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MirandaNet Fellowship Casestudy

Membership List | Publications | Research | Specialist Area List | Braided Learning Ejournal

Crossing professional boundaries

by Christina Preston, John Cuthell and Andrea Raiker

Christina Preston

Year of posting: 2013


In this short paper we investigate some innovative ways in which ‘communities of practice’ use digital technologies to leverage the power of collaborative learning by publishing their evidence and impacting on institutional policy. The value of a collaborative long term professional perspective on educational issues is the position of the MirandaNet Fellowship, an international ‘community of practice’ established in 1992. In the collaborative sharing that MirandaNet advocates, strategies for leveraging community trust have to be mutually developed and understood over many years if innovation is to be introduced.


In recent years a particular focus of MirandaNet research and practice has been the consideration of the processes and products of collaborative learning and the ways in which they might serve the needs of the ‘Active Professional’ (Sachs 2003)

Here we look at the evidence from two episodes when collaborative learning occurred in continuing professional development (CPD) within the two models that are now available to educators: formal post graduate learning where the syllabus is agreed by tutors and accreditation boards; and informal learning in professional organisations that manage their own learning agenda, develop new knowledge and use peer review for quality control. We argue that the models for formal and informal learning are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and formal learning can be improved by the adoption of some of some collaborative techniques. The opportunity is strengthened because, in the last three decades, digital technologies have made collaboration across professional boundaries – silos – much easier to achieve. But can this phenomenon be valued and funded in the formal education system? The underlying conundrum is that most educators are not strongly motivated to explore the value of collaboration, at a time when educational accountability often seen predicated on individual test scores.

The research project discussed in this paper attempts to increase understanding of the processes involved in learning through collaboration by considering the following questions:

Does CPD facilitated through remotely authored digital concept mapping enable learners to transition personal and social liminal space?

Does CPD facilitated through remotely authored digital concept promote the creation theory?

Can the processes involved be regarded as transformational?

Does CPD conducted through remotely authored digital concept have any benefits over the traditional face-to-face classroom environment?

Can the collaborative artefacts derived from this kind of activity be used by professionals to influence policy makers?

Should educators consider whether some changes in the examination of formal professional learning might be overdue ?

What the research says

This section draws on a variety of the research evidence that underpins our work.

Approaches to formal professional learning

Accredited programmes are carefully structured to facilitate professional learning, and yet students often struggle to understand the concepts they are being taught. According to Meyer and Land (2006), this struggle takes place in an individual’s liminal space. One metaphor for liminal space is a mental tunnel connecting two knowledge areas, one area being existing knowledge and the other new knowledge (Raiker, 2010). Some learners would pass through the tunnel to access an enlarged area of extended learning. Others would pass into the tunnel but find the new knowledge ‘troublesome’ and counter-intuitive; these learners could not apply the knowledge of one area to another because the relationship was meaningless to them (Lather, 1998; Perkins, 1999). A learner finding knowledge troublesome would be ‘stuck’ in the tunnel of liminal space. Finding the new learning troublesome s/he will oscillate between the area containing the current state of knowledge and understanding and the other containing the new learning. S/he will attempt to master the tacit knowledge s/he already has of the new knowledge together with attempted understandings and even misunderstandings of the subject specific language, the subject matter, subject landscape and even worldview afforded by this new perspective. The old, comfortable understanding is no longer sufficient yet s/he cannot progress to the extended area because the new knowledge is either not understood or misunderstood. However, Raiker (2010) has found that tutors can act in the Brunerian sense (1986) as scaffolds to support them traversing liminal space. Indeed, liminal space can be equated with Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, defined by Vygotsky as being ‘… the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers’ (1986:78). Tutor facilitation in face-to-face situations can be the trigger to enable understanding for the individual or individuals: a process based on socio-constructivism (Vygotsky, 1986) mediated by language that is open to variations of interpretation. These variations in interpretation hinder the transfer of concepts from one knowledge domain to another (Stephani et al., 2007). In traditional face-to-face encounters, the use of verbal language is supported by non-verbal factors such as tone, gesture and body language.

