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Evidence-based professional learning conversations have been used effectively by teachers to develop new professional knowledge for many years. In this form of continuing professional development teachers collaborate in teams, situated in their own school setting, to address teaching and learning problems that they themselves select. They use evidence of learning, gathered from their own classrooms, to inform development of new collective group knowledge that may lead to changes in individual knowledge and beliefs.
A seemingly natural and attractive extension of traditional learning conversations is to take them online. This may provide greater access to professional development for geographically isolated rural teachers, reduce the cost of continuing professional development and increase the frequency of professional learning opportunities. Furthermore, it may be possible to maintain support links to external expertise from higher education institutions or systemic head office.
However, given the complexity of online collaborative learning environments it may be difficult to create an effective online environment in which access is improved, costs are lowered and the quality of professional development is enhanced. This article highlights design factors that may need to be addressed if online evidence-based professional learning conversations are to form a part of professional development. This article furthermore discusses the design of an upcoming study that aims to bring additional clarity and understanding of the processes needed to support online evidence-based professional learning conversations.
Research studies have reported that teachers develop knowledge best when they are able to work with peers in a professional learning process (for example, Guskey, 2000, 2002; National Staff Development Council, 2010; Parr, Timperley, Reddish, Jesson, & Adams, 2007; Timperley, 2009; Timperley, Wilson, Barrer, & Fung, 2007). Furthermore, a social constructivist approach to learning is a common characteristic of many successful professional development programmes (Adey, 2004; Desimone, 2009; Guskey, 2000; Loucks-Horsley & Matsumoto, 1999; Timperley et al., 2007). Evidence-based professional learning conversations, where teachers use discussion of performance indicator data to develop professional knowledge, are one such type of social learning that may be effectively employed for teacher professional development (Earl & Timperley, 2009) .
A typical evidence-based professional conversation
Evidence-based professional learning conversations are discussions held between members of a group of like-minded teachers that come together to form a professional learning community. Conversations are "grounded in evidence and focused on learning from that evidence" (Earl & Timperley, 2009, p. 2). In a typical conversation one community member supplies scanned images of student artifacts (e.g. student project work) for other group members to consider. Along with the artifacts he or she will provide the context in which the artifacts were produced, including teaching details and classroom activities students were involved in. Teachers then independently evaluate the student work and then put forward their views about what they believe the evidence says about any learning that took place. Not every evaluator will draw the same conclusions from the evidence and this dissonance may fuel a search for understanding and clarity that produces negotiated meaning that extend the boundaries of collective community knowledge. Once consensus has been reached the community may choose to design an experiment that aims to determine empirically the validity and reliability of their new knowledge. The cycle of learning then repeats itself (perhaps many times even within the same conversation).
Affordances and constraints of face-to-face professional learning conversations
Although there is educational research support for evidence-based professional learning conversations, (Lai & McNaughton, 2009) there is at the same time concern that there are significant operationalisation issues (Earl & Timperley, 2009). On the one hand Earl (2009) reports:
"â€¦ real benefits can accrue from "getting to know" data as part of an ongoing process of educational change using it locally to investigate real issues in particular schools, as a way of deciding what to do next." (p. 45)
And on the other hand, teachers need sufficient knowledge to interpret data and a well formed community within which to discuss it (Lai & McNaughton, 2009). Research to date indicates that three conditions are characteristic of successful professional learning conversations; firstly, that teachers use evidence that is relevant to the work that they themselves do, secondly that teachers have "an inquiry habit of mind", and thirdly, that there exists a "relationship of respect and challenge" between professional learning conversation participants (Timperley & Earl, 2009, p. 122).
The promise of technology
There are many terms used to describe technology-enhanced learning (TEL). A non-exhaustive list includes e-learning, m-learning, u-learning, computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL), knowledge building communities (KBC), web-based learning, and networked learning. There isn't always agreement about what each term means, and the pace of technological change is such that any agreement will likely be short lived. That being said, the term that most easily sits with the concept of evidence-based professional learning conversations at this time appears to be a variation of CSCL. In a CSCL environment ICT might help to enable professional learning conversations by promoting connections between (a) a learner and other learners, (b) a community and its resources (a knowledge base of some sort), and (c) the learning community and other communities.
