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Computer-mediated communication and teachers' professional learning

Norbert Pachler and Caroline Daly
Institute of Education, University of London


Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh,
11-13 September 2003


This paper focuses on the potential of computer-mediated communication (cmc) for the generation of teacher knowledge in the field of professional learning. Claims for the impact of cmc on knowledge creation and dissemination are now well-established. What is much less explored is the impact of this on teachers' learning. Cmc has brought about changes in the ways in which knowledge can be created and disseminated and offers a potential for teachers to learn through collaborative processes, including participation in electronic discourse. Such participation may challenge orthodox understandings of how professional knowledge is constructed and mediated.

We examine the key issues relating to the professional learning of teachers emerging from the mixed-mode Master of Teaching (MTcg) programme ( now moving into its third year at the Institute of Education, University of London. We explore how electronic discourse can be generative of participants' development as teachers, and the significance of this for knowledge which emerges from teachers' engagement with narrative modes of learning. Teacher learning in this medium does not easily fit into available genres which help constitute the professional knowledge base, for example those provided by academic essay writing, research reporting and logico-scientific writing. Discussion which takles place within virtual learning environments lacks the validation of orthodox mechanisms for identifying learning, and electronic genres, here specifically asynchronous email exchange, have not yet found a position within the 'academy'. Yet, the early experience of the MTcg suggests that there is considerable scope for enhancing and monitoring professional learning through cmc. The paper explores characteristics of stimulating tasks, successful email postings and effective facilitation, and the impact these have on the production of teacher narratives. Teachers' participation in cmc is examined in terms of its effects on their learning which, in the MTcg, relates to pedagogical understanding and practice. Such participation impacts upon professional identity and informs an evolving professional knowledge base.

Our deliberations are premised by the fact that the professional development dimension of teachers' learning is undertheorised. In addition, for a decade and a half, in-service teacher 'education' in the United Kingdom has been channelled by central, regional and local government towards training and development reacting to serial policy initiatives rather than allowed to focus on teacher needs and learning. Only of late has there been a recognition of a need for a coherent pedagogy of continuing professional development on the one hand and a focus on teacher learning as a pre-requisite for leadership of pupil learning on the other. Within this context, we examine how far those who take part in an online community, both teachers and Higher Education tutors, develop a concept of teacher learning that is participatory, and become committed to an expansive knowledge base for the profession.


As a precept to what follows it seems important to us to state, as Bentley (2003) rightly notes, that "the big challenge is for systems like education to work out how to learn from themselves" and to move from 'informed prescription' to 'informed professionalism'. How are teachers to meet the increasing expectations of the teaching profession itself? How are they to be prepared for adaptability, transferability and transposability of learning skills, both their own and their pupils'? Sachs (2003) argues for a 'transformative professionalism' in which teachers work collaboratively, and proposes five principles for rethinking teacher professionalism: learning, participation, collaboration, cooperation and activism, each of which contributes to a knowledge base which is agentive. Professional identity needs to be learning centred if teachers are to be agents of change. Sachs calls for teacher education establishments to provide the intellectual leadership necessary for 'activist teacher professionalism' (2003:76). We deem the Master of Teaching (MTcg) at the Institute of Education, University of London, to make a sustained contribution in this regard. For the purposes of this paper, therefore, we see knowledge-based networked continuing teacher professional learning as an important dimension of bringing about systemic change and reform in a drive for better services, not least in view of Hargreaves' recent attempt (2003) to conceptualise the quality of a school - or other educational institutions - in terms of the concepts of intellectual, social and organisational capital, that is with a focus on understanding the deeper cultural and structural underpinnings of what makes them effective. Teachers and their continued professional learning are a key concern in this respect.

In this paper we develop further some reflections on computer-mediated teacher learning in the context of the MTcg articulated elsewhere. By way of brief contextualisation suffice it to note that the design of the MTcg builds significantly on the conceptual work of Lave and Wenger (1991) who emphasised that learning best takes place in authentic situations and through authentic activities rather than in the abstract. Importantly, the course design assumes that learning takes place both within the context of participation and in an individual mind through personal meta-reflection on socially constructed knowledge. And, we believe that cmc has a crucial role to play in this process but that it needs to go beyond situated activity and be combined with conceptual and theoretical considerations. The course stimulates professional learning and conceptual and theoretical engagement through questioning and challenging participants' beliefs and ideas within a framework of what Ravenscroft (2003) calls 'collaborative argumentation'. In other words, the MTcg requires participants to engage in intra-contextual (e.g. cross-school) comparisons and dialogue along co-constructivist, social-interactionist and socio-cultural lines of thinking (e.g. tutoring dialogue, knowledge construction etc.) galvanised by carefully drafted stimulus material supported by selected digitised texts and facilitated by expert tutors (see Pachler, Daly and Pickering, 2003).

One of the issues that have exercised us as a course team from a research perspective is the challenge of how to make tangible and 'measurable' the cognitive changes that represent professional teacher learning through text production in online discussion groups. What characterises professional teacher learning? What are its constituent parts? Does it find articulation in online discourse? If so, how? Can it be quantified? Is it explicit in the archives of online discussions or does it need to be inferred? Are there specific linguistic markers that evidence it? Is textual analysis an appropriate and effective approach? Are quantitative or qualitative approaches more fruitful? What tools, taxonomies, typologies, strategies, approaches etc. - if any - should we use to identify and 'extract' learning from web-based archives?

