[ Presentation pages ] [ ECAWA Conference 1999 ]

The Secret Life of Echalkers: Workplace learning and DIY professional development

Roger Atkinson
Teaching and Learning Centre
Murdoch University
Does it ever seem to you that conducting educational computing and networking services is a "secret" or "little known" activity? Do our managing hierarchies know what it's like to be continually involved with just in time learning and endless problem solving? This presentation is based on Roger's experiences in the role of list owner for echalk, the emailing list for Western Australian school teachers run on the host cleo in association with ECAWA. Since December 1994 echalk has provided an avenue for teachers to learn on the job, obtain mutual help, and conduct "do it yourself", informal professional development. However, is this kind of avenue being complemented, as fully as it should be, by organisational development and formal professional development for schools sector computing?


My briefing for this session was provided by Mike Leishman. You know Mike, with the uniquely pretentious address, myself@iinet.net.au, who is one of the most effective and likeable workaholics in our part of the world. Mike is very good but he does tend to go for the tall order, as illustrated in this email: Well, that is a tall order. An individual cannot give you "lots of confidence". The acquisition of confidence is something you do, an outcome you may attain from a range of activities, including those which I will describe as "workplace learning and do it yourself professional development". Our purpose in this session of Wired 2000 is to examine some pathways towards "confidence", or "information technology confidence", with particular reference to sustaining your post conference momentum to "try out the many ideas", as Mike expressed it.


Pathways to "information technology confidence" are not easy matters. To quote another local commentator, Barney Clarkson (1998), as an illustration:
Many people involved in learning technologies in schools (or LT, meaning advanced computing, communications and educational technologies) find it difficult to continue being change agents all the time, and although often rewarding, find it can be frustrating too. For many less techno-literate teachers, their 3Rs may be a choice of Resistance, Renaissance or Retirement.
Edwards and Morton's (1996) study of the roles of computing coordinators in NSW non-government schools indicated difficult circumstances for the teachers involved, including:
... the majority of computing coordinators indicate they are self taught with respect to computing.... the majority have no industry experience related to computing.... only 7.6% of computing coordinators indicate they use less than or the amount of time allocated for their responsibilities. The remainder, 92.4%, use two or more times the allocation given.
Whilst there many observations we could make about difficult circumstances for information technology in schools, one aspect which warrants special emphasis today is the lack of recognition of effort and achievement. My feeling about lack of recognition is the reason for using the phrase, "the secret life of echalkers". With apologies to the British Broadcasting Corporation and David Attenborough, this phrase is apt because it indicates activities which are little known and little recognised outside the immediate circle of practitioners. The word "secret" is used with the connotation, "little known". How often does it seem to you, as it does to me, that your work in educational computing and networking services is a "secret" or "little known" activity within your own organisation? How often do you feel that your managing hierarchies knows nothing about what it's like to be continually involved with just in time learning and endless problem solving?

To often, in my view. The problems of lack of recognition and working in isolation on "little known" activities have to be overcome, for otherwise the paths to "information technology confidence" may become impossibly difficult. Associations such as ECAWA have a special role in overcoming this kind of problem. Professional associations create peer groups which counter the isolation and create facilitative and non-threatening pathways and environments in which professional confidence may grow.

Professional associations use a variety of ways to do that, including of course the annual conference, and once again Wired2000 is a refreshing and invigorating example. As this is our closing session, we must draw attention to the ways you may use after the annual conference is over.

ECAWA conduct or facilitate many activities between annual conferences, including hands on workshops, as in the "Point Peron" or "Noalimba" kinds of sessions, informal group activities such as Toucan, small group professional development sessions, and publications such as "login lite". Great stuff, and we commend those activities to you. But the one that runs all the time and does so much to help conduct the others is the emailing list echalk.


Few people know that echalk [1] has a very precisely specified birthdate. It's not a secret, it's there in archive file echalk.9412, stamped on the very first message. Like the typical times for arrival of a baby, the hour was late:
>Date: Sun, 4 Dec 1994 02:02:41 +0800
>To: echalk@cleo.murdoch.edu.au
>From: atkinson@cleo.murdoch.edu.au (Roger Atkinson)
>Subject: Test posting to echalk
>Test post to new list echalk@cleo.murdoch.edu.au
As echalk's birthday is now quite a long time ago, nearly five years, we are able to indulge in some reminiscences about the good old days. Please bear with me, this is not merely a sentimental trip down some memory lane in cyberspace. There are some important conclusions to be drawn, but first we have to quote some evidence.

After the test message, echalk accumulated a further 54 messages before we knocked off for Christmas '94. Topics included the Flexibility in Schools Project, the "Good Times" virus hoax, email lists for school teachers, and others which Scott Smith cross posted, for "padding" purposes, from a Deakin University email list for teachers. Here are a few anecdotes from the first month:

  1. Cres Thursby-Pelham achieved the date stamp "Mon, 07 Jan 80 16:01:18 -800" upon his first posting, due, as explained in his second posting, to:

    >Apologies for the wierd date showing on my last mail.
    >I was sending the email from Netscape from the pc and its date /time
    >was very wrong (which is quite usual and most annoying) - blame the
    >technology we're told huh?Still its another trap for the unwary...

