An Interview with Michael Coghlan 24/10/03  @ Sydney

Overview of Sophie’s research into teacher readiness in online collaboration (interview conducted by Josie Rose)

Looking at the continuum…. and Mark Warschauer’s  diagram  – computer as a tutor and on the other end the socio-collaborative aspects of computer use.

JR; I am really interested in your project and where you are at in terms of this continuum and where you found teachers were at in terms of online collaboration. Did you encounter any barriers, and if so what were they?

MC: Well I guess if I were to talk about those barriers I will have to go back a few years, not just the last six months…. (yes, please do)  then I think probably the most relevant context for this discussion is the fact that I ran this course that was about moderating and facilitating online and the very first incarnation of that course was a totally content free environment where the agreement was that together we would design the course –

JR: With ESL teachers?

MC: a couple of them were ESL teachers but this was incidental and I guess I should say that my TAFE role over the last couple of years is more a generalist one and my connection with the ESL world has been via the Webheads which is where Sophie met me so most of my ESL connection at the moment is non-TAFE, non-VET, and non-Australian… but still there are lots of principles that apply in all contexts, and I suppose the overwhelming experience from that course, which was a wonderful experience, is that people don’t know how to behave in a totally constructivist environment

JR: teachers don’t?

MC: Teachers. And what I learned from running that course over a couple of years is that a lot of guided scaffolding was needed even for teachers – you couldn’t just let people loose in a structureless environment and say what are we going to do? So step by step I altered this course, and I think it is about right now, to the point where there is a sufficient amount of structure in there for people to feel comfortable - that they can hang hats on things and within that there is a lot of room to move. But I must say - it’s a staff professional development exercise and people are fitting it in over and above their normal work load and constructivism just takes a hell of a lot of time.. you know its like flexible delivery .. one of the reasons we all keep defaulting to classroom delivery is because it is actually very quick.. it is a lot more efficient in terms of existing resources,  flexibility .. flexible learning takes a lot  more time and energy and in the early stages.. I think people need to be taken through an apprenticeship on the constructivist approach. I think probably because it was almost beaten out of us at school  - we’ve forgotten how to do it and our default position even as adult learners seems to me to be well, “what do you think Michael”, “what do you think facilitator”, and I would have to say “well that’s not my role here”, but let's move forward six months. I’m in a different environment now and I am now teaching a group of people who are paying good money … in a higher level certificate ..similar tasks… those people work their butts off to collaborate, so  I am still forming impressions about where TAFE teachers are… if you can make general statements about TAFE teachers and constructivism as an approach or collaboration…what both groups would agree is that it is more time consuming, it does involve a degree of unlearning and relearning, its immensely rewarding and my own opinion on all of this is that is that it needs to be taught, guided, made explicit – the sorts of things like were coming up yesterday when people were talking about self-directed, self-managed, self-paced… people don’t know how to do these things.. well, some do but a lot of us don’t. A lot of us teachers - TAFE / VET teachers don’t.

JR: could we generalize that in your experience of ESL teachers?

No.. they don’t stand out particularly .. no, no is the simple answer. And I think my educated guess is that they would be perhaps even more conservative in their approach to these issues because I am sure you know the sorts of things.. “ESL students can’t do this, they need us, they need to be in the classroom; they need to hear, see, touch, feel me”, “they’re dependent on me”.. I know this is not true of everyone..

JR: Yes, there is that whole mindset…

Yes. There is a perception I am your ESL teacher, I’m going to save you :)

JR: If we can  go back to your earlier experiences, the scaffolding,  how did you end up doing that..

Well as I said providing structure. In the first instance, the timetable would be broken up into weeks and then the next stage was to allow choices from a range of topics within those weeks .. people could negotiate and you give people choices so rather than blank sheets, would you like to do this and this and give people the option of working alone or working with a partner or working with a group..

JR: And how did that work out…. Which did they predominantly pick?

Ones or twos.. mostly alone .. .that’s for specific assessment tasks… when it came to the final assessment people generally preferred to do it alone, occasionally with partners or in pairs.

JR: Did they know each other before they started the course?

