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Structuring the
Learning Experience

Conclusions & Recommendations

Connie Menting

Back to the Questions

The hypothesis of this study was not that the success of an online course is mainly determined by the intensity and quality of teachers' coaching. When the institutional strategy, the design of a course, the distribution of teaching hours, the auxiliary organizations are not aimed at support, then the teachers are left on their own and will end up in an impossible situation. Taking into account the empirical results we can conclude that this is not entirely an imaginary situation.

The hypothesis of this study was that the effectiveness of telecoaching depends primarily - though not exclusively - on the extent in which coaches succeed in moderating collaborative learning processes between and among students (and instructors). I assumed that the creation of a learning community during an online course is one of the most critical success factors of distance education. In the empirical investigation of the TAET-course I tried to identify what activities and roles of coaches have an impact on the learning process as well the development of a learning community. The two main questions that guided the construction and evaluation of the investigation were:

  1. What are the activities of coaches that stimulate and moderate self-reflective learning practices?

  2. To which extent and in which forms has a learning community been developed in the course?

In the previous chapter I have presented the results of the research in detail. Now it's time to see if we can find answers to the questions that directed our investigation and draw some general conclusions (and make some recommendations).

Be Prepared

It's like learning a language
Valerie: I have found my experiences with learning foreign languages and my experiences with learning computer skills were very similar. Repetition and practice are very important. If I go to language classes and don't practise between lessons, I forget everything. I found the same with computers. Like a language, you have to use it in real-life situations, and keep on applying what you've learned.
Lorie: For me there has to be a lot of trial-and-error until it starts to sink in and becomes second nature, just like a language, I suppose.
Judy: You can't learn a language in one year -- maybe in two years, three years. Some of us can't learn it in three years. Computers are like a foreign language. It really is. It has a vocabulary all of its own, and you have to learn that. And you have to learn it slowly and with hands-on experience. You have to apply the knowledge and you have to apply it regularly until you feel comfortable with it, and only when I feel comfortable with something I'm ready to move forward and learn the next bit. Then you build. You just keep building. With computers especially there are so many new developments, you have to keep building your skills and knowledge.
Valerie: Yes, and with the right amount of input, and input you can understand, you will not be overwhelmed and you will master and internalise some things before moving on to the next level.
Carlos: I know it helps children with their language acquisition if they are taught in a sensitive and systematic way that lowers the anxiety level. The same with learning technology skills. So make sure whichever way you decide to learn, you seek out a situation that will not make anxiety get in the way of learning.
Valerie: Being in a computer class makes me think of how the English learners in my class might feel when at times they don't understand me, or if I do not contextualize something well enough. I think the kind of strategies we use to help English learners acquire English skills and learn content are the same ones we adults need in learning computer skills. [Virtual Power: Technology, Education and Community]
Good preparation is half the solution. So is a good selection of students. Although most students have indicated that they were sufficiently prepared for this training they met with numerous problems. During the selection procedure the students were asked about their computer and internet skills. These skills were not tested and therefore teachers were insufficiently informed on the level of these skills. The training began with 2 courses and for one of these courses the students had to build a website, apart from doing other - written - assignments as well. For these assignments a lot of searching and surfing had to be done (e.g. comparing electronic learning environments, finding examples of innovative forms of ICT-based learning and much more). Mid December 1999 it became clear (by the contributions on the Discussion page of CC1) that the workload was terribly high, that many students had problems keeping up with all the assignments. Obviously they weren't as well-prepared as they thought they were. The content of the two courses and the pressure of handing in assignments took up a lot of time. It also took a lot of time to master the more technical aspects of the trade: building a website, getting familiar with html or a webauthoring/management system. And last but not least: for many students studying again after so many years took an extra effort.

Against this background the following recommendations can be made. A more careful selection of students as to computer and internet-related skills is desirable to prevent students from drowning in the frustrations of time pressure because they still have to learn some skills that were actually presupposed. [See also Hara & Kling 2000, Wegerif 1998, Mason & Weller 2000, Salmon, 1998, Salmon 2000, Prendergast 2000, Rowntree 1995]. Students that don't sufficiently dispose of the required skills should be offered the opportunity to raise their basic skills to the desired level. Before the courses formally start students should be stimulated and supported to take part in a pre-trajectory ('voorschakel module') in which they can acquire some elementary competencies, such as operating your own computer, searching and surfing the internet, and handling a professional tool for site construction and sitemanagement [Go Live or DreamWeaver]. On the internet there are many good examples of such introductory programmes. Although it is password protected, the Open University's programme 'Studeren met de Muis' (Studying with the Mouse) is a good example. In this programme students can practise with and test themselves on the necessary computer skills. Another example is 'Online learning @ your fingertips' of the Network University, especially because it has such an intuitive interface. Such introductions could prevent a lot of frustrations. [See also Mason & Weller 2000, Salmon 1998, 2000, Wegerif 1998].