However, blended learning with a strong online element is now well established in formal postgraduate professional learning. Various multimedia and multimodal resources can be used to support verbal interaction, but usually these also depend on language. Social virtual platforms and Internet tools allow more social collaboration as well as formal learning to take place outside the classroom. This communal pot is now global, the potential for enrichment immense. The Internet can provide all the subject knowledge any individual or group of teachers might wish to acquire, but there has to be more than information. There has to be understanding. Understanding is achieved through the application of the reflective skills of analysis, evaluation and synthesis to subject knowledge and practice (Raiker, 2010). Using social virtual environments widens the opportunities for teachers to increase their subject knowledge, apply reflective skills and increase understanding. Through application to their classroom experiences, their understanding of the processes underlying teaching and learning increases. Teachers are able to use this pedagogical knowledge to enhance the learning of their pupils and students, and to influence the pedagogy of their colleagues. The intention would be to raise cognition through critical reflection, analysis and evaluation, leading to the synthesis of new learning (Raiker, 2011).

Salmon (2002) indicates that promoting social learning on a formal course is not always successful, despite good intentions. She has analysed the five steps of learning that take place when a course is run entirely online: access and motivation; online socialisation; information exchange; knowledge construction; and development. Salmon has concerns that the stage of ‘knowledge construction’ tends to happen when students are writing their essays in isolation – in a silo, in fact. She suggests that it would be fruitful in the development stage, the fifth step, if students came back to the classroom and shared collaboratively what has been learnt in their individual studies in order to gain new insights into learning together. She comments that this rarely happens because students begin new modules at this stage in new groupings.

In the next section we look at what kind of learning takes place in an informal setting where collaborative approaches have more opportunity to flourish because they are underpinned by digital technologies.

Approaches to informal professional learning

Nowadays professionals are influenced by the demands of digital technologies outside the formal course that are challenging traditional social and cultural practices as well the agency of teachers and learners. The tradition information transmission approach of expert to novice is also being challenged now that the teacher is no longer the gatekeeper to information (Pachler, Bachmair and Cook 2010). Kress and Pachler (2007) warn that associated social, political and economic changing linked with globalization are taking place with a speed that militates against the careful reflection within the education profession typified by formal accredited CPD courses. They ask some ‘troubling’ questions about the gains and losses that are occurring because of the prevalence of technologies in education. They see distinctly new conditions and environments created by technology that are impacting on the experience of learning.

Kress and Pachler outline learning processes that shift from the notion that learning is about acquiring information to the idea that the learner shapes their own knowledge from their own sense of the world – and that this new knowledge created by the learner is valuable. Transition through liminal space is clearly crucial to this process. Kress and Pachler reflect on the issues of meta-collaboration – the circumstances that allow people to communicate remotely across boundaries of status, nationhood and culture that have not been so readily available in the past. However, this widespread opportunity for communication for all does not presuppose that the agents have a critical understanding of the potential partners in knowledge creation and how their abilities and status might relate – a circumstance that MirandaMods can avoid by making the process explicit.

This research project investigates ways in which the meta-collaboration processes enabled by critical reflection, analysis and evaluation leading to synthesis (Raiker, 2010) that are promoted on formal courses might support professional learning offered by more collaborative ways of working in a informal community of practice like a MirandaMod. The kind of informal learning that we are engaged with here is particularly related to the potential of working in a community rather than learning in silos. Hence the metaphor of tunnel, which has been used to describe individual liminal space, is no longer appropriate. When we look at sharing learning, liminal space can be envisaged as essentially inchoate and formless. However, since it is proposed that individuals will progress from one learning state to another through shared liminal space, there must be elements that allow this to happen, including a sense of boundedness. Jung (1978) referred to liminal spaces as boundaries between states of being, where the liminal space offers the possibility of a re-creation of self, where symbolic actions create meaning for all the participants. Conflict, chaos, uncertainty and the breakdown of old structures accompany these actions. Where community learning is advocated, participants are transformed by acquiring new knowledge, a new status and a new identity within a validating community. Liminality brings with it a sense of power and possibility that is in part a release from prior constraints (temporal; spatial; personal; professional) and in part a reflection of the autonomy engendered by the de-stratification of existing professional power relationships of learning (Cuthell, Cych and Preston 2010).

