CHAPTER 7: CONCLUSIONS
This study set out to provide answers to the following four research questions:
- What are the conceptions of the EDN project regarding teacher development practice in learning communities?
- Are teachers currently participating in EDN courses experiencing the development of a learning community, as envisaged by the course developers?
- If so, can that community be regarded as a form of community of practice, in Wengerian terms?
- From the above analysis, what suggestions can be made regarding future teacher development policy and practice in South Africa?
As the product of a single, relatively small case study, the findings in respect of these questions are not necessarily generalisable to other teacher development projects. Furthermore, the analysis described here was conducted for the most part on existing data which had been collected by SchoolNet SA. It was based almost exclusively on the espoused comments of project developers, participants and mentors. No detailed attempt has been made in this study to examine the course materials themselves, the work submitted by participants, or the detail of the e-mail interactions among the participants and mentors. Similarly the statistical analysis conducted here was unable to be controlled for possibly relevant external variables, such as the composition of individual groups (gender, level of previous education, level of teaching experience, etc) or the character of individual schools from which participants were drawn. The findings of this study therefore cannot be regarded as conclusive without the support of further research.
With these limitations in mind, the answers to the first two questions are set out in detail in Chapters 5 and 6, and are summarised briefly below.
7.1 The concept of the EDN project
The Educators’ Development Network is explicitly intended by its developers to address, at least in part, the problems of access and cost posed by South African teacher development needs as discussed in Chapter 3 of this study. Further, three key conceptual principles can be identified as underlying the project design:
- Situated learning
- Broker support
- Community participation
The conception of learning employed in the project can thus be described as well aligned with Wenger’s notion of brokered, situated learning in communities of practice. A reservation was however expressed in the analysis that, by deliberately creating learning communities which are widely geographically dispersed, the EDN developers might be deviating from the findings of international research on best teacher development practice.
7.2 The experience of the EDN learning communities
An exploration of participants’ experience of the EDN suggests that where perceptions of effective brokering and community support are present, more successful learning outcomes on the part of participating teachers accompany them. The EDN mentors are perceived to have a significant positive impact on most participants’ learning, and the project has garnered high approval rates among participating teachers (see section 6.3). Among the vast majority of the population examined here, however, levels of community participation and situated learning in the school/classroom presented themselves as relatively low (see sections 6.2 and 6.4). Thus while the brokering element of the EDN concept appears to be working successfully, less success has been achieved in facilitating situated learning and active participation in online learning communities. The full emergence of online learning communities as envisaged by the project developers has thus apparently not taken place.
In attempting to answer the third research question, this study will now discuss the experience of the EDN learning community in the context of Wenger’s theory of learning as social participation.
7.3 The EDN learning communities considered as communities of practice
Wenger makes the point that not all groups, even where they share common practices, can be regarded as communities of practice in the strict sense. Central to the notion of the community of practice is the presence of deep inter-reliance and relations of mutuality between members – a quality that Wenger refers to as “engagement”:
“The work of engagement is basically the work of forming communities of practice. As such, it requires the ability to take part in meaningful activities and interactions, in the production of sharable artefacts, in community-building conversations, and in the negotiation of new situations. It implies a sustained intensity and relations of mutuality.”
(Wenger, 1998, p. 184)
The analysis of teacher perceptions as outlined in Chapter 6 suggests that development of communities of practice, in this strict sense, in the EDN project is rather limited. Participation in the online communities presents itself as much too sparse to persuade the observer that the relations of mutuality to which Wenger refers have evolved significantly among participants.
As indicated in the previous chapter, the EDN developers suggest a number of cogent reasons for the lack of participation by teachers in the online learning communities. These range from a lack of ICT literacy, to heavy school workloads, to a timid reluctance among participants to expose themselves to public sharing and criticism. Another possible explanation for this lack of mutuality is that the EDN learning communities may be excessively divorced from the other communities in which participants are members. Some researchers (e.g. Ward, 1999) have concluded that virtual communities find it difficult to prosper without the social meanings generated by at least some overlap with associated physical communities.
The EDN team deliberately separates teachers from the same school when setting up the learning communities – with the best intentions of eliciting diverse perspectives among participants. It may be, however, that in the process they are encouraging an artificial sense of isolation from the school contexts in which participants’ learning is meant to be applied.
“Communities of practice cannot be considered in isolation from the rest of the world, or understood independently of other practices. Their various enterprises are closely interconnected. Their members and their artefacts are not theirs alone. Their histories are not just internal; they are histories of articulation with the rest of the world.”
