Editor’s Note: This study shows how email communication was used to integrate multi-lingual part-time and full-time faculty from different cultures and backgrounds into a cohesive social learning organization.
Developing Collegiality and Collaboration
Full-time (14) rt-time (23)
Holding an MA in English 8 8
Holding an BA in English 2 15
Holding an MA in Arabic 4 ------
The dynamics and power relations between all the teachers are worth considering. The first distinction that is usually made is between full-time and part-time teachers. The English teachers holding a M.A. degree as well as the Arabic teachers are full-time and have a particular and higher status at the college compared to the experienced English high school teachers or other university teachers having a M.A. degree in English but who serve as part-time teachers. Interaction between them is minimal, especially the high school teachers who lack the theoretical knowledge of the full-time English teachers. The second interesting power relationship is between the full-time English teachers and Arabic teachers who despite the fact that they all hold a M.A. degree and are full-time do not have equal weight in the decision making process of the department. The English teachers feel in control of power because they teach English in an English Department while the Arabic teachers feel marginalized because they teach in Arabic in an English Department and do not speak the language of specialization. However, because of the language planning policy in Algeria that values Arabicization policy (i.e., the exclusive use of Arabic as the official language of administration and instruction), the Arabic teachers have more power on a political level (for a thorough discussion of the language situation in Algeria, c.f. Benrabah, 2007). This said, it is clear that teacher collegiality at the Teacher Training College has not been developed and barely exists.
Being conscious of all the dynamics of the teachers’ relationship in the department and being myself a teacher with them and Head of the English Department, I set as an objective to promote teacher collegiality among all the teachers of the English Department by fostering communication between them via email. I basically based all my communication with them on email exchanges, and urged them to respond by email. However, I did consider a priori the place of technology in this particular context.
In Algeria, technology is not part of the society’s culture at large, let alone the school culture. However, as a developing country, the Algerian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research has installed labs equipped with computers and connected to the internet in all the institutions of higher education. In the Teacher Training College, for instance, one lab is reserved for graduate and undergraduate students; and another one for teachers and teacher educators with daily free access. However, using Internet technology by many teachers and teacher educators has not been a common practice because of many barriers to which I will come back later in this paper. Besides, although the first use of Internet technology we may think of is email, many Algerian English teachers and teacher educators even by 2007 did not have an email account or, if they had one, did not use it regularly for many reasons. The first reason teachers and teacher educators, not only English ones, put forward is lack of access to the Internet. Many of them either did not possess a computer or, if they did, were not connected to the Internet. The connection fees were far beyond their reach and even the quality of the Internet connection was not that good. It is worth noting however that during 2008-2009, the Ministry of Telecommunications has launched a program whereby each family was supposed to acquire a laptop and an Internet connection via financing. This ambitious program was not very successful for a multitude of reasons which are beyond the scope of this paper. As such then, English teachers and teacher educators in the English Department, except a few, did not have much access to Internet and hence were not accustomed to use email.
In this study I shall analyze the content of the email exchanges I had as Head of the English Department with my colleagues, i.e. all the teacher educators who have responded to my emails in order to investigate how emails are used and what functions they fulfill. I selected this college because of my affiliation to it on the one hand, and because of my five years varied experience there in teaching, and in pedagogical and administrative responsibilities. I have noticed that English teacher educators like many other teachers have usually been socialized in isolation. Ferrell (2007) states that:
Since the day they started to teach, teachers have been socialized to work in isolation from their colleagues and this has led to feelings of insecurity because teachers may be afraid to share their experiences with other teachers for fear of being ‘exposed’. (p. 120)
On the one hand, no institutional professional development is offered to them, and on the other hand they did not for one reason or another develop professional spaces for themselves even virtually to collaborate in as a community of practice (Wenger, 1998). I strongly believed that we needed “to break out of the shells of isolation separating teachers from their colleagues as well as from teacher educators” (Oprandy, Golden and Shiomi, 1999, p. 152). I am referring to both teachers and teacher educators because the latter are full-time and the former are part-time and are either experienced English secondary school teachers or University teachers serving in other institutions. They occasionally meet at the college given that they teach only six hours a week there. Although they have to report to the Head of the Department, they can terminate their contract without previous notice because there is no clause in their part-time contract that makes them liable to the college’s administration. They do not feel as responsible to the college as they do to their primary institutions and frequently stay at the periphery of everything that is happening at the department even if it has a direct incidence on their pedagogical practices. Communication between the faculty members was not always fluid. There were many power relation issues involved that made collaboration hard to achieve. Without communication, or with poor communication, access to information is delayed or denied. Email exchanges were one means to keep communication ongoing, imparting the seeds for a prospective collaboration especially if teacher educators are welcomed to use emails exchanges as a channel for receiving information, asking for feedback, or proposing any ideas that could enhance the pedagogical practices of the English Department.