Approaches to 'extracting', quantifying and tracking learning in online networks

Despite the vast amount of literature, be it scholarly, conceptual or theoretical in nature, attempting to show how cmc supports learning through scaffolding, interaction and knowledge building, not only is the amount of empirical evidence available to date in support of these claims limited but also, and more importantly in our view, there exist only relatively few frameworks for analysing online interactions and for researching computer-mediated learning. One aim of this paper, therefore, is to initiate a debate amongst the teacher education and the research community working in the field of online learning networks about possible ways of identifying and researching indicators of learning through cmc and their relative merits.

An initial but fundamental consideration must be whether there are generic criteria or indicators which can be used to describe and capture teacher professional learning online. There is growing interest in the construction of taxonomies which attempt to identify generaliseable features of online discourse, using linguistic, behavioural or socio-cultural descriptors. What remains less explored, is the relationship between the affordances particular to online written discourse, and the transformational outcomes for participants. In earlier papers (Pachler, Daly and Lambert 2003; Daly, Pachler and Lambert forthcoming2004) we have discussed this issue briefly on the one hand in terms of affordances of online activities for generating learning, e.g. the need for them to be problem-solving, participatory, intellectually engaging etc. in nature. Another key concern relates to 'task' design, i.e. the necessity of an analysis of the nature of participant interaction fostered by the activities chosen. Our experience on the MTcg points to certain problems with activities that are too open-ended as well as those that lock participants too firmly into the paradigm of initiation - response - feedback of traditional classrooms. In this context Laurillard, Stratfold, Luckin, Plowman and Taylor (2000), for example, discuss what they call a 'minimalist sequence of iterations of dialogue, action-feedback, adaptation and reflection' which they posit "allows the students to be exposed to new ideas, to link these to enhancing their practice, to improve their practice and link this improved practice to further developed understanding, and to assure the quality of their understanding" (5):

Table 1. Laurillard et al's Minimalist sequence of iterations of dialogue, action-feedback, adaptation and reflection

On the other hand, whilst the type and amount of learning through social interaction taking place online will depend significantly on factors such as the nature and composition of online discussion groups seen as cultural communities and cultures-of-use (for a more detailed discussion see Pachler, Daly and Pickering 2003), a number of generic criteria and indicators attempting to describe learning are starting to emerge in the literature. They include levels of reflexivity and higher order thinking displayed by participants as well as the nature of their cognitive engagement and conceptual change such as through making reasoned decisions, adapting to change, reasoning critically, collaborating productively, working independently, seeing multiple perspectives, being able to solve problems, engaging in negotiation of meaning etc. (see e.g. Lapadat 2000, McLoughlin and Luca 2000 or Smith 2003). A significant challenge for researchers pertains to defining indicators that capture the complexities of human learning in general and of professional teacher learning in particular in a way that makes them reliable across different contexts and studies.

One general principle applying to research into identifying and quantifying computer-mediated teacher professional learning evidenced in web-based archives is indeed whether or not to adopt a procedure in which the indicators or categories are pre-determined, usually on the basis of the study of relevant background literature in particular fields, and applied to the data, or whether to adopt a heuristic procedure in which data are not fitted to pre-assigned categories. The latter allows for categories to emerge from the data "through an iterative process of analysis and tentative category assignment" (Nunan 1999: 56).

In the remainder of this section we briefly examine some possible approaches (tools, taxonomies, typologies, strategies etc.) discussed in the literature which pre-determine indicators to a greater or lesser extent. Whatever indicators or taxonomies are devised, a core problem is the difficulty of relating them to a theory of professional learning. If learning is to be at the heart of the new professionalism, we need a coherent theory which informs the selection of methods of analysis, and what is meant by the 'conceptualisation' which is said to be taking place through online interaction. Further to Lapadat's critical question of online interaction, "Can conceptual change be identified and tracked?" (2000), we must ask what types of conceptual change are we talking about? This is crucial to understanding how cmc can contribute to a knowledge base for an emergent 'activist' profession, yet this question remains not only unanswered but mostly unasked by taxonomies which attempt to address 'learning'.

Ultralab's Evidence of Learning Taxonomy:

One analytical tool recently developed in the UK in the context of work on the online programmes of the National College of School Leadership is Ultralab's 'Evidence of Learning Taxonomy' (see Bradshaw et al 2002). It heavily builds on Gillian Salmon's taxonomy of active and interactive thinking (2002). In order to be able to make judgements about the wider applicability of Ultralab's - as well as any other - taxonomy across different cmc contexts, it is important to note its developmental context. Ultralab's taxonomy was developed on the basis of provision of online community space for a specific group of educational professionals, namely existing and aspiring head teachers. It is underpinned by a constructivist orientation and features communication tools allowing asynchronous activity (such as self-contained discussions and so-called hot-seats by guest experts) and emphasises facilitation, mentoring and tutoring. Importantly for purposes of transfer to academic contexts there was no imperative of assessment and qualification underpinning the conception of the programme. Potential weaknesses of the dataset underpinning the Ultralab taxonomy are evidenced in the following passage from the Ultralab report:

The use of such spaces allows the learners to develop their knowledge, together applying it to the real problems they face in their professional contexts. It does not presuppose that this knowledge is external to the learners, rather it provides a medium to synthesise and develop that which is already known. ... our philosophy is to aim for a learner-managed programme with open-ended tasks. (Bradshaw et al 2002: 8)

