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

Efacilitation and Online Communities

An investigation into whether access to, and use of an online community can alter or affect learning outcomes.

Fiona Garrett

Year of posting: 2003


Fiona Garrett – Research Outline GTC Action Research Diploma “Efacilitation and Online Communities” It is possible to view the acquisition of knowledge in four distinct systems. Work completed by Mary Field Belenky and Carol Gilligan defines these systems as follows: Recieved knowledge - listening to the voices of others Subjective knowledge - the inner voice Procedural knowledge - the voice of reason Constructed knowledge - integrating the voices It is the final system that interests me and forms the theoretical base for my research project. In terms of constructivism and the concept of shared/group learning, participation in an internet forum or online community is a powerful tool. The internet has the potential to contribute to a community based approach to learning and provide a method of transfering knowledge and establishing a comminity. This is a powerful tool in that the community is unihibited by physical factors. Within my project I am going to look at online communities and the affect they have on learning gains/oucomes for both students and teachers. I will start 2 separate forums and study the gains made by each group. Using my training as an e-facilitator through the GTC I will train a student for each forum in e-facilitation. I hope to analyse the discussion and the facilitation and apply my skills to steering students e-discussions. In summary: Aim To establish two online communities and asses the learning gains for each Method Both forums will use Students will be given formal access to the site twice a week for an extended period, however they will have informal access as often as the choose. Analysis I intend to: map interactions observe use by both gruops use qualitivtive analysis techniques such as group and one-to-one discussions



GTC Action Research

Efacilitation and Online Communities





An investigation into whether access to, and use of an online community, can alter or affect learning outcomes.




Fiona Garrett





Based at Boston Spa Comprehensive School,

West Yorkshire and Haverstock Secondary School, London









Methodology & Theoretical Perspectives


Review of the Literature


Research Methodology


Findings                      The students’ initial response

                                      What happened as the project progressed?




Final Thoughts


Final Thoughts




















Fiona Garrett - DFEE Best Practice Research Project



An investigation into whether access to, and use of an online community, can alter or affect learning outcomes.




The aim of the project was to study changes in learning outcomes when the user has access to an online learning community.  The study looks at two distinct groups of users, year 11 students and teachers. 


The study develops from one group to the other.  Initial research was carried out with the group of students.  Studies based on the teacher group developed from the conclusions arrived at following the student research.


**** (needs completing – efacilitation, constructed learning)

The study makes use of one particular online community,  This Internet community provides a safe, protected environment in which students and teachers can share ideas and learning with others around the globe.  It gives all members a space in which to create a personalised homepage, post work and communicate with other inside the community.  It is easy to use and therefore can be accessed by learners at all levels.



The students I worked with I the initial part of the study were all in year 11.

In terms of the group’s ICT skills at the onset of the course, most were familiar with basic word processing.  A few had used the Internet, however not as frequently as I thought.  Few of the students had access to a computer at home, thus as a group they were starting with a fairly limited skills/knowledge base.


The staff


*** (needs completing)


Theoretical perspectives & Methodology

The study mostly uses observational research methodology.  Many of the conclusions are drawn from watching the group of students over the period of two terms, and looking in detail at the sites as they progressed.


**** (add staff info – how did I research this group?)


Due to this choice of methodology the project is grounded in an ethnographic approach.  That is to say it is a study that looks closely at the patterns of behaviour amongst the group of the students and teachers in relation to their use of


An understanding of feminist constructs of knowledge is also important.  Research undertaken by Mary Field Belenky and associates, looks at the development of self, voice and mind.  Their work develops research by Carol Gilligan who looks specifically at women’s developmental theory and the notion of ‘voice’.  In the context of ‘development’ Blenkley draws attention to the idea that:

“…’real’ and valued lessons learned did not necessarily grow out of academic work but in relationships with friends and teachers, life crises, and community involvements.”


