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Creating a ‘Connected’ Community? Teachers’ Use of an Electronic Discussion Group


by Neil Selwyn - 2000

As Information and Communications Technology (ICT) becomes more commonplace in educational settings the use of computer mediated communication (CMC) between teachers is increasingly being seen as a valid form of professional dialogue and support. Indeed, the promotion of online discussion groups as ‘virtual meeting places’ for teachers has formed a central part of the UK government’s £1billion drive to make ICT use part of day-to-day practice in British schools. However, amidst the enthusiasm for creating ‘virtual communities’ of teachers, little is known about how educational professionals are using such resources in practice. To this end the present paper reports on a study of UK teachers’ use of an established online discussion group over a two-year period. It shows that, although the online forum was being used widely both as an information and empathetic exchange resource, many of the claims of establishing collectively focused virtual communities of teachers remain exaggerated as the forum was limited by a number of caveats associated with CMC groups in general.

As information and communications technology (ICT) becomes more commonplace in educational settings the use of computer mediated communication (CMC) between teachers is increasingly being seen as a valid form of professional dialogue and support. Indeed, the promotion of online discussion groups as “virtual meeting places” for teachers has formed a central part of the UK government’s £1 billion drive to make ICT use part of day-to-day practice in British schools. However, amidst the enthusiasm for creating “virtual communities” of teachers, little is known about how educational professionals are using such resources in practice. To this end the present paper reports on a study of UK teachers’ use of an established online discussion group over a two-year period. It shows that, although the online forum was widely being used both as an information and empathetic exchange resource, many of the claims of establishing collectively focused virtual communities of teachers remain exaggerated as the forum was limited by a number of caveats associated with CMC groups in general.

INTRODUCTION


In the United Kingdom the National Grid for Learning (NGfL) initiative marks the most sustained and extensive commitment to educational information and communications technology (ICT) by any government to date. With over £700 million pledged to the formation of a learning grid the initiative has been heralded as finally “moving the education service into the twenty-first century” (Blunkett, 1997, p. 11). The specific aims beneath the umbrella term “National Grid for Learning” are manifold. Primarily the program will ensure that every one of the 30,000 UK schools has at least rudimentary access to the Internet by 2002. A parallel investment of £230 million of National Lottery money has also been directed toward training 500,000 teachers to “generally feel confident” with the new technology. Once all schools are “connected” the government aims to develop a “mosaic of interconnected networks and services” (DfEE, 1997, p. 5) giving teachers and students access to shared resources and information as well as the means to communicate with others on a local, national, and international basis. To these ends a range of official and commercial Virtual Teacher Centres have been established aiming to “provide invaluable professional support . . . allow[ing] teachers to share issues and expertise from around the country” (BECTa, 1999, p. 5).


Indeed, of the Internet’s three main functions of storage, transportation, and communication (Jones, 1995), it is perhaps the capacity for online contact and dialogue between teachers that has provoked the most enthusiasm among educators. Following this lead the UK government has been actively promoting the Internet and e-mail as a means for teaching staff to share their knowledge, experience, and good practice with others around the country and the world. As education secretary David Blunkett recently espoused:


We need teachers to be in the vanguard as we move into the information age. . . . These tools enable teachers to share ideas and good practice, to learn quickly from each other, and find out which schools are doing well and why. (Blunkett, 1998)


In this way online communication between teachers has been positioned as a cornerstone to the sustained success of the NGfL policy. Indeed, as Hargreaves (1994) argues, collaboration and collegiality are widely viewed as ways of securing effective implementation of externally introduced change within the teaching profession. Successful online communication among teachers can be seen, therefore, as a key factor contributing to the implementation of a centralized educational reform such as the NGfL initiative.


In practice, a host of online forums are being set up within the National Grid for Learning to enable teachers to communicate with each other. An ever-expanding range of online discussion groups and bulletin boards is being made available, often in the guise of virtual staff rooms, to entice teachers to participate. Yet in what ways are teachers using these new and often unfamiliar forums of communication? Is the prevailing image of the NGfL facilitating a host of virtual communities of teachers an accurate one? Amidst the hyperbole that has quickly enshrouded the NGfL it is very easy to overlook the limits of the technology and, it follows, the validity of the many claims surrounding the Internet as a communication medium. The focus of this paper, therefore, is to examine how teacher discussion groups are working out in practice. Moreover, how accurate are the claims being made regarding the Internet’s capacity to create virtual communities of teachers?

COMPUTER MEDIATED COMMUNICATION AND THE FORMATION OF VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES


The enthusiasm surrounding the Internet’s role as a platform for online educational forums has been fueled by wider societal excitement surrounding computer mediated communication (CMC) and its potential for altering and creating new forms of social relations. Following this line of thought, many authors have been enticed by the democratic potential of the Internet and CMC. In theory, it is argued, the Internet allows each user an equal voice, or at least an equal right to speak (Foster, 1996). For example, it has long been speculated that computer-mediated communication will reduce the barriers to communication between people working at different hierarchies within organizations (Sproull & Kiesler, 1996). This has also led many to extrapolate the capacity of the new cyber-technologies in leading to new forms of social interaction and relationships:


Communications networks offer the prospect of greater opportunities for seeking advice, challenging orthodoxy, meeting new minds and constructing one’s own sense of self. Entirely new notions of social action, based not upon proximity and shared physical experience but rather on remote networks of common perceptions, may begin to emerge and challenge existing social structures. (Loader, 1998, p. 10)


In the eyes of its many enthusiasts online communication is a powerful medium for specialist but disparate groups of like-minded individuals to form democratic virtual communities, providing mutual support, advice, and identity (e.g., Gates et al., 1995; Rheingold, 1993). According to Rheingold, virtual communities can be defined as “the social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace” (Rheingold, 1993, p. 5). As well as acting as electronic mediums of exchange the burgeoning popularity of online discussion groups has also prompted many commentators to reach more extravagant conclusions. As Wooley (1992, p. 135) claimed:


the experience of using such services powerfully reinforced the collective imagination of computer users that there was another “world,” a world where much of their social intercourse might take place, where much of their information would come from. . . . could this be where the denizens of the global village truly belonged? Could this be a new reality?