Baylor and Ritchie (2002, p. 398) argue that “regardless of the amount of technology and its sophistication, technology will not be used unless faculty members have the skills, knowledge and attitudes necessary to infuse it into the curriculum”. When I was appointed Head of the English Department, I planned to break this isolation by driving all the teachers to use email exchanges as a means of communication to be informed of what is going on administratively, and more important, pedagogically. Performing the role of administrator made me feel the urgency of having a well-functioning department that ensures good teaching and training. However, having been myself a teacher and continuing to teach while I was holding this administrative position made me reflect on what process can lead to this end-product. Surely, email is the most used Internet application but its purpose goes well beyond communicating. The study of Bowman, Boyle, Greenstone, Herndon, and Valente (2000) showed that networking using email between teachers was not only conducive to collaboration but it gave teachers an opportunity for professional development. They found that teachers in the group, i.e.” ingroup” members, gained “a rich treasury of teaching ideas through the responses of group members to [their] own and others’ questions” which helped them solve many of the problems they were facing in their teaching. A participant teacher in their study reported on the use of email stating that:
Through sharing our challenges with understanding colleagues and receiving advice and support, we find ourselves no longer merely struggling with teaching problems, but facing exciting professional challenges with renewed energy and optimism. (Bowman et al., 2000, p. 18)
Many studies showed the advantages of using email exchanges in teaching both for distance education and for traditional classroom-based instruction (Huang, 2001). Other studies looked at the use of email between students and instructors (Hassini, 2006), while no study dealt with the use of email between colleague teachers, particularly in the Algerian context. As a matter of fact, in this study I will be looking at how email exchanges are used between colleague teachers and what purposes they fulfill. Do email exchanges lead to more collegiality and collaboration between novice and experienced teachers? In other words, the underlying belief of this study is that getting teachers to communicate with each other using email exchanges will help them develop collegiality, collaborate and co-construct knowledge together in order to promote a healthy environment for teaching and learning.
In the field of social psychology, Allport (1954) was the first one to propose the ‘contact hypothesis’ which has later been taken over and elaborated by other scholars. The “contact hypothesis” is also known as Intergroup Contact Theory. It states that under appropriate conditions interpersonal contact reduces interracial prejudice between majority and minority group members and enhances tolerance. In other words, the ‘contact hypothesis’ accounts for the nature and impact of contact between intergroup members, i.e. members of a particular group may have with each other and with outgroup members that do not belong to their group. Allport (1954) argued that contact between members of opposing groups can have a positive impact on their feelings and behavior if optimal conditions for successful contact are provided. These optimal conditions are program support by authority, although it is important that group members volunteer; equal status of participants such as role assignments; cooperation between members across groups; and individualized contact between group members that may lead to and develop friendships. Furthermore, Stephan and Stephan (1984) were more explicit in detailing the benefits of intergroup interaction which can only take place when contact happens between the group members. Stephen and Stephen (1984) argue that, thanks to the information exchange that happens between the group members, intergroup anxiety is lowered and a better understanding of outgroup members is gained.
