Category Archives: Education

Economic thinking in education and its degrading/corrupting effect

This piece on economic thinking in education was originally published on the EduResearchMatters blog of the AARE under the title Economic Thinking is Corrupting Education in Australia where it is freely available.

Introduction

There is a growing trend in education of proposing and enacting policy ideas that are based primarily upon economic thinking. I believe there are hidden impacts of applying economic thinking (typified by price signals, market mechanisms and market-oriented ideas) to education. In this post I want to unpack some of that thinking and look at what is happening to education because of it.

 Corruption of the concept of education

The philosopher Michael Sandel proposes that there are two main arguments against policy based on economic thinking. These arguments are made on the basis of fairness and corruption, and both are significant for education researchers and policy makers. While it is typical in policy formation for much attention to be given to the concept of fairness – with steps taken to ensure that policy is as fair as possible – the concept of corruption is rarely given consideration. In the case of education policy, this relates to questions about how policy can change (or corrupt) society’s conception of the role and purpose of education, and about how the moral value of education can be crowded out by economic values.

If you want to read more about this notion of economic thinking in education you should read Hidden Privatisation in Public Education and (released in July this year) Commercialisation in Australian Public Schooling. This latter study provides data confirming that teachers in Australia are indeed concerned about the influence of commercialism in schools, characterised by “top-down, test-based accountability, the introduction of market competition between schools, the use of private sector managerial practices, and an increasingly standardised curriculum that focuses on literacy and numeracy” .

In this climate of economic thinking there is a great need to attend to the moral value of education – its role and its purpose in society.

Read the rest of the article on the AARE EduResearch Matters blog.

A commenter on this article recommended a related link to this eloquent talk by Professor Alan Reid about the value of public education:

The article follows on from previous discussions on educational economics by talking bout economic thinking in education.

Presentation: Online support for STEM teachers

On Friday 9th June 2017 I had the opportunity to present some of the ideas that have come out from TeachConnect. The presentation was called Online support for STEM teachers and in the audience we had representatives from government and the councils of deans of science and education.

The main thread of my argument is:

  1. There might be a lot of online support available for teachers (in terms of resource banks and open online communities) but it’s incredibly confusing.
  2. What we really need is for the creation of a professional learning network and a professional identity to be supported by the universities from day one of initial teacher education.
  3. To achieve that we need to be the ones that create something online that is more useful than what is currently available
  4. What teachers are actually asking for are four things:
    1. Being able to ask pragmatic questions
    2. Being able to find the right mentor/experienced teacher/professional/peer to have a deep conversation about professional practice
    3. Being able to continue these deep conversations over time for the necessary trust and understanding of context to develop
    4. Being able to share things with the community
  5. What we need to achieve this is, more than anything, leadership from the Deans of Education and Science. The technology and the engagement with students is achievable, but without leadership it will always be an uphill struggle.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Les Dawes, Kathy Nickels, Melissa Nugent and Belinda Eslick for early assistance with this presentation.

 

Understanding the role of markets in education

This post continues my attempts to understand how educational economics are shaping our understanding of education. This is a philosophical project in the sense that it’s about concepts – understanding the ones that we use and creating new ones where they are needed.

Previously I’ve written about the difference conceptions of education that arise when beginning from ideologies of either equality or liberty.

I’ve recently been reading What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel (a philosophy professor from Harvard – here’s a good review of it and below is clip showing the main arguments).

My takeaway for understanding the role of markets in education is that there are two main arguments against creating a market in any domain:

  1. Fairness: In a world in which different people have access to different resources, there is an inherent unfairness in creating markets for things that ought to be fundamental rights (as indeed education is under the UN charter of human rights). For example, one might be tempted to make the quality of a child’s education entirely dependent upon the willingness of parents to pay. Many reject such a proposal on the grounds of fairness (and hence the presence of government funded education)
  2. Corruption/degradation: Putting a price on something and making it a market fundamentally changes the way that society values something. For example, giving teachers “performance pay” for improving student results is not a neutral action – it fundamentally changes the relationship between teachers and their work.  In this case it might be seen as degrading the idea (held by many teachers) that they do their work to benefit society and not for achieving a financial reward. In other words, the extrinsic reward (of money) can interfere with existing intrinsic rewards.

These two standpoints help to give us some structure for critiquing economic rationale in education. In the first case creating a market creates unfairness; in the second case creating a market in some way changes the values of society in a way that may (morally) be considered detrimental. This second case is often forgotten due to the challenges that it presents.

Why create markets?

A market is fundamentally a way of being able to exchange something. Creating a market is making it possible to exchange something (usually with money) that wasn’t previously able to be exchanged.

In the current climate of neoliberalism, politicians often look for ways to bring “market logic” into education. The rationale for this are complex and I won’t get into the textbook economic theory more than I have to. Mostly it is about:

  1. Efficiency: Markets are really good at ensuring that things get to the people that most value them at the price that best fits the supplier – however, there are plenty of assumptions made about the market for this statement to remain true.
  2. Competition: Making a market introduces competition and (so goes the theory) then the best suppliers win – where success is determined by giving the consumer what they want at the right price. This of course is far more complex in education than this simple idea accounts for. This is why ideas like “making all schools private to improve competition” make little sense when the nuance is considered.
  3. Regulation: Once there is a price on something then it can be controlled and influenced by (government) policy. For example, once teachers have performance pay linked to standardised tests then the logic goes that it’s a matter of finding the right price to “incentivise” them to work harder. (To be clear, in practice there are many issues with all of this – my point here is just to characterise the arguments and policies that are often made).

