Schon, 1983; Vygotsky, 1978). Learning processes that are "grounded in talk" can stimulate higher order thinking skills by providing a context and mechanism for explanation, justification and reason (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996, p.181; Oliver, Omari & Herrington, 1997). Therefore, learner interaction with instructors and other learners becomes essential if they are to master the concepts and skills associated with their profession. Price and Petre (1997) assert that this gives the learner a perspective and places them within a learning community.
This study required us to develop a learning community that was based upon discourse and learner interaction that occurred as a face-to-face community and an on-line community. Both the face-to face and on-line communities were needed to support a new approach to initial education called a 'knowledge-building community' (KBC).
A Knowledge-Building Community (KBC) in Teacher Education
Berieter and Scardamalia (1993) describe a ‘knowledge building community’ (KBC) as a group of people who investigate problems together. Members of a KBC work as groups and not as individuals and are engaged in progressive discourse in an iterative process of knowledge building.
The Faculty of Education at the University of Wollongong wanted to apply a KBC model to the professional socialisation of preservice teachers. Within this model the aim was to make use of problem-based learning to stimulate enquiry at a school-site and to use collaborative technologies to support this enquiry process. The KBC model that was adopted consisted of three interacting sources of learning:
Using Computer Mediated Communication to support a KBC
The collaborative technologies used were designed to provide students with communication tools that they could use to engage in informal processes of knowledge sharing and construction. The current study is significant because it contributes to the understanding of how the students used the available CMC to support problem-based learning and their understanding of the teaching profession. Also, it investigated whether students were prepared to experiment with other forms of CMC if it better suited their purposes. Further, it adds to the understanding of the role that the facilitator plays in mediating on-line discussion.
Weedman (1998) reported that many early studies about the use of computer mediated communication (CMC) noted that students desire more face-to-face interaction, but others such as Holland (1996) have reported that students consider the process of collaborating on group projects to “much the same” as face-to-face. Several of these early studies have been criticized by authors such as Holmberg (1987) and Collis (1993) because they emphasized course development or learner outcomes rather than process outcomes.
We believe that CMC can supplement face-to-face teaching by providing discussion forums that are non-threatening and allow for learner control of communications and learner involvement in topic negotiation. CMC tools allow individuals to maintain links with their community of practice and to take advantage of the scaffolding that is provided by a dynamic social context. Such links are not limited by the constraints of time and space and allow for legitimate peripheral participation (Lave & Wegner, 1991).
The purpose of the KBC project was to provide students enrolled in an initial teacher education course with an alternative pathway to professional socialisation through the formation of a Knowledge Building Community (KBC). Such professional socialisation occurs through the transmission of values, norms, and habitual ways of seeing which belong to particular occupations and shape the way that people conduct their work and establish themselves in the larger social world (Schon, 1983). It also includes the selection of an individual professional identity. However it is this process that educators fear that distance education technologies cannot support (Weedman, 1998). We argue that distance education technologies can support this process provided that it occurs within a clearly defined knowledge building community.
The Role of Problem-based Learning in the KBC
Problem based learning (PBL) is a curriculum development and an instructional strategy designed to challenge students (Finkle &Torp, 1995, Novak, 1996). Originally developed for medical schools, it was seen to be ‘tailor made’ for medicine because it provided advantages for both acquisition of knowledge and development of problem solving skills in patient care (Barrows & Tambly, 1980). A curriculum that makes use of PBL encourages and motivates students to ‘learn to learn’ (Duch, 1995). Above all, PBL challenges students to take charge of their education (White, 1996) by involving students in small groups to solve ‘real world’ problems, (Duch, 1995). During this process, students develop skills of negotiation, communication, and collaboration (Aldred et al., 1997). The emphasis is placed on ‘real world’ problems which are ‘ill-structured’ (Gallagher, Stepien & Rosenthal 1992). Ill-structured problems have the following characteristics:(1) they require more information to understand the problem, (2) the problem definition changes as new information is added to the situation, (3) many perspectives can be used to interpret information, and (4) there is no absolutely ‘right’ answer (Barrows,1990).