The acquisition of knowledge is shown to be through four distinct systems: Received knowledge – listening to the voices of others; Subjective knowledge – the inner voice; Procedural Knowledge – the voice of reason; and Constructed knowledge – integrating the voices.  Much of Belenky’s work looks at the two institutions devoted to human development – the family and school, both of which hinder and promote development.


Through the use of extended interviews Belenky concludes that intellectual, ethical and psychological development is not due to the educational setting alone.  In fact learning may occur through a variety of other means beyond a classroom. 


Belenky’s research also focuses on the concept of constructed knowledge, which is an important principle in terms of community learning and efacilitation.  She looks at the ability to contribute to a knowledge base and learn from other members in a community rather than the hierarchical paradigm often promoted by educational institutions.  *** (add – look at the book again)



Add my own methodology here –    observational


                                                            one-to-one discussions

                                                            group discussions



in terms of evidence for the research project was the accompanying observation.  The study is ethnographic in its nature.  I am part of the study and in many ways impact the study through my close involvement. My behaviour will have an effect on the students.  In many ways the whole study was subject to continual modification as relationships changed and my teaching style altered to meet the needs of the students.


Another important factor connected to my role with the students was the ability to engage in ongoing observation of the students’ behaviour.  This provided a strong narrative, which is the main substance of this project.  This narrative is again impacted by a growing relationship with the students involved in the research.  Thus the style of my discussion form here on is more personal than descriptions of the methodology and influential literature.




Review of the Literature 

The issues covered by this research project are wide ranging. 

learning styles and preferences:


·        computers in the classroom and the issues of changing pedagogical styles;

·        a consideration of the physical learning environment and its impact on the learner;

·        the complex issues surrounding the use of the Internet and computers within education;


Much research has been completed regarding learning styles and it is rightly an expanding field of study.  Gardener’s work on multiple intelligence and Piaget’s developmental theory form the backbone of a large body of study into the ways in which we learn and subsequently the pedegogies appropriate within education.


Much of the research surrounding the concept of constructivism leads to the conclusion that a computer-based environment will enhance many learners’ educational experience.  Through an examination of the principals of constructivism Bostock comes to the conclusion that students cannot feel ownership if the learning goals and methods are strictly defined by the teacher.  There must be room for negotiation with the teacher on the content and learning methods.  He concludes that students need to manage their own time and should access their own learning.  Thus an ideal learning environment would be rich in personal interaction with the teacher and other learners. It is therefore important to develop an appropriate learning space in order to improving learning outcomes. 


O’Conner sees disaffection with learning as being in many ways a product of the classroom.  It is possible to trace the lack of motivation, resistance and failure of some students to the fact that school is limited to sequential, verbal presentations combined with uninspired private reading and writing activities.


With this in mind the requirement for a variety of learning contexts would seem to be logical way forward within education.  Computer technology has for many years been the identifiable progression route for teaching and learning.  Thus much of the research surrounding computers and education aims to assess whether this is real progress or just another feature of modern schooling alongside the textbook, paper and pens.


Studies undertaken by Becker in the early eighties revealed that teachers using computers in class were five times as likely to report that computers increased student enthusiasm but couldn’t substantiate the idea that they improved learning outcomes.  In fact many of the subsequent studies have resulted in data establishing the fact that computers have a direct link with students increased motivation.  Cox (1993) showed that computers heightened pupils’ interest and enjoyment and also had a positive effect on the status of the subject.  Cox’s research resulted in the conclusion that use of a computer allowed students to work in an open ended way thereby allowing them to become involved in a more challenging learning situations.  Ryan (1991) writes about improved cooperation amongst members of the class when engaged with computer-based activities.  This was put down to the fact that students are competing with a machine in this context rather than each other thus promoting an altered state within the room.


Later work begins to test the notion that computers can impact thinking skills.  Many researchers have supported the idea that children need to be encouraged to think critically in order to problem solve and be self reflective.  Knight and Knight (1995) argue that computers have a valuable role in this task.