Although all teachers of the TAET training were technically sufficiently prepared to work with the TeleTOP learning environment - they were trained by the constructors of the programme - half of them had no previous experience with distance education, and half of them had some previous experience. As I said before, this only looks like a suboptimal preparation, but is in fact the normal case in a situation in which we are all trying to learn the first principles and rules of distance education. As indicated before a main weakness in teachers' preparation is connected with the selection process of TAET-students.

The recommendation for teachers is that the information about students' computer and internet skills that is gathered in a more careful selection process, is used to get 'a good first connection'. In this context it is also good to point out two courses that the Open University (Heerlen) has developed for teachers: Begeleiden met de Muis (Coaching with the Mouse) and MODO (Methodisch Ontwikkelen van Digitaal Onderwijs). In the first course teachers are prepared for their work in a student-centred electronic learning environment: they learn basic and/or more advanced computer skills, how to manage their course site, how to make effective use of discussion fora and they become familiar with a didactic design of student coaching. Moreover, teachers can gain insight of the problems students might be confronted with in the electronic learning environment. In the second course, Methodically Developing Digital Education, they become familiar with the many possibilities of digital education and can develop some digital educational design skills. [See for need for professionalization of teachers in virtual learning environments Mason & Weller 2000, Prendergast 2000, Salmon 1998, 2000].

Guided Tour through TeleTOP

Another aspect of the preparation of students for the TAET-training is getting familiar with the electronic learning environment as such, its structure and functionalities. Although it didn't take most students long to get familiar with the TeleTOP environment it is recommendable to give students the opportunity to take a guided tour through TeleTOP to get a good 'look and feel' of it. Written manuals are useful, but not to start with. Getting familiar with an electronic learning environment is best to practise online. The first local meeting is probably the most suitable moment to organise the TeleTOP tour. Students not only have to get a clear impression of what an electronic learning environment is (most students of this generation are blank on this point), but also how they are supposed to live in it and to make use of all the facilities and functionalities that this electronic school has to offer. In order to facilitate the process of building a virtual learning community, students should begin by introducing themselves on their personal page. Without personal introduction it is impossible to build a vivid and stimulating learning community.

"The introductory meeting was next to nothing. No time to get properly acquainted with each other. Being dragged along all kinds of photographers. Two insignificant introductions of subjects. They should have taken more time for it" [student email].
In an introductory on-campus meeting students should have time to get acquainted with each other to get familiar with each other's background, working experience and interests. This could lead to interesting networks of students. It might even be more convenient to ask students to write this information on a homepage - within TeleTOP - before the introductory meeting, so that they can ask each other specific questions when meeting each other.

The Open University has developed a webbased guided tour through their electronic learning environment Studienet, accessible for students, teachers and those interested in the OU. It provides information on all functionalities and possibilities of the electronic learning environment.

All clear: Instructions for Assignments

It has been argued at length why instructions for assignments play such a prominent, structuring role in online learning processes. For a substantial part the TAET students were very critical about the instructions they received in both core courses and optional courses. For most students many instructions have been problematic. They called them ambiguous or plainly unclear. This might be due to the fact that this course was given for the first time for this kind of group and that some courses had to be built online from scratch. And some instructions looked as if teachers were forced to take their instructions too early out of the incubator. Of course, there is another side of this story: the students' side. Some students may have problems with instructions that frustrate them because these students don't know how to interpret an 'unclear' instruction or how to make choices in 'ambiguous' instructions. Other students may have problems with instructions that stimulate them to develop their own interpretation of 'unclear' instructions and to make their own choices where the instruction is puzzling or insufficiently demarcated. This does not mean that we should be 'soft' towards instructions that are problematic.

With these considerations in mind the following recommendations can be made.

  1. In online learning processes the instructions for the assignments have to be even clearer than in traditional education. In face-to-face education teachers can modify their instructions on the spot. In online education instructions have to be carefully designed and demarcated in order to reduce unnecessary insecurities or ambiguities that frustrate students in their task performance. Or, as one teacher said, the TeleTop system "presses you to be very clear and explicit" in the writing of your assignments. We have seen before that TAET-teachers are aware that this is one of the aspects of online learning that requires more time.

  2. If desired and possible the assignments have to be placed in an order that is not only logical, but should also be oriented towards a more or less integrated final assignment. Final assignments that build on and/or integrate the results of previous assignments of a core/optional course can stir up the idea that students are working for themselves, instead of for the teacher. This requires a sound planning of assignments within a core or optional course.