Whether or not we share the zeal of these latter authors, it is clear that this concept of creating virtual communities of teachers is an integral part of the National Grid for Learning and, therefore, provides the focus of the present paper. In particular by examining how teachers are using this new technology this article aims to ask whether the resulting interactions really can be seen as constituting a new form of educational community? With this in mind we shall now outline the focus of the present study.

STUDYING ONLINE TEACHER DISCUSSION GROUPS–THE CASE OF THE SENCo FORUM


The vast majority of online teacher forums take the form of discussion groups, e-mail lists, or bulletin boards. Here participants can post messages to all other subscribers to the group (and any other interested Internet user) that can then be responded to over a period of time. This will usually lead to the emergence of threads, or discussion topics, where a number of contributors will provide responses and counter-responses to an original posting, thus forming a dialogue. Although discussion groups tend to have an overriding common theme and an inferred shared interest there is no one specific intended outcome. As Savicki et al. (1997) point out, the context of Internet discussion groups is one in which membership is usually large, members probably do not know all others in the group, and the task is not to produce a specific result, but rather to generate ideas and discuss them. In this way, online discussion groups have often been idealized in terms of a magazine where all readers can become writers (e.g., Feenberg, 1984).


Although less immediate than forums for real-time communication, such as the multi-user domains and chat rooms, these forms of discussion group are argued to be equally as furtive in their capacity for the formation of virtual communities via what Levinson (1992) terms interactive asynchronicity. As Tepper (1997, p. 44) reasons:


Any user of [the Internet] can tell you that virtual communities arise in these non-realtime arenas as well. Although a discussion composed of discrete postings lacks the immediacy that many find alluring about realtime sites, it has an advantage over these latter in that the membership of the community is not constrained by the logistics of who can log on when. Time lags in the conversation allow for the formation of E-mail back channels between group regulars that help promote conversational intimacy among the regulars.


With this in mind the present study focused on one of the longest established and most heavily subscribed UK teacher discussion groups. The SENCo forum is specifically oriented toward special needs coordinators (commonly referred to as SENCos), the UK title given to teachers and professionals supporting students with special educational needs (the current UK terminology for learning disabled students). At the time of writing the SENCo Internet discussion group boasted over 900 subscribers.1 The concept of a special needs coordinators’ electronic discussion group was the focus of early work by the then National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) into the viability of online teacher forums, and this particular group subsequently has been highlighted as an example of good practice in this area (NCET, 1995, 1996; Parker & Bowell, 1998). As Wedell et al. (1997) note, the concept of an e-mail–based special needs coordinators’ discussion group was initially developed because of the very complex responsibilities associated with the role, coupled with a lack of available appropriate further professional development. It therefore aimed to replicate earlier use of computer networks to foster a sense of community between similarly organizationally disparate or geographically isolated professionals such as librarians (Ladner & Tillman, 1992). As perhaps the longest running UK virtual arena for teachers it was considered an ideal focus of the present study.


On this basis, and in light of earlier work on noneducational Internet groups (i.e., Roberts et al., 1997; Savicki et al., 1996; Schoch & White, 1997; Smith & Kollock, 1999; Wellman & Gulia, 1999), the study sought to examine the following questions:


1. What role was the forum taking on for its participants—what were the functions it was fulfilling for teachers?


2. Were online relationships between participants broadly supportive or narrowly specialized?


3. Was a shared sense of community emerging among participants—was there any evidence of attachment to online communities?


4. What were the patterns of participation in the forum and the diversity of its activity—was discussion equal and democratic or dominated by a virtual elite? (Jordan, 1999)


In order to gain a representative picture of teachers’ use of the SENCo forum, online exchanges and discussions from a period of 24 months (October 1996–October 1998) were examined in the light of these questions. The live development of the discussion was followed over a six-month period with the prior 18 months of archived messages also examined. These data took the form of 3,654 messages with a total of 734 developed threads. As can be seen in Figure 1, the membership and amount of activity on the forum grew over the two-year period from an average of around 50 contributors per month in the first year to nearly 100 per month during the second year. Similarly, the number of messages being posted effectively doubled from the first year to the next, reaching a monthly maximum of 434 postings toward the end of the second year of study. Although the SENCo forum is by far the most active teacher forum in the UK, this level of use is dwarfed by the size of regular (noneducational) discussion forums on the Internet, which can regularly attract between 200 and 1,000 postings per day (Burkhalter, 1999). Moreover, the structured nature of the academic school calendar was mirrored by teachers’ use of the SENCo forum, with natural dips in online activity coinciding with the traditional vacation months of August, December, and April.


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Having established this quantitative background, a grounded theory approach was taken in order to analyze the content of the SENCo forum further (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). In particular, initially the content of all messages was examined and those that initiated one or more responses (thereby creating a thread of messages) were reexamined and open-coded to produce an initial code list until, in the opinion of the researcher, analysis had reached theoretical saturation. From this basis the data were then selectively coded in terms of categories identified with the initial code list. To this end all themes discussed in this paper were generated from the data themselves. These will now be discussed in more detail below.2

1. USE OF THE FORUM AS INFORMATION EXCHANGE


Over the two years of postings covered by the study, discussion on the SENCo forum covered a wide range of topics and took many forms. However, throughout the three-and-a-half thousand postings, dominant forms or types of interaction between teachers emerged. One such recurring form of discussion involved participants using the forum as a discursive information environment. The topics of these threads ranged from the mundane (such as the availability of sloping desks for six-year-old students) to the more serious (e.g., the legal implications of physical contact with students), but was dominated overall by requests for information and queries regarding specific disabilities, resources, implications of recent policies, and other practice-based teaching concerns. Tellingly, requests for information and advice on computer software and hardware were also a recurring feature; as could be expected among an implicitly computer-active population of teachers.


