(Draft- references on request)
This study considers the proposition that personal learning includes passage through problematic areas known as liminal space (Perkins, 1999; Meyer and Land, 2006). The personal learning on which the proposition is focused is that of teachers; personal learning thus comes under the heading of professional development. The context of this study is teacher professional development, usually known as continuing professional development (CPD). 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. For this study, CPD took place in a social virtual and face to face environment with facilitators. Participants contributed content and controlled the generation of new content in the form of mind maps. The aim of the study was to ascertain the degree to which the social virtual environment enabled participants to transition their personal liminal spaces in learning about the integration of 21st century skills into the classroom. Furthermore, the paper will consider the degree to which personal reflection on practice stimulated by social interaction in virtual environments encourages the emergence of theory. Theory is defined as generalised, socially agreed knowledge to which congruency of personal knowledge is sought to confer validity, and to thus deepen meaning and to develop understanding. We suggest that, if liminal space is traversed and socially-generated theory emerge, an educational transformation in both the learning and teaching of CPD will have occurred. Transformation is described by Freire (1968) in his definition of ‘praxis’ as the evidence that the professional as the agent has forged together theory and practice. Praxis is a high-level mode of professional operation where the practitioner does not only possess skills but a deep knowledge and understanding of the theories that underpin practice. This can lead to a profound change in the professional’s sense of identity that is the aim of the best professional development. Another result where a long-term community of enquirers is engaged in the creation of theory is that they can publish the results with the intention of having an impact on professional policy at local, national or even international level. This an important factor in Sachs (2003) definition of the ‘active professional’. This level of professional autonomy is vital if the deepest levels of learning are to be shared and acted upon by practitioners rather than government policy makers.
Liminal space and learning
Liminal space can be described as a mental tunnel connecting two knowledge areas, one area being existing knowledge and the other new knowledge. 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 world view afforded by this new perspective. S/he can never go back to the old, comfortable understanding as this is no longer sufficient; 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. However, such tutor facilitation is based on socio-contructivism (Vygotsky, 1986) mediated by language, and language 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 face-to-face encounters, the use of verbal language is supported by non-verbal factors such as tone, gesture and body language. Visual communication of this kind is difficult to effect with learners in various locations connected through the Internet. So the verbal language used in online interactions increases in importance. Various multimedia and multimodal resources can be used to support the verbal interaction; usually these also depend on language. This research uses mind mapping software as a means of mediating language misinterpretations and misunderstandings. This research aims to discover if tutor facilitation in social virtual environments supported by mind mapping can enable personal transition of liminal space.
Generating praxis through social virtual environments
Carr and Kemmis (1986) were writing about ‘communities of enquirers’ before the advent of the world-wide web. It is not difficult to perceive the positive developmental potential of the Internet on such a ‘community of enquirers’. The social environment of the staff room can now be expanded to include colleagues throughout the world. The communal pot is now global, the potential for enrichment immense. However, the presence of the Internet is not sufficient to increase teacher knowledge through organizing and developing enlightenment and enrichment based on an enquiry. 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 knowledge. 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 to influence the pedagogy of their colleagues.
But the new demands of digital technologies are challenging traditional social and cultural practices as well the agency of teachers and learners (Pachler, Bachmair and Cook 2010). Kress and Pachler (2007) warn, however, that associated social, political and economic changes, linked with globalisation, are taking place with a speed that militates against careful reflection within the education profession. These authors balance the attractions of such benefits as democratisation of education through greater access, against the transfer of power in the digital realm from state to market. They point to large-scale social consequences where digital technologies and their affordances have already become prostheses for some users and are generally influencing our notions of self and society. They ask some ‘troubling’ questions about the gains and losses that are occurring because of the prevalence of technologies in education. ‘Mobile learning’, ‘e-learning’, ‘online learning’, ‘virtual learning’, ‘anywhere anytime learning’ are typical of phrases that are linked to hardware and software rather than a process change. In contrast, they prefer not to refer to the technology that is being used, but to 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. They point out that 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. Preston (2007) makes a similar point in comparing the differences between social networking in the general sense and deliberate knowledge creation in a Community of Practice (Wenger, 1998), where there is trust between members with similar approaches to learning and mutual aims to support each other. However, strategies for leveraging this community trust still have to be mutually developed and understood. The research discussed in this paper attempts to increase understanding of the processes involved by considering the following questions:
Does CPD facilitated through a social virtual environment enable learners to transition liminal space?
Does CPD conducted in a social virtual environment have any benefits over the traditional face to face classroom environment?
Does CPD facilitated through a social virtual environment create theory?
Can the processes involved be regarded as transformational?
Can the collaborative artefacts derived from this kind of activity be used by professionals to influence policy makers?
Rational for the research methodology
The underlying pedagogical approach for delivering new knowledge and understanding to wider audiences is ‘information transmission’ via conferences. Information transmission is used to denote the communication of expert knowledge that is one way only. Chandler (1994) complains that the information transmission model assumes communicators are isolated individuals. No allowance is made for differing purposes, differing interpretations, unequal power relations and situational contexts. The traditional role of expert educators around the world is to pass on their expertise to students who learn this information and reproduce it for examinations and tests without necessarily processing it to change their practice.
The ‘unconference’ model eschews this 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 ‘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). These are groups of professionals who chose to learn together informally. Thus two related theories expand Wenger’s vision about CoP practices: Communal Constructivism and Braided Learning.
Communal Constructivism emphasises teachers’ knowledge building role as they work together often across national boundaries (Holmes, Tangney et al., 2001; Leask and Younie, 2001, 2002). This ‘social interaction’ 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. As CoPs mature, an interesting form of social learning emerges underpinned by the use of technologies (Cuthell, 2005). Salmon has analysed the five steps of learning that take place when a course is run online: access and motivation; online socialisation; information exchange; knowledge construction; and development. Salmon comments that knowledge construction tends to happen when students are writing their essays in isolation. It would be fruitful in the development stage, the fifth step, if they 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. This rarely happens because students begin new modules at this stage in new groupings.
Braided Learning theory (Haythornthwaite, 2007: Preston 2008) picks up on the individual learning in Salmon’s step four and then considers how the development step, five, might be an activity like an unconference that is collaborative, community-focused and voluntary. This contrasts with the activity of a group of individual learners moving towards accreditation on a formal course. Braided Learning is an emergent theory that is tracing how this kind of informal dynamic knowledge creation works in a collaborative online context, Miranda Net (www.mirandanet.ac.uk). The term also refers to a meaning-making process that is emerging from the observation of online communication. Originally international MirandaNet researchers were engaged in simply observing the email discussions taking place in professional CoPs such as Information Technology and Teacher Education (www.itte.org.uk) and Naace (www.naace.org.uk) are two influential UK professional organisations relating to digital technologies in education. Their members’ uses of email indicate how online professional learning is orchestrated by the members of the CoP in accordance with their own agenda (Preston, 2007; Preston and Cuthell, 2009). For the current research, the MirandaNet process is used as a methodology for collecting data using virtual meeting software transcripts, i-chat, remote multi-authored digital concept mapping, microblogging and video streaming to explore personal liminal space and, through communal and socio-constructivism, the creation of theory in a community of practice.