  3. For the TAET course as a whole a similar recommendation can be made. The assignments of the various core and optional courses should be tuned to each other in such a manner that students can use the separate assignments for their final project. Of course, this is easier said than done. It presupposes at least that teachers are well-informed on content and assignments of all the other courses, and that they are willing to cooperate to achieve such a goal ('culture of cooperation'). Such intensified cooperation among all the teachers of the course might also prevent 'assignment overload'. The development of sophisticated webbased education can only be accomplished when the level of interdisciplinary cooperation among teachers is raised to a much higher level. Indeed, virtualized education requires intensive cooperation of several - content, technical and communicative - specialists. And this cooperation requires clear standardisation of work procedures, instrument handling and operational skills [the organisational implications are discussed in the 'innovative-modular model' of Caluwé/Marx/Petri 1988: 111-5].

The study of Hara & Kling [2000] contains a detailed description of how problematic instructions can lead to students' frustrations.

Satisfying the Insatiable Hunger for Feedback

The most time-consuming activity for teachers in online courses is giving fast, to-the-point, constructive and personal feedback. That is what TAET-students expected, appreciated or hoped for. And they disliked it when they received formal feedback (just a mark or a one-line verdict), detached non-personal feedback that was not supportive, feedback that came much too late, or didn't come at all. As we have seen in the empirical section these options were not just 'hypothetical errors'. And therefore too many students got the feeling that they themselves and their group were 'not taken seriously'. In the next table I have summarised the criteria that can be used to value feedback.

Feedback Evaluation Matrix
Feedback must be
Feedback must not be
Give feedback when students expect and need it.
Organise your feedback on a lean production manner.
Too late or not at all
Don't forget to give feedback: students expect it and teachers are paid for it.
Give students return-information at a time when this is relevant and current for them.
Direction Supportive
Give precise criticism, useful tips, and constructive suggestions.
'Abstract' or formalised criticism
Don't reduce your feedback on a student's product to a mere mark..
Don't think that students feel supported when you evaluate their work in a one-line verdict.
Emotion Motivating
Show respect for students' efforts.
Develop empathy for students' learning problems.
Reflect on learning attitude and learning style,
Don't give students 10 minutes of your time to discuss a paper of 50 pages.
Don't ignore students' individual learning problems.
Don't think that only the final result of learning is important, and not the process of learning.
Warmth Personal
Try to be as direct and personal in your communication with students
Don't give students detached non-personal feedback that is not supportive.
Reliability On a regular basis
Make clear when students can expect a reaction to their products.
Announce when you cannot keep your promises.
With unannounced interruptions
Be aware of students' expectations concerning your feedback behaviour.
When you are not able to give timely feedback, inform your students.
Always try to keep students' expectations and teachers' feedback performances in balance.

Looking through the eyes - minds and emotions - of students we cannot say that the provided feedback was an unqualified success. Although the quality, speed and timing of the feedback in some courses was highly appreciated by the students, they criticised the feedback service of other courses as mediocre or less. It's clear that students' expectations concerning feedback have been raised during this course, especially because they could make a critical comparison between the various feedback styles of the teachers. This might be the core of the 'revolution of rising coaching expectations'. This revolution is a knife that cuts both ends.

"Not until the sluice is opened does it become clear how big the unalleviated hunger is for more feedback" [Gerd Junne].
For students this means that they can easily get frustrated because their heightened feedback expectations are not met by the feedback practices of their teachers. For many students it is already quite a step to make use of email. "Yet they expect a similar kind of interaction as in ordinary face-to-face communication. In other words, students are not yet well prepared for the consequences of 'electronic coaching', particularly not that they don't get immediate feedback" [expert].

For teachers this is a kind of revolution that does not promise the holy land. They have to learn a new, non-instructive and student-centred approach that is directed at mutual collaboration among peers. Giving adequate feedback is a very time-consuming activity. Feedback should be well-organised, and this begins before students participate in the course. Teachers have to see to it "that the information and interaction that is offered must be as effective as possible and tailor-made" [expert], and that they make explicit the rules and conventions of the feedback process. Another way for teachers to spend their time more economically is to stimulate peer-assessment-like forms of coaching: (groups of ) students can give return-information on the products of other (groups of) students. This is already practised in many online courses.

An example are the courses of the Open University, where they also have agreed on feedback conventions, take care that FAQs are updated and work with templates for feedback. At this moment the first experiments are prepared for educational agents ('virtual teachers' or 'personal agents'). An example of this application is intelligent help with learning English vocabulary: when a student has mastered certain words, they don't return anymore. Other features of educational agents are: students get automated reactions and advice when they take an online quiz, students are warned when their marks are too low, or - more futuristic and challenging the borders of what 'artificial intelligence' can do at this moment - students get automated feedback on some formal qualities of their papers (structural and incidental redundancies; consistency or formal logic).

