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Issue 28, November 2008  

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Professional Experience & WebCT at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music
Dr Jennifer Rowley & Dr Sharon Tindall-Ford

There is a continuing need to discover ways to better support pre-service teachers on Professional Experience (PE) as teacher education programs are faced with financial constraints while struggling with large enrolments and students who are geographically isolated from the university, their peers and university supervising lecturers. As PE (practice teaching/practicum/placement) is a mandatory component of pre-service teacher education programs (Whitton, Sinclair, Barker, Nanlohy & Nosworthy, 2004), and acknowledged as a critical component of pre-service teachers' professional training, it is one that presents unique challenges and stresses (Ferfolja, 2008; Murray-Harvey, 1999) and therefore, requires better support for pre-service teachers on PE. It is well documented that pre-service teachers have concerns with, amongst other issues, behaviour management, lesson planning and curriculum design (Barry & King, 1998; Groundwater-Smith, Ewing and Le Cornu, 2007; Whitton et al., 2004). Providing additional support for pre-service teachers on PE is a challenge for all teacher educators, and online technology has become increasingly popular in addressing some of the challenges in the preparation and support of both pre service and in-service teachers (Ferfolja, 2008; Holstrom, Ruiz & Weller, 2007; Schuck 2003a). Teacher training programs are utilising internet based technologies (such as WebCT) to enhance pre-service teacher learning when on PE to enhance students' learning experiences. No longer is the pre-service teacher isolated from university lecturers and peers as the technology enables learning and communication to occur asynchronously, enabling the pre-service teachers to interact and collaborate with peers and academics anywhere and at anytime (Garrison & Anderson, 2003).

This article reports on three WebCT sites that were developed at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music (SCM) to support and enhance music students' PE Units of Study (UoS). At SCM pre-service music education students enrolled in a four year Bachelor of Music (Music Education) degree are required to complete for their three PE UoS; 10 single days and a two week block in second year at a primary school and seven weeks of PE in both third and fourth year at a secondary high school. Within this PE program, pre-service music teachers are expected to develop effective lesson plans; implement a continuous program of lessons; apply classroom management skills; evaluate the success of classroom learning experiences and to understand the role and responsibility of music teachers within school and the wider community. In Semester 2, 2006, all Music Education students enrolled in the PE UoS (MUED 2005, 3002 and 4003) were asked to complete a pre-questionnaire as part of the UoS evaluation before placement and a post-questionnaire at the conclusion of their PE placement.  The pre and post-questionnaire examined previous experiences of students using technology, the Internet and WebCT. It explored students' perceptions of how WebCT might influence their learning and asked students for inclusions on what they would like to see on the WebCT site for the PE UoS. The comparisons between pre and post-questionnaire are presented as changes in students' perceptions towards using WebCT.  As students were asked about anxiety and stress in using WebCT these changes are also noted in the post-questionnaire. The intention was to measure students' adaptability and acceptance of the introduction of WebCT into the UoS and whether the online support was enhancing their learning environment and impacting its significance. As most of the PE is spent without face-to-face lecturer involvement it was also necessary to measure the students' past experience with WebCT and whether the WebCT support alleviated stress and anxiety during the placement. WebCT sites were developed based on the data collected from the re-questionnaire and the sites were monitored and further developed during PE. Data collected served to inform SCM academics of the needs of SCM pre-service music teachers, the usefulness of PE UoS and WebCT sites and an understanding of how to better prepare pre-service music teachers for their future careers.

Using WebCT within existing Units of Study to create a collaborative learning environment
The initial rationale for introducing e-learning (in the form of WebCT) into the music education degree at SCM was to enhance students' tertiary education learning experiences whilst engaging in technology. The goal for e-learning, therefore, was to encourage active learning for students as well as introducing students to technology through meaningful collaborative learning environments. The collaborative learning environment for the three PE WebCT sites involved SCM pre-service music teachers, SCM lecturers, PE supervisors and in school supervising teachers. It was envisaged that as pre-service music teachers develop skills as teachers during PE that it would be essential that they assimilate their teaching and learning theory into practice (Barry and King, 1998; Groundwater-Smith et al., 2007). With pre-service music teachers, SCM academics and PE supervisors being actively involved in WebCT discussion boards it was hoped that there would be opportunities for the potential "gap" between theory and practice to be integrated through online discussions. As a part of the development of an online collaborative community it was important to recognize the commitment that SCM has to the ongoing improvement of graduate attributes through the students' interaction with and use of technology through e-learning. The blended learning environment was, as stated previously, a mechanism to further develop university lecturers' understanding of the concerns of music education students on PE and to evaluate WebCT as a medium of instruction and contact. To develop competence in students as e-learners it was vital to create opportunities for e-learning to be integrated into existing UoS and it was thought that WebCT sites would be useful in addressing the development of graduate attributes through the pre-service music teachers' interaction with and use of technology. The graduate attributes identified by SCM and supported through this project were a commitment to independent learning, critical thinking and analysis skills and appreciation of computer based activities as a part of the learning environment.

