Barbour, M. K., & Bennett, C. (2013). The FarNet journey: Effective teaching strategies for engaging Mãori students on the Virtual Learning Network. Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning, 17(1), 12-23.

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  Barbour, M. K., & Bennett, C. (2013). The FarNet journey: Effective teaching strategies for engaging Mãori students on the Virtual Learning Network. Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning, 17(1), 12-23.
  Barbour, M. K., Bennett, C. 12 The FarNet journey: Effective teaching strategies for engaging Māori students on the Virtual Learning N etwork Michael Barbour, Wayne State University  Carolyn Bennett,  FarNet, VLN E-learning cluster Abstract The Virtual Learning Network (VLN) provides schools, particularly those in rural and remote areas, with the opportunity to cooperate to expand curricular offerings for their students. Each school that participates in a VLN cluster contributes at least one course delivered by an e-teacher, allowing member schools access to any course offered through the VLN that they cannot offer locally. At present, there is no formal national training for the e-teachers, although individual clusters offer a range of training opportunities. This case study focused on the e- teachers’ perceptions of the learning curve required for the m to be adequately and effectively prepared to teach in the virtual environment. Results indicated that the experiences of e-teachers in this new learning environment were positive, but still embedded in the norm of a school. Further, e-teachers desired professional development  beyond learning how to use the technology, but wanted more assistance in developing their  pedagogy to work in the online environment. It is recommended that VLN cluster administration, and the Ministry of Education, provide a range of professional development opportunities in a variety of formats. The focus of this professional development should move beyond the technological tools and focus on how to use those tools in a virtual learning environment. Keywords: Online learning; onlin e teaching; Māori students; schools sector; secondary; teacher training; virtual learning; Virtual Learning Network; virtual teaching Introduction The Virtual Learning Network (VLN) began in the mid-1990s in several geographic regions as a way to provide a wider curriculum choice for students in primarily rural jurisdictions. The first of these geographic networks or e-learning clusters was CASAtech  —  a regional network in rural Canterbury (Wenmoth, 1996). This was followed by the introduction of the OtagoNet e-learning cluster in 2002 (Pullar & Brennan, 2008), and the FarNet e-learning cluster around the same time (Bennett & Barbour, 2012). These early networks, all of which were funded under different types of regional and national schemes and programmes, formed the basis of what would eventually  become the VLN  —  a loose network of cooperating clusters throughout New Zealand (Barbour, 2011). The online courses are offered in a reciprocal model in which the 12 current clusters work together to share their human resources  —  namely teachers who deliver online, who are known as e-teachers. Each cluster contributes to the VLN a programme of learning delivered by an   Journal of Open, Flexible, and Distance Learning, 17(1) 13 e-teacher. This sharing allows the member schools to participate in courses that they are unable to deliver. There is no formal training in the developing pedagogy for the e-teachers nationally, although individual clusters offer a range of training opportunities. The formal training received  by most e-teachers has been on using video-conferencing technology. As a result there is now a wide range of models of delivery of online classes. This case study examined the preparation and practice of e-teachers, as well as effective strategies for engaging students, particularly Māori students. This general purpose led to three research questions: 1.   What delivery models are being used to provide classes on the VLN? 2.   What are the perceptions of e-teachers about the professional development they have received? 3.   What Web 2.0 tools are e-teachers using in their online classes to engage student learning? Given the focus of the study upon the FarNet e-learning cluster, a case-study methodology was deemed appropriate to address these research questions. In this article we describe the  background of virtual teaching in New Zealand, followed by a discussion of our case-study methodology. Next, we discuss the four main themes from the findings of our study. Finally, we discuss two implications for practitioners, and make two suggestions for future research. Literature review The current generation of students is often referred to as ‘the net generation’ and ‘digital natives’, and there is an assumption that they are technologically savvy. However, online learning is still relatively new and most students, regardless of age, do not possess the cultural norms for engaging in online learning. Online or virtual teaching requires even the most experienced classroom teacher to make a thoughtful transition to the new environment. Learners must be well  prepared for entering this environment (Davis & Roblyer, 2005), and the teacher may have to  provide serious support for students as they learn how to learn online. Hobgood (2003) identified successful virtual learners as those students who have been fully prepared, and this requires more  planning on the part of the teacher than is normally seen in the traditional classroom. Jeffares (2008) traced the development of virtual learning in the schools sector in New Zealand as growing from a long history of more traditional forms of distance learning. Further, she indicated that virtual learning, as it has been operationalised in New Zealand for much of the recent decades has focused on the medium of video conferencing. Jeffares also believed that video conferencing and virtual learning in New Zealand