Networked Learning Conference 2008
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So what REALLY happens in networked learning?

Symposium convenor: Andrew Sackville.
Professor Emeritus, Edge Hill University, UK.

Symposium Introduction

This symposium is presented by representatives of both tutors and students who have participated in a set of programmes in Clinical Education at one UK University. The programmes are now in their ninth year of presentation, during which time they have been the subject of action research by both tutors and students. The programmes are delivered by means of what we describe as supported online learning; but the characteristics of this approach closely match the characteristics used to describe networked learning - "learning and teaching carried out largely via the internet/web which emphasises collaborative and cooperative learning, through dialogue and group work together with interaction with online materials, and collaborative knowledge production." (NLC 2007). The close parallel between this definition of networked learning and Edge Hill';s supported online learning can be seen within the first paper of the symposium - which sets the programme context for the research papers which follow.

Indeed the first paper takes on board one of Salmon';s criticisms of research in e-learning - that contextual factors are often neglected. (Salmon 2002). The paper examines both the pedagogic principles and the initial design considerations underlying the Clinical Education programmes, before going on to summarise research on the programmes which was carried out in 2000-03 and 2005-07. The challenge of designing appropriate materials to support different forms of interactivity, as well as different types of learners, is one that the author has addressed elsewhere. (Schofield, Sackville & Davey 2006), and the concept of alignment which was used in that paper has been adapted to examine the importance of aligning the processes of design and delivery with evaluative research into the programmes. A distinctive feature of this symposium is the drawing together of research which has been carried out over the last eight years with contemporary, ongoing research into aspects of the same programmes.

The second paper has been researched, written and presented by a group of participants on one of the MA modules which focussed on the use (actual and potential) of e-learning within the Health Services. Like the other papers in the symposium, the research which informs this paper has adopted a multi-method approach to empirical investigation. The research question was again formulated as a result of an educational experience - in this case, an extremely positive experience of online learning - which led the group to seek to identify the factors which led to the "success" of this particular group. The group present a number of insights into the success of the learning experience, whilst still recognising that different individuals benefited in different ways from the experience. They raise some interesting points about the module providing a circular process -with technology as both the medium and the end, with a resultant demystifying of e-learning as a result of immersion and reflection in the process of debating and studying e-learning.

The paper also clarifies the role of the two tutors on this module, which in turn links in with the third paper in the symposium which focuses on the latest phase of research. This is based on obtaining insights into the perceptions and experiences of tutors and students regarding the role of the tutor within the context of the online learning environment. This research is attempting to assess the influence of the tutor on the development of true dialogue in online discussion. Links are made to the concept of tutor "presence" (Anderson et al 2001; Garrison and Cleveland-Innes 2005); but the research reveals that not only do different individuals perceive both the nature and practice of 'facilitation'; differently, but the same individuals perceive different levels of intervention as desirable.

All three papers recognise the complexity of researching levels and types of interaction which occur online; but all three also point to the importance of design, when set alongside both the tutors'; intentions and the participants'; experiences. Overall the papers discuss what has been widely regarded within the health professions as a very successful programme in preparing and supporting clinical educators in their important educational role in their professions. They demonstrate a continuing questioning and search for "improvement" by both tutors and students who are committed to developing a supportive online community during the duration of the programme, and in some cases - afterwards.

Whilst some of the findings are relatively straightforward, and can provide insights for online programme designers, other findings are more ambiguous. For example we have noted that students can succeed on the programme - in terms of obtaining successful grades for their assessed work, even when they play a more minor role in online discussions. As an educationalist one would expect that this can be explained by differences in learning styles - some students take from any learning experience just what they need, whilst other students engage in a practice-changing experience - they engage in an educational epiphany.