In other words, there is a danger of adopting an approach that is predicated on self-referential reflection and a lack of reference to existing bodies of conceptual and theoretical knowledge available, for example, in specialist and professional literature. Interestingly, the effectiveness of the use of guest experts and tutor facilitation to stimulate dialogue calls into question some of the tenets quoted above (i.e. learner-managed; relative unimportance of knowledge external to the learner). Also, colleagues involved in online learning provision will know that open-ended tasks are notoriously problematic in terms of fostering lively and sustained electronic debate. Nevertheless, all that said, we deem the 'Evidence of Learning Taxonomy' proposed by Bradshaw et al (2002: 12) to have some merit and potential for explaining certain types and aspects of computer-mediated learning, albeit in a modified form:

Table 2. Ultralab's Evidence of Learning Taxonomy

Other inherent weaknesses of this - and later - models pertain, for example, to the rather broad categories used (e.g. 'reflection'), notions of quantity (e.g. How many ideas, opinions etc. need to be in evidence?) as well as the need for professional judgement on the part of the researcher (e.g. What are challenging questions? How are they defined?). The taxonomy appears to lack sophistication and complexity in terms, for example, of ascertaining whether interactions remain at the surface level or whether are they deep. Also, are they social, interactive, cognitive or metacognitive in nature (Henri 1992)?

Procedurally, this taxonomy works like all the others discussed in this section of the paper: pre-determined indicators are applied to the data and textual references are identified, categorised and quantified.

Garrison, Anderson and Archer's Practical Inquiry Model:

A model which appears to be gaining increasing currency as an analytical tool, particularly in the US, is Garrison, Anderson and Archer's Practical Inquiry Model (2001). It provides a conceptual framework by identifying three elements central to a successful (computer-mediated) learning (higher education) experience: cognitive, social and teaching presence and explores their interrelationships.



Indicators (examples only)

Cognitive Prescence

Triggering Event

Sense of puzzlement


Information exchange


Connecting ideas


Apply new ideas

Social Presence

Emotional Expression


Open Communication

Risk-free expression

Group Cohesion

Encouraging collaboration

Teaching Presence

Instructional Management

Defining & initiating discussion topics

Building Understanding

Sharing personal meaning

Direct Instruction

Focusing discussion

Table 3. Garrison et al's Community of Inquiry Coding Template

As far as cognitive presence is concerned, for example, the online learning process can be described in relation to four phases of critical thinking: a triggering event which initiates a particular discussion; an exploration phase during which information exchanges take place between learners; an integration phase during which meaning is being constructed by learners and possible solutions explored; and the resolution phase in which a proposed solution is tested (see Garrison et al., 2001: 11). The column on the right sets out in very broad terms example indicators which illustrate what evidence about these various phases the data might contain.

In comparison with the Ultralab taxonomy, for example, Garrison et al's model does better justice to the complexities of learning-focussed cmc. It builds on long established and widely used notions of pre-reflection, reflection and post-reflection and the quadrants of the model reflect an imagined sequence of practical inquiry, i.e. critical thinking. The quadrants also correspond to the proposed categories of cognitive presence indicators.

Table 4. Garrison et al's Practical Inquiry Model

However, aA key question about this model concerns the applicability of the assumed process to different contexts and practical situations.

In a subsequent paper, Anderson, Rourke, Garrison and Archer (2001) apply the model to the assessment of teaching presence in online courses by developing coding schemes for the three categories under teaching instruction, i.e. instructional management, building understanding and direct instruction. For 'direct instruction', where teachers are predominantly deemed to provide intellectual and scholarly leadership and share subject matter knowledge with students, the authors suggest the following coding scheme which they use to carry out content analysis on the basis of messages (as opposed to proposition, sentence, paragraph or thematic) as unit of analysis:



Present content/questions

"Bates says ... what do you think"

Focus the discussion on specific issues

"I think that's a dead end, I would ask you to consider ..."

Summarise the discussion

"The original question was ... Joe said ... Mary said ... we concluded that ... We still haven't addressed ..."

Confirm understanding through assessment and explanatory feedback

"You're close, but you didn't account for ... this is important because ..."

Diagnose misconceptions

"Remember, Bates is speaking from an administrative perspective, so be careful when you say ..."

Inject knowledge from diverse sources, e.g. textbook, articles, internet, personal experiences (includes pointers to resources)

"I was at a conference with Bates once, and he said ... You can find the proceedings from the conference at http://www..."

Responding to technical concerns

"If you want to include a hyperlink in your message, you have to ..."

Table 5. Anderson et al's coding scheme for Direct Instruction

Fahy's Transcript Analysis Tool:

Another possible analysis tool developed and used by Fahy in Canada in the context of researching supportive online strategies as well as expository and epistolary interaction, the use of qualifiers and intensifiers and aspects of cognitive presence, is the so-called Transcript Analysis Tool (TAT). The TAT consists of comparisons of the frequencies and proportions of the following 5 categories or sentence types in a particular data set:

Table 6. Fahy's Transcript Analysis Tool

Just as in Ultralab's taxonomy, depending on the nature of the investigation a subset of the above categories would be chosen and used as analytical criteria.

In this and other models, in order to ensure reliability in the coding, indicators need to be defined in as much detail as possible and mechanisms need to be in place to ensure content is categorised accurately and consistently (across contexts and coders). Alas, this is not easy.

