Outline (not current-disregard) --Bnleez 14:32, 17 September 2011 (UTC)
Cultivating a Personal Learning Network that Leads to Ongoing, Professional Learning Affordances for the EFL Educator
The purpose of this research is to explore how educators interact with each other in terms of how they interact within a personal learning network (PLN) in order to link any associations to such interactions and to any contributions to professional learning (i.e., changes to one's understandings and behavior). Currently, professional development tends to focus on practices and programs instead of people: isolated or decontexturalized workshops, change initiatives that fail to create a conducive learning environment, and summative assessments that simply recapitulate past events with little-to-no ongoing support (Reeves, 2010). Instructional leadership takes a “clockwork I” approach whereby “school leaders believe that the purpose of leadership is to gain control over what people do and how they do it by regulating the master wheel and the master pin of their clockwork organization” (Sergiovanni, 2005, p. 33). This form of technical rationality relies on administrators who unilaterally define learning environments where practitioners (i.e., educators) objectively achieve personal goals with little regard to others (Argyris & Schon, 1974). This study fills a gap in current research by investigating how facilitative discussions permit open and diverse discourse by placing less emphasis on ends (i.e., goals) and more emphasis on means and ways (Zhang, Lundeberg, & Eberhardt, 2011). The theoretical framework from which this study is based embodies actor-network theory and complexity theory in explaining how self-sustaining actions and free decision-making emerge through socio-material discourse that take on certain tendencies or patterns. Describing such patterns will provide further insight into how educators learn in a digital age; that is, an age where learning occurs absent of many of the spatial and temporal constraints that were more prevalent in the past.
A change in teaching practice among English-as-a-foreign language (EFL) educators emerges through interactions that take place within a personal learning network (PLN). In order to better understand the notion of change in EFL teaching practice, a review in terminology is warranted. The term EFL is defined as English being taught within a location where English is not the dominate language (e.g., learners studying English who interact in a predominately Spanish-speaking community or country). In contrast, English as a second language is defined as English being taught within a location where English is the dominate language (e.g., learners studying English who interact within a predominately English-speaking community or country). For the purpose of this discussion, the term EFL will be used since this is the context from which the research is based, but that many topics will also apply to ESL contexts as they pertain to professional learning. A PLN is the ongoing distribution of people, communities, or objects (i.e., collectively referred to as boundary nodes) that a learner or educator directly interacts with either through unidirectional or bidirectional forms of communication. What follows is a discussion about how a PLN effects change to EFL teaching practice.
The objective of any professional development endeavor is not to build a professional learning community nor is it to create a coherent professional development work ethic. Many would argue the opposite when defining a professional learning community as a group of team members who regularly collaborate toward higher student achievement via a shared mission and vision statements (Reichstetter, 2006). But the objective of professional development is to view leadership in complex, adaptive, nonlinear feedback networks that place leadership not as top-down influence of individuals in managerial roles, but rather an emergent, interactive process embedded in context and history (Uhl-Bien, 2011). For this reason, the term professional development will be referred to as professional learning so to express more clearly how personal learning emerges less through group consensus, a shared mission statement, or a one-for-all, all-for-one perspective, but rather through learning how to interact openly and continuously with others through networking autonomously and heterogeneously with networked nodes. This type of interaction recognizes the importance of networking with not only colleagues from the same school or institution but also with colleagues external to the organization. Therefore, the through-line for this study is to see how variables like personal goal setting, school mission, interaction among colleagues, and changes to teaching practice relate to each other via a network metaphor in ways that promote a sustainable individual and professional learning pursuit.
Professional development typically focuses on practices and programs instead of people: isolated or decontexturalized workshops, change initiatives that fail to create a conducive learning environment, and summative assessments that simply recapitulate past events with little-to-no ongoing support (Reeves, 2010). Professional learning that stems from common practices and program development relies on the notion that practitioners or educators work towards well-define goals or ends, followed by ways, and then means - a leadership rationality that assumes that if you wish people to change, make the desired behavior clear to them and make it worth their while to engage in it (Shulman, 1989). “Clockwork I school leaders believe that the purpose of leadership is to gain control over what people do and how they do it by regulating the master wheel and the master pin of their clockwork organization” (Sergiovanni, 2005, p. 33). This assumes a technical rationality that as a model of organizational practice is less effective (Argyris & Schon, 1974).
Practitioners who embrace a technical rationality model are mainly responsible for solving well-formed problems based on the application of established theories (Schon, 1987). Thus, the emphasis on problem solving overshadows problem setting [emphasis added] which includes understanding how practitioners make decisions that provide the contextual link between means, ways, and ends (Schon, 1983). Administrators who adhere to a technical rationality model unilaterally define learning environments where goals are established a priori, expect practitioners to objectively achieve personal goals with little regard to others, and assume that the best trajectory is one that minimizes others from being hurt (Argyris & Schon, 1974). Therefore, this research seeks to fill the gap in current research by investigating the distributed nature of learning, specifically the role of materiality in the workplace (e.g., professional web tools) and the basic assumptions of what constitutes professional learning (Fenwick, 2009; Fenwick, 2010). Such a study will contribute to the little research to-date regarding how facilitative discussions permit open and diverse discourse through the development of means, ways, and ends (Zhang, Lundeberg, & Eberhardt, 2011); that is, discourse based on (a) limited resources available to the practitioner (i.e., means), (b) interaction that takes place through the use of these limited resources (i.e., ways), and (c) perception of expected and unexpected change in behavior as a result of one's interaction within a personal learning network (i.e., ends).
The purpose of this embedded, multiple case study is to explore how educators interact with each other and the chosen artifacts required to maintain such interaction in ways that lead to some change in perceived behavior. An online survey (Stewart, 2011b) will be administered to three different institutions which are located in Aguascalientes, Aguascalientes, Mexico. An online survey will be used to choose 7-10 educators from each of the three institutions (21-30 educators in total) who would be most likely to participate in the study. The participants will be asked to openly publish a lesson plan (i.e., an open educational resource) in Collaborative Understandings (Stewart, 2011) based on a particular problem area related to their own teaching or learning context. Participants will also upload private reflections to Collaborative Understandings (Stewart, 2011) as well as open forum discussions allowing them to share ideas about experiences linked to their current teaching practice. Private reflections and forum discussions uploaded in Collaborative Understandings Moodle will be used for subsequent interviews and focus group discussions that may take place either face to face or through an virtual conferencing application (e.g., Google+ Hangout). Wikieducator and Moodle are being offered here should educators not have an open, online space where they feel comfortable sharing ideas and experiences with colleagues. The objective is to use information and communication technologies (ICTs) that they are either already comfortable using or to try new ICTs that require little-to-no additional training. Additional ICTs that teachers might decide to use include blogs, Twitter, Google Plus Hangouts, and social bookmarking among others. Online communication in public websites, private reflections shared in Moodle, and personal conversations with each participant will provide the qualitative data needed to make analytical generalizations about literal and theoretical replications among each individual as a separate case study (Yin, 2009). Thus, this study seeks to research interaction patterns at the individual level and at the school level so to provide information that will help administrators and educators view professional learning in terms of means first, then ways, and finally ends in order to learn how professional learning emerges from the individual within the context of a school mission and vision.
