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Connecting Transitions and Independent Learning: an evaluation of read-write web approaches (CoTIL)

Page history last edited by Richard Hall 11 years, 7 months ago

 

Background

 

The HE context for transitions and technologies

Recent studies on the student experience in Higher Education (JISC Learner Experiences of eLearning, 2006) highlight that a framework of technologies, including both institutional and non-institutional, Web 2.0 tools, are crucial in connecting students’ informal and formal learning. However, there is very little research on how these technologies can be successfully integrated into the student experience upon transition into HE, in order to motivate their independent learning. With the HE sector focusing upon strategies for engaging diverse groups of learners, and for supporting employer engagement, and part time, flexible and work-based learning, understanding how a range of students can develop independent learning skills within HE is critical.

 

This is an area which is ill-defined and complex, with many personal, peer-group, technical and systemic factors impacting on the learning experience (Biggs, 2003). Both the STAR (2008) and Learning from Digital Natives Projects (2008) have highlighted how skills may be developed informally, and how institutions need to develop broader and deeper social networks, amongst staff and students, in order to develop academic literacies. Yorke and Longden have also highlighted the impact of decision-making, new teaching styles, access to resources and social integration on the retention of first-year students (Yorke and Longden, 2008).

 

One approach for empowering new or apprentice learners is the development of personally-meaningful learning skills. In particular, pedagogues have been re-thinking the implications of the read/write web in the development of personalised, user-controlled learning environments (Pettenati et al., 2007; Rollett et al., 2007). In part, this has been catalysed by the structures and affordances of user-centred technologies (Anderson, 2007). The ability for users to work across a range of networks and tools, and to integrate tools in order to define personally-meaningful spaces extends their self-concept, self-presentation and self-knowledge (Franklin and van Harmelen, 2007; Parajes and Schunk, 2001). Such self-expression can be analysed with reference to social learning theory (Bandura, 1977; Driscoll, 1994; Piaget, 1970; Vygotsky, 1977), which highlights the importance of structured, personalised opportunities for developing mastery in new learning situations.

 

Engaging learners with these new learning situations has led institutions to develop workshops, enhanced approaches to feedback and student support units. These are designed to be proactive but are often institutionalised and become reactive in practice. Therefore, new approaches that connect students to learning materials, their peers and academic staff are critical, especially given emerging preferences for both work and home-based learning alongside campus-based study (Ramanau et al., 2008). In this way both the mentoring of students by their more experienced peers and the use of personalised technologies to deepen the apprentice learner’s engagement with the process of independent learning is key.

 

Evaluating the use of read/write technologies is critical in enabling both academic and support staff to provide authentic help for students in their transition to HE. The Connecting Transitions and Independent Learning (CoTIL). project evaluated strategies for enhancing the transition to independent thinking in HE using these tools. At the heart of this endeavour sits the hypothesis that productive, structured social interaction and collaborative working extends the individual learner’s perceived and actual ability to act in the academy and the world, and thereby to contribute to learning in a range of settings (Napier, 2008). The project engaged with formal and informal pedagogic innovations that support structured risk-taking within the following groups.

  • Level 1 learners in History who are experimenting with podcasts, discussion forums and blogs to build subject and personal mastery.
  • Level 2 students using read/write technologies to informally mentor Level 1 students.

Traditionally, study skills workshops, tutor feedback and academic guidance unit resources reinforce connections between the learner and the academy. However, connecting with these mechanisms is often a reactive process. Therefore, in order to enhance the development of independent learning skills at level 1, differential strategies for connecting students to materials, their peers and academic staff need to be defined. This is particularly critical for students from a diverse background, for whom the production of an inclusive academic environment is central to their retention. Therefore, one key thread to the CoTIL project will be a focus upon identifying the synergies between independent thinking that occurs in formal and informal places and to define guidelines for academic spaces, which support structured risk-taking.

 

The non-HE context for transitions and technologies

There is very little research outside of HE into learner transition, or perhaps more precisely outside of the Primary school, Secondary school, University transitions/route. Literature that does exist tends to focus on the transition to post-secondary education of learners with disabilities. In terms of adult learning, Macintyre (2008) suggests that a community-based focus has an important role in supporting adults to continue to learn and it identifies factors, particularly linked to meaningful, personalized support, associated with progression from the participants’ perspectives. In most learning systems participants experience multiple transitions both within and between providers and institutions. Transition is a process of change and this change presents challenges for both the individual undergoing the change and the staff in the institution.

