Online learning environments: A key to the continuing professional development of teachers

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Online learning environments allow teachers to collectively solve the problems they encounter, despite hierarchical, geographical and time differences. Although since 2004 South African policy has required that teachers use online learning environments to learn from one another, no online learning environments have been integrated to date. This gap between policy and implementation, therefore, is bridged by a number of South African teachers who have used Facebook to create online meeting places for teachers. Although these cost-effective meeting places might have developed into learning environments, no research has been conducted regarding the way teachers are using these online meeting places.

The purpose of this multiphase mixed-methods research was to facilitate the development of an online learning environment in order to make recommendations with regard to the more effective implementation of policy regarding the continuing professional development of teachers. The research was guided by the following questions:

  • How did the teachers use the online meeting place?
  • How can the development of an online learning environment be facilitated?
  • How can the findings be used to improve the implementation of policy regarding the continuing professional development of teachers?

In this paper, policy regarding the continuing professional development of teachers is discussed to understand how an online learning environment can contribute to the improved implementation of policy regarding the continuing professional development of teachers. Thereafter, the theoretical-conceptual framework is discussed and working definitions are provided for the main concepts, namely online learning environments, networked learning, development networks, e-networks of practice, and lifelong learning.

For the purpose of this research, an e-network of practice is defined as a network of relations that develops online when teachers comment or use emoticons to express their feelings about a post. It was assumed that these e-networks develop while teachers interact with one another to collectively solve a problem in a shared practice. It was also assumed that more than one e-network could be active simultaneously in an online learning environment. These social structures support learning in a unique way since the artefacts of the interactions are automatically stored. Since those who were not actively involved in an e-network of practice can read the artefacts, this characteristic of online environments can support both networked and passive learning synchronically and asynchronically.

The research was conducted within a multiphase mixed-methods research framework that consisted of six phases, namely (a) planning, (b) investigation, (c) design and development, (d) involvement, (e) data collection and interpretation, and (f) evaluation. The phases were integrated, but they were discussed separately to support a better understanding of the framework. Netnography, big data and social network analysis were integrated in this framework to find answers to the three research questions mentioned above.

During the planning phase, a literature study was conducted, access to the internet was investigated, and potential ethical issues were identified and addressed. Based on the literature review it was assumed that an online meeting place would develop into an online learning environment if teachers used it to foster e-networks of practice and to get access to a shared knowledge base.

Statistics from 2016 revealed that 13 million South Africans were using Facebook on their smartphones. A Facebook search using the keywords onderwyser and teacher identified one Afrikaans and two English Facebook groups that could have been used for the purpose of this research since almost 30 000 teachers were members of two of these groups. Only the owner of a group has access to Facebook’s Group Insights, therefore a new group for Afrikaans-speaking teachers was created for the purposes of this study.

During the next phase the group RSA Onderwysers was created on 6 June 2015. By 31 July 2017 there were 9 249 active users on this group almost every hour of every day. It was not necessary to create learning activities during the involvement phase since the teachers used RSA Onderwysers autonomously, responsibly and purposefully to learn from one another. It was, however, sometimes necessary to facilitate digital civility when teachers bullied their peers.

The use of RSA Onderwysers was investigated during the data collection and interpretation phase. and Facebook’s Group Insights were used to collect big data. It was found that 19,9% (1 985) of the teachers created 7 017 posts, 3 225 (34,8%) made 15 000 comments, and 4 521 (48,8%) used 24 000 emoticons to react to posts. The posts were also shared to 9 700 other contexts. Thereafter, data regarding the written and emotional relationships that formed around four of these posts were collected, read into a spreadsheet and imported into Gephi to create sociograms of these e-networks of practice. Those who posted held star positions in the e-networks that formed, but the participants also used the opportunity to connect to peers who participated in the discussions. The shared knowledge base that was created during the process provided a source for networked and passive learning.

During the evaluation phase, it was found that RSA Onderwysers had developed into an online learning environment since the teachers were indeed using it to foster e-networks of practice and to get access to a shared knowledge base.

Although 92,2% of the teachers were active during the last 60 days of the research, a small percentage (7,8%) visited the online learning environment without leaving digital footprints. If the focus of monitoring participation in professional development activities is moved away from earning a few professional development points to the impact of participation on one’s own work and the results of learners, teachers might be motivated to be actively involved. The research shows that the online learning environment made participation in Type 1 professional development activities visible; therefore, guidelines need to be developed for using online learning environments in order to claim professional development points for participation in teacher-initiated activities.

Based on the findings, a few recommendations are made, namely that:

a) Teachers should be encouraged to participate in e-networks of practice.

b) Suitable online learning environments should be developed to provide teachers with sufficient opportunities to become involved in the learning process.

c) Digital civility needs to be facilitated in online learning environments in order to provide all teachers with opportunities to foster e-networks of practice and to gain access to the shared knowledge base.

d) Facebook should be acknowledged as a suitable technology for supporting the continuing professional development of teachers.

e) Participation in professional development activities should be monitored more efficiently.

Real professional development takes place only when teachers actively and dynamically, cognitively and emotionally, individually and collectively question their own practices, reflect on these, and find ways to develop more effective practices. This research shows that online learning environments may be key to reaching that goal. Since participation in the activities is visible and measurable, online learning environments can ensure that the Continuing Professional Development System is not used simply to measure window dressing without actually improving the work of teachers and the results of their learners.

Keywords: continuing professional development; e-networks of practice; lifelong learning; online learning environments; sociograms; teachers

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Aanlynleeromgewings: ’n Sleutel tot die deurlopende professionele ontwikkeling van onderwysers

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