Peer computer conferencing to support teachers' reflection during action research.
Peer interaction within collaborative learning communities appears to support teachers' professional development (McLaughlin & Talbert, 1993; Putnam & Borko, 1997, 2000). To better understand the implications of this finding, several researchers (Anders & Richardson, 1991; Saunders, Goldenberg & Hamann, 1992; Manouchehri, 2002) have examined different ways of supporting teachers' peer interactions in face-to-face learning communities. One potentially useful tool for supporting teacher peer interaction is asynchronous computer mediated communication (CMC) (Marx, Blumenfeld, Krajcik & Soloway, 1998), a term which can refer to computer conferencing, bulletin boards, computer assisted instruction, listervs, or e-mail. Research on the use of asynchronous CMC to support teacher reflection and professional development is only beginning to be conducted and compiled (see also Marx, Blumenfeld, Krajcik, & Soloway). This study adds to the literature by examining the kinds of assistance teachers gave to and received from one another within one form of CMC--asynchronous computer conferencing. Asynchronous computer conferencing is structured communication among multiple participants from multiple sites, often involving group discussions and different access levels among categories of users (Shafer, 2003). In particular, this study examined how peer interaction through asynchronous computer conferencing influenced teachers' reflection as they conducted individual action research projects that focused on understanding and addressing cultural influences on education.
Researchers have examined socio-emotional and cognitive aspects of asynchronous CMC for practicing teachers in three conditions: (a) open, teacher-directed discussions; (b) discussions focusing on course readings or assignments; and (c) discussions oriented toward specific changes in classroom practice or school reform. In asynchronous CMC involving open, teacher-directed discussions, teachers provided emotional support and shared information (Riding, 2001; Selwyn, 2000). In asynchronous CMC discussions, focused on course readings or assignments, teachers provided emotional support, shared information, and engaged in "collaborative idea building" (King, 2002). Recent research conducted within this condition (although not explicitly involving practicing teachers) suggests that the extent and quality of meaningful discourse in CMC may be dependent upon whether teachers are given structural guidance (e.g., evaluation rubrics, examples of excellent postings, etc.). Gilbert and Dabbagh (2005) found that structural guidance can increase the extent and level of meaningful CMC discourse, while Angeli, Valanides and Bonk (2003) have noted that the lack of this guidance may contribute to a decrease in the extent and level of quality discourse and critical-thinking skills observed in CMC. These findings are paralleled at the middle school learner level. Structural guidance in the form of scaffolding or intentional assistance has been found to increase students' ability to engage in higher order cognitive activities such as modeling within software tools and online resources (Fretz et al., 2002; Hoffman, Wu, Krajcik, & Soloway, 2002).
Studies examining asynchronous CMC to support changes in classroom practice, which currently constitute a small body of research, are closest to the present investigation. In general, these studies suggest that asynchronous CMC can support teachers' reflection on their practice. An early example is NEA's Mastery in Learning Project, which used asynchronous computer conferencing to support reform by promoting teachers' "sustained attention to decision making supported by a knowledge base" (Watts & Castle, 1992, p. 686). Teachers shared information and engaged in some reflective discussion (Castle, Livingston, Trafton, & Obermeyer, 1990; Livingston, 1991), with reflective discussion increasing over time (Livingston, 1991).
The Mathematics Learning Forums (Honey et al., 1994; McMahon, 1997) used asynchronous CMC in 8-week online courses to support teachers implementing mathematics reform in their classrooms. McMahon studied three such courses in which a faculty member guided a small group of teachers as they tried new classroom activities and reflected on those experiences. Teachers' messages tended to be brief and little more than half were assignment-related. Although teachers discussed and reflected on their practice, McMahon concluded that the CMC had not reached its full potential.
Hawkes and Romiszowski (2001) studied the reflective content of asynchronous CMC among 28 teachers at 10 different schools and of face-to-face interaction among these same teachers in their school-based teams while they were involved in problem-based curriculum development project. The CMC was unstructured, not mandatory, and occurred over the same period of time as the face-to-face interaction. The study found that CMC facilitated more reflective discourse than in face-to-face interactions.
THIS STUDY AND ITS CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK
This study attempted to determine whether and how peer interaction through scaffolded asynchronous computer conferencing aided teachers as they conducted course-related individual action research projects. In much previous research on peer interaction using asynchronous CMC to support change in educational practice there has been a common focus--for example, standards based mathematics instruction (Honey et al., 1994; McMahon, 1997) or problem-based learning (Hawkes & Romiszowski, 2001). A literature review identified no studies examining the use of peer interaction through computer conferencing, or asynchronous CMC more broadly, to support teachers' individual action research studies, each of which has a different focus.