Indeed, collaboration between teachers in this way and the formation of collaborative cultures is a crucial part of education (Nias et al., 1989) and in the very visible role of special needs coordinator the need to ask for advice is crucial. As Sachs and Smith (1988) argue, teachers typically work in isolation from their peers and the prevailing professional and bureaucratic expectation is that they achieve a level of competency on their own. As a means of overcoming this professional isolation, online discussion groups could assume an important role as information exchange opportunities between teachers (Bakkenes et al., 1999). For example:


Mon, 13 Jan 1997 15:08:38 -0500


Does anybody know where I can find out more about: Tourettes syndrome; Asperges; Prader-Willy (or could anybody tell me anything about them?) I know roughly what the first two are but the third I’ve *never* heard of. They’ve all come up at school recently and the SENCO and I could do with a bit of help!


Any info would be greatly appreciated.


Cheers,


Chris


Re: Asperges, tourettes, prader-willy


Tue, 14 Jan 1997 09:31:45 PST


Chris..


A really good site for Asperger Syndrome is http://www.udel.edu/ Bkirby/asperger/ which has a number of useful articles on the educational implications but also see the links on Autism, Tourette’s etc. at the Xplanatory’s transit station which has links to many useful sites.


regards


Paul Hopkinson


Tue, 14 Jan 1997 12:11:00 +0000


Caused by chromosome abnormality. Severe obesity, mental retardation, small hands and feet, small genitalia. In infancy, problems with poor muscle tone, feeding, and body temperature control. With time tone improves but obesity follows. short stature, behavioural difficulties—scoliosis—diabetes mellitus in 2nd generation


Robert Farr


The willingness for individuals to cooperate with each other and exchange information in this way was typical of many of the examined threads. Indeed, it is this use of CMC that has led proponents of the Internet to make claims for its capacity for online community building. Rheingold (1993), in typically hyperbolic manner, refers to the aggregation of knowledge in computer-mediated spaces as “computer-assisted groupmind” or “on-line brain trusts.” As the above exchange demonstrates the Forum did appear, in a limited way, to be approximating this notion.


If we are to accept this notion of the SENCo forum as an online brain trust then the above exchange, in theory, could be seen also as indicative of Goodson and Hargreaves’ (1996, p. 20) notion of teacher professionalism in a postmodern age. They see a “commitment to working with colleagues in collaborative cultures of help and support as a way of using shared expertise to solve the on-going problems of professional practice, rather than engaging in joint work as a motivational device to implement the external mandates of others.” However, to broadly characterize all use of the forum in this way would be misleading, as the extent of online collaboration between participants clearly has its limitations. For example, not all motives for offering assistance on the forum were purely altruistic, as this later response to the original plea illustrates:


Tue, 14 Jan 1997 11:37:13 GMT


Hello Chris. It may be helpful if I draw your attention to THE BaP DIRECTORY OF SPECIFIC CONDITIONS AND RARE SYNDROMES IN CHILDREN WITH THEIR FAMILY SUPPORT NETWORKS. This is a large loose leaf Directory which is up-dated twice annually and contains over 200 entries covering almost 800 defined conditions affecting children. The particular criterion for entry in this Directory (given that there are thousands of medical conditions affecting children) is that there should be some form of parents support group or information network in existence in the UK for each entry.


Please note that if you have an information need relating to a condition which is not in THE BaP DIRECTORY it may be worth writing to BaP Parent Advisers. We have a database of conditions for which no support group currently exists and for some of these conditions we have parents actively seeking links to other affected families.


THE BaP DIRECTORY has entries for all three of the conditions you name (the usual spelling is Prader-Willi) and if you care to send me a postal address I will mail you a flier containing full details. We are currently working on an electronic edition and if all goes well there should be a subscription service to THE BaP DIRECTORY on the Internet before Easter.


Best wishes. Philip Cook. Director BaP.


This thinly veiled advertisement sits in stark contrast to the first two offers of advice. Presumably it may have been more helpful if this respondent had actually listed the details of Prader-Willi from his directory; yet this apparently was not an option. Here, at least, the concept of the Internet as a “free” information exchange clearly founders. Indeed, early on in the forum’s life several debates on the use of the group for advertising were raised. Eventually, it was decided that no advertising would be allowed. However, this in turn was a cause for concern and reticence in the minds of one, at least, before he was willing to come forward to ask for help with his school’s effort to collect vouchers in a nationwide supermarket promotion to provide ICT equipment to schools:


Those vouchers schemes!


Wed, 21 May 1997 17:54:24 -0400 (EDT)


You are all probably collecting these so my plea will not be in the right direction, but if you know of anyone/organization/way of obtaining more vouchers I would be pleased to hear from you either by Email or Snail Mail. We are aiming to collect for 2 multimedia systems and being a small school need to generate a lot of the vouchers from elsewhere. If you can help contact:


Stuart Mills


P.S. If this is considered as advertising or wrongful use of the forum. I do apologise and hope you are not offended by receiving this Email


It was interesting to note that this particular thread remained undeveloped; as the last two examples suggest, help was available to participants on the forum but only up to a point. Indeed, members of the group seemed quite selective in responding to requests for help. Although this sometimes was indicative of an inability to assist it also seemed to reflect a lack of interest within the group—especially when requests for help were coming in from outside the forum. Indeed, teachers have often been found to define school matters outside of their own teaching concerns as a distraction or source of frustration (Golby, 1996). In this way, over the two-year period of study, over a third of the postings (n=1,381) remained unanswered. Moreover, requests deemed as irrelevant were treated quite acerbically, especially when coming from nonmembers who were sometimes seen as asking naive or irritating questions.


Can you help me with a presentation I’m giving next week?