  2. Vic Gecas livened up his first posting with a parenthetical remark about the current President of ECAWA, "...whose life had crashed a few years ago with an unrecoverable wife error".

  3. Beatrice Lai's first posting revealed the gritty determination of a true believer in lifelong learning (eff_one is another email list on cleo, for technical help topics):

    > ... I had lots of problem relating to
    >installation. It was eff_one to help me to get through. I suppose I don't
    >care what other people think. If they think I am a slow learner, it is
    >their opinion. As long as I could get my problem solved, it is fine with
    >me. There is "no age limit in learning".

  4. One first time posting was accidental, when Fiona thought she was replying only to Russell's first posting:

    >But I noticed that you were part of a group called echalk - where has this
    >sprung up from and what's its purpose if it is indeed a listserver like

Note that echalk's traditional disdain for spelling and grammar, propensities to blame something else, tendencies to be irreverent, refusal to give up, and perpetual "what's its purpose?" questioning were established straight away by the pioneer subscribers. No mucking about.

Of the 14 persons who were "first month" posters to echalk, eight are still subscribed, nearly five years later. Maybe there is some encouragement in the attainment of a survival rate better than 50% after five years, in spite of the health hazards incurred by being into educational computing.

List topics

The topics in echalk messages are a diverse mixture. Much of the traffic is giving information and seeking information, mainly in technical matters. However, there are other kinds of information seeking, for example: I'm glad that echalk enabled Jen to resolved the problem, before knocking off for the night. It would have been awful if someone was incompletely badged at Wired2000.

Echalk has some kind of reputation for providing expert technical support. We should not poke fun at ourselves, but I couldn't resist this excerpt, in which echalk's reputation is saved by the White Knight from Leeming:

In the excerpt above, I omitted details about the software which Bryn was seeking in a hurray. The process of asking and responding is the important matter, and we'll return to that later.

Offerings which subscribers bring to the alter of echalk are many and varied:

I don't know why so many of the contributors have adopted the silly habit of putting the word "Cheers" at the end of each message. Maybe many of them do much of their emailing late in the day, at an hour when persons with better balanced lifestyles are relaxing with a glass of medicinal wine.

There are occasional embarrassments:

We could have a lot more fun looking at the style and content of list postings, but it's time to look at how echalk style and content relate to the topics I have labelled "Workplace learning and do it yourself professional development".

Workplace learning and do it yourself professional development

Email lists provide a popular form of communication for professional development purposes, mainly because Internet users tend to check their email every time they obtain a network connection, or return to their desk in the case of permanently connected desktops. However, users do not always remember to visit a specific website to access web based bulletin board delivery of messages (Atkinson, 1998).

Echalk is a regional list primarily for Western Australian school teachers. As an "open list" to which any Internet user may subscribe, other persons are welcome and subscribers include tertiary sector teachers, teacher education students, commercial sector participants and interstate subscribers. List traffic includes information bulletins from ECAWA for members and for teachers generally. Echalk spans all subject areas, and we would like it to relate neatly to subject area lists, for example echalk's "sibling" lists robotics, logo, wa-indon [3], and many others in Australia, and to regional web sites such as ECAWA [3] and Edsite WA [3].

How does echalk relate to professional development? It provides an avenue for teachers to obtain mutual help and workplace learning, to learn on the job, thus constituting a basic form of "do it yourself" professional development. The role in mutual help is much appreciated, for example Harry Clements-Shepherd (1998) wrote:

Cries for help that go to the list are fielded by 'the mob' and some excellent tips and advice are readily given by folk who have already been down the road that you may be stuck on. When you take into account that its almost instant and free, how much better can it get?
In particular echalk's commercial sector participants typically blend in very well by adopting a role as providers of helpful information and technical support. Plus of course the occasional much more high profile acts of giving away equipment goodies - thanks to Peter Klemm of Bookland and Ian Thompson of Acer.

However, a good proportion of echalk's traffic is not concerned with immediate help but relates to ongoing developments and larger scale issues. Thus these comments by Martyn Wild from Edith Cowan University, based upon observations of the email lists Oz-Teachers and UK-Schools (Wild, 1999), are equally applicable to echalk:

There is a possibility in the use of mailing lists, to create vital, energetic and occasional communities for professional development activities, building curriculum and information resource libraries and facilitating informal communicative networks, serving the social, professional and personal needs of teachers....

....The critical dimension in mailing list activities is reached when participants do not only participate in a practice and make meanings within it, but rather in various ways, transform and actively produce it...

Participation is important. The American researcher Henry Jay Becker (1999) included these comments in his conclusions from a large scale survey of Internet use by teachers:
... frequent informal interactions among teachers may help teachers to learn enough about the Internet to apply it in their teaching in a variety of ways. The Internet thus becomes a potentially important tool in the creation of a collaborative professional culture among the teachers of a school.
Whilst Becker was generalising about a number of avenues of communication, his comments contain highly relevant descriptors for echalk and other, similar email lists: the occurrence of "frequent informal interactions among teachers" contributing towards "a collaborative professional culture". The creation of "a collaborative professional culture" gives a foundation for activities which we can describe as "peer level professional development", drawing upon a descriptive phrase used by Nicholson and Johnson (1998). They referred to teachers' preferences for peer level professional development, quoting findings in Victoria, "Eighty-five per cent of the teacher focus groups described their preferred approach to PD as sharing ideas and strategies with other colleagues."