Some did; some don’t. Many teachers were from TAFE SA so inevitably they’d meet but in other cases no.

JR: They did not pick each other because they knew each other?

I would need to go back and check that..

JR: The course you are running now, the Fee For Service one - can you see any differences to the one you ran in TAFE?

They interestingly need... there is more structure there because I redesigned the course.. not that I designed an unstructured course :) Yes.. these people need less structure .. this group I’ve got at the moment I think  would probably manage in the environment I created before..  so that’s what I meant  .. I can’t be so sure any more if it was the lack of structure in the course itself or the fact that people did not have enough self-interest because they did not pay for it. This one clearly I think - and not to be unkind -  I don’t mean it to sound unkind - these people would do anything and do it well.. so there is more structure built in but this group are much more able to run for days without me.. I don’t need to be prompting and reminding people which is a wonderful position to facilitate from

JR: Who are they? What is their profile?

They are probably an average spread of people, some are private RTOs (Registered Training Organisations), some are at university, one is a Flexible Learning Leader in the health sector and a few other people who are average TAFE lecturers and no one from ESL.  They’re from various backgrounds…but all committed professionals

JR: Where did you find them? Did you advertise?

No. The course was up and running before I was asked to facilitate it…yes they did advertise – Adelaideiglobal

JR:Is it a course in online teaching and learning?

It’s the South Australian equivalent of FAME (Facilitating and Moderating elearning)

JR: Answers to the survey (paint) quite a conservative picture .. the survey was online and the argument was that that was targeting the converted, the ones that were online, despite that the picture is conservative in terms of how they are using technology in the classroom.. would you agree with that?

Absolutely….yes… you might like to look at a paper I presented at the AVETRA conference this year subtitled Are you making movies or just filming stage plays? ..we did some very quick research of numbers and use of the Internet at the Douglas Mawson Institute where I work and we were  looking at the uptake of technology and flexible delivery and we got really interesting data because 80% of staff now use the Internet in their teaching.. which is a very high figure but if you dig down to what they are actually doing it is extremely conservative – basically it is email  or i'ts putting websites on a printed list of resources.. very few people were  using the Internet to its true potential so I think in the current context the discussion we are having here today (in the workshop) is all about that .. we are miles and miles ahead of the average person in the classroom.. we have made the first step to having some technical confidence but the next step is to know how to use this tool differently and not just as a book or a passive resource to make all this collaborative stuff happen.

JR; So how do we make this happen – what is stopping them from moving across the continuum…

I think a lot of people are simply unaware that it can be done

JR: and how do we change that? Is that part of what we were talking about today?

I think a lot of it is simply showing people – I have never run a workshop on this stuff and not have people go “that’s amazing I want to do that” and I am not just talking about the voice stuff  .. I remember this time I demonstrated text chat – the fact that you could have someone else online at the same time and have them communicating with your students is just a case in point… that was about two years ago (I have not been in an ESL classroom since).. I am not answering your question… but I am giving you an example.. it was Dave’s ESL Café or one of the standard sites, went into the chat room and people were talking in there and then writing emails to people and out of that came a smart  teacher from Sweden, she noticed what was happening and she emailed me and noticed  that her students were talking to mine. “Can we set up some kind of more formal arrangement?”, so over a couple or months we did. We had students emailing back and forth in context because that was what the people in Sweden wanted to know – they were looking at public health systems around the world and so they were able to ask my students questions and that went back and for the for about a month – it was an accidental spin off from just being there…

JR: Which goes to the whole concept of engaging a global audience – where do teachers find them, how do you engage them and for how long?