Current views of professional development remain dichotomous: those that lead and those who are led, teacher – researcher, and human – non-human artifacts. An alternative approach to professional development is to consider professional learning as emergent and continual that involves tools such as ICTs as extensions of those who use them. The associations that exist between people and tools are best articulated from an ontological viewpoint, or the act of becoming. In education, instead of explaining teacher attributes that exemplifies a good practitioner, examining how socio-material associations effect the becoming of a different teacher can provide a model of change for other educators. For this reason, the following questions were designed in order to provide insight into understanding how an emergent network of human and non-human associations can effect change:
- How does a change in behavior and understandings occur among educators as a result of interacting within a personal learning network?
- Why do educators choose certain artifacts over others so to extend and curtail interactions that lead to a change in behavior and understanding?
Much of the focus around professional development and increasing student achievement revolves around leadership attributes and accountability. For instance, an instructional leader establishes goals, is an instructional resource to others, creates a learning culture, communicates a vision and mission statement, sets high expectations, develops teacher leaders, and maintains positive relationships with stakeholders (McEwan, 2003). Moreover, successful school principals are able to promote positive rapport with staff and provide teachers with relevant and concrete information to improve instruction (Blase & Blase, 2004). Besides instructional leadership, teacher evaluation in the United States now categorizes teachers based on their percentiles of value-added achievement scores: initial status teacher (below 34 percentile on district norms), professional teacher (between 34 and 84th percentile on district norms), mentor teacher (between 85th and 97th percentile on district norms), and master teacher (above the 97th percentile on district norm) (Marzano, Frontier, & Livingston, 2011). Thus, teaching development becomes a staged process – from initial status teacher to master teacher) that results from past behaviors through primarily summative forms of assessment. As a precursor to evaluating teachers that distinguishes instructional leaders based on particular attributes, a PLN provides more affordances to professional learning by connecting people, concepts, and artifacts in ways that promote a more formative assessment approach to adult learning.
Investigating how teachers develop a PLN adds an additional component to teacher development which is more formative and megacognitive in nature. Learning how to learn with today's technologies necessitates bringing together the social and the material in order to obtain a deeper understanding of the learning process. If change is to happen in how professional learning is being evaluated, then seeking alternative (i.e., formative) approaches to assessment warrant considerable attention. This study seeks to provide insight into how teachers view their own learning within a PLN so to serve as a basis for developing a myriad of primarily formative assessment approaches that lead to future organizational change and improved student achievement.
This research seeks to explain how professional learning can occur through autonomous, interactive, open and heterogeneous communication. The objective is to show how an educator recalls how and when connections are made to a PLN in ways that lead to a change in teaching practice in order to show how personalized and autonomous learning can occur across temporal and spatial frames. A PLN is meant to provide the EFL educator opportunities to make learning more transparent and provide more on-demand support in order to take more risks as a teacher - valuable skill sets that have relevance to a variety of educational contexts. By understanding the complexity of network interactions and their effects on change, the intent is to show the educator how a PLN may include anyone or anything that contributes to the learning process and how the educator may influence and may be influenced by the actants that make up the PLN. Finally, this research will provide insight in how the ongoing cultivation of a PLN can lead to a self-sustainable support system that, as a process, can also be associated with how students learn in and outside the classroom; that is, showing the learners of today how technology and other artifacts become an extension of oneself and can be used to achieve ongoing personal and professional growth.
The following are key terms that relate to the context of the study and help provide perspective in framing the notion of a PLN as a means for one’s own professional learning.
- Boundary nodes. Boundary nodes are people, groups, organizations, communities, and devices the learner directly interacts with (i.e., unidirectional or bidirectional) as part of a PLN). The term is synonymous with the notion of actants within an actor network (Latour, 2005) and is limited to those with a direct connection or those defined as having one degree of separation from the learner or central node (i.e., individuals and artifacts that a learner directly maintains contact).
- Connectivism. Connectivism is a learning theory that integrates chaos, network, complexity and self-organization theories, defines learning as residing also outside the individual and throughout the network itself, and recognizes that the decision-making process requires the learner to adapt to a context that is in a constant state of flux. The following are eight principles associated with connectivism as a learning theory: (a) importance of having a diversity of opinions, (b) connecting specialized boundary nodes, (c) learning residing in non-human appliances, (d) the capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known, (e) cultivating connections is a precursor to facilitate learning, (f) ability to connect between fields, ideas, and concepts, (g) currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge), (h) decision-making as a learning process (Siemens, 2005).
- GRACE. GRACE is an acronym that provides the purpose for why educators pursue a PLN: grounded reflection and creative (the arts), critical (the sciences), and caring (the humanities) engagement.
- Language Understanding Integrated Sense-making Learning Experience (LUISLE). LUISLE incorporates aspects of the SIOP model with one exception. Instead of merging content and language objectives, LUISLE merges understandings and language objectives.
- Open educational resource (OER). Open Educational Resources are teaching, learning or research materials that are in the public domain or released with an intellectual property license that allows for free use, adaptation, and distribution (United Nations..., 2011).
- Openness: The notion of openness relates to the underlining condition required in order to grow a PLN. A PLN must be open in the sense that OERs and OEPs are shared freely, enabling others to “reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute” (Wiley, 2008) resources and processes.
- Personal learning network (PLN). A PLN is an individual's recollection of ongoing distribution of boundary nodes over time (i.e., both human and non-human objects) that directly interact with each other via unidirectional or bidirectional forms of communication with the intent of fostering both intentional and incidental ends. For the purposes of this study, the term PLN is used instead of community of practice in that a PLN places more emphasis on socio-technical relationships of the individual (based on ANT and complexity theory) and is less concerned with cultural-historical perspective of group practice, which are characteristic of communities of practice (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002). Analyzing a PLN will embark on investigating complex changes to a PLN over a mesolevel period of time (i.e., period of weeks), but will not include group or collective notions of personal identity and socio-cultural dimensions that can generalize and possibly distort the overall purpose of this research: to shed light on learning principles that are applicable to anyone regardless of socio-cultural-historical background.