Development of WebCT Sites
The three WebCT sites were developed initially according to the following structure: Professional Experience Handbook; contact information for all SCM supervisors; information for the secondary music teacher (for example, the New South Wales Creative Arts Syllabus); Music Teachers Resource Site (including links to internet sites such as The Pure Drop: An Exploration & Celebration of World Music; lesson plan information including template for lesson plans and a Year 7 music lesson plan exemplar on Aboriginal Music; three online discussion forums for students to communicate with their peers and lecturers. One discussion forum was dedicated solely to behaviour management issues, while another was dedicated to general discussion, and the remaining discussion forum was titled 'Problems to Discuss with Lecturer'. The online asynchronistic discussion provision involved pre-service music teachers accessing an online noticeboard where they could ask questions, voice concerns, write about an incident or issue and register ongoing responses to other students, academics or supervisor postings throughout the PE. SCM academics and supervisors monitored the postings and provided ongoing advice, support and feedback when required. These 'virtual' discussions did not take place in real time, but were developed through students and academics contributions to the noticeboard at a time that was convenient for them.

Summary of Pre and Post-questionnaire Evaluation
The pre-questionnaire investigated students' experiences with computers, including both use and ability levels, the internet, online learning environments (WebCT) and their perceived needs for e-learning when on Professional Experience. The questionnaire was administered to 2nd, 3rd and 4th year music education students (n=43) as part of the course evaluation of the three PE UoS prior to placement. Secondly, students were asked to engage in the online learning component (WebCT) for the duration of the placement as part of their assessment. Finally, a post-questionnaire examined students' (n=77) self-rating of experiences with computers, including both use and ability levels, the internet, online learning environments (WebCT) and the benefits and problems associated with WebCT. It should be noted that the difference in pre and post student samples was administrative rather than reflective of student interest. The UoS evaluations were based on the following five questions:

  1. What are the students' perceptions of skill, confidence and experience in using computers, the Internet and WebCT?  (pre and post-questionnaire)
  2. What are students' current experiences with WebCT? (pre-questionnaire)
  3. How do students see WebCT enhancing their learning needs? (pre and post-questionnaire)
  4. How did these variables change after using WebCT? (post-questionnaire)
  5. How did students use and evaluate the usefulness of WebCT? (post-questionnaire)

The findings revealed moderate to very good levels of experience, use and confidence of using computers and the Internet. The pre-questionnaire, however, showed little or limited experience with WebCT in the third and fourth year groups, and the second year group was evenly matched for experience and no experience with WebCT.When asked about the usefulness of WebCT whilst on PE most of the students rated this as possibly, very or extremely useful. Very few students were unsure about its usefulness, which matches the group who were not familiar with WebCT.

Results from the pre and post-questionnaire indicated that the students were in need of a range of support mechanisms and content to assist them in undertaking the PE. Two open ended questions asked students  "what do you want to SEE on the professional experience WebCT site" and "what do you want to DO on the professional experience WebCT site". Students across all cohorts indicated that they wanted some basic assistance with the identified 'most common concerns' of beginning teachers - that is behaviour management, resources and ideas for lessons.  Included in the identified needs was also links to other sites that would give them 'hints and tips' for lessons. Comments also included: links to useful websites, music and readings; discussion boards for trouble shooting and problem solving; announcements and news of happenings back on campus; assignment results; and photos and video of PE students teaching real classes. There was also an identified need for lecture notes (although four of the seven education units of study already had WebCT sites with lecture notes available to students). This identified the need for the Music Education UoS in the degree program to have lecture notes available to students on WebCT. Rudimentary information such as contact details for University PE supervisors and handouts regarding the mechanics of PE were also noted.

Critical to the results were the data extracted from these open-ended questions and comments by the students. When asked, "how you think WebCT can ENHANCE your professional experience", comments from pre and post WebCT use included:

  • help navigating the technology;
  • some counselling on dealing with children and adolescents;
  • more supervising teacher and university supervisor input into discussions;
  • better methods to share resources - songs, sound files;
  • more reassurance from supervising teacher, university supervisor and fellow students.

The rating of students' feelings and concerns about perceived issues in PE identified students' feelings of isolation, lack of professional and personal support and concerns with classroom management. The post-questionnaire (n=77) indicated that students, who had the necessary technology skills to access the WebCT sites or were willing to engage in new technology, found that WebCT helped in alleviating anxiety, was useful for developing lesson plan ideas and provided critical support in dealing with discipline issues.