 

Communities of Practice, or inquiry (Garrison and Anderson, 2003; Wenger, 1998) is a socio-cultural theory that fundamentally challenges received views of learning as mere transmission. Instead, learning is situated in communities which engage in a range of valued practices and can be understood as appropriate participation in these practices (Paetcher, 2003). Transition occurs when learners come from a community of which they have long experience and in which they are familiar with the valued practices, to a community where they are more peripheral (Reay,2002; Rhodes et al., 2002; Tobbell, 2003). They do not know or perhaps understand the demands of the new community and moreover their new tutors may not know or understand their previous experiences. Transition then becomes a process of negotiation between settled learners, tutors/facilitators and new (peripheral) learners (Comber and Galton, 2002). Successful transition will result in identity shifts, which, argued by Communities of Practice theorists, occurs through participation.

 

There is no body of literature on the use of the read/write web and learner transitions in adult and community learning or FE. Cook and Smith (2004) present research into the factors that influence learning progression and inclusion in community-based settings and uses the results to argue for a progressive, communal knowledge-building framework for embedding technologies. Specifically, they point out that Governments, in the UK and elsewhere, tend to view community centres and similar organisations that receive government funding (e.g. UK online centres, libraries, etc.) as being in a position of being able to ‘progress’ centre users into formal study or employment. The paper concludes by addressing key questions relating to knowledge-building discourse and the use of e-learning tools to recreate community centre activity to support it.

 

The read/write web

The profusion of user-centred, participative and networked tools that can be updated from the web or via mobile technologies is commonly known as Web 2.0 (O’Reilly, 2005). However, the use of the term ‘read/write’ focuses upon the development of more interactive, iterative approaches to the use of these technologies, rather than simply the toolset itself. Moreover, read/write stresses the fusion of broadcast and interactive tools within a personalisable environment (Hall, 2009).

 

Read/write applications deliver opportunities for:

  • relationship-development and participation: both through tools that focus upon extant connections and interests, like Facebook, ning.com or SKYPE, and through technologies that enable interest-driven and serendipitous or asymmetric associations, like Twitter (Lacey, 2009; O’Reilly, 2009);
  • resource and content management that are both personal and social, for example through: (geo-) tagging; bookmarking; QR codes; the syndication and aggregation of content (New Media Consortium, 2009);
  • communal and individual, user-generated content production, presentation and sharing, which enables socially-constructed, dynamic, hybridised and derivative knowledge to be developed. This involves mash-ups, blogging, the management of wikis, and the generation of multimedia; and
  • virtual representation of the self and engagement with alternative reality games (Whitton, forthcoming), for instance in massively multi-player on-line environments and virtual worlds.

These tools have prompted some pedagogic re-evaluation, in terms of valuing students both as producers of content and as co-creators of learning environments (Napier, 2008). More prosaically McGee and Diaz (2007, p.32) have highlighted that ‘these applications have great potential to be used in way that is learner-centred, affordable and accessible for teaching and learning purposes.’

 

Academic concerns about security, safety, privacy, control of data and plagiarism impact upon the relationships between emergent, web-based tools and innovative pedagogies (Anderson, 2007). This matters because some students are reportedly ‘frustrated at the misuse or lack of use of [read/write web] tools within their institutions’ (Conole, 2006, p.95). Moreover, some students are using social software on their own initiative to support their studies irrespective of institutional authority (Kurhila, 2006). Therefore, identifying how emergent technologies impact the transitional relationships between tutors, support staff and learners is pivotal in enhancing the student experience of HE. Central to this is the idea that institutions need to help students identify how they can frame their own set of academic and social technologies within an authentic personal learning environment (PLE).

 

The development of personal learning environments

The Ravensbourne Learner Integration Project (2006) argued that a PLE is ‘a learning environment that is assembled through learner choice’. It encompasses the personalised aggregation of tools, networks and content from a range of formal and informal places, presented in a range of formats depending upon the nature of the personal tasks to be undertaken, and controlled by the individual user.

 

The PLE offers us a complex view of learning environments based upon differentiated user needs. The Ravensbourne Learner Integration Project (2006) has developed an assemblage model that focuses upon the individual’s transition from private to public learning in the context of social software and communities of practice.

 

 

Fig 1. The Ravensbourne Learner Integration Model

 

The Learner Integration Model is important in transitions because it highlights the importance of enabling learners to makelinks between: personal mastery in specific domains; social learning in communities or associations of practice; and social media and technologies. It illustrates how self-education and critical literacy are enhanced through active participation with a range of media and within groups that make sense to the individual, including mentoring and subject-specific cohorts. This frames a constructivist paradigm where learners can situate themselves, in order to make and record actions, to reflect on those actions, to share decisions and thoughts with others, and to represent aspects of their identity within validated networks. By aligning the structures of PLEs to social learning theory, one can scope how apprentice learners can engage the read/write web to make sense of new learning contexts.

 

Social learning theory and processes for transition

Recent scoping studies have identified the development of connectivist approaches to learning as pedagogic outcomes of the use of the read/write web (Anderson, 2007; Franklin, T., & van Harmelen, M., 2007; Siemens, 2009). These can frame the development of inclusive social spaces. This aligns with Siemens’ (2009) connectivist view of personal development as a process of making meaning through socialisation, interaction and collaboration. Such meaning-making can also be facilitated by integrating both formal and informal educational experiences (University of Ulster, 2009), and this aligns with Bandura’s (1977) view that:

 

Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others, one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.