Discourse analysis:

Another possible approach, widely used in the field of applied linguistics but equally applicable to many other educational domains including online teacher learning, is discourse analysis. Discourse analysis is premised on notions of language in use and meaning as situated and constructed in nature. It requires of researchers "to construct representations of cultural models by studying people's actions across time and events" (Gee and Green 1998: 125). In other words, the mediating role of language for expressing meaning is foregrounded and the 'dialogue' between online participants becomes the focal point for analysis. In that way not only does discourse analysis examine what is learned but also 'what is available to be learned', i.e. how a group of online participants constructs 'contextual' and 'cultural' knowledge (e.g. as pertaining to specific educational settings such as classrooms etc) together. A particular strength of discourse analysis is, in our view, its premise of contexts and culture as being socially constructed and significant as well as interactionally accomplished. In other words, language not only reflects but also constructs the situation in which it is used. Learning is identified through textual and intratextual as well as intertextual and intercontextual analysis with situations (i.e. segments of professional life rather than, say, sentences or postings) becoming key units of analysis. (see Gee and Green 1998: 126-7; 134)

Gee and Green (1998: 134) identify four linked components or aspects of situational discourse as a basis for analysis of written artefacts:

which they call the MASS system.

They go on to identify four dimensions of social activity which potentially yield a very useful framework for the analysis of web-archived discussion data (p. 139) which they define thus:

1. World building: assembling situated meanings about 'reality', present and absent, concrete and abstract;
2. Activity building: assembling situated meanings about what activity or activities are going on, composed of what specific actions.
3. Identity building (socially situated): assembling situated meanings about what identities are relevant to the interaction (written text), with their concomitant attitudes and ways of feeling, ways of knowing and believing, as well as ways of acting and interacting; and
4. Connection building: making assumptions about how the past and future of an interaction, verbally and nonverbally, are connected to the present moment and to each other.

Table 7. Gee and Green's Dimensions of social activity

Also, they (1998: 141) offer the following example of representative research question within an aspect of their model:

Building Task

MASS Aspect

Representative questions

Connection Building

Sociocultural Aspect

What sorts of connections (intercontextual ties) are made to previous or future interactions, to other people, ideas, things, institutions, and discourses outside the current interaction?

What sorts of connections (intercontextual ties) are made to previous processes and practices (cultural patterns) and proposed, recognized, and acknowledged as socially significant outside the current interaction?

What processes, practices, and discourses do members draw on from previous events/situations to guide the actions in the current situations (e.g. text construction)?

Table 8. Example of representative research question within Gee and Green's model

For each of the four building tasks in their model representative questions can be formulated for each MASS aspect.

This approach strikes us as having particular merit in capturing the complexities of online teacher professional learning in the context of computer-mediated, socially constructed knowledge building environments.

It can be said that the emergent need for detail and specificity in our view very much throws into question the notion of a finite set of meaningful and comprehensive indicators for defining and measuring (teachers' professional) learning and points towards the impossibility of defining a 'ruler' with which to measure it.

Textuality, online discourse and professional learning

We believe that there is further but scarcely understood potential in cmc to impact upon the development of particular intellectual practices in the context of teachers' online communities. A coherent theory of professional learning is needed on which to base an analysis of online textual discussion, with a focus on how teachers make meaning of events which occur in particular times and places in their 'professional landscapes' (Clandinin and Connelly, 2000) and which form the basis of their online writing. In our analysis of online written interaction, we ask: how does CMC enable teachers to give meaning to the material of their everyday professional life - the significance which is attached to a curriculum, a school policy, an initiative? What is the nature of the online participation which enables transformational meanings to be attached to these? WWenger's description of learning as participation in communities of practice argues that learning "takes place through our engagement in action and interactions, but it embeds this engagement in culture and history" (1998: 13). 'Participation' and 'reification' are two key concepts which may be helpful in identifying the teacher learning that cmc is bringing about. By 'reification' Wenger means that "we project our meanings into the world and then we perceive them as existing in the world, as having a reality of their own". They become markers or signifiers, by which a community can encode its practices and share recognition and understandings of core phenomena and its political implications for how individuals can act or 'be' within that world. Reification refers to "the process of giving form to our experience by producing objects that congeal this experience into 'thingness'. In so doing we create points of focus around which the negotiation of meaning becomes organised" (1998:58). This process of 'giving form' to experience is central to the learning that teachers develop in online discussion, for example in relation to education policy and how it is enacted.

The dual politics of participation and reification inform a spectrum of learning behaviours which are exercised online. These are behaviours by which teachers learn 'how to be', how to achieve advocacy, how to begin to realise themselves as change agents within the world. Wenger argues that control over practice usually requires a grip on both 'politics':

Participation offers a 'lever' to shape future practice through relationships with others - the politics of participation includes 'influence, personal authority, nepotism, rampant discrimination, charisma, trust, friendship, ambition'.

Reification is the dual 'lever' to shape future practice, and has a different politics - 'legislation, policies, institutionally defined authority, exposition, argumentative demonstrations, stats, contracts, plans, designs' (1998: 92).

They 'complement' each other in the development of communities of practice: "the negotiation of meaning is the convergence of participation and reification" (Wenger, 1998). In our analysis of online discourse, we ask: how do teachers 'reify' professional phenomena and ascribe 'thingness'? How does cmc enable teachers to give meaning to the material of their everyday professional life - the significance attached to a curriculum, a school policy, an initiative? What is the nature of the online participation which enables reification? How do participants draw on this 'complementarity' to negotiate meaning? How does the 'intellectual leadership' (Sachs, 2003) offered by on online course like the MTcg impact upon what teachers learn?