Markets in education

Where does all of this get us to? The aim is to provide some clear thinking to get us out of the bind that we in education seem to frequently find ourselves in – having to deal with increasing attempts to create markets and set prices within education.

Some examples from around the world:

  • The cost of private schools
  •  Paying students [in low income areas] to read books or take advanced courses
  • Paying students for their performance (e.g., in standardised tests)
  • Paying teachers for their performance (e.g. in standardised tests)
  • Funding schools according to their performance (e.g., in standardised tests or in truancy rates)
  • Funding universities according to the salaries achieved by their graduates
  • Etc

In every case the advocates of the market solution point us to the ways that efficiency will increase and the way that all parties involved will win from increased funding and choice.

The point of this post is to encourage everyone to consider more deeply the two initial criteria:

  1. Is this change, with all of its economic rationale, fair for all involved?
  2. What are the impacts of this change on the values that society holds about education, and the values of the people involved in education? Are we prepared to accept such degradation (where it exists)?

The former question is frequently addressed in media reports (e.g. this was discussed widely regards the recent HECS/HELP repayment thresholds in Australia). My concern is that the second question is rarely considered, let alone actually treated by politicians as holding weight.

Yet an education system always embodies the moral values of a society. When will we start actually having a conversation around these moral values rather than utilitarian outcomes?

The Educational Economics of School Choice

Ever since Friedman’s work on the educational economics of school choice (Friedman, 1962) the debate has gone round in circles about the merits of a comprehensive public system compared to what is known as a voucher system. It is likely that in some country, somewhere in the world, right now a government is attempting to implement “more competition in the schooling sector” through a voucher system. Is this a good thing?

My fundamental argument in this post is that schooling policy can either work to create a low-friction market or to reduce inequality but not both. I’ll return to this post over time to make improvements as I get a handle on the arguments. My conclusion thus far is that I am strongly opposed to voucher systems based on their tendency to increase inequality.

Some arguments in brief. Schools change slowly. There is a great deal of friction in an educational marketplace (i.e. it is hard to change schools). Critically, human geography (and the social inequality that determines it) makes the idea of choosing schools challenging. There is a strong motivation in a deregulated, competitive market for schools to spend increased amounts of money on advertising (when compared to teaching), to the detriment of all. There are many benefits of schools working in collaboration rather than competition that are lost.

I’m sure there are many more, strong arguments. For now, this is a summary from Dolton (2003) in The Economic Journal:

Opponents of the school choice movement (see Smith and Meier (1995) for example) suggest that it will lead to the destruction of public schools and the increased segregation of schools by race, class and ability and induce greater in- equality. Opponents to the market model suggest that empirical evidence relating to the successes of existing choice-based systems are questionable and that the theories and assumptions that provide intellectual support for choice are abstract and have never been systematically tested. ‘The new market “model” is often not spelt out in detail nor are the assumptions concerning individual and institutional behaviour that would be required to provide the anticipated efficiency gains’, Witte (2000, p. 11). One prominent critique of the public choice also suggests that it ‘will erode the public forums in which decisions with societal consequences can democratically be resolved’,

The central questions in the school choice debate remain: what exactly is meant by school choice; who chooses to select private schools and how do they choose; what do families really know about schools; what are the reasons and rationale for choices; in reality how much choice is there for most families; what happens to the children left behind in the public schools in districts which introduce voucher schemes; how much diversity is there after a voucher scheme is introduced; are parents more satisfied by the market alternative; are parents making rational choices and are market forces leading to improvements in standards?

Empirical evidence which answers these questions can be very negative (see Gorard (1997) for example) suggesting that: schools are basically very similar, families consider very few schools in reality, selection by mortgage/house prices operates powerfully, formal sources of information like league tables are of little consequence and choices are often made long in advance by default. Alternative evidence suggests that the consequences of introducing school choice can lead to positive educational improvements in all schools.

The Dolton article provides an excellent review of the key questions around the issue of implementing voucher schemes. A critical one being the idea that voucher systems presuppose all schools being private. When there is a parallel private and public system then it becomes an issue of “exit and voice” (see Hirschman (1970)):

This problem is that there will not be an effective mechanism for change if the most influential parents choose to ‘exit’ from the state schools to the private schools rather than ‘voice’ their views in an attempt to change the state schools.

The argument that Dolton is making here is that for a competitive market to actually work, there needs to be an accountability – where the needs of consumers (parents) are taken into account by the market (schools). This does not happen in practice.

The key gap in the literature is that models of school choice theory “do not explicitly address the issue of how parents exiting from the public school sector to the private sector will affect outcomes in public schools” (F179)

Paywall link: http://www.jstor.org.ezp01.library.qut.edu.au/stable/3590143

References

Dolton, P. (2003), A review of ‘The Economics of School Choice’, The Economic Journal, Vol. 113, No. 485, Features (Feb., 2003), pp. F167-F179

Friedman, M. (1962), The Role of Government in Education. In Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

 

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the community on the economics StackExchange site for help with researching this post, especially the user luchonacho. You can read the full thread here: http://economics.stackexchange.com/questions/16128/is-there-any-work-on-equality-in-a-market-versus-friction/16158#16158

Update and edit:

This theme was recently addressed by Amanda Keddie in an excellent post on the EduResearch Matters blog on Why Australia should not follow Nick Gibb’s advice on how to run our schools.