Yeah, you need access to a computer room on a regular basis, you need to be comfortable with the fact that the curriculum you are using can be stretched to accommodate these online activities. There are existing resources and websites for teachers to connect with similar classes around the world and there are people who offer this service and you can do these sorts of collaborative projects if you have the energy and the passion.. so there is no lack of things to show people.  So show people ..they don’t even know they are there.. and then access on a regular basis .. I think I’m a bit disappointed in my own FLL (Flexible Learning Leaders) project this year because one of the things I really wanted to provide were a few examples of using voice tools for real time interaction in the context of a specific training package or a unit of competence…   so this is the element, the description and the outcome – so it is presented to people as part of a proper outcome of a training package… that hasn’t happened and I will make sure it happens next year, and I think with a lot of this stuff if people.. just a piece of paper with , you know module, unit of competence, description activity with a URL or an  email address or a quick description of something for someone to try and say .. look - you can fit this into your curriculum. People need to see it linked to curriculum, otherwise they will say  yes that is nice but I don’t have time and it does not fit .. social collaboration and interaction is written into all the curriculum and it doesn’t  mean to say it has to be in the classroom

JR: so if you could give then some pointers, and that it has relevance to their teaching, are there any other things… you for instance, what were the key things to get to where you were?

Sometimes I tell it like that in conference presentations because I think I am a very good example of how it can happen. It began by simply looking at ESL sites on the Internet to get ideas for lessons. The next stage was to actually print out stuff from the net, print out and give to students.

JR: as a paper based resource?

Yes. At this point we were still in the classroom then I became more interested in getting my students into a classroom so I started to book a weekly computer class for ESL students  so that they would go the sites themselves and then email, we got each person an email address where they started to communicate with each other online or with people they know and their family. The next step I think was probably things like.. I would come in, in the morning, everyone had a disc at that stage (that was the first stage)  and then at a later stage it was “open up your email and the email will tell you what to do”.. and they would go “what???” …. I was always in the room so it was very much supported but students loved that - that I could actually walk in and they realized that I could have done that from home.. I had sent that email from home or from my desk across the campus so that was the next stage and then building web pages…

JR: so there is a progression?

Yes. So once you get people email it is quite  significant in that it gives people ownership of that part of the Net, they can see and use it to communicate and when they start creating  web pages it really gives them ownership of the process - it really starts to  fire.. and they start to think about the wonderful thing the Net .. someone said yesterday that technology is just for right brainers  I don’t agree with that.. cos one of the things I love about using the Net is that it does allow me - for the first time  in my life I am a publisher, in a sense I am an artist I am thinking about  colour combinations,  and for most of my life I had never thought about these things so you can see that that is starting to happen with students so it is not just a language exercise. It becomes a much more holistic thing where an ESL class on building a personal website has been a vehicle for a lot of language development because there is a lot of description, like how would I describe what is happening in this photograph, asking me questions about how do I make that blue.. and that’s about where I was tapped on the shoulder and taken out of ESL teaching to be this other person in a State role …..what has been happening in Webheads? Online teaching with online classes where people are scattered around the world and they meet regularly and learn through doing.. they learn through communications 

JR: How did you chance upon webheads?

Wonderful story really. In ‘97 when I was teaching online  on a Sunday night. I was doing it as a volunteer. I think my class went from 10 – 11 on a Sunday night and a guy called Vance Stevens was doing a similar thing from 11 to 12 my time on a Sunday night.. but what  happened is the students wanted to stay on for both sessions so our classes became one so Vance said why don’t we keep this group together and lets give it a name not all the people wanted to stay there but there was a hard core who clearly were competent Internet users and clearly liked the medium, liked exploring so Vance came up with this idea of Webheads… it was a collection of two classes into one and as you know it is still rolling six years on

JR : in terms of your own PD – what did it take to get there?

Yes,… I am a good example of the progression one can go through.. I clearly had an intrinsic fascination with this Internet thing the first moment I saw it I just thought this is astounding…I was happy to put in the time, yes at night in my own time, cos I loved it, I was having a ball. Unfortunately that it is still the case .. when I go online at night unfortunately it is to do work which I am not always happy with but nearly all the time I love it.. it’s a drug I tell you!

JR: if you look at the innovation model and we look at the mainstream in terms of the mainstream how do we move them across.. I suppose we are assuming that this is good?

Well, yes I think it is good.. it  is more like what you said before you use all of stay down this( collaborative) end it is unrealistic and difficult and it does not suit everybody …..there is no point in you being .. let’s just use some loose terminology…if you are a constructivist teacher and you have a traditional student and for good reason you like it being a traditional student it is never going to work.. likewise if you are the type of student who likes to construct, explore and discover on your own and I am the traditional teacher that does not work either, and both types of students and teachers exist.

