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Online and informal support for teaching placements: A case study from one higher education institution in England

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James Bettany, Claudia Blandon, Cara Baer and Jan Georgeson, University of Plymouth, UK
Alison Egan, Marino Institute of Education, Dublin, Ireland
Elena Revyakina, University College of Teacher Education, Austria

Introduction

This study focuses on primary student teachers based in the south-west of England. Students are enrolled on a three-year bachelor’s degree that includes the award of ‘qualified teacher status’ (QTS), qualifying them to teach in state schools in England. Their three-year programme includes academic work on curriculum, pedagogy and education studies. They also complete 24 weeks of teaching practice. Schools allocated to the students by the awarding institution range from small village schools to large three-form-entry urban primary schools, and have diverse intakes in terms of socioeconomic, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Study participants have been recruited from the first year of the degree cohort and are typically school leavers.

This case study explores support for pre-service teachers during their school placement and cooperation between the multiple actors involved in school placement. It introduces an online environment and e-learning solution (Educational Knowledge Transfer (EKT) platform) devised for school placement and built based on a transnational school placement needs analysis of five European teacher education partners (Austria, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and England). The project is funded by Erasmus+ from 2019 to 2022. Preliminary data is reported on students’ perceptions of the support that they value during school placement, and whether/how it facilitates informal peer-to-peer support and motivation to engage, reflect and work collaboratively. 

Literature review 

Pre-service teachers require much support and guidance from their academic tutors and school ‘mentors’ (Caires et al., 2012). The provision of such support is often challenging due to the various demands on pre-service teachers, tutors and teachers, as well as geographical distance. This is particularly evident within the administrative support of the pre-service teachers while they are out on placement, but also in the need for continuous communication between all actors involved in the ‘triadic relationship’ (Hall et al., 2016). Recently, due to COVID-19 restrictions on travel, teacher educators and colleges had to reimagine placements and learning practices during successive lockdown restrictions. These challenges could be transformed into opportunities to rethink the types of support provided by initial teacher education (ITE) providers, academic tutors and school ‘mentors’ in the post-lockdown time to support their pre-service teachers. 

If the EKT platform is going to be useful in supporting school placements, we need to understand the kind of support – both formal and informal – that students, teachers and tutors need. In some contexts, formal opportunities for peer-to-peer learning are built into systems for ITE. These include Lesson Study (Cheung and Wong, 2014) and professional/peer-learning communities (Heggen et al., 2018) . For instance, in Lesson Study, student teachers work in small groups to plan and deliver lessons, and feedback is then shared to revise the lesson, with a focus on how particular students responded, rather than on the performance of the student teacher. Student teachers on placement might also find themselves included in the school’s ‘professional learning community’ (Heggen et al., 2018) and their development facilitated by supportive leadership. Informal peer learning occurs subtly in discussions outside of formal teaching, where students may confer about their lectures and/or experiences relevant to practice or theory, creating hybrid spaces between that which is independently learnt and that which is formally taught (Boud et al., 2014; Hilsdon, 2014; Peeters et al., 2014). 

Methodology 

The EKT project has been developed in three main phases. Phase 1 included documentary analysis, questionnaires and semi-structured interviews about placement practice in participating countries; Phase 2 comprises piloting the platform and gathering student feedback; and Phase 3 will involve the wider dissemination of the platform. In England, we are adopting a ‘community of inquiry’ approach (Garrison, 2013), using a framework incorporating empathy in user experience (Wright and McCarthy, 2008). We want students, teachers and tutors to work with us to find out what using the platform feels like. This article reports on the beginning of Phase 2, as we interviewed first year students returning from their first school placement and analysed their responses using inductive thematic analysis (Braun and Clarke, 2013). 

Findings

Although the placement was short (just two weeks), students shared useful insights into strategies and opportunities for reflective practice that might be enhanced by an online platform. Students reported a need for easily accessible information – about the school, their class, what would be expected of them and how much they would do. However, working with large documents could be daunting, and learning how to manage paperwork took time – something that was in short supply on a two-week placement. 

Students’ accounts of their placement did not foreground online experiences. They reported a preference for working with notebooks to record reflections during lessons and transferring notes to laptops later. They felt that this was more convenient and less intrusive for the class teacher. However, they mentioned that they would have liked prompts to know what to reflect on, where to focus and what to notice. They appreciated collecting examples of work and planning – things to remind them of activities that worked and resources that helped learning.

Discussion 

With short placements, there was a clear message that students wanted to feel well-prepared from the first day of the placement, so that they were better able to become immersed in the life of their placement school – to belong (Caires et al., 2012) – as soon as possible. Although as ‘net generation students’ (Petrovic et al., 2008, p. 761) they were comfortable with the idea of using a platform to access information, being familiar with the particular platform before the business of placement started was essential. Knowing where to find important information was vital, although the format of documentation was not always conducive to this. 

Sharing the placement with fellow students was beneficial (Sorensen, 2014); they could help with sifting information from large documents and reflecting on activities informally once the school day was over (for example, when sharing lifts). However, students reported some unease about sharing a classroom with a fellow student; having two new adults in the class could sometimes be overwhelming for children, and it was less easy to feel ‘useful’ while still finding one’s feet. 

Listening to students discussing their experiences was a sharp reminder of the physicality of learning to teach – the excitement, the apprehension, the uncertainty and the importance of sharing things (Caires et al., 2012). We need to think more carefully about how an online platform can capture the materiality of the classroom experience. Handwritten notes can be photographed and uploaded securely, but how can they then be used to prompt further reflection and where does the line between formally documented course requirements and informally mediated peer discussion fall? Furthermore, students needed their own physical space to meet informally (Boud et al., 2014) outside the staffroom to share successes and challenges.

Conclusion 

Students’ feedback from their first placement has given us pointers towards issues for the development of a platform for future placements. To facilitate wellbeing and learning needs, the online platform could be used to make essential information more accessible; to prompt purposeful reflection; to enable the recording of examples of best practice to share later with colleagues; and to upload handmade documents and resources (as part of a portfolio). However, the usefulness of such a platform will depend on how easily it can be searched (either through tagging or indexing) and how well it can mimic the ‘natural’ sharing and interactions found in the classroom, on the way home in the car or in shared ‘group chats’.

References
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  • Braun V and Clarke V (2013) Successful Qualitative Research: A Practical Guide for Beginners. London: Sage.
  • Caires S, Almeida L and Viera D (2012) Becoming a teacher: Student teachers’ experiences and perceptions about teaching practice. European Journal of Teacher Education 35(2):163–178.
  • Cheung WM and Wong WY (2014) Does Lesson Study work? A systematic review on the effects of Lesson Study and Learning Study on teachers and students. International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies 3(2):137–149.
  • Garrison DR (2017) E-Learning in the 21st Century: A Community of Inquiry Framework for Research and Practice, 3rd ed. London: Routledge/Taylor and Francis.
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  • Wright P and McCarthy J (2008) Empathy and experience in HCI. In: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, April 2008, pp. 637–646.
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