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When formal research meets informal networks online shifts can occur

When formal research meets informal networks online, shifts in practice can occur

This story is about the power and potential of an organised educational network to support and drive new learning for adult educators.


Jacqui Pennington is a new entrants teacher with a wise, humorous perspective of herself as a 21st Century educator. A self-professed ‘dinosaur’ with over 25 years experience and loving it! Jacqui is part of a two year TLIF (Teacher Led Innovation Funded) research project in the Petone Basin, made up of 26 ECE and New Entrants teachers (including research team, project team) - looking specifically at the effective practices of transitioning children between pre-school and school. The goal is that by the end of the two years,  they would have created a toolkit based on effective practice, e.g. the Learning through play model - for others to benefit from.

What happened


Current developments with technology and social software are significantly altering: (a) how learners access information and knowledge, and (b) how learners dialogue with the instructor and each other. 

Networks, as models of organizing education, are part of a larger “general shift, beginning in the second half of the 20th century, away from individualist, essentialist, and atomistic explanations to more relational, contextual, and systemic understandings” (Borgatti & Foster, 2003). (p9) Learning and Knowing in Networks: Changing roles for Educators and Designers George Siemens

Jacqui was introduced to the Virtual Learning Network by LwDT (Learning with Digital Technologies) facilitator Kathe Tawhiwhirangi. Part of the facilitated professional learning and development support from LwDT, was to introduce the VLN and support teachers with it’s use; and potential for sustainable access to PLD anytime, anywhere. Kathe introduced the VLN, set an initial task for teachers to join, edit their profiles, explore the space and find what interested them most, and to ultimately post a question or response. 

Jacqui remembers being asked to join a group and write a comment online. She says, Initially I was the one most reluctant. I was busy and couldn’t see the value of it. Part of this perception is that Jacqui acknowledges she has made fantastic progress with digital skills, but doesn't feel it is one of her strengths. Jacqui pursued, found and ‘friended’ several colleagues, and joined the following groups: Blended e-Learning LiteracyGetting started on the VLNGoogle Apps for EducationiPad/iPod User GroupNew Entrant Teachers groupTeacher-led Innovation Fund group. While in the New Entrant Teachers group Jacqui found previous conversations about Play Based Learning and on May 16th, started a topic to let others know the value of visiting school/s that look at play based learning for juniors.

Jacqui screenshot 1

This post sparked the interest of two other new entrant teachers who offered their own interest/expertise in this area and invited teachers to make contact to visit them face to face. 

Jacqui screenshot 2

Within the research cycle of the TLIF project, Jacqui was encouraged to trial new practices back in her classroom, while at the same time, she continued to make contact with other educators in the VLN. One week later she started another conversation and asked if anyone else was trialling a play based learning approach. Jacqui shared how she wanted to change some current practices in her classroom and asked what others were doing to address reporting issues with junior students.

Jacqui screenshot 3

This time two more community members responded. Josie Woon (well-known VLN user) shared her current classroom practice and another community member provided details for Jacqui to make contact in person. Several months earlier, Kerryn Davis posted her research in New Entrant Classrooms online and invited feedback on this piece of work. Jacqui responded by sharing how she was excited and inspired by a visit to Silverstream school, and as a result of this was now changing her timetable and teaching practices. 

Keryn Davis took the time to respond to other comments in detail and also replied to Jacqui, acknowledging the need to focus on all areas of interest and ability(ie physical) and not just academic endeavours. 

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Jacqui explains this was a pivotal moment that changed her life online. Getting acknowledgement and timely comments from other community members was affirming, but when CORE researcher Keryn Davis emailed her back, Jacqui was even more motivated to keep the conversations (online and in person) alive.