My comment on her post is reproduced here as it is germane to this discussion:

Thanks Amanda for a well-written post arguing for nuance in this debate around educational reform.

I am writing this comment to take up the thread and argue for a high level of debate around this issue. To my mind there are three levels at which debate tends to occur when it comes to ideas of school privatisation:

1. Ideology: People who talk passionately about educational systems tend to hold one of two ideals. If liberty is your ideal then anything to do with “competition”, “autonomy”, and “choice” is a good thing. If equality is your ideal then anything to do with “social justice”, “opportunity”, and “social mobility” is a good thing. At this level, the debate can go nowhere and cannot attempt to find common ground. (For the record: I favour equality but I recognise that this is simply not as important as liberty for many people in society).

An example of commentary at the level of ideology: “I believe that choice is also a major piece in the puzzle of providing the best education to young Australians” – Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham

2. Empirical: Sometimes the debate rises to the point that people start throwing around the conclusions of one or other study from the literature. At its worst there is cherrypicking of whichever study best supports ideology. Often there is simply a lack of recognition that education is highly contextual. Something that works in one country with its own culture and educational history may have entirely different outcomes in another country. At its best there is nuanced weighing up of empirical evidence from both sides and attempts to find trends and contradictions.

3. Theoretical: We need debate that attempts to understand why studies produce the outcomes that they do. Debate that leaves ideology at the door and perhaps even moves beyond prior examples to imagining what could be possible. This would involve firstly having a discussion around the objectives for what we want the outcomes for a school system to be. For example: Do we want better international PISA scores (often assumed to be a goal) or do we care more about a reduced disparity between advantaged and disadvantaged (one of many other possible aims)? Is it possible to achieve both without significantly more funding? What do we choose if it must be one or the other?

From a considered understanding of desired outcomes, we can then learn from many the nuanced examples in the literature. The literature around these issues is far more broad than many recognise, spanning many decades and multiple paradigms: applied economics, education, sociology, history, etc. We need to learn from all of it if we want to get arrive at good policy that fits with our own context in Australia.

For example, this is a quote from Dolton (2003, The Economic Journal 113(485)) trying to find the nuance in the debate around “school choice”:

“The central questions in the school choice debate remain: what exactly is meant by school choice; who chooses to select private schools and how do they choose; what do families really know about schools; what are the reasons and rationale for choices; in reality how much choice is there for most families; what happens to the children left behind in the public schools in districts which introduce voucher schemes; how much diversity is there after a voucher scheme is introduced; are parents more satisfied by the market alternative; are parents making rational choices and are market forces leading to improvements in standards?”

Online learning networks of preservice and early career teachers

I’ve realised that I’m yet to put up here on this site a plug for my own book (co-authored with Marc Clarà, Ben Kehrwald and Patrick A. Danaher).

It’s got the catchy title of Online Learning Networks of Preservice and  Early Career Teachers. What does that actually mean?

The book brings together a few years of research into understanding what actually works for teachers within online communities.

You can find the book here: http://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9781137503015

The book is structured in a way that aims to make a contribution to theory. Each of the chapters addresses the questions of:

  1. What do we mean when we talk about the “greater community of teachers”?
  2. What kind of support is relevant to this greater community of teachers?
  3. What kind of knowledge do beginning teachers need?
  4. How is engagement and presence in an online space for teachers created?
  5. What kind of methodology is appropriate for inquiring into online networks of teachers?
  6. What does the design and implementation of an online community of teachers look like? (Describing the TeachConnect platform and its development)
  7. How should online communities  of teachers be evaluated?
  8. What do we know now that we didn’t previously?

Chapter 7 brings the whole book together and there is a figure that I would like to briefly draw attention to – a framework for evaluating online communities:

The y-axis in this diagram is drawn from the framework outlined by Carvalho & Goodyear (2014) in The Architecture of Productive Learning Networks.

This is an ontology for talking about the different design elements in an online network (e.g., a community of teachers). In brief: set design is design for look and feel (the stage on which action occurs; social design is design for the relationships between participants (how you set things up for actors to relate to one another); and epistemic design is design for the relationships with knowledge objects (how actors are able to relate to things).

On the x-axis are theoretical constructs that we believe are critical to the success of any online network of teachers:

  1. The richness, connectedness and diversity of the community of teachers that are involved,
  2. The type of knowledge development that you are supporting (situational knowledge being more important to beginning teachers, we argue),
  3. The presence experienced by the participants in the community.

Each square in this matrix is interrogated within Chapter 7. For example: How can set, social and epistemic design all come together to facilitate presence in the community? How can the design of the learning network facilitate teachers supporting one another to develop situational knowledge about the profession.

The book can be found here.

(Update: We’ve just found out that the book won a USQ Publication Excellence Award for 2016 in the authored books category.)

References

Carvalho, Lucila, and Peter Goodyear. The architecture of productive learning networks. Routledge, 2014.

Kelly, Nick, et al. Online Learning Networks for Pre-Service and Early Career Teachers. Springer, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-50302-2

 

Teacher Peer Support in Social Networks

Interested in the ways that teachers support one another online in teacher social networks? A recently published paper by myself and Amy Antonio looks at open Facebook groups of teachers to examine the ways in which they support one another.

