Mitchell, J. M. (2001). Education Studies Online. In Computer technology in teacher education: Tool for communication, medium for inquiry, object of critique (pp. 84-122). Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of British Columbia.



The aim of the Education Studies On-line project was to examine whether and how an on-line discussion could be used to create a forum for public inquiry in which students could extend their understanding of the equity issues associated with the use of technology in schools. The key learning conditions underpinning the project were collaborative writing, access to web resources and external participants. The key arguments developed in this chapter are that the on-line discussion enabled students to make a wide array of connections between their peers, external participants in the discussion, web-based research and personal experiences. In so doing they collectively developed a set of critical opinions related to the use of technology in schools. The external participants added a distinctive and valuable set of contributions to the discussions. In some cases the topic, the research resources and students’ experiences in schools complemented each other in ways that enabled students to integrate the ideas raised on campus and in the research with their experiences in schools. Key problems and questions for the pedagogy associated with this activity concerned the nature and use of on-line resources and the relationship between such an activity and face-to-face discussion and more formal essay writing.

Context, Text and Technology

‘Ed. Studies On-line’ was, as the name suggests, part of the Education Studies course. This course is concerned with the ethics of social relations in educational settings. One particular focus is educational opportunity in relation to, for example, social class, gender, poverty, ethnicity and sexuality. The purpose of the ‘ed studies on-line’ task was to provide a forum for students to consider the ways in which access to and uses of computer technology in schools intersected with social background and types of educational opportunity. Students were set the following task:

As a beginning teacher what do you think are some crucial equity issues pertaining to technology and education and what action do you think schools and teachers can take in relation to these issues?
In part the task was for students to bring a critical perspective, as well as a sense of practical action, to an educational problem that is characterised by rhetoric extolling either the virtues or the vices of ICT. The method for conducting this investigation was through a structured on-line discussion using the WebCT discussion tool. This tool enables participants to engage in a threaded discussion in writing.

Yet "why do it on-line when you can talk to the person next to you?" was a nagging question that required some attention by way of justifying our own practice and explaining to students the purpose of the activity. A trial on-line discussion had been conducted in the previous year in the Language Arts course. Student commentary on this trial had thrown considerable light onto the above question. Two comments were particularly influential:

Throughout my academic career the writing process has been a solitary experience. The ideas may be generated through a discussion with a group of people but the writing itself has always been left as mine to complete without much guidance… Computer mediated writing does not mean that I cannot have thought out my ideas or that I am not able to support my hypothesis, but it does allow for immediate feedback on those ideas from a variety of sources. This is peer editing before the final product has even been produced… Computer mediated writing allows students to be in the process of writing and getting feedback on the process rather than the end product, when one or two comments from a teacher may not cause the writer to rethink his or her hypothesis.

My previous experiences with academic writing have been very individualistic and very little collaboration was encouraged… It was published works that we used which mattered… Computer mediated writing promotes active research that occurs as one is writing on the screen. I feel that this type of writing makes me more open-minded.

Judging from these students’ comments, the process of writing on-line was both generative and collective. The point of comparison was not so much face-to-face discussion but other forms of academic writing such as essays. In this respect the on-line discussion provided a mechanism for students to conceptualise writing as an explicit part of a research process and as a collaborative activity. This seemed to provide some justification for further experimentation with the use of an on-line discussion.

However, the degree to which students drew on ideas beyond the experiences of the group was posed as an issue by one of the students in this first experiment with an on-line discussion:

We were not compiling data in the library, researching previously published literature to support what we were saying. We were supporting our statements with our own experience, but not with ‘expert’ endorsement.
This comment raised questions about the ways in which students justified their ideas and the degree to which published research might inform those ideas. This feedback from the previous year led us to consider how students could draw on ideas and resources from outside their immediate group, without taking away from the ideas generated within the group. To address the concern the Education Studies instructor and I decided to consider whether and how we could use some of the vast amounts of information and resources available on the web. For this reason we developed an alliance with Lisa Korteweg, John Willinsky and the Public Knowledge Project (PKP). The PKP web site contains links to a variety of resources (research, policies and practices) related to technology and education. Discussions were held with Lisa and John to consider how PKP could be used and to design an assignment task that took account of the resources located on the PKP web site.

The intent to use web resources was complemented by the ability to create automatic ‘hotlinks’ through the WebCT discussion tool. Contributors to the discussion could simply create direct links to material they referenced and readers could easily connect to referenced web sites. This created the potential for the discussions to be hypertextual in form. This became a distinctive feature of the on-line discussions.

To also broaden the focus for discussion beyond the student body, interested parties from outside the CITE program were invited to participate in the discussion. This had been done in an ad hoc way the previous year. This year it was done in a more systematic way with seven people - a school teacher, a district administrator, three academics from outside Vancouver and two UBC graduate students - agreeing to participate in the discussion. These were people that I knew had an interest in one or more of the following: WebCT, technology and education, and pre-service teacher education.

In the Education Studies course the use of this on-line discussion was a change from the methods for student inquiry that had previously been adopted. Lectures, set readings, groups discussions and a term paper were, and remained, the key approaches to learning in this course. What the on-line experiment represented was one activity designed to complement existing practices and extend the level of inquiry within the course. Three tools for inquiry - writing, resource material and public discussion - could be brought to the problem setting through an electronic medium. Moreover, for both the instructor and for the vast majority of students, participating in an on-line discussion was a relatively new experience, especially as part of the teaching and learning activities within a course.


The actual task was designed as a type of ‘webquest’. The task itself was presented in a web-based format that was located on WebCT. Its hypertextual nature served as a model for ways of finding, evaluating, and referencing on-line material. Thus there were links in the assignment to material relevant to the topic at hand, that modeled how these resources could be used, and that helped to frame the parameters of the discussion. In addition, links were created to sites that contained useful information for conducting web-based research. Finally, the task contained a direct link to the PKP site and to the discussion forums on WebCT.

Seven discussion forums were created on WebCT. Each forum had six students and one external participant. This size group was chosen because it was broad enough to generate ideas, yet manageable in terms of the time needed to read and respond to other contributions. Each forum was however ‘public’ to those with access to the WebCT site and students were encouraged to read and contribute to other forums if they so wished. Students were required to make a minimum of three contributions. The first two were over a two-week period. The final contribution was made after a three-week practicum experience. The guidelines for contributions were that students be succinct and address the topic; draw on web-based resources, if appropriate, to support and provide evidence for ideas; and build on and respond to the ideas of others.

Each group was able to choose a specific focus for discussion after the introduction to PKP. Some groups chose their topic in light of the organisation of material on PKP. Other groups chose more general topics based on their interests. Some groups remained focussed on questions pertaining to equitable use of technology; other groups expanded the focus to include a broad range of social and ethical issues related to the provision and use of computers in schools. Various themes and issues emerged in these discussions. Across the forums the following topics/themes were considered: gender equity and technology; social class and technology inequities; funding for computers in schools, especially the ethics of private funding; teacher education and technology and the way that this affects educational opportunities for students; and finally the moral dimension of children’s access to the internet.

It is worth noting that time was at a premium. We had only one hour in which to introduce students to the assignment and the PKP website. Moreover, there was other Education Studies coursework still to be covered which meant that there was little time to link the on-line discussion with face-to-face classes. Further the task was set for the last couple of weeks of the term and so came at a time when students were pressed with a number of other assignment requirements. As we introduced the task I became aware of some degree of negativity - ‘Oh not another assignment’ and ‘Why write when we can talk to one another?’ Yet despite the initial ambivalence, the group as a whole were prepared to engage with the topic and with the technology and there were certainly some students who contributed responses that were over and above expectations and surpassed the desire to simply get a grade for the assignment.

