Supporting Peer-to-Peer E-Mentoring of Novice Teachers Using Social Software

Supporting Peer-to-Peer E-Mentoring of Novice Teachers Using Social Software

Mark J.W. Lee (Charles Sturt University, Australia) and Catherine McLoughlin (Australian Catholic University, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-876-5.ch007
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Abstract

The Australian Catholic University (ACU National at www.acu.edu.au) is a public university funded by the Australian Government. There are six campuses across the country, located in Brisbane, Queensland; North Sydney, New South Wales; Strathfield, New South Wales; Canberra, Australian Capital Territory (ACT); Ballarat, Victoria; and Melbourne, Victoria. The university serves a total of approximately 27,000 students, including both full- and part-time students, and those enrolled in undergraduate and postgraduate studies. Through fostering and advancing knowledge in education, health, commerce, the humanities, science and technology, and the creative arts, ACU National seeks to make specific and targeted contributions to its local, national, and international communities. The university explicitly engages the social, ethical, and religious dimensions of the questions it faces in teaching, research, and service. In its endeavors, it is guided by a fundamental concern for social justice, equity, and inclusivity. The university is open to all, irrespective of religious belief or background. ACU National opened its doors in 1991 following the amalgamation of four Catholic tertiary institutions in eastern Australia. The institutions that merged to form the university had their origins in the mid-17th century when religious orders and institutes became involved in the preparation of teachers for Catholic schools and, later, nurses for Catholic hospitals. As a result of a series of amalgamations, relocations, transfers of responsibilities, and diocesan initiatives, more than twenty historical entities have contributed to the creation of ACU National. Today, ACU National operates within a rapidly changing educational and industrial context. Student numbers are increasing, areas of teaching and learning have changed and expanded, e-learning plays an important role, and there is greater emphasis on research. In its 2005–2009 Strategic Plan, the university commits to the adoption of quality teaching, an internationalized curriculum, as well as the cultivation of generic skills in students, to meet the challenges of the dynamic university and information environment (ACU National, 2008). The Graduate Diploma of Education (Secondary) Program at ACU Canberra Situated in Australia’s capital city, the Canberra campus is one of the smallest campuses of ACU National, where there are approximately 800 undergraduate and 200 postgraduate students studying to be primary or secondary school teachers through the School of Education (ACT). Other programs offered at this campus include nursing, theology, social work, arts, and religious education. A new model of pre-service secondary teacher education commenced with the introduction of the Graduate Diploma of Education (Secondary) program at this campus in 2005. It marked an innovative collaboration between the university and a cohort of experienced secondary school teachers in the ACT and its surrounding region. This partnership was forged to allow student teachers undertaking the program to be inducted into the teaching profession with the cooperation of leading practitioners from schools in and around the ACT. In the preparation of novices for the teaching profession, an enduring challenge is to create learning experiences capable of transforming practice, and to instill in the novices an array of professional skills, attributes, and competencies (Putnam & Borko, 2000). Another dimension of the beginning teacher experience is the need to bridge theory and practice, and to apply pedagogical content knowledge in real-life classroom practice. During the one-year Graduate Diploma program, the student teachers undertake two four-week block practicum placements, during which they have the opportunity to observe exemplary lessons, as well as to commence teaching. The goals of the practicum include improving participants’ access to innovative pedagogy and educational theory, helping them situate their own prior knowledge regarding pedagogy, and assisting them in reflecting on and evaluating their own practice. Each student teacher is paired with a more experienced teacher based at the school where he/she is placed, who serves as a supervisor and mentor. In 2007, a new dimension to the teaching practicum was added to facilitate online peer mentoring among the pre-service teachers at the Canberra campus of ACU National, and provide them with opportunities to reflect on teaching prior to entering full-time employment at a school. The creation of an online community to facilitate this mentorship and professional development process forms the context for the present case study. While on their practicum, students used social software in the form of collaborative web logging (blogging) and threaded voice discussion tools that were integrated into the university’s course management system (CMS), to share and reflect on their experiences, identify critical incidents, and invite comment on their responses and reactions from peers.
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Background

E-mentoring of Pre-service and Beginning Teachers

Primary and secondary school teachers have the onerous and daunting task of enabling students to develop the knowledge and skills needed for further education, employment, and life at large. Beginning teachers are particularly vulnerable because they lack experience in instructing and managing large groups of learners, while simultaneously coping with assessment demands, curriculum changes, lesson planning, and being responsible to multiple stakeholder groups (parents, students, the community, school administration, etc.). The alarmingly high attrition rates of newly appointed teachers worldwide (Moskowitz & Stephens, 1997; DePaul, 2000; Williams & Prestage, 2000; Department of Education, Science and Training, 2003) may be at least partially attributed to these difficulties, which are compounded by the lack of availability of appropriate and effective induction and support (Ingersoll, 2001; Fideler & Haselkorn, 1999; McCormack, 2007).