In general we can conclude that teletutors need more time to prepare and execute adequate feedback. It would be recommendable to revisit the existing system of time-management. The arduousness of giving proper feedback is the most critical factor of the extra coaching time that is needed in online learning. This should be taken into account in both the overall expenditure of the resources that are needed for this intensified coaching and the distribution of the educational workload. Or as one of the TAET students put it in a non-decorous and non-translatable style: "Docenten kunnen niet zomaar een afstandscursusje voor werklozen door hun mik gedouwd krijgen." [A dubious translation for the English-speaking readers: “Teachers should not be forced to swallow just another teeny weeny distance course for a bunch of unemployed students.”]

It would be interesting to find an answer to the question: what are the extra costs of coaching in online courses? Or to the even more complex question: what are the cost-benefit relations of online courses? Although I cannot offer any conclusive answers to these questions they should not be misused to legitimise conservatism and fatalism. The 'cash nexus' should be used as an incentive to organise the powers that will convince or push university administrators to fight for the resources that are needed for this radical educational innovation. Student support costs time and money, but is also the secret of successful online learning. That is certainly the case at the Open University (UK) where yearly 150,000 to 200,000 students receive superb coaching, which guarantees that 80 to 90 percent of them pass their final exam [Frans Jacobs, personal communication].

Learning in Cooperation — Collaborative Learning

Operating in a digital learning environment inherently facilitates collaborative work, and therefore is likely to have a positive effect on the 'efficiency', 'flexibility' and 'speed' of the cooperation process. The challenge for researchers and developers in this field is to minimise the potentially negative consequences of virtuality and to identify and exploit the potentially positive opportunities [Meerman 2000]. "By working with the internet the OU-teacher can realize more mutual contact among students. This is motivating and can be very instructive if the process is well-directed" [expert OU].

"In this rigid regime of studying and submitting assignments many students are inclined to reduce their study motivation to receiving sufficient grades for their courses. Anyway, it is a terrible feeling that in a situation in which you need each other badly, you lose each other, without being able to do anything about it. A feeling of powerlessness seizes me - and I guess I am not the only one" [student email].
Although a lot of teachers are very positive about collaborative learning, most students are critical about the way this has been facilitated in their course. We have seen that for students the TAET programme was chock-full. Especially in the phase of the core courses students had to work very hard to keep up with the assignments. Some courses demanded that they worked together on assignments. This worked out well in some cases, but not for all. The problems in collaborative learning were caused by the different background levels of the students, by different effort or dedication and by different time schedules of students. Moreover, collaboration was not initiated nor stimulated by the programme management and hindered by the continuous time pressure of the students. The heaviness of the programme allowed no fruitful development of collaborative networks.

The idea of collaborative learning was no integrated part of the curriculum. We have seen this in the empirical part of this investigation. Although the course was intended for unemployed academics or higher education graduates, a number of students was selected who did have a job on the side. It goes without saying that this restricted their flexibility in collaborative learning.

Many students considered this lack of stimulation of a learning community to be a missed chance. Basically there was a lack of 'group feeling':

Exactly in this new and rapidly expanding field of educational innovation students could have benefited enormously from each other's experiences and findings from before, during and after the training. The students have worked in various educational and training institutions and most of them still have their connections. In the future it will be extremely important to build networks of colleagues. In the TAET group it was a matter of chance or personal initiative whether there was any exchange of useful information. After all, it has already been indicated that the students hardly knew anything about each other: they were not introduced initially and during the training there was virtually no time to get to know each other better, besides in smaller groups that worked together. By offering collaborative facilities - which are described below in the paragraph on TeleTOP - the students could have come to even better results, and built up more collaborative knowledge that unlocks the knowledge of individuals to a group.

My recommendations for collaborative learning and the creation of a learning community are the following:

Both students and teachers have a positive attitude towards collaborative learning, although they differ in their views of what collaborative learning is, how it should be organised or stimulated, and how far its scope should reach. When we summarise the ideas on collaborative learning that teachers and students have put forward, we get the following picture.

  1. Collaborative learning is a process of knowledge building, in which each student is responsible for a specific task, in which students share their acquired knowledge and take their own responsibility for the learning process and the quality of learning.

  2. In collaborative learning processes the teacher is more a facilitator of the learning process but also a learner in this process. Teachers and students must be explicit as to the division of the different tasks and the division of responsibilities.