Tools and Text

One of the ideas developed in Chapter Two concerned the inter-relationship between types of communication, the construction of meaning and the tools available for communicating. I will briefly relate these ideas to this particular online setting by examining the relationship between the activity - the on-line inquiry and the production of a written text - and the available technology - a WebCT discussion tool.

One key feature of the WebCT discussion tool, and other internet based forms of communication (email list serves, chat lines and news groups), is the possibility for ‘many to many’ interaction in a way that transcends time and place. The discussion tool enables participants to engage in a written conversation by linking or threading onto other contributions. Moreover, links to other web documents can be created within individual contributions. Therefore an on-line text can have multiple authors. This makes it very different from the usual written assignments that students do as part of university coursework, which typically have one author and an audience of one (the instructor). The WebCT discussion tool only threads contributions in a linear manner. Thus in order to be part of a thread it is only possible to link to one other contribution.

The particular genre that students were working in was a hybrid of sorts. It was a discussion in an academic context and so contained those actions and expectations common to academic practice - citations, lines of arguments, development of points of view, public expression of ideas . Along with this was an informal style of communicating that is associated with much email and chat room writing , or small group discussions in class. So for example, all contributions were written from a first person perspective, many without the stylistic and grammatical formalities associated with academic essays. In a sense the on-line discussion was something in between face-to-face discussion and a formal essay.

Thus far I have detailed the ways in which the technology enabled certain forms of communication. Key learning conditions associated with this form of communication were the collaborative writing and the access to resources on the web. In the remaining sections of this chapter I will examine in detail the implications that this had for pedagogical relations and the processes of inquiry associated with the Education Studies task.

The Nature of Connections - People, Ideas, Resources and Experiences

Drawing on the analytical framework outlined in the methodology chapter, my intent in this section is to identify the nature and substance of the connections that students were able to make through the discussion. In the first instance this will involve a brief review of the nature and type of contributions and interactions between participants (students, experts and instructors) and the ways in which they used electronic resources. In order to do this the analysis will focus on the written texts produced by students through the discussion and will be supported by their evaluative comments made through a survey conducted at the end of the activity and the focus group discussions.

Student - Student Interaction

A noticeable feature of the on-line discussion is the way that students built on and developed their classmates’ ideas. Building on each other’s ideas was, of course, part of the assignment requirement, and it is an implicit part of any conversation. Nonetheless it is of value to make explicit the ways that the students did this. In noting the types of contributions it is possible to see how students took responsibility for initiating topics, developing ideas and evaluating the contributions of others. In so doing they took on a particular set of pedagogical responsibilities. Examples of these pedagogical contributions have been grouped using the following headings: asking questions; outlining a position for others to react to; clarifying and building on other’s ideas; and providing additional resources. Below are some examples of the types of contributions:

Asking and responding to questions

How does this translate in elementary schools where some kids have a distinct advantage over others simply because they have a computer at home?

Do you feel that these web sites are just perpetuating gender stereotypes or are they valuable for getting girls "hooked" on the net?

Questions served various functions - rhetorical, seeking a response to a comment or opening up an area for discussion and maintaining the discussion. In the above examples the questions provided a particular focus for the discussion. In the first case the question linked the discussion to a school context and asked about the specific effects that differential access to technology may have for students. Such a question requires an empirical response; it requires finding out what is happening in schools. The second question opened up an area for debate by pointing to two opposing interpretations of web-sites designed for girls. The questions in these cases had a dual pedagogical function. They encouraged other participants to think about a topic and the responses may clarify the questioner’s ideas. It is worth noting however, that not all questions received a response and so while the pedagogical intent may be there, it may not always be achieved. The obligation to respond to questions that exist in face-to-face settings is not apparent in on-line discussions.

Outlining a position for others to react to, critiquing ideas:

In response to the issues that Lisa raises in her comments on the Grizzlies’ environmental ed program. I was working for the Green team when the B.C. Ministry of Environment was in negotiations to create a Grizzlies environmental ed team and we discussed the pros and cons of working for and with the Grizzlies….In my mind, corporate sponsorship cannot exist in blatant opposition to an educational system that it funds. What is the point of an environmentally unsustainable company funding an environmental education program? Should we use the word hypocrisy here?
In the above example the student extended a comment raised by one of the external participants and also drew on her own experience working in the BC Ministry of Education to present her own view on the link, or more specifically, the contradictions between corporate sponsorship and public education. This student’s point of view is stated categorically and the questions at the end serve the rhetorical purpose of suggesting that the sponsorship is hypocritical. Her comments were also an implicit critique of the ideas raised by some of her fellow classmates who had posted the Grizzlies’ web site because of its educational value.

Making connections to and referencing other student’s work in developing and clarifying ideas:

That is a good way of describing the muddy waters we are wallowing in right now, Mark. I feel very strongly about keeping business from influencing the thoughts and decisions of children… After reading Adam’s hotlink about ZapMe! Where companies freely advertise on school computers, I am feeling quite negative about them. This brings me to David’s point about turning the problem into a teachable moment… Jen’s contribution about computers for schools is encouraging for me, because it seems to be a way to get computers for schools without allowing the tentacles of big business much access to the minds of children.
The excerpt above shows how one student made links between the comments raised by four peers in order to formulate a position on business sponsorship of computers in schools. In this respect her comment helped to draw some threads between the contributions. Again this served a pedagogical function both for the student as well as for other readers by making explicit the ways in which her point of view developed through a consideration of others’ ideas.

Providing additional resources:

Just out of curiosity I did a quick search on Yahoo and came up with an entire category of websites just for girls:

I didn’t have time to check many but it would be interesting to find out what the tone of them is.

In the example above the student conducted a search of web sites related to the discussion topic and posted a web address that may have relevance to the discussion. Again this had a pedagogical effect, as the student provided other participants with resources that could aid the progress of the discussion. Further issues related to the use of web resources will be examined in more detail later.

External Participants - Participation and Interaction with Students

The interaction between students and the external participants varied from group to group. The external participants brought to the discussions a range of interests, expertise and styles of contributing. This included asking questions, responding to questions, posing challenges, suggesting readings and other avenues for investigation, or providing their own or alternative and sometimes provocative points of view. Some contributors responded frequently, others provided one or two lengthy responses and one external was not able to contribute at all. Below are some examples of contributions made by external participants that demonstrate the particular pedagogical role they assumed.

Most externals constituted their role as one of asking questions or responding to student comments in ways that challenged the scope of the discussion or clarified ideas. Below are two examples of comments that sought to clarify ideas:

First, I think it is important to identify what the "equity" issue is here. Is it that only the more advantaged schools will get access to these corporate ‘partnerships’ since the potential payback to the companies will be greater? Or is it the whole principle of mixing business with education?
In the above example the external participant assumed a teaching role by asking for clarification on issues and by trying to bring focus to the discussion. Defining terms was seen as one key starting point for this focus. Certainly many of the discussions did start off in a very general way and these sorts of comments proved useful by way of establishing the terms and parameters of the discussion. In the comment below the external participant provided a summary point by naming the issues that had been discussed and in so doing provided a framework for new contributions.
From reading the entries by all those wonderful students it seems to me that we have a couple of issues: financing the equitable access to technology; teacher development and critical literacy skills in our students. The debate that is being developed is just fantastic…
The external contributors’ ideas also served as a resource that could extend the discussion. These ideas included links to related web-sites, clearly articulated points of view, connections between ideas. In the example below, Lisa the external contributor, linked the topic in her forum with the ideas raised in one of the other forums. She suggested that students ‘check out’ a web site and report back with their thoughts. Her response provided a model for making connections to other discussions and was certainly a catalyst for further discussion.
In speaking about big business involvement with schools, I was struck by an example right here in the CITE forums. I noticed one group excitedly discussing the Grizzlies’ Environmental education curriculum for classrooms. I went to the Grizzlies site to check it out. Go take a look at it INCITE people and tell me what you think.
Some of the external participants also expressed strongly held beliefs or were provocative. Below is an example.
In my experience, I think teachers should take advantage of a Big Business’ interests in schools. But to do so requires a lot of critical inquiry and research by teachers that they do not have the time, energy or institutional support to conduct.
Thus the external contributors were not simply mediators of the discussion, but knowledgeable participants with a perspective on the matters at hand.