Discussions sites and their use during PE
The two designers of the PE WebCT sites, who were also SCM lecturers and PE supervisors, monitored the discussion sites over the period of PE. The supervisors provided advice to the pre-service teachers throughout the period of placement and updated the three WebCT sites with new materials when required, by including links to additional music websites and supplementary advice on creating interesting and innovative music lessons. The discussion board was used for two distinct purposes. Firstly, to seek advice from peers and SCM supervisors and, secondly, as a mechanism to gain support, encouragement and express emotions in what appeared to be viewed by students as a supportive and safe environment. The advice sought by pre-service teachers was in the categories of classroom discipline, technical support, music content for lessons and issues with school music teachers supervision and support.  Examples of the postings demonstrating a selection of the categories are provided in Table 4 below.

Examples from the WebCT discussion board:
1. CATEGORY: School Music Teacher's Supervision
EXAMPLE: Saturday August 26th, 2006.
Does anyone else have a teacher supervising them, that after looking at your lesson plans which you know are not complete just says "good" and does not tell you what's needed."

2. CATEGORY: Classroom Discipline
EXAMPLE:  Wednesday, August 23, 2006. 1:49pm
My lesson went pretty good, but I found it difficult to curb their excitement after singing "Ah-de-doodah". The school didn't really have a policy and I'm still experimenting what works best for me. Any ideas crazy cats? By the way watch out for seven-year-old girls squeezing your legs.

EXAMPLE: Monday August 17th, 2006.
Just a quick heads up to everyone and hope all is going well. On the issue of discipline and general behaviour in classrooms, I've been amazed at the power of humour. Just a small comment here and there both makes the whole room positive and also gets everyone's attention back to you. I've found it especially works with the junior years when the 'problem' students start to disrupt the class.

EXAMPLE: Friday, September 29, 2006. 1:27pm
I think you did the right thing.  I had the exact same problem on Monday where my usual class teacher was away and we had a casual teacher, so the class was misbehaving.  Come my lesson, the class was being silly and I didn't get through all my lesson because I had to keep disciplining the children.  But at the end of my lesson I gave them a talk and told them the exact same thing you told your class. If they can't be well behaved and participate in a sensible manner then I will stop giving them fun music activities. I think our little "talk" will have shown the class we mean business and next lesson will hopefully run more smoothly with not so many interruptions!

3. CATEGORY: Technical Support
EXAMPLE: Tuesday August 22nd, 2006
Student Response to ipod question. "At my school they have a cable where they can plug the ipod into the speakers, this means the kids can listen to 'their' music and it can be incorporated into the lesson."

4. CATEGORY: Music Content
EXAMPLE: Monday August 21st, 2006
Anyone out there knows a way to teach guitar chords to year 7. I have no idea!

A Student Response:
" ..... I reckon I can help. To teach guitar chords, be prepared to take heaps of time on certain aspects of reading guitar tabs and what everything means - you may have to spend 2 lessons. The easiest way is to start of with either a riff or a drone note for them to play in groups, and then build the notes up until they get the chord. Alternatively you can draw a basic guitar chord diagram (provided by student) and then you put the finger numbers on the specific frets. If you do use this make sure you play it for them first and then explain/ show the fingering slowly!"

Return response by first student:
"I should have thought to ask the guitar pro. Thanks heaps for that. Now I understand what they mean by fret ... need any keyboard advice".
These discussions provided the opportunity for pre-service music teachers who were dispersed over the greater Sydney metropolitan area, SCM academics and PE Supervisors to participate in a dynamic music teaching community. It can be seen by these comments that the students felt comfortable discussing problems and thoughts about teaching in an open and honest way without fear of consequence. Much of the discussion was about the concerns and issues identified in the pre and post-questionnaire responses. Students often made comments that sites enhanced learning through an opportunity to discuss issues with each other and university teaching staff, particularly the opportunity to read other student's experiences whilst they were on PE (either past or present experiences). This, as reported by students, made them feel less isolated and, through both their responses to the questionnaire and their contribution to the discussion board, demonstrated that they found the discussions to be a very useful tool. Comments made by all three cohorts included that the discussion board helped to keep in touch with other students, to discuss issues during professional experience and seek advice from lecturers during professional experience regarding a specific classroom issue/situation. It was a hoped that the fourth year students would act as mentors for the third years and that third years would act as mentors for the second year students, but the students seemed to remain in the discussion with their own cohort.

After using WebCT the results indicate a general trend of improvement in students' rating of skill, confidence and usefulness of WebCT.  The students also indicated that the WebCT sites met needs reasonably or very well. The results showed that two-thirds of students rated the PE WebCT sites as reasonable, very or extremely useful. It was apparent from the responses that the students felt isolated on their PE and the results may indicate a need to introduce more scaffolding into the music education and teacher preparation UoS so as to allow students to feel more prepared for the solo flight that is a component of PE.

