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«Josie Arnold Faculty of Higher Education Swinburne University of Technology This paper presents a narrative enquiry of the use of learning ...»

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Collaboration, community, identity: Engaged e-learning

and e-teaching in an online writing course

Martin Andrew

Faculty of Higher Education

Swinburne University of Technology

Josie Arnold

Faculty of Higher Education

Swinburne University of Technology

This paper presents a narrative enquiry of the use of learning technologies and communities of

practice (Wenger, 1998) in creating and delivering the online Master of Arts (Writing) at

Swinburne University of Technology. We consider the research question of how we have come to understand and practice elements of a social constructivist pedagogy involving engaged, learnercentred peer and community support both as a creative team and as e-moderators. We consider, too, that our pedagogy is informed by poststructural understandings of learner identities as invested and unfixed (Weedon, 1997). This study utilizes the self as data by drawing on narratives of course developers and lecturers collaborating to create unique materials. While our methodology utilises elements of autoethonography (Chang, 2008), it also involves analyzing themes and narrative configurations in stories (Polkinghorne, 1995), specifically those of tutors and students. Our narrative exemplifies and proposes strategies for writing e-curriculum for web 2.0; for scaffolding e-learning, and for creating and maintaining communities of invested, engaged learners. Simultaneously we add nuances to the scholarly conversation about e-learning communities, e-curriculum development and subjective academic narrative methodology.

Key words – creative writing, e-curriculum, communities of practice, learner identity

1. Introducing our story This paper relates the ongoing story of the use of learning technologies in creating and delivering the online Master of Arts (Writing) at Swinburne University of Technology (SUT). Ours is a story spanning a decade, questioning how we have come to understand and practice elements of a social constructivist pedagogy involving learner-centred peer support and engaging learners within communities of practice. Broadly, what have we learned that we can share with providers of online learning? More specifically, how have our experiences of such teaching interventions as building and maintaining online communities of learners and fostering ‘critical friendships’ impacted on the student experience of studying Writing online and the tutor Proceedings ascilite 2011 Hobart: Full Paper experience of e-moderating? The themes of our enquiry, collaboration, community and identity, serve to structure our story. Our story is itself formally and methodologically a narrative enquiry, a subjective academic narrative. Like Polkinghorne (1998), we hold that narratives contain, or even are, people’s identities.

Since 2002, this postgraduate course has provided a virtual learning environment through the Learning Management System (LMS) Blackboard. Its pedagogical position utilises people, print and electronic technologies to engage students through virtual lectures, dedicated websites, hyperlinked selected readings and dynamic e-tutorials. This engagement comes in part from creating interventions linking program materials to the writing practice of individual, developing writers, and partly from encouraging sense of community, ‘a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that learners’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together’ (McMillan & Chavis, 1986, p.9) through collaborative and authentic practices that build partnerships and community allegiances between and among participants.

Collaboration in communities is a key pedagogical intervention, but for writers there is also the question of the individual invested in her or his writing, creativity and applied learning. This paper, to some extent, examines how we use online communities to reconcile the collective and the individual. Since all of our participants strongly desire to identify as writers and to belong professionally to groups attended by writers, we conceive of their desires to be, to become and to belong in terms of desire to align with ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson, 1983). Yasuko Kanno and Bonnie Norton (2003) believe Anderson’s analogy of nationhood and community helps those who want to belong feel a sense of community with people not yet met. In applying Anderson’s concept, we envisage a culture’s sense of community as an imagined space. We view individuals as idealising community and creating a sense of self through these imaginings. Students of writing want to belong to the elite group labelled ‘writers’ and to associated communities; but they also want to develop their own voices. There are, as in Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s (1991) formulations, connections between imagined community and desired identity. The MA draws on this insight in its application of the collaborative pedagogical intervention of critical friendship and in understanding learners’ desires for a future self as a writer impacts learner investment (Andrew, 2009).

The core unit of year 1 study ‘Critical Friends’ acculturates our students to learning in communities of practice (CoPs), establishing the behaviours that characterise their support of others’ learning throughout the program.

‘Critical friendship’ refers to an organised, mutual, reciprocal exchange of ideas and work for the purposes of improving submissions before they are posted to tutors. The concept used the collective – the community of practice – as a vehicle for addressing the individual. Critical friendship involves giving and receiving feedback at both mechanical-discursive and critical-analytic levels. At various stages, the technique is used with the aid of both criterion-based guides to giving critically friendly feedback and, prior to submission, guides to editing.

Critical friendships are forged early in the 13-week course between sympathetic participants within online discussion forums, are mediated by tutors and may last for the duration of the program and beyond.

The evolving story of the MA (Writing) emphasises the interconnected themes of collaboration, community and identity in relation to both our e-curriculum and e-learning designs and our teaching/delivery. For Rena M.

Palloff and Keith Platt (2005), collaboration is the ‘cornerstone’ of e-learning and the grounding of ecommunity (p.xi), accomplishing such outcomes as addressing all learning styles and cultures, assisting with deeper knowledge generation, promoting creativity and initiative and allowing shared goals for the foundation of a learning community (pp.6-7). Social constructivism, informed by both Vygotskian and sociocognitive theories of learning, foregrounds the centrality of engaged learning communities mediated through the LMS, particularly the discussion and chat facilities (LaPointe & Reisetter, 2008). In their study of postgraduate students’ ‘sense of community online’, LaPointe & Reisetter point to the importance of ‘belonging’. This suggests both the need for an articulated and heard voice in the e-community and a desire for identification with other imagined communities beyond the immediate e-environment. In this context, we recognise identity for writing students is more than ‘social presence’ as involving the salient person we become online and how we express that persona (Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997; Kear, 2010). Our experience indicates that the identities involved in creating and participating in e-environments in writing are, like poststructuralist identities Weedon Proceedings ascilite 2011 Hobart: Full Paper (1997) describes, complex, affected by power, desire and discourse and subject to change. Bourdieu (1986) would consider them ‘invested’ identities, beyond the dualities of extrinsic and intrinsic or instrumental and integrative motivation, but rather integrated towards creating and developing authentic writerly identities, the cultural capital of writing programs (Ivanic, 1997).