The ways in which students interacted with the external participants varied. In some forums the interaction was informal and personal. In other forums the interaction was more formal. There may be various reasons for this but the important point is that the contributions made by the external participants attracted a degree of interest from the students. The expert status held by the external participants added credibility and weight to the discussion and attracted responses from students. As well they held status as readers and evaluators of student writing.

It is worth noting that in one forum the nature of interaction between the external participant and the students was significantly different from other forums. The distinctive feature of the interaction in this forum was the number of questions that students asked of the external contributor. In no other forum were substantive questions asked of the external participants. This form of question and answer took place in the topic concerned with gender and technology. Carole, the external participant was a school teacher with expertise in technology. Below is one example of a set of questions that one student asked of Carole.

Carole, I am also interested in hearing about the specific changes you made to your teaching style and the selection of models and mentors you made in your classroom. Also who did you allow access to in the computer lab at lunch and recess? Did you permit those students who showed initiative and productive working habits, or did you allow access to those who did not have computers at home? What were your strategies because as a pre-service teacher, I am not all that confident I would recognise the power imbalance you are talking about.
The nature of this particular interaction will be discussed more fully later in this chapter. However, it is worth noting at this point that the questions were concerned with classroom practice and Carole was the only external participant who was working in an elementary school. Her first hand and day-to-day experience in a school gave the students an immediate starting point for asking practical questions. Further, the topic was one that students had first hand experience of through their own school and practicum experience, so they could immediately relate the theoretical and practical ideas to their own experiences.

Student Commentary on the Social Interaction

There was a range of ways in which students responded to the public and collective nature of the online activity. Many students found the process of collective writing to be useful, and one that extended the ways in which they thought about ideas. The following are some examples of student commentary on this:

The more we talked on-line, the more extensions ideas came to mind.

I thought individually our response wasn’t as in depth as it possibly could have been, but I think collectively we really examined certain issues.

They [peers] often propelled me further and gave me ideas I wouldn’t otherwise have thought about.

Promotes critical thinking - you have to read and analyse what someone has written and respond differently than we are used to doing.

Most of the student comments echoed the above sentiments, the key theme being that the collective and collaborative consideration of an idea in writing added depth to the discussion. However, not all students had such favourable response to the discussion. A smaller number found this type of interaction to be less than useful for the following reasons:
Ours was ‘itsy bitsy’. We had two people that did not respond until after Christmas and so we had three trying to post, but you couldn’t get a flow going.

Many of the responses were extremely verbose and as a result very difficult and time-consuming to get through.

Both comments are based on certain assumptions and expectations about contributions to on-line discussions - the discussion depends in part on some level of participation and in part on a certain length of contribution. These criticisms I think are valid in this context, but they are also pertinent to many social settings. A further criticism was directed toward the mode for communication:
I would rather have talked about the issues in person with classmates - kind of odd to write to people who are sitting next to you. What does that say about community?
This is a not uncommon criticism leveled at on-line educational practices. While I agree the practice of writing to people who are in close proximity does seem somewhat strange and it certainly lacks some of the immediacy and emotion of face-to-face interaction, I wonder if this sense is simply because the practice is not one that is taken for granted. Spending hours writing an essay to be read by only one instructor could be considered strange and is often very isolating, yet it is an accepted and often unquestioned part of educational practice in universities. The question raised in the above student comment about community, seems to rest on an assumption that some sort of face-to-face interaction is a necessary condition for an educational community, or that on-line communication takes away from a sense of community in an educational setting. While I will not directly discuss this assumption, it does raise for me some questions about the need to make explicit the part that writing plays or can play in an educational or professional community and more particularly a community of inquiry. I return to this in the final chapter.

While not all external participants were able to engage in the discussion in a sustained way, most students found their input valuable. Indeed, the group that did not have an external participant struggled to get their discussion going and one reason that I would suggest for this is because they did not have an outside person extending the debate. The three comments made by students below serve to exemplify the value they attached to the externals’ contributions - clarifying and getting to the core of matters, broadening the perspective and scope of the inquiry, and bringing expert knowledge to the discussion.

We would write a response and they [the external] would go right to the heart of your response and pull out the thing that was most meaty and of the most value and ask you to comment on that.

The guest participants added unique and valuable perspectives from their own experiences. This broadened the scope of our on-line discussion and made us realise that we are part of a broad (very broad) community of educators, thinkers, shapers and learners.

Our person was Carole and she knew so much about the topic we chose. So it was incredible, she had such practical information and feedback that was immediate.

One of the features of these connections between people is the fact that it creates a public audience for student writing. This is also important for inquiry. The on-line discussion was a mechanism for providing feedback on others’ ideas and receiving on-going feedback on one’s own writing. Knowing that ideas would be read by others influenced the ways in which people made their contributions.
I was very careful about what was written because of the knowledge that our input is going to a public forum.

I tried to make sure that what I wrote was well thought out and well worded. I think more than I necessarily would otherwise because of the expert in the group. I was very aware that there was this person in the group that would be looking at what I wrote. I just felt they would be evaluating it in some ways so I tried to make it - make sure my grammar was correct that sort of thing.

In this next comment the student’s understanding of the process of evaluation is very much connected to the fact that the discussion was in writing and that outsiders were participating.
It helped us to think about professionalism too. Just in our classroom when we are enclosed I can say anything and shoot off about anything and I am comfortable with the judgement that the class will put upon me. I also have the chance to see other people’s responses and to change what I am saying. But on paper and with other people reading, it is quite a commitment and you have to be careful to word things professionally and not just make a joke or stab.
For these students the act of writing in public meant that they were careful about what they wrote. While this could be said to stifle spontaneity, it also required students to take responsibility for what they said in a public forum.

For some students, however, the public audience proved to be utterly constraining:

The reason I have never participated in on-line discussion is because I don’t like people I do not know reading my opinion and thoughts. I felt it to be a bit of an infringement to have people read what we wrote when our names appeared.

I was terrified to put my thoughts on-line for fear that I would be criticised or not understood. Once I finally did I realised that it wasn’t so horrible and I wished I had started participating sooner.

The students who made these comments clearly felt some vulnerability in putting their thoughts in writing for others to view. While I empathise with them, as I have struggled on occasion to put something in writing in a public electronic forum, I also think that such public writing is an important part of an inquiry process. It provides the opportunity to test ideas with those who also have an interest and knowledge in the area. This is crucial to the justification process. The fact that ideas are in writing tends to formalise and lend weight to the process.

Connections Between Students and Instructor/Researcher

In this on-line discussion, Linda the instructor chose not to directly participate. As she pointed out, the dilemma in any form of instruction is knowing the ‘proper role of intervention on the part of the teacher’, in other words balancing ‘student autonomy’ with ‘teaching goals’. Her concern was that often the instructor becomes the focal point for discussion. To avoid this and also to give recognition to the contributions from the externals, Linda took on an observational role. The assessment of student work in this activity was based on participation rates established in the evaluative criteria and not on the content of student contributions.

For my own role, I decided not to take too active a part in the discussion, even though at times I was tempted to. My reason for this was because I wanted to be able to see how the discussions worked without it appearing as if I was prodding the whole thing along and trying to develop particular threads of discussion. I did however, participate occasionally. These occasions included responding to procedural questions from students, contributing a resource that I knew would have relevance to the discussion, and raising issues in the forum in which the external participant was not able to contribute. Thus I saw my role as maintaining the structures that would enable the discussions to continue.