Wed, 25 Feb 1998 04:03:38 -0800


As the professionals most likely to be aware of the needs of children with hearing impairments in your schools, (particularly focused on those using hearing aids, but also including unilateral hearing losses and those who have recurring bouts of glue ear) would you please answer the following question. The response will help me in a talk I am giving to teachers of the deaf at the end of next week.


Do you think that the acoustic environment of the classroom has a detrimental impact on the learning of this group of children in main- stream classrooms? If you could press reply, delete this message (but leave the subject heading unchanged) and then type either “yes” or “no”, I’ll be able to sort the replies and get an indication whether or not you feel this to be a problem.


Many thanks you for your help.


Luke Port


Wed, 25 Feb 1998 13:13:00 -0000


Yes


Nick


Wed, 25 Feb 1998 13:21:00 PST


But why?


Paul H.


Wed, 25 Feb 1998 21:05:47 -0000


Yes—are you going to tell them how to suck eggs also?


Iain


As these three different examples of information exchange show, the online sharing of expertize among teachers is not as straightforward as its proponents would contend. Moreover, throughout the three-and-a-half thousand postings it was interesting to note that a hard core of participants regularly responded to requests for help and were generally known and referred to within the group as active members. Indeed, one such participant (Paul H.) provided responses for both of the previous threads—once with relevant information and once with a less helpful comment. Such activity reflects Donath’s (1999) argument that people’s motivation to actively participate in newsgroup discussions often transcends mere altruism or selfless goodwill and has more to do with the establishment and maintenance of a reputation as an integral member. Thus to be seen to be answering is sometimes as important as the answer itself, as the irrelevant responses to the last thread would suggest.

2. MAKING SENSE OF SENCo—EMPATHETIC EXCHANGES


The exchanging of information was by no means the sole form of interaction the forum was used for. Another use involved teachers swapping experiences and comparing personal situations. Thus gaining a sense of professional self also appeared to be an important use of the forum for many of its users. The topics of these more empathetic exchanges ranged from the comparison of personal teaching experiences to subjective—and often heated—discussion about the nature and importance of the SENCo role in schools. Thus participants were keen to exchange tips and anecdotes, often evolving into quite unrelated and informal discussions of their shared profession. In this way regular use of the list was to discuss, juxtapose, and make sense of what it is to be a special needs coordinator, as this opening gambit demonstrates:


SENCo responsibilities


Thu, 18 Jun 1998 17:22:21 EDT


As a school SENCO my job description is as laid out in the Code of Practice. However, along the way I have picked up other duties. I would be interested to hear from those in the Primary sector to know whether they also co-ordinate the ‘more able’ under the SENCO umbrella or whether this is regarded as a separate responsibility. (No mention of able in the C of P) I also have to spend much of my time dealing with Emotional and Behavioural difficulties which involves head/teacher/support assistant/lunchtime supervisor liaison. Because several children on the SEN Register are registered with social services I have to spend a chunk of time liaising with social and other support services.


I also run parenting support sessions for a variety of needs, such as families in crisis. As SENCO I’m involved in Literacy Hour discussions, Numeracy Hour discussions, Assessment etc. I find myself trying to juggle too many balls. The format of my IEP’s is the very least of my problems! Is it like this for all Primary SENCO’s?


Your comments, please!


Nicky B


As this posting infers, the UK Code of Practice (or “C of P” as Nicky B refers to it) on the identification and assessment of special educational needs (DfE, 1994) formed, for most of the forum members, a significant part of the “teacher’s problematic” (Dale, 1977)—major constraints on the work of teachers that they have very little control over. In this way much of what was being discussed within the group was firmly focused on the ambiguity and negotiated nature of the SENCo role; teachers were using the SENCo forum as a source of support. This search for reciprocal reassurance was illustrated as this particular thread developed:


Re: SENCo responsibilities


Fri, 19 Jun 1998 14:51:07 EDT


YES YES YES and more! I am a full time SENCO; I don’t know how those with class responsibilities cope. Sioned


Fri, 19 Jun 1998 23:29:40 +0100


Definitely all this and more! As well as being a full-time SENCo at my two-form Primary school, I am ICT Co-ordinator, and ‘Senior’ teacher responsible for Child Cruelty (dealing with it—not dishing it out!) Just like Sioned, I don’t know how the classroom teachers cope. Vera


Sat, 20 Jun 1998 08:04:48 +0100


I am SENCO, ICT Co-ordinator, KS1 Co-ordinator and have full time class responsibility for Year 2. Coping isn’t an option. I seem to spend most of my time fire-fighting!


Helen Jones


It was quickly noticeable that rather than offering positive support and providing a celebration of being a SENCo such discussions more often than not adopted a negative or a self-deprecatory tone. Yet this is, of course, by no means purely an online phenomena. As Kainan (1994) notes, grumbling has long been an integral part of the teacher’s presentation of self to his or her peers and the outside world. Complaining is a means of highlighting that things are difficult and that there are things that nobody intends to change, but above all teachers are careful to present themselves as competent. Thus grumbling helps teachers stress their hard work and the status of their profession. This use of grumbling was certainly prevalent within the forum:


Re: SENCo responsibilities


Sat, 20 Jun 1998 10:30:24 +0100


I think we are all in similar boats. I am part time only and I think that is the only reason that I cope. I am IT and ICT co-ordinator (yes there is a difference—but the ICT bit is very new and is not much more than a title at the moment), SENCO in an MLD school with statemented 120 children (probably a different role to mainstream, easier in parts, harder in others), responsible for academic reports, data protection, copyright and supermarket vouchers/promotions. I suspect most of us use vast quantities of hair dye (to cover the rapidly increasing grey) and a few glasses of wine of a Friday night!