According to Schon (1983, 1987), competent teachers develop tacit knowledge (recurring categories of people, situations, and problems) that results in an ease and flow to their practice. However, Schon suggested that when teachers encounter new people or situations in which something fails to meet their expectations (as frequently happens in today's culturally diverse classrooms), they may respond in several ways. If the routine of practice is too strong, teachers may ignore the surprise or force it into preexisting categories. On the other hand, they can respond to a surprise by using it as an opportunity to reflect on their practice and frame it in new ways. Such reflection may occur before, during, or after action (Schon, 1983).
Drawing on Schon's perspective, the second author developed the course studied here to help the teachers learn cultural perspectives relevant to improving students' education and to support them in using these perspectives to reflect on their practice through individual action research studies. The Cultural Inquiry Process (CIP) (Jacob 1995; Jacob, Johnson, Finley, Gurski, & Lavine, 1996) guided the course, and the CIP Web site (http://classweb.gmu.edu/cip/) served as the primary text for the course. The CIP is organized around six action research steps: (a) Select as a focus, one or more students and identify your puzzlement(s) about the student(s); (b) summarize what is already known about the focus student(s) and the context; (c) consider alternative cultural perspectives and select one or more of them to explore; (d) gather and analyze relevant information as needed; (e) develop and implement intervention(s) as needed; and (f) monitor the process and results of the intervention(s). The CIP Web site presents information about each of the six steps and organizes cultural research and theory through steps 3-5, that is, in relation to alternative perspectives teachers can use to explore their puzzlements, data needed to examine their puzzlements from a cultural perspective, and interventions based on information collected.
Within the CIP, culture is defined broadly to include meanings, attitudes, and behavior shared by any group, thus including the cultures related to ethnicity or race, socio-economic status, gender, religion, school, or classroom. Moreover, attention was also given to the fact that individuals operate within several cultures, that they "negotiate," and in a related vein, that cultures can be contested, challenged, and changed. Early in the course teachers read sections of the CIP web site and other related readings, and then used this information to analyze "teaching cases" prior to conducting their own studies.
Each teacher conducted an individual study related to his or her own practice. Ms. Gregory's study (2000) provided an example. She was puzzled by a European American boy, Colby (a pseudonym), who had difficulty transitioning from kindergarten to first grade (Step 1). Ms. Gregory found Colby to be frequently "off task" in class, competitive and aggressive with his peers. In summarizing the information she already knew about Colby or could find out from school records (Step 2), Ms. Gregory indicated that Colby had gone to kindergarten in a small Christian school that had a strict discipline code, which his parents found too strict for him, and that he had few friends in his neighborhood. In considering alternative cultural questions (Step 3), Ms. Gregory initially focused on a possible mismatch between Colby's home culture and the school's culture. However, after collecting some preliminary information (Step 4) related to this focus, she decided that she would need to understand Colby's home culture in relation to that of other students and the school, and that task was more than she could take on for this project, so she returned to Step 3, considered the range of possible cultural influences and decided that she needed to focus on how Colby was negotiating home, peer, and school cultures. She then gathered information (Step 4) by observing Colby in her classroom as well as in several other classrooms, by interviewing Colby and his mother, by talking to school administrators and other specialists, and by reviewing records from his former school.
From these data Ms. Gregory identified several themes (for example, Colby's seemed to have little control over his behavior, which seemed to be under the sway of his emotions), then read in the literature related to the themes, and then developed and implemented interventions (Step 5). For example, to help him learn to separate his behavior from his emotions, she used several methods to help him label and verbalize his feelings. In monitoring Colby after she began the interventions Ms. Gregory saw changes (Step 6). He was more responsible, exhibited more control over his behavior, and was more confident. Ms. Gregory reported that she changed as well--her perspective on Colby changed: rather than seeing him as a "behavior problem" she began to understand that he was a complex child and that there were reasons related to his prior experiences at home and in preschool that influenced his behavior in the first grade. She also saw how what she learned was useful in understanding Colby's behavior in other classrooms and in understanding other children.
During the course each teacher was part of a small (3-4 member) "base group." The instructor explained that the members of each base group were expected to be "critical friends" to each other--providing support, feedback, and ideas, but also challenging one another and providing alternative perspectives as they worked on their individual research projects.
The course employed an unconventional schedule to accommodate teachers' work schedules and to provide ample time for teachers to conduct research studies. After introductory sessions in the summer, teachers met face-to-face once a week for four weeks in late fall semester, and then every other week during early and mid-spring semester.
The instructor established a computer conference for the course with several purposes in mind. The primary purposes were to provide support for systematic discussions about the teachers' research projects and to facilitate continuity of peer discussions within the groups during the spring semester when the course met only every other week.
