Learning Regions & Communities: Networked Systems & System Leadership
Like many countries, Switzerland is facing new educational demands due to a rapidly evolving society along with continuous immigration. Ensuring equal educational opportunities for all is one challenge in coping with these demands. Schools, often thought of as the main education institutions, cannot accomplish this all by itself. Networked systems like the social and the school sector and networked education institutions are of vital importance when it comes to providing education and ensuring equal educational opportunities for all. To improve education networks in order to improve education offers is the aim of the project Education Landscapes Switzerland, a multi-year national initiative supported by the Jacobs Foundation in cooperation with three cantons and nine communities. This is done through encouraging the cooperation of formal and non-formal agents in the regional systems with the aim to ensure access to high-quality education for all that goes beyond the school setting. This initiative, which began in 2013, is comprised of 22 projects, also referred to as "educational landscapes" that all try to systematically link formal and non-formal education, each in their unique way and context.
The findings presented in this proposal are derived from a five-year study (2013-2018) designed to ascertain how these projects function and evolve as well as to assess their possible impact on the educational contexts they are located in. The theoretical framework is based on Helmut Fend’s and Andreas Helmke's opportunity-use model which characterizes aspects between teaching and learning in a classroom (for a presentation of the model in English, see Zierer & Seel, 2012, S. 16f). This model was expanded to account for learning and teaching beyond the classroom and to allow for a more detailed analysis of the context of formal and non-formal educational settings. The opportunity-use model maps several of these factors such as teachers and instructors, learning potential of children and young adults, but also family- and culture-related context factors.
This contribution presents the findings from the first two years of research, focusing on aspects of leadership in the context of these projects, viewed as networked systems. Leading questions were:
- What influences the effectiveness of the networked systems?
- How is leadership taking place in the networked systems?
- What are leadership-related barriers to network functionality?
Leadership was framed in accordance to Chemer’s definition as “a process of social influence through which one person is able to enlist the aid of others in reaching a goal” (Chemers, 1997, p. 1).
For the study, nine projects in the Swiss cantons of Basel, Fribourg and Zurich were researched. All projects were analyzed using quantitative and qualitative approaches in data gathering and data analysis. Data was analyzed using a deductive (based on the theoretical framework) as well as an inductive approach.
During the first research phase a benchmarking of similar programs and projects was conducted, followed by the development of the research design. This approach included interviews and a standardized questionnaire. The semi-structured interviews were conducted with project participants, for example with project leaders, members of steering committees, volunteers, local and cantonal authorities. In total 29 interviews with over 50 people were conducted.
The standardized online questionnaire was distributed to participants from all levels in all three cantons, in other words, to everybody involved in the education networks. In total over 214 (RR 58,4%) questionnaires were distributed. The questionnaire also contained a quantitative social network analysis where the participants were prompted to identify and rank up to five persons they considered provided significant support for their work with regard to their education networks.
The interviews and questionnaire were focused on determining who participates in the education networks, what circumstances and forms of governance lead to (better) cooperation, exploring forms of leadership of the education networks, identifying challenges and opportunities and ascertaining a possible impact education landscapes have on the existing learning opportunities.
The interviews were analyzed in several passes, first using an inductive approach with axial coding (Charmaz, 2006), followed by a pass using a deductive approach based on categories derived from the theoretical framework. On a quantitative level, mainly descriptive statistics were calculated in a first step. The focus of this part was the satisfaction of the participants with the project, aspects of leadership as well as a general opinion on the ongoing processes in their educational network. Important aspects were also the cooperation level in the educational networks and how the participants rated the achievement of objectives. In a second step non-directional correlations were conducted to show relations between different constructs and the experienced effectiveness of the network. To gain further information about causal mechanisms and predictors for the leadership and effectiveness of educational networks, regression analyses were modelled.
A document analysis of all official reports on education landscape projects complemented these methods; this analysis was carried out using an inductive approach searching for major themes (cp. Bowen, 2009).
Project leaders were the first point of communication for internal as well as external contacts. Many interviewees stated that they turned to the project leaders in cases of uncertainty or conflicts. However, there is a large number of stakeholders involved; the Jacobs Foundation, the Swiss cantons as partners of the Foundation, the steering committees of each project and the individual project leaders. Interviewees reported problems stemming from intra- and inter-hierarchical role conflicts and role ambiguity (in line with established findings in this domain, cf. Tubre & Collins, 2000).
Based on the quantitative data, correlations between what were perceived to be key categories were calculated and regression analyses were conducted. In the regression analyses the estimated network effectiveness represents the dependent variable, the independent variables vary. With regard to the estimated network effectiveness cooperation as well as communication and trust in the project correlate positively. The strongest correlation exists between trust and effectiveness. The more trust the members have in the project, the higher its (perceived) effectiveness is and vice versa. Members of a project, who have a high amount of trust in other members of the same project and their knowledge, estimate the level of cooperation in their project to be higher. This is also true the other way around.
Regression analyses indicate strong ties between the estimated network effectiveness and the regard for the project leaders. Participants estimated the network effectiveness to be high also had high regard for the work of the leaders and vice versa. Furthermore, there are strong indications that a high regard for the leaders has the strongest influence on the perceived network effectiveness. The corresponding regression analysis shows that a regard for local steering groups does not have a significant influence on the perceived network effectiveness. People who are emotionally relieved or relieved with regard to their work load or experience a high amount of professional exchange through the project also view the network to be very effective.
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