(Wenger, 1998, p 103)
As the international literature points out (see for example Palincsar, et al, 1998; Fontaine, 2001; Wenger, 2001), this is one of the most problematic aspects of implementing the community of practice as a training model. However effective they may be in facilitating learning, it is difficult to create functioning communities of practice that do not evolve naturally out of members’ existing professional practice. Wenger makes this point very forcefully in his book:
“Communities of practice are about content – about learning as a living experience of negotiating meaning – not about form. In this sense, they cannot be legislated into existence or defined by decree. They can be recognised, supported, encouraged and nurtured, but they are not reified, designable units. Practice itself is not amenable to design.”
(Wenger, 1998, p. 229)
As has already been pointed out in section 5.4 of this study, in the sense that participants in the EDN communities are artificially isolated from their school colleagues they may be being limited to a form of what Fullan and Hargreaves (1991) term “contrived collegiality.” Wenger makes the point, furthermore, that effective training should take the form of a “boundary practice” – establishing a two-way process of engagement across the boundary between the training community and the community of work:
“One way to look at training classes, for instance, is as boundary practices between some community and the rest of the world. But if their practices cease to be boundary practices then they fail to create connections to anything beyond themselves. One teacher, isolated from other practitioners and immersed in classroom issues, ceases to be representative of anything else; and artefacts gain local meanings that do not point anywhere.”
(Wenger, 1998, p. 115)
This may be one possible explanation for the lack of evidence that teachers’ learning in the EDN project has been recontextualised extensively in their school/classroom practice. If an insufficiently close connection exists between the EDN learning community and the school communities of which participants are members, even successful learning may acquire merely a “local meaning” that is not connected to the practices of teachers’ work.
Thus the particular composition of the EDN groups may well be a factor in their limited success as learning communities. Whether this is the case or not, another important factor is likely to be the problem of heavy work loads and teacher stress among the target population. It has already been pointed out (Chisholm 1999, Jansen 2001) that this problem poses an obstacle for South African teacher development generally. The development of new communities of teacher practice, requiring substantial investments of intellectual and emotional energy, is likely to be restricted in the same way:
“In addition, there are physiological limits to the complexity that each of us can handle, to the scope of activities we can directly be involved in, and to the number of people and artefacts with which we can sustain substantial relationships of engagement. This bounded character is both the strength and the weakness of engagement as a mode of belonging.”
(Wenger, 1998, p. 175)
In this respect it is encouraging to observe that at least some of the teachers taking part in the EDN are engaging in successful participative learning, and that completing participants are so highly positive in their evaluations of the project. Although continuity between the EDN learning communities and the school communities appears to be low, some teacher learning has certainly occurred (see section 6.4 of this study). The possibility therefore always exists that recontextualisation of that learning in schools will happen at a later stage, when time and stress levels permit:
“Whether or not we are actively trying to sustain connections among the practices involved, our experience of multi-membership always has the potential of creating various forms of continuity among them.”
(Wenger, 1998, p. 105)
It can be concluded, therefore, that the EDN learning communities have not to any great extent evolved into strictly defined virtual communities of practice along the lines described by Wenger. What is evident from the results of this study, however, is that mentor brokering is a successful element of the project, and that the potential of the EDN for facilitating participative teacher learning has been demonstrated. Such participative learning may perhaps occur more readily if the composition of the learning communities is more school-based where this is feasible. The Educators’ Development Network therefore can be regarded, even though somewhat tentatively, as a suggestive model for how Internet-based teacher development can be provided on a larger scale in South Africa.
7.4 Implications for future South African teacher development policy and practice: a possible research agenda
As discussed in the review of the literature in Chapter 3, research suggests that workshop based teacher development in South Africa has been insufficiently effective, and that communal, school-based programmes may be required to address the challenges of implementing Curriculum 2005. The financial and logistical challenges posed by implementing effective school-based development programmes, incorporating on-site mentoring in more than 26 000 schools, are so large however as to be practically insurmountable in the foreseeable future.
The objective of this research report was to explore, within a Wengerian conceptual framework, the potential of Internet based teacher development programmes as an alternative means of improving the training outcomes associated with Curriculum 2005. The suggestions outlined below, based on a single case study, are necessarily tentative. Further research in this area will be required before definite policy recommendations can be arrived at. Nevertheless, a number of suggestions emerge from this study for further empirical investigation into the potential of Internet based teacher development to facilitate virtual communities of teacher practice.