In the computer conference, each base group had its own private online discussion area ("folder") on a Web Crossing (http://webx.lundeen.com/) server. Within each group's folder, each group member had an individual folder, which was subdivided into the six CIP steps. The instructor expected teachers to use their own folders to keep a journal of their activities on their CIP projects. Acting as critical friends, teachers were expected to respond to postings in the folders of the other members of their base group. Participation in the computer conference, expected from each teacher on a weekly basis, was included in the course participation grade and counted for 20% of the final grade. The instructor participated in the online discussions of all four base groups, allowing her to monitor teachers work and to provide feedback when needed. The computer conference began in the fall semester and continued throughout the remainder of the course, for a total of 18 weeks. Thus, the computer conference used a "distributed scaffolding model" (Dabbagh, 2003, p. 40) in which asynchronous teacher communication was structured around the six CIP steps and supported by both the instructor and peers, with each participant acting as "facilitator, coach, co-learner, and co-participant in learning activities" (Dabbagh, p. 43).
With a specific emphasis on teacher reflection while conducting individual action research projects, this study sought answers to the following questions:
1. What kinds of assistance did teachers give to and receive from each other?
2. How did teachers benefit from the help provided by their peers?
In examining the data, it was realized that contextual influences were important to understanding the teachers' uses of computer conferencing. Consequently, a third research question was added:
3. What contextual influences affected teachers' participation in the computer conference?
This study uses a qualitative case study approach because it facilitates indepth attention to process and context. The study involved 13 teachers enrolled as a cohort in a Masters Degree program for practicing teachers. All but one teacher was female and all were Caucasian, with two being of Hispanic origin. Ten taught in grades P-6, three taught in middle school, and all had at least three years experience, with an average experience level of nine years.
Three data sources were used in this study. First, with the teachers' permission, computer conference interactions were examined. Second, as part of another study (Maher, 2000), the first author interviewed the teachers midway through the fall and before the course concluded to collect self-reports of their experiences in the Masters Degree cohort program. Several interview questions were relevant to this study, including "How would you describe your experience with the [computer conference]?" and, "How would you describe your experience with your base group?" Finally, as part of the regular course activities, teachers completed an anonymous course feedback questionnaire at the end of the fall semester and at the end of the course.
In analyzing the computer conference data, each individual entry as a "posting." Each posting began by identifying the author, time and date, and subject heading (e.g., J Smith, 10:00 pm Nov 23, 1999 EST, My Puzzlement); the body of the posting followed. Postings ranged in length from a sentence to several paragraphs.
To prepare the computer conference data for analysis, postings in each teacher's folder were sorted chronologically within each CIP step. These data were then entered into NVivo (version 1.3, a qualitative analysis software program). To develop codes for qualitative analysis, the researchers independently read an identical subset of postings from various teachers' folders several times and separately noted what each saw as emergent codes by considering the data in conjunction with teachers' descriptions of their interactions, the instructor's goals for the course, and the instructor's guidelines to teachers for using the computer conference. The researchers then discussed the developing coding scheme, identifying overlaps between the codes and resolving differences. This resulted in 15 emic codes that captured significant types of teacher interaction from a perspective which, "... seeks to comprehend phenomena not on the basis of the researcher's perspective and categories, but from those of the participants in the situations studied" (Maxwell, 2002, p. 48). Examples include "Reflective Thinking" (reflects on information from a new perspective or in a way that facilitates deeper understanding); "Journaling" (to report the status of project or progress, not necessarily interactive); and "Supporting" (offers personal support and encouragement).
Additionally, the researchers used three codes related to role. Postings occurring in a teacher's folder and authored by that teacher were coded as "owner," postings occurring in a teacher's folder but authored by his or her peer teachers were coded as "peer," and postings authored by the instructor were coded as "instructor."
To prepare teachers' interview data for analysis, the data were transcribed and entered into NVivo. The researchers developed the coding scheme for the interview data in the same manner previously outlined, resulting in 10 additional codes. Examples of these codes include "Conference Features" (how computer conference features and teachers' feelings toward these features influence their use of the conference) and "Time-Effort-Energy" (how time/effort/energy demands influence teachers' use of computer conference).
The first author coded the computer conference data, and used the 10 additional codes for the interview data. The second author used the 10 interview codes to code course feedback questionnaires. The term "passage" was used to refer to a coded section of a posting. The first author also performed several frequency analyses to identify broad patterns in the postings and passages in the computer conference.
OVERVIEW OF TEACHERS' USE OF THE COMPUTER CONFERENCE
There were 909 postings in the computer conference, with 74% of them (N = 671) authored by teachers and 26% authored by the instructor. Fifty-four percent (N = 365) of the teachers' postings were by teachers in their own folder (i.e., by "owners"), and 46% (N = 306) were by teachers in others' folders (i.e., by "peers").