The main reason why the Faculty of Education at the University of Wollongong wanted to use a PBL approach within their KBC was to respond to recurrent themes emerging from studies which sought to follow-up graduates of teacher education courses. One was that many students reported that they left university with feelings of being under-prepared for life in classrooms and confused by what confronted them when they arrived at schools (Armour & Booth, 1999). The other was that schools which employed them reported that a majority of recent graduates were unaware of how school and classroom cultures operated, and were unable to see the relationships between what they studied at university and how it could be translated into classroom practice that produced effective student learning (MACQT, 1998).
Hoban (1999) believes that this situation arises because most teacher education courses present a fragmented view of learning and this can hinder the development of professional socialisation of preservice teachers. He claims that there are three reasons for this:
The literature about socialisation to the professions supports Hoban’s view. Weedman (1998) asserts that "professional socialisation is a complex and variable form of learning, highly collaborative in nature."(p.1) It involves the transmission of social constructs, language, belief systems and symbolic lives that are unique to the profession (Schon, 1983). Brown and Duguid (1993) argue that this type of learning makes use of knowledge that must be "stolen". They contend that the most important knowledge is that which cannot be taught and students must find ways to steal it from their educational environment. Burdieu and Wacquant (1992) call such knowledge habitus -conditioning, a feel for the game, a disposition, the durable systems of schemata of perception, apprehension, and action that result from the institution of the social and the individual.
The Faculty of Education at the University of Wollongong developed a version of PBL to suit the constraints associated with our KBC. One of these constraints was that we only had the resources to offer the KBC approach to teacher education every alternate semester. Our KBC had two parts. The first part ran for five weeks and was designed to prepare students to work in a learning community. Fifty hours of course work were devoted to provide learning experiences that encouraged students to learn to work together effectively in small and large groups. They also developed teamwork skills as they acquired problem-solving skills.
Another goal of the first part was to prepare students to be what was called a ‘teaching associate’. A ‘teaching associate’ supports a classroom teacher’s work and may help teachers to; prepare and teach lessons, mark written work, read to children, have children read to them, run excursions, conduct sports training, supervise the school yard as well as a host of other functions that emerged as we gained experience with the program.
During the second part of the KBC course, which ran for nine weeks, students attended their host school for two days per week and attended university for one or two days per week. When they were in schools they had two main roles. One was to be an effective teaching associate and the other was to be what we called ‘an educational anthropologist’.
The role of an educational anthropologist was to ‘live’ within the school community and to ‘steal knowledge’ (Brown & Duguid, 1993) that would help them to develop an understanding of the culture of their schools and of the actions of the children and teachers that they observed. Thus they needed to work with a number of teachers and allied professionals who acted as ‘informants’ about their profession and the culture of the school. As they gathered this information they would share it with others in their community.
Purpose of study
The purposes of the study were:
The following research questions were posed:
This study was limited to a group of 22 year one primary education students who were enrolled in the first session of a problem-based learning course in initial teacher education. The age of the students ranged from 18 years to 45 years and gender composition was three males and 19 females.
All participants were taught to use a CMC application (DISCUS) during the 2nd week of the session and had two one-hour training sessions. They could access DISCUS from their home computer, a group of 5 computers available in their university home room or from any of the computers within the university computing laboratories.
The purpose of the first part of the study was to understand how members of the KBC made use of CMC to develop an understanding of the professional role of teachers in primary schools. Data were gathered from two sources: two student interviews held half-way through the session and at the end of the session; and text downloaded from the various communication technologies used.
Students gave us permission to download their messages and were aware that others would be able to read their messages. Only one student was concerned about this issue so we encouraged her to lurk in the background and only to contribute when she felt comfortable. This happened by the third week of session.
The original criteria for classifying interview transcripts and downloaded text were based upon the three elements of the KBC community: community learning; school-based learning and problem-based learning.
Data pertaining to the lecturers’ role in mediating on-line discussion came from post-session interviews with lecturers and analysis of text that students contributed to the discussion spaces. Names of students have been changed for the purposes of reporting findings.