The learning is not dependent on complex 'threading' with multiple contributions to a core discussion. In our examination of teachers' online interaction, we were initially influenced by ideas about the 'weaving' of electronic discourse (Salmon, 2000 for example). We have discovered however, that descriptors for learning cannot be easily borrowed from other electronic environments, since each environment has its own unique set of participant relations, determined by a host of socio-cultural and political factors, including time, motivation, orientation towards ICT, and learning histories. There may be very little serial exchange - most of our teacher participants visit an online discussion topic only twice, once to post a task, and once to respond to another's posting. They tell us that, as teachers, they do not have the time to be online for serial 'discussion'. (Lack of time is a recurrent theme in their online writing). In this context, it can be unproductive to look for significance in a form of a complex 'learning trail'. We are interested rather in the transformations which occur in teachers' perceptions of their identities and pedagogical practices, which is articulated through the contact over time with peers in online exchange. Wenger makes it clear that the processes involved in learning do not move 'in lock step', but are disjointed through time: 'the world and our experience are in motion, but they don't move in lock-step. They interact, but they do not fuse...In moments of negotiation of meaning, they come into contact and affect each other' (1998: 87).

We read online discourse as constitutive of how "communities of practice can be thought of as shared histories of learning" (Wenger 1998:86). It is about the ways individuals are connected to their professional histories - what is remembered and forgotten as memories are drawn on to construct identity. We have focused on the emergence of complex understandings of pedagogy and teacher agency, reflected in the ways in which individuals contribute, and how their ideas have been shaped by the presence of others online. This may not mean a complex pattern of response between participants in a threaded discussion. The ideas have a spectrum of significances for those different individuals, but are linked by common themes of increased criticality and agentive consciousness.

The textuality of online discussion is what interests us as a professional learning instrument.

Contemporary hermeneutics rejects the implications of Saussurean structuralist linguistics, that reality can be seen as a system based on an assumed order, in which language is embedded. Reality, as presented through the meanings of words as signifiers in the

world, is contested, and meaning is complex. Wenger's concept of reification assumes a view of reality as being in a constant state of negotiation, contested through how it is represented semiotically. This concept, that language, and thus meaning, has a complex relation to reality, shares as one premise that language offers diverse signification, that words are 'multiaccented' Volosinov (1973). If word meaning constitutes the significance of texts, and meaning is not fixed, but is embedded in social and historical contexts, this underpins the complexities of teacher learning in online textual environments. Through the textuality of online discourse, participants develop realisations of their teacher selves as ideologically positioned. It is a fundamental step for teachers to question the centrality of ruling and unified meanings, embedded in the language of prevalent educational discourse, in terms like 'improvement', 'professional' and 'good practice'.

Online textual interaction is constitutive of this complex process of signification, of making meanings in the world. These meanings are constantly renegotiated in order to articulate and understand the professional condition, as experienced in the world, and impacting on the world - for example through the formulation of 'practical theories' (Hirst, 1996; Furlong, 2000).

As Bassett and O'Riordan insist, "The contemporary text now appears to be both permeable and malleable. The notion that the researcher constitutes the text contests the principles of objective and positivist research" (2002: 7). These beliefs inform the interpretive practice, and 'reification' involves the research process, since, in the act of identifying what is being learnt, the researcher is contributing to the meaning of what is observed. As a co-constructor of meaning, the researcher's interpretation of text will be shaped by their belief system about learning, professionalism and systems of signification. Contemporary research perspectives, particularly in the field of textual hermeneutics, acknowledge the contribution of the reader/researcher to the meaning of what is observed. Herein lies the problem of applying a taxonomy to online discourse in order to understand teacher learning. Meanings are made within the social and political relations of the community, and referenced within that community. The meaning does not stand independent of the context and the subjectivities of the teachers involved - what something means will be different for a different participant with a different set of relations to the events. A taxonomy will only tell us how certain practices are occurring, and their frequency. This can provide useful information about the features of online interaction but will not yield deep understandings of what is being learnt. We cannot describe the tools for learning, as though the learning exists independently from them. The learning and the text are interdependent, uniquely articulated, are 'storied' and draw on the power of teacher narration. Meanings emerge from joint practice, joint histories, and the hermeneutical possibilities of textual environments.

In the following email posting, is evidence of the affective and agentive energy between the individual author and the political/hermeneutical function of the text. Their learning explores their part in the cultural mapping out of power; it involves self-examination of the readers, and scrutiny of both the reader and the text as socially and historically positioned. The posting is to a password-protected electronic forum which hosts the MTcg tutor group of fifteen participants and a tutor-moderator. It is their third online discussion, and is in response to stimulus reading and briefing material on teacher research.

'Teachers need to be research literate. Are there persuasive arguments that would convince most teachers this is true?

Response to Online Discussion

I have been extremely interested to read these current discussions and found that I agree with the comments in most. I could relate to Anne Marie's comment about change being 'inflicted' upon teachers. I believe teachers are initiating change all the time through being reflective and receptive whereas change that is 'inflicted' upon us is unwelcome as it is often irrelevant and usually less of a priority to us in our current situation. Anne Marie's final comment about our discussions being a 'journey' highlights the luxury of being able to consider and reflect on not only our own views but those of the whole group. This course is providing us with the opportunity, (and probably forcing us to make time), to do this and I agree it is proving a very positive experience. So Anne Marie - you are not the only one this happens to!

Ollie raises the 'time' issue, which I would guess is one that most of us can relate to. I would admit that even though I often find it a struggle to remain committed to 'extra' activities (e.g. Research Forum) I always feel the effort was worth it. Any 'saw sharpening' experience tends to be revitalising rather than draining. (I can compare this experience to my weekly struggle to attend the gym - once finished I feel remarkably better!)

I agree with Graham's comment that the reading of research empowers teachers. We become more knowledgeable and are in a position to make informed decisions about our practice. However I occasionally feel overwhelmed by new initiatives finding it impossible to implement everything I believe to be 'good practice'. Following on from Graham's thoughts on his literacy co-ordinator, I wonder if it is a question of becoming more outspoken, in other words, less accepting of what we are told. As professionals we should feel able to question change and not be content with having it 'inflicted' upon us (Anne Marie's term). Does this confidence come from being research literate?