7.4.1 The potential implications of positive teacher approval rates
The module evaluations submitted by EDN participants (see Table 4) indicate that the project has been very well received by teachers. This is in sharp contrast to the high levels of teacher dissatisfaction reported around existing development programmes in South Africa (Schlebusch, 1999; Khulisa, 1999). Admittedly, the EDN participants are volunteers. Approval rates may reasonably be expected to decline in compulsory development programmes more directly tied to implementing the new curriculum. Nevertheless a fruitful area of research presents itself around the potential of higher levels of teacher approval, associated with Internet based INSET, to improve South African teacher development learning outcomes.
7.4.2 The potential of online mentoring to improve development outcomes
EDN participants’ evaluations suggest in particular that productive, quality interaction has occurred between participating teachers and their online mentors. This is in accordance with the findings of international research into Internet based teaching and learning (see for example Kubala, 2000; Reyes & Bradley, 2001). Here again it would seem a valuable project to explore further the potential of such interaction to enhance teachers’ learning in the context of South African curricular reform. This is particularly the case since proponents of Internet based teaching and learning (for example Bourne, et al, 1997) claim that significantly larger numbers of teachers can effectively be serviced by a single online mentor than is the case with face-to-face training – an important consideration given the scale of South African teacher development needs.
7.4.3 The potential of Internet based learning to improve development outcomes
The analysis of the EDN project conducted in this study suggests that levels of successful teacher learning (as measured by adjusted module completion rates) are moderately high, at 65.5% of the active population under study. These rates certainly compare favourably with estimates of the degree of teacher learning that takes place in “one-shot workshops” (Novick, 1996; Lohman & Woolf, 1998; Lewis, 2002). A wider investigation therefore suggests itself into the potential of Internet based teacher development generally to improve teachers’ learning in the South African context, especially given proponents’ claims about the medium’s cost efficiency in comparison to workshop-based training (Lauro, 1995; Jackson, 1999; Inglis, 2000).
7.4.4 The potential of school-based learning communities to improve participation rates
Levels of community participation in the EDN population under investigation have been lower than expected by the project developers. Were a larger national or provincial development programme along the lines of the EDN to be instituted, it would be much more feasible to create learning communities composed of teachers working in the same school than is the case with the EDN project in its current form. Much of the international literature suggests that participation levels might be greater in school-based learning communities, even where the Internet is used as the primary training medium (Wegerif, 1998; Shortridge, 2001; Mentis et al, 2002; Tu & Corry, 2002). This issue would also seem to be worthy of further exploration in the South African context, especially given the international research findings (e.g. Wohlstetter, et al, 1994; Corcoran, 1995; Hopkins & Levin, 2000; Toole & Louis, 2001) that school-based teacher communities learn more successfully than individual teachers isolated from their school contexts.
Curriculum 2005 has objectives that extend much further than the educational arena alone. Ultimately the new curriculum is intended to play a role in the broader social transformation of South Africa, and the achievement of social justice, equity and development (Review Committee, 2000). For these goals to be met, amongst many other things a corps of highly qualified, motivated and professional teachers is required.
There is substantial research evidence however (Harvey, 1999; Reeves, 1999; CEPD, 2000; Le Grange & Reddy, 2000; Harber, 2001) that many – perhaps the majority – of South African teachers lack the knowledge, skills and attitudes they need if they are to implement Curriculum 2005 successfully. The international literature exhibits a broad consensus (Hopkins, 1998) that building learning communities of teachers may be the most effective way to change this situation for the better. Internet based development programmes may represent an achievable way of making that communal learning happen on the scale that the South African schooling system requires.
In discussing the power of such “mutuality” as an agent of learning, it is perhaps appropriate to leave the last word to Etienne Wenger himself:
“If learning is a matter of identity, then identity itself is an educational resource. It can be brought to bear through relations of mutuality to address a paradox of learning: if one needs an identity of participation in order to learn, yet needs to learn in order to acquire an identity of participation, then there seems to be no way to start. Addressing this most fundamental paradox is what, in the last analysis, education is about. In the life-giving power of mutuality lies … the key to the creation of connections across boundaries of practice: a frail bridge across the abyss, a slight breach of the law, a small gift of undeserved trust – it is almost a theorem of love that we can open our practices and communities to others (newcomers, outsiders), invite them into our own identities of participation, let them be what they are not, and thus start what cannot be started.”
(Wenger, 1998, p. 277)