JR: There seems to be a lack of awareness of the benefits of this.. Would you agree?

I am not sure. Most of us went through a teacher education program and they do mention this stuff and the benefits of it cos I remember it…   but the moment you are faced with the reality of the classroom, which for me was a school situation, just forget it, it’s just full on or there are timetable issues – so I think people do know  .. if they have been through any teacher education my guess is they do know but it’s the restrictions of the environment they work in  - it’s the same with flexible delivery…  if you really want people to take it up you need to change all the structures that house it… so that prevents it – I don’t think people are  unaware of the benefits. I also  think it is very hard and takes more time  and you have to negotiate the curriculum a little bit with your students but surely in the average ESL classroom this must happen anyway….

JR: so are we saying that even in terms of online which is often in the classroom, that is happening?

Well you know more than me at the moment.. I’d say it is often not happening. I’d say it is just that  the bulk of online activity that I know about in TAFE SA is that without question. Content online, you do the assignments, you email it to your teacher who emails you a response  - that is hardly collaboration, more communication. People are still using it in the traditional paradigm. And I understand that but it is a huge underutilization of a very powerful resource

JR: In terms of the outcomes and recommendation of this projects where do we go? Do we need to and how do we make them more aware of the potential of this underutilized resource and what can ANTA (Australian Natinal Training Authority) do?

Well, I suppose taking a few cues from this morning – the good news stories in raising awareness or perhaps the idea that we tossed around just a while ago  - a couple of very concrete examples for teachers about how it can be linked to curriculum, I mean that will probably facilitate some uptake with teachers but you want to know how does that message get to the next level above? Well here’s where I get a bit cynical I suppose. I mean here we are in this arena today and we know the topic this morning has been to encourage the uptake of flexible delivery and create the environment where the continued funding of that will happen, and that is all ANTA – back at base level, back at the classroom level teachers’ output is still being measured in curriculum or credit hours and that is basically non-negotiable. You have to reach that target and it is linked to a curriculum and the most effective efficient and obvious way of doing that is to put people in classrooms and that comes from ANTA so I just think, and I am very cynical about the whole exercise, there are two messages from  the same organization and they are quite poles apart  and people down the bottom are saying you want me to go flexible but you are measuring me like this … and the  average TAFE manager that I know is only interested in this set of figures  and the average manager is satisfied with  those figures as  classroom delivery – some of which can be flexible  - so until there is some  incentive to go down this road, why would you? Why would you go to  all that trouble? Alright…for student benefit, but there is a cost – a time and a dollar cost involved in going down the flexible delivery path which could jeopardize you achieving your targets and I think it’s huge because the pressures on managers to reconcile the books are huge. It’s like  people are just… you don’t see the spark .. you talk to a group of  TAFE managers about anything to do with flexible delivery  and they hear you but there is no spark .. you’ll be finished in 5 minutes and you get onto the next topic and  that’s because they are meeting their deadlines this way.. so that’s a fairly cynical view and it is… I don’t know whether I’m right but that is how I see it…and that’s why I see things like.. I’m just quite amazed by this person last week – and it does not matter if it’s ESL or whatever you are teaching - this person and they are an ex FLL has developed content that’s in line with the a Training Package – so its TAFE or VET content but he’s developed it in a set of tools of his own choosing and he sent to a TAFE college and asked would you like me to deliver this and they looked at it and said yes, so he is working off campus, delivering the stuff flexibly to TAFE students with tools that he’s bought, arranged, so he is free of that.. those sort of  structures of the classroom  of being measured for your number of hours..

JR: but delivered to TAFE students though?

Oh sure, yeah, …..which touches on a whole range of other issues doesn’t it? Like this whole thing of do 15 people in the classroom equal 15 people online regarding the input of the teacher and my guess is it doesn’t. It takes longer online so there is another time cost.

JR: In terms of teacher professional development, do you have any suggestions as to   what we might suggest.. what would be some useful pointers along the way? Where would you content free course kick in as PD if we look at the continuum?