Mikki's concluding comment about 'how useful research would be!' made me consider the importance of contemplating and discussing the 'why's' of new initiatives rather than, as is usually the case, the 'how's'. We are always told 'how' to implement policies but rarely 'why'. Without this 'why' knowledge it is difficult to be flexible and develop our practice effectively. Does this knowledge become more accessible to those who are research literate? I think yes..

Figure 1. Email posting from MTcg participant 3 to online tutor group forum

Using an inductive approach, this teacher's participation online can be described in terms of 'learning behaviours'. This is not to suggest a conflation of text with authorial intention, or the participant as 'human subject'. In constructing text, the teacher has projected meanings from her lived experience. In constructing our analysis, we insert a further space between the person and the meanings which are derived, as the selection of descriptors is part of the reifying process itself on our part. We have ascribed significance to features of the text, in terms of our interest in teachers learning in this medium.

Our analysis of the text below illustrates that there are contests about meaning which reflect conflicting ideologies: they are conveyed through common signifiers like 'practice'. The terms 'practice' and 'change' are multi-accented and are constantly being re-formulated to convey altering political realisations about the world in which 'teachers' and their practices are identifiable within a spectrum of meanings of the term 'professional'. She establishes an agentive perspective, and a conceptualisation of professionalism, from which to interpret how teachers relate collectively to their professional identities:

Participant text

Online learning behaviours

1 . I have been extremely interested to read these current discussions and found that I agree with the comments in most.

Establishes engagement with group discussion, and personal orientation to the collective practice

2 . I could relate to Anne Marie's comment about change being 'inflicted' upon teachers.

Reflects on another participant's account of experience and endorses it.

3 . I believe teachers are initiating change all the time through being reflective and receptive whereas change that is 'inflicted' upon us is unwelcome as it is often irrelevant and usually less of a priority to us in our current situation.

Situates experience of change in general terms.

Identifies self with teachers' corporate identity - shift from 'I' to 'us'.

Establishes a shared professional experience

Historicises collective experience

4 . Anne Marie's final comment about our discussions being a 'journey' highlights the luxury of being able to consider and reflect on not only our own views but those of the whole group.

Appropriates the analogy of a 'journey' from another participant.

Expands meaning of analogy, identifies its function - it 'highlights' the point about group reflection.

Foregrounds reflection on group views as well as individual

5 . This course is providing us with the opportunity, (and probably forcing us to make time), to do this and I agree it is proving a very positive experience.

Meta-learning about the MTcg course environment

Reflects on practical facilitation of learning (making time)

Makes qualitative judgement about the learning experience so far

6 . So Anne Marie - you are not the only one this happens to!

Reassures other participant about the validity of their experience of a learning 'journey'.

Establishes shared experience of learning on the MTcg


7 . Ollie raises the 'time' issue, which I would guess is one that most of us can relate to.

Endorses issue raised by another participant.

Establishes shared experience of 'time' - this is the second reference to lack of time.

8 . I would admit that even though I often find it a struggle to remain committed to 'extra' activities (e.g. Research Forum) I always feel the effort was worth it.

Offers personal experience of additional professional commitments.

Offers personal evaluation of the experience

9 . Any 'saw sharpening' experience tends to be revitalising rather than draining.

Applies a concept she introduced in her previous task, in which she explained 'saw sharpening'.

10 . (I can compare this experience to my weekly struggle to attend the gym - once finished I feel remarkably better!)

Uses personal analogy to emphasise and develop point already made


11 . I agree with Graham's comment that the reading of research empowers teachers.

Agrees personally with another participant, reiterates his point.

Highlights ideological position of teachers

12 . We become more knowledgeable and are in a position to make informed decisions about our practice.

Moves from personal agreement to identify self with teachers' corporate identity - pronoun shift from 'I' to 'we'.

Clarifies what she assumes to be meant by 'empowers' by identifying making 'informed decisions' related to 'practice'.

13 . However I occasionally feel overwhelmed by new initiatives finding it impossible to implement everything I believe to be good practice.

Qualifies her previous agreement about shared teacher desire for empowerment

Personalises the experience of 'initiatives'

Acknowledges difficulties on a personal level

Articulates professional conflict

14 . Following on from Graham's thoughts on his literacy co-ordinator, I wonder if it is a question of becoming more outspoken, in other words, less accepting of what we are told.

Develops the strand of thought from Graham.

'Wondering' - makes explicit the provisionality of the thinking

Augments the original idea

Proposes an alternative interpretation of 'empowerment'.

Reformulates the language to offer idea again for maximum comprehension.

15 . As professionals we should feel able to question change and not be content with having it 'inflicted' upon us (Anne Marie's term).

Broadens the idea of teachers 'becoming more outspoken' into a wider concept of controlling change

Proposes corporate agency

Returns to and draws on other participant's term to label negative experience of initiatives, and to confirm this as shared

16 . Does this confidence come from being research literate?

Asks question to relate the thinking to the discussion topic

Arrives at a tentative deduction


17 . Mikki's concluding comment about 'how useful research would be' made me consider the importance of contemplating and discussing the 'whys' of new initiatives rather than, as is usually the case, the 'hows'.

Responds to Mikki's comment

Reports its impact on personal thinking

Develops capability of more complex reflection on initiatives

18 . We are always told 'how' to implement policies but rarely 'why'.