Regards


Kim


Fri, 19 Jun 1998 21:49:51 +0100


I work in a range of schools as a support teacher and unfortunately I would say that this is quite common. A great deal of my time is also wasted because the SENCo has at the last minute been off loaded with other commitments and had to cancel. This last year has been very difficult for some, for example SENCO’s who have been given higher teaching commitments, above their other responsibilities, and have only an afternoon if they are lucky for their “SEN duties.” If we are looking at inclusion etc. etc. then the role of the SENCo has to be fully understood, appreciated and costed. There are lots of glossy booklets that say what should be done but my experiences would suggest that there is still too little support and recognition of the SENCO’s role. All the SENCO’s I have contact with are very highly committed individuals.


Louise


However, whereas many of the observed threads on the Forum quickly dwindled away, in this particular case the discussion did not. As Nias et al. (1989, p. 87) contend, teachers’ chat is often a high-level activity and the rapid development of this thread provided an, albeit infrequent, example of the fast-moving nature of online debate with participants quickly moving over a variety of topics. In response to the common technological theme in the postings from Vera and Kim the next participant then focused on ICT:


Re: SENCo responsibilities


Sat, 20 Jun 1998 18:14:16 +0100


Having read a number of SENCO replies I wonder if responsibility for ICT comes as a package with that of SENCO, or is it that to be a SENCO you have to be the type of person that does not know how to say no.


Regards


Tim Young


The reason for this question is not made explicit and may even have been intended as rhetorical. Nevertheless, once in the public domain the main point of Tim’s posting remained undeveloped as the latter half of the statement, more a throwaway remark, then led the discussion into the personality characteristics of those teachers who become SENCos:


Re: SENCo Responsibilities


Sat, 20 Jun 1998 22:11:43 +0100


Dear Keith,


I just wanted to say that it is not necessarily that SENCO’s don’t know how to say ‘No’. I was actually taken on as SENCo and Assessment Co-ordinator, but our OFSTED inspection said that several members of our staff had too many responsibilities, and I was one of them. I was asked what I would like instead of Assessment (almost anything, actually!) and I REALLY wanted ICT. I love it to bits, and it’s made my whole job much more interesting, as I have a lot more control over the differentiation of software in the school. I wouldn’t have it any other way!


Best wishes,


Vera


. . . then suddenly taking on a more gendered dimension:


Re: SENCo responsibilities


Sun, 21 Jun 1998 08:17:49 EDT


Tim, have you noticed how few men are SENCOs?


Nicky B


Sun, 21 Jun 1998 11:42:57 EDT


Ha!! Red rag to a Bull time! Too true, most blokes have more sense and opt for cushy numbers like deputy head or senior teacher—pastoral . . . Could it be that because men can only do one thing at a time they are not able to cope with the co-ordinating, multi-roled, super human requirements implicit in being a SENCo?


Whoa there: I’m a man (shades of ‘Some Mothers Do Have Em’) and I do the job because although it is mega stressful it is the most worthwhile, enjoyable and above all self motivating thing there is in school, CoP not withstanding. But you’re right—it is mainly women doing it. I have a few ideas why but I’ll keep them to myself for the moment—over to anyone else.


Mark Williams


These particular examples of use of the discussion list clearly approximate Schoch and White’s (1997) functions of orientation and solidarity, whereby messages are used to orient the list to the participants’ situations, who then reaffirm their own orientation by empathizing. However, although these messages were concerned with empathy and solidarity they were also, intentionally or not, concerned with presentation of self, often through the guise of complaining and grumbling. Thus the talk here between staff can be seen as a means of negotiating and establishing participants’ identities as SENCos. As Nias (1989) argues:


Talking [is] then, an essential tool for the creation of a shared reality within staff groups, and it [is] this reality which in turn enable[s] individuals to seek and find, through interaction with others, confirmation of their “selves.” (Nias, 1989, p. 208)


When an essential element of a teacher’s “self ” is a role that is isolated from other staff (such as SEN coordinator) then discussion groups such as the SENCo forum seem to provide an empathetic platform and ready audience for a legitimate means of formation of self.

3. A HAVEN IN STORMY SEAS? THE SENCo FORUM AS VIRTUAL RESPITE


This need to be seen in both empathetic and information exchanges would suggest that some participants are approaching the forum as more than just a detached electronic question-and-answer session. Given this suggestion of a more social dimension, to what extent could the forum be seen as more than a detached bulletin board for disparate professionals? Indeed, not all of the content of the forum was focused on overt requests for information or eliciting support, as was reflected in the sporadic outbreaks of humorous postings. As Woods (1984, p. 190) argues, teacher humor is a vital aspect of the profession “to resolve the great conflict and discrepancy between the appearance on the one hand, and the reality on the other.” This is apparent in the earlier quotes regarding gender imbalances in the number of SENCos. In fact, entire threads are sometimes initiated and carried on in an apparently humorous manner:


A letter to Santa


Mon, 9 Nov 1998 22:31:36 -0000


Dear Father Christmas,


I have tried to be a good SENCo and class teacher all year round and dutifully written out my IEP’s for 53 children. So please may I have:


1. a personal secretary


2. a special needs ECO for the school full time on a permanent contract


3. a class helper for every teacher


4. less than 30 pupils in each of our classes. (Therefore the magic number of no more than 6 children in each literacy group.)


5. a lot less paperwork


Thank you ever so much


Suzy


KS1 & SENCo


Tue, 10 Nov 98 19:41:35 PST


Dear Father Christmas,


New batteries for my magic wand please.


John P. (Leeds UK)


PS: Those long lasting ones would be best, it gets heavy use


Tue, 10 Nov 1998 22:56:45 +0000


An extra couple of hours in a day would be useful!


Vera


Leeds


Thu, 12 Nov 1998 19:21:35 -0000


Two hours or two days less please? (and a new box of water colours)


Gareth Scott


Wed, 11 Nov 1998 11:37:42 +0000 (GMT)


I would be happier with a couple of extra days, please!


How good do you have to be for Santa to give you what you want?


