The Learning Circle process has 6 major phases:

Getting Ready,
Opening the Circle,
Planning Learning Circle Projects,
Exchange of Student Work,
Organizing the Circle Publication/Project, Closing the Circle.

Global Learning Circles

Supporting Global Learning Circles

Barry Kramer
Increasing Participation during 2015-2016
Online Collaborative Projects provide teachers and students with great opportunities to experience other cultures.  Through online interactions they learn about each other and work together to accomplish common goals.  When this process works it is a very rewarding and satisfying experience for all involved.  When it does not work, it can often lead to frustration.  There is some research that attempts to understand why teachers and students drop out of their commitments to online collaboration.  I am aware of this research, but I would like to look at the specific project that I coordinate in order to determine how I can encourage greater rates of participation and prevent drop out among the participants.  I would like to identify and develop some specific strategies that support teachers and students and encourage them to continue with the project to the very end.
 My Role in Facilitating Action Research 

Each year I facilitate the iEARN Global Learning Project.  Each session of Learning Circles, I have between 100 -125 teachers who register for projects.  Over the past few years, the number of registrants has been fairly consistent.   At each stage of the process there is a drop off among participants.  Some of this is definitely due to technical problems.  Some teachers have problems with their email addresses and cannot receive messages from the other participants.  Others find that group messages from the iEARN server are blocked by school filtering software.  It is not clear why other participants drop out in the process.  A few teachers will notify me that they are dropping out because the commitment was more than they anticipated.  Others have notified me that their job responsibilities have changed and they no longer have a class of students to participate.  I expect these problems to occur.  What I am attempting to do is address those teachers who mysteriously become silent and disappear from the process.

The Learning Circle process has 6 major phases: Getting Ready, Opening the Circle, Planning Learning Circle Projects, Exchange of Student Work, Organizing the Circle Publication/Project, Closing the Circle.  I often regroup these phases into two major categories which I have called the cultural exchange of information and the project work phase.  It has been my experience that the greatest number of participants drop out after the cultural exchange of information.  This is not surprising to me because my past doctoral research found that the primary reason teachers engage their classrooms in online projects is to provide their students with some the of cultural exchange experience.  The satisfaction of accomplishing collaborative project work was much further down on the list of hoped for outcomes even when teachers enrolled their students in a project whose end goal was a finished collaborative project.  In Learning Circles, the largest drop off appears when teachers and students get to the phase where they have to mutually develop project ideas.  The task involves discussion and negotiation.  It also involves teachers having to examine their own curriculums and develop projects that will help them to accomplish their own local educational goals.  It is definitely one of the most difficult tasks of the project.  In the past, I have had teachers who have written to me and expressed that they did not know what they wanted to ask other schools. I have known that this part of the process is difficult for some participants.

In order to help with this process, I publish a lengthy list of past project examples to give the participants an idea of successful past projects.  I encourage the participants to use these project for guidance and inspiration.  I also tell them that they are welcome to borrow past projects and modify them for their own use.  In addition, I also provide the participants with a template outline they can fill in to help them address all the critical parts of writing up a project idea. 

Some teachers begin to develop a project, but do not finish.  Other teachers do not submit a project.  Most teachers who submit a project, do follow through by exchanging students work and then putting together some type of final publication/project.

Research Goal
My goal is to increase the retention rate of participants at each phase of the Learning Circle process.  I also want to make this a more rewarding experience for teachers. 


Taking Action Cycle 1: Increasing Initial Participation 

In order to increase participation, I began to implement some strategies during the January to May 2016 session of Learning Circles.  My first goal was to attempt to get as many teachers as possible to confirm their initial registration.  Teachers began to register for this session of Learning Circles in early December.  The registration process continued through to the end of January.  In order to get teachers to register, I advertise in the iEARN NewsFlash and on the main page of the Collaboration Centre.  I also ask iEARN to put a notice on the main iEARN-US Web page.  If I do not get enough registrants through these measures, I then begin to send email messages to all participants from the past two years.  

In the past, one of the biggest areas of frustration for Learning Circle participants is that members of the Circle start to participate, but drop out in the early phases.  Usually they just stop communicating and seem to mysteriously disappear. 

Research Question:  If I personally shared expectations of participation with teachers through an email exchange, how would this effect their online presense in the learning circles during the first week. 