  3. The guidance of instructors (telementoring) has to be strong not only in instruction (knowledge transfer and construction), but also in creating a vivid group culture. A teacher is a member of the learning community and a facilitator whose main task is to support and control the knowledge transfer process between group members and evaluate the learning progression of the individual students and the group.

  4. For students who actively participate in a course it is a rewarding, valuable and pleasant experience to contribute learning materials and resources to the course, which subsequently will be used for other courses.

  5. Especially adult students can learn a lot from other students' previous practice experience (peer learning).

  6. The risks involved in such a learning process are concentrated on finding a good balance between individual and collective learning processes. Group activities should create conditions that enable and empower individual learning processes. However, collaborative efforts can proceed down counterproductive paths and become the dreaded 'compromise units'. Team performance – be it virtual or co-located – is first of all a matter of rigorous choice: when is a team effort warranted and when not? It is also a firm application of the discipline required for team performance.

  7. The necessary and appropriate tools for building and sharing knowledge have to be provided. The digital learning environment must offer possibilities - digital information banks like databases and webbased databases, shared database systems, etcetera - to organise the collective memory of a learning community. Collective memory is a platform for new knowledge transfer and creation, if the educational culture is such to take advantage of past learning. Collective memory offers members of learning communities a bigger collection of information to detect relations and meaning between concepts and can thereby add and create new concepts. It can speed up creative thinking if team members aren't buried by the collective memory (information stress/overload). A well-organised collective memory of a learning community can stimulate and accelerate collective creativity of their members, i.e. the synergy among the members within a learning team.

At the Open University (Heerlen) the ideal form of learning used to be symbolised by the strong-willed student studying on her or his own. This changed in the course of the years and the idea grew that students who usually have varying working experience can thrive on more contact with fellow students and can thus learn a lot from each other. Collaborative learning and group assignments were made possible when the starting moments of the courses were synchronised. At the same time the electronic learning environment 'Studienet' brings new didactic models in sight, such as competency-based and collaborative learning. Of course, students do need time and support to learn to work with each other and to correct each other's products [expert OU].

Telecoaching on the Move

In the empirical section we have seen that the TAET-students value the overall coaching quite differently and that this depends on their specific individual needs and expectations. The attitudes of students were distributed on a spectre which ranged from a sense of excitement about the 'first time' experience of online training, to scepticism, ambiguity and straightforward negative criticism. Before and during the introduction to the course many students had the impression that they were privileged to be selected as 'the chosen ones'. In the progression of the course many students became disappointed because they got the feeling that some instructors did not seem to be interested in the peculiarities of neither the group, nor the individuals. The dissatisfaction and complaints of students were aimed at teachers who did not stimulate open, self-reflective, supportive and friendly communication and who did not invest enough in clear explanation and sensible guidance. This was not 'picked up' by an alert programme management. The signs of dissatisfaction and the open complaints of students were not heard nor taken seriously enough by instructors and management.

A typical example of this insensitivity for criticism is the reaction on a disgruntled 'petition of discontent' that two-thirds of the students signed and that was sent to the instructors of one of the core course. Students criticised this course not only because they experienced the workload as out of proportion, but also because the connection between the content and orientation of this course and the goals of the training as a whole was at least obscure. The instructors' answer to this petition was a demonstration of paternalism pur sang: content, embedding and form of the course had been subject of long and deep thinking, and students should not spend time on critical petitions and emails but do what they were supposed to do. No wonder that one of the protesting students said that he felt even more frustrated by this response that showed no signs of empathy. This did not only result in some additional frustrations and slumbering resignation amongst students, but - happily enough - also in some new leeway for students. The instructors cancelled one text on their obligatory reading list and they stretched the deadline of the final assignment, and the programme management initiated the postponement of one the next courses. Although these minimal concessions did not have an 'appeasing' effect on students, this exemplary story also demonstrates that collective actions of students are a vital part of the structuring of the learning process. Self-organisation of students is not only a means to change some of the rules that their teachers determine, it can also be used to 'play' within these rules, i.e. trying to appropriate the course by accepting challenges that can be endured in a context of mutual support. These students are adults, and should therefore be able to learn on their own. But studying on your own does not necessarily mean alone, on the contrary [see also Mason & Weller 2000, Salmon 2000].

The more practical conclusions and recommendations on telecoaching as a whole can be summarised in four issues:

To conclude this section on telecoaching we give the floor to some of the participants who expressed their opinions in a candid way.