I adjusted the original ‘contact hypothesis’ so to satisfy the goal of my study. First, I considered groups not as a large social group representing a particular race or ethnicity, but as a group of professionals working together in the same institution, assigned the same role, but having unequal official status that replaces the racial or ethnic difference in Allport’s original. Second, I narrowed the concept of contact since I conceive of it as contact between teachers within two subgroups which are the group of full-time English teachers and part-time English secondary school teachers and not as contact between different ethnic groups. The optimal conditions for the modified version of the ‘contact hypothesis” are institutional support represented by me as Head of the English Department inviting teachers to use email for their daily professional communication and communicating with them by email. Equal status was ensured by involving all the teachers whether they are full-time or part-time, English teachers or Arabic teachers, holding a M.A. degree or a B.A. degree, as long as they are assigned the same role which is teaching in the English Department. Cooperation between teachers was the focus of using email for communication. Some individual friendships already existed because many teachers taught together for many years in the same institution or studied together at the university. I believed this was an element that has to be exploited in assigning teachers to help other novice teachers.
Crisp and Turner (2009) elaborated the Contact Hypothesis original model and proposed a framework for imagined interactions in a simulated social contact. They reported results of empirical research that support their claim that imagining interactions between group members can yield to more positive perceptions. This is another venue to investigate for future studies in the Algerian context but instead of relying exclusively on purely imagined contact, we can opt for more virtual contact using different kinds of electronic communications such as social networks, blogs and wikis. Having discussed those hypotheses, it should be noted that there are some barriers to the use of email technology in the Algerian context to which I will turn in the next section.
In a review of the research literature on barriers to the uptake of Information and Communication Technology by teachers in England, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA, 2004) summed up the actual and perceived barriers by teachers as follows. First, teachers’ “level of confidence in using the technology”; second, “there is a close relationship between levels of confidence and many other issues which themselves can be considered as barriers to Information and Communication Technology. For example, levels of confidence and therefore levels of Information and Communication Technology use are directly affected by the amount of personal access to Information and Communication Technology that a teacher has”. Third, level of use of Information and Communication Technology is related to level of access to it although appropriate organization, even of limited access, is important to secure access to all users. Fourth, teachers’ use of Information and Communication Technology is also related to inappropriate training, lack of time, or technical IT support. In addition to teachers’ resistance to change, Becta (2004) reports teachers not realizing the advantages of using technology, age and gender which I personally think are not of much significant. We should keep in mind that there is no clear distinction how barriers influence each other and overlap.
Cuban (1993) identifies first- and second-order barriers to change that are faced by teachers. The first-order barriers are internal and intrinsic to the teacher and the second-order barriers are external and extrinsic to the teacher. Other studies focused on the success of using Information and Communication Technology tools in academic settings (Ilomaki and Lakkala, 2004). However, in Algeria we are lagging behind for two main reasons. I refer primarily to the Algiers’ Teacher Training College in the Humanities and Social Sciences, but this situation applies to other academic institutional contexts where these barriers are first, access to and availability of Information and Communication Technology, and second, judicious and optimal use of it because of lack of knowledge or training to use it.
In the context of this study, the barriers teachers face in using Information and Communication Technology and more specifically email are first-order barriers that are external. These are mainly lack of access to technology, lack of training to master or to use technology, and / or lack of technical support. These barriers can be considered mostly institutionally related in case the teacher relies exclusively on the college to have access to the Internet. Figure 1 summarizes these first-order barriers to use the Internet.
Second-order barriers to using the Internet are related to the teacher (herself/himself). First, the teacher may not have access to the Internet at home either because the subscription fee is expensive or does not have a landline at home. These are material problems. Second, the teacher might be reluctant to use the Internet at the college because the teacher is not comfortable asking IT technicians or colleagues in the computer lab for help. Third, the teacher may not be motivated to keep using the Internet. In other words, there is a kind of internet use sustainability crisis whereby the teacher uses the Internet occasionally and fail to keep using it as a tool and resource for teaching because they fail to realize how useful email technology can be in second language teaching (Huang, 2001). Figure 2 summarizes the second-order barriers to use the Internet.