Results and discussion
The results are organised under the following headings: community learning; school-based learning and problem-based learning. Under each heading the contribution of each mode of CMC is discussed. Finally, the ways in which the CMC were used and the roles the lecturers played in facilitating on-line discussion are described.
Before problem-based learning (PBL) and school-based learning (SL) could be attempted it was necessary to build a learning community (LC). The KBC project was designed so that community learning would support the students as they embarked upon the other two sources of learning. Thus, the establishment of a community atmosphere was initiated from the first day of session. Team building workshops and activities were designed to engage students in learning experiences that allowed members to learn to work effectively with all members of the KBC cohort. It was the intention that the students would develop teamwork skills as they acquired problem-solving skills.
In order to enhance the community learning atmosphere the students were housed in a special ‘home room’. This room was the physical space in which the students and the four lecturers who facilitated their learning met for all the activities that were at the core of PBL.
The asynchronous forum (DISCUS) was used to support community discussion. This allowed for individual discussion, intergroup, and intragroup discussion as well as lecturer input. As mentioned previously students could access the forum either from the homeroom, campus computer laboratories or from their home computers. The first quote comes from an interview held early in the course.
This community atmosphere is just so beneficial to learning because so many people I knew from Sydney University last year spent the first few months by themselves, in lectures, and at lunch. How can you learn when you are upset and lonely? At the end of the first week of the KBC project I knew some people. I never felt lonely I knew I could always find someone to have lunch with… Susan 29.3.99
Early in the end of the preparation phase the students learnt to use the asynchronous discussion space (DISCUS) and e-mail and Kime and Karen echoed Susan’s earlier comments via the discussion space.
It’s been great. I have loved working in groups. I have had the best time. I have found that by working in a friendly environment you learn more. Kime 31.3.99
I don’t think I am learning and then I go home and all this stuff comes out. I think where did that come from? We talk. If we have a problem we talk… We had so much fun with our group poster we weren’t afraid to say anything. We talked so much. We hardly ever disagreed at all once someone said something we would go oh yeah that’s a great idea… One of my initial concerns about this course was that my friends weren’t doing it and I thought that I would be on my own but just the opposite has happened and I have made so many friends. Karen 1.4.99
From the above student quotes several themes have emerged. For the students involved it would appear that friendship and community support have assisted their learning. Because they felt comfortable in their environment they have learnt through participation in face-to-face and via electronic conversation, and KBC class activities. Further they were making use of the communication technology to express opinions. Most students preferred the community discussion space as opposed to the restricted discussion space because everybody could contribute and follow all of the threads of the conversations.
This source of learning was to provide students with an opportunity to better understand the culture of schools, teaching and classrooms. It was intended that students could achieve this through observing and interviewing teachers, providing support for teachers, and teaching individual and small groups of students. These experiences were coordinated by a mentor teacher who was released from class duties for one day per week.
In the space of three weeks of in-school experience the students involved in the KBC project were beginning to understand that teaching was a much more multifaceted and complex role than they first thought. Lisa discussed her views on the forum and said:
I had no idea of the preparation, organisation and behind the scenes work that teachers had to do. I have had a respect for the work teachers do during the day, in school hours, but even in this I wasn't aware of the full extent of it; as I am still not now, but do feel more aware than previously. However a real 'eye opener' for me was how a teacher needs to have a very good understanding of the learning of the reading and writing processes. And that this would be an ongoing learning process, on my part. Teachers need to keep up to date with the current learning practices. Lisa 5.5.99
Susan became the most prolific user of the communication technology and made regular contributions to the asychronous forum and via e-mail to various trusted informants. Below is a copy of one of her later evening e-mails to one of our researchers.