"Taking into consideration that this was a telelearning experiment and that all students are adults I am in general fairly positive about the course and the connected coaching." [student email] Teacher in email:
"Do not hesitate to consult the work and commentaries of others and feel free to email me. I am looking forward to receiving the result of your assignment. Good luck"

Student evaluation:
"How do you rank the form of coaching we received from teacher X? It was certainly much more than an exchange of ideas and communication with a teacher. To me it was real coaching."

"Practise what you preach is what you would like to shout into those people's ears: at an institute that is leading the way in the area of telelearning and the importance of learning communities, they let you muddle along on your own and don't even realise that you are muddling along, or not until very late" [student email].

Finding a Balance between CMC and F2F

For the participants many problems of online learning are related to finding the balance between direct and computer-mediated personal contact, i.e. between face-to-face and computer-mediated communication. A certain lack of direct personal contact is seen as problematic by both teachers and students. For some teachers 'the loss of the spoken word' was the most important lack in the communication systems that were used in this course, because they felt restricted in their possibilities as a teacher. For others it was the lack of monitoring of students, because they did not have enough new tools to observe the study progression of students. For most students the factual 'lack of communication' with teachers and fellow students was the main complaint, although they also mentioned the related risks of 'drowning on your own', 'getting isolated' and 'getting insecure'. Both students and teachers seem to favour a sensible combination or mix of online and co-located contact and communication.

In the age of the rise of the virtual 'information society' we have to ask the question: why are people so committed to the 'magic of face-to-face'? At first sight the answer seems to be that the uniqueness of face-to-face communication still is (i) that all communication channels - written text, sound, sight, gestures, feeling, and smell - are open at the same time, and (ii) that feedback can be instant. Teachers can see when students frown at a certain point in their lecture, and they can immediately react to this by elaborating on this point. A face-to-face contact is the least complex and at the same time most informative communication medium. Another reason for the commitment to the power of communication at one place and one time might simply be a consequence of the fact that most of us have been raised in a world without an internet. We all have mastered the 'art of the spoken word' (and of listening to someone who speaks to us by moving the molecules of the air), but we are still in the elementary phase of learning the 'art of computer-mediated communication'. How advanced or restricted a digital learning environment may be, the most decisive asset in communication processes is the mastery of skills required to handle the specific medium for specified goals.

The chance that online communication in digital learning environments is 'really personal' depends only partially on the technical-communicative features of the software that is used, and mainly on the communicative skills of both students and teachers to use the available tools in a sensible way. I have argued before that computer-mediated communication can certainly create a sense of social presence [Benschop 1996-2000, Goffman 1963, Steinfort 1999]. Not the direct physical presence but social presence is the essence of the social interaction. TeleTOP may not be the most ideal communication medium to facilitate group members to get the feeling of a socially present other with whom one can communicate interactively. However, TeleTOP in its present state is only a momentum in a very fast developing process of which the end is nowhere near in sight. The digitalised versions of the communication tools that can be used in virtual learning environments will approach the richness of the co-located face-to-face interactions more and more. The digitalised reunion of text, face and voice will bring social presence even closer in reach, so that physical presence will be almost as good as real, i.e. virtually imitated [Benschop 1997]. This being said, the value of computer-mediated communication must not be measured by the extent to which it can duplicate the qualities of face-to-face communications. Computer-mediated communication offers many more - synchronous and asynchronous - qualities which are difficult or impossible to realise in face-to-face situations.

The borders between face-to-face and computer-mediated interactions will fade away. However, not all forms of socialisation can be transferred to a digital medium. Although the first digital technologies have already been put on the market, we cannot really smell and touch each other in virtual worlds. At least at this moment computer-mediated communication doesn't allow the exchange of all signals sent and received in face-to-face contact. This actual restriction of computer-mediated communication however is less relevant for communication in educational processes. In the ever increasing globalisation of the online supply of courses it is of paramount importance that we learn to practise new styles of interacting and communicating in that new continent we call educational cyberspace. That could or should be quite an interesting challenge.

Maybe it's time to disenchant the magic of face-to-face communication. Face-to-face communication has been called 'really personal' and 'direct', and computer-mediated communication has been presented as its negative mirror: anonymous, non-personal and indirect. But how many teachers can recall the names of their students they met in co-located work groups? And what is the difference between the frustrating experience of not getting 'contact' with your teachers because they were not physically present at their work place, or teachers that don't react to emails or papers of their students? In digital learning environments teachers can always effectively retreat behind the electronic defense system: some teachers have a talent for making themselves invisible at times when their students want to communicate with them.

The general conclusion of this section is summarised in this reflection.

"My question is whether you really have to meet someone to build up good contact. I had not met teacher X, yet I developed the best bonds with him. That was because of his personal and sensible way of communicating. A number of teachers seemed nice in real time, but turned out to be virtual monsters or terribly detached" [student].