Sharon


This discourse appears to indicate a more relaxed and trivial discussion yet the underlying theme of positive presentation of professional self remains the same. From the initial justifications of how hard the first teacher was working (“I have tried to be a good SENCo and class teacher all year round and dutifully written out my IEP’s for 53 children”) to the latter disagreement whether teachers would rather have more or less time to work, such initially humorous exchanges often reverted back to a projection of professional self. Pollard (1987) draws attention to the predominantly trivial and unintellectual nature of real-life teacher chat, arguing that it serves to form and reinforce a sense of unity among staff rather than serve any more professional purpose. Yet this was rarely, if ever, the case on the SENCo forum, which even when lapsing into seemingly low-level discussion still maintained a sense of professional identity and positive presentation of self. This underlying agenda is perhaps best illustrated in the occasional posting of participants’ “beautiful moments” as they were termed:


Beautiful Moments!


Thu, 14 Nov 1996 22:03:52 GMT


In the course of work as an educational psychologist increasingly tuning in to the essentialness of the goal of full inclusion I am beginning to notice beautiful moments in the everyday course of my work. This may sound a little bizarre and confirm some worst suspicions about Ed psychs but please bear with me. . . . I wonder if anyone else shares these experiences in such a time of horrendous rejection, segregation and exclusion? These moments have increased since I have been involved in creating circles of friends around vulnerable and challenging individuals and being increasingly aware of the importance of a child’s natural community, their peer group. Take two recent moments. . . .


A The warmth of a family


Ian a 15 year old with no spoken language and cerebral palsy adored by his 2 year old sister and playing with his 5 month old baby sister during a transition plan meeting at a special school . . . . beams when she accepts the furry toy he offers . . . and when we all agree to meet again to create a PATH for his future life outside school in the real community . . . . . this is the first time his mum has been in the school for 8 years. . . .


B A circle supporting


Darren’s circle struggle to ask him who he can speak to for support in his family . . . what can they do to help keep him out of hassle at school and with his mum. . . .


Small moments, nothing special perhaps and yet beautiful in there own way and in potent contrast to so much of the day to day scrudge and battles of work in the special needs world. Anyone else out there caught a moment to share . . . I would be very interested(nice to know you are not the only crazy one)? Apologies to those in the SENCO forum who feel this is not what its all about cos I increasingly think that these moments are exactly what it is all about!!


All the very best


Hugh Price


One of the most important functions of real-life shared educational arenas is a means for teachers to engage in a form of collective stocktaking on the pupils and classes that they will face in the school (Burgess, 1983; Hammersley, 1984). Nevertheless, the participants here are giving quite detailed personal details of children that other readers are very unlikely to have come into contact with. Quite who the intended audience are for these descriptions is therefore ambiguous. It could be that this intended listing of personal “triumphs” is a form of individual, reflective stocktaking resulting in a cumulative but not necessarily cohesive collection of personal perspectives. Indeed, the tendency of such postings on the forum to create ongoing collections of stories and jokes in this manner was interesting and undoubtedly associated with the retrievability of such stories when told online. Thus themes such as the beautiful moments recurred over the two-year period of the study, suggesting a continuity to this more social dimension of the electronic forum not obtainable in real-life interactions.


Nevertheless, within such public stocktaking there is also a clear element of self-promotion. As Peterson (1964) argued, career teachers want recognition as they grow older—recognition for having dedicated their lives to other people’s children—and for the peripatetic educational psychologists this would appear to be even stronger—a trend that was apparent in subsequent postings:


Re: Beautiful Moments!


Fri, 15 Nov 1996 06:54:33 GMT


Hugh’s mailing arrived like a warm fire on a cold winter’s evening! I fully support what you are saying about such moments being exactly what it is all about. I teach a primary nurture class (Y5/6) of 12 SEN children. Mostly EBD’s. At times I feel very weighed down by the requirements from paperwork, and it can be hard not to lose sight of what I am doing. To add a few moments to those that Colin gave us . . .


A Being sorry.


Jason had been shouting and swearing at a member of staff on playground duty. He was required to write an apology letter. He proceeded to and remained on task for 10 minutes (a first!). The letter had a picture of Jason holding out a bunch of flowers to the member of staff under his writing.


B. I can . . .


Matthew refused to draw a Santa on his card. ‘I can’t do them’ he crossly states. This went on for 20 minutes with many, many tears. Encouraged, and left on his own, he eventually holds up a drawing. ‘I like the way you’ve drawn him fat and jolly’ I interject. Matthew beams from ear to ear. Kerri starts to get cross . . . ‘I can’t draw Santa’s’, and Matthew says ‘I’ll do it for you. I can’.


. . . just so far this week . . . and I’ve still to up-date my daily records and think about next terms planning . . . meet with a couple of parents . . . organise some IT inset . . .

. . . but I know what really keeps me going :-)


Neil Chandler


As Woods (1984) describes, in a school the staff room acts as a main arena for staff to indulge in humour and relaxation—a “haven in stormy seas”—but the overall tenor of these forum postings was more self-referential than group directed. The expressions given by the authors of the postings (Goffman, 1959) throughout all these beautiful moments are explicit in their reaffirmation of their individual professionalism. This was especially noticeable in the penultimate sentence of Neil Chandler’s posting (“just so far this week . . . and I’ve still to up-date my daily records and think about next terms planning . . . meet with a couple of parents . . . organise some IT inset . . .”), so even less formal discussion was charged with a more formal undercurrent. Yet this too can be seen as contiguous to teacher communities in real-life. As Kainan (1994, p. 287) argues: “The inner purpose is the competition. Like the peacocks in the jungle, teachers compete with each other” (Kainan, 1994, p. 287).

4. A SENSE OF COMMUNITY—HOW PARTICIPANTS IMAGINED THE SENCo FORUM


Despite the ever increasing volume of postings on the forum during the two-year period could these exchanges be seen as constituting anything more than disparate communiqués between individuals at different times? Can it reasonably be asserted that the SENCo forum was in any way a community? Benedict Anderson (1983) argues that all communities are imagined. In this way, “communities are to be distinguished . . . by the style in which they are imagined” (p. 6). Therefore, how did the participants in this particular teacher discussion group imagine or view their online community—if they did at all? Sporadically, throughout the exchanges, a sense of some participants’ attachment to the SENCo Forum emerged:


No emails received


Fri, 26 Jul 1998 23:34:50 +0100


I have not received emails since Wednesday and wonder why all has gone quiet.