Teachers talk so much in the staffroom about different topics; it really is a collegial atmosphere. It’s usually focused on different activities that are happening during the day and how they're going to coordinate them all. They all help each other out with the stuff that’s going on. They seem to have about 700 trains of thought at once, these teachers. I don't know how they can think of so many things at once. I was never aware of the intense preparation months before hand. My mentor was describing what they do to prepare for their program- all the infants’ teachers get together before term starts and work out what they are going to do EACH day for the rest of the term! Each day, so far ahead! I kind of thought you worked it out the night before! But having it planned so far in advance would make it a lot easier, and give you direction. Susan 12.5.99
The above quotes from the KBC students are indicative of the increasing awareness that students were describing and reporting. Also they were expressing similar views via different modes of CMC. It would appear that in a very short space of time the students, through their immersion into the school culture, were able to appreciate and witness the complexity and multitude of a teacher’s role. Also, they could use a variety of modes of communication to express these ideas.
Students were also increasing their awareness that teaching requires skills and practice. Importantly, however, students were gaining an insight and understanding that being a teacher is a commitment and a profession that requires life-long learning.
The third of the three learning sources was critical for students to extend their understanding of the professional role of teachers. Students needed to be aware of their role in PBL and the preparation phase engaged the students in several workshop and assessment tasks where they worked in small self-directed groups in order to solve open-ended problems. The experience with these tasks helped students realise that PBL required a great deal of honest and open communication in order to establish a common understanding of the coherent social practice needed to successfully complete a task. However, as Lave and Wenger (1991) assert the community does not necessarily have to be warm and effusive; instead it can be diffuse, fragmented and contentious. This was the case with several groups involved in this study and the following e-mail from Julia illustrates this point.
Initially I thought that we were unable to communicate effectively, as some people dominated the discussions while other people had good ideas that were not listened to… 14.5.99
We admit that our inexperience in developing the problems that students were to solve whilst in schools contributed to some confusion and generated intellectual unrest. The first problem we developed focused on investigating approaches to the teaching of literacy skills to children in the early primary school years (5 to 9 year olds). The scenario we described was based on a transcript of a recent television debate between an expert on the teaching of literacy and a minister for education. The tasks for the students were to find evidence to support the points of view raised by each participant in the debate and to find good examples of the teaching literacy was organised and taught in the school that they visited. These examples were to be added to a group portfolio that could be shared with the rest of the community.
The problem ‘package’ consisted of: a description of the scenario, information about how to access to a video tape of the original debate, a set of readings and a set of primary school English syllabuses, and a statement of suggested learning outcomes.
In retrospect we now acknowledge that too many learning outcomes were suggested and this contributed to the silence that befell the room with the issuing of first problem ‘package’. Certainly, it was an indication that we needed to rethink our approach when we prepared our second problem which focused on the development of multiple intelligences in young children (Gardner, 1987). Again we provided some readings, and access to other resources. However, the number of suggested outcomes was reduced.
Often the students were reticent to voice their real opinions about the problem in class and the comments below were from class discussions held at the culmination of the first problem (which had a literacy focus) illustrate this point.
I can’t say I ‘m sorry that it’s over as it was huge! But I have learnt so much and I have a teaching resource, which I can keep. Kime 13.5.99
When I go back over what we have done in our group work and also what I have done myself I am just amazed at how much I have learnt and how far we have traveled. Lisa 12.5.99
However, they were quite forthright in voicing their concerns through the asynchronous discussion forum and via e-mail. They were prepared to say that the problem was too big and lasted for too long as they felt that it overshadowed and dominated their life! (our feelings were the same by the end of the first problem!). For example, Susan a competent student who produced a high quality assessment task for problem one, felt tired and drained. Her contribution to the forum at this stage was:
I’m slowly dying. I am just so tired that I cannot think anymore. I am a zombie. This whole literacy thing is just so enormous. I hate assignments and I am so sick of this problem. Susan 14.5.99
The combination of several new factors for the students (i.e the role of a teacher associate combined with the problem assessment task) prompted us to modify the problem so that we covered less material but to a greater depth and Julia’s final e-mail about the second problem illustrates this point.