Futures of Telecoaching

One of the advantages of online learning processes is that students (and teachers) can much more easily make their work visible for fellow students and actually for anybody (if it is published and distributed on the internet). This also implies a change of attitude. Students have a tendency to keep their work for themselves, mainly out of insecurity. Students have to learn to show their work to others and to share their work. They have to get rid of the idea that the others are there to criticise their work to the ground and exchange it for the idea that students are there to learn from each other. Therefore is recommendable to stimulate students to take a more open stance towards each other's work. "I thought we are there to learn from each other instead of slashing each other. I don't think this has been supported sufficiently in our training. To tell the truth, in general I think it has been a traditional training in a new technological jacket." [student]

Distance matters. In online courses, without any on-campus meetings, all required facilities (study material, software, administrative and technical support) should be within reach of the students online. The TAET students came from all parts of the country and some students had to travel 10 hours or more to get to the university and back home again. For students who live far away it is a waste of time and money to have to travel a long distance just to make use of, for example, library facilities.

Students have signalled relatively many signs of frustration and resignation. "I just did not have any idea how I could knit all this together into a decent end before the last of the 365 days after the beginning of our training." [student] Many of these frustrations could have been avoided if instructors and programme management had reacted more sensibly to these signals of discontent. However, when a massive amount of reading material and the diversity of all the assignments is combined with a time limit of one year, such frustrations cannot easily be avoided.

We have stressed the importance of collaborative learning among students in online learning processes. Students need to cooperate closely in order to discover the various domains of knowledge that are represented in the TAET course. But this is true for teachers as well. Teachers have to cooperate closely with colleagues on their own knowledge domain and beyond in order to create FAQs, assignments, quizzes and joint feedback.

In the future teachers should be better facilitated to make room for telecoaching, and especially for providing the students with online feedback. Their time division and management of their working time must be based on other criteria: less on time for lectures, work groups, preparation and follow up, and more on the basis of time needed to facilitate a mostly internet-based learning process.

No training is perfect. In the discussion of the empirical results we have seen which elements students missed in TAET from the perspective of their future professional practice. We can now summarise these elements in an additional wish list for improvement of the TAET courses. The common denominator of this wish list is the attempt to bridge the gap between the training and real practice.

TeleTOP and Open Source

TeleTOP is a relatively advanced digital learning environment that was designed to do what most of these integrated and higher-end applications were supposed to do: giving the teachers better tools to improve their conventional educational practice. TeleTOP aimed to be and actually operated as the 'digitally stretched arm' of teachers who did not have problems with the 'traditional' formal style of instruction, or who did not have the means or resources to develop more student-centred forms of education. TeleTOP is a course environment that is put in order by the application manager according to the needs and wishes of the instructor. In comparison with other electronic learning environments - such as BlackBoard or WebCT - TeleTOP seems to fall short of functionalities and ease of use. Important features that are not yet built into TeleTOP are: registration of user behaviour (except for uploaded papers); portfolio system for documents, results and progress of the student; chat/whiteboard; videoconferencing; personal homepage for students; uploading of multiple files; synchronisation and exchange of data of learning environment and student administration; online enrolment/registration (self-enrolment) and guest account; document sharing; tracking course and personal tasks; agenda, i.e. a calendar to view events from all courses as well as to add students' own personal calendar items. Portfolio and chat features will be built in the next version [see for an extensive and thorough comparison of recent digital learning environments: Surf 2000]. In general one could say that TeleTOP is relatively well-developed as a tool for teachers, but for students it provides too little room to interact, communicate and collaborate. That is why I recommend the constructors of TeleTOP to enhance the communicative and collaborative features of the system so that it can operate as the 'digitally stretched arm' for students as well. Actually, in a webbased environment students have many more opportunities to communicate, to collaborate, to publish and correct their own work and to interact with their peers and teachers. And these new opportunities may be very rewarding for teachers as well [Collis & Meeuwsen 1997].

Years ago the faculty in Twente has chosen to make their own electronic learning environment instead of buying it. This courageous decision has led to the production of the still evolving TeleTOP system. We can observe a growing competition between and among university-funded, local systems and commercial systems that are privately financed and globally used. The outcome of this competition cannot be predicted. But you don't have to be a prophet to predict that the university-funded, local systems have to work very hard and progressively harder to keep up the space and to stay in the race.