Brief Review of the Literature
The term professional learning community has become so ubiquitous, that it has lost it meaning (DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2008). schools rely on mandate-driven change and isolated staff development sessions which historically have not worked (Tomlinson, Brimijoin, & Narvaez, 2008). Little research has been conducted on how interactions between one's PLN lead to a change in teaching practice from the educator's perspective. Few would argue against adherence to school mission and vision statements that are measured by how well students transfer learning through purposeful tasks and a maturation of habits of mind (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007). But the way in which a teacher interprets a school mission or vision statement in relation to professional goal setting and solving will ultimately determine how faculty make decisions that are more people-oriented as opposed to being more program-oriented (Reeves, 2010). This research sets out to provide an interpretive explanation into how interactions within a PLN lead to change in teaching practice and how a teacher is driven to improve within the context of a school mission or vision statement. Instead of a supervisor being a proponent of directive change around predetermined goals and objects, this study seeks to facilitate the teacher in achieving personal goals set by the educator which are aligned with the overall mission and vision statement of the school.
A hermeneutic case study will be applied to EFL educators whereby I will seek to draw insight in understanding how the participants interpret personal interactions, how the change process unfolds over the treatment period, and how their interaction and individual change relate to the school mission and vision statements. One of the objectives of the study is not to judge whether they adhere to a mission statement or not, but rather how each educator interprets interactions within a PLN. The act of participating within a PLN, the change of behaviors in the classroom, and the adherence to a school mission collectively become means and ends and are interrelated. The researcher will provide opportunities for educators to facilitate dialog between colleagues via public websites as well as private reflections through both written journals and open interviews and focus groups. Another objective is to see how interactions between a PLN are self-sustaining and emergence, or how many are contrived, forced, unnatural, or static. Indeed, the theoretical framework for the study is connectivist and complex in nature so that one can assess whether proper conditions were made during the research study that fosters self-sustaining and professional learning.
What follows is a brief literature review that begins with EFL teaching practice and ends with the notion of a personal learning network. EFL teaching practice allows what research-based assumptions serve for teachers to problem-set (i.e., goal setting) in areas of personal interest. The section on professional learning follows and explains how learning – not development – resembles more of a growing process than a constructive process. The growing metaphor aligns with the concept of connectivism as a learning theory of the digital age; namely, how learning manifests itself today is different than in the past and that to make sense of all the information available on the internet, the discerning consumer will depend more on ICTs and technological skill sets. Finally, a PLN ties EFL practice, professional learning, and connectivism together in ways that are distinctive to the adult learner (i.e., the EFL educator) based on the area of teacher competence that needs improvement.
EFL Teaching Practice
Knowing what a teacher needs to know and be able to do in order to improve as an EFL practitioner requires first knowing what current practices best serve student achievement within the EFL classroom. For example, English language teachers need to believe in the students, know the subject matter, help students form connections with the subject and other aspects of the students' lives, promote academic language, promote interaction with both content and students, and articulate the importance of how students are ultimately responsible for their own learning (Waldron, n.d., as cited in Rothenberg & Fisher, 2007). Moreover, differentiating instruction allows teachers to reflect on how content, processes, and products can be differentiated based on the students readiness, interests, and learning preferences through the implementation of meaningful tasks, flexible grouping, and ongoing assessment and adjustment (Tomlinson, 1999). Language learning and nurturing understandings necessitate the interplay between linguistic and communicative competences and how the English language learner can explain, interpret, apply and demonstrate perspective, empathy, and self-knowledge through carefully planned, implemented, and evaluative performance tasks (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005, Wiggins and McTighe, 2007). In order for EFL students to pursue the different facets of understandings that ultimtately effect both linguistic and communicative competences, EFL educators must not only have the knowledge and skill, but also assume different teacher roles.
The decision to assume a particular role as an EFL educator depends on how interaction takes place. It was first thought that a teacher’s role emerged through didactic instruction, coaching one-to-one and in small groups, and through the Socratic method (Adler, 1982; Roberts & Billings, 1999). Later, a trilogical role was then articulated in terms of a didactic leader, facilitator, and coach, depending on the readiness level of the learner (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, Wiggins & McTighe, 2007). A trilogical role assumes that at any given moment, a teacher will assume these three roles based on where students are in their development as the educator guides the student from novice to expert. Hence, teacher roles are not viewed as being static positions, but rather dynamic, more fluid responses to learner behavior. For example, if learners are working on a project and there is an issue about a language structure needed to conduct a particular performance, the EFL educator might easily flow from a coaching role to a didactic instructor role, then back to a coaching role based on which students are participating at any given time. The act of assuming these three roles emerges as the situation emerges and implies avoiding different role acceptances a priori as one prepares a unit or lesson plan. Moreover, relating different behavioral roles based on a given situation can also apply to others who take on supervisory roles such as curriculum designers, supervisors, and other teacher leaders. Therefore, instead of labeling the different behavioral types as roles, they might better be viewed as actions given how each situation evolves through surrounding forces at any particular time.
Thus, professional development, which can vary in form, is the temporal and spatial context where educators interact with each other based on their knowledge and skill sets. For example, professional development in ESL teaching in the United States entails effective teaching strategies, unit design, and academic literacy and assessment, which would include an overall fourth component that encompasses technology training as well (Steele, Peterson, Silva, & Padilla, 2009). In contrast, professional development within an EFL teaching in China is likely to include increasing a knowledge base, improving pedagogical effectiveness, developing a community of practice, and growing a coherency in professional development work (Hu, 2005). The most appropriate way to consider professional development among EFL educators is through teacher competence: (a) level of English as a communicative skill (i.e., both written and spoken form), (b) pedagogical skill and knowledge, and (c) knowledge about how languages are learned (Thomas, 1987, as cited in Cots & Arnó, 2005). Community of practice and coherency in professional development work are not being considered as a learning objective since professional learning prevails more from networks than through groups.
Due to current technological advances, teachers have clearer trajectories for interacting with colleagues in different classroom situations, and are becoming less dependent on time and space constraints (Day & Sachs, 2004, p. 217). In taking advantage of these clearer trajectories, professional learning turns out to be more “collaborative, developmental, collective, inquiry-based, personalized, varied, supportive, contextualized, proactive, and andragogical” (Días-Maggioli, 2004, pp. 5-6). Adapting the right kinds of professional learning through appropriate pathways afford conventional schools to be not only congenial, but also collegial, something that is lacking in schools of today (Glickman, Gordon, & Ross-Gordon, 2007). Likewise, teachers and administrators should (a) act on the skills and the will of each individual, (b) focus more on professional learning as opposed to simple consensus or compliance, (c) promote teachers working together through group or peer work, and (d) facilitate personal change in teacher's knowledge and skill level through ongoing commitment at all levels of the organization (Gordon, 1997, as cited in Glickman, Gordon, & Ross-Gordon, 2007, p. 6). Professional development, then as a learning ecosystem requires administrators and faculty to work collegiately in ways that rise from the bottom and trickle down from the top so that the personalized improvement efforts of each teacher may succeed.