 

Framing structured, social activities within which learners can distil the outcomes of their informal and formal learning opportunities enables them to engage with the signs and rules of novel curricula. These socio-constructivist engagements (Bandura, 1977; Driscoll, 1994; Piaget, 1970; Vygotsky, 1977) offer opportunities for students to develop academic literacies through the development of critical thinking and decision-making within personalised spaces.

 

Bandura (1977) emphasised: the role of observational learning and modeling; social experience; and reciprocal determinism where a person's behavior both influences, and is influenced by, personal factors and the social environment. Traditionally institutions and staff have framed these social learning traits through activities that enable learners to demonstrate their transition into HE, like study skills workshops, tutor feedback and academic guidance unit resources. The intention has been to reinforce the connections between apprentice and experienced learners or staff, who act as mentors. However, connecting learners with these mechanisms is often a reactive process. Therefore, to enhance the development of independent learning skills at Level 1, differential strategies for connecting students to materials, their peers and academic staff need to be defined.

 

Developing personalised strategies is particularly critical to support students from non-traditional backgrounds, for whom the nature of the academic environment is central to their retention. This has a technological impact given the flexible nature of study preferences, and the growth of home- and work-based study, and the use of personal or mobile tools for the self-regulation of learning (Ramanau et al., 2008). In developing a safe environment within which flexibility can emerge, Anagnostopoulou and Parmar (2009) highlight the important role of institutional VLEs and the need for their early introduction into Level 1 student learning. They also recommend the creation of opportunities to associate social and academic activities, and to respect those who participate in different ways, for example by lurking.

 

In creating successful activities, Yorke and Longden (2008) noted the impact on retention of a perceived lack of contact between students and significant others, like mentors or tutors. From this perspective the development of mentoring by both experienced peers and staff offers the potential to extend academic tutoring (Boud et al., 2001). The mentors’ role equates to a scaffold that supports new students in breaking through transitional barriers and reaching a personal ‘turning point’ or transformation. As a result, the learner becomes conscious of their engagement with their learning in a new environment (Palmer et al., 2009). Palmer et al. (2009) note that management structures, in the form of support services, have little chance of reaching across transitional boundaries that specific students experience as daunting, and which can lead to their real or perceived exclusion from academic or social spaces. Hence, the engagement of new learners with experienced others in developing and using an authentic PLE, needs evaluation, in order to judge the efficacy of technologically-enhanced academic mentoring.

 

Aims

The CoTIL team are committed to enhancing the potential of these tools to empower learners and create exciting learning opportunities. Therefore, a key thread to the project was a focus upon the professional development needs of academic and support staff in promoting transitions towards independent thinking. At the heart of this exploration lies the theory that productive, structured social interaction and collaborative working extends the individual learner’s perceived and actual ability to act in the academy and the world, and to contribute to learning in a range of settings.

 

To address this rationale, CoTIL had two aims.

 

1.    To examine the development of independent study skills at level 1 HE, through the deployment of read/write web technologies.

 

2.    To identify the strategies deployed by students in the use of technologies for personal, social and academic purposes in developing their transition into HE.

 

Methods

In addressing these aims, the CoTIL team focused on two areas of development.

1.    Level 1 learners studying a History programme who are experimenting with podcasts, discussion forums and blogs to build subject- and personal mastery.

A core Level 1 History module, taken by 54 undergraduates and delivered by two academic staff, used a mix of technologies encompassing: the university virtual learning environment (VLE) for access to resources and discussion forums; podcasts of lectures and seminars; word or tag clouds of key lecture and seminar concepts; and a personal blog or learning log. Learners were supported in managing their engagement with these technologies, although clear expectations were set for the use of the discussion forums for conceptual analysis, The VLE for learning materials and the learning log for reflection.

 

The learning log was designed to enable students to record their progress, thoughts, feelings and actions across the module, in terms of: the way in which historical skills have been developed; the assessment tasks students were asked to complete; and the student’s own development as a learner/historian. The log accounts for 15 per cent of the overall module assessment and students were informed that tutors would frequently visit and comment on entries. The assessment criteria demanded evidence of reflection on: the content of the module; personal skills’ development; and the assessment tasks.

Two members of academic staff were interviewed alongside seven students at the end of the delivery of the module. The postings to the blog were analysed, in order to develop a taxonomy of use. The two data-sets were then triangulated.