Trudi


Bearing in mind that this message was referring to a two-day period at the end of the academic year, a lack of activity on the forum would not be surprising. Yet this plaintive message suggests that contact, rather than content of contact, was most important to this participant. This sense of disconnectedness was also apparent in this posting by a member who had been unable to participate due to technical problems:


“Back from Hols!!!!”


Tue, 12 Nov 1997 09:37:44 GMT


Hello colleagues who have tried to make contact with me. I feel like Star Trek returned, we have had numerous technical problems and I have not been able to make contact with anyone; receive or check messages, unless contacted personally by post or phone. It has been very lonesome.


Anyway we are back on line; I have cleared off 172 messages, collected since last July, my bedtime reading has risen slightly and not the same as the old Mills and Boon!! My apologies to colleagues who may have felt that I was no longer interested in the project or making contact with other SEN staff.


Best Wishes, Eryl P.


Both these postings could be seen as reflecting some form of attachment to the forum. Yet similar indications of a shared sense of community or collective community identity were few. Moreover, when more group-focused messages were posted they seemed to lack a feeling of cohesiveness or genuine attachment. The festive posting from this regular contributor at first seems to indicate a shared sense of community:


Subject line—what subject line?


Fri, 12 Dec 97 19:27:15 +0100


Dear all


Please accept this email as our Christmas Card. Merry Xmas and a successful new year’s learning for all!


Roger and co


PS Thanks you for the card you sent me. If you didn’t send it because I offended you then I am very sorry and will try to make amends in 1998.


PPS Thanks to the NCET team for helping us communicate so effectively. Looking forward to meeting again.


PPPS My new year resolutions will include trying to insert subject lines in my emails so people can, in future, delete them because of the subject matter rather than just the name of the writer)


Yet the apparent friendliness of this posting belies an insincerity or at best a laziness from this particular participant. Just as a circular letter or memo carries a different significance, here any sense of collective identity appears a little hollow. Indeed, more often than not, there were clear signs from members of the boundaries of the forum. In the next message a member apologizes for inadvertently posting a more personal message to the group, a transgression he obviously feels is outside of the forum’s remit. In apologizing, his message reaffirms a view of the narrowly specialized rather than broadly supportive role of the group:


RE: Waaaahhhhhh Rraaaahhhhhh Whooommm


Tue, 17 Jun 1997 21:07:09 +0100 (BST)


Sorry everyone for the unrequested details of my holiday and comments on a Canadian friend’s emails that reflected her struggle with cancer. I was emailing too late on a Sunday night! Whoops!


Hugh


Thus it would seem that, despite some teachers’ extensive use of the forum, any manifestation of a community spirit was infrequent. Whether this is purely a reflection of the relatively short time that the teachers spend on the forum when compared to heavy users on other (noneducational) arenas is not certain. Nonetheless, to claim a sense of community among members would be to greatly exaggerate the bulk of the online activity.

DISCUSSION


From a purely quantitative viewpoint, the SENCo forum was certainly an example of the burgeoning popularity of online teacher discussion groups, with the amount of postings increasing steadily over the two-year period of study. However, on closer inspection this use was limited. Much of the generated discussion noticeably emanated from a hard core of participants. Indeed, well over a third (n=1347) of the total messages over the two-year period were posted from a clique of 26 members who were regularly contributing to the forum as often as ten times a month. Interestingly, in contrast with the traditionally male picture of the heavy Internet user (Griffiths, 1997, 1999), the gender composition of this hard core of participants generally reflected the balanced nature of the wider membership with eight female, thirteen male, and five gender-undisclosed members.3 These members were prominent in developing and sustaining threads as well as attempting to negotiate and give the forum an identity and initiating more empathetic exchanges with other members. As such, they could be seen therefore as providing much of the “soul” of the forum.


Thus significant caveats remain as to the nature of teachers’ use of the forum—especially in relation to the surrounding rhetoric of the medium. Firstly, it is clear that the official construction within the National Grid for Learning of online discussion groups as staff rooms is somewhat misleading. Despite the apparently less formal exchanges, the SENCo forum did not appear to be replacing, or even replicating, the staff room’s function of an arena in which to unwind and relax (Burgess, 1989). Neither could it really be seen as fulfilling Hargreaves’ (1982) notion as a backstage for staff. As this paper has shown, on the whole a professional and rather formal air characterized the exchanges between forum participants, a situation not usually found either in most real life staff rooms or in other online discussion groups. Indeed, the SENCo forum noticeably lacked the predominance of in-jokes, shared references, and idiosyncratic uses of language that characterize other online discussion groups (Tepper, 1997). There was a distinct absence of many of the usual practices involved in online discussion—such as flaming and flame baiting or the ritual belittling of “newbies” (Millard, 1997; Stivale, 1997). Indeed, apart from the occasional humorous interjections, the subject and tenor of the debates reflected a more serious and professional side of teacher discourse.


Yet, while not fulfilling the social functions of the staff room, it would seem that the SENCo group represents a salient form of Nias’ (1989) “extra-school reference group,” which Nias (1989) argued is an important means for teachers to share and gain experience with colleagues. Certainly, as this paper has discussed, the SENCo group was being used by its participants as a professional forum both for sharing information and providing support. It can be argued, therefore, that the online group was being treated by its members as a bona fide teacher context along the lines of a professional conference with ongoing discussion groups. Keddie (1971) makes a distinction between the two contexts where teacher knowledge is displayed and applied: the teacher context concerns the practical, pragmatic nature of teaching—what actually happens in the classroom—based on commonsense thought and action, and the educational context, based on the ideals of educational policy as explained and justified to outsiders—a “professional face” even if it is not necessarily the reality. Despite the very public nature of the forum and the considerable numbers of non-SENCo members who used it, participating teachers clearly felt comfortable enough to treat it as a teacher context. However, that is not to argue that the adoption of the discussion list as a teacher context is equivalent to the formation of a teacher community.