Certain aspects that relate to sound EFL teaching practices in the classroom also transfer to professional development plans. For example, a differentiated approach to professional development encourages EFL educators to utilize the choices they have with regard to resources and means of delivery used to participate in professional learning aspirations. Just as teachers need to know their students, supervisors must also know what personal goals teachers have in order to improve their teaching practice based on readiness levels, interests, and individual learning preferences. Like students, teachers pursue understandings as well through the expression of six facets: they can (a) describe, (b) interpret, and (c) apply; and they have (d) empathy, (e) perspective, and (f) self-knowledge (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Facilitating an EFL educator’s understanding is a complex process that requires a new learning theory that is more appropriate to how people gain knowledge and language skills in a more technological society.
Many different types of activities are involved when coordinating professional development efforts for EFL educators with regard individual language, linguistic, and teaching domains (Cots & Arnó, 2005); activities can be based on the individual (e.g., journal writing), one-to-one, (e.g., team teaching), group-based (e.g., case studies), and institutional (e.g., workshops) (Richards, Sylvester, & Farrell, 2005, p. 14). In general, instructional leadership that is distributed throughout the faculty allows for direct and indirect influences on each other’s behavior in ways that support higher student [and teacher] achievement (Gupton, 2003; Blasé & Blasé, 2004; McEwan, 2003). In other words, instructional leadership should be an entitlement to those who have the will, expertness, temperament, and skills (Sergiovanni, 2005).
Professional learning and practice are effects that result from a network as opposed to resulting from a social practice. Sociology is the systematic study of society (Pande, 2009). But instead of viewing sociology or social practice as being contextual or even embedded with cultural norms, sociology - or social practice more specifically – can also be viewed as being traces of associations (Latour, 2005). Tracing associations not only form agencies but also form ideas, identities, rules, routines, policies, instruments, and reforms as well (Fenwick & Edwards, 2010). Thus, the practice of teaching and learning result from how associations or the formation of alliances grow and perish over time, whether these associations are a relation between individuals or objects (e.g., ICTs).
Actor-network theory (ANT) provides a more appropriate framework for how people learn and practice in the field of education. ANT embraces four central ideas: (a) the world is made up of actors and actants, (b) no object is inherently reducible or irreducible to any other, (c) actants link to one another by way of translation, and (d) actants are not inherently strong or weak (Harmon, 2009). Of the prior four central ideas, the final one (i.e., that actants are not inherently strong or weak) infers an additional set of notions relevant to professional learning: actants are a result of their concreteness; that people and objects are what they are; and that there is little need for dichotomous notions (i.e., labelling) such as novice and master teacher, those who lead versus those who are led, and theory versus practice, for example (Harmon, 2009; Gomart & Hennion, 2004). Namely, distinctions between theory and practice, those who lead and those who are lead, and other dichotomies often found in the field of education do not exist from an ANT perspective. For this reason, professional learning brings people and objects together through a process of knowing, or an enactment that results from connections with other people and things (Fenwich & Edwards, 2010).
Understanding how to improve EFL teacher practice stems from understanding how people learn. From an ANT perspective, people and objects are linked through relational materiality. Relational materiality is the notion that all entities (i.e., individuals and objects) are produced through relations and that entities are performative in that they are produced in, by, and through such relations (Law & Hassard, 1999). Thus, professional learning emerges by having the educator recall how relations form and to learn how the performative value of the network transforms the individual (e.g., through a change in teaching practice). Individual transformation, or professional learning, becomes the recollection of how relations form through a nondiscrete and dynamic network. Individuals, groups, and objects that make up the individual nodes of a dynamic network are seen as being in a continual state of flux, where agency (i.e., the actant) and structure (i.e., the network) intertwine through heterogeneous assemblages (Law & Hassard, 1999). Thus, improving professional learning emerges through continue support in how educators recall how past, current, and future assemblages (i.e., events) take shape (Fenwich & Edwards, 2010). In doing so, supervisors begin to transform teachers to instructional leaders – a notion that relates more to will and ability than to position, role, or title.
The Complexity of learning
Complexity theory as an attribute of ANT offers an explanation as to how professional learning emerges and sustains from learner autonomy (Mason, 2008). As previously mentioned, one of the central ideas of ANT is that actants (i.e., humans and non-humans alike) link to one another by way of translation. Translation can be defined as an ontological frame with regard to how entities change over time (Fenwick & Edwards, 2010). The study of how a phenomenon emerges as a result of having interacted with others is the focus of Complexity Science (Johnson, 2007). The interaction within objects refers to individuals or how an individual relies on the decisions of others to help guide future actions, which is also known as “herd behavior” (Strogatz, 2003, p. 265). Hence, Complexity Science studies the dynamics of a both how and when interactions occur (i.e., the formation of connections) within a networked-system. Knowing how and when connections form help lead to a particular type of complex network formation that lends itself to how individuals learn in a sociotechnical environment; that is, a connections are not formed randomly but rather are scale-free (Crook, 2009; Barabási, 2003).
Complexity through the development of a social network evolves around how an individual forms a network as an emergent (i.e., nonreductivist) phenomenon (Christakis & Fowler, 2008). The way interactions emerge is through a scale free network, or that individuals are not connected to any one dominant entity or node within a network (Strogatz, 2003). One might define these clusters of subnetworks as being “ego-centered” in that the network consists of a focal actor (i.e., ego) with “alters” who have ties to ego (Wasserman & Faust, 2008, p. 42). Others referred to clusters in terms of “hubs” and “connectors” (Barabási, 2003, pp. 55-64); for the purpose of this study, the terms hub (e.g., a link between a large number of nodes), node, (e.g., any entity the educator connects with), connector (e.g., a single node with a large number of connecting nodes), and connection (e.g., the directional flow of information that exists between any two nodes) will be used to articulate the dynamics of cultivating a PLN – to be explained in greater detail later. An understanding of connectors as a vital constituent of a network topology follows an understanding of various network types that are possible.
The sustainability with a network topology is generally categorized in terms of a continuum: regular and random networks at both extremes where a small-world network resides somewhere in between (Pieris & Fusina, 2009; Watts & Strogatz, 1998). A small-world network includes the following two features: (a) a low average path length between network nodes (e.g., individuals can easily connect with others via a small number of intermediaries) and (b) a “high transitivity (most of a person's friends are friends with one another)” (Christakis & Fowler, 2009). The notion of high transitivity can also be expressed in terms of a strength in ties, or a “combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy (mutual confiding), and the reciprocal services which characterizes the tie” (Granovetter, 1973). Thus, a small-world network can be expressed in terms of having primarily strong ties, whether the connection exists directly (e.g., personal friend), or indirectly (e.g., a friend of a friend). This may explain why networks aren't just randomly formed but it does not explain why some nodes have more connections than others.
As previously discussed, the nodes of a network connect with others for a reason. But although the small-world network shows that networks are not simply random formations, it does not explain why some nodes have significantly more connections than the average node (Barabási, 2003). The notion that some nodes have more connections than others can be explained in terms of a “scale-free network” (Strogatz, 2003; Barabási, 2003; Barabási & Albert, 1999). A scale-free network can be graphically shown by a having a long tail (see Image 1).