Students indicated that the PE WebCT sites enhanced their experiences in schools by primarily providing a supportive network to share ideas, knowledge and problems and to seek advice from peers and SCM Supervisors. For most, it was an invaluable tool to receive feedback from their peers and supervisors when it was not readily available at their placement school. For some, particularly the third year students on their first secondary placement, it reduced the sense of isolation they felt from being away from SCM and peers. Students from all three cohorts found it reassuring to know that many of their peers were experiencing the same problems as they were and found it interesting to hear about other schools, students and situations that were very different from their own experiences. The ability to communicate easily with others and the flexibility in terms of being able to log on at home at night to seek help and support was also seen as a benefit. Suggestions for further improvement included more online presence from music educators from the SCM, more musical material provided on line and a virtual space to upload and share lesson plans with colleagues. Some fourth years indicated the need for pre-training in this technology.  In order for students to obtain the most support and information from online delivery it is essential that the students have an understanding of the technology and access to the facility; this appeared to be the main drawback to the success of the WebCT sites, in particular for the fourth year pre-service teachers.

This UoS evaluation suggests that providing online support through WebCT is an important tool to enhance pre-service music teachers experience on PE. While WebCT provided a valuable support for pre-service music teachers, discussion boards supplied an important insight to SCM lecturers on the concerns and issues faced by pre-service music teachers on PE. Success of the WebCT sites relied on academic and pre-service teacher involvement, students' willingness to go online, learn about the WebCT sites and read postings by peers and post messages. This was essential to student learning, integrating theory with practice, and developing the graduate attributes stated previously and the relevance of the sites. Academics needed to monitor and regulate the asynchronisitc discussion forums and continually update information e.g. posting websites, lesson plans, and support materials. Research suggests that supervisors' presence on line is critical for the success of asynchronisitc discussion forums (Sing & Stollof, 2007).

These new understandings were used to re-model education and PE UOS for 2007 and 2008. An important initiative that was incorporated for 2007 PE WebCT sites was a lecture and tutorial devoted to student orientation and training in WebCT. Other initiatives for 2007 PE WebCT sites included: providing a PowerPoint and supplementary information on how to successfully prepare for placement; providing narrated PowerPoints of education subjects summarising how theory learnt in these UoS should inform music teaching practice; streamlining discussion forums so there were not multiple areas for student interaction and organising threads within the one discussion board to support student navigation; providing information on ownership of material posted online and confidentiality for all users of discussion forums and; providing all part-time PE Supervisors with access and training to the sites.

The development of the online community as a culture change for SCM pre-service pre-service music teachers and SCM academics was a desired outcome of this evaluation. To achieve this, academics needed to respond to any teaching and learning concerns of the pre-service music teachers and to enable students to share their experiences with their fellow music education students. The online community, therefore, was thought of as 'the activities people perform together in their group and not physically where they perform such activities' (Graff, 2006:127). This design of the blended learning environment was also viewed as a mechanism to further develop university lecturers' understanding of the concerns of music education students when on PE and evaluating WebCT as a medium of instruction and contact. Research supports the importance of building a community and Wang (2001, as cited in Graff, 2006) argues that the 'community can also result from shared knowledge among learners in an online environment' (p127). Therefore, active independent learning is a vital contribution to a collaborative learning community, which this evaluation sought to measure through WebCT discussion boards.It was important to develop competence in students as e-learners in this process with the rationale being to provide relatively immediate support for students during their PE. Therefore, assessing their computing, Internet and WebCT skills, experiences and anxiety prior to embarking on placement opened a window to the climate and potential of the online community of student teachers.

There are definite challenges with providing relevant online delivery to pre-service teachers when on PE. The three sites were created rapidly with limited instruction and support to site designers. It was, therefore, imperative that an evaluation of these three UoS be undertaken so that the needs and concerns of pre-service teachers were better understood and addressed in 2007 and 2008. This evaluation provided important insights in understanding pre-service music teachers' technical competence, fears and anxieties about technology, WebCT and PE. Developing mentoring between year groups needs to be carefully considered and nurtured, as it does not simply occur by providing the vehicle for student interaction. This evaluation showed that success of PE WebCT sites  relies on commitment by academics and PE supervisors, pre placement WebCT training of pre-service teachers and continual up dating of information on WebCT sites.

The site designers were successful in applying for a Sydney e-learning grant in 2007 and 2008 and sites were re-designed in line with students' evaluation of the UoS and WebCT feedback. The re-design of the sites included results of this evaluation so that the students experience an authenticity of e-learning. The authors would like to thank the Sydney eLearning team who have provided invaluable support and advice.

Authors Note: The authors wish to acknowledge A/Prof Jennifer O'Dea for the original concepts surrounding this evaluation.


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