Despite the above mentioned barriers, one has to keep in mind that email technology is principally a communication technology and that when face-to-face communication fails for one reason or another, communicating by email can be a remedy for such inhibition or uneasiness in communicating face-to-face. In other words, email exchanges can create the contact that we fail to have in face-to-face encounters.
Hence, this study seeks to make a content analysis of the email exchanges, mainly the topics discussed and the purposes they fulfill for both teachers and teacher educators across a period of six months. Two basic research questions guide this study:
Do email exchanges between teacher educators lead to more contact and promote teacher collegiality?
What purposes do email exchanges fulfill?
The participants of the current study were all Algerian English teacher educators working in the English Department of the Teacher Training College of Algiers as full-time or part-time teachers or experienced high school English teachers who work there as part-time teachers under a contract. It is worth mentioning here that all the email exchanges I had with the faculty members of the English Department were used as data that make the basis of this study. I used email exchanges with most teachers to varying degrees, depending on how much access they had to the Internet, except one teacher who did not use email and Internet. She was somehow “technophobic”. Thus, the total number of participants in this study is thirty-six unless otherwise mentioned.
It is also worth noting that these teachers were not accustomed to use email for their professional and even personal communication. When this study was conducted, I was serving as an English teacher educator and Head of the English Department. I encouraged and pushed my colleague teachers to use email to communicate. The content of these email exchanges are analyzed in the scope of this study except those dealing with personal issues. For instance, I can count how many emails were sent to report on an illness, but not what type of illness it was.
The first step in this study was making an inventory of teachers’ access to Information and Communication Technology. Table 2 summarizes the baseline data of this inventory.
English teachers (13) English teachers (23)
Own a computer 13 10
Have internet at home 5 8
Possess an email account 10 8
Use email 5 4
All the full-time English teachers possess a computer at home and have an email account except one. However, less than half of the total teachers have Internet connection at home and use email to communicate occasionally except 2 who use it on a daily basis. Further, of the 23 part-time English teachers, 10 possessed a computer at home and only 8 had internet access at home. However, while 8 possess an email account, only 4 occasionally use it. The second step was asking and assisting all teachers to create an email account, and to urge them to use it for professional communication with the department so as to save time. Teachers were also encouraged to use the computer lab that was next door to the English department. During the first month, 10 full-time English teachers were using their already existing or newly created email account. For the part-time teachers, we moved from occasional use by 4 teachers to 13.
The email exchanges I had as Head of the English Department with my full-time and part-time colleague teachers were used as data for this study. Other emails they exchanged between each other and where they copied me over a six months period were also analyzed. Most email exchanges were informative or descriptive of the actions I took on an administrative level such as program changes, scheduling exams, conferences, guest speaker talks, visits of officials from British Council Algeria or the U.S. Embassy Education and Cultural Officer, assigning one full-time experienced English teacher to make sure the part-time secondary teachers who taught the same course as s/he does stick to the department’s overall program, or any other actions I intended to take or simply proposed to my colleague teachers for feedback and / or prospective amendments because I wanted to cultivate an interactional management of the English Department.
Table 3 summarizes the total number of email exchanges and the purposes of the communication.
The email exchanges I had with my colleague English teachers were further analyzed. In other words, I looked closely at the emails I received as a reply to the emails I sent in each category and analyzed how many were a mere answer to my topic and how many contained subject matters that were not part of the original email I sent. Often, teachers replied to my emails making new propositions I was not expecting. For instance, in a reply to an invitation for a guest-speaker’s talk, they would invite colleagues to another talk offered in another institution that tackles another topic that is completely different from the one I invited them to but which is still relevant to our specialization. As such then, other teachers frequently had to attend events in other institutions of higher education that I believe was an alternative for the professional development they could not have at the college. Table 4 shows the total number of emails teachers sent me and which was either a reply to the content of my email or proposing something completely new.