Models of effective professional practice assume that effective teacher professional development is not a solitary endeavour, but a socialised one that requires on-going commitment to reflection, inquiry, and shared practice, combining informal and formal approaches. (p34) 

There appears to be an opportunity for teachers to gather, connect, share and develop knowledge using individually tailored pathways, unencumbered by the school’s annual professional development calendar. (p16, Online social networking and its impact on New Zealand educators’ professional learning, Karen Melhuish 2014)

Jacqui screenshot 5 While Jacqui messaged Keryn Davis to arrange a visit to the school where Keryn based her research, another new entrant teacher, Judith Urry, assistant principal (on sabbatical leave) responded to her VLN posts and requested a visit with Jacqui to observe the Learning through play model in action. Based on other feedback about Judith’s credibility, Jacqui also researched Judith’s profile, realised she was geographically close to visit and she emailed her to come and observe. Judith visited with one of Jacqui’s colleagues and since then, the two of them have continued to meet in ‘coffee dates’ to focus on the transitioning aspect of their research. Jacqui acknowledges that these connections happened solely as a result of connecting through the VLN. There are plans for Jacqui to observe Judith in her classroom and also to see how this affects the rest of the junior syndicate. 

In terms of social networking for the purposes of improving teacher practice, there is also talk amongst the network to create a Facebook page dedicated to 65+ other new entrants teachers to enable them to share resources and experiences, ask questions and make contact - in relation to ‘Learning through play’. 

In terms of the social sciences and education, agency is the ability of individuals, such as educators, to set their own goals and drive their learning independently. It has been shown that the success of our own learning is determined by our own self-efficacy, that our ability to set and manage our own goals is a measure of our metacognitive competence and a pre-determiner for successful learning (Bandura, 1997; Gunawardena et al., 2009). (p35, Online social networking and its impact on New Zealand educators’ professional learning, Karen Melhuish 2014)

Shifts for teachers

Learning is a layered process, where andragogy (art of adult learning) involves many elements we recognise for pedagogy (art of children’s learning); such as cognitivism, constructivism, connectivism. When learners reflect, reason and think about their learning through connected networks, create new knowledge and understanding and act on this constructively -  positive transformation in behaviours can occur. When learning transpires as a result of engaging online, more opportunities are realised for teachers and learners - beyond their geographic social learning contexts.

The concept of emergent, connected, and adaptive knowledge provides the epistemological framework for connectivism (Siemens, 2005) as a learning theory. Connectivism posits that knowledge is distributed across networks and the act of learning is largely one of forming a diverse network of connections and recognizing attendant patterns (Siemens, 2006). As Cronon (1998) states, “More than anything else, being an educated person means being able to see connections so as to be able to make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways” (¶ 14). (p10, Learning and Knowing in Networks: Changing roles for Educators and Designers George Siemens)

Learning through play 1 Jacqui feels because of the VLN, new connections have been made with other like-minded colleagues, that wouldn’t have ordinarily happened without the networking available through the New Entrant group. Jacqui finds these connections hugely affirming, in an area she is most passionate about. With the connections comes recognition and now several educators have visited to observe her practice. IE: Recently a friend of her principal, had heard the good reports, read the VLN comments and emailed Jacqui’s principa. Relationships are being leveraging where Jacqui is now influencing others as well as their practice.  As a result of this, Jacqui feels she has credibility and that her profile has been raised - because of the VLN. 

Jacqui feels she’s one of these people who dives into things quickly, so has been very careful with this particular project to take measured steps to implement change. In that regard she says the VLN has really helped because there are a whole lot of other people who are in a similar situation (some two steps ahead), which helps give an insight into learning from each other’s experiences. 

It shows me what a powerful tool this [VLN] is. And it actually effects me and my programmes because I want to be a reflective practitioner, don't I, I want to keep evolving otherwise I might as well just come in and empty the rubbish bins. For me, it gives me the passion and the confidence that it’s a good way to go - sharing effective practice in the context of learning through play. 

Play 2

New entrant teachers for years have talked about how hard transitioning is, from one curriculum to the other, particularly for Maori and Pasifika boys, within a couple of terms we can disengage our learners. But without the research, it’s scary to change current practice because it's stepping outside of  what we’ve always done. With National Standards, there is even more narrowing of the curriculum and what I want to do is complete opposite. There’s a comfort level here for teachers, where we’re researching and sharing with each other, this validates what we’re doing through evidence and research to back up what we’re saying. This gives others the courage to do the same.

There is a changing face of professional learning and development in New Zealand. Key research findings about effective PLD for teachers show:

  • It is in-depth
  • It is provided over time
  • It is related to practice
  • It is contextually relevant

and 5. it involves collaboration. What makes for effective PLD (12 July), Derek Wenmoth. There is a recognition that timely, relevant, personalised professional learning can better meet the needs teachers and their students and more and more Teachers are doing it for themselves - PLD that is! Teachers are taking the initial steps to (overcoming fears) to engage online, some are sustaining social learning online, while others are actively leading this. 