2.    Level 2 students using read/write technologies to informally mentor Level 1 students.

A centrally-co-ordinated pilot peer-mentoring scheme was introduced in academic session 2008-09. It involved awareness-raising and training of mentors in Education and Media Production programmes, in the Faculty of Humanities, to empower them as ‘buddies’ for new students, with a focus on supporting their transition into HE. Mentors were “described at the beginning of this project [as] ‘uniquely placed’, being closer to the first year experience than any other resource within the University.” The pilot aimed to enable students to negotiate their own personalised, social spaces for collaboration and contact. The mentors and students explored the potential of various on-line tools with the project team, so that the participants could decide which technologies to use for mentor/mentee communication.

 

In the context of this case study, peer-mentoring offered insights into two questions.

I.      How did mentors engage mentees in defining technologies for personal, social and academic purposes?

II.    What were the mentor experiences of using these technologies to support students in transition?

Mentors were asked to keep logs of student communication (Conole et al., 2006), which identified: approximate times of communication; the rationale for the use of specific technologies; and any perceived benefits and disadvantages. The action research rationale offered insights for future enhancements and development. The researchers attended a large number of mentor-mentee meetings, in order to facilitate an understanding of student perspectives within this context. In all, 20 students provided verbal feedback in meetings and focus groups and 13 ‘logs’ of communication were received.

Results

  1. Learning logs in History

The discussion of outcomes that follows highlights the themes from an analysis of student learning log postings based upon an embryonic taxonomy, which defines four types of engagement with reflection by apprentice historians.

 

 

  1. Simple cognitive reflection on performance: where limited or basic statements are made about performance, but without developing a personal action plan for change. For instance, “I did XX well/poorly.”
  2. Emerging criticality: where limited reflections are used to articulate a developmental, questioning approach, with transitional actions linked to future practice on the course. For instance, “I did XX well/poorly. I will do YY as a result.”
  3. Sophisticated criticality: where learners use reflections and evidence to critique their performance and show a sophisticated grasp of personal development, with actions linked to future practice as a historian. The action plan frames an authentic, individual independence of thought. For instance, “I did XX well/poorly. I will do YY as a result. This shows that I have developed ZZ.”
  4. Affective reflection: the learner highlights their emotional development and/or the impact of their University life on their feelings of well-being, and on becoming an independent learner.

 

Using the taxonomy to analyse learning log entries enables a discussion of how independent thinking and writing is developed over the duration of the first-year. Overall the 54 learners posted 274 entries and there were 911 views of individual postings. Tutors made 34 individual and generic comments on entries. Table 1 highlights that only one student did not engage with her/his log.

 

 

Number of posts

0

1 – 5

6 – 10

11+

Number of students

1

34

16

3

 

Table 1. The number of learning log posts made by Level 1 historians

 

Every student contributed to a formative, socialisation, discussion forum framed around the question “why are you studying history?”, and thirty-seven students also engaged with the on-line discussions on the VLE about “objectivity and truth in history”, “the historian and political commitment” and “the role of the historian”.

 

Overall, there were 151 learning log entries (55.1% of the total) that focused upon academic history or the outcomes of assessment. The personal development of historical or study skills was the focus of 157 posts (57.3% of the total), whilst 116 entries (42.3% of the total) highlighted personal, emotional aspects of the transition to learning in HE. In terms of the specific log entries about assessments the breakdown using the taxonomy above was as follows.

 

Taxonomy

1

2

3

4

Book Review: number of students posting

6

36

6

20

Web Review: number of students posting

5

33

5

18

Essay: number of students posting

4

31

5

19

Total

15

100

16

35

Table 2. The number of learning log posts made by Level 1 historians about assessment components by stage of the taxonomy

 

Throughout the duration of the year most students demonstrated engagement with emerging criticality and used their reflections to begin an articulation of their performance as apprentice historians, including the need to build a developmental, questioning approach within a basic action plan linked to their future historical practice. For a tutor this was critical because HE study requires “a real transition from being you know a dependent person whose receiving knowledge to somebody who is actually capable of creating knowledge or if not that manipulating and making judgements and having confidence in those judgements.” One student who acknowledged her “strong work ethic” highlighted the power of the learning log approach.

 

for my first assessment I got 65% and I really wanted to get a ‘first’, eventually, and I think because I wrote up my feedback on that learning log and I could see the areas where I could improve, then when I did my essay I used those and I got 74% in that essay and I think it really did help me pick up the areas where I needed to improve and take forward.

 

Within the taxonomy, entries demonstrated:

  1. The ability to develop a questioning approach;
  2. The ability to develop a social learning approach;
  3. The ability to evaluate sources and evidence;
  4. Enhanced analytical speaking and writing skills; and
  5. Positive emotional engagement and personal development.

 

Importantly, most students demonstrated an emerging and personalised criticality in their approach to questioning. One student commented that following feedback on the Book Review “in order to improve in my next assignment, I am going to try and ask more in depth questions, so that I can analyse the material more efficiently." Questioning was key for many students in their critical, historical development, from the simple belief that “my action plan is to work on asking better questions and giving relevant examples when I present a point or argument”, through to the more complex view of socially-based inquiry: “the challenge for me, and the discussion board helps a lot, is to go home and think about what I’ve learned, ask my own questions, come to my own conclusions, voice my opinions and see how it coincides with others”. One learner encapsulated this as “question everything!”