Scrimshaw (1998) studied the ways in which word processors support language development and the impact of the Internet in terms of language and communication.  The Internet develops skills of searching, interpreting and organising information, which Scrimshaw described as providing students with’network’ literacy


This finding is interesting and important as it could be argued that with in the context of many schools much of the teaching and learning online has been a transfer from a didactic teaching methodology of textbooks and a teacher who verbally annotates and explains the lesson, to a computer that replaces the teacher alongside the Internet which removes the need for the textbook.  Thus limiting community learning or constructed knowledge to take place Therefore it is important to consider current research into the use and development of online learning contexts and knowledge sharing.


Alexander and Boud argue that much use of the Internet within teaching is an attempt to ‘automate existing practices’ which ultimately becomes more time consuming and expensive.


Mayes argues that before adopting any new educational technology, pedagogy should be agreed.  He argues that this pedagogy should be founded around constructivism – collaborative learning, authentic tasks and the promotion of identities and learning communities.


Interestingly throughout my reading I found little written about the concept of wider educational communities, the virtual community and the changing shape of personal interaction.  In addition to this much of the research is based on higher education rather than secondary schools.


Using ICT is experiential learning.  Cuthell (2000) refers to the notion of cybersemiotics and the ideas that ICT involves the student in learning the language of screen icons.


I feel my research begins to extend the notions of motivation and learning outcomes in the context of ICT, the Internet and the on-line community.



*** (needs completing – salmon etc. – point out not related to school compulsory education rather motivated, mature learners..  add x2 paragraphs)


Stage 1 - Students

Findings from the student based part of the study – do I want to keep this in  the project???

Due to the nature of the course and emphasis within the programme on independent work, I decided to introduce the various members of the group to separately.   Prior to using I had worked individually with most members of the group assisting them with their English.  Each student had their own programme of study tailored to meet their needs in terms of the subject and, to some extent, learning styles.  Therefore within English lessons the classroom was not operating in a traditional teacher-led environment.  This seemed an ideal situation in which to introduce students to  I felt that they had the space necessary to individually discover the on-line community.


In this context I hoped to provide students with access to the site and then leave them to discover the possibilities through personal exploration.  I perceived the site as relatively easy to negotiate and thought that the process of unravelling its potential would provide many exciting learning opportunities.


This proved to be a false assumption.  The process of visualising the end result and negotiating their way towards such an ill-defined end result defied their working practices.  Without tangible objectives the students were not keen to engage with a discovery process.  Their motivation remained low and the possibilities of having their own web page seemed to leave them unmoved.


For all the students on the course, continual access to computers meant a gradual change in their ability with and tolerance towards technology.  This was interesting in itself.  Unlike other members of the school who had designated times in special computer rooms, students on the Alternative Curriculum could use a computer at any point in the day.  The hardware very quickly became an integral part of the fabric of the room.  This was helpful in terms of  A student such as Paul was able to access his site at any point.  He had the potential to interact with the community throughout the day.


At first students using Think would only log on during their English lesson.  In other words they regarded Think as part of a subject and only to be accessed at times when the subject was being taught.  I found this interesting.  Students were used to regarding anything associated with a teacher as work and therefore something to avoid or disrupt.  They were also used to being told what to do and being given very prescriptive tasks.  It took a long time to deconstruct this idea and convince than that they could own their sites and be creative with them.



Conclusions from the student based part of the study

This project has prompted a large range of conclusions.  Many arise from fragments of conversations with the students involved, some come from

viewing the students’ sites, and others are observations I made of the students throughout the year.  In essence the conclusions are formed around the same categories as my initial literature review learning , computers and on-line learning.  Thus I have clustered my findings roughly into the same groupings.


You must have the flexibility to ignore the conventions of the ‘classroom’.

A formal structure of teacher led learning is difficult to accommodate when students are using computers instead of pens and paper. In terms of the physical structure of a computer room there are often obvious differences to the regular classroom.  In Boston Spa Comprehensive students sit with their faces to the wall looking at the screens.  They do not face the front, therefore in order to look at a teacher positioned at the front of the class room students have to turn round and change their focus.  This may sound like an obvious point, however the positioning of the students within the room makes great differences to the possible interactions.  Students are engaging with the screen, not a human being. 