Some elements of this paper are discussed in another post about the limits and potential of online communities for teachers.

The paper has been published in the journal Teaching and Teacher Education and is titled teacher peer support in social networks (free link).

The crux of the paper is that six roles can be identified that experienced teachers take on to support other teachers online:

  1. Advocates the practical. Teachers help one another with day-to-day pragmatic aspects of the profession, such as finding resources for a lesson or navigating the bureaucracy.
  2. Conveners of relations. Teachers instigate relationships with other teachers, and can make introductions to other useful contacts.
  3. Agents of socialisation. Teaching as a profession has cultural norms. Experienced teachers induct other teachers into these norms, such as in the way that they share stories and the ‘memes’ that they promulgate.
  4. Modelers of practice. Teachers give a rich description of what they are doing in the classroom, providing a model of teaching practice.
  5. Supporters of reflection. Collaborative reflection is often considered the most important kind of knowledge for beginning teachers, to make sense of confusing situations and learn from their experiences.
  6. Providers of feedback. Teachers provide a constructive source of feedback, such as pedagogical and curriculum advice or in reconstructing an event that has occurred.

In a review of existing online communities, it appears that certain conditions are needed for teachers to be willing to engage in the most important of these roles: modelling practice, supporting reflection and providing feedback. Such a connection appears to have preconditions of a trusted environment with stable relationships and a sense of privacy

The logic for reaching these six categories comes from two places. The first is from Clarke et al. who identify eleven roles for co-operating teachers of which only six apply to the online context. Secondly, there is much in the literature on forms of social support onto which these six roles can be mapped:

  • Emotional support in the form of esteem, affect, trust, concern and listening
  • Appraisal support in the form of affirmation, feedback and social comparison
  • Informational support in the form of advice, suggestion, directives and information
  • Instrumental support in the form of aid in kind, money, labour and time.

The main contribution of the paper is to define these six roles for online teachers. The paper then uses these roles to analyse teachers interacting in social network groups (on Facebook).

The results show that teachers support each other in open groups of teacher social networks in very pragmatic ways – there is very little in the way of reflection upon practice or modelling of teaching occurring in these groups.

The citation for the paper is:

Kelly, N., & Antonio, A. (2016). Teacher peer support in social network sites. Teaching and Teacher Education, 56, 138-149. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2016.02.007

 

Online communities for teachers

Here’s a link to a recent article I wrote for the AARE blog:

Online communities for teachers: what research says about their limits and potential

The piece begins:

The ability to be connected “anywhere, anytime” is recent enough that most professions are still figuring out how make best use of this connectivity, and teaching is no exception. Online communities offer great potential for teachers, in helping them to create and sustain networks of mutual support. However I believe current online networks are still a long way from reaching their potential to help the profession.

Teacher educators emphasise the importance of having a network of colleagues to draw upon in the challenging early years of the profession, yet many beginning teachers find themselves without adequate access to such support. When asked to name their most useful form of support, many simply say that they have none. Preliminary results from further research show teachers in rural locations, on short-term contracts, and supply teachers, are more likely than other teachers to lack support.

A strong online community of teachers is no panacea for the problem of early career teacher support. But improvements in online communities have the potential to make a significant difference, particularly for those teachers currently missing out on support.

[keep reading]

Developing online communities for teachers

This post is an experiment with publishing a paper in reduced HTML form – I’m curious to see if it more people find it this way.

To cite this article:

Kelly N., Clara M. and Kickbusch S. (2015) How to develop an online community for pre-service and early career teachers, ASCILITE 2015, Perth

Why an online community for teachers?

There are many challenges to beginning a career as a teacher (Veenman, 1984). Support during this period of transition into service is critical and is particularly useful in the form of mentoring and induction programs (DeAngelis, Wall, & Che, 2013; Ingersoll & Strong, 2011). Online communities are a form of support that have the potential to stimulate collegiality between pre-service and early career teachers (PS&ECTs) (Herrington, Herrington, Kervin, & Ferry, 2006; Kelly, 2013). This paper aims to present design principles from ongoing[1] design-based research aimed at creating an online community of PS&ECTs across multiple institutions in the state of Queensland (Kelly, Reushle, Chakrabarty, & Kinnane, 2014). It is structured by presenting theoretical background and the argument for why there is a need to design and develop a new type of community for PS&ECTs; and then articulating strategies for how to develop such a community.

 

There have been a number of recent attempts to augment the support for pre-service and early career teacher with the formation of online communities (e.g. Herrington et al., 2006; Lee & Brett, 2013; Lin, Lin, & Huang, 2008; Maher, Sanber, Cameron, Keys, & Vallance, 2013). Such attempts typically adopt one of three complementary paradigms, each of which make a commitment to valuing the connectedness between learners: (online) communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, White, & Smith, 2009), connected learning (Ito et al., 2013) and networked learning (Goodyear, Banks, Hodgson, & McConnell, 2004). In this work we will refer to online communities with an understanding that they can be viewed through any or all of these lenses which place the emphasis respectively (and arguably, given the diversity of views that each term has come to represent) upon:

  • (communities of practice) The cultural norms and collaborative relationships that emerge within a group of practitioners with common purpose, where “communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (Wenger, 2011).
  • (connected learning) The open nature of learning in a connected world allows for learning to be authentic and linked with society beyond classroom walls to promote interest and hence learning, where connected learning is “embedded within meaningful practices and supportive relationships” and is committed to recognising “diverse pathways and forms of knowledge and expertise” (Ito et al., 2013)
  • (networked learning) Learning is understood to take place through connections of learner-learner and learner-resource and this connectedness can be greatly enhanced through technology, where networked learning is “learning in which ICT is used to promote connections between one learner and other learners; between learners and tutors; between a learning community and its learning resources” (Goodyear et al., 2004)

 

In short, research in these paradigms has shown that online communities of members with a shared practice can be extremely useful. They bring together in one place the people that a practitioner is likely to draw upon for questions about practice. They support the creation of such connections. Through interaction, they facilitate the development of rich stores of (third person, represented) knowledge that is accessible to all members. Whilst online communities can be a part of formal education or professional development, they are often informal.

 

Globally, there has been a trend towards the adoption of online communities in which the term social network has become the successor to ‘Web 2.0’ (boyd & Ellison, 2007). Many professions and groups of practitioners now have online communities associated with them; and some have even transformed the nature of the practice associated with them (e.g. Mamykina, Manoim, Mittal, Hripcsak, & Hartmann, 2011). Large scale communities (with hundreds, thousands or even millions of members) offer the potential for facilitating valuable connections within the profession. This may be between members (e.g. a beginning teacher in a remote school might be connected with another beginning teacher in a similar situation) or between members and resources – the larger the network, the more likely that the individuals or resources needed can be found. There is, however, a trade-off with social presence and engagement being challenging to achieve in larger communities (Clará, Kelly, Mauri, & Danaher, In press).

 

In this context, our argument is that large scale online communities have much potential to support PS&ECTs that is yet to be fulfilled. Firstly, what are the needs that PS&ECTs have from an online community? Six categories for the ways in which teachers can support one another online can be drawn following the work of Clarke, Triggs, and Nielsen (2014): (i) supporting reflection; (ii) modeling practice; (iii) convening relationships; (iv) advocating practical solutions; (v) promoting socialisation within the profession; and (vi) giving feedback. Many existing platforms that are used by PS&ECTs successfully enable teachers to convene relations, promote socialisation and advocate the practical. However, there is a dearth of large scale sites (i.e. more than 200 users) that promote reflection, feedback and modelling of practice. This is perhaps due to teachers feeling a need for privacy (a closed online space), trust (in other members of the community) and some kind of stability (in membership of that community) that is not met by the current generation of large scale online communities of PS&ECTs (Clará et al., In press). Early results from current work by the authors analysing the interactions of teachers in Facebook supports this hypothesis.

 

There are many existing large scale online communities for teachers within Australia, however none fills all of these needs of PS&ECTs. Whilst an empirical survey of these communities is required to fully substantiate this claim, some types of online community available in Australia can be identified, Table 1, and limitations based upon anecdotal evidence described. “Scootle Community” is a national, government funded site that appears to have low levels of engagement and social presence amongst users, with low level activity on the site given the pool of potential users, possibly due to a lack of stability (constantly changing users), privacy (all data is owned by the government and is visible to all members) and, hence, trust. The Queensland state government supported site “The Learning Place” comes closest of the examples given to fulfilling the potential of online communities to meet PS&ECT needs. It has high levels of activity, with many widely-used resources that are the focus of discussion and for facilitating connections between users. However, the state government (who also employ many of the teachers using the site) owns the data and is heavily visible through logos and announcements on the site. This, along with broad visibility in most sections of the site, might be limiting trust for users of the site to share details of practice. There is little evidence of teachers developing the close connections needed for reflecting on practice, providing feedback or modelling practice (however, this may be occurring in private channels of communication). Many groups of PS&ECTs have arisen on the commercial platform “Facebook” (and similarly on “EdModo”). Some groups are visible and massive, whilst many are small and private. There is much variation between groups, however they have in common that: (i) the knowledge developed by the community is not searchable or reusable and, hence, is lost; and (ii) each new group springing up begins anew, losing the benefits of having a large established community. Many teacher education institutions also have their own intra-institutional online communities that can often support highly engaged, collegial support – however they are limited in size, cannot facilitate cross-institutional networks and are susceptible to fluctuating support from their host institutions (e.g. funding changes or key staff leaving).

 

Table 1: Types of online communities used by PS&ECTs in Australia with examples

Type of community Example of community Description of example
Nationwide, government funded Scootle Community

http://community.scootle.edu.au

 

Federal Government supported site (run by Education Services Australia) to facilitate a social network (Facebook style) around Scootle resources in particular and the teaching profession in general. Available to most educators in the country.
Statewide, government funded The Learning Place

http://education.qld.gov.au/
learningplace/

State Government supported site (run by Education Queensland) with a large and widely used collection of resources for classrooms and professional development, with social network support (chat, blogs, learning pathways)
Commercial Facebook groups

https://facebook.com

Widely-used commercial site that supports many diverse groups of teachers. Some are openly available and some are private; ranging from the very small to the very large.
Institutional Education Commons (USQ)

https://open.usq.edu.au/course/
info.php?id=62

A Moodle community of PS&ECTs supported by motivated faculty members who provide a library of articles, videos and mentoring through the site (Henderson, Noble, & Cross, 2013).