Across the conference as a whole, teachers contributed an average of three postings per week. However, the frequency of teachers' postings varied over time and across CIP steps (Table 1). Across both "owners" and "peers," teachers' postings occurred with greater frequency in Step 1 (selection of research focus), Step 4 (data collection and analysis), and Step 5 (interventions) than in Steps 2, 3, and 6. The frequency of the instructor's postings was relatively stable across the CIP steps.
The remainder of the analyses of teachers' online interactions focus on passages, that is, coded sections of postings. The researchers analyzed 1550 passages attributed to teachers. Forty-one percent (41%) (N = 635) of the teachers' passages were by teachers in their own folder (i.e., by "owners"), and 59% (N = 915) were by teachers in others' folders (i.e., "peers"). Table 2 lists (in decreasing order of frequency) the 15 interaction codes, their definitions, and the number of passages matching the definition of each code written by an owner or peer.
As indicated earlier, the instructor expected teachers to use their folders in the computer conference as a "journal" to record information related to each step of their research project. Owners regularly used their individual folders, and occasionally their peers' folders, for journaling (N = 308 passages). The frequency distribution of passages coded "journaling" across the six steps indicated that 64 such passages occurred in Step 1, 44 occurred in Step 2, 36 occurred in Step 3, 68 occurred in Step 4, 63 occurred in Step 5, and 50 occurred in Step 6. This distribution reveals that teachers used the computer conference for journaling regularly over the duration of the course.
Journaling accounted for a large portion of teachers' CMC, and it provided much of the base for subsequent peer online interactions. Therefore, an example from one teacher's journaling may be helpful to the reader. Ms. Gregory, the teacher whose work was discussed above, reported:</p> <pre> What is known about Colby? On the first day of school, he did not want to enter the classroom. He fought to hold onto his mother. I had to restrain him as she walked away. He refused to do any work in the beginning. A simple, "I can't" was his only explanation. </pre> <p>She later explored possible cultural influences on the child's behavior:</p> <pre> I've been considering [CIP Step] 3.3.2 as my cultural question. I want to look at home culture and school culture and see if there is a mismatch. I think this is invaluable to my understanding of this problem. However, I think that this initial information may lead me to explore [CIP Step] 3.5.1, where I would begin to look at students' negotiations. Ultimately, my little guy is making choices about what is happening at school. </pre> <p>Toward the end of the course the teacher discussed interventions and some preliminary observations about their influence on Colby:</p> <pre> He is more responsive to correction and he is thinking more about his actions ... I am going to work on making an outline and putting things is order. I will try not to add any more research to my work until I see where the gaps are. I want to work more on collecting evidence that the interventions are working. My interventions are ... going to Colby in private when problems are present, monitoring
my tone of voice, [and] praising efforts and responsible acts. </pre> <p>Many teachers found computer conference journaling to be useful. In the end-of-course feedback, about a third of the teachers commented that the computer conference had helped them work in a sustained way or provided a useful chronological record of their work: "[It] kept the flow going--kept my project on my mind;" "[It] became a reference tool--gave chronological perspective to the final project." In interviews several teachers reported that it was helpful as a personal workspace and that it "matched" their reflective style.
PEER INTERACTIONS IN THE COMPUTER CONFERENCE
Examinations of teachers' interactions in the computer conference focused on the kinds of assistance the teachers offered each other and how the teachers seemed to benefit from the assistance offered.
What Kinds of Assistance Did Teachers Give to and Receive from Each Other?
In the computer conference, teachers supported each other's learning in four primary ways: (a) by encouraging peers to journal, (b) by providing emotional support, (c) by offering substantive help, and (d) by thinking reflectively about issues in owners' projects and suggesting alternative ways of that an owner might look at--and reflect upon--such issues. These are discussed in descending order of frequency.
Encouraging to journal. Peers frequently encouraged owners to share more about projects (N = 171 passages) by asking for clarification, elaboration or additional information. For example, one peer prompted:</p> <pre> I was wondering if you could give us a run down of the services that Jane receives at school ... You are mentioning many different
programs that you are trying with her (reading group, oral vocabulary group). Do your students have IEPs? These are just some
questions that came up as I read. </pre> <p>Providing emotional support. Peers also provided emotional support (N = 147 passages coded "supporting" or "connecting") to owners, most in the form of "connecting" comments that referred to similar experiences, students or questions, or that indicated interest in the owner's efforts. For example, one teacher said to an owner: "I will be very interested to hear about some of your findings because maybe I can use them in relating to some of my own students and parents."