These changes achieved through professional collaboration can have significant impact in society. In defence of this stance we cite Vygotsky (1986), for example, whose well known research on learning with others underpins most formal professional learning. Is there a difference in attitudes to learning between professionals engaged in formal or informal learning? A professional on a formal course can be reluctant to give up the extra time they perceive social learning will demand, and yet the same professional who joins informal continuing professional development community voluntarily is actively seeking to spend time traversing liminal space with colleagues, rather than alone.

Continual Professional Development (CPD) has traditionally taken place in staff rooms or other educational institutions. Carr and Kemmis (1986:221) wrote some years ago when discussing educational action research: “teachers can organize themselves as communities of enquirers, organizing their own enlightenment”. This is still the case. Through acting with purpose in an organised social environment such as a staff room, each individual teacher contributes knowledge and experience to the ‘communal pot’ and then takes back a portion of enriched practice to her/his individual classroom.

In the past collaboration in professional learning has perhaps been stronger in the commercial world, where the establishment of the medieval trade guilds in Europe was the first formal acknowledgement of the power of building ‘communities of practice’ (Wenger 1998). This approach eschews the traditional approach to learning in favour of demanding that all the participants are actively engaged in generating knowledge and knowledge exchange. In this innovative mode of professional learning the traditional power relationships between the expert and the learner are unbalanced. The underlying pedagogical approaches the ‘social interaction’ promoted by Lave and Wenger in the development of the ‘community of practice’ (CoP) concept over nearly two decades (Lave and Wenger, 1991, 1999; Wenger, 1998, 2004; Wenger, MacDermott et al. 2002).
Open Learning is another approach that has been developed by Raiker (in
preparation). In brief, this approach that argues that, despite
substantial integration of technology into learning and teaching,
insufficient emphasis is being placed on learners’ access to the
limitless knowledge available through technology. Loosening of
conventional pedagogic frames (defined by the relationships between the
tutor, the curriculum and the learner) through the mediation of
technology encourages openness to learning.

Whereas Wenger’s work has been influential on the authors of this paper, we now tend now to talk of ‘communities of enquirers’ (Carr and Kemmis 1986), the emphasis being on the members creating their own evidence often using action research methodology. Carr and Kemmis (1986) were writing about ‘communities of enquirers’ before the advent of the worldwide web. Since the early 1990s MirandaNet Fellows’ research has concentrated on the emergent theory and practice of learning in virtual spaces that they call Braided Learning. The Braided Learning image is intended to denote the concept of ideas being woven together by individuals to develop a strong intellectual argument. The theory emphasises teachers’ knowledge building role as they work together, often across national boundaries (Holmes, Tangney et al., 2001; Leask and Younie, 2001, 2002). This ‘communual constructivism’ approach to learning relates to Freire’s notion of the wider value of collaborative learning in social and cultural contexts for professionals who want to take charge of their own agenda. Through their engagement in developing knowledge the professional learners acquire new knowledge and a new identity in the community. The view is that this transformation is of critical importance if learning is to be successful.

Whilst ‘formal learning remotely’ is largely is what has been understood about learning online (Salmon 2002), the concept can now be extended to include these informal spaces in which learning takes place – the liminal spaces that those who push the boundaries of digital possibilities now inhabit intellectually (Preston, Cuthell, Kuechel and Cych, 2009). These versions of liminal space, however, refer to original material being created rather than established concepts being taught – perhaps the difference between a taught Masters programme exploring existing knowledge and a collaborative Masters by research (that does not currently exist) developing unique approaches to knowledge and theory.

In their earlier research into MirandaMods, Cuthell, Cych and Preston (2010) argue that the social liminal space where MirandaNet members are working can be conceptualised in anthropological terms, and contains a range of semiotic elements – visual and written. They also argue that the virtual space where the collaborators are working together is the liminal space where issues are resolved. Raiker argues, in contrast, that the liminal space must finally be in the brain of the individual learning where the transformation takes place. These issues about the concept of liminality and where it resides are still to be resolved amongst the authors of this paper, and may, indeed, be irreconcilable. In addition, the Braided Learning metaphor may have outgrown its usefulness. The image was developed during research into online debates, in which participants appeared to weave written text together to create a linear product. This visualisation does not work as well when collaborative learning involves a virtual space where new knowledge emerges. New metaphors are being actively considered as understanding of collaborative learning improves.