Connections to Resources

The use of electronic resources was a distinctive feature of this discussion. In this section I will consider the ways in which students and the external participants used electronic material, especially PKP. The vast amounts of material that can now be found on the web pose a number of challenges for, and have instituted a number of changes to, research and teaching practices. This is in terms of not just questions of access to information, but also the means of searching for material on the web, critically reading the material, and using it to inform a discussion or argument. It is important to note that there was an expectation that students would draw on web-based resources to inform or support their ideas. The assumption underpinning this expectation is central to general principles of research - locating ideas in an existing body of knowledge and collecting evidence that can support particular claims. The PKP web site housed both research documents related to technology and education as well as policy documents, newspaper articles, examples of projects and so forth. Thus students could consider both existing research in an area as well as primary documents related to their discussion topics.

The table below provides a breakdown of the ways that participants used the web-based resources. It is of note that these have been ascertained only from the on-line discussion. It is likely that uses were made of web resources that were not explicitly mentioned in the contributions.

Table 3: Web Citations
Type of Citations
No. of Citations or Mentions
Web-site citations with commentary to inform/support ideas An article in the PKP site, Teachers take on Technology (, says that there has been a frantic effort to get computers into the hands of students, but the reasons are often vague. It concludes that students need to familiarise themselves with computers so that they can understand what this technology is and what some of its applications might be in their lives. But that to me seems to be backwards.
Links to web-sites as a suggestion for reading or starting point for an idea Can we really opt out of a big business offer? What about parental pressure? Societal pressure to use computers? Here is a comprehensive website on this issue:
Response to a web-link provided by another participant I’m off to check out the links you all mentioned

What the above table and examples show is that students created direct links to the material they referenced. Readers could and in some cases did link to these sites. What is also of note is that students used sites without necessarily structuring an argument around the citation. The sites in this respect were not simply drawn on to back-up points of view but also to open up the discussion.

Participant Commentary on Using Web-based Resources and the PKP

The reactions of students to using web-based resources as a tool for the inquiry varied considerably. Students were asked in a written survey and in focus group discussions to describe how they used PKP and what value they attached to it as a resource for contributing to the on-line inquiry. The table below shows the range of responses with examples of student comments. The numbers of student comments in each category are also indicative of the frequency of response amongst the group.

Table 4: Participant Evaluation of PKP and Other Web Resources
PKP informed or supported ideas
  • The PKP gave me ideas about issues from which I formulated my own opinion to post on-line. 
  • It just kind of backed things up and I think it helped me formulate my argument too. Like I wasn’t exactly sure how I would feel on some things and then when I did research I found things that I could connect with and then added that into my argument. 
  • I would go and try and find something and then I would try and talk about that article so that I could include it in what I was talking about, so what was available was shaping rather than backing up. 
  • For me, before I formulated an opinion or idea I went to PKP and read the stuff that was there and then I would pick out a point that I was interested in talking about and then use PKP to back it up. 
  • I would go to PKP first and from there I went out and did general searches on the internet for the area I was wanting to discuss and then I would go and try and find other resources to back it up. 
  • PKP gave a good summary of readings/topics through which we could browse and eventually expand on these ideas over the internet.
Used citations because it was a requirement
  • I think people just found things on the web for the sake of it, because it was supposed to be there. I did at least. 
  • I didn’t like the idea of using links to support my arguments. I felt it was very forced to look for supporting info. I would rather have had the discussion based on personal experiences only.
PKP had little relevance to the task at hand
  • Some articles were interesting but I didn’t find I could use them for my responses. 
  • Found no quote that expressed my views too clearly. 
  • I did not personally find anything that I could quote in support of my views
Breadth and diversity of web resources
  • I was able to bring in a diverse range of resources from both educational and non-educational sources. 
  • The knowledge repository provided a great deal of extremely useful background information that related directly to the topics we addressed. This repository provided excellent links to other sites and references to other materials. 
  • It was handy to be able to click onto the web-sites that others had referenced.
Questions about reliability
  • I don’t know how to explain it - the book in the library has maybe more worth than some things you find on the internet. There is some guarantee to quality information. 
  • I was never sure of the validity of the information I was reading. It’s not like reading work from a journal. 
  • I thought it was a site that we were getting reliable information. Are you telling me that the information is not reliable?
Immediacy of access to information
  • We were able to read an article about our topic instantly. 
  • It is an interesting way to reference isn’t it? Because a reference in a paper is not so immediate, but a reference in that kind of discussion, you can go click and right away you are at the information you want.
Comments about filtering
  • I think that is the value of PKP - those people [in PKP] had done that preliminary work. If I were to use internet resources in a paper I would a million times rather go to the site like PKP than to just do a general search. 
  • If you have a tool like the knowledge program - it made it easier to research situations, like specific information for education. I still don’t think I would search random topics, I’ve tried and you don’t ever get what you are looking for. 
  • Useful but needed lots of time to filter what was relevant and what was irrelevant. 
  • The PKP site filters out pretty well everything except pro-technology articles. 
  • I found the PKP useful as a jumping off point for an argument, but the articles didn’t seem to go very in depth and they were generally of a pro-technology slant.

While some students found the PKP and other web-based resources to be of little use, or used them simply because it was a requirement, many students did find information that they could use to develop ideas or support existing ideas. In cases where the topic linked to the available resources it is clear that students could draw on a range of material to both inform and support their ideas. Some features of the site were seen as both positive and negative. For example, the filtering associated with PKP saved people time in terms of searching for information and at the same time this process was seen to limit the range of articles and points of view represented. Likewise there was great access to information and at the same time questions about its quality.

A further issue that was not raised directly by students, but indirectly through their concern over the reliability of information posted on the web, relates to the locus of responsibility for making judgements about material published on the web. Certainly, some students assumed that the PKP filtering process was an indicator that the material located on this site was reliable. While considerable vetting had taken place in the construction of PKP, and while annotations were provided for each article, the broad range of material presented on the site and indeed the very nature of much web based material meant that it had not been subject to the review and editorial processes associated with the publication of a book or journal. Thus responsibility for evaluating the worth of these ideas fell ineluctably onto the shoulders of the individual reader. Whether the students had the time, and/or for some, the skills, to engage in this sort of critical reading is open to question.

Questions surrounding the credibility of web based material and how students used that material as a resource for research and, more specifically, to justify an idea, were raised in a taped conversation between Linda the instructor, Lisa Korteweg and myself. Linda made the following observation:

I don’t think this is confined to online discussion but it is certainly highlighted by it - that students inquiring into teaching and learning are inclined to think that any research is OK research, so if I can cite that research site, that if I can cite that a study was done somewhere, then that is the beginning and end of my need to justify what the research has actually said.
While this was acknowledged as a problem with any resource, Linda made the point that it is:
…suddenly highlighted because you have got this immediacy of let’s just go to a link and that is enough.
I think the point that Linda was making was that this form of linking and citation needs to be questioned on two fronts. The first front is associated with the means by which students assess the quality of material on the web and the second front is how students use the electronic material to create or support an argument. In relation to the second point it is worth noting that some 25 citations were included in contributions by way of providing a link to a relevant site with little or no elaboration. While I would argue that in most instances these links were intended to only be discussion starters, it does nevertheless raise questions about the range of ways that web resources were or can be used and the implications that this has for processes of online inquiry and argumentation. What emerged from the discussion with Linda and Lisa was a sense that the availability and use of online resources constituted a teaching problem in terms of the actions that an instructor may need to take to assist students to find and critically analyse web resources. Likewise, the manner of constructing arguments and the possible variation between the citation processes associated with this form of online inquiry and other more formal pieces of academic writing and research were also seen not simply as problems associated with the technology, but also as problems that can and need to be addressed through teaching practice.

