Arend, a web-based learning environment, was designed, developed and published in 2012 to serve as meeting place for South African teachers. This online learning environment is based on the idea that teachers rely on networked learning to perform their work.
Networked learning refers to the learning that happens as teachers build relationships with their peers to get access to the information, knowledge, advice, support, guidance, expertise and tangible resources they need to improve their own practices. When teachers actively participate in online discussions, e-networks of practice are formed. The term e-network of practice refers to the social structures that form as teachers participate in an online discussion about a shared practice.
Arend is based on the design principles of a prototype online learning environment that was designed in 2010 to support the continuing professional development of South African teachers. Over the years, a knowledge base developed as the teachers shared their knowledge, skills and techniques.
However, access to this shared knowledge base was restricted to teachers with computers. A group of teachers consequently requested the development of a mobile application to improve access to Arend. I therefore applied for a research grant to enable me to develop an application. Due to the older version of Arend’s software, it was necessary to archive the older content and to publish a clean online learning environment that could interact with the software of the mobile application. The new version of Arend (available at https://arend.co) was advertised in May 2018 in RSA Onderwysers, my Facebook group for teachers, and almost 800 teachers subscribed.
The mobile application was designed, developed and published in May 2018 in the two main application stores, namely App Store and Google Play. Since many of the readers might not be members of Arend, I provide an overview of the application in this paper. Since then a new knowledge base has developed in Arend. For the purpose of this research, the focus was placed on this shared knowledge base to investigate whether the Arend app can be regarded as useful. It was argued that the application can be regarded as useful if it improves access to an online learning environment where technological pedagogical and content knowledge (TPACK) is shared.
TPACK is seen as the knowledge a teacher needs to develop to integrate technologies effectively in their classrooms. This type of knowledge consists of seven components, namely:
- three basic components: technological knowledge, pedagogical knowledge and content knowledge
- three advanced components that develop where two basic components meet, namely technological content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge and technological pedagogical knowledge
- technological pedagogical and content knowledge (TPACK), an integration of the six afore-mentioned components.
Although this theory is questioned by some researchers, others have found it useful to investigate teachers’ knowledge. For the purpose of this research it provided a valuable framework for investigating the content of the shared knowledge base that developed in Arend.
The aim of this research was to answer the following research question: How effective is the shared knowledge base to which the Arend application provides access?
The answer to this question was sought within a simultaneously nested mixed-methods framework. It was necessary to give preference to the quantitative method, since quantitative research is regarded as objective. Using an objective method could reduce developer’s bias since the author is the developer of the website and the mobile application. The qualitative method was nested within the quantitative method to collect data to provide a rich description of the shared knowledge base that developed in Arend.
The most important finding is that the Arend app provided access to an online learning environment where all seven components of technological pedagogical and content knowledge were shared. It was also found that the advanced components were created as the teachers actively participated in discussions. Therefore, it is recommended that teachers use the Arend app to gain access to the shared knowledge base to expand their own TPACK. It is important to develop all seven components, since research shows that learners perform better when their teachers use technologies in their classrooms.
Secondly, it was found that the teachers shared advanced knowledge regarding the use of technologies to present subject content. Based on the work of Meyer and Gent (2016) it can be deduced that the value of technology in classrooms is clear to the teachers who shared videos. These videos can be used to train the users of Arend to use technologies effectively in their classrooms. It is recommended that teachers use the Arend app to gain access to the advanced knowledge shared in Arend, since Zack (1999) found that organisations perform better when the workers can get access to advanced knowledge.
Thirdly, it was found that the Arend app provided the teachers with opportunities to collaborate across time and geographical restrictions. As I (Van Staden 2017) also found, participation in discussions contributed to the development of e-networks of practice and a shared knowledge base. Since the application provides opportunities to collaborate across time and geographical restrictions, it is recommended that the teachers use this application to actively participate in learning opportunities, as prompted by South African legislation (Republiek van Suid-Afrika 2001; 2004; 2007; 2011).
The fourth finding is that the online learning environment connects teachers with knowledge and one another, as required by the state (Republiek van Suid-Afrika 2004). However, most of the teachers do not actively participate. It is recommended that teachers be prompted to actively participate in discussions. If they cannot add valuable information, they can use the “like” facility to motivate those who have shared to share again.
Lastly, it was found that the mobile application diffused more slowly into the social system than the web-based application had done. Although the web-based Arend was published in 2012, the clean version was published a few days before the release of the Arend app. According to data collected on 16 April 2019, the number of application users were 34% of the number of web users. This difference in users can be attributed to the familiarity with the web-based Arend since a large percentage of the previous users registered to use the new version of Arend. The reason for the slower diffusion of the application might be attributed to Rogers’s (2003) theory about the diffusion of innovations. It is recommended that the focus of future research be placed on the diffusion of this innovation into the social system to understand why it has been slower than expected.
Keywords: Arend; Arend app; continuing professional development; electronic applications; netnography; online learning environments; technological pedagogical and content knowledge (TPACK)