A scale-free network assumes a Pareto distribution where a small number of entities typically have the largest percentage of influence (e.g., small number of computer brands accounting for most of the computers sold, a small number of employees or owners accounting for the largest percentage of income earned, etc.) (Barabási, 2003; Buchanan, 2002). In contrast, a random network assumes a normal distribution, or bell-shaped curve, which can be associated with calculating student grades for a standardized exam, for instance. Understanding the difference between network topologies supports the notion that who and what we connect with (i.e., nodes that are individuals, communities, and artifacts) remains purposeful and influences how information flows semiotically between connected nodes.
Communicative flow (i.e., directional ties) within a complex system typically occurs within three degrees of separation, that is a friend , of a friend, of a friend (Christakis & Fowler, 2009). EFL educators who interact within the same school, for example, form strong ties that extend out to at least three degrees of separation (i.e., friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends), thus forming a learning community within a school. But EFL educators can also interact with colleagues that work beyond the school, forming valuable and diverse weak ties; that is, the autonomous adult learner connects to a node (e.g., individual, community, or artifact) that serves as a hub that exhibit many additional connections (Granovetter, 1973). So if EFL educators, as adult learners, are given a choice with whom and what they are to interact with, a scale-free network forms that will involve various degrees of prominent actors. A prominent actor is an actor that maintains extensive relationships with other actors (Wasserman & Faust, 2008). Extending this definition in terms of ANT, the word actant will replace actor so to better articulate the socio-technical relationships that exist within a network. Adult learners, as educators, connect with other nodes based on some perceived level of prominence which results from some level of connectivity with other nodes. Researching how educators make decisions in forming such connections is the basis for pursuing autonomous professional learning that is emergent and sustainable, and which ultimately effects a change in behavior, whether in teaching practice or in the way learning takes place.
Professional Learning Through a Personal Learning Network (PLN)
Professional learning through the cultivation of a PLN is complex and emerges from interaction with a network. Complex learning stems from the following principles: (a) learning occurs when there is diversity of opinion, (b) learning happens when connections are made with other individuals and with non-human devices such as technology, (c) one's learning potential is more important than what one knows right now, (d) facilitative learning emerges through the cultivation of one's PLN, (e) recognizing patterns and tendencies is a required skill for the future, (f) learning activities require up-to-date and relevant content, (g) the act of making a decision is vital, (h) planning on what to learn requires perspective, and (i) any supported truisms should be confined to particular context; that is, based on time and space (Siemens, 2005). ANT webs together the person and the artifact; that is, places little importance on distinguishing between human and non-human objects in-and-of themselves (Law, 2009). Additionally, the connectivist principles previously mentioned embrace the notion of merging learning and technology from interacting within a personal learning network (Miller, 2009). Therefore, a personal learning network can be viewed in terms of an assemblage of individuals; communities; materials such as tools, artifacts, and spaces; and any related concepts that cognitively drive the learning process.
A learning network may also be viewed in terms of an ecological unit whereby the individual learner adapts to the network and the network takes shape because of the individual (“Educause…”, 2011). Within this context, a PLN ensues from an ongoing aggregation and pruning of boundary nodes (i.e., human, non-human, and conceptual) which have the following characteristics as they relate to material semiotics: (a) semiotic and materialistic rationality (a change in one node effects a change in another), (b) heterogeneity (a respect for diversity), (c) precarious process deriving from a temporal orientation (synchronous and asychronous intentional and incidental learning), and (d) spatial considerations (online communities, face-to-face meetings, etc.) (Law, 2009). In terms of professional learning among educators, educative experiences become based on how changes from one individual influences a change in someone or something else, and vica versa. This notion thus becomes the basis for seeing the value in educators sharing ideas and experiences, caring that someone else might benefit from their sharing, and daring to take risks both as a learner and teacher.
Sharing, caring, and daring carry different meanings depending on the theoretical viewpoint one subscribes to. In a community of practice (CoP), there is a need for understanding the role of the overall structure [i.e., the community or practice as the unit of analysis] in how it promotes a more intentionally systematic benefit regarding how knowledge is to be managed (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002). Another theoretical perspective assumes the activity itself provides the means for culturally embedded tools to mediate between the person and the outcome, and that certain rules mediate between the person and the community (Rizzo, 2003). But from an ANT perspective, and more specifically a connectivist perspective, the individual learner becomes the unit of analysis in that the socio-technical and conceptual elements of a PLN originate from the individual learner's perspective in terms of how the network effects a change in teaching practice and how the individual learn effects change to the PLN.
This study seeks to address the following two research questions: How do socio-material interactions of a Personal Learning Network (PLN) lead an EFL educator to become a more articulate communicator of the English language, more effective practitioner in terms of pedagogical skill sets, and more knowledgeable of how languages are learned?
How does the precarious nature of an emergent PLN influence specific change in EFL teaching practice? Current research has addressed which attributes a successful EFL teacher has and what makes the teacher popular with students: personal qualities such being responsible, patient, enthusiastic are included as well as having a strong ability to utilize teaching methods based on students needs, both in and outside the classroom (Huang, 2010). Others take a CoP perspective in studying how networks of practice contribute to professional learning by offering a diploma course and researching how educators participate in multiple communities (Mackey & Evans, 2011). Finally, others are interested in how ANT applies to managers in vocational education and training organizations in an effort to shift emphasis from management to socio-material practices (Mulcahy & Perillo, 2010). This study seeks to build on this research in order to provide additional insight into how humans, artifacts (e.g., ICT), and conceptualizations form relationships (i.e., connections) that provide sufficient attention to the creative process of participative aspects of [teaching and learning] practices where there are opportunities for authoring and multiple identity enactments - notions that currently are absent in situated learning (i.e., CoP) and activity theory (Fenwick & Edwards, 2010). In doing so, the intention is to look for “autopoiesetic” patterns, or self-sustaining relationships that allow a network to continue to grow (Wheatley, 2006, p. 20). Ultimately, a PLN that is sustainable will act as a subnetwork to other connected subnetworks that make up a whole (e.g., a school), providing means for continual professional learning for an entire faculty.