schools had the potential to offer more than simply widening students’ curriculum choices, as was often the rationale or logic  behind distance education. Finally, she stressed the importance of schools transforming to assimilate or reconcile the traditional teaching model with a teaching model that was more aligned with 21st   century learning skills to better meet the changing needs of students. At present, a range of teaching models, including a blend of virtual teaching and opportunities for face-to- face interactions, is being used through the VLN as part of the students’ programme. The face-to-face opportunities often occur on an initial ‘e - day’, and in further site visits to their schools during the year (Lin & Bolstad, 2008; Walsh-Pasco, 2004). Several VLN e-learning clusters have organised one or more e-days each term, at which all of the students from an individual cluster come to a single school to meet their e-teacher (Jeffares, 2008; Walsh-Pasco, 2004). These e-days also provide students with an opportunity to meet and get to know their fellow students  —  these meetings can help to build relationships and a sense of community in their virtual classes (Lai & Pratt, 2004). Research has demonstrated that distance and virtual  Barbour, M. K., Bennett, C. 14 learning puts more responsibility on students to direct their own learning in general, and video conferencing was found to be no exception (Lin & Bolstad, 2008). Students have to be motivated and comfortable with learning independently if they are to be successful in the virtual learning environment (Lai & Pratt, 2004; Walsh-Pasco, 2004). Because students need more independent learning skills, the onus is also on the virtual teacher to ensure that they take advantage of all of the tools and pedagogical strategies provided in the virtual setting to create a welcoming environment that encourages students to take that responsibility (Barbour, 2011). However, recent research into the effectiveness of engaging students through the VLN found that many virtual teachers using video conferencing employed more traditional teaching techniques in their virtual classes (Lin & Bolstad, 2008). The authors suggested that perhaps these virtual teachers were not fully exploiting all the opportunities and  potential new learning methods that the virtual medium had to offer. This suggestion was consistent with other research that has found that considerable time and money needs to be invested in providing quality professional development and ongoing support networks for teachers and students who are working in these virtual environments (Ohia, 2008; Wallace, 2008). While today’s students may use technology extensively, few students kno w how to use that technology to learn in distance or virtual settings. Yet for many students, using technology is the only way to access certain curricular opportunities. Unfortunately, many of the teachers engaged in delivering these virtual learning opportunities have similar deficits when it comes to using technology as a teaching tool. Clearly there is a need for additional research to better understand the perceptions and needs of virtual teachers in this emerging learning environment. Methodology The case study was conducted with the FarNet VLN e-learning cluster during the 2009 school year (Stake, 1995), when more than 80% of the enrolled students identified as Māori. At the time of the study, FarNet had nine schools, but they did not all have students enrolled in online classes via video conferencing through the VLN. A total of 63 students were enrolled in online classes via video conferencing through the VLN, and the majority of those were from Northland College. These students (referred to as e-students) were enrolled in 12 different programmes of learning taught by 12 different teachers. These teachers were referred to as e-teachers. All of the schools agreed to participate in the study, and so 12 e-teachers were asked to complete an online survey, participate in a semi-structured interview, and provide access to their online classroom. Of the 12 e-teachers, only six completed the online survey, four were selected to be interviewed, and seven provided access to their online classes. The online survey elicited e- teachers’ opinions on effective professional development, online class size, building relationships in the online environment, communication methods, Web 2.0 tools, student collaboration, e-teacher support, and reflective practice (see Appendix A). The semi-structured interviews involved four e-teachers ( Patton, 2002 ). The purpose of the interview, as a secondary data collection method, was to gather a more in-depth understanding of how the virtual classes were run and how Web 2.0 tools were used to engage e-students, especially those e- students who identified as being of Māori descent (see Appendix B). The interview protocol also included questions that asked the e-teachers to provide greater detail about some of the findings from the online survey, and some of the findings from a similar study conducted with other e-students (see Bennett & Barbour, 2012). Reflective questioning (using three levels of questioning) was used to promote collaborative dialogue from the e-teachers (Barnett & Lee, 1994; Robertson, 1995; Winters, 1998). The first level of questioning was to clarify the details about the interviewees’ online experience, the second level of questioning was   Journal of Open, Flexible, and Distance Learning, 17(1) 15 used to clarify the purposes or reasons and the intended consequences of a certain action which the interviewee had referred to, and the third level of questioning was used to encourage the interviewee to reflect on the consequences of the action that they had taken. The interviews were conducted in person, via Skype, and using the video-conferencing system. Each interview was recorded with audio or video, and then transcribed. Participants were given copies of the transcriptions so they had an opportunity to member check the documents