Nevertheless, as tutors, we still have a perception of the ideal online community - one where collaboration is taking place; where experiences are being shared; where resources are being identified and utilised - rather like the one analysed by the participant group in the second paper of this symposium. The reality is that some Learning Sets and Groups live up to that expectation but others do not. This can prompt two different types of response - we can accept that it is just serendipity whether an online learning community interacts and engages in dialogue and debate; or we can continue to conduct action research to try to identify aspects of design, of delivery and of tutor behaviour which might reinforce and support a more dynamic online community within our programmes. By using an action research approach our Clinical Education programme team has continued to redesign programmes and modify delivery practices to further support such dynamic online communities. We are keen to engage in dialogue with other practitioners, researchers and students to exchange ideas about how we can continue to enhance the learning experiences we provide.

Introduction - .pdf

Searching for the ideal networked learning community: Aligning design, delivery and research.

Andrew Sackville.
Professor Emeritus: Edge Hill University, UK.


The focus of this paper is on the relationship between the processes of design and delivery of a supported online programme, and the evaluative research which was carried out over a six year period into the use made by the networked learning community of the discussion board that was used extensively during the programme. It adopts an action-research approach, and illustrates the alignment and cyclical relationship of the processes of design, delivery and research.

Initially the paper examines the context of the programme - a Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Clinical Practice, which has now run for eight years, and which is aimed at a multi-professional audience of health care workers who have responsibilities for the clinical education of their colleagues. Both the pedagogic approach and the initial design considerations are reviewed, since these in turn determine both the design and the delivery of the programme.

A mixed methods approach to researching the programme is outlined, which includes the use of participant-tracking data, the generation of codified archived discussions, the interviewing of members of the learning community (both students and tutors), and the quantitative and qualitative analysis of this data both in terms of individual learners and groups of learners (Learning Sets).

The paper examines two major blocks of research. The initial research carried out with the first three cohorts of learners (2000-2003) identified five broad patterns of interaction within the networked learning community, as well as contrasting the rhythm of online learning which differed from the rhythm of face-to-face learning. It also identified five broad types of learners; and explored different ways of designing and delivering the programme which may support these different types of learners more effectively.

The second block of research (2005-2007) focussed more specifically on the quality of the online communications; and the ways in which different Learning Sets varied in their use of the Discussion Board. Analysis at the level of the individual within the same Learning Set revealed further variations. The crucial role of what we have called "peer facilitators" in supporting dialogue and debate within the Learning Sets was identified.

This research has again led to amendments to the design and delivery of the programme, but it has also led to a re-formulation of some of our key research questions, and to the development of further research methods which not only focus on the perceived role of the tutor, but which also involve participants as co-researchers in an overt partnership with the tutors.

The paper concludes by revisiting the relationship between design, delivery and research, and argues for the merits of these being closely aligned, if maximum benefit is to be obtained for the programme and for the wider creation and consolidation of knowledge about the processes of supported online learning, and the networked learning communities which emerge.

Full Paper - .pdf

Why Did It Work For Us?
Reflections on a successful networked learning community.

Karen Groves, Consultant in Palliative Medicine, Clare Etherington, General Practitioner, Jill Cochrane, Clinical Educator, Bridget Moss, Director of Education (Palliative Care) Edge Hill University, UK.


This paper, written by a collective of eleven participants of one module of the MA in Clinical Education at Edge Hill University, attempts to capture the ongoing debate about the reasons for the "success" of this specific networked learning community. The 15 week blended learning module using WebCT, entitled "Designing and Tutoring E-learning Opportunities" concluded in June 2007.

Most research into student engagement has been utilitarian and has not explored the characteristics which underpin the concept of engagement and others have relied on the methodology of using "before and after" questionnaires to try to tease out student expectations and experiences. In contrast, this paper is centred on participants' experiences, indeed it is written by participants, thus giving a different research perspective on networked learning communities.

It was a general feeling within the group of this being a very successful, active, supportive and enjoyable learning experience and community, which prompted us to try to identify the characteristics of the experience which marked it out from other experiences we have had of online learning.

The participants met to discuss the course and agreed to share the work of analysis. Two participants undertook a quantitative and a qualitative analysis of the archived interactions on the WebCT discussion board and another compared the quantitative data with data available from the previous occasion on which the same module was delivered two years earlier. With the consent of all the course participants, we shared and, two participants, analysed qualitatively, reflective statements upon our own contributions to the discussion board, submitted confidentially as part of the module assessment. A thematic analysis of this post course meeting was undertaken by one participant.