 

I find myself questioning things a lot more. I cannot watch anything on television without questioning the motives of the makers of the programme, I cannot read anything without understanding what the author is all about, and I can’t even listen to music without wandering what it is that the musician is trying to get across! In a nutshell history has ruined my life!!! But I am really enjoying it.

 

For a separate learner, the impact of peer-evaluation on performance was critical: “you need to make sure you do any relevant reading or research to prevent you from looking silly in front of your friends!” A colleague who was clearly uncomfortable with group-work or peer assessment noted a personal epiphany: “Perhaps an odd idea but I believe I may also benefit more time talking to my peers, share ideas and have perhaps one of them look over my work and ask questions of it, as a way to aid in addressing questions or avenues that I've yet to notice or overlooked.” This focus on collaborative enquiry and sharing was linked to personal models of trust by a third student: “I must trust in what others around me say and believe the tutors when they tell me I am doing fine.”

 

The ability to evaluate evidence more critically was stressed by some students. One noted that the Book Review “has helped me take things into consideration that I would never have considered before, for example objectivity. I found this really hard to get my head around, however, it now helps me make peices of evidence make a lot more sense.” After the Web Review a different learner highlighted that “I have learnt to be as objective as you possibly can and I have also improved my research skills. I feel I need to concentrate now on integrating selected evidence”. For a peer this was magnified as “I can no longer watch or read any form of historical item without analysing it to a ridiculous level”. However, this was a developmental process as one student highlighted that “the aim of being ‘critical’ was something I perhaps struggled with [at first].”

 

The process of analysis, synthesis and integration took place in a personally-owned and developed blogging and discussion space in the institutional VLE. Whilst six students highlighted that they also used an integrated fusion of tools, including Facebook, iGoogle, YouTube, Twitter and podcasts, to extend their own personal space for aggregating and evaluating evidence, a seventh stated “sometimes I feel that once you’ve updated facebook, twitter, all the different types of blogs available, checked podcasts and email, your day is almost gone”. Developing some personal, technological balance is seen to be important. However, a tutor argued that his engaging with a student’s preferred toolset enabled “some students to ask and get feedback and [this is] quite interesting from a tutors point of view to be able to get at somebody when they are in the process of learning something, we often get it where they are trying to write the essay.” A separate academic argued that there was a definite nee for students to extend their PLE: “You are going to be able to get them over lots of fears in the first year, just get them trying things out playfully.”

 

This engagement with the meaningful, independent evaluation of evidence then washed through into some reflections on academic speaking and writing, as outlined after the Web Review by one learner who noted the emergence of “a new type of analytical writing that stretched the ways in which I think and write”. Intriguingly a peer highlighted that “I have to take the plunge and be more analytical”, thus highlighting the impact of personal self-belief and self-efficacy. A peer extended this thinking to reflecton on the space that academic writing offered for personal agency: “I need to ensure that I use those opinions that I form to centre the essay, rather than putting them as an afterthought or giving space to superfluous considerations”. The issue of self-belief was central to the emerging historical personality of a fourth learner, who argued that “it is funny how fast time has gone and yet how ineffective I still feel with academic processes but I do believe I've learned how to better express myself as a historian.”

 

For one of the tutors this expression was “less to do with what’s happening in class rooms and more to do with what goes on around it, so in terms of how you structure their experience and in terms of the social experience but also treating them as serious academics”. The technologies should, therefore, be used for framing an enabling environment in which community development can be encouraged. He added: “you can’t invent a community if they don’t feel it”, and the first-year is designed “to make them comfortable in the [HE] classroom.”

 

Often this individual or social development was meshed with an individual’s emotional development. Following the Book Review one student “was really dreading getting [my work] back and had completely convinced myself it was my worst piece of work ever and it made me feel sick as I sat outside Dr X’s office waiting to get it back. I actually got 67% which i was very surprised and shocked at”. The tutor commented that “You have written two good pieces of work for me, and there is more to come, I am sure. Think carefully about how to apply your feedback practically to your work on all your modules”. The student later noted that “University work is getting a lot less scary now and I think I am starting to understand the standard that is expected.” A tutor highlighted the developmental nature of working with the whole person: “the anxieties at the beginning are really about how do I fit here and there’s a lot going on I think that’s not really to do with education”.

Other comments produced at key learning moments, like assessment submission, included terms like:

·         apprehensive; lacklustre; worried; daunting; nervous.

However, students also highlighted how they believed:

·         “I have grown in confidence”; “I am coping”; and “I really enjoy studying now”.