I've used the qualifying phrase "do it yourself informal" instead of "peer level" or "collaborative" or other qualifying phrases we could attach to the term professional development. "Do it yourself informal" matches the actual behaviour of echalk's population, and symbolises an important feature. The processes of asking and responding and otherwise interacting are just as important as the communicated facts.

The phrase "do it yourself" is a very mild way of summarising my view about typical deficiencies in organisational development and formal professional development for schools sector computing. There's not enough resources coming from those directions and thus much of the achieving is "do it yourself", without much of a complementary input from organisational development and formal professional development. However, "do it yourself" is also an expression of advantages or benefits for the goal of "a collaborative professional culture".

So, for the next 350 or 370 days, or however long it is until the next ECAWA annual conference, we hope that one of the paths you will contribute to and benefit from is echalk and other email lists. So, to quote Mike again, "...race off and get online and try out the many ideas".

Whilst we take comments and concluding remarks, here is a reminder[6], mainly to myself, that echalk may not be Y2K compliant and that special vigilance may be required to guard against the temptation to play the potential game of Y2K hoaxing via our echalk.


  1. For details on echalk, see its home page http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/echalk/
  2. See http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/lists/eff_one/ for eff_one list details.
  3. See http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/echalk/ for these lists.
  4. ECAWA http://www.ecawa.asn.au/
  5. Edsite WA http://www.edsite.com.au/
  6. Cartoon by Cameron Cardow http://www.cagle.com/Y2K/bug6.asp


Atkinson, R. (1998). Virtual conferencing for teaching and professional development. In A. Gooley et al (eds), Open Learning '98, 61-66. Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Open Learning, Brisbane, 2-4 Dec. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/tlc/atkinson/atkinson-oln98.html [relocated 6 June 2009 to http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/oln98/atkinson-oln98.html]

Becker, H. J. (1999). Internet use by teachers. http://www.crito.uci.edu/TLC/FINDINGS/internet-use/startpage.htm

Clarkson, B. (1998). 'I've never enjoyed teaching so much': Turning teachers on to learning technologies. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (eds), Planning for Progress, Partnership and Profit, 27-30. Proceedings EdTech'98. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology. http://www.ascilite.org.au/aset-archives/confs/edtech98/pubs/articles/clarkson.html

Clements-Shepherd, H. J. (1998). Putting more mileage into your training dollars. In C. McBeath, C. McLoughlin and R. Atkinson (eds), Planning for Progress, Partnership and Profit, 31-33. Proceedings EdTech'98. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology. http://www.ascilite.org.au/aset-archives/confs/edtech98/pubs/articles/clements-shepherd.html

Edwards, S. and Morton, A. (1996). Profiling computing coordinators. In J. G. Hedberg, J. Steele and S. McNamara (eds), Learning Technologies: Prospects and Pathways, 36-47. Selected papers from EdTech '96. Canberra: AJET Publications. http://www.ascilite.org.au/aset-archives/confs/edtech96/edwards.html

Nicholson, P. and Johnson, R. (1998). Teacher education on-line: Ignorance, rhetoric and reality. Proceedings ACEC'98 Conference, Adelaide. http://www.cegsa.sa.edu.au/acec98/papers/p_nickonl.html

Wild, M. (1999). The anatomy of practice in the use of mailing lists: A case study. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 15(2), 117-135. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet15/wild.html

Dr Roger Atkinson is Senior Lecturer in Educational Technology and Manager, Murdoch Online, in Murdoch University's Teaching and Learning Centre. Since joining Murdoch's staff in 1978, he has worked in distance education, open learning, flexible delivery, educational technology, Internet access, multimedia, web publishing and online courses. In 1993 he initiated the Internet host cleo, which together with carmen (1996), has been a platform for numerous innovative community services in Internet access, email lists and web publishing. Roger's work on many educational technology and Internet based projects appears on cleo at http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/

Postscript: Roger retired from the Teaching and Learning Centre on 22 June 2001. URLs no longer available for referencing from this article, owing to the retirement of cleo in Sept 2002 have been deactivated :-)

[ Presentation pages ] [ ECAWA Conference 1999 ]
This URL (last corrected 6 June 2009): http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/ecawa99/atkinson.html
Previous URL 20 Aug 2002 to 6 June 2009: http://www.users.bigpond.net.au/atkinson-mcbeath/roger/pubs/ecawa99/atkinson.html
Previous URL 7 Oct 1999 to 20 Aug 2002: http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/tlc/atkinson/ecawa99/atkinson.html
HTML: Roger Atkinson [rjatkinson@bigpond.com] (previous address atkinson@cleo.murdoch.edu.au)