Peers also made many positive evaluative comments to owners. Although some were detailed and specific (e.g., "Cindy, I like the comparisons of the two different classes. It would be interesting to find out why they joined band, what are their goals, and what interests them about the class. It sounds like you have a good start!"), most were short and generic (e.g., "I think you have a good puzzlement," and "Good work!").
Offering substantive help. Peers frequently provided owners with substantive help (N = 101 passages coded "answering," "suggesting external sources," or "getting external sources"), often in response to an owner's request. Peers' answers included help on clarifying puzzlements, suggestions regarding data collection, help thinking about cultural influences, and ideas or resources for interventions. For example, in response to an owner's request for help, a peer responded, "I think [CIP Step] 3.1 is a good place to start. In some ways I can't imagine really looking at the other questions without starting there--otherwise assumptions/perceptions [are] left unexplored...."
Teachers also offered much help spontaneously. Sometimes they recommended books, videos or web sites related to an owner's project. In other instances, a peer volunteered to bring a resource to class for the owner. For example, one peer wrote, "Lee, I have written myself a note to see if I can borrow 1-2-3 Magic from school for you to see (it's a video, but we also have a book)".
Reflective thinking. Peers helping each other reflect upon issues in ways that might lead to new insights is viewed as a central benefit of peer interaction and was a major reason for using the computer conference in the course. As the following examples illustrates, in the computer conference, peers reflected on owners' puzzlements and suggested alternative ways of looking at issues that in turn prompted owners to reflect upon their puzzlements conceptually and from different cultural perspectives (N = 97 passages):</p> <pre> Chris, I know you said that his behavior in class has changed and now you're puzzled about his homework. Could you look more broadly at what's going on in the relationships in his life ... There's something about the homework that doesn't fit in with the things he values ... What is it that you do with the homework that gives the message, "This is important." Just thinking! </pre> <p>How teachers offered new perspectives is noteworthy: they did not "challenge" each other, but "suggested" alternatives. There often were indicators of a sensitivity about suggesting alternative ways of looking at things, for example, beginning the comment with the owner's name, acknowledging that they'd heard what the owner has previously said ("I know you said that ..."), or using conditionals ("I'm wondering"; "Just thinking") or questions. In addition, a teacher suggesting an alternative perspective often included reference to some "authority" (a published article or book, or their own experience) as a base for the comment. The previous example and the one that follows illustrate these strategies:</p> <pre> Having taught multiage and now traditional, there is definitely a different culture developed in both types of classrooms. Do you find your students interact and help each other more, or are they competing?... Have you noticed any major differences this year and in past years? Keep thinking. </pre> <p>In summary, through analyses of teachers' postings and interview data, it was found that in this computer conference teachers encouraged one another to share their work, provided emotional support, shared intellectual resources, and suggested and reflected upon alternative perspectives. The next research question focused on how teachers benefited from receiving these kinds of peer assistance.
How Did Teachers Benefit from the Help Provided by their Peers?
In both course feedback and interviews, teachers' general comments indicated that they found the emotional support and intellectual assistance offered in the computer conference beneficial. For example, in end-of-semester feedback teachers indicated that the computer conference was valued specifically because of the intellectual support provided by peers, (e.g., "They [peers] kept questioning my methods and kept me searching for answers. Lots of good ideas, more emotional support ... it kept me motivated to know others were interested and responding to my work"). In interviews, teachers also referred to the value of the online peer camaraderie and intellectual support:</p> <pre> I really like how the program is designed to keep the communication open with the [computer conference]. At first I thought, "Oh, gosh, this is going to be awful having to be on the computer." I look forward to it now, going to [the computer conference] and seeing what people wrote and writing to people and having that open communication. </pre> <p>However, on a Likert scale question in the end-of-course feedback teachers presented a somewhat different picture, indicating that the discussions in the computer conference had a moderate influence on their learning (3.2 on a scale of 1-5).
While all forms of intellectual and emotional peer support were of interest, we are especially interested in instances where peers reflected upon owners' puzzlements and offered a new perspective or pushed an owner toward a deeper understanding. Data from the computer conference indicate that when peers engaged in reflective thinking about an owner's action research project, the owner often appeared to benefit.
Evidence for this proposition includes the timing of peers' reflective comments within the CIP framework and owners' responses to them. The CIP prompts teachers to think reflectively (e.g., to look at their puzzlements from varying cultural perspectives) throughout their project, but emphasizes this type of reflection early in the process as teachers identify and "frame" their puzzlement. In particular, in CIP step 3 teachers consider alternative cultural perspectives and select one or more to investigate. The frequency with which peers engaged in reflective thinking about an owner's action research project was examined in each of the six CIP steps. Step 1 included 23 passages coded as peer "Reflective Thinking;" Step 2 included 19 such passages; Step 3, 27; Step 4, 15; Step 5, 8; and Step 6, 5. Although owners received comments from peers across all six steps, they were more likely to receive it in the first three. This pattern indicates that owners received reflective help from their peers in a timely manner, consistent with the CIP framework.
