Virtual praxis: Constraints, approaches, and innovations of online creative arts teacher educators

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Published: 
October 2020

Source: Teaching and Teacher Education. 2020, Vol. 95

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This qualitative study presents the perspectives and experiences of eight creative arts academics, including the author, in teacher education programs across Australia, to understand how various academics navigate the challenges and opportunities of facilitating online arts learning for pre-service teachers, and how their respective experiences may help to form a more comprehensive understanding of the problem, and generate insight into the strategies and innovations employed in facilitating online arts learning in Australian Higher Education.
The following question guided the research:
How do tertiary arts educators facilitate online learning in the creative arts?
This overarching question was investigated more specifically by asking:
- What do arts educators believe are the enablers/inhibitors of teaching the arts online?
- What strategies have academics employed in teaching the arts online?

Methodology and methods
In this research, the author utilized a qualitative approach to gain nuanced insights into how participating academics approached the facilitation of online arts coursework in Australian teacher education programs. Semi-structured, 1-h interviews were conducted with eight higher educators across seven Australian universities regarding their perspectives and experiences of facilitating online arts courses.
Given the author’s role as an arts education academic who facilitates online coursework, she engaged as a co-participant, recording her responses to the same questions posed to the participants.
Collectively, participants all represented former classroom educators, who possessed extensive background knowledge in one or more of the five curriculum art forms and who were currently delivering arts learning typically across all five art forms to pre-service teachers.
Guided by Engeström’s Activity Theory (2018), an interpretive analytic approach was undertaken. Interpretive analysis requires the researcher to engage with qualitative data as an active participant to give meaning to data.
In the context of this research, the “activity” was understood as teaching the arts to pre-service teachers online; the subject represented each participant in the study; the object referred to the tasks and learning situations the academics developed, and the tools included the technologies and pedagogical strategies used to facilitate learning.

Findings and discussion
Using Engeström’s (2018) Activity Theory as an analytical lens has provided a framework and language to describe key features of the participants’ approaches to online arts learning.
While subtle differences existed across the group, including the author’s own perspectives, there was nonetheless a strong sense of shared values and activity.
The author introduces a model which represents the findings, adapted from Engeström’s model.
This highlights how academics approach their work; how their personal and professional values inform their activity; how this is mediated by a range of technologies and pedagogical strategies; and how this interacts within a larger system of rules, culture and context.
The activity of facilitating rigorous arts training for pre-service educators was grounded in the subjects’ core values regarding the transformative power of the arts in education, which then translated into teaching goals that privileged authentic arts praxis and student engagement as a learning object.
Participants believed that pre-service teachers must experience authentic arts practice in order to enact it in their future classrooms.
However, opportunities for paraxial learning traditionally facilitated on-campus were significantly limited online.
In addition to praxis-focused learning, connecting personally and cognitively with students was a valued dimension of participants’ teaching activity to attain their object goal.
The possibility for genuine connections to be forged was evident, confirming a body of research that online learning has the potential for genuine student interactivity and interpersonal connection (Kahu & Nelson, 2017; Stone & O’Shea, 2019).
Nonetheless, engaging students interactively was noted as challenging by participants in this study, particularly for students who chose not to interact.
As such, collectively, the goals of authentic praxis and student interactivity necessitated a re-imagination of online pedagogy and innovative mediation via a range of tools.
Exploration of the mediating tools, which included the use of technologies and pedagogical strategies, highlighted that participants were approaching the “problem of praxis” creatively.
Learning tools such as online tutorials, forums, and multi-modal learning content were universally adopted, and these were enacted with a strong focus on engaging students in communities of learning and embedding opportunities for praxis.
The creative use of ubiquitous technologies (e.g. mobile phones) for sharing arts experiences - while not used by all - was an accessible means to engage learners as active participants in a larger, interactive online community of learners.
This study found that assessing arts learning experiences was notably successful in achieving both paraxial learning and student engagement.
Additionally, those who embedded experiences in authentic community contexts reported positive outcomes that students enjoyed and from which they benefited.
However again, these were considered productive only when mandated as assessment.
The utility of formal assessment online as a learning tool to stimulate meaningful integration of theory and practice has been previously affirmed (Allen et al., 2014; Davis, 2018; King, 2018; Lierse, 2015), and while these studies all highlight there are attendant challenges, the value for assessment in engaging students in praxis highlights these may be challenges worth experiencing and “working through”.
Finally, supporting elements of the academics’ activity, or division of labor, were identified. Supportive partnerships such as peer-mentoring and seeking advice from other academics with more extensive experience were useful strategies to guide practice, initiative innovation, and critically reflect on courses.
A number also raised the value of an online Community of Practice (CoP) with other online arts academics as a means to generate opportunities for targeted support and innovation.
Previous research has conclusively identified that both formal and informal online communities are a useful means to sustain quality professional practice and develop a culture of support (Lantz-Andersson, Lundin, & Selwyn, 2018), and as such, the formation of an online CoP is a key recommendation arising from this project for the ongoing development and enhancement to online learning.
Given that the arts educators in this study identified that they typically operated within an institutional culture that did not always value the arts, such a support community is considered of great importance. Importantly, seven participants (including the author) in this project have already commenced an online CoP, which is serving as a space for mutual encouragement and skill sharing.