Connections to Experience

A common feature of students’ contributions to the online discussion was their reference to personal experience. Students drew on both their own school experiences as well as those of their family and friends, and their practicum and university experience to support and extend their contributions. Below are some examples:

Good computers don’t do much good if no one knows how to use them properly. In my experience in schools it is usually pretty non challenging work that goes on with computers.

The price tag for computers is frightening! Didn’t the Hyperstudio instructor say that parents at her school had raised $40,000 for new computers? And the guy from the library told us today that they’ll all be outdated in three years.

Although the students need the skills. I believe that integration [of technology into the curriculum] is the route to take. I do not have a lot of training and I have learned everything I know about computers through hands-on application on the job. In my practicum school, my sponsor teacher goes to great lengths to try and integrate technology into different subjects.

What is interesting is that in this medium students brought a personal perspective to bear on the topic. In the focus group discussions students said that they would typically not do this in a formal essay. In other words they would not write from a first person perspective, nor would they talk about their own experiences. Yet bringing these experiences to bear on theoretical matters and on the production of a text the production is advocated in both the general literature on learning and the teacher education literature . This is seen as fundamental to making sense of both theory and practice.

Thus far I have attempted to document some of the connections between people and ideas that emerged through the on-line discussion. I have looked only at single contributions. In the next section I will examine the connections across threads and the substance of those connections. My concern will be to consider the extent to which the on-line discussion assisted students to integrate different parts of their teacher education program and extend their professional learning.

Substance of Connections

In this section of the chapter I will consider in detail some extended examples of discussion links and tease out the ways in which they enabled students to make connections between their personal experience, the research literature, campus-based coursework and professional practice. These connections provide key indicators of the levels of intellectual engagement in the activity and of the process of integration. I mentioned above the notion of integrating those ideas that are typically seen as fragmented or polarised in teacher education programs, for example, theory and practice, campus and practicum experience, public and private knowledge, personal experience and published research, ‘foundational’ and ‘curriculum’ subjects. Part of the purpose of the on-line task was to assist students to make some connections not only between people and ideas but also in ways that bridged the sometimes disparate parts of teacher education programs. Whether and how it did this is the subject of the following analysis.

The actual way in which the discussion was presented encouraged students to make these substantive connections. Part of the task was to consider issues related to technology, equity and education in light of possible action that could be taken by teachers in schools. Further, the period for contributions encompassed both campus-based classwork and a practicum experience. Thus students could draw on school experience to inform their ideas and see how the ideas developed over a period of time. There were many cases, as shown in some of the examples in the previous section, in which students related their action and observations in schools to the discussion. Thus far I have not examined how these layers of connections might develop through a series of contributions, in ways that represent progressive building of knowledge and understanding or in ways that assist students to integrate various program parts. These multiple layers were not common across all the forums. Some of the topics, experiences, resources and forms of interaction did not lend themselves to making direct connections. Those topics with which few direct connections were made to school experience were those concerned with business sponsorship of computers in schools and the moral dimension of children’s access to the internet. However it is of value to examine those cases in which some interesting connections were made by way of making explicit the pedagogical practices underpinning the connections and the degree to which they extended students’ professional learning. Two examples will be considered - the discussion concerned with gender equity and the ones concerned with teacher education and equity.

The Gender Equity Discussion

The discussion concerned with gender, technology and education provides a good place to start. It was through discussing this topic, more so than others, that students were able to make the strongest connections between the discussion, past experience and future action, between research and practice and between concepts and action. The gender and technology discussion started with the following contribution.

In the GenTech Research Findings Final Report by Mary Bryson and Suzanne de Castell, they stated "evidence from research on gender and access to, and uses of, new information technologies (NIT's) indicates that in public schools, female staff and students (in comparison to male students) are: (a) disenfranchised with respect to access and kind of usage, (b) less likely to acquire technological competence, and (c) likely to be discouraged from assuming a leadership role in this domain."

It is obvious from the references sited in this article that that there is a lot of research out there regarding this statement. I think it would be interesting if we discussed any one of the three areas mentioned. A question that comes to mind is are female and male users of technology using technology for the same purposes?

If you would like to read the final report before responding, here it is:

There are several parts to this contribution that are of note. First, the student began her comment with reference to a set of research findings that she had located on PKP. By quoting the research summary she identified three issues worthy of discussion and suggested that those in her forum choose one of those three areas for further investigation. Second, the student asked a questions that provided another starting point for discussion. Third, she provided her fellow participants with a reference to the report that she had read, if they wanted further information. Her suggestions and questions were based on the need to find out more information about issues in gender and technology, and on the assumption that research may shed light on these issues. Given that this was the opening comment in this discussion the student took on an important pedagogical role. She established some parameters for the discussion and provided an example and model for a mode of inquiry.

This student’s question was picked up by others in the discussion. Two responses both talked about examples in which differences between the patterns of computer use by males and females were reported. They reported that typical patterns of use indicate that girls are excluded from or are not interested in many computer programs that have been developed. These students’ comments stemmed from articles and reports that they had found on the web. In noting reported differences between male and female use of computers, one student talked about the ways in which various companies, such as those responsible for Barbie dolls are producing software that is designed to appeal to girls:

Barbie is trying to change this situation. They have come out with Barbie software to market to the 6 to 16 girls market. What do you feel about this type of software for girls? Here is one quote from the article I read:

Anything that develops computer skills is good," says Julie Sheridan-Eng. "Even if it’s just point and clicking; they don’t feel intimidated by it."


Here again, this example and the associated question extended the discussion. Furthermore, the student provided background to one perspective on the argument by quoting from an article found on the PKP site. The quotation provided a flavour for one perspective on the value or otherwise of this software. The same student made a further posting after searching for related sites beyond PKP:
Boys and girls do have very different attitudes about computers. Some researchers have found that boys are more interested in competitive games, while girls are more interested in word games, art, music and adventure games. Companies have realised the importance of catering to the female market so that means web sites, especially for girls. Here are a couple to check out.

Do you feel that these web sites are just perpetuating gender stereotypes or are they valuable for getting girls ‘hooked’ on the net?

In the above comment the student made a categorical statement about the different attitudes that boys and girls have to computers. The strength of this statement appears to rest on the work that some researchers have done. Unfortunately she did not cite a reference for this research. However what she did do was provide some links to web-sites that have been designed for girls by particular companies or groups. Note that the student did not pass comment or talk in detail about these sites. Rather she offered them as sites to ‘check out’. She then asked a question that was more specific than her previous question and in so doing framed a debate by presenting two perspectives on websites designed for girls: these sites perpetuate gender stereotypes, or these sites encourage girls to use technology which is better than not using technology.

At this point Carole, the external participant, entered the discussion. At the time of the discussion Carole was a technology and resource teacher in an elementary school. She began her contribution to the discussion with two postings. The first was to introduce herself and to link in with the general ideas being raised in the discussion. The second was to present her own point of view on the issues embedded in the Barbie Doll debate. Here are excerpts from her two contributions:

Why Barbie for heaven’s sake? The woman whose body proportions are so out of whack to be laughable, who has never in her fifty year lifespan had a career and who devotes herself completely to fashion… Unlike the teacher quoted in the article, this software is not something that I could ever - in good conscience - present to a girl in my classroom. I think the Barbie-as-airhead message undoes any of the perceived good gained by just "pointing and clicking".
Here, in a fairly straightforward manner Carole outlined her position. She rejected the argument that any technology use is better than nothing. She also related the debate to the ethical stance that she would take in her own classroom. In saying this she contextualised the discussion in ways relevant to teaching practice.