To investigate whether owners benefited from reflective comments received from their peers, owners' responses to peer comments were examined. Owners responded in some way to 52% of the 97 passages coded as peers' "Reflective Thinking." Owners responded directly to 36% of these passages. In the majority of these responses, owners replied by acknowledging the posting and indicating that they would take some kind of action based on their peer's suggestion. Examples from a teacher's folder follows:</p> <pre> Peer reflective thinking: I assume that interviews with mom will highlight the cultural milieu in which he and she exist. It will be important to find out her country of birth and the customs and beliefs of her people. Owner response: Thanks for the tip. I definitely need to look into their ethnic background and chat with mom again. Sam is more puzzling every day! </pre> <p>In a few instances owners responded directly, but discussed why the suggested action could not be taken. An example follows:</p> <pre>
Peer reflective thinking: How is Trina at mimicking? Would it be helpful to have her brother work with her each night for 5 minutes, i.e., give him cards with color dots and color words to practice with her--numbers--he might be a key--she could mimic him! Owner response: We have also requested a dual language for her brother. He also has a lot of articulation problems so I wouldn't
want her modeling her language after his. </pre> <p>Owners responded indirectly to 16% of the passages coded as peers' "Reflective Thinking." Indirect responses included: replies addressing several peer suggestions simultaneously; replies related to the peer referenced topic but did not specifically refer to the peer or his or her suggestion; and replies left incomplete, possibly because the teachers had met before the prior to the online reply. An example of such an instance follows:</p> <pre>
Peer reflective thinking: If you want to work with the teacher
you've been with maybe you could work on how her discipline system
is affecting the culture of the class. Remember the great variations
of culture--the culture of your school, which is smaller and less
urban ... is certainly different than the culture of my school.
Owner response: Hi group. I am still thinking about my puzzlement.
Your input has been very helpful. I have made a list and I am going
to be calling the teacher I am working with tonight to see if there
is anything that she has been puzzled about that I can assist her
with. </pre> <p>Owners provided no response to 48% of the passages coded peers' "Reflective Thinking." While it is impossible to determine why these suggestions received no response online, evidence in interviews and in the computer conference suggested that at least some owners responded outside the computer conference. For example, one owner indicated that she benefited from "the sharing that we have done in class as a whole, and also the individual sharing, like when we are having lunch or walking to and from cars or talking to each other on the phone or through e-mail or [the computer conference]."
In summary, through analyses of teachers' postings, 97 passages of peers' "Reflective Thinking" were identified and many owners reported in interviews that peer comments expanded their thinking. Analyses of the computer conference suggest that peers' reflective comments were given in a timely manner consistent with the CIP framework. Moreover, it is probable that many peers' reflective comments were beneficial to owners because owners acknowledged and responded to about half of them. However, a little less than half of the time owners did not respond to their peers' reflective comments, leaving indeterminate the influence of these peer comments.
What Contextual Influences Affected Teachers' Participation in the Computer Conference?
In both course feedback and interviews, teachers' positive comments about the benefits of the computer conference were often tempered with qualifiers or negative comments. Such comments were related to aspects of the context in which the forums occurred or to teachers' personal preferences.
Teachers' comments related to contextual influences centered on technical challenges and features of the course within the larger context of their work lives. These contextual features may have influenced both the frequency and content of teachers' online postings. Some teachers reported having problems accessing the computer conference because of slow computers or difficulty gaining access to the Web. For example, when asked what could be improved with the computer conference, one teacher described her experiences as follows: "Sometimes when I've tried to get into [the computer conference] my computer at home says I'm taking an illegal action and kicks me out."
Teachers mentioned several features of the course that may have affected their interactions in the computer conference including: (a) the duration of the course; (b) the instructor's requirement for teachers' weekly participation in the forums; (c) the teachers' opportunities to interact in person in class; and (d) the challenges in commenting on peers' work. As previously indicated, the course had a nontraditional schedule longer than the usual 15-week course to accommodate the teachers' work schedules and to provide ample time for the teachers' projects. Ironically, because many teachers reported difficulty in finding the time to participate in the computer conference, the extended duration of the course contributed to teachers' frustrations. One teacher said: "[The computer conference] was tough because of having a full-time teaching job with paperwork in the evenings (and I also work a second job)." Further, many teachers indicated that as their projects developed there seemed to be less to share, although they remained aware of the instructor's requirement for weekly participation. Some teachers reported that this led them to make "place holder" postings. One teacher discussed her mixed views as follows:</p> <pre> [I might say] "Your idea sounds really good" and "Keep going with it" and "I'm interested in what you're interested in." And I think that there are some real forced issues in responding on a regular basis.... But by the same token there are times that I will read something and go. "Oh, you know, I wonder if she's thought of that" and so there is a valid exchange. </pre> <p>The concern expressed by some teachers about being required to participate in the computer conference outside of class seemed to be related to the fact that they were also meeting face-to-face during class, every week in the fall semester and every other week for much of the spring semester.
