This presentation analyses an aspect of an Australian Learning and Teaching Council (ALTC) curriculum project in which preservice teachers undertaking practicum at a distance from their universities and each other were allocated to inter-university online discussions groups to provide contact and opportunities for learning during their practicum. The context of this undertaking was the difficulties of achieving high quality educational outcomes experienced in rural areas, and the challenges of universities as they attempt to offer strong educational programs to small and scattered cohorts. It was part of a larger ALTC collaboration between lecturers from two regional campuses concerned to improve the way they approached the practicum. The project Preservice Teacher Education Partnerships: Creating an effective practicum model for rural and regional preservice teachers investigated the potential of inter-university collaboration and technology to create successful and sustainable practicum approaches; ones which were useful in terms of what preservice teachers needed for a successful practicum, and which were sustainable from the point of view of what lecturers, stretched to work with preservice teachers placed across a wide geographical area, could manage.
The aspect of the project outlined here analyses the online discussion board activity undertaken by four groups of twenty preservice teachers, arranged into inter-university 'Professional Learning Teams', and their lecturers on the online platform Pebble Pad. The preservice teachers were asked to enter into reflective practice discussions about their practicum experiences in the online space. Using the lens of critical reflective practice and an analytical inductive method the team investigated the extent to which the online discussions showed evidence of being sites of learning for the preservice teachers. It was found that the online discussions did show preservice teachers engaged in critical reflection, although lecturers noted that it was not consistently evident. Analysis of this finding suggests that a focused teaching effort is needed to encourage preservice teachers to use the online space more for reflective learning than for social communication and support. The presentation recommends that teacher educators wishing to support the practicum 'at a distance', whether as part of inter-university team or as an individual institution, need to be clear about the purpose of the online activity, whether it is for support or reflective learning.