That said, adopting Mackay and Powell’s (1998) concept of mutual support as the criterion for whether there exists a sense of community among Internet discussion groups, the forum would seem to be based on providing just such support for its members. This would lead some authors to argue that online support can be seen as developing a “critical community” for teachers, dissolving the professional isolation of the reflective practitioner (Sellinger, 1998). Certainly the forum displayed more signs of being a collaborative culture than merely representing a sense of contrived collegiality (Hargreaves, 1994). Indeed, by their very nature, online discussion groups are voluntary, spontaneous, development-oriented, and unpredictable—they are generally anything but contrived. However, upon closer inspection any sense of community or collaborative culture is often, at best, transitory. A willingness to extend help outside the carefully negotiated boundaries of the group in this study was rare, with much apparently collaborative discussion really taking place for personal and individual reasons.


The individual focus throughout much of the SENCo forum dialogue was not surprising. Teaching is, in itself, a profession demanding considerable levels of autonomy and self-initiative (Little, 1990). Moreover, as Foster (1996) argues, computer-mediated communication tends toward solipsism due to the very nature of the technology, engendering an “egotistical self-absorption” rather than communication with others. Indeed, it has been argued that use of the Internet to ensure a positive self is the norm rather than the exception to the rule (Miller, 1995). At most then this can only lead to a very artificial sense of community. Extending Toennies’ (1957) notion of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, Foster (1996) argues that the question of the formation of virtual communities is best viewed by asking whether such groups are based on personal identities or communal identities. In this case, the SENCo discussion group was very much based on personal identities with only occasional expressions of any kind of shared, communal identity. As Foster further claims:


The spirit of community is essential to the vitality of virtual communities. That which holds a virtual community intact is the subjective criterion of togetherness, a feeling of connectedness that confers a sense of belonging. Virtual communities require much more than the mere act of connection itself. (Foster, 1996, p. 29)


This lack of a sense of community in the SENCo forum was exacerbated by the tendency of most members to contribute only sporadically, leaving a lot of the discussion to the hard core of regular participants. As Ogden (1994) points out, the fact that meaningful dialogue takes place only between relatively few members of discussion groups or mailing lists, with the vast majority preferring to “lurk” or passively participate, means that such social spaces are more accurately “transcendent” communities. Thus at best these online discussion groups should be classed as “pseudo” educational communities, with less diversity than is immediately apparent. This is substantiated by the fact that such relationships are not pervasive across time or space, and that participants ultimately have no shared obligation to each other. In the end, discussion groups such as the SENCo forum cannot be expected to be more than sites of information and empathetic exchange among disparate professionals whose sense of community lies elsewhere.

CONCLUSION


As we have seen, although still in their infancy, online discussion groups such as the SENCo forum appear to be developing into sites of professional exchange and discussion for teachers. However, in order for such groups to grow into the major sites of teacher participation and action that the NGfL model obviously envisages, it is essential that they be as inclusive as possible, proving attractive to all teachers and not stagnating as closed communities of enthusiastic but inward looking cliques. Of course, as increased government funding of ICT begins to reach the level of the classroom, teacher participation in such groups can be expected to increase, but it would be wrong to assume that this will automatically lead to meaningful majority use. In reality, for most individuals the possibility of constructing and developing patterns of participation in virtual forums will continue to depend on their material situations (Selwyn, 1999). It is likely that, however well established online forums become, there will continue to be a continuum of teacher participant user types, from the phobic to the fully integrated (Leask & Younie, 1999), with a sizeable proportion of teachers failing to make full use of such resources. Despite the empowering rhetoric to the contrary, information and communications technologies look likely to continue to most appeal and be used by the minority who developed them (Jordan, 1999; Poster, 1995; Robins, 1999).


Moreover, it is important to recognize that however useful online forums prove to be for some teachers it is unrealistic to expect them to be the revolutionary panacea for the teaching profession that many proponents of educational technology would have us believe they are (Selwyn, 2000). As this paper has shown, the SENCo forum was still limited in the degree of support and help that was offered from outside its membership and, in many ways, this mirrored the distinct professional boundaries that could be expected in a disparate offline community of like-minded teachers. There was certainly little evidence of the radical formation or reshaping of postmodern communities of teachers that some commentators assert computer mediated communication will lead to. Indeed, as Poster (1997) contends, the Internet should really only be seen as extending preexisting identities and institutions and, therefore, viewed as avowedly modern in the sense that prevailing modern cultures transfer their characteristics to new domains. Certainly throughout this study more postmodern use(s) of the forum, such as individuals’ reinvention and reshaping of their identities (Coates, 1998), was scarce and perhaps is always going to be in what is essentially a fairly conservative, professional arena. Those seeking for examples of postmodern virtual community building should best look elsewhere on the Internet. Nevertheless, on the basis of this preliminary exploration, online discussion groups can certainly be seen as offering a fertile but complementary alternate arena to real-life communities and networks among teaching professionals.


The author wishes to thank the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

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NEIL SELWYN is a lecturer in education at Cardiff University in the UK. He has published widely on the implementation of technology in educational settings and is currently the co-director of a research project examining the use of technology in adult education sponsored by the Spencer Foundation.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 102 Number 4, 2000, p. 750-778
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10502, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 5:37:12 PM

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  • Neil Selwyn
    Cardiff University, UK
    E-mail Author
    Neil Selwyn is a lecturer in education at the University of Bristol in the UK. He has published widely on the implementation of technology in educational settings and is currently the co-director of a research project examining the use of technology in adult education sponsored by the Spencer Foundation.
 
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