The first hand-drawn collaborative map

The idea of using a concept map as a means recording collaborative professional knowledge in the MirandaNet Fellowship came from a map that was spontaneously produced by educators on a formal M-level course on e-learning. The circumstances were very particular, and yet some general principles emerged about what inspires professionals to engage in informed collaborative action.

We argue that they were inspired to do this by the course, which was designed to empower them as professionals. All the students of the elearning module were established educators and the way in which the course was designed on action research principles was intended to reinforce their autonomy in professional practice.

The theoretical underpinning of the module drew on Somekh (1989; 1995; 2005; 2007) who developed Schön’s action research approach (1987) with particular reference to professional learning in digital technologies (Somekh and Davis 1997): shared practice, collaborative learning networks and scholarly reflection on practice. The programme designers developed action research principles as a means of transforming not only the practice of the educators but also the organisation in which they worked. Their senior management team had to agree that action research topic was important in implementing the schools action plan.

A ‘community of practice’ atmosphere was built up because, instead of meeting each week, the educators met for three two-day residential workshops and kept in touch online in between. This gave more time for team building. Using a map for collaborative knowledge recording was possible because the educators were already using the maps for evaluating their own learning throughout the course and, as a result, some used mapping as a tool in their action research projects.

Novakian ‘concept maps’ (2002) and Buzan’s ‘mind maps’ (2000) were shown as examples.


Figure 1: Novak Concept Map


Figure 2: Buzan Mind Map

However it was emphasised to the students that there were many other possible shapes that were all acceptable. They had twenty minutes to draw a map that was headed:

The impact of computers on my personal and professional life.

At the end of the course a year later the students drew another map with the same heading. They were then encouraged to compare their two maps in order to define how their concepts of elearning had changed because of the action research intervention. Some students indicated that concept maps are not universally intuitive. Nevertheless, others who had some experience of mapping enthused the group, especially those who used concept maps for teaching.


Figure 3. Collaborative map created by M-level students.

At the end of course evaluation of learning educators were shown the Novak methods of scoring maps by adding up the nodes and links to denote cognitive activity. This they rejected in favour of a study of the words used in the maps and a semiotic reading that analysed the shapes. One of the reasons for asking the educators to engage in discussing appropriate methodologies for reading maps was to break down the traditional division between tutor and student, examiner and examined, researcher and subject. This approach was emphasised by encouraging them to critique the different methods of map analysis in group discussions. Indeed the most profitable understanding of the maps for the whole group came from these discussions where they examined each other’s maps and talking about their learning progress.

This M-level module on e-learning drew on the encompassing term used by the UK government at that time to denote digitally mediated learning and e-facilitation (DfES 2003). In addition, the government were conducting a consultation on e-learning, at a time when there was very little practice and evidence of its value in learning. As these educators were presenting their action research projects to one another at the final session, members of the Department for Education (DfE) were invited to hear the evidence that the educators had uncovered in their projects. When they had seen all the action research projects six of the Master students created the collaborative map in the coffee break, which they then presented to the DFE representatives. This was after the formal learning period had been completed and their assignments had been submitted.

This complex diagram extends the formal notions of how a concept map should be constructed, although it is clearly inspired by mapping techniques. The aim is to show how e-learning ebbs and flows from the learning of skills to the creation of knowledge. The words on the map indicate these educators’ grasp of the role of e-learning in social interaction, and the collaborative learning envisaged between the teacher and the learner. The detailed diagram attempts to indicate this dynamic iterative movement through arrows and swirling lines and shapes. Fixed points show how the teacher intervenes and scaffolds the process of learning. The key driver is the emancipation and empowerment of the independent learner contributing to knowledge creation (Preston and Cuthell, 2005).