You need to plan it well and pick your people. Where does it fit in? Ironically it does not require much technical skill.. Because basically it’s the communication tools, basic Internet browsing skills ..

JR: so that ‘s not stopping them?

Oh no,,,,,

JR is it the mindset?

Yes.. but I understand that because the whole world of threaded discussions in asynchronous mode is a very strange new world for people who haven’t lived  and breathed it – it is very odd… it is very public, very daunting, it’s a different  kind of a … it’s a discourse… and a quite elevated form of discourse often so apart for the technical know-how.. just overcoming the burden, it needs to be a very sheltered environment  I think initially so very supported, scaffolded, staged.. so you are still thinking what kind of PD would you run.. I mean LearnScope projects are wonderful for this and I think that’s where a lot of  very good things happened in Adelaide in English Language Services in Adelaide because there were a  significant number of Learnscope projects that  really left their mark.

JR;  Have those teachers gone on.. do you  know if any of  them are doing more of the collaborative stuff  because of the Learnscope projects or the PD that you ran?

I’d say unfortunately very few – the person who’d be good to ask is Kate Fannon – she’s just stepped out of ESL so she will have a much closer  view – she knows the people much better than I do. My guess is two or three and Kate would have been one of them and she’s not there any more..

JR: Yes.. often the good ones leave or they move across to other things..

It is a kind of occupational hazard in this area  .. like what happened to me… you are moved out and there is not necessarily anyone coming in behind you.. that’s what happened to me the ESL program that I came from. There is very little activity there now because  there isn’t the champion there…

JR: So that‘s what it takes do you think?

Yes it does… that’s why… again… it’s a little bit strange. Not strange. Strange is not the right word but typically these .. some subjects or some programs  are  … because of the efforts of champions … people like me and perhaps you who are willing to work more and long hours because we enjoy it and see it as worth it… but as long as that’s the only way then it is not going to go forward .. we cannot rely on a constant stream of these sorts of champions …that’s where is comes back to systemic stuff again and bringing the   mainstream along… and things like maybe telling people to allocate things like a computer room  for every class in the institution.. giving them a timeslot whether you use it or not you have access to this room and it’s Internet enabled and maybe there’s training for the teacher to do that. And then I like the model too that at least every teacher is  given web space – this is yours. You can leave it blank it you want but this is your site to put up what you want for you and your students and there’s training about how to do that ideally. And because in WebCT allows for students to have a very basic home page so I think those sorts of things might be incentives…

JR: You mentioned champions – are they born or made? How to we get more of them? If you look at the standard adoption models – the innovations  early adopters and the majority… how do you get that early majority ?

That is an idea isn’t it – maybe there should be a school for champions somewhere J

JR: Or is that why we are here today.. we should be championing backwards.. how do we bring them along?

Well we have all grappled with the same questions and I just think it comes back to the sort of things we said before  - the structures don’t really encourage it… and people are not given time for this … that’s a TAFE thing .. cos I’ve facilitated a couple of Learnscope projects  for non-TAFE like private RTO’s -  the commitment and the work of those two projects… there were about 20 – 25 people but there were no questions about the amount of work involved. What those two private RTO project teams put in compared to the average TAFE lecturer in an equivalent project was no comparison and there was no griping, and there was a willingness to get on and do it; an excitement at doing something new. It was a different culture…

JR: So the culture is a big issue too?

Yes .. we tend  I think to expect to be paid for our PD, which I think is a very reasonable request until you go out to the private sector… no one is ever paid to do any PD after hours. You do it  your bloody yourself of you lose your job…so I think that is another issue which operates within the TAFE system… so people also have not got the time and there are  an enormous number of administration demands as well. My brother works in a primary school and my sister in law in a high school and it is the same across the board .. teachers are no longer just teachers - they are these people who have to keep track of all this extra stuff which is extraneous to teaching .. so there are real workload issues but those issues also exist within private RTOs but they don’t have this .. they don’t let it block the road to progress and I guess that maybe in the private RTO market it’s a question of survival so they have to do it and they are not going to be getting a salary next year if they don’t have the numbers

JR: But I see that in ACE. Maybe size does matter too and how you set it up…

Conversation interrupted and terminated… :)