Carole’s other contribution was an introductory one, where she outlined her experiences with technology and her interests in technology and gender issues. In saying this she made a connection to the opening comment in the discussion thread. This was a reference to the work of Dr Mary Bryson, a researcher at UBC.

Dr. Mary Bryson worked closely with our school to help us identify goals for technology and then to select appropriate software and hardware to achieve them. Conversations with Dr. Bryson helped me to acknowledge the power imbalance that exists around girls and technology, and I tried to ensure that this imbalance did not prevail in my classroom.
The fact that Carole was familiar with Mary Bryson’s work proved to be a fortuitous connection. Much of Bryson’s research pertains to gender and technology. Carole’s comment provided an explicit connection between the ideas developed by a researcher with the ideas developed by a teacher. I believe this was a small but significant connection between research and practice. Further, in acknowledging Bryson’s influence on her thinking Carole identified power issues as being fundamental to questions relating to gender and technology. This brought a clear political dimension to the discussion.

The comments made by Carole were extended by one student. She did this in three ways. Each of these three ways shed light on the process of inquiry and the pedagogical role that this student adopted. In the first instance she linked to a web-resource by way of agreeing with Carole on the Barbie issue and supporting her own opinion.

I agree with your opinion on the Barbie software. I feel the girls may be interested in it because the majority of them have been exposed to her since they can remember. I believe if girls are introduced to software that is engaging and thought provoking, presented in an interesting package, they would be excited about technology. After all, on the following web site,, in the article called Gender, Computing and Kids, it is stated that "girls often use computers to accomplish a goal", not just for the sake of interacting with Barbie for example.
In the above example the student has linked the specifics of the Barbie software to a more general article on gender and technology. Carole’s comment and the research helped to both inform and support her point of view.

In the second instance the student extended the discussion by asking questions about the experiences of other participants. These questions also helped to create a context for the discussion in ways relevant to those working in schools. The questions referred directly to the classrooms that the students had been visiting each week as part of an initial practicum experience.

Have any of you observed situations in your classrooms where you felt the software was appealing to both genders? Did you observe one gender playing more than focussing on the task at hand?
In asking these questions the student was wanting to consider the ways in which the experiences of those engaging in the discussion concurred with the findings that have been reported in the research and other documents that they have read and/or previously discussed.

Third, the student asked some more particular questions of Carole based on her comment about power. The student asked Carole to specify the strategies that she adopts in her own teaching. In asking this question the student acknowledged that she might not recognise how power operates in the class context and that she wanted some practical strategies that would address the problem.

Carole, I am also interested in hearing about the specific changes you made to your teaching style and the selection of models and mentors you made in your classroom. Also who did you allow access to in the computer lab at lunch and recess? Did you permit those students who showed initiative and productive working habits, or did you allow access to those who did not have computers at home? What were your strategies because as a pre-service teacher, I am not all that confident I would recognise the power imbalance you are talking about.
This to me seems to be a really important set of questions because it brings together a complex concept such as power and the practical action that a teacher could take in relation to the power-based inequities that may exist in a classroom. The student in this case was making connections between theoretical concepts such as power and practical action in a classroom.

Carole replied in detailed ways to this set of questions. She talked about her own position as a technology expert in a class and school and she talked about specific teaching strategies she employed in her class to share expertise. She also talked about the particular software that she used and the strategies she employed to ensure that there was equitable access to and use of computers amongst boys and girls. An excerpt from her reply is presented below.

During class time I intentionally pulled together small groups of girls and taught them one new skill, then asked a question like, "I wonder how you could use this in your report?" and walked away. Similarly I selected groups of students (boys and girls both) and made them experts in the use of specialised hardware like the digital camera, projection unit and the scanner. When other children needed to use one of these extras for their work, the class experts were the designated mentors.
Carole’s response to these questions fleshed out some of her theories of teaching and technology. In so doing Carole acted as a mediator for some of the ideas presented by Bryson and de Castell.

The timing of the discussion which encompassed a practicum experience enabled students to both predict future action, come back to points already raised in light of their experience and to make connections with other parts of the course and program. In the first example one student suggested that her awareness of gender matters would inform her thinking during the practicum:

I am going to be teaching computers in my practicum next week, so I will be conscious of the power struggles that may be going on, and how I can help facilitate a more equitable environment.
In the next example a student made connections between the discussion and what she saw on the practicum:
At my school I did see a very large gender gap between who was using the computers. During the class, it was the male students who wanted to go to the computer lab. And after school in the lab it was filled with male students… It is obvious our computer lab is not enticing and meeting the needs of the female students. It was very discouraging.
In this third example students returned to the Barbie Doll debate. What was most interesting was that a student drew a parallel between Barbie and girls’ use of technology and Pokemon cards with ‘reluctant’ readers.
I’d like to look at technology in the same light as reading. If a child has a lot of problems reading, a strategy used may be to let the child read a children’s book even if the parent/teacher disagrees with the content, for example "Pokemon". At least the child is reading. Is this not the same with computers?
In raising this point the student linked to topics covered in the Language Arts course, established some broad principles for the debate and brought to the forefront the relationship between the means and ends of educational practices.

As a fourth example, two of the students in the gender forum drew on the resources and the discussion to write the term essay that was part of the Education Studies course. One of the students was in the focus group discussion and she permitted me to read her paper. The student incorporated the following into her paper: references to the on-line discussion and to the external participant’s ideas; references to documents located on PKP and other web sites and her own experiences in schools. In doing this the student was able to refine and systematise the ideas raised in the discussion. The student acknowledged that the discussion provided her with the background necessary to structure an argument.

Two of the students in the gender discussion group were also participants in the research focus groups. When talking to them about the connections they were able to make between the on-line work and their school experience they indicated that they made many connections. They attributed this to two factors - the topic and having Carole. The topic - gender "because it is in every classroom - you can see it everyday". Second, "Carole talked about Mary Bryson. She [Mary Bryson] came into their school and made some practical suggestions… and then that kind of linked to what we found on the PKP forum". As mentioned before the connections between people and topics in this forum were co-incidental, nevertheless what they highlight are a useful teaching and learning dynamic:

  • A researcher develops ideas that are both highly theorised and practical;
  • A teacher interprets those ideas and develops strategies in response to them;
  • The teacher talks about these conceptual and practical ideas with student teachers;
  • Student teachers read the research, talk to a practitioner who has interpreted this research in a particular way and relate it to their own experiences.
In association with this dynamic the student teachers were able to make connections between the topic, research, theoretical concepts, teaching practice and their own experience. This seems simple in the saying, but it is a model that is surprisingly rare in teacher education.

The gender discussion was the clearest case in which substantive connections were made between people and ideas. In this case students drew on their experiences and values, the ideas of their peers, the external participant and electronic resources to engage in the discussion and construct a text. Certainly the students who participated most actively in this forum found it to be valuable. In the other forums, connections that bridged the theory/practice and campus/practicum gap were not as strikingly obvious. The topics and the available resources were not so related to the immediate school context or students’ initial understanding of that context. In some case students changed topics after the practicum to make connections, in other cases the discussions discontinued. Nevertheless in some forums certain lines of discussion developed that showed some surprising connections between ideas. One surprising set of connections related to teacher education and equity issues.