We were able to accomplish the second problem better as we had more knowledge of how to go about it, it wasn’t as big as the first one. Julia 28.6.99
The role of computer mediated communication
During the first three weeks, 20 out 22 students made two to three entries on the discussion space. Of these, 13 used on-campus computers and the remainder used their home computers. The 2 who were reluctant to participate were encouraged to do so and by week 5 one was participating on a weekly basis - the other was reluctant to put her ideas on public view and only made 5 brief entries all session. However, when interviewed the ‘reluctant contributer’ admitted that she had a home connection and had been reading the contributions of others. Thus she was 'lurking' in the background.
The most prolific users of the discussion forum were those who had home computers and five owners of home computers were contributing up to 5 times per week. We allowed students continuous access to the forum during session breaks and into the next year. The rate of use remained much the same even though the students were no longer working as an 'official' knowledge building community. Topics discussed still related to school and teaching. For example a more recent thread was called "a maths problem" and focused on the teaching of problem solving skills during mathematics lessons.
The students also made use of group and individual e-mails, but the asynchronous discussion space was the main means of electronic communication. It contained a total of 572 entries by the end of the first teaching session (13 weeks). During the session entries were printed and read by a research assistant who classified them into temporary categories. These categories were discussed with the research team who looked at the examples provided by the research assistant and made further suggestions. The process was repeated two more times and by the end of our final meeting all members of the team agreed with the categories. As a result the entries were classified as problem-related, school-related, group-related or personal. A large number school-related entries (95) were about how the students or their mentor teachers managed their classes. This finding appears to support the research reporting that beginning teachers are very concerned about classroom management during their initial teaching experiences (MACQT, 1998).
One group that were widely separated in terms of distance decided to use a synchronous discussion space that they downloaded from web (ICQ). The following quote shows the general tone of their conversation on this forum was about organising group tasks and group meetings.
Being a leader isn’t that involved it just means keeping people on task….We’ll see what we can get done on Thursday, I feel we need to focus and brainstorm etc and we need a peaceful place to do that. Fiona 4.5.99
The forum entries were read again and a procedure similar to the one previously described was used to see if we could make any generalisations about how the forum was used. At this stage we feel that the generalisations that follow can be made about the how students and the lecturers used the forum. However, caution is needed as the ways that student and lecturer currently use the forum represents a particular stage in our use of the technology and we acknowledge that this may change, as students and lecturers become more familiar with the PBL process and the technology.
The generalisations that we felt that we could make were:
This study has been a new learning experience for students and lecturers and we admit that we still have a great deal to learn about the role of PBL in the KBC and the use of computer mediated communication. We feel that the KBC concept supported by computer mediated communication has contributed to the professional socialisation of students by addressing four issues. First, it has helped students to define the profession in which they will work and to realise that they are responsible for the development of the knowledge and skills needed to become a member of the teaching profession. Second, they have developed an understanding of the professional life of teachers and the nature of ‘teachers’ work’. Third, they have come to realise that there is a body of knowledge that they need to access in order to be educated about the profession, and finally they have developed a sense of professional identity.
The combination of learning from three interacting sources of information of a Knowledge Building Community (KBC): community learning; school-based learning and problem-based learning have enhanced the process of professional socialisation. Also the evidence from the forum, written assignments, interviews and school visits suggests that the KBC process helped students to develop an understanding of the following: norms of service, specialized ‘teacher’ knowledge, teacher autonomy in exercising professional judgment, teacher autonomy in setting educational requirements and standards of service, and the existence of a code of ethics of the profession. They have also learnt about the professional life of teachers - the language of the profession, belief systems, symbolic lives. Also by performing a professional role in schools they have developed some sense of professional identity.
We also learnt that when students use computer mediated communication in a KBC they can be very creative and forthright in sharing opinions and ideas. However, like face-to-face conversation, they can deviate from intended pathways and lecturers need to continually monitor the discussion and provide input at appropriate moments – just establishing the community forum is not enough.
We also found that the asynchronous discussion space (DISCUS) was the most popular forum but the other modes of CMC such as personal e-mail gained popularity as friendships developed. In 2000 the KBC group will reform and the authors will use the findings from this study to inform the design of a new CMC support structure which will make use of a WebCT interface.