The emotional impact of independent historical study was important for one tutor who noted that “they are a little bit anxious is transposing those practices from their social lives into an academic context and [understanding] whether the same rules apply, and I guess a lot of it is round having the confidence in their own academic judgements”. This cognitive, emotional mix was picked-up by one learner in reflecting on “an interesting problem while reading a book titled ‘The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial - To Heal a Nation’. The book is interesting, which chews up time when I should be skimming it but also, while reading letters from people inside the book, it emotionally got to me”. Engaging the affective side of learning with apprentice learners, in understanding how cognition and emotion are mutually-reinforcing is a critical pastoral strand to academic tutoring and mentoring.

 

A separate student highlighted that such an approach enabled her to “gain the confidence to argue and disagree even if I am the only person who is arguing for or against” and that “this has also been reflected in my day to day life, making me more critical of media and current affairs, so I can form my own opinion on events." A peer argued that this was important because “I have changed how I feel, more in control of it all.” Moreover, she was now braver in putting forward her views.

 

This mix of cognitive and affective outcomes was nurtured by the tutors. One commented on a specific posting that

 

I really like the way you use this blog: it makes for a very interesting read, and you make some very perceptive points about your strengths and weaknesses. You should have much more confidence in your views and opinions! Remember to provide evidence for your opinions, but never be afraid to develop your own argument.

 

More generically it was argued that “As tutors we really want you to gain personal confidence by participating, proposing ideas, discussing etc.” Crucially, this transition into working as a historian in HE was seen to be personal, but located as a social activity: “hopefully your collective self-confidence is growing - from the learning blog entries the group as a whole seems to value each point-of-view”. The development of the nurturing role of tutors as mentors in a collective endeavour that aimed at subject mastery was framed by personal, student ownership of engagements within an institutionally-provided space.

 

For one student this “made the transition to HE a lot less scary!” This student lived at home and felt that read/write web resources “helped bridge the gap between university and living at home.” For her tutor the use of read/write web tools “makes [HE] more transparent and anything that does that has to be good.” The technology facilitated effective socialisation and transitional spaces where more effective reflection on and production of non-contact time, independent learning outcomes could occur. However, he added a major caveat about the tutor needing to remember her/his role as a mentor:

 

in the end its about the students own motivation for learning and you then get yourself into the difficult situation where you are talking about transitions and you are talking about becoming independent and about students managing their own learning and time but how do you compensate for a lack of motivation, how can you actually, if you intervene constantly to try and compel the motivation of the student  to develop what’s going on there, you know are you actually undercutting your overall objective which is to become more independent by constant intervention.

 

  1. Peer-mentoring

A centrally-co-ordinated pilot peer-mentoring scheme was introduced in academic session 2008-09. It involved awareness-raising and training of mentors in the Faculty of Humanities, to empower them as ‘buddies’ for new students, with a focus on supporting their transition into HE. Mentors were “described at the beginning of this project [as] ‘uniquely placed’, being closer to the first year experience than any other resource within the University.” The pilot aimed to enable students to negotiate their own personalised, social spaces for collaboration and contact. The mentors and students explored the potential of various on-line tools with the project team, so that the participants could decide which technologies to use for mentor/mentee communication. This was central for one tutor who hoped mentors would develop “a sort of inner confidence and motivation to actually make a start and take some action”.

 

In the context of this case study, peer-mentoring offered insights into two questions.

1.    How did mentors engage mentees in defining technologies for personal, social and academic purposes?

2.    What were the mentor experiences of using these technologies to support students in transition?

 

Mentors were asked to keep logs of student communication (Conole et al., 2006), which identified: approximate times of communication; the rationale for the use of specific technologies; and any perceived benefits and disadvantages. The action research rationale offered insights for future enhancements and development. The researchers attended a large number of mentor-mentee meetings, in order to facilitate an understanding of student perspectives within this context. In all, 20 students provided verbal feedback in meetings and focus groups and 13 ‘logs’ of communication were received.

 

The following themes emerged from the action research.

  1. The selection of technologies to use was a complex, personalised operation, involving mentor and mentee perceptions of the 'institution', available technologies and of peer communication.
  2. Converting the mentors proactive, 'push' approach to communication into actual engagement with mentees was problematic. Developing an approach to the trustful modelling of academic practices takes time.
  3. For many mentors, the key was for technologies to enable reactive, ’just-in-time’ services and support in an authentic, personal space.

All mentors considered themselves to be conversant with web-based technologies and the majority felt themselves to be good 'on-line social networkers' who could offer authentic support to apprentice learnes. To support socialisation mentors requested an area on the VLE, which they felt would act as a hub or central area for peer contact. One student commented that this was “a positive sign of [our] legitimate role within the institution”. However, mentors generally “left it to the mentees” to select the technology to be used with one noting that “I let my mentees decide which form of communication to use. I offered many choices but the mentees felt more comfortable using [face-to-face, student email and VLE]”. For one mentee this was impacted by a desire to be led rather than to lead developments at this early stage in their academic life:

 

Perhaps on Blackboard if there was a message mentioning that the mentors would be making an appearance after the lecture, just to remind everyone which mentee belongs to which mentor and to remind them of what their mentors look like.