A remotely authored digital map

Attendance at a MirandaMod is voluntary and those who attend are committed to the notion of sharing knowledge informally in a community of practice. This is different from formal learning where an agreed body of knowledge is to be communicated. The map in Figure 4 ‘Should Teachers Blog?’ is one of a series of MirandaMod maps produced over six hours by MirandaNet members. The first maps recording invited speakers comments on blogs had been developed from a more conventional seminar on blogging. The next two hours were spent in a workshops lead by a well-known blogger. Members used the maps in this session to note his ideas for those who would not be there. Tweeting was also being used. This final debate on blogging took place between 1800 – 2100 hrs (GMT). The educators debated perspectives on blogging issues like personal safety and creative freedom versus restrictions from senior managers. This session involved some twenty-six online and twelve face-to-face participants – thirty-eight in total. Some of the daytime participants had left at this point and others had joined. Nineteen were building the map during the debate and all the participants joined in for the last 30 minutes was spent building and consolidating this collaborative perspective on the blogging landscape for other teachers. This final map (Figure 10a) was the most complex, and the result of collaboration between participants interacting face-to-face and online. The session involved a number of technologies: MindMeister; video images streamed to the web through; multiple online conferencing through FlashMeeting.

The size and depth of this map is not well reproduced on paper and readers can see the full map here ( Because this map is interactive and layered it cannot be reproduced effectively on paper. Usually maps are reduced to the main branches so that the main points can be seen on one screen. In this way viewers can investigate the links at leisure. A collaborative map built over about two hours can become unmanageable in size and reach in a conventional classroom, unless all the students have access to the web.

You can view the map here.

Four hours had already been dedicated to different aspects of blogging, including learning how to blog. Looking back at the other maps it can be observed that the map-makers in Figure 5 do not repeat the same issues again but develop a new range of perspectives on the subject, such as: ‘providing a relevant platform for students’; ‘establishing an identity’; ‘blogs as a form of personal learning’; ‘internal uses of blogs as a communication tool’; and ‘drawing on the benefits of serendipity’.

As would be expected, most statements are in oral rather than written style, and quite combative: ‘ if you are here you are 90% ahead of everyone else even if you are a beginner’; Other comments are couched as a provocative questions; ‘why are you writing a blog?’; ‘what picture of your will your audience pick up?’; ‘Do teachers have time to use blog for reflection? Do they care about reflection enough?

The power of microblogging and the dangers, as well as the relationship to blogging itself is identified; ‘do you use a blog to answer questions or Twitter?’; ‘how undermining for teachers is Twitter? Can they handle it?’ There is also an example of the kind of undermining that, in this case, is meant in good humour: ‘how many people are hiding behind attention deficit syndrome when they are twittering in sessions?’

Sometimes the speaker’s name is noted: sometimes not. After this first pilot of the web-enabled concept map all speakers were invited to add notes, resources and URLs that might be useful.


Figure 5: Should teachers blog: the Wordle

An analysis of the maps produced earlier in the day, that were more factual, the Wordle analysis produced clear pictures of the key issues in blogging. But these maps were more factual, based on a series of expert inputs. In the analysis of the MirandaMod at the end of the session it is not surprising that the Wordle analysis highlights emotive and colloquial vocabulary on the map that relates to debate and to identity: dumping; contentious; rants; anonymity; and need. Many of the other preoccupations are about managing a blog and about software that might be helpful. In this case the Wordle is not as illuminating as the concept map.


The first spontaneous map shows the capacity to analyse and theorise clearly as a group, using the evidence from their action research studies. This map, therefore, provides some valuable observations about what kind of learning design promotes collaborative higher order thinking.

When they were interviewed the six mapmakers said that they had been inspired by the evidence they had just seen from the nineteen presentations of action research evidence produced by colleagues. They were also keen to present some conclusive evidence about e-learning in schools to feed into the DfES consultation. By this time their individual assignments were submitted for accreditation, but presentations to each other had been timetabled in at the end of the course, to see whether some greater truths presented themselves. In a sense this was a taster of doctoral work.

The course in some ways became part of the MirandaNet community informal learning agenda. Some of the students were already MirandaNet members and nearly all the others joined during or after the course. Also afterwards a group of educators from the Masters course formed themselves into a working group and published articles for three years after the course was over (Howell-Richardson and Preston 2007: 2008). One of the group of six went on to do a doctorate. Most of this small map became the inspiration for what could be done about sharing professional knowledge in MirandaMods.

The second MirandaMod map, one of a series, shows that the digital collaborative maps are so rich as a resource that they could be used for formal or informal continuing professional development. Extra tasks might involve: researching the various links; reading more blogs; developing the notes as an article; or simply getting in touch with an established blogger. Certainly one issue that emerged is the depth of knowledge and understanding about blogging, and incidentally microblogging, that a professional would have had difficulty researching for themselves in 2008. Those running formal courses could also use this method for introducing important new technologies that are not in the curriculum – a frequent problem in a course about digital technologies in education.

