What is happening in your virtual learning environment?

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In 2009 we worked on a professional learning program for 100 teachers in Victoria, Australia who were part of a student netbook trial. As part of that program Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach of Powerful Learning Practice created a private online community in which the teachers could share ideas and discuss issues around the project. Over the course of the year more than 3500 posts and comments were made in the community.

At the end of the project we wanted to know:

What were the teachers discussing?

And, what role did the virtual learning environment play in the learning of the community?

We had the site analytics, we knew that we'd had over 31,000 page views with an average stayind on site for 7 minutes and 14 seconds. But we didn't know what the teacher were doing while on the site.

So together with Sheryl, we randomly sampled 30% of the posts and investigated at the function and content of each of the randomly selected posts.

When looking at the function we wanted to know, what was the purpose of the post? Was the teacher seeking advice or offering advice? Were they sharing an experience? Or contrasting their experiences with the experiences of others? Or, was their post of a higher order, that is, personal meaning making or negotiating meaning with others.

When looking at the content we wanted to know what was the "thing" that the teachers were discussing? As the community was a teacher professional learning community, we interested in seeing whether they were discussing the netbook trial itself, or web 2.0 tools, teaching approaches, professional learning, curriculum or classroom management.

We also recorded the role of the commenter in the project, whether they were a netbook trial teacher, a mentor or a community leader. As well as the role of the person they were speaking with. If they didn't mention another member's name we considered the comment to be a broadcast to the whole community.

What we found was that the members were most ofter sharing information (29% of the time) or sharing experiences (25%). As far as the content of their post was concerned, there were three major talking points: Professional Learning (45%), Resources (25%) and Learning & Teaching (22%). By looking at what was actually happening in the discussions we were able to get a deeper understanding about the role that virtual learning environments play in teacher professional learning.

For this project we created Pulse, an online tool for understanding and assessing virtual learning, you can learn more about it here.

How do you know what is happening in your virtual learning environments? Please leave a comment describing the methods you've used.

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