 

Clearly these less experienced learners, uncertain about what was feasible in anacademic environment, felt more insecure about making these decisions and needed more structure. Despite this, the institutional VLE community, which may have represented a validated, secure social space was not used by first year mentees, although 25.0 per cent did login. Similarly, no mentee responded to introductory welcomes and offers of support from mentors on discussion forums and blogs. The mentors' initial hopes were not matched by mentee engagement. One mentor claimed that “[the VLE] was a good idea, [but] I access it maybe only once a week and did so even less as a first year so didn't feel it would be the best way to contact mentees.” In terms of modelling practice this impacted how mentors engaged with their mentees, and over time some mentors came to feel that the VLE “was quite impersonal and too formal.”

 

A separate issue in the development of shared engagement in transitional spaces was that communication with students depended on the proactive prompting of the mentors. One argued that “There has been one student [who] has consistently stayed in contact and others have dipped in and out when they need.” The range of intrinsic motivations amongst the mentees may have demanded that mentors develop a more appropriate induction to understand how to help these new learners develop their own personal spaces. This approach to induction needs to balance mentor aspirations against extant social cultures of using non-institutional tools.

 

The tutor responsible felt that “you set up an expectation for the mentors that the first years are going to want this, and we have met a lot of challenge in that area and that’s what I’m exploring at the moment, sort of the resistance to engagement”. She argued that at present the mentoring environment was “germinating”. In fact she also went onto describe how one “cynical” focus group regarded second-year mentors as “just people who want to do it for their own CV”. Moreover, they intimated that “as a first year student you are just into university the last thing you want to do it admit to somebody else that you might be struggling with something” She highlighted the complex, emotional side of the first year experience, and how institutions fee that second and third years will be closest to new learners, but that actually other forms of mentoring may be needed. In fact a key outcome was that “what we are finding with the peer mentoring is that this is a very sensitive, complex area”, and that the students have to enable their own environments.

 

There was a complex, mixed economy in the use of technologies. In end-of-project feedback, 36 of 43 mentees prioritised one-to-one or group-based, face-to-face engagement as their favoured mode of engagement. Of these 43 learners, 18 valued using personal email and 11 wanted to use University email to support enhanced contact. In terms of social networking, nine found Facebook valuable, only four valued the dedicated VLE community, and three used Twitter. A mentor argued that “because our Facebook group had been successful we decided to stick with one community to communicate.” The same student noted the impact of personal factors on mentee-engagement: “Nobody wants to be first to write on the discussion board… unfortunately the 1st years were either reluctant to use this or did not want to advertise their problems or may have had difficulty using this page.”

 

The priority for both mentors and mentees was to engage wth safe and trusted social spaces that they already owned. One mentor stated that “Facebook was probably the best [tool] because most people have Facebook and it makes it less formal and more informal.” A second felt that this was because “it was important that the mentees did not feel intimidated by the scheme, which was why we decided to use Facebook.” Half of the mentor groups used Facebook, which was perceived to be a more personalised, student-centred resource, with a second-year student remarking that “most people are on Facebook – that’s were people hang out, so it’s worth trying that.” Even so, there appeared to be no greater engagement from mentees, with mentors reporting that mentees did not fully participate in meaningful discussions. One mentor stated that “we felt we would get a better response by setting up an informal Facebook group than by using student email. However as time went by without contact we resorted to any methods available.”

 

Most mentors felt they were in a position of having to contact mentees to 'push' their services and to encourage input. A number perceived that the lack of first-year student responses was due to a lack of interest, an inability to formulate useful academic questions and queries, a lack of recognition of the role that mentees could play, or, as one student put it, because “they were being lazy”. There was also an element of mentor-desperation in not receiving responses from mentees with several commenting on “the fact nobody turned up to meetings or even answered our messages and stuff was a little disheartening.”

 

However, it is a moot point whether mentee reactiveness was caused by a lack of cohort identity amongst mentee-groups, or the development of alternative academic support mechanisms, or personal uncertainty. It is also entirely posible that the mentees did not need this extra transitional support. It is clear that technologies were a side-issue and had not impacted communication negatively. In fact, mentors were happy with the choices that their groups made. The lack of contact from mentees was perceived to be a failure to appreciate the value of the advice they would receive, and that it was a rejection of this type of social learning. To remedy this fact the mentors recommended that tutors disseminated and impressed upon students the scheme’s inherent value.

 

Predictably, mentors considered their role to be successful when mentees responded positively, generally when assignments were due and when mentors attended face-to-face classes to offer help. One mentor noted that he

 

had contact with 3 of my mentees who were very comfortable asking for advice and enquiring about information. One in particular was happy to keep in contact and seen me as a valuable asset. I have offered my services about every 2 weeks via email and met up with mentees when required. Mentees only contact me when they had a problem or were unsure, most of the correspondence came when assignments were due or when they had to choose modules.