The Teacher Education and Technology Equity Discussion

Another topic that was widely discussed was technology and teacher education. While this topic was not necessarily a focus area for some of the forums it is worth noting that it was raised as an issue in six of the seven forums. Some groups came to this at the end of the discussion, some started with this and others addressed it in passing during the discussion. A common theme in these discussions was that teachers’ access to and knowledge of computers is an important factor affecting not only the efficacy of computer use in schools, but also the equity of that use. While it is now generally recognised that funding for teacher education is essential if computers are to be used in educational institutions, this is generally a pragmatic matter concerned with implementation. It is less frequently construed as an equity issue. Below I document how some of the students made connections between teacher education and equity issues and how they drew on experiences, the comments of others and the literature to do this. The two comments below serve to lay out the issues from the perspective of two students:

The inequity I was thinking of is this:

- teachers have different skills and levels of experience;

- the students of those teachers will have differential access to technology based on how much teachers take students to the lab or integrate computers into a classroom.

I fear that many of the discussions of inequity revolve around students and/or infrastructure required to accomplish goals … The role of equity with regards to teachers seems to be left out at times.

This comment served to frame a broad set of questions concerned with the relationship between teachers’ technological knowledge and students’ equitable access to technology education. These questions were fleshed out by students in a variety of ways and across forums. The example below shows one way in which a student drew upon the reading of electronic source material and her personal experience to construct a similar argument:
"B.C.’s education technology plan states that the minimum student to computer ratio in elementary schools should be 6:1 (3:1 or better being an ideal)". ( I realise that one of the public’s equity concerns, relating to education, is whether or not children will have access to computers and computer software. However this concern needs to be broadened. In my opinion the problem of there not being enough computers for everyone in the elementary schools is a very real concern. Yet, what happens to those ratios when the teachers of those schools have only a few staff members who are technologically proficient? I was in a school where the teacher had a problem printing the class assignments, and there was no one she could turn to for technical support.
In this case the student presented the standards for student/computer ratios in British Columbia schools. This information was obtained from a newspaper article that was located on PKP. She extended the debate by suggesting that this was only one part of the problem. Teachers technological competence was another part of the problem. Her argument was supported by something that she had observed while in a school. An important theme underlying this student’s statement was the connection between equitable access that students have to computers and teacher education related to technology. The literature on teacher education as it pertains to technology is typically not framed in terms of equity issues. Moreover, the literature concerned with technology and equity in schools is typically not seen in relation to teacher education.

What I found interesting and also instructive about these discussions were the varied ways that some students made the connections between teacher education and equity explicit and rendered the problem as complex and beyond simple solutions. The following exchange is one example. This thread of contributions shows how students were able to link their readings and experiences related to this topic.

Of course we believe that there are tremendous inequalities that exist in terms of hardware, but I believe that a student’s educational experience with technology is affected to a much greater extent by his or her teacher’s knowledge/experience/skill with technology. I believe that this point is partially supported by the quote I pulled off the PKP forum.
This students’ point is similar to the two above. The following posting responded to and extended this comment with reference to a study concerned with technology implementation.
Would having a full-time technology specialist in the schools reduce the amount of inequality that would exist? Granted this may be a band-aid solution to a complex issue. This idea came to me as I was reading an account of an article that I found on PKP. It was an account of several elementary schools that had implemented a technology project to teach computer literacy to students. The computer co-ordinator, the staff member with the most computer related experience, was seriously burned out by the end of the project because the responsibility of trouble-shooting in the lab was added to his or her classroom duties and obligations.
What is of note in this case is that the student was able to extend the level of discussion beyond the rhetoric about what should happen by referring to the pragmatics and problems associated with implementation and to relevant readings. Her comment is important because it holds in relief the very complexity of the technology problem - a particular conception of technology use (based in this discussion on equitable use for students) and the logistics of implementation. The above contribution drew the following and affirmative response from one student. This student made a connection between the posting and his personal experience.
Your comments are totally "on". I actually observed the situation you described in an elementary school last year. The one "expert" never got the time to do the wonderful things that he wanted to do with his class because he was so busy troubleshooting and assisting other teachers.
Questions pertaining to teacher education became prevalent when the students reconnected to the discussion following a three-week practicum experience. Indeed three of the forums that had, prior to the practicum, discussed the ethics and equity of business partnerships and private funding as a means of providing computers for schools shifted their attention to this topic. In so doing they argued that funding was one issue, use was another and that it was little use spending money on hardware and software if the technology was not going to be used to its full capabilities. Here are some ways in which students conceptualised their ideas:
I am not sure how they got the money but that is not even what I want to talk about. The whole time I was in the school I did not see anyone use the computers to half of its capacity. For example my class used the computer lab to practice their typing and to do good copies of their work. I really hope the school did not spend all of this money to have really fancy typewriters.
The student questioned both the efficacy and ethics of spending money on such expensive tools. Comments similar to this were made by a number of students. In so doing an interesting Catch 22 related to the balance between teacher education and computer capabilities was highlighted. One student argued:
I did frequently see computers being used as big expensive typewriters. I am worried about the PERPETUAL LAG between what the teachers know and the types of software and computers in schools.
Here the student suggested that the teachers in her practicum school did not have the knowledge to use the equipment available in schools. The following contribution suggests a different sort of lag in which the technology available in schools did not match the skills that students had acquired in the pre-service program.
In the CITE program we have learned how to design web pages, place opinions on forums, research resources on the web … and so on. … Because of a technological lag with hardware and software used at UBC and what is found in public schools, I find myself wondering how effective my skills will be. … It is great to have technologically wired pre-service programs, but how effective is it when funds are not available in the schools for the equipment to teach what I have learned?
When these different experiences are juxtaposed the complexities associated with technology implementation in schools are revealed. The balance between up to date technology and teacher knowledge and skill in the above cases was elusive. The following comment further extended the discussion:
The push to be ever-"advancing" in terms of new technology sometimes overwhelms reason and thriftiness, producing situations like David just described, where there are four new computers of questionable value… not considering whether there are even people in the school who know how to use it, or whether the school is suitably wired, or how valuable the new piece of equipment will be to students’ development and learning, or finally, whether the money could have been more usefully spent on something else such as books, art supplies, science supplies … the list goes on.
In making this comment the student was not only critiquing the expansionist discourse often associated with technology, but also rendering the problem as complex and beyond one or two single issues.

One student entered the discussion on teacher education by referring her peers back to an article on PKP.

If you are interested, I found a good article discussing equal access to the effective use of technology and it discusses teacher training and the distribution of teachers. It is called "Equity and the ‘Big picture’". Go to the site below to have a look:

This was the only case in which a student linked to a resource during the post practicum discussion. What strikes me as important about this comment is that a student was taking responsibility for, as well as showing an interest in, linking the discussion based on practicum experiences back to some issues found in the literature. It would be interesting in future discussions to see if students could find more relevant literature after the practicum.

A key point to note from the ideas raised in the above contributions is that the on-line discussion was able to continue after a practicum experience and over a period of six weeks. The fact that there was a written record of the discussion enabled students to review their comments made in the initial stages of the discussion in light of their practicum experience. This in and of itself required students to think about the connections between the on-line activity and school experience. For some, this helped them to look at the issue from a range of angles, and as in some of the examples above, to refine or clarify what issues were most pressing in their practice setting.

In the discussion of teacher education and equity little attention was given to the social factors that might underpin inequities in teachers’ and student teachers’ access to technology. Two of the external contributors linked teachers’ technological knowledge to gender yet this was not picked up in any detailed way by the students.

I did notice an alarming trend among my peers, however. I used to think that female teachers of a certain age were more likely to be intimidated by technology. I was very disturbed to notice younger teachers, even those in the early stages of their careers, who were reluctant to use the technology and who struggled with even the most simple word processing tasks.

After ten years experience as an elementary teacher in Richmond I believe it is very important that no computer equipment be bought or accepted unless it is accompanied by a solid budget for teacher education and in-service….Teachers want guidance without feeling ‘dumb’ for asking (which a lot of female elementary teachers are afraid of - revealing how little they know about computers).