Play 3Jacqui shares she has overcome the barrier to engaging online and that she’s proud she’s not dragging her feet anymore. Initially it was a lack of confidence and wanting to know what the purpose was, asking if it was just another thing we need to do? Jacqui says she’s been around long enough to see trends come and go, and that she can get cynical but it has to be benefiting the children in my class, otherwise there is no purpose. Now she feels it’s a space where she’s received, wonderful, positive support from others who are teachers with common concerns. Jacqui sees this is a safe place to share and ask questions.

Throughout the VLN, we have huge group of teachers now saying, we’ve always been worried about transitioning for students, but this looks like it’s [learning through play] is working. There’s teachers ranting about how this is changing their lives and you can see the effects on the learners. This validates for more and more people going to management and saying, ‘we really value this’. Sitting down and just learning with pencil is not the only way to learn. Luckily I have a very supportive management, but I still had to gather resources and back up my arguments though evidence and research.

Play 4 Jacqui has shared classroom shifts, observations and conversations with the rest of her team and is sowing seeds about the value of online professional learning. Others in her school are also starting to see the benefits of engaging in the VLN, where their interests and needs can be met by connecting with other educators. There is a network meeting coming up where Jacqui is excited to advocate the VLN others, because that's what people want - a safe environment to support each other. People don't have time unless it's a passion, it's very easy to forget how busy and demanding teaching gets.

Shifts for students and families

In the paper, No School is an Island: Fostering Collaboration in a Competitive System there is a heightened recognition that learning happens everywhere and that parents and whānau are an important part of effecting positive change for students. Collaboration between students, parents and school has a greater influence of impact and trusting relationships between schools and learning communities can enable educators to learn from each other.

Play 5Jacqui’s story is also about families and whānau. Projects like the Petone Basin Teacher Led Innovation Funded) is about community. Jacqui says as a result of the practices trialled so far, parents are now noticing a difference because their children are happier. Previously we would report on progress to parents in a few areas of the curriculum, against standards that might not be meaningful or relevant to some students, especially those who are so young. So, you have to be ready to have a power shift. You have to be confident to own your own practice and whatever you believe in, and that’s how the VLN can help. Very scary, but the power shift should be going back to our learners. For me it’s about learning through play, but the overriding concept is putting the power back into the hand of the learners. 


The popularization of the World Wide Web as a medium for commerce, communication, information sharing, and education has raised the profile of networks as a means of human organization….. The growth of interest in, and research on, networks as organizational models for all aspects of society is significant. (P5, Learning and Knowing in Networks: Changing roles for Educators and Designers George Siemens)

The power of networked organisations and communities of learning is gaining recognition and has also been touched on in the research, No School is an Island: Fostering Collaboration in a Competitive System. The report has some valuable recommendations and conclusions for communities of learning and clusters of schools and also touches on the potential of educational networks to cross-pollinate and share our own knowledge and skills within/between and across New Zealand in the wider sense - something the VLN does well. Having a dedicated social learning network that encourages educators to socialise, share stories, reflect and learn from each other’s experiences is a significant part of the New Zealand educational landscape, especially as schools reorganise themselves into communities of learning (COLs). 

Teachers as colleagues, critical peers, researchers and mentors can be influenced and in turn influence others within and beyond their own school by engaging in safe professional learning communities online. Horizontal connections made in blended ways is relevant in terms of current understandings in, The nature of learning: Using Research to Inspire Practice (OECD). A large focus of the Ministry of Education’s initiative to invest in educational success includes, enabling teachers to work together and benefit from each other’s knowledge and experience.  However, this needs to be largely driven by the autonomous learner.

.....self-driven learning is vital for sustainable learning, and increasingly this may be facilitated flexibly using online technologies.  (p35, Online social networking and its impact on New Zealand educators’ professional learning, Karen Melhuish 2014)

This story exemplifies the power of autonomous learners, motivated to drive their own professional learning (through the rigor of inquiry, reflection and research) in educational networks that utilise social digital technologies. It’s a story where formal research meets informal networks creating many layers of transformational shifts for both teachers and learners.

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