 

Design principles for “TeachConnect”

 

With this understanding of the gap that remains, a group of academics from universities and teacher education providers across Queensland are working together to develop a community, TeachConnect, which will be launched in September 2015 and supported by the Queensland College of Teachers and an Office of Learning and Teaching grant. TeachConnect aims to augment current support for PS&ECTs by filling in the gaps identified above. A number of design principles for developing the site can be listed as:

  • It is independent and data (e.g. conversations) are private, owned by the members of the community – this is reflected in the lack of institutional presence (e.g. logos) on the site and the focus upon the profession (e.g. inspiring quotes about education).
  • It is single purpose (i.e. doesn’t have to meet government or institutional priorities) and its appearance and design make it clear that its goal is to facilitate PS&ECTs supporting one another.
  • It is free and universal in that all teachers have access to the site, regardless of school system or status of employment.
  • It is also restricted to individuals who have at some point been a pre-service teacher, to maintain the focus upon developing professional practice.
  • Knowledge that can be separated from its context and proponent is co-created and re-usable (e.g. where to find resources, how to get accredited, how to navigate schools) and develops over time.
  • There is a two-layer design that has clearly defined separation between what is publicly visible and a trusted, private space which is the focus of the site, where close relationships can develop, allowing for reflection upon practice between peers and facilitated by experienced teachers (a type of mentorship).
  • It is designed to be simple, quick and easy to use so that there is a minimal threshold to overcome to commence using the site (one-step sign on facilitated by close co-ordination with universities).
  • It is possible because it is widely supported by many universities within Queensland. It relies upon the shared purpose that all schools of education have in wanting the best possible outcomes for PS&ECTs, is inclusive in design and is freely accessible by all teacher education institutions.

 

The process of developing TeachConnect: Lessons learned

 

The process of developing TeachConnect has followed the principles of design-based research through multiple iterations of design involving the input of participants (Barab & Squire, 2004; Collins, Joseph, & Bielaczyc, 2004). The design-based paradigm is a good fit for this work, as educational research is heavily context dependent, and at the same time the literature on developing online communities suggests that the exercise is far from being an exact science. Some heuristics for developing any kind of online community were distilled by Shirky (2010) as: (i) start small with a core community, as if you rely on being big it will probably never happen; (ii) understand and provide for what motivates your members (both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation); (iii) use the default options in the platform wisely to promote social connectivity; (iv) cater for all types of engagement (e.g. lurkers as well as active participants); (v) have as low a threshold as possible to get started on the site; (vi) tweak as you grow and be responsive to what the community is asking for.

 

The vision for TeachConnect was informed in part by the literature, but also through focus groups (with PS&ECTs, teacher educators, experienced teachers and stakeholder organisations), a survey (Kelly et al., 2014; N=183) and a pilot study. Whilst details of this pilot and the development of TeachConnect are forthcoming, the essence of the lessons learnt can be distilled here. A pilot of a platform for PS&ECTs was conducted in 2014 (www.TeachQA.com) and involved over 200 pre-service teachers across two universities, and over 20 experienced teachers to develop a community. An evaluation of the problems experienced in this site revealed that it was: (i) Too difficult to sign up to; (ii) too restrictive in interactions (with not enough opportunity for dialogue; (iii) too public and did not allow for trust to develop (no private spaces for interaction); and (iv) not enough community engagement to remind PSTs that the site existed.

 

In response, the TeachConnect platform is being integrated with a schedule of community engagement. Researchers will travel and talk to the lecturers, pre-service teachers and teachers who will be using the platform to build the community. The platform will be strongly customised to be specific to teachers’ needs, rather than using something “off-the-shelf”. We plan to work with an initial group of dedicated users to build a group culture, and help them as they do this. Ultimately, the use of the platform will only spread if it is fundamentally useful – there are no short cuts for building an online community.

 

References

 

Barab, S., & Squire, K. (2004). Design-based research: Putting a stake in the ground. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(1), 1-14.

boyd, d. m., & Ellison, N. B. (2007). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of ComputerMediated Communication, 13(1), 210-230.

Clará, M., Kelly, N., Mauri, T., & Danaher, P. (In press). Challenges of teachers’ practice-oriented virtual communities for enabling reflection. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education.

Clarke, A., Triggs, V., & Nielsen, W. (2014). Cooperating Teacher Participation in Teacher Education A Review of the Literature. Review of Educational Research, 84(2), 163-202.

Collins, A., Joseph, D., & Bielaczyc, K. (2004). Design research: Theoretical and methodological issues. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 13(1), 15-42.

DeAngelis, K. J., Wall, A. F., & Che, J. (2013). The Impact of Preservice Preparation and Early Career Support on Novice Teachers’ Career Intentions and Decisions. Journal of Teacher Education.

Goodyear, P., Banks, S., Hodgson, V., & McConnell, D. (2004). Research on networked learning: An overview Advances in research on networked learning (pp. 1-9): Springer.

Henderson, R., Noble, K., & Cross, K. (2013). Additional professional induction strategy (APIS): Education Commons, a strategy to support transition to the world of work.

Herrington, A., Herrington, J., Kervin, L., & Ferry, B. (2006). The design of an online community of practice for beginning teachers. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 6(1), 120-132.