I suspect that one of the reasons that these topics were not developed in the discussions was because of time constraints. A further reason may be that most attention to equity matters within teacher education programs focuses on the situation in schools. There is little that I am familiar with, in either practices or research, that examines the inequities that may exist among student teachers and within program practices. For example, there is surprisingly little research in the field of teacher education that is concerned with gender and equity in teacher education programs, even less concerned with technology, gender and equity.

Thus far I have reviewed and presented my interpretation of the on-line texts. Through the examples in the above section I have sought to demonstrate how a process of inquiry developed through the on-line discussion. The examples presented provide an illustration of how students were able to make connections between their peers, experts and web-based resources. The excerpts taken from the discussions concerned with gender and teacher education also illustrated how students were able to make connections between theory and practice, campus and school and between research and experience. The discussion concerned with teacher education and equity brought new and surprising connections between people and ideas to the surface. What was distinctive about these discussions is that in some threads connections were made between students, experts and resources. What these discussions allowed for were multiple layers of connections between students, experts, experiences and resources. A variety of perspectives were brought to bear on a problem, ideas were held up for others to review in public forums and ideas were constructed through collective action.

Participant Reactions to Substantive Connections

While there was a range of comments about the means of conducting the discussion, most students did see some value in the ways that they could write collectively with others and draw on resources in order to engage in the debate. This layer of connections is, in and of itself, important by way of creating the standards for a community of inquiry. Fewer students however, commented on the value of substantive connections, that is the value of the discussion in the context of teacher education, particularly for linking campus based work to the practicum, theoretical discussion to teacher action. Many saw the discussion as having little relevance to the school situation. The following two comments, made in the discussion forums illustrate this point:

My school has a great computer resource with Macintosh computers, however I did not notice any relationship between what we had been discussing with big business and the schools. I think that the issue is more prevalent in the US or Lower East Side schools. Richmond schools have a lot of support from the parents and so forth, so I think the [big business] issue is non-existent in my school.

The school I did my practicum at wasn’t on-line, so a connection between the topic - Children and the Internet - and my school experience wasn’t possible.

When I discussed with students in the focus groups the degree to which the on-line discussion provided useful links between campus and practicum experience one student made the following observations and suggestions:
Topic selection, or a critical question that you were looking into, that could help the flow, keeping it more practical. Because we were able to choose our own questions and I think our group decided on big business because it was something we had talked about before. But is wasn’t really a very good topic for this and what was offered within PKP… Even to question things going on in your school and the kind of programs that are in schools. High tech vs. low tech. Like we have old computers in the schools so we don’t have web internet. So it has come up now, but that would have been a really good question to look into.
This student was suggesting that it would have been more worthwhile to generate discussion topics from school experience or observations. Further, it was in the discussion after the practicum, in which students talked about the computer issues in their schools, that this student realised that there were differences between the schools in relation to their technological capabilities. She was in a school with far fewer technological resources than some schools, which raised for her a number of questions about the circumstances associated with this.

The above comment made by one student about the importance of topic selection within the on-line discussion is an important if not unsurprising one. Certain topics opened up greater possibilities for making connections between theory and practice, research and action, campus and school. Certain topics had a more substantial set of resources and research attached to them. Certain topics had greater relevance to students’ experiences and interests. The issue of topic selection raises other questions about the pedagogical practices associated with the on-line discussion. For instance, how could topic selection have been better established? It is here that discussion with the instructor proved fruitful by way of examining the structure of the on-line task and its relationship to the rest of the course and the other teaching practices that are part of the course.

This on-line activity, as previously mentioned was one small part of a course that existed as part of a campus-based course. As such the on-line inquiry sat alongside another set of practices - face to face discussions, lectures, written assignments, reading print material. How the on-line discussion aligned, or could be aligned, with these other practices was raised as a topic for discussion with Linda, the instructor. Linda made the following points in talking about what happened this year and what she would do if she used this process of inquiry in the future. Her ideas point to existing links between the activity and coursework as well as possible avenues for integration in the future.

I need to build it in earlier to the course and have it connect more to the course.

One thought I had after reading this was maybe the thing to do is to pull out some of the salient points and make this more integrated into classroom discussion. This just becomes another venue. What I tended to do was separate it out from what was going on in class and let it go on-line, in a way that I wouldn’t have let it go in class.

In the second point Linda suggested integrating on-line and face-to-face discussion and through this opening up a channel for her own intervention in the inquiry. In some ways this might be a strategy for balancing student autonomy and teaching goals previously raised by Linda.

In the following point Linda talks about the on-line discussion in relation to face-to-face class and essay writing:

It becomes this interesting transition point between chat and essay writing and I think we are trying to find a place for these kind of discussions within an inquiry. It is not the whole of the inquiry, but it is a dimension of the inquiry and it does take advantage of the idea that collaborative discussions bring to individuals different dimensions that they would not have seen if they were doing a research paper on their own, even if they had access to the internet to do the research paper….I think what we are searching for is a way in which the WebCT discussion becomes an intermediary step between talk and writing.
This suggestions opens the possibility for thinking about ways in which writing an essay on a topic could develop from an on-line discussion. The assumption here being that students have already started to formulate, draft and get feedback on ideas prior to writing a substantive piece of work. This point is corroborative of the ideas raised earlier by the one student who wrote her essay on the ideas raised in the online discussion.

While there were ways in which the activity could be more tightly linked to other aspects of the course, it was clear that in many instances the discussion had developed from or was consistent with principles and concepts that had been covered in the Education Studies coursework. For example, Linda had spent time in class generating guidelines for respectful communication, productive discussions, and critical thinking which provided the groundwork for students to be able to contribute to the online discussion in an independent way. Furthermore, in the coursework students had considered notions of equity in education, which provided them with a conceptual framework for considering equity in relation to technology.


By way of concluding this case study, one student’s comment stood out for me as a key to understanding the potential for this type of discussion. She said, "I loved writing from my heart and head". To participate this student garnered both intellectual and emotional resources. She was able to write from a personal perspective as well as through drawing on the ideas raised in research and by other contributors. I am not suggesting that all students felt this way or that it is only on-line discussions that make this possible. But in this case the mode, the topic, the interaction between people, the access to resources - the methods of inquiry - enabled this student to engage from her head and heart. This is important given the chronic separation in teacher education programs between theory and practice - the two sides of this dichotomy being not unrelated to the head and heart dichotomy.

This bringing together of ideas and perspectives was one of the key purposes of the online activity. From the data presented above, there are some clear examples of ways in which the activity fostered these sets of connections. The online discussion provided a medium through which students could structure various pedagogical relations and various connections between ideas and experiences. Key and distinctive aspects of the on-line interaction included:

1. Exchange of ideas in writing across a number of people and beyond program boundaries;

2. Audience for writing;

3. Access to and incorporation of web based resources; and

4. Interconnections between personal experience, other participants and resources.

Parts of the gender discussion and parts of the teacher education discussions provide some evidence for ways in which participants made connections in both form and substance, and in ways that represent extensions to students’ intellectual engagement. Crucial to each of these cases were the levels of collaboration, the nature and relevance of resources and research and the links between the discussion and students’ experiences in their practicum schools.

The problems and issues that emerged through the discussion and that could be addressed in further research concern the nature of the relationship between on-line activities and other course activities and the efficacy of using web-based resources. Developing ways in which the online work could complement and link to face-to-face classes and more formal pieces of writing formal pieces of writing could provide a broader and more integrated purpose for the task. Assisting students to find and use web resources in ways that productively and critically inform the discussion and the level of reasoning is important given the vast array of material available on the web.


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Thank you to those people who participated in this project. Particular thanks go to Linda Farr Darling, Lisa Korteweg, John Willinsky, Brenda Trofanenko, Gaalen Erickson, Tom Russell, Carole Saundry, Ros Brennan.