This research seeks to extend current research that places little important on the distinction between those who lead versus those who are led (i.e., instructional supervisors and educators). As a result, all educators regardless of rank, position, or title are given the same opportunities to choose how to cultivate an open and ongoing PLN as a basis for pursuing life-long professional learning. Instead of investigating school structures, common practices, or professional development courses that seek to promote an interactive PLN, a connectivist approach merges ANT with related conceptualizations that emerge from the individual adult learner interacting and influencing the network and the network reciprocating an influence back to the learner. Thus, the underlining question that is missing in current research and that this study seeks to address, is how a personal learning network is formed and, “what connections assemble objects and people into...extended networks that can wield so much influence?” (Fenwick, 2010, p. 131). For EFL educators, this same underlining question has particular relevant since professional learning includes not only content knowledge and pedagogical skills, but might also include improving foreign language proficiency as well. Consequently, wielding an influence will be observed by how change in the EFL educator's behavior occurs in relationship to the ongoing changes to the PLN that effected change in the first place. Pursuing a complex PLN that contributes to professional learning permits both intentional and incidental learning that is less dependent on time and space delimitations. An unrestrained creation [of a PLN] stems from a more connected order that results in a more complex structure that is not planned or managed by an outside source (Larsen-Freeman and Cameron, 2008). In others words, no invisible hand will be forcing participants to a certain type of behavior but will instead be given choices and support in leading them through their network in ways each participant feels most appropriate for professional learning.
This research also seeks to contribute to a growing literature related to the notion of connectivism as a more appropriate learning theory. As an influential phenomenon “that inspires teachers and learners to make changes to their practice”, connectivism currently fails as a theory unless more qualitative studies help inform its development (Bell, 2011). This study seeks to contribute to a future body of empirical evidence that supports the notion of connectivism as a learning theory of the digital age. The term personal learning network is used to explain how material semiotics – through conceptualizations that connectively drive a person to make decisions - relate to how network interactions intentionally and incidentally emerge. Hence, the term personal refers to the discretionary decision-making process and is not meant to decontextualize between the person, artifact, and conceptualization as if each were independent concerns. Therefore, professional learning through the ongoing cultivation of a personal learning network builds on CoP and third-generation activity theory in that knowledge if dynamic and results from open interaction among individuals, and also includes ANT and complexity theory to account for self-sustainable socio-technical events that are non-random (i.e., purposeful). The final element is to incorporate a socio-cogni-technical relationship that shifts the lens from solely being based on community, situations, and activities to being based on how personal decisions emerge both precariously and decisively within a connective network.
Professional development typically focuses on practices and programs instead of people: isolated or decontextualized workshops, change initiatives that fail to create a conducive learning environment, and summative assessments that simply recapitulate past events with little-to-no ongoing support (Reeves, 2010). A leadership rationality assumes that if you wish people to change, make the desired behavior clear to them (i.e., well-define goals or ends) and make it worth their while to engage in it (Shulman, 1989). Administrative leaders who adhere to a technical rationality model unilaterally define learning environments where goals are established a priori, expect practitioners to objectively achieve personal goals with little regard to others, and assume that the best trajectory is one that minimizes others from being hurt (Argyris & Schon, 1974). To address this problem, an embedded, multiple case study will be conducted in order to research how educators experience a change in understandings and behavior (i.e., professional learning) through interaction. The following research questions will be researched: (a) How does a change in behavior and understandings occur among educators as a result of interacting within a personal learning network? and (b) Why do educators choose certain artifacts over others so to extend and curtail interactions that lead to a change in behavior and understandings? Participants of the study will be asked to share experiences and understandings both in public (e.g., websites and video conferencing) and private (i.e., surveys, interviews, private reflections), assessing constructs that are credible, transferable, dependable, and confirmable (Trochim & Donnelly, 2008). As a qualitative research design, validity will be addressed through legitimation (Clark & Creswell, 2008) and a informed consent form (see Appendix A) will be presented so that data are dealt with in an ethical manner and with integrity according to institutional review board standards.
A multiple case study as a research design will be used in order to study the following: (a) learn how educators in higher education change in behavior and in understandings through interactions within a PLN and (b) understand why certain materials (i.e., artifacts) are used to extend and prune interactions that lead to change. A multiple case study then, seeks to research the binding concept throughout all the individual cases which is referred to as a quintain (Stake, 2006). The quintain for this multiple case study is the PLN. In order to understand the PLN, a layered case study will begin with the smallest unit of analysis (i.e., an educator's PLN) as a single case study and will build into larger case studies at the institutional level; that is, the integrity of a larger case study depends on the integrity of the single case study (Patton, 2002). The decision to label the educator's PLN as a single case study is meant to reify the concept by describing how conscious awareness of one's interaction with colleagues and artifacts can lead to change as opposed to researching how a PLN is created from nothing. Indeed, the decision to conduct a case study avoids researching conceptualizations in the abstract and adheres to more concrete topics that participants can relate to in real life (Yin, 2009). Since most educators interact with colleagues to a degree already, this study seeks to describe how personal awareness of certain interaction patterns and related materials correspond with each other throughout the change process.
A challenge in conducting a multiple case study relates to the “case-quintain dilemma” (Stake, 2006, p. 7). As previously mentioned, a quintain is a conceptualization or phenomenon that binds all single cases together. The dilemma then is not to loose sight of the quintain by focusing too much on any one single case study and vice versa. To address this dilemma, statistical generalizations will be avoided and instead analytical generalizations will be made on individual case studies so not to view such case studies as sampling units (generalizable to a particular population); a design that will allow the recognition of replicable interaction patterns existent among individual case studies in terms of related theoretical concepts (Yin, 2009). Hence, the individual case study and the quintain will be viewed through an actor-network theory (ANT) lens in such a way that any precept of the word social will be framed in terms of a “trail of associations between heterogeneous elements...” and not in terms of a “homogeneous thing” (Latour, 2005, loc. 101). The quintain will emerge from recognized patterns of the individual case studies as a consequence of any associative theoretical replications.
This multiple case study will employ a qualitative research design. A qualitative research design allows participants to share interpretations through an inductive, emergent, and holistic approach (Creswell, 2009). A qualitative approach also allows for a greater wealth of detailed data on a smaller number of case studies in comparison to quantitative approaches (Patton, 2002). Given an ANT perspective, qualitative data provides a rich, descriptive narrative in understanding the related attributes of network nodes (McCormick, Fox, Carmichael, and Procter, 2011); the network nodes ultimately form the PLN or quintain of the multiple case study.
The participants for this study include 7-10 EFL educators who teach adults from three different institutions (i.e., public or private universities, English institutes, etc.) located in Aguascalientes, Aguascalientes, Mexico (21-30 educators in total). An online survey (Stewart, 2011b) will be administered to all possible EFL educators from each of the three universities in order to select the 7-10 educators most likely to participant or show interest in participating in the study. The participants who are likely to be chosen will be based on their willingness to openly share personal teaching and learning experiences with other colleagues by openly interacting through online web sites. Participants are not required to have a certain level of technological prowess, but they must have some experience with technology and the willingness to use technology throughout the study. The participants for the study must have at the time of the study at least one class with adult English language learners (i.e., 18 years of age or higher) teaching general English, academic English, or English for specific purposes classes. Since this study will be in large part online and open, it is possible that the ultimate decision to choose a particular participant occur during or towards the end of the study based on the participation of the EFL educators and the data being collected. That is, any EFL educator who chooses to participate in the study from the three pre-determined institutions will be considered. The ultimate decision to include the participant in the final analysis will depend on the information obtained during the data collection process.