Research has shown that successful mentoring experiences can lead to beginning teachers’ increased contentment with and proficiency in teaching, which in turn can have an influence on whether or not they continue on to pursue a long-term career in teaching (Darling-Hammond, 2003; Livengood & Moon Merchant, 2004; Smith & Ingersoll, 2004; Brady & Schuck, 2005). For beginning teachers, mentoring relationships can offer support and feedback, and prepare them for successful entry into the “real world” of the school and classroom. In a review of the literature by Carter and Francis (2001), such mentoring arrangements are also presented as a process that “mitigates teacher isolation, promotes the concept of an educative workplace and … leads to the creation of understanding of consensual norms in a school, faculty or grade team” (p. 250). The authors conclude that contextualized learning that is mediated by mentors in the workplace can be effective in the development of a body of practical, professional knowledge for beginning teachers.

With increased pressures of accountability, now and in the future, developing new teachers into effective educators committed to the profession is a major focus for universities and their partners, such as local, state, and national education departments and agencies. In most contemporary initial teacher education programs, pre-service teachers typically complete a series of field practicum experiences before they become qualified. It is during the practicum, when they are separated from their university teachers and classmates for the first time in their program and expected to work independently, that they are most in need of emotional support, as well as access to advice and feedback on their professional competencies. For many, the sense of isolation experienced while on practicum contrasts sharply with the supportive environment they have experienced at university. During this critical period, time and place constraints often act as an impediment to the maintenance of successful mentoring relationships (Watson, 2006). Online or e-mentoring can help overcome these constraints while fostering the development of open and supportive relationships and friendships that transcend the walls of the classroom or institution. In recent years, much attention has been devoted to the use of mentors during the induction phase for beginning teachers, and to the development of online forums and websites to support these teachers in the first few years of their career (see for example, Herrington, Herrington, Kervin, & Ferry, 2006; Klecka, Clift, & Thomas, 2002; Ontario Teachers’ Federation, 2007). Reports on productive mentoring strategies in pre-service teacher training, and on the use of e-mentoring in this area, are nevertheless relatively sparse (Bierema & Merriam, 2002). In one successful initiative, Watson (2006) describes an e-mentoring program that involved the pairing of pre-service teachers and practicing teachers in the southeastern United States. The program provided “rich” field experiences for the student teachers without the problems that face-to-face mentoring would normally entail. Despite some technical difficulties, students found the project to be an effective means of support in “issues pertaining to socialization, learning environments, assessment/evaluation and paperwork, classroom management/discipline, curriculum/resource materials, time management, teaching strategies, certification, legal concerns, special needs, students, new teachers and [discipline/subject area] specific content” (p. 175).

Professional development and learning for teachers is, in reality, a lifelong, career wide, context-specific enterprise that is guided by mentors at various stages, grounded in practice and focused on continuous learning that is both reflective and experiential. Schlager and Fusco (2004) describe it as “a process of learning how to put knowledge into practice through engagement in practice within a community of practitioners” (p. 205, authors’ emphasis). In other words, professional growth requires engagement and dialogue with a community of like-minded peers, and entails social and self-critical processes. Lave and Wenger (1991) argue that learning is situated in social contexts and is achieved through interaction and practice with others with similar professional interests (i.e., communities). The term “legitimate peripheral participation” refers to the way in which newcomers become part of a community of practice (CoP) through apprenticeship, or learning from others with greater expertise. This socially-based theory of professional learning implies that individuals learn by engaging with and contributing to their communities. Existing community members learn and refine their own practice through interaction and sharing with one another, as well by offering apprenticeships to newcomers. This is congruent with the research on mentoring, which shows that the process is mutually beneficial for mentors and protégés (Huang & Lynch, 1995; Freiberg, Zbikowski, & Ganser, 1996; David, 2000; Holloway, 2001).

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