before the data was analysed. Finally, the online course content was analysed with an observation tool that was developed from the  Do-it-yourself course design evaluation sheet   (Ragan, 2009). This evaluation form was used to measure the effectiveness of an online course. Multiple methods of collecting data were used to address each of the research questions. According to Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis (1997), methodological triangulation assists in the analysis phase, particularly by making it easier to discover and verify themes from the different sources of data. The data was analysed using the method outlined by Miles and Huberman (1994). Results and discussion The six e-teachers who completed the online survey (response rate of 50%) represented five schools and one tertiary organisation. One e-teacher identifi ed themselves as being of Māori descent, three e-teachers recognised themselves as New Zealand European, and two e-teachers indicated “other.” Four of the participants were male and two were female. Three of the e -teachers had taught for 2 to 3 years, one e-teacher had taught for 4 to 5 years, and two e-teachers had taught for more than 5 years. Most of the e-teachers taught classes that had 10 to 12 students, and they all indicated that they were aware of the nationalities of their e-students. Five of the six e-teachers had a learning management system (LMS) to support their teaching, and visited it at least once a day. The general trends from the data, which included the online surveys, interviews, and the review of the asynchronous course content, was organised into four areas: overall perceptions, communications (including Web 2.0 tools), relationships, and professional development. Overall perceptions E-teachers identified a range of features they liked about teaching in a virtual classroom. Table 1  Sample of e-teacher responses “Interaction with students and giving them responsibility.”   “Meeting other students and working with them to reach their potential.”   “Focus is on learning and not classroom management.”   “The use of technology.”   “The enthusiastic nature of the students.”   “Making learning activities up as we go, the unpredictability, the freedom to design new curricula, playing with the toys, Moodle rocks!”   “The flexibility of only being in front of a class one hour out of my week, but the flex ibility of working online at times that suit me.”   The same e-teachers also identified a range of features they did not like about teaching in a virtual environment.  Barbour, M. K., Bennett, C. 16 Table 2  Sample of e-teacher responses “Sometimes communication is a bit weak, especially  between the home school and not being there to help the students in person when they struggle.”   “Extra workload, students not keeping up with work and not attending classes (not always their fault).”   “Negative influence of other teachers (based at the e - student’s home school).”   “Lack of support for the e - students at their own schools.”   “The expectation that [video conferencing] replaces [face -to-face] when it is in fact a completely different mode of delivery.”   “When technology fails, going back to chalk and talk.”   Although the e-teachers, both in the online survey and in the interviews, provided a list of things that they did not like about being a virtual teacher, they all acknowledged that the learning experience was new to them and that, as it became more embedded in their schools, the pressure from their colleagues about the job of an virtual teacher being seen as an ‘easy ride’ would disappear. They also felt that many of the other negative sentiments would also decline over time as virtual learning became more common and their own experience with the virtual environment increased. Communications The most common way to communicate with e-students was by email, which all of the e-teachers reported using regularly. Four of the six e-teachers also indicated that they regularly used video conferencing (outside scheduled video-conference time) to communicate with students, while three indicated that they also communicated with their e-students by fax, text message, and  phone. Additionally, one e-teacher successfully experimented with Skype, through which he  provided a very personalised learning programme for his e-student. Most of these Skype sessions occurred outside normal school hours, at a time agreed by both parties. This method of communication relied upon the e-student having adequate internet access, which was not always the case in the geographic areas represented by the FarNet e-learning cluster. The LMS was also used extensively. For example, three of the e-teachers reported that they used the discussion forums as a means of communicating regularly with their e-students. Five of the six e-teachers indicated that they regularly posted work in the LMS, and that this was how teachers preferred their e-students to submit their work (followed by submission through email and the discussion forum). It is interesting that almost all of the e-teachers reported using the LMS in some fashion, but only half of them indicated that they used the discussion forum feature. As Jusri (2003) described in their own study of virtual learning, teachers identified discussion forums as being effective for developing online community and collaboration, as well as for self- and peer-appraisal. Even more interesting was the fact that half of the e-teachers encouraged their students to collaborate and communicate with each other (the results were not collected in a manner that allowed the researchers to determine whether this was the same “half” that indicated they used the discussion forums). As the internet (and, particularly, the world wide web) have evolved, Web 2.0 tools have become a common medium for collaboration by both students and teachers. The Web 2.0 tools identified  by e-teachers in this study as being used in their classes are identified in Table 3.
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