There is research to suggest that that online social networking tools may be used to support CSCL (Mancio, Delfino, & Mazzonit, 2009; Schlager, Farooq, Fusco, Schank, & Dwyer, 2009). This would appear to offer the opportunity for a teacher to geographically and culturally extend his or her learning conversations beyond the immediate environ (Angeli, 2008; MacDonald, 2009). However, it is as yet unclear to what extent this promise is realisable in practice with current technologies and what qualities a social learning environment requires for it to be effective in this context (Carr, 2008; Chan, Hew, & Cheung, 2009; Ke & Hoadley, 2009). Given that online environments are very different to face-to-face learning environments, the body of knowledge that serves to explain evidence-based professional learning conversations in face-to-face settings may be insufficient to adequately explain online social learning. For example, face-to-face communication in professional learning conversations may in part be understood in terms of the notion of double stimulation (Vygotsky, 1978) in which a learning community work on a teaching and learning problem (stimuli-object) within the framework of a professional learning conversation (stimuli-means) (Lund & Rasmussan, 2008). However, given the additional complexity found in online professional learning conversations, there is reason to doubt that Vygotsky's notion of double stimulation properly explains how online collaborative learning works. For example, the second stimuli (according to Vygotsky) is a neutral tool, and yet when a technological tool is chosen as a second stimuli it is mostly the case that how the tool is to be used is predetermined and not neutral at all (Lund & Rasmussan, 2008). For example, an online chat facility is unlikely to be used for anything else except synchronous communication. Thus it is worthwhile to consider alternate theories (or a combination thereof) that might help to explain complex online social learning processes.
There are a number of different theoretical lenses through which to view online evidence based professional learning conversations. Theoretical perspectives that dominate discourse include social constructivism, actor network theory, constructivism, scientific enquiry, community of practice theory, computer supported collaborative learning theory, and activity theory (amongst others). However, there is growing support for the need for new interdisciplinary theories that explain how online professional learning communities work. However, it is beyond the scope of this article to explore each and instead three theoretical perspectives are considered: (a) community of practice theory (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998; Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002), computer supported collaborative learning theory (Hoppe, Ogata, & Soller, 2007; G Stahl, 2004; Strijbos, Kirschner, & Martens, 2004), and (c) cultural historical activation theory (CHAT) (Engestrom, 1999b; Wertsch, 1985). CHAT has been used extensively as an explanatory framework for studies of online learning communities and therefore may be appropriate for a study of communities engaged in online professional learning conversations (Fiedler, Mullen, & Finnegan, 2009).
A community of practice perspective
Community of practice theory may be interpreted to infer that a professional learning community will evolve through distinct phases from a starting point where information may be shared between teachers towards one in which the community is able to generate negotiated collective knowledge that comes from deep discussion of evidence. CoP theory further describes how a new member engages in a "gradual process of fashioning relations of identity as a full practitioner" during which time the gradually gains community acceptance (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 121). This learning and acceptance "apprenticeship" involves acquisition of tacit and explicit knowledge about how to contribute to the community (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Wenger et al. (2002) reported that it is important to adopt practical models for CoP development if communities of practice are to reach their full potential, it is not enough to leave development of a community to chance.
Lave & Wenger (1991) describe the apprenticeship process newcomers go through as development of legitimate peripheral practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991).
"â€¦communities typically undergo several changes in their focus, relationships and practice. They commonly shift from sharing ideas and tips to stewarding their practice - building refining, and expanding the domain and its relationship to other domains. They move from a lose network of personal relationships to a group with a common sense of identity, combining intimate knowledge of each others' approach with a sense of collective responsibility for the domain."
(Wenger et al., 2002, p. 111)
Several researchers have developed checklists that can be used to guide the development of a CoP. For example, Kopp & Mandl (2008) reported four common characteristics found in effective communities: (1) goal orientation e.g. "I indentified myself with the group goal", (2) task completion e.g. "the priority was task solving", (3) cohesion e.g. "we communicate freely", and (4) taking responsibility e.g. "I tried to complete assigned tasks". Additionally, Soller & Lesgold (2007) described four strategies for effective group collaboration: (1) construction, (2) criticism, (3) accumulation, and (4) motivation. From the construction perspective community participants make their own new knowledge by observing group action (that imparts new knowledge). From the criticism perspective, individuals help each other overcome the discomfort of cognitive dissonance by exploring the reasons behind alternate beliefs and attitudes. From the accumulation perspective, a broad knowledge base can be quickly developed and sustained when group members contribute concurrently. And fourthly, from the motivation perspective students engage in social comparison in which they seek to measure their own actions against the actions of others (Soller & Lesgold, 2007).
The checklists just described are useful for developing communities of practice and do in deed complement each other. However, these 8 learning environment characteristics may be insufficient to guarantee successful online collaboration in professional learning conversations. For example, Salmon (2005) suggests that any successful online collaborative learning community will likely have a skilled e-moderator to manage it.