In contrast to some previous research (e.g., King, 2002; Riding, 2001; Selwyn, 2000) where the asynchronous CMC was open ended or related to assigned course topics or readings, teachers in the course under investigation were expected to comment on their peers' action research projects. For many peers, finding the time and intellectual energy required to understand and respond constructively to owners' work was a strain. For example, a teacher reported the following:</p> <pre>
I don't like feeling like I have to be on it all the time and I
think it's hard to go through everybody's project and reply to every single message they've put on and to extend all these ideas when I'm scraping to find ideas for myself.... I get to the point where I'm out of ideas; so I thought it was stressful and tiring and a lot to ask. But in another way, I liked getting responses to mine. </pre> <p>In addition to being influenced by features of the course's context, some teachers reported that their personal preferences influenced their reaction to the computer conference. Although some teachers liked the computer conference because it allowed them more time to think before responding, others expressed a preference for face-to-face interaction over online interaction. They did not like having to communicate through the computer because they saw each other regularly in person. One teacher, for example, reported in an interview that peer interactions were useful to her, but she strongly preferred face-to-face interactions:</p> <pre> [Through peer interactions] I think there's just more possibilities for, you know, those moments where you're going to go, "Oh yeah, I never thought of that or, yeah, true, that's an interesting perspective." So I think it's been, in some ways more talk and discussion fuels that. But of course I don't feel about it that way on [computer conference]. I'm very particular about my discussions; they have to be verbal or spoken. </pre> <p>DISCUSSION
The course examined here was designed to encourage teachers' reflection by providing them opportunities to consider their classroom, their students, and their practice from cultural perspectives (which were usually new to them). Therefore, successful participation in the course required that teachers not ignore surprises and not force their puzzlements into existing categories (Schon, 1983). The course further required teachers to participate in a computer conference that provided opportunities for them to: (a) reflect on and share their thoughts about their puzzlement in a way that could be understood by others, and (b) read and respond to peers' entries in a reflective manner as "critical friends."
Several ways teachers provided assistance to one another within the computer conference were identified, as well as influences on their uses of it. The computer conference was useful in keeping teachers working on their projects in a sustained way. The resulting written "journal" of their progress provided them with a chronological documentation of their efforts that most found very helpful. Journaling also provided teachers' peers with an opportunity to follow the progress of individual projects and served as a catalyst for a rich interaction in which teachers received a variety of help from each other. Through interactions in the computer conference, peers provided one another with emotional support and intellectual assistance, and they encouraged each other to journal.
In the researchers' view, the most significant finding was that the computer conference also facilitated teachers' reflections using cultural perspectives. Teachers offered each other their reflections on these perspectives that in turn often elicited responses indicating that the receiving teacher benefited from these peer comments. Thus, this study supports the use of peer interaction in computer conferences to aid teachers' reflection on practice with the goal, as discussed by Schon (1983), of helping them "frame" their classrooms, students, and teaching in new ways.
Of note is the "careful" way teachers provided each other with these alternative perspectives, which is consistent with literature on teacher collegiality suggesting teachers adhere to traditions of noninterference and autonomy (Zahorik, 1987). As Little (1990) wrote, "Teachers carefully preserve the boundary between offering advice when asked and interfering in unwarranted ways in another teacher's work" (p. 515), and this stance was evident in teachers' responses to their peers. The consistency implies that although computer conference participation was required, the way in which the teachers interacted was authentic. However, the "careful" interaction style raises questions about the depth of teachers' interactions. Perhaps teachers' style created a safe interaction space, perhaps this style was "neutral" in its impact, or perhaps this style deterred teachers from being true "critical friends." While teachers' "careful" interaction style was not a focus of the study, factors and outcomes associated with this "careful" style, especially related to computer mediated communication, deserve closer investigation.
The results of this study are generally consistent with the positive findings of the few previous studies (Castle et al., 1990; Hawkes & Romiszowski, 2001; Livingston, 1991; McMahon, 1997; Watts & Castle, 1992) investigating teachers' use of asynchronous CMC to support changes in classroom practice. Thus, this study's findings have implications for the current teaching context, in which teachers and schools are driven by the need to show that all students are meeting standardized test requirements and teachers are attempting to change their practice in classrooms increasingly populated by students originating from cultures different from the mainstream. As Hawkes and Dennis (2003) noted, "Because the business of schooling provides little time for sustained, collaborative, reflective, interaction, teachers have the alternative of relocating to a medium of networks, computers, and keyboards" (p. 56). The findings of this study suggest that teachers can benefit from using asynchronous communication, and scaffolds such as the CIP, for reflective interaction as they strive to meet the challenges inherent in today's classrooms.