In terms of higher order thinking, the scaffolding by community experts provides resources that could lead to higher levels of thinking. Perhaps a new map created after the session, with the intention of taking this collaborative thinking to a higher level, would have made more of the excellent information available to the viewer. More scaffolding in achieving higher order thinking for the mapmakers before the MirandaMod is one method that is being explored for stimulating analysis, summary and evaluation processes simultaneously with the map construction.

What has not been resolved is how to analyse the maps. We have rejected the independent scoring of maps in other studies as too mechanistic a way of analysing cognitive activity. (Impact 11). Independent scoring also divorces the mapmaker from learning from the maps.

Wordle analysis seems to be effective for trends and for emotive issues but not for identifying or analysing higher order thinking. Another method we have tried is tracking the development stages in collaborative learning. This can be done because the digital map we use has a timeline, which allows us to see how the map has been constructed over time and who has made the contributions, alterations and changes.

In an earlier paper Cuthell and Preston (2009) worked on the development of all those stages that led to the production of the web-enabled map in Figure 4. But all the stages of the research are best explored on the web, since reproducing all the stages of the map in print is not technically easy: the maps are too big and multi-layered. In our paper ( there is a commentary on each figure to draw attention to the additions, subtractions and organising that occur during the period of the debate and in the several days afterwards.

What we found was that the map in Figure 4 is therefore the result of a number of inter-related processes, all of which are collaborative: adding, editing, inserting, moving, renaming, repositioning. Analytical charts in the paper show the overall distribution of activity in this map. What is more interesting, however, is to see the inter-relationship of actions, particularly those of inserting and repositioning. These are clearly shown on the graphs that accompany the activity tables for each map. They plot the frequency of each activity across the progress of the map creation.

In our paper Figure 12 shows the repositioning process as one in which nodes are moved across the map, from one side to another. Moving described the process in which nodes or sub-nodes are moved to become nodes or sub-nodes on another link. In this activity the mapmakers add their thoughts to those of others as they become more developed. Moving can often be observed during the final stages of the map, as a process of consolidation, either by adding specific detail to more general concepts or by transferring nodes or sub-nodes to other links to expand concepts. The removing process is analogous to pruning: redundant links and nodes are removed, often after others have been moved or repositioned.

At the end of the process, and in the following days, much more restructuring and repositioning took place.

Effective analysis of the maps might be an important route to pursue if accreditation of collaborative work becomes a possibility. An essential is that the educator is aware of how the process can lead to higher order thinking and is involved in the analysis. If this does not happen then participants have no ownership of their learning. These strategies come from Novak’s method of map evaluation. He teaches pupils how to construct a map together, so that they know exactly how it will be evaluated and scored. This way the group is stimulated to help each other. However, the subjects of these maps tend to be factual, from science and maths – can this be done with new knowledge?

Overall these results seem to suggest that informal professional learning organised by members of a professional organisation might have a place in supporting and extending formal periods of learning and in stimulating higher order thinking as a group. We can return to our conclusions from 2010 about the value of the maps, which serve three main purposes:

to create a record of the event;
to stimulate thinking and debate in another space and dimension than either the face-to-face environment or the virtual FlashMeeting;
to facilitate new thinking that can support professional development and feed back into the institution.
But we also have some new details about what is useful. What was significant in the final map about blogging in Figure 4 was that, unlike the other maps, in which the oral contributions and ideas from participants proceeded in a more linear and sequenced fashion, this session was much less structured. Ideas were developed and built on throughout the session. In the general analysis of the interactions it was easier to see the general effect of participant activity, as the concept map grew larger. Particularly what was seen in the largest map was the effect of trying to prune and shape a bush – at the same time as other contributors were adding new growth. When users are working on the same mind map in brainstorming mode every change is replicated instantly to other editors’ screens via the MindMeister server. This final stage was the result of rearrangement that took place in the days following the MirandaMod. The final map is more clearly sequenced. Working collaboratively in this way probably requires more community practice in order to move to the next stages of knowledge creation, which is the next stage of our research.