While the themes of collaboration, community and identity apply to our learners – largely working professionals seeking to develop their creativity and/or a career tree-change – our story also tells of how the still-evolving program develops from carpe diem style collaborations among lecturers, learning designers and ITS specialists (Armellini & Jones, 2008; Salmon, Jones & Armellini, 2008); how our ongoing curriculum development and elearning design are impacted by insights from the social constructivist concept of CoP (Brown & Duguid, 2000;

Jonassen, Peck, & Wilson, 1999; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998), and how we recognise the individual pedagogical contributions of members of the lecturing team as contributing to well-mapped subjects within a clearly structured program comprising 12 subjects across 3 levels.

Beyond the core team of lecturers, we involve the wider teaching team - including specialist guest lecturers and sessional tutors - in the design-redesign action research cycle that informs our teaching and learning practices.

These people have writing identities and links to industry. The curriculum gives them as well as the tenured lecturers and their specialist discourse audiovisual presence in our program. The concepts of mutual engagement, joint enterprise and shared repertoire (Wenger, 1998) – and the sharing of this repertoire – are central to both the development and reconstruction of e-learning environments and the facilitation of collaborative learning spaces in the LMS. The sharing of lecturer, tutor and learner discourse informs sections 4 and 5 of this paper, where we relate designer, lecturer, tutor and participant experiences of teaching and learning in our e-environment.

An increasing body of research investigates the impact of socialisation and collaboration in CoPs on learner identity in cyberspace (Brook & Oliver, 2003; Haythornthwaite, Kazmer, Robins & Shoemaker, 2000; Jones & Peachey, 2005; Kreijns, Kirschner & Jochems, 2003; Rovai, 2002). Socialisation is, of course, Gilly Salmon’s crucial second stage in her five-stage model of teaching and learning online (2003; 2004), emphasising a mixture of constructivist learning design and strategic e-moderating bringing forward ‘imaginative and creative images’ (2004, p.34) as two keys. Palloff and Platt (2005, 2007) led the way in strategising the scaffolding of elearning to maximise sense of community while similarly promoting creativity and critical thinking. In our narrative, this strategising has shown itself as most significant for the students’ learning journeys.

Fundamentally, engaged students need to be both responsive and involved to enable community building (Palloff & Platt, 2007, p.72). In such communities, constructivist learning is ‘active, constructive, intentional and cooperative’ (Jonassen et al., 1999). Brown and Duguid (2000) established three principles for learning in communities; it is: demand-driven, a social act and an act of identity formation. In our narrative of the MA (Writing), we view learning as collaboration yet we focus on each individual constructing their identity within

the social space of the learning group. As a result, people have shared visions and identities in common:

‘People, forming a community, come together because they are able to identify with something – a need, a common shared goal and identity’ (Hung & Der-Thanq, 2001, p.3). ‘In an e-learning community’, Tu and Corry (2002) advise, ‘members work together to solve their problems and to improve their communities using knowledge construction media and technology’ (p.209). Our fundamental subject ‘Critical Friends’ informs this throughout the MA (Writing).

Studies also suggest that the resulting imagining of participation in future communities can be an even more powerful spur to students’ investment (Kanno & Norton, 2003). Students’ imagined communities can be better realised by understanding learners’ desired selves (Markus & Nurius, 1986). Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius emphasise that learners might possess conceptions of possible selves that differ from their current actual self;

this certainly applies to our writers. The sharing of discourse and repertoire in our e-learning environment helps learners describe their desires and ambitions, and to see themselves both as developing individual voices and as members of imagined communities, starting with their online tutorial group and developing with their development of critical friendships facilitated and mediated by the e-environment. For many, imagined Proceedings ascilite 2011 Hobart: Full Paper communities are sites of publication, virtual or real, places of desire for belonging.

2. The story of our methodology This is our story about how we practice autoethnography and subjective academic narrative enquiry in both making and reflecting upon our e-learning and e-teaching curricula and delivery. Such academic narrative non-fiction is a research method academics apply in their writing to demonstrate that autobiographical experiences can be analysed and interpreted in their research so as to unpeel and unpack their cultural assumptions (Chang, 2008, p.9).

Arising from and embedded in our unique curricula pedagogy, this methodological prism recognises the impossibility of seeing ourselves as academics as either independent or unaligned. We come from a cultural discourse and we participate in that discourse. Our storytelling recognises this and provides a space in which we can understand acting against the ‘given’ or cultural meta-narratives that have dominated so much of academic discourse. We recognise that we are enabled by critiquing perspectives that lead us to undertake research in an area and/or pursue a certain line of investigation and research question because of our Eurowestern understandings, particularly those of the Enlightenment.

The self-narrative in autoethnography leads to and involves the analysis of storytelling and enquiry into self and others as data rather than mere presentation of story. Autoethnography takes self-narrative from the arena of storytelling into that of the production of data leading to new knowledge and/or new understanding of areas of known knowledge.

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