Ingersoll, R. M., & Strong, M. (2011). The Impact of Induction and Mentoring Programs for Beginning Teachers A Critical Review of the Research. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 201-233.

Ito, M., Gutierrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., . . . Watkins, S. C. (2013). Connected learning: An agenda for research and design: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.

Kelly, N. (2013). An opportunity to support beginning teachers in the transition from higher education into practice. Paper presented at the ASCILITE 2013, Macquarie University, Australia.

Kelly, N., Reushle, S., Chakrabarty, S., & Kinnane, A. (2014). Beginning Teacher Support in Australia: Towards an Online Community to Augment Current Support. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(4), 4.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation: Cambridge university press.

Lee, K., & Brett, C. (2013). What are student inservice teachers talking about in their online Communities of Practice? Investigating student inservice teachers’ experiences in a double-layered CoP. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 21(1), 89-118.

Lin, F.-r., Lin, S.-c., & Huang, T.-p. (2008). Knowledge sharing and creation in a teachers’ professional virtual community. Computers & Education, 50(3), 742-756. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2006.07.009

Maher, D., Sanber, S., Cameron, L., Keys, P., & Vallance, R. (2013). An online professional network to support teachers’ information and communication technology development. Paper presented at the ASCILITE 2013, Macquarie University.

Mamykina, L., Manoim, B., Mittal, M., Hripcsak, G., & Hartmann, B. (2011). Design lessons from the fastest q&a site in the west. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems.

Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age: ePenguin.

Veenman, S. (1984). Perceived problems of beginning teachers. Review of Educational Research, 54(2), 143-178.

Wenger, E. (2011). Communities of practice: A brief introduction.

Wenger, E., White, N., & Smith, J. D. (2009). Digital habitats: Stewarding technology for communities: CPsquare.

[1] For details of the ongoing project see http://www.stepup.edu.au

What we know about developing online communities of teachers

This post originally published to the ADFI blog:

Online communities are perhaps for the current decade (for which we still have no adequate name) what “Web 2.0″ was for the noughties. Web 2.0 spawned terms such as “prosumer” and “produser” amidst other various contorted contractions aimed at highlighting what was genuinely revolutionary – that users were no longer passive receivers of content but could rather contribute actively to sites that they visited.

Fast forwarding to the current decade (apparently the term ‘one-ders’ was the winner in an Australian competition to name it, but I can’t quite bring myself to use it) the equivalent advance is in the area of online communities. These days every site has a ‘social’ aspect and many have inherited values from Lave and Wenger’s Communities of Practice.

We can speculate that this has happened for a variety of reasons: the enormous uptake of smartphones for internet access anywhere (over 65% of people have them in Australia), combined with the increasing ubiquity of wireless broadband and the examples provided by the huge success of Facebook and its successors are potential candidates.

The point of this post is to write about online communities for teachers. Many other professions and groups have strong, functioning online communities that serve their needs but it is my belief that online communities of teachers still have a great deal of unrealised potential. In this short blog post I try to outline what is missing; what teacher needs are not being met by what is currently available.

Strong online communities

What does a strong, functioning online community look like? A good (if unscientific) heuristic is a well-known, single location that ‘most people’ within the community know about. For example, most IT professionals know that StackOverflow is ‘the place to go’ for any information or troubleshooting needed when programming. Or a more esoteric example: ‘most rock climbers’ know that The Crag is ‘the place to go’ for information about climbing around Australia.

These sites have gained their dominance through a combination of:

  1. Strongly customising the platform to meet user needs;
  2. Working passionately with an initial group of dedicated users to build a group culture;
  3. Spreading because they are fundamentally useful in a way that can be accessed minimal commitment (e.g. signup) or learning required.

None of these insights are particularly new – they can be read as a response to Clay Shirky’s established wisdom for developing online communities (Shirky, 2011). The following summary is drawn from a précis of the book here:

  • Start small – projects that depend on growth for success generally won’t
    grow;
  • Understand what will motivate users – we must design and build our systems
    and tools once we know WHY people will use it (e.g. intrinsic vs. extrinsic
    motivations);
  • Understand what opportunity you are providing –  we must grasp what is
    being provided and how it will be used;
  • Default to social – growth comes from sharing, and it’s the defaults that
    drive reinforcing behaviours (e.g. open vs. closed);
  • Vary participation – groups bring diversity, so we must enable all levels
    and types of user engagement – people need a low threshold to get started;
  • Enable self-governance – central governance doesn’t scale so help the
    community form and regulate its own rules and behaviours (but provide
    mediation where needed);
  • Tweak as you grow – listen to the community, be responsive and open to
    feedback.

Developing online communities for teachers

So, what is the significance of this for developing communities of teachers?

Firstly, what does a community of teachers need? A recent article by Clara, Kelly, Mauri and Danaher (In press) teases out the fundamental need for teachers, which is to be able to reflect upon practice, and this requires trusted relationships that can only be built over time; as well as privacy which is often hard to come by on large online communities.

An ongoing study by Kelly and Antonio looks at existing online communities of teachers in Facebook and early results are showing that most of the sharing going on is limited to developing relationships and advocating practical strategies – very little reflection, modelling of practice, or giving of feedback is occurring.