All of the materials used to collect data for this study (e.g., instruments, ICTs, OERs, etc.) will be considered mediators in how they circulate throughout the personal learning network in ways that transform, distort, and modify the meaning or interpretation they are to conduct (Fenwick and Edwards, 2010). The initial online survey (Stewart, 2011b), for instance, sets out to determine how EFL educators use and feel about technology in the language classroom. It also determines how willing EFL educators are to share teaching and learning experiences openly with other colleagues – a major consideration when selecting the participants for this study. The survey also includes content related to the SIOP model such as planning for understandings and linguistic objectives, implementing certain strategies that make input more comprehensible, and adhering to a variety of forms of assessment when evaluating the learner. The same survey will be applied at the end of the research as a point of comparison that will compare to other forms of data collection used for the study. The Collaborative Understandings site (Stewart, 2011) will house a private group that will allow participants to share reflections on their teaching and learning experiences that aren't shared openly with others. The same site will also provide a wiki and other groups, forums, and blogs were participants are free to share their teaching and learning experiences with others. The website is meant to provide a starting point for educators to share with others, but only as an option. If participants already interact using other technologies or websites, the Collaborative Understandings website would then only be used to collect private reflections. Since other websites would be open, external websites would also be used to collect data for the study. The only condition would be that any other website teachers decided to use would need to be open; that is, no websites would be used that required special access or login requirements that were not made available to the general public. A process that is also influenced by the SIOP model and the notion of comprehensible input.
The language and understanding integrated sense-making learning experience (LUISLE) (see Appendix B) is meant to serve as the primary mediator for participants to collaborate with each other. LUISLE is partly based on the SIOP model which is designed to make content more comprehensible to the English language learner Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2004). The notion of comprehensible content emerges from the Comprehensible Input Hypothesis that stresses the importance of making receptive skills, like reading for example, more beneficial to the language learner (Krashen, 2003). The SIOP model then, includes three aspects to teaching practice: planning, implementing, and assessment. Within each, various techniques are utilized for making content more comprehensible for the English language learner. For example, in the planning stages, teachers plan for both content and language objectives. During the implementing stage, linking new knowledge with prior knowledge (i.e., scaffolding) helps language learners to connect new concepts with old. The assessment phase might include formative approaches that unite instruction and informal feedback loops in order for teachers and students to consider future learning sequences and tactics respectively that best provide learners to achieve lesson objectives. For the purpose of this study, the SIOP model is used to provide the basis for establishing an initial online survey and to share a common lexicon which most EFL educators already do or would agree on with regard to research-based practices applicable to teaching the English language learner. The purpose for adapting the SIOP model is to provide context with which EFL educators may converse, and is not to seek evidence for the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the SIOP model as there are no studies that provide such evidence (What Words Clearinghouse, 2009).
Although many of the specific techniques that make up the SIOP model also apply to LUISLE, there are some key differences. First, instead of counterbalancing content with linguistic objectives as in the SIOP model, LUISLE counterbalances understandings with linguistic objectives. Counterbalancing in this sense means that understandings and language serve both as means and ends simultaneously. The term understandings allows for a level of authenticity when teaching English language learners as there is typically a moral to the lesson; that is, the goal is not just to improve language but also to complete a performance task that affords learners to explain, interpret, apply, gain perspective, empathy, and self-knowledge (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005; Wiggins and McTighe, 2011). Second, the LUISLE and the SIOP model address assessment as a formative learning progression that incorporates a variety of traditional and alternative forms of assessment: informal discussions, academic prompts, quizzes and tests, and performance tasks (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005; Popham, 2008). Finally, LUISLE includes a section where participants can reflect on any aspect of the planning, implementation, and assessment stages whether it be reflection on action or reflection in action (Schon, 1983). The reflection piece of this study is intricate but essential.
All of the materials or instruments used in this study are designed to promote a multi-layered, network approach to developing a more reflective practitioner. The online survey, the Collaborative Understandings website, LUISLE, and any other possible technologies or websites are meant to link conceptualizations and behaviors through private and public reflections. The materials used for this study are meant to foster publicly sharing successes and failures in a formative learning environment where support is available on demand. As the classroom is also a part of the EFL educator's PLN, additional materials might be used to help the participant reflect on the person's teaching practice as well. As each participant enters into a particular reflective pattern during the study, materials may differ in how data is ultimately collected and subsequently analyzed.
Regarding the integrity of the LUISLE and the online survey , a qualitative item analysis will be conducted by an expert in qualitative research and applied linguistics to help assure that content and writing conventions are structured such that the research questions and instruments are properly aligned (Kubiszyn & Borich, 2007). Moreover, many technologies may be added or be discontinued throughout the research period as participants make decisions in how they choose to interact with both human and non-human devices. Since participants will be encouraged to share openly, the validity and reliability of the instruments will also be public knowledge.
Data Collection and Analysis
Collecting data for this multiple case study will come from a variety of sources. The participants will begin by becoming familiar with the Collaborative Understandings website where each participant will have access to LUISLE. LUISLE will be an open wiki, so any reflections that directly pertain to the lesson plan will come from the discussion thread of the wiki page itself. Additionally, a wiki by design not only allows for discussion, but also allows participants to contribute to the resource itself (i.e., lesson plan) which is another form of data collection. Participants who contribute to and post discussions around LUISLE are actually contributing to an Open Educational Resource (OER). An OER is a learning material that is released with an intellectual property license that allows for free use, adaptation, and distribution (United Nations..., 2011). Since participants will be given the option to contribute to an OER within the Collaborative Understandings website, they may also choose to reuse or adapt an OER from outside the website when designing a lesson plan appropriate for a particular class. Thus, collecting data from a LUISLE may originate from any website and may be in the form of an OER contribution or a discussion thread from an OER contribution (i.e., wiki).
The Collaborative Understandings website also offers group forums, other wikis, and blogs which each may be a form of data collection if the participants choose to interact with any of them individually or collectively. Like LUISLE, the participants may also decide to participate within or outside the Collaborative Understandings website, depending on their level of technological prowess and their comfort level sharing teaching and learning experiences in an open space. Although all the aforementioned data collection methods are open to the public, there will be one private (i.e., closed) group in the Collaborative Understandings website where participants will be asked to reflect with the understanding that the information will not be shared with anyone else. Reflections will evolve around what they found difficult, easy, rewarding, challenging, and surprising about their weekly interactions and how these lead to some perceived change in understanding and actions.