However, the present study suggests that the teachers' uses of asynchronous CMC in the course examined may not have reached its full potential. Data indicate that technical problems, features of the course in the context of teachers' lives, and some teachers' preferences for face-to-face communication were important influences on teachers' participation in the computer conference (for similar findings, see Drayton, 1993; King, 2002; McMahon, 1997; Watts & Castle, 1992). Such influences represent important areas for future research.
Features of the course under investigation merit special attention. The focus of the course in this study contrasts in several ways with most other CMC research with practicing teachers. Unlike many previous studies where discussions in computer conferences had a common focus, teachers' conducted individual action research projects, which had many different foci. As teachers indicated, this presented them with the challenge of understanding and responding to several peers' work while simultaneously conducting their own action research. However, it is not clear whether the individual action research projects (in contrast to a common reform or change focus) helped or hindered the frequency or quality of teachers' peer interactions.
Another important feature of the course was that the computer conference occurred in addition to the full complement of face-to-face class meetings. Few studies involving asynchronous CMC in relation to reform have examined both online interaction and face-to-face interaction in such hybrid situations (Hawkes & Romiszowski, 2001, for an exception). This study suggests that a potentially important contextual feature in hybrid situations is whether computer conference interactions replace some face-to-face interactions or occur in addition to regular face-to-face class meetings.
Moreover, in the present study, some teachers indicated in interview data that they preferred face-to-face interaction to the computer conference. This finding is consistent with the findings of Dede, Brown L'Bahy, and Whitehouse (2002), who investigated student preferences for communication across a wide range of interactive media (e.g., threaded discussion sites, virtual environments, groupware, videoconferencing, face-to-face). Dede and his colleagues found that many students preferred face-to-face communication as their first choice of learning medium more than any other interactive media. Although the purpose of this study was not to compare learning outcomes or preferences in face-to-face versus computer conferencing formats, as more "traditional" face-to-face courses incorporate technological instructional delivery methods, the question of how best to respond to student preferences for one medium over another should be addressed.
It was concluded that although contextual influences may have negatively influenced some teachers' participation in the computer conference, the computer conference did serve as a useful "distributed scaffolding model" (Dabbagh, 2003) for peer interactions that fostered teachers' professional development as they conducted individual action research projects. These interactions, in which teachers both provided help to peers and benefited from the help provided by peers, offered emotional and intellectual peer support and fostered reflective thinking related to cultural perspectives on the teachers' classrooms, students, and teaching practices.
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University of South Carolina
Columbia, SC USA
EVEL YN JACOB
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA USA
Table 1 Frequency of Postings Across the CIP Steps and Over Time Postings Period Postings CIP Project Step Occurred Owners Peers Instructors Total Step 1: Select Focus Nov.-Jan. 77 83 45 205 Step 2: Summarize Nov.-Jan. 47 37 34 118 Information Step 3: Consider Dec.-Jan. 45 44 42 131 Alternative Questions Step 4: Gather/ Jan.-Mar. 72 48 38 158 Analyze Information Step 5: Develop/ Jan.-Mar. 73 54 46 173 Implement Interactions Step 6: Monitor Jan.-Mar. 51 40 33 124 Processes and Results Table 2 Frequency of Passages Across Interaction Codes and Teacher Roles* Interaction Codes Owners Peers Journaling: Reports progress on individual project 308 17 Requesting: Requests information or assistance 47 209 Answering: Answers requests for information or assistance 131 81 Prompting to Journal: Prompts owner to report on project 0 171 Reflective Thinking: Reflects on information from new 56 97 perspective or in way facilitating deeper understanding Evaluating: Evaluates progress, accomplished work or a 12 109 choice made Supporting: Offers support to a participant (e.g., "Hang 2 89 in there") Connecting: Connects to own experience 2 58 Prompting for Response: Prompts owner to respond 39 8 Concrete Suggesting: Provides a concrete suggestion 0 43 (e.g., "collect this data") Expressing Emotion: Expresses emotion (e.g., "I'm 23 11 frustrated") Suggesting External Resources: Suggest resources such as 4 15 a book or notes from another course Responding to External Offer: Responds to offer for 7 0 external resources (e.g. "Yes, I'd like a copy") Getting External Resources: Offers to get a resource and 1 5 bring it to a participant Summarizing: Summarizes material 3 2
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|Publication:||Journal of Technology and Teacher Education|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2006|
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