Purpose of the Email Number of emails I sent out Number sent by teachers
Program change 200 60
Exam schedule 180 55
Conference announcement 54 60
Guest-speaker talk 253 160
Official visit 20 7
Coordinating courses 69 70
Graduate program proposal 50 45
National educational program reform 45 60
Greetings on special occasions 138 189
External projects 69 30
Invitations to propose changes in 320 160
in the Department
Emails teachers sent as Emails teachers sent
Program change 20 40
Exam schedule 40 15
Conference announcement 25 35
Guest-speaker talk 85 75
Official visit 6 1
Coordinating courses 20 50
Graduate program proposal 10 35
National educational program reforms 5 55
Greetings on special occasions 179 10
External projects 10 20
Proposing changes in the Department 55 105
During the six months period, a total of 55 emails teachers sent were disregarded because they were personal emails whereby teachers either sent some jokes or wrote about personal issues that had no direct incidence on their teaching and were mostly related to their private life. For ethical reasons, I disregarded them given the fact that they requested me prior to the study not to disclose any of their emails of a private nature. 15 emails were explaining personal problems related to their health conditions or private life which caused them either to be late for their classes or be absent.
The content analysis of the email exchanged revealed that the majority of the emails have been initiated by the Head of the Department. This is an expected finding given the fact that I intended to encourage my colleague teachers to use email and as such then had to use it extensively. Nearly half of the emails (45.89%) my colleague teachers sent to me and other colleagues were because they usually copy all the teachers on their emails. This clearly shows that they were using emails in a generative way. As such I personally think that a traditional and generative model of email exchanges can best illustrate this change of behavior in using emails. Figure 3 and 4 show clearly the results of this study in two proposed models.
In figure 3, the arrows originating from the teachers represent the replies they send and which were, for instance, either a consent that they agree to adhere to the program changes in terms of changing a course’s content or reorienting it to fit the needs of students. For exam schedules they had to acknowledge receipt of their respective schedules to invigilate the exams and, by the same token, commit themselves to invigilate. For conference announcements and guest-speaker talks, they usually reply by confirming attendance or apologizing. As far as coordinating courses, proposing reforms of the programs and external projects, they generally request further clarifications. However, for religious and national celebrations only a few would respond because they generally do not access the Internet during such occasions because of their social commitments especially for religious feasts.
Figure 4, on the other hand shows clearly how teachers took the initiative to email each other and how the original sent email had an activating effect on them. For instance, for almost all the categories of emails exchanged (i.e. program change, exam schedule, conference announcement, guest-speaker talk, official visit, coordinating courses, graduate program proposal, national educational programs reforms, external projects, and proposing changes in the Department), they replied with more emails that made further propositions, more thoughtful reflections, deep analyses that reflect their expertise in the field, relating their personal lived experiences as former language learners and present language teachers, and sharing the teaching materials they used or created and which were successful with their students. In what follows, I will report on three rubrics that were recurrent and consistent in their email exchanges and use some emails that I randomly selected from the pool of emails in each category. I used pseudonyms for the sake of confidentiality.
These were emails exchanged in a friendly tone. They were meant to introduce oneself to each other. Below is a sample.
I’m Sara from Elbiar High School. I’m teaching two groups a writing course. I’d like to meet with you so that we can know each other and maybe work the syllabus together.
Take care and see you very soon. (Raja, email dated 01/6/2008)
In fact, such friendly emails were very common, especially at the beginning of the semester, and at religious feasts and during holidays.
This email was sent as a reply to a previously sent email where I raised the problem we had at the English department with respect to the low performance of freshman students in the writing course. A colleague wrote:
You know what; I was thinking why don’t we arrange something like having fourth and fifth year students helping the first and second year students in the writing classes. (Lamia, email dated 02/28/2008)
In fact, this email from a full-time teacher suggests that she thought over the idea I raised and responded in a very creative way. In the Algerian context, we do not have the idea of peer-tutoring. Her email is valuable in the sense that she is proposing a new, innovative way to deal with the poor performance of the students.
In another email, I found a high school teacher proposing to share a new in a course taught by a full-time teacher. She used project based learning (PBL) successfully in her high school and thinks using PBL will be useful in the methodology class.