Conclusion
Given the significant growth of online teacher education degrees, this project’s findings into the activity of teaching the arts online present insights into how arts educators are navigating the complexities, challenges and opportunities of this task.
Activity Theory has provided a means to map the activity of online arts educators to better understand how they are navigating their role and its attendant challenges, and how context impacts upon this.
This study demonstrates that the participating Australian online arts educators are vastly aware of the challenges, and intent upon finding ways to innovate upon their practice to develop opportunities for meaningful praxis.
This study highlights that one significant strategy used by some participants led to a more authentic paraxial engagement for their students: mandating practical arts learning experiences in assessment.
Not only has this finding led to a re-evaluation and adjustment of assessment tasks within the author’s own courses but is recommended more broadly as a means to ensure all online students can experience arts praxis as a foundation for the classroom.
Additionally, this study notes that such innovations often require innovative use of ubiquitous technologies.
Viewing the arts teaching practices of online educators through the lens of Activity Theory helps to identify that the success of such innovative strategies is not automatically guaranteed, and requires support, particularly at the institutional level, such as recognition for the time required in developing quality resources and student support, the provision and technical support of course-specific technologies, and access to targeted professional development.

References
Allen, J. M., Wright, S., & Innes, M. (2014). Pre-service visual art teachers’ perceptions of assessment in online learning. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(9), 1e17. 
Davis, S. (2018). Flexibility, constraints and creativity: Cultivating creativity in teacher education. In K. Snepvangers, P. Thomson, & A. Harris (Eds.), Creativity policy, partnerships and practice in education (pp. 331e352). Switzerland: Springer
Engestrom, Y. (2018). Expansive learning: Towards an activity-theoretical recon- € ceptualization. In K. Illeris (Ed.), Contemporary theories of learning (2nd ed., pp. 46e65). Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Kahu, E. R., & Nelson, K. (2017). Student engagement in the educational interface: Understanding the mechanisms of student success. Higher Education Research and Development, 37(1), 58e71.
King, F. (2018). Music and arts education for generalist preservice teachers in distance learning modes: A reflective discussion about learning in the arts. Victorian Journal of Music Education, 1, 11e15.
Lantz-Andersson, A., Lundin, M., & Selwyn, N. (2018). Twenty years of online teacher communities: A systematic review of formally-organized and informally-developed professional learning groups. Teaching and Teacher Education, 75, 302e315.
Lierse, S. (2015). Developing fully online pre-service music and arts education courses. Victorian Journal of Music Education, 1, 29e34.
Stone, C., & O’Shea, S. (2019). Older, online and first: Recommendations for retention and success. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 35(1), 57e69.

Updated: Sep. 24, 2020
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