In accomplish this, I emailed a letter to each prospective participant that detailed the timeline and participation requirements for the participants.  I emphasize the need to be a serious participant who does not drop. out.  In the past, I had lost about 25% of  the initial registered participants. Since I have been using this process the return participants are familiar with this process and respond well to it.  The process also seems to help create a body of participants who are more committed to the process and work to finish the project.  In addition, it also allows me to collect information about the participants school, city, country, and the exact age level of their student group.  Often the information that is in the iEARN database is incorrect.  I also allow the participants to make last minute changes on their project choice.  For this session, I made some changes to the letter and followed up with the participants who did not respond quickly. 

Outcome: 

Of the 107 participants who signed up for the project, 99 responded fora confirmation rate of 92.9%.  This was considerably higher than in past sessions.  I know very little about the 8 participants did not respond to me, but 3 seemed to have incorrect email addresses in the iEARN database.  The other 5 did not respond to any of my attempts to reach them by email.  Screening has become an important part of the process of building a strong team of participants who know what they are getting into and are committed to finishing the process to the end.

Reflection: 






An idea I had was to send messages to the iEARN Country Coordinators, asking them to send a messages to the iEARN teachers in their country network.

Cycle 2: Facilitating Teacher Introductions


The next phase of Learning Circles is getting all the teachers to introduce themselves to their groups by posting a Teacher Introduction message.  I do give the teachers some basic information on what to include in their messages.  In general, I want the teachers to practice posting messages in the forums by posting their first message about themselves. 

In this cycle I decided to be very specific about how to send the wlecome message. 

Research question:  If I provided more specific instruction through email to the teachers, how will this affect the number of people who post their welcome message at the beginning of the circle interaction. 


These are the instructions that I decided to send to help facilitate opening the circle:

“Right now, you may be wondering what you should do?  During this first week, we test the forums and message distribution system.  The best way to do this is to post a message and introduce yourself.  Be creative, tell everyone about your school, students, and share some of your personal life.  You may also attach a picture or anything else that you think helps us to know you better. The goal this week is for every teacher to say “Hello” and talk a little about yourself. It is also a good opportunity to talk about your goals for the project, your interests, and any concerns you may have. Please remember to say ‘Hello” to your facilitator. You are also very welcome and encouraged to respond to the messages that other teachers send by 'Adding A Comment.'"

Outcomes:

Of the 92 teachers who confirmed their registration status, 91 teachers posted a message about themselves.  The one teacher who did not post a message was an elementary school teacher who did not communicate for the rest of the project.  I was very pleased with this phase.  My next goal for this task is to encourage the teachers to write more about themselves, their personal teaching, and their goals for the project.

Reflection: 




I took suggestions from the iEARN Action Research Group and was given ideas on starting this process before the first week of Learning Circles.  In the 2016 Fall session, I plan to provide the teachers with more instruction on this step in my first group communication letter called Circle News 1.  This message is sent to every individual teacher a week before the forum Circles open for communication.

Cycle 3: Completion of the Classroom Survey 


The next task for the teacher participants in Learning Circles is for them to organize their student teams in order to complete a Class Survey.  For this task, I sent each teacher a standard template that asked each group of students to share their class favorites, information about their school, and information about their community.  In the past the classroom survey has included adding their project idea.  Since this is a task that needs more time and may cause teachers to not post the survey, for this session I removed it from the survey. 

Research Question: If I remove the section on posting a project idea from the survey, how will this affect the timing of the posting of the surveys in the circle. 

The reason I do not ask the students to include information about their idea for sponsoring a project is that I think this is keeping teachers from posting the completed survey.   I separated project planning from the getting to know each other.    I  encouraged teachers and students to use the Class Survey template as a starting point.  In my weekly message, I encouraged teachers and students to share their surveys as quickly as possible. 

“Now it is time for you and your students to put together your Class Surveys.  There are many different ways to send your Class Survey.  The purpose of this task is for your students to share some information about themselves, their school, and their community.  Please remember that the survey is all about your students.  Please allow them to fill it out – it is not about what teachers think – it’s about your students.  You can send your information in any cross platform presentation that you wish. Please remember, that this template is a starting point for your students to share cultural information.  You are free to add to it and be as creative as you wish.  In the past, some schools have added additional information, included pictures, created PowerPoints, produced movies, and even recorded podcasts!  The limit is your time and creativity.”

Outcome:

I have found that schools take anywhere from one to four weeks to complete the survey with most schools taking an average of about two weeks.​ I have also had some success with schools submitting their Class Surveys in different formats.  About 10% of the schools will use either a PowerPoint Presentation, digital Slide Show, a Prezi, or a movie.  Increasingly teachers and students have been posting these online at sites such as YouTube.  When surveys are submitted this way, I make an attempt to feature them in weekly newsletters and on the Learning Circles Twitter feed.