The information gathered from websites and any face-to-face meetings participants had with other educators will be used to generate a weekly focus group discussion with each institution. Even though focus groups will remain per institution, participants will be encouraged to interact however they choose, with whomever they choose. The reason that weekly focus groups will remain per institution is because the platform that will be used to conduct the meetings – Google+ hangout – has a limit of 10 people who may interact (i.e., audio and video) at any given time. Google+ hangouts also offer screen-share online chat and YouTube sharing so participants have options even within the focus groups as to how they choose to participate with others. How participants use the materials, how they choose to participate with others, and with whom they choose to participate is central to the design of this research; that is, how EFL educators in higher education change in behavior and in understandings through the interactions within a PLN and why certain materials (i.e., artifacts) are used to extend and prune interactions that lead to change.
The process by which information will be collected will emerge from the practice of the hermeneutic circle. In order to understand the interpretive influences that lead to changes in teacher competence, a hermeneutic circle will be implemented in order to draw out experiences and interpretations from the participants of the study. The hermeneutic circle links parts to the whole and the whole to its parts, and includes layering interpretation bound to specific temporal and spatial constraints or contexts (Patton, 2002). It also acts as a way of working out or accounting for the strangeness of an utterance, text, or action in relationship to the utterance, text, or action as a whole; in doing so, the historical perspective of the interpreter [i.e., the researcher] is less likely to distort the actual meaning of the utterance, text, or action (Schwandt, 2007). The hermeneutic phenomenological analysis was chosen over a phenomenological analysis because the former seeks to find meaning as people are constructed by the world while at the same time are constructing the world based on individual backgrounds and experiences – the latter simply attempts to unfold meaning as they are lived in everyday experience (Laverty, 2003). As teachers interact with LUISLE, other wikis, blogs, forums, and weekly focus groups, the positionality of the researcher becomes fundamental in hermeneutic circle unfolds. To promote the hermeneutic circle, a facilitative process will foster questions, topics, and materials that encourage participants to make connections that link particular actions, interactions, materials, etc. (i.e., parts) with some form of personal change (i.e., the whole) and vice versa.
As the researcher, my positionality will be one that promotes reflexivity or “...an awareness of the discourses within which both the research and the researcher are embedded as well as to the ways in which the contexts of the research refer back, reflexively, to prior experiences and knowledge constructs (Mills, Durepos, & Wiebe, 2010). By promoting reflexivity, I guide participants through a dual reflective awareness of (a) becoming (i.e., partaking in a change experience in terms of interacting within a PLN – parts to the whole and vice versa) and (b) understanding my influence (i.e., the researcher) will in turn influence how participants ultimately make decisions (i.e., the research) and so on. Reflexivity is a valid approach to addressing this duality referred to as a double hermeneutic which is an iterative dialectic that moves between the subject and the object as well as between research design and interpretation of data (Mills, Durepos, & Wiebe, 2010). To avoid the paradox of “endless reflexivity”, I will provide guidance to each educator as needed by offering choices and will refrain from making suggestions or decisions as to whom they should interact and the related materials involved (i.e., means) and how they are to interact (i.e., ways): frequency, web tools, and schedule. My positionality will remain as outsider to the extent that participants will be mainly responsible for making decisions as to the means and ways of interacting in a PLN.
Although my role as researcher will serve to provide choices related to how participants interact with others, I may be required to offer research-based references to certain conceptualizations. For example, within any given PLN, certain concepts, ideas, notions, and beliefs may influence how a participant chooses to interact with others. Ideally, participants will self-organize and interact openly will little involvement from me whatsoever. But I am prepared to facilitate dialog among participants if the situation presents itself. For example, if educators are reluctant to discuss an experience or idea about some part of a lesson plan, I might present leading questions or research-based alternatives to them in order to help generate further discussion. Moreover, if participants request it, I may provide technical assistance as time permits.
My positionality as researcher will not be revealed until the interpretation process of the study. Reflexive inquiry involves three sets of questions: (a) What do I know?, (b) What do the participants of the study know?, and (c) What does my audience of my final interpretation know? (Patton, 2002). The process of knowing myself as the researcher and the participants will evolve as the study concludes and the interpretation of the findings unfolds. The focus of this research is to avoid embarking on what I know, but to embark on a journey of what the participants come to know through their interactions. My involvement will avoid directives which could lead to some educators (who are used to being directed) to discontinue the study. Since most of the data collection process will be on the web, my audience will know much of what I know with regard to the data being collected – the exception being private reflections made by the educators.
To complete the hermeneutic and interpretive process, data will be coded, categorized, and classified into themes and sub-themes. Specifically, open, axial, and selective coding (Corbin & Strauss, 2008) will lead to generalizations about interpretative and contextual pattern emergence. Contextual pattern emergence will be presented in terms of complexity theory in that relationships will be described and interpreted in terms of power laws, strong and weak ties, and node attributes. The various domains will include factors that pertain to professional learning such as changes in one's English competence, pedagogical skill, and knowledge of how languages are learned. Although a grounded theory technique, the objective is to describe and interpret patterns that rest within spatial and temporal constraints that affectively are credible, transferable, dependable, and confirmable to other educational contexts (Trochim & Donnelly, 2008). In terms of positionality of the participant observer, an iterative and reciprocal approach to collaboration will form a participatory action research design that yields to more equitable power relations (Herr & Anderson, 2005, p. 31). Indeed, the method design is meant to create a professional learning ecology such that perspectival and interpretative themes surface through open, ongoing, and heterogeneous discourse.
To maintain heterogeneous discourse, a qualitative bricolage will include accepting various websites that participants decide to use to promote a PLN. Accordingly, online spaces may be open (e.g., wikis or blogs) or closed (i.e., Moodle courses that require a password). For those EFL educators who choose to share their experiences openly, an audit trail will be inherent throughout the process, providing the reader the opportunity to evaluate first hand the data used to conduct the study should one decide to replicate this study or check for its credibility and transferability. For example, discourse drawn from on-line forum exchanges provided by the EFL educators will help the reader not only understand the perspective of the participants but also the rhetorical perspective as well. As the EFL educator will have total control over how the PLN is to emerge, the amount of reflection that takes place utilizing both open and private online spaces will depend in large part on the EFL educator. In this case, due diligence will be required so that the essence of those private exchanges are captured in the analysis and results section while at the same time maintaining participant confidentiality. Each EFL educator will have complete control over how much information is ultimately shared via public spaces (e.g., wikis, blogs, twitter, etc.).
Many data collecting methods implemented for the purpose of this study will be used as a qualitative bricolage; that is data collection that entails “using whatever resources are available to do the best job possible” (Patton, 2002, pp. 401). Interviews based on classroom observations, for example, will likely include zooming in and out of themes that include topics related to the SIOP model as content analysis and teacher perspectives will involve connective reporting techniques in order to better reveal layered interpretations vis-a-vis various data collection methods: forums, interviews, and focus groups, for example. An eclectic approach to data collection will entail a level of negotiation and flexibility in how information is ultimately gathered, analyzed, and reported.
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