A computer supported collaborative learning perspective
Research into computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL) is often explored from the theoretical perspective of social constructivism. This epistemological position favours the use of discourse by members of a team to construct individual meaning through the negotiated development of community artifacts, for example through the development of online forum discussions and wikis (Dougimas & Taylor, 2002). Need more here
Cultural historical activity theory
Cultural historical activity theory (CHAT) is a sociocultural framework for a complex and collaborative human act that has its historical roots "grounded in the Russian cultural historical psychology of Vygotsky, Leont'ev and Luria" (Engestrom, 1999a, p. 20). Professional learning conversations are in deed complex and collaborative human acts and it is therefore appropriate to consider the use of CHAT as an explanatory framework. Fielder et. al., (2009) further report that CHAT may be used to model an activity as an interaction among a subject, the object which is being acted upon, the tools a community uses for communication, the community within which interaction is embedded, the rules and protocols that guide community behaviours, and the ways that the community is able to manage people and resources to complete activities within a specified timeframe (Fiedler et al., 2009).
Figure 1: Cultural historical activity theory model (Engestrom, 1999, p. 31).
Figure 1 shows the cultural historical activity theory model to be made of one triangle inside another. There are 6 nodes in the model, called: (1) mediating artifacts, (2) subject, (3) object, (4) rules, (5) community and (6) division of labour. For a study of teachers engaged in professional learning conversations, the CHAT subject node may be defined to be a professional learning community. The CHAT mediating artifacts node may be defined to be the online tools that community members use for communication. In an online environment the tools that teachers use for collaboration may include online chat, online discussions and wikis. The CHAT object will be the content of evidence based professional learning conversations. The CHAT object will manifest itself in the form of transcripts of online communications that are captured in web server log files. The CHAT community node refers to the dynamic community of practice formed by a group of teachers. The CHAT rules node refers not only to community-defined social networking etiquette, but also the particular ways that community members describe knowledge, acquire knowledge and negotiate meaning. The projected CHAT outcome node consists of a collection of desirable outcomes: (1) new knowledge that extends the boundaries of community collective knowledge, (2) evidence-based solutions to teaching and learning problems, and (3) refined methodology and protocols for completing evidence-based professional learning conversations.
According to CHAT theory, professional friends engaged in an evidence-based professional learning conversation may be motivated to change by four layers of tensions within the environment they work (Fiedler et al., 2009). The first layer of tension lies within each of the six nodes. For example, a community may develop rules that are inconsistent with each other and this may motivate the community to change what is accepted as appropriate community behaviour. The second tension layer is one in which any two nodes are inconsistent. For example, too many rules may stifle the innovation and creativity teachers may use when defining a problem solution (CHAT-object). At the same time an absence of any protocols for teachers to follow may mean that a group lacks a defined focus for activities and this may result in the failure of the community to achieve its goals. A third tension layer is one in which traditional ways of doing things are in conflict with a new way to perform an activity. For example there may be tension within a community as they search for effective ways to communicate online when less tech-savvy members voice their preference for offline forms of communication. A fourth tension is that between different activity systems. For example, the goals of a CoP may be different to those of the administrators in a school system, as each group may have different views about how best to improve classroom practice in specific teaching and learning environments.
Community development may be largely informed by communities of practice theory (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998; Wenger et al., 2002). Community of practice theory stresses the importance of a sense of togetherness amongst members of a community. This is why the term professional friends was chosen, to reflect the importance attached to teachers being able to work openly and closely together in a trustful relationship. Each professional friends community will work as a single unit responsible for achieving its own goals independently of other professional friends communities. However, at the same time, intergroup communication will be encouraged so that all groups are able to share expertise in a knowledge sharing process informed by distributed cognition theory (Angeli, 2008). Furthermore professional friends community development is informed by theories from teacher professional development (Adey, 2004; Borko, 2004; Desimone, 2002; Guskey, 2000; Hew & Brush, 2006; Loucks-Horsley, Love, Stiles, Mundry, & Hewson, 2003; Marx, Freeman, Krajcik, & Blumenfled, 1998). Adey (2004) is particularly relevant to this study because his research was conducted in Indonesia, another South East Asian country with a majority Malay speaking population and cultural similarities.
As mentioned earlier, CSCL and CoP theory helps to explain how teacher communities can be built as a necessary prerequisite to engagement of professional friends in online conversations. Additionally, knowledge-building theory explains online collaboration in terms of a protocol-based process that is in many ways similar to the experimental method practiced by scientists (Gerry Stahl, 2008). Theory about how knowledge is developed (with technological tools) in a social setting led to the definition of the concept of collective cognitive responsibility, a term used to describe how it has become increasingly important for professionals working in the same field to share responsibility for collective knowledge needed to complete work tasks (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 2003; Scardamalia, 2002, 2004). In sum, there are many different theoretical lenses through which to view technology supported collaborative learning and this range of different perspectives appears to be more an indication of what we do not know about the topic rather than an indication of a convergence of views towards a common position.