Given these needs for an online community of teachers, what is the current landscape of communities for teachers in Australia? It can be seen from this brief overview of current online communities that there is still a need to be filled:

  • Scootle community (attached to the Scootle website) has been well-funded and has the advantage of the well-known Scootle brand, but has very little genuine teacher activity on the site
  • Other well-funded community dedicated community teacher sites (such as PLANE for teacher learning pathways) have ceased to exist within years of launching due to low activity
  • Some states have highly-utilized platforms, such as The Learning Place in Queensland which successfully offers professional development and resources to teachers as well as features for community engagement. However, the community aspects are not heavily used for reflection or modelling of practice, potentially due to the public nature of the site and that ownership of data lies with the teachers’ employer (the state)
  • Many teachers use Facebook for small groups, and these groups do work to provide support, especially closed groups. However, membership is restricted and any knowledge that is generated or shared is lost. Further, each small network is set up anew, and none of the benefits of a large community are realised (although the space for reflection on practice is gained)
  • Many institutions have dedicated communities for pre-service teachers that can continue to be used after graduation. For example, the University of Southern Queensland has the “Education Commons” which is a Moodle-powered site. Whilst it is useful for resource sharing, there is a lack of practice sharing and no possibility of cross-institutional pollination.

With this understanding of the gap that remains, a group of academics from universities and teacher education providers across Queensland are working together to develop a community, “TeachConnect”, slated for launch in September.

TeachConnect

Developing on online community is not a science – after a survey of the literature on the subject one might conclude that the main rule is “try, adapt and try again”. TeachConnnect is the second attempt to develop a community following a pilot of a different platform. This pilot was an empirical demonstration of the above principles, and an evaluation showed that the community was:

  • Too difficult to sign up to
  • Too restrictive in interactions (with not enough opportunity for dialogue)
  • Too public and not enough trust (no private spaces for interaction)
  • Not enough community engagement
  • Some principles for the TeachConnect community in response to this are:
  • Make the user interface and sign-up entirely intuitive (as well as more beautiful)
  • Have two integrated spaces in the platform – public knowledge that can be reused and private ‘mentorship circles’ where reflection can occur
  • Spend months of time travelling and talking to the lecturers, pre-service teachers and teachers who will be using the platform to build the community piece by piece

There are no short cuts for building an online community, but there is hope from what we know of teachers, from looking at examples of communities in other professions and from trial and error that something genuinely useful for teachers can be arrived at.

A value proposition

To this point, the blog post has made an implicit assumption that having an online community of teachers is a worthwhile endeavour. To make this assumption more transparent, imagine a platform that was entirely dedicated to improving the teaching profession:

  • Independent, all data private, owned only by the members of the community. It’s whole appearance and design makes it clear that it’s only goal is to help teachers with their practice of teaching – perhaps it even has inspirational quotes from educational theorists in the banner.
  • Knowledge about the pragmatic affairs of teaching (where to find resources, how to get accredited, how to navigate schools) can be re-used and built up over time by the community. Trusted spaces allow for gradual development of relationships over time, facilitating reflection upon practice between peers and facilitated by experienced teachers.
  • All teachers have access to this, regardless of their school or status of employment – but it’s restricted to anyone that’s ever been a pre-service teacher. The platform helps teachers to connect to other teachers in similar situations (if I’m the only STEM teacher in a rural school I can perhaps find another teacher teacher in the same situation).
  • It’s quick and easy to use and I can start using it even before I go on my first practical experience as a pre-service teacher. I know that it’s “the place to go” and that I’m likely to find either the person that I need to talk to or the knowledge that I need there.

If you’re reading this and think you’ve got something to contribute, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

References

Clara M, Kelly N, Mauri T and Danaher P, In press, Can Massive Communities of Teachers facilitate collaborative reflection? Fractal design as a possible answer, Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education

Kelly, N. (2013). An opportunity to support beginning teachers in the transition from higher education into practice. ASCILITE 2013, Macquarie University, Australia.

Kelly, N., Reushle, S., Chakrabarty, S., & Kinnane, A. (2014). Beginning Teacher Support in Australia: Towards an Online Community to Augment Current Support. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(4), 4.

Shirky, Clay. (2010) Cognitive surplus: Creativity and generosity in a connected age. Penguin UK

More on the P-TECH model in Australia

The Sydney Morning Herald did a piece on the plan to start doing private-public partnerships in developing high schools as it appears that the current government plans to go down this path

I have previously written about this perhaps not being a good idea. My thinking is that in education we should first do no harm, and given that there is an experiment in place in the US then we should at the very least wait to see what an evaluation comes up with before rushing in. Secondly, the motivations of corporations would seem to have no place in education other than perhaps no-strings-attached philanthropy. There appears to be a clear conflict of interests in the P-TECH model where the corporations have a say in the curricula for certain subjects.

The SMH piece is here. An extract from this article:

Nick Kelly, a research fellow at the Australian digital futures institute at the University of Southern Queensland, said the first students from the Brooklyn school would not graduate until 2017, so measuring its success was still years away.

Dr Kelly said he doubted parents would be comfortable with big business having a say in the curriculum taught to their children.
“If you start from the question of what is the aim of education, you have people like [Maria] Montessori saying the aim is to give children a chance to manifest their true nature, and [Paulo] Freire talking about giving children the chance to think critically, and [Rudolf] Steiner saying it is about uniting the heads, hands and heart,” he said.

“And then we have Abbott saying it is about giving children the chance to get a job. You have to ask, is that our ultimate aim.”