The detailed examination of the process involved in creating the maps, and tracking the activities in which mapmakers engaged during their creation, resulted in the identification of some processes that could be named and analysed: graphs were produced for each map to illustrate the process. Data was downloaded from each map: the interactions were then extracted and analysed.

The most important outcome was that identification of seven types of activity were identified in the creation of the maps.

Adding – a note, connection, text or a style or format to text in the map.
Editing – changing the content of text in a node.
Inserting – a new node or sub-node.
Moving – text or data from one node to another.
Removing – deleting a node or a link.
Renaming – a node.
Repositioning – a node or sub-node from one area of the map to another.
For the purpose of analysis each activity was represented as a percentage of the overall number of activities within each map. The insertion of nodes, sub-nodes and links, and their repositioning, is the most frequent action identified in each map. Repositioning is the next most frequent activity. Editing was the least frequent activity, even though the mapmakers had a number of days after each event to continue working on the maps – and, indeed, they all did so. Yet editing would seem to be the action that leads to higher-level cognitive processes such as summary, evaluation and analysis. In order for the community to progress it seems that more explicit knowledge about how these maps can be developed as well as practice in the process would have benefits.


We posed a number of questions:

Does CPD facilitated through remotely authored digital concept mapping enable learners to transition personal and social liminal space?

Does CPD facilitated through remotely authored digital concept promote the creation theory?

Can the processes involved be regarded as transformational?

Does CPD conducted through remotely authored digital concept have any benefits over the traditional face-to-face classroom environment?

Can the collaborative artefacts derived from this kind of activity be used by professionals to influence policy makers?

Should educators consider whether some changes in the examination of formal professional learning might be overdue ?

In response to these, the two case studies show that CPD can be facilitated through remotely authored digital concept mapping, which enable learners to transition personal and social liminal space. However, only in the first case study can we see that the creation of the map has encouraged the development of theory. So these two questions need to be answered together defining collaborative development of theory as one layer higher than the kind of higher level thinking we are trying to develop in formal and informal learning at post graduate level.

The opportunity to see the evidence of all the other action research studies on e-learning was a key to the inspiration to push them beyond the course remit and produce a map of e-learning theory for discussion and submission to the national consultation. This level of thinking is at doctoral level – but the collaborative aspect takes their originality beyond a level that can be rewarded academically. Does this render the exercise pointless and impossible to replicate? Indeed, currently this collaborative map would find few places where it could receive formal academic accreditation. But it does have a value as a resource to move a community of enquirers forward if the conditions are correctly set.

If we define the passage through liminal space as learning to summarise, evaluate and analyse then there is also higher level thinking engendered in the second case study. The evidence is of repositioning of the mapping resources by the group shows collaboration and sharing, but limited evidence of the editing which should be representative of higher order thinking. Analysis of the words used on the maps shows much of interest, but when we examine the transitions of the map we find that there are very few edits. If the editing process is seen in learning terms as the habit of analysis, summary and evaluation then these MirandaMods do not appear to have reached their full potential.

However, there is much more work to do to replicate and communicate appropriate conditions again so that these are not left to chance. Appropriate conditions emerge from the two case studies. The main point is that a sense of a democratic community was developed during this M-level module, and 75% of the participants were either already MirandaNet members or joined during their study. So six students who were already long-term MirandaNet colleagues, and who had shared mapping exercises that helped them through liminal space, created the concept map about e-learning theory. The mapping process had been taught and practised: they were confident and shared trust.


Conditions that might encourage collaborative higher-level thinking emerge from the interviews with mapmakers as advice for tutors or community leaders to:

motivate through accreditation, collaboration and opportunity to effect change;
facilitate time to develop necessary skills for creating and evaluating; knowledge creation tools and the social virtual environment;
allow for residential workshops each term;
provide an audience for publication;
provide access to professionals in other national and international communities of practice wherever possible;
develop a sustainable Knowledge Hub where all resources developed are made available to the community of enquirers, and where new knowledge and evidence-based theory can be created as a result;
promote the use of online digital technologies to maximise flexibility of where and when the programme is accessed and what kinds of knowledge creation can be achieved;
to provide a choice for educators in the ways in which they wish to be assessed, whether the learning programme is formal or informal, as well as the mode in which they want to present their assignments, so that written essays are not always mandatory.
Overall the concept is that the community, whether formal or informal, should allow members to undertake different action research modules at different levels and develop projects collaboratively. In this way those who do not require formal accreditation can still share the learning. Learners should be advised to join a community of enquirers before, during and after their study so that study breaks are not total This community can also provides a route for publication so that when real transformation occurs in a system as a result of an action research study this can be published and rewarded as a collaborative effort.