Thanks, glad to hear that. In fact, I’ve been working on a project with my colleagues in the lycee. I’ll bring the project to class next week and I think you can just do the same thing with your students in the Methodology class. (Salim, 03/14/2008)
In this excerpt of an email sent by a full-time teacher, she analyses the real reasons for a student’s poor performance in writing.
I think we are turning in a vicious circle. I believe that our students’ writing skills will never improve if we continue to teach this way. You should know that the fact that they take 3 to 4 classes in Arabic and that the grades they got in these courses count in the average means, they can still have very poor grades in grammar and writing and pass. I think we should not include the grades of the Arabic classes but just consider them as a pre-requisite. (Lynda, 05/20/2008)
Indeed, the proposition this teacher made was considered further in a national seminar to revise the courses we taught as part of English initial teacher education.
Hence, experienced high school teachers had a wealth of knowledge to share and to add to the theoretical component that teacher educators possessed. This is a very important contribution because most full-time English teachers holding a M.A. degree never taught in a high school or junior high teacher and thus lack a practical aspect that was brought to them thanks to the contact created and generated by email exchanges with the English high school teachers. The prejudice, animosity, and apprehension the different teachers had vis-à-vis with each other were overcome thanks to the emails they exchanged with each other.
The present study investigated the change in behavior of teachers’ purposes in using email exchanges. It more specifically looked at whether or not email exchanges will create more contact between teachers and help them promote more collaboration and knowledge co-construction. The method of content analysis used has proved to elicit meaningful data that helped in answering the questions I set forth to answer. However, although the results of the present study are important as a first exploratory attempt in investigating the use of Information and Communication Technology by Algerian English teacher trainers, namely email technology, it would have been more judicious to use triangulation of data by using a follow up questionnaire or interviews to gain further and deeper insights into the teachers reflections about the use of email exchanges. Hence, I think that follow-up studies are necessary. First, further studies can look at the use of other Information and Communication Technology such as blogs. Second, future studies should investigate teachers’ initiatives in using these technologies for their own professional development and then with their student teachers given that the context of the study is a teacher training college. Finally, it can even be useful and sound to replicate the same studies with the student teachers as English teachers to be and investigate what uses they can do with technology because they tend to be more accustomed to Information and Communication Technology.
Additionally, another important aspect that was revealed from this study is the need to offer a technology seminar for teachers in order to get them to use technology. Teachers, frequently argue that they do not use technology because they have not mastered it. Hence, seminars in the use of technology in teaching will be designed depending on the number and needs of teachers. Furthermore, it is also recommended to incorporate a technology course in the curriculum for teacher training. This way, even the student teachers will be better equipped to use technology in their future practice.
This study revealed that the email exchanges between a cohort of English teachers and teacher educators in a Teacher Training College in Algeria have created a functioning teaching and monitoring network. The most important outcome of such exchanges is the creation of a virtual community that created more contact between them and facilitated communication and exchange. The generative dynamic character of the emails they sent each other helped in creating a healthy atmosphere that was conducive to more collaboration between experienced and novice teachers and revealed that teachers, whether they deal with theory or practice, have a lot to share with each other and to contribute to build knowledge. In other words, no matter where the teacher stands, no matter what his credentials are, all teachers can come together and co-construct knowledge with each other. In this line of thought then, it is legitimate to consider such email exchanges as a virtual ongoing training component in which teachers were constantly encouraged to share their practical experiences and professional challenges inside and outside the classroom and to help their colleagues to benefit from them.
Finally, it is worth noting that the research questions I posed in this study were: do email exchanges between teacher educators lead to more contact that promotes teacher collegiality? And what purposes do email exchanges fulfill? And that by attempting to answer these questions, I wanted to contribute to the discussion revolving around the use of Information and Communication Technology in language teaching. The answer I reached is that using email technology creates a venue for teachers to communicate with each other, to develop professionally, and to mentor each other. Further research may be needed to check whether the collegiality and collaboration these teachers developed was sustained or not.
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Hayat Messekher is an English teacher and teacher educator at the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Algiers, Algeria. Her research interests include teacher education, TEFL, narrative inquiry and critical pedagogy, culture and identity, and power and ethics in language teaching.