States a shared perception of teachers' powerlessness

19 . Without this 'why' knowledge it is difficult to be flexible and develop our practice effectively.

Develops thinking about teachers' knowledge

Categorises a form of teacher knowledge and attaches professional importance to it

20 . Does this knowledge become more accessible to those who are research literate?

Asks semi-rhetorical question to conclude the development of idea

Refers back to the discussion topic, ensures validity and relevance of the discussion in terms of the module briefing

Defines an aspect of a desirable professional knowledge base.

21 . I think yes.

Concludes the thinking.

Asserts personal learning

Table 9. Online learning behaviours in email text

This text reconstructs for the reader the professional world of the author, and through her learning behaviours or practices, or engagements, she has articulated a corporate knowledge of what is known, and what further exists to be known. She argues for the centrality of 'why' knowledge, core to the development of 'practical theories' and makes 'informed knowledge' something which is complex, and not 'informed prescription'. The formulation of knowledge which informs 'practical theory' is more complex than her fellow participant Graham originally thought, and the author augments Graham's thinking to propose an alternative interpretation of 'empowerment' beyond the 'what works' agenda. Throughout the text, the author has drawn on linguistic features of text authorship to amplify and re-order the presentation of concepts, in accordance with their growing complexity. In awareness of her online audience, she can be identified as using a range of such features ('endorses', 'expands', 'foregrounds', 'clarifies', 'qualifies', 'acknowledges', 'augments', 'proposes', 'broadens', 'reformulates', 'categorises', 'asks', 'defines'). We resist the formulation of these into a taxonomy - they have emerged from the particular relations within this discussion. They undoubtedly share common features with other discussions, but they are part of the reification process for this community at this moment in their histories as learners.

Within an online community of teachers as a 'culture of use', there exist consensual meanings of words which denote professional practice. Words like 'change', 'initiatives', 'practice' and 'knowledge' have cultural meanings which are both specific to this community and denote systemic professional practices. They have both personal resonance and ideological significance. Through online discussion, the reification process is informed by agentive factors, and the possible 'reality' offered by the term 'change' for example, has been refocused. Teachers are collectively responsible for this refocusing, regardless of whether this is intentional. Not all of the group will subscribe to one articulation of the word, but it is in the contestation that agency seems possible. An analysis of teachers' electronic texts needs to examine projections of the world, versions of 'reality', which are offered by those texts, and how these work upon the readers' own consciousness of their place within the contests for power which accompany any dominant culture. Authorship relates to individual subjectivity, which is partly constituted by identity within a group with a shared experience of power and powerlessness: cohesion between the individual and the group is maintained through the negotiation of understanding of the types of professional identity available to them.

To what extent is online collaboration contributing to knowledge construction in individuals' online texts?

Teachers come to the discussion with diverse learning histories and diverse assumptions about knowledge and how and what they will learn online at masters level. It can be very challenging for some teachers to be asked to participate in open-ended discussions, which requires them to work in new communicative learning genres. Some revert to what they have previously known - the imparting of authorised knowledge, transposing the essay genre to how they communicate in the online environment. Such contributions often have a sense of closure, and adhere to the conventions of organised knowledge and how it is framed by academic discourse. Where this happens the text is not invitational, and the individual retains responsibility for their learning as an isolated activity, in which traditional ways of learning have been transposed to the online medium. Often, a considered rhetorical closure to the contribution deters others from responding, since the learning is 'complete'. The following contribution to the question: 'What is the value of educational research to the practitioner?' was the only one in the group of fifteen to receive no responses:

Subject:  what is the value of educational research to the practitioner?

On reading the briefing paper my initial reaction would be to agree
that teaching is not at all a research based profession. Although I
do tend to rely on my own experiences in evaluating my own teaching,
I am of the opinion that the results of educational research would be
useful in the classroom. When Hargreaves suggests that teachers do
not look to research due to tradition and prejudice I tend to agree.
I do indeed base my teaching on my own training and my own personal
evaluations and I feel that this is an extremely effective way of
progressing. However, I do believe that I could be far more effective
if I was aware of a piece of research which would improve my
professional performance, not only as regards the way I should teach,
but also the best ways pupils will learn what I am trying to teach
them. They way I proceed at the moment is entirely based on my own
personal evaluations and reflections and those snippets of advice
offered by other like-minded teachers. As a teacher of MFL I have
developed through my own professional practice ways to try and
improve pupil performance. For example, I have developed strategies to
identify and concentrate on particular pupils who find themselves on
the D/C GCSE grade borderline. I believe that a more individual and
focused approach toward individual students has been successful as
these students have normally achieved a grade C at GCSE. I have,
however, found more difficulty in pupils who find themselves on the
B/A borderline and believe that research into increasing the
examination grades of candidates entered for higher level at GCSE
would indeed be extremely relevant to my professional practice and I
would like to think that I could incorporate the findings of any such
research into my lesson preparation and planning.

Having already stated that I do in fact believe that educational
research could be of great use to to the practitioner, I also agree,
however, with the perceptions mentioned in the briefing paper
(Hillage and Tooley) that research belongs to the academic world. I
feel that I can only find value in research if the research is
conducted by someone with 'their feet on the ground' in the respect
that they do actaullyactually know what life is like in the classroom in the
21st century. If educational research is to be of value to the
classroom practitioner and to be taken seriously by the profession as
a whole, then surely it needs to be undertaken by someone with actual
(and recent)experience in the classroom. While research on teaching
and learning undertaken by academics who have no teaching experience
may be interesting and thought-provoking how can it help to make me a
more effective classroom practitioner?