The success of the group appeared to be linked to membership from a variety of backgrounds, with differing learning styles, given well-designed activities in which to participate. The enthusiasm for the subject and course was high and maintained by great peer support. All participants were highly motivated and appeared to have a reasonable amount of regular time to devote. The level of discussion was high promoting a real sense of camaraderie, bonding and shared learning in a relaxed atmosphere. The participants brought with them a degree of sophistication of e-discussion from previous modules/courses and naturally fell into various roles in the group but were flexible and able to take on other roles when needed. There were many peer facilitators. This module provided a circular process, with technology as both the medium and the end. The resulting was a demystifying of e-learning which immersion and transformation resulted in achievement of deep learning.

Increasingly, as participants felt able to contribute for discussion sake and not just for assignments, activities felt less task orientated. They became more conscious of the impact of their contributions, making more effort to have predictable effects with them; attempting to limit their own damaging behaviours; and were prompted to be more rounded contributors in discussions, responding specifically to the contributions of others and trying to encourage participation from the less vocal.

The module had a sense of group enjoyment and humour, lots of fun and laughter, a sense of mutual respect and democracy, good listening and consequent relatedness of discourse, without strident or disruptive exchanges and the ever evident tutor role as non directive facilitators.

For some it was only by doing it themselves within the module that the understanding of the module, and the added value of e-learning, could be realised.

Full Paper - .pdf

Working Together: Perceptions of the Role of the Tutor in a Postgraduate Online Learning Programme

Cathy Sherratt
Senior Lecturer in Clinical / Higher Education, Edge Hill University, UK


This paper will report the latest phase of an ongoing programme of work in progress, exploring online learning in a part-time postgraduate programme in Clinical Education at Edge Hill University. The programme is delivered by means of Supported Online Learning (also known as 'blended-learning'). The focus of the current study is the Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Clinical Practice (PGCTLCP).

The aim of this current research is to obtain insights into the perceptions and experiences of tutors and students regarding the role of the tutor within the context of the online learning environment, and to identify the influence of the tutor on the development of dialogue in the online discussion board.

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with participants from a single cohort from the Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Clinical Practice (PGCTLCP), to establish their perceptions and expectations of tutors online, and their actual experiences of interaction with the tutors and with other students and 'peer facilitators'. For most of the students, this was also their initial experience of online learning, such that their expectations were not influenced by previous experience or involvement in different courses elsewhere.

To give an added dimension, information was also gathered from the five tutors who were involved in delivering this programme to the specified cohort of students.

Objective observations and analyses were also carried out on the archives of online discussion for the chosen cohort. In particular, the type of online interaction was explored, using a Typology of Online Responses to identify where 'dialogue' actually takes place, as opposed to a series of unconnected statements or monologues, which can often be seen to occur in online discussion boards everywhere, but which are deemed by the PGCTLCP Course Team to be less satisfactory as learning experiences. The tutors' styles of facilitation and intervention were also identified using a simple taxonomy.

Preliminary analysis of the interviews with tutors and students is presented in this paper, along with an initial analysis of the actual postings from the course discussion board.

The mechanisms involved in achieving a full and rich dialogue in an online discussion board appear to be complex, and as yet not fully understood, although some scope has already been identified for the potential of tutors to influence this process. Previous work suggests that online discussion boards benefit from not being overly tutor-focused, and we also identified that the actions of individual participants in taking on the facilitative role can also be significant, and can create a different dynamic than facilitative intervention by a tutor.

Initial findings in this current study indicate that the concept of tutor 'presence' is widely acknowledged to be important, both by students and by tutors. However, early indications suggest that different individuals perceive both the nature and practice of 'facilitation' differently. It is also suggested that different individuals perceive different levels of intervention as desirable.

The challenge, therefore, is when and how the tutor should intervene in order to achieve optimum engagement by all participants. Implications for course design and tutor intervention will be discussed, along with a consideration of future work.

Full Paper - .pdf



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