Linux is distributed under the GNU General Public License. This is a "free" license giving anyone the right to modify its source code and redistribute it as they see fit. Because of this, Linux is surrounded by a talented and friendly community of developers dedicated to the improvement of this software. Part of the GPL states that code must be given away for free or for a nominal fee to cover costs of media (i.e. CD-ROMs). Therefore, most (or all) free software is available to anyone online.
No one really owns or controls Linux, although Linus Torvalds owns the trademark for the name and leads kernel development. Linux and its distributions have been created by a large community, and thus belong to everybody. There are companies, such as Red Hat or VA Linux Systems, who provide Linux services, although they do not own or control Linux itself.
Maybe other forms of cooperation and networking are feasible between the two extremes of making or buying an electronic learning environment. In this respect we can learn a lot from the Open Source policy that has been applied in the development of other applications and operating systems. The most famous example of such software is the Linux operating system. Although it was created by Linus Torvalds the system was developed collaboratively over the Internet. Linux is the great success story of Open Source software development. Although TeleTOP is not an operating system, the same principle and policy could be applied in the development of an electronic learning environment. Therefore the question arises what the future of TeleTOP might look like when their managers and programmers don't consider exploring the strategy of the 'Open Source model' or 'Dare to Share model'.


The title of this thesis is structuring the learning experience. At the end of this project we can draw some more general conclusions. Conclusions that answer the questions that were posed in the beginning. The leading question was what activities and roles of coaches have an impact on the learning process as well as on the development of a learning community?

  1. Stimulating self-reflective learning practices
    In the first part of this leading question I wanted to know what the activities of coaches are that stimulate and moderate self-reflective learning practices. As I already indicated in some previous conclusions the most stimulating aspect of telecoaching is proper feedback, in the sense that it is timely, personal, constructive, stimulating and motivating. Or in a broader perspective: the main obstacle for a successful application of the new non-linear learning principles is the intensity and flexibility of telecoaching and especially of feedback. The outcome of this research is that the feedback that was given in the TAET training can be qualified as variable and as a whole moderate. The TAET training had best be improved by strengthening the feedback combined with more attention in the construction of assignments. Assignments are signposts that structure the learning experience of students, they demarcate the direction(s) students can take in their problem solving and they give them some tools to pave their own learning trajectory. In the action of this process teachers are supposed to supply return-information on the progression and results of students' labour. Students expect this feedback to be suitable, because it is the stepping stone and point of support in the development of their learning process.

  2. Developing a learning community
    I have argued at length why collaborative learning is important and how this can emerge within a learning community. In the empirical study I wanted to find an answer to the question: to which extent and in which forms has a learning community been developed in the course? The answer is clear: in the TAET training no recognisable learning community came into being (although several attempts have been made in that direction). Certainly at the end of the course many students considered this to be a major lack. I therefore recommend that the TAET training be improved in such a way that the conditions for the construction of a learning community are fulfilled. These conditions are time, stimulation and tools. Collaboration requires investment in time for the development of a learning community. It also requires stimulation and monitoring on the part of teachers and programme management. And last but not least, it requires specific tools and skills to build a vivid learning community. The TeleTOP tool should enhance the communicative and collaborative features of the system in such a way that it can operate as the 'digitally stretched arm' for students as well.

The outcome of this research sustains the hypothesis of the 'revolution of the rising telecoaching expectations' in many ways. Distance education students often have or develop different expectations from coaches than students in conventional education. They operate in a much more flexible learning environment and can work at their own pace. Therefore they expect immediate feedback at the moment when they need it. The introduction and experience of teleducation generates a growing need for telecoaching. We have also seen how this 'revolution' puts telecoaches under high pressure, especially because in the present situation many of them don't have enough time and means to respond in the expected way. Given these conditions it is admirable that some teachers performed their duties with so much exertion and involvement. This was highly appreciated by all students - and only this time including myself.

I would like to end this finale with an example of one of those expectations students could have. People who are trained to become specialists in the application of telematics in education and training, might like to publish and distribute their final product online. In this training it has been a special experience to discover a great part of relevant and recent study materials and literature on internet. For the first time students have experienced the communicative and interactive powers of the internet. Therefore they might also have learned that on the internet the production and distribution of documents are combined in one process, that publishing papers on the internet is very cost-effective and flexible, and that it facilitates communication and interaction. Nobody wants to go back to the literacy of the stone age and only few want to do without printed paper completely in the future. But what's the point of grimly holding on to supremacy of the literacy of the age of the printed word? What is the reason that so many academic institutions in some European countries still don't allow students to publish their thesis on the internet? Why should students who published their thesis in a website be forced to flatten their hypertextual construction so that it fits in the reduced paper format? It certainly belongs to the growing pains of the development of innovative online education. How soon will it become a mere footnote in the first - most exciting and most difficult - stage of the history of online learning?

After a hard day's learning it's nice to relax

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Connie Menting
Amsterdam, May, 2000
Last updated: 13th September, 2013