There are both positive and negative connotations to this conventional change.  Removing focus from the teacher deconstructs the students’ perception of a learning space.  However I believe providing a range of possible interactions is preferable.  Therefore more creative organisation of the classroom could offer students space to interact with the machinery and other human beings without having to continually move to and from their screens.


Within the room assigned to the Alternative Curriculum the computers were positioned along one wall, however the rest of the room was organised to offer movement and thus different spaces for interaction. 


Although not perfect, I found this altered focus and working environment to be of great benefit to both my relationship with the students, and the work ethos within the group.  It is much easier to engage with students who have largely rejected teachers and the formal school environment if they are not forced to focus on you as the teacher.  Interestingly, staring at a screen facilitates conversation and removes the awkward pressure of making eye contact - something many students who fall into the category of ‘disaffected’ find difficult.  As opposed to the usual frustrations of slow connections and general problems with Internet access, collectively waiting provides legitimate space for a conversation. 


Looking at and discussing information displayed on a screen objectifies the discussion.  It becomes transactional.  The conversation is based on changes and suggestions which can be implemented quickly and cleanly rather than the more intrusive red pen corrections on an exercise book. 


The natural differentiation that the technology allows is ideal for a group of this kind.

Students can work at their own pace and make as great or as little use of the technology as their ability allows.  Students are allowed to develop their skills and understanding of the site.  They are able to develop their ‘Think’ language and the speed at which they do this determines the way in which they will be able to use the site.  The principles of mixed ability teaching


The lack of pressure on the students to produce a formal outcome (assessed work) gave them the freedom to control the content rather than have it dictated to them.

This was significant in attracting students to the programme in the first place.  Most of the students on the course had consistently failed to achieve in an ‘academic’ context.  Test, examinations and assessments are points within school life at which all students on this course had failed.  By this I mean they had not achieved the required standard.  Much of their disaffection is measured through their lack of success with formal testing.  This raises a range of interesting questions, primarily whether assessment is an appropriate way to measure success.  I question the validity of the current assessment system.  I believe it to be controlling and non-inclusive.  In my opinion the demand for measurable results places gross restrictions on teaching and learning.  It is quick to exclude students who find this particular process difficult and are unable to display their skill in any other context/forum.  Removing this stain from this group allowed a more flexible approach to teaching and learning.


Most students need to see the potential of the site the first time they look at it in order to engage with it.

A quick tour around the community was required for the students in this particular class.  I discovered that they don’t have the patience or motivation at the outset to explore alone.  I suspect this would be different amongst a group of more able students.  Thus it is an important conclusion to draw as it dictates the pedagogical style required.


The girls seemed more interested initially in the idea of a ‘global’ audience for their ideas.

This I found to be a very interesting observation.  I had thought that the girls would enjoy the opportunity to construct something they perceived as worth looking at.  I also imagined they would enjoy the chance to express themselves in their own space.  However, the function Amy was most interested in were those that invited a large audience.  I decided this desire to appeal to the wider audience was possibly connected to girls’ increased communication abilities. gives students the ability to construct their identity through language. 

This conclusion is interesting in the light of the fact that most students on the Alternative Curriculum have avoided using written words for many years. The opportunity for personal voice is a very significant part of the ideology.  As my initial interviews revealed, most of the students classed as disaffected lacked a sense of voice within the context of the school.  This was primarily due to the fact that their ‘voice’ was often heard at inappropriate times and thus silenced. gives them a new voice.  As with all computer identities, users are able to present themselves to the world in any way that they wish.


Feedback from the virtual audience has a very important impact on the students’ view of their own page and motivation towards the project.

The opportunity to receive recognition within Think is very different to the usual school structure, which is that of the teacher praising the student.  Anyone can visit your home page and admire your work.  Therefore the amount of recognition a student can potentially receive for their work is infinitely more than in school. This is due to the number of possible visitors with their own thoughts about what constitutes good or bad.

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