For the Class Survey phase of Learning Circles 79 out of 91 teachers submitted a survey in behalf of their students for a completion rate of 86.8%  At this point I thought that I had 79 active teachers and classrooms, but later I would find out that 3 teachers who did not submit a survey (and who I assumed had dropped out) did submit a project idea for the next phase of Learning Circles. 

Reflection: 
My attempt to find ways to encourage more schools to complete the survey has been challenging.  It is not always clear why schools do not complete the surveys.  Some teachers appear to find the classroom favorites section a trivial part of the process and elect to not have their classes participate.  Other teachers take the school and community section and make this a part of the project idea.  They interpret the project to be a cultural sharing of their school and community and do not make an attempt to submit a project idea that is collaborative in nature.
Cycle 4: Fostering Project Development 

The transition from the Class Survey to the Project Idea phase has always been the most difficult part of Learning Circles.  Teachers and students who complete both generally seem to follow through and complete the project to the end. Schools that struggle with these two phases often end their participation at this point.  Also, some teachers and students did not pick up on the instructions that encourage them to seek out information that is inclusive and collaborative.  Some are content simply to share their area of the world.  Because some schools take more than two weeks to complete the survey, they begin to fall behind and do not share in the discussion on developing project ideas.  

The final area of Learning Circles that I focused on for this research was attempting to get as many teachers as possible to submit a Project Idea for their Learning Circle group.  I wanted to encourage the teachers and students to make their projects collaborative in nature, but I did not deal with that in a direct way during this session.  I did address it indirectly by promoting it through my weekly messages, a list of project examples I sent to all teachers, and by providing direct feedback to some teachers who sent their Project Ideas to me to look over.  I have always found this phase of Learning Circles to be the most challenging.  I ask teachers and students to have online discussions about Project Ideas, but realistically very few discuss their projects online.  Even when facilitators initiate discussions, the teachers are reluctant to discuss project ideas online.


In order to get teachers to focus on projects, I provided two Circle News messages and two weekly messages.  

This is the text of the message I sent to teachers:

“Your project should be collaborative in nature and should encourage collaboration and sharing between everyone in your group.  Each school should develop your own very specific Project Idea (unless your group is developing a list of common projects). This request should describe your project. Your request should also give instructions to the other members of the group on what you are looking for. If you want the rest of the group to write about a topic you should give clear instructions and possibly writing prompts. The clearer your request the easier it will be for everyone to provide you with information."

"The commitment is for every school to provide information for every request. It is not necessary for every student in your class to write for every request, you may reply as a class or you may have specific students reply to a request. The management of your student team is up to you. Also, if your students come up with a clever solution or modification to a project please run it by and share it with the school that made the request. This collaborative phase of Learning Circles is your opportunity to allow your students to creatively engage in project work. It should be student inspired, student created, and student managed as much as possible. Above all, it should be fun for them. Please remember that your own school should also contribute to your own project.”


My primary method to encourage teachers to submit a Project Idea were to provide instruction on how to write Project Ideas.  In order to do this, I used two Circle News messages that contained links to the online Teacher’s Guide to Learning Circles.  I also provided teachers and students with a lengthy list of actual projects that teachers have written in the past.  I suggested to teachers that if they were having difficulty coming up with their own ideas, they could allow themselves to either be inspired, borrow, or modify one of these project ideas.  In addition to this, I provided all the teachers with Project Idea template they could fill out to help them become comfortable with major items they should provide to the other participants.  Lastly, I encouraged the group facilitators to post their Project Ideas as soon as possible to provide a model for the other participants.

Outcome:
At this point, I thought I had 78 teachers who were still very active and committed to following through with the remaining phases of Learning Circles.  I had one teacher who notified me that she would not be able to continue past the Class Survey phase.  Of this 78 teachers, 25 teachers were participating in the My Hero Circle projects.  These Circles have a pre-established set of project choices.  Of the remaining 53 teachers, 42 teachers presented a Project Idea.  Of the remaining teachers, 79.2% submitted a project.  

Of the 42 teachers who submitted a Project Idea, 41 teachers actually completed their project and submitted some type of publication or project.  Of the 25 teachers who participate in My Hero, 15 teachers submitted a final My Hero Project.

Reflection

After this point, it was difficult to monitor the interactions between teachers and students across all the groups.  Prior to the Project Idea phase, I created Student forums for student discussions.  The interactions between teachers decreased, but there was more discussion and interaction among students.

Final Reflection
The rest of your reflection goes here. 
Faciltating Learning Circles is a on-going challenge.  Each year I reflect on the process and use the outcomes to help me think more deeply about how to manage the project in the coming years.