Figure 2. Email posting from MTcg participant 14 to online tutor group forum

We can recognise in this text what Watkins (2001) would describe as a 'performance' orientation towards learning, and an (unconscious) resistance to new forms of learning which are embedded in the online environment. This participant has learnt about the dominance of the performative agenda, and presents knowledge as fixed, and learning as an act of individual cognition, to do with individual competence and measured against external validating frameworks. Watkins describes this as a 'negative' orientation towards learning, and in this forum it received no responses - not because individuals received it badly, but because it did not generate any further conceptualisation online. This participant has subscribed to a separation of 'research' from 'teaching' and is uncomfortable at this stage about collective ideas of professional practice. The form and language of the text reflects the belief system underpinning it. The online environment has been disorientating, and participants, despite being reassured of the informality required of the contributions, revert to safe forms of formulation and mediation of 'knowledge'. A 'learning' orientation is vital for teachers if they are to develop in the ways advocated by the new professionalism. This is exposing as well as empowering, and requires a different conceptualisation of the teacher knowledge base and how it evolves as a collective entity, in which teachers are activists, not just gaining more access to knowledge which has been authorised 'out there' and which ensures the perpetuation of current orthodoxies.

The posting below from a different participant on the same topic provoked five independent responses from the group - more that any other:

Subject:   An Emerging Question...or two.

An Emerging Question...or two.

After reading and re-reading both suggested articles, I can't help
but view the question rather simplistically. Surely the response
to "What is the value of this research to the practitioner?" has to
be " all rather depends...". Doesn't it?

Firstly, Roger Beard's article was rather laborious and 'meaty' to
read. I was forced to repeatedly refer to previous sub-titles or
labels given to classifications of writing styles. Certainly, much of
the research appeared to make sense. It also appeared to be valid as
it used jargon, was factual and quoted other 'research'. But, I had a
nagging feeling that this article wasn't meant for my eyes despite my
cross-curriculum involvement with the Literacy Strategy. My suspicion
was confirmed when I showed the text to an English teacher and
witnessed his joy of finding some confirmation of his department's
teaching philosophy. Obviously, he valued this research.

After this seemingly sensible, logical and factual piece, Pete
Strauss' investigation was somewhat of a shock. Facts had been all
but abandoned, and we were now dealing with 'feelings'. I was
immediately insulted by his use of the word 'schizophrenia' and was
left wondering what value his pathos was. Thus, the following
questions emerged:
Did I care how he felt? Why would I want to know? Who else did he
tell...and why?

If I were a primary school teacher, struggling to cope with my
emotions, I might have been interested and possibly heartened by such
prose. Did I judge this research rather harshly, as I simply do not
understand its value?

I then realised that I 'measure' research usefulness by several,
inextricably entwined criteria.

Is the research accurate and readable?
What is the type of language used and why? I kept getting 'hung up'
on the 'Cola Dragster' in Strauss' article and the technical language
of Beard's. It is terribly distracting (when time is so precious) to
be forced to re-read sentences. Perhaps it's to dissuade some from
reading it? Could the message be written more simply?

Who is the recipient?
The intended target audience is so crucial. Especially if you are not
sure if it includes you as I am not certain that I would be aware of
any valuable research 'out there' for me. Should I be reading this

What is the research's purpose?
What prompted such a study and what is the point of actually
investigating? Is it to endorse a theory, uncover new findings or is
the aim a little less focussed?

Is it biased information or what is the quality of information?
I'm not really sure how to address this. How do I, as a practitioner,
measure the validity, credibility and integrity of the research?

Answers please, on a postcard...

 Figure 3. Email posting from an MTcg participant 5 to online tutor group forum

Features of this text and the learning include:

A 'learning' orientation featured in this type of text. This teacher has understood the interactive genre - that her contribution is only one part of a collaborative text. It is being co-authored by the group as their collective negotiation of some challenging material which has forced a reconsideration of what is the proper relationship between teachers' professional practice and research. Within her text lies a readiness to contribute to a collective knowledge base, through participatory textual authorship which has a symbiotic relationship with notions of corporate professional identity.


Electronic discourse makes explicit the cultural production of texts. Teachers have a relationship with their text, but the conflation of the electronic author with their textual output has been described as 'unsupportable' (Bassett and O'Riordan, 2002; Borland, 1991). Teachers are projecting versions of a teacher self, which is formed in connection with ideas about what it is to be a 'professional'. This concept is in constant flux, in their experience and in their conceptualisation. Teachers are trying out different aspects of professionalism. What it means is in a constant state of shift, and further discourse will impact upon its changing significance. 'Ownership' of the text is a false premise, if textuality is viewed from the perspective of contemporary hermeneutics. 'Knowledge' located in textual evidence is therefore hard to attribute on an individual basis, despite the fact that individual authors articulate its varying manifestations. In terms of the negotiation of meaning, it is a collective practice, and authorial intention is irrelevant to what emerges as an indication of what teachers learn through online interaction. What is important is the potential for teacher learning to prepare participants to become 'change agents' (Sachs, 2003). For the realisation of the 'activist professional', tools by which teachers may construct knowledge, are essential. Participation, within Wenger's social theory of learning "shapes not only what we do, but also who we are and how we interpret what we do" (1998: 4).

By examining the collective processes of meaning making which constitute the electronic text, the signification which teachers bring to it, and how it is a means of organising understanding about the teacher's 'world', we argue that cmc acts upon professional identities and the adoption of an agentive role. This seems a central tenet of the formulation of a new professionalism, with learning at its centre.


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 02 December 2003