 

One of his peers felt some frustration:

 

It’s been hard to get the first years to actually make use of us, but they seem to be more     collaborative lately and we’ve had a few chats with them about academic issues such as assignments and also some student life-related issues. Facebook and email have been very useful but only right after meeting with the students face-to-face.

 

These mentors recommended that face-to-face meetings, although infrequent throughout the year, provide crucial scaffolding and prompts for first-year students. For the mentors this was the key transitional barrier to be overcome. One reflected that “the only thing that seems to be missing is the mentees getting more involved.” For a separate mentor it was important to overcome fear through personal ownership of transitional spaces, including technologies: “we should be left to make our own communication through email, social networking sites and phone calls/texts. I believe this makes the scheme more personal and less ‘scary’ as it does not feel so affiliated with the university.”

 

A clear benefit for mentors was in social engagement, scaffolding an authentic learning experience and affective learning. One stated that "it has been very rewarding for me, knowing that I have eased other peoples fears with regard to all aspects of the course.” He went on to emphasis the need for communication with first-years that was “enjoyable and informative.” For a second mentor engaging with the process of mentoring and acting in an advisory role using a range of technology was “very interesting and challenging.” In moving the scheme forward building PLEs that strengthen the links between academic reward and challenge is central.

 

Conclusions

The case studies discussed herewith have highlighted the role that technologies can play in supporting both academic and social transitions into HE. Several shared themes emerged from both the academic use of read/write web tools for mastering and integrating subject-specific skills and the development of peer-mentoring.

1.    The choice of technologies that support transitions into HE involves the learner and her/his mentor in scoping a fusión of formal, institutional tools and informal, personally-defined technologies.

2.    Framing a learning space around an institutional VLE may define a safe, controllable space for mentors or tutors, but new learners need a meaningful reason to engage in it. The use of non-institutional tools with peers, rather than tutors can encourage buy-in.

3.    Engagement by apprentice learners is impacted by perceptions of: the 'institution' and its role in personalised spaces or PLEs; the available technologies, includng the place of institutional VLE; and of the efficacy of peer communication.

4.    Converting the creation of institutionally-driven structures, even where they are student-centred and managed like a peer-mentoring scheme, into a supportive engagement with new learners is difficult.

5.    Subject-driven approaches to supporting transitions can enable higher order cognitive development, for instance: enhanced questioning; social learning; source critique; and analytical communication skills.

6.    For many transitional students, technologies need to enable reactive, ’just-in-time’ services and support.

7.    Read/write web technologies can productively connect positive emotional and cognitive engagement, and empower personal development.

The read/write web offers ways for students in transition to personalise their HE existence framed by a modelling of social practices, and to develop their own critical identities. User-centred, participative, social networking tools enable learners to create informal associations or communities of practice, in which to develop their own subject-based mastery. By fusing social, web-based tools into a task-oriented PLE, students gain control over their learning experiences. Moreover, they are able to define who they share those experiences with, and to connect their informal educational lives to their formal, institutional work.

 

One central academic innovation in extending the transition of apprentice HE learners to new learning situations may be a fuller integration of mentoring projects and cultures into academic work on programmes and modules. In this way, a fuller social pedagogy is connected within both academic and social spaces. In framing more proactive activities, new approaches that align students with learning materials, their peers and academic staff are critical. The use of social technologies that shape a personalised approach can deepen the apprentice learner’s engagement with the transition to independent learning. Doing so requires re-envisioning HE practices around the mentoring of students by other students and staff who are regarded as more experienced peers.

 

Recommendations

Mentors: engagement by apprentice learners is impacted by perceptions of: the 'institution' and its role in personalised spaces or PLEs; the available technologies, includng the place of institutional VLE; and of the efficacy of peer communication. Mentors need to engage their mentees in a discussion about these issues.

 

Academic staff 1: new learners need a meaningful reason to engage in tasks. The use of non-institutional tools with peers, rather than tutors can encourage buy-in.

 

Academic staff 2: programme teams should develop coherent approaches to supporting transitions that include the development of the whole person. This demands that they are able to interpret affective signals from an environment.

 

Support staff: must re-think their approach to induction activities and creating a supportive engagement with mentors, so that the latter can work with new learners. This relates to advice about the available technologies and guidance around building communities of practice.

 

Institutional managers: must consider the learning environments they create, in terms of its openness and the ability of learners to plug-in their own technologies, networks and content. This is particularly the case as read/write web technologies can productively connect positive emotional and cognitive engagement, and empower personal development.

 

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Project Team

Richard Hall, University e-Learning Co-ordinator, De Montfort University

Heather Conboy, Faculty of Humanities e-Learning Co-ordinator, De Montfort University

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