We also posed the question of whether this kind of social learning environment can engineer a transformation in the learners’ sense of professional identity through publishing and undertaking a doctorate. The outcomes indicate that both personal identity can be transformed through publication and taking on a doctorate. In addition the profession can be transformed when the collaborative artefacts derived from this kind of activity are deployed by professionals to influence policy makers locally, nationally or even nationally. Policy documents based on the evidence of action research studies are particularly powerful.

A further question was to ask whether learning activities using remotely authored digital concept have any benefits over the traditional face-to-face classroom environment. In the two case studies we have one example of collaborative learning (without technology) that promotes high level thinking. In the second case study we have high levels of technology and some limited evidence that in the right conditions and with the right scaffolding the higher levels of thinking can be stimulated.

More research needs to be done to see how far learning achievement can be in the right conditions and with the right scaffolding. But the engagement of so many participants in the final blogging map suggests that in a community of enquirers there is a real need amongst members for up to date resources that formal courses alone cannot provide. In the second study the community of enquirers have met that need by creating a tradition of MirandaMods where they work collaboratively to share the professional knowledge they agree they need; in this case a record of the current situation in blogging in education, in the space of seven hours. The community also included remote authors who could not attend in person.

The penultimate question is whether the collaborative artefacts derived from this kind of activity can be used by professionals to influence policy makers. In the MirandaNet community members often ask for information to help them write school development documents and policy reports (Preston 2007). What consolidated the confidence of the six mapmakers in the first study was the backing of their senior management teams, and the fact that they had already having used their evidence to inform and initiate e-learning within their school. They also had the support of their course tutors, who valued their knowledge and created opportunities for them to influence change – in this case a national consultation as well as changes to e-learning practice in their own institutions.

We suggest that is most of the circumstances that create deep professional learning, braided learning, can be replicated in a formal professional programme. But greater professional strength can be achieved if the learners also have available a mature sustainable e-communities of enquirers where views and knowledge both of teacher educators and their students, can be shared to the benefit of all.

Finally, does our study have any importance for developing methods for the formal accreditation of collaborative journeys towards higher order thinking? The direction of collaborative accreditation depends on significant changes in policy that professional organisations such as MirandaNet would need to champion. The members may want to consider whether this is a battle they want to join.

Further research

The next stage of this research into developing higher order skills thinking is to facilitate the development of higher order skills in a MirandaMod called Assessing the value of physical and virtual spaces in enriching learning. The researchers will share strategies for developing the collaborative map that will be growing as the presenters speak. The aim is to see how collaborative knowledge gathering can stimulate higher order thinking within a professional group.

One strategy is to encourage the map makers, as co-researchers, to do more editing of the map as they work based on the previous analysis of how the map grows in the timeline. Another suggestion is that map-makers consciously label their nodes in different ways to indicate what kind of thinking they are engaged in. Nodes labelled either ‘information’ or ‘additional resources’ will indicate where the node is about the facts that are being presented. Labels ‘analysis’, ‘evaluation’ and ‘synthesis’ will indicate that the map-maker is adding to the ideas that are being presented by the expert participants on the floor. The hope is that other map-makers seeing these initiatives will be stimulated into new directions of thought. No doubt the professional group in the MirandaMod who will be creating the map will want to suggest more labels along these lines.

The authors also intend to extend these participatory methodologies to identify the professional voice in the classroom and include it in dialogues on the future of learning – where consultation with teachers is currently limited. There is a need to refine the methods of analysis of the maps that Cuthell, Cych and Preston (2010) cover in the sister paper. In addition by using these methodologies the educators, as co-researchers, can gain agency in influencing local and national policy in order to effect change. In this case the aim will be to bring more educators together as co-researchers to develop some practices for encouraging most impact from the use of maps in a MirandaMod context.





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