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Structuring the
Learning Experience


Connie Menting

"Oh! Piglet," said Pooh excitedly, "we're going on an Expotition, all of us, with things to eat. To discover something." "To discover what?" said Piglet anxiously. "Oh! just something." "Nothing fierce?"
[A.A. Milne, 'Winnie-the-Pooh']
This thesis may best be read as a quest or a kind of expedition to the relatively new virtual world of Telecoaching and Telelearning. It is a qualitative and problem-based research project on telecoaching that tries to find an answer to the question: what activities and roles of coaches have an impact on the learning process as well as on the development of a learning community? No telecoaching model is provided, but after all that was not the goal of this study. The study is aimed at the peculiarities or characteristics of telecoaching and their valuation by students in the experimental online training Telematics Applications in Education and Training, Faculty of Educational Science and Technology, University of Twente. My experiences as a student of this training and as an ex-teacher of English and ex-student counsellor, combined with the experiences of my fellow students led me to conduct this research project. From the accumulated literature it became clear that (a) not much research has been done yet on the problems students and instructors face in online educational programmes and (b) that in the few studies that have been carried out problems in online learning mostly had to do with lack of computer skills, difficulties in communication between students and teachers and lack of collaboration among students.

The theoretical framework enfolded that the structuring of learning experiences (i.e. telecoaching) is a complex process that comprises almost all levels and aspects of the educational practice. In the analytical framework a specification is given of (a) a general evaluation approach for telelearning processes, and particularly (b) a method for evaluating the telecoaching which has been practised in the TAET-course. In this analytical framework seven analytical levels have been taken into account: infrastructure, basic skills, course content, assignments, community, coaching and evaluation. These levels formed the basis for the construction of webbased questionnaires for students and teachers, which in turn formed the foundation of the empirical part. The empirical investigation, however, is not only based on the results of these questionnaires, but also on Course Information, Question & Answer Pages, Discussion Pages and Workspaces. The latter three only if they had been made available in a particular course in the electronic learning environment TeleTOP. Personal email-exchange with fellow students during the year was also 'revisited' and their observations were included, if relevant for the study. Part of the thesis under construction was presented to three TAET-teachers who critically read and discussed my results.

Besides investigating telecoaching in this training, I was interested in finding out how coaching at the Open University [Heerlen] was organised, since they have a much longer practical experience with distant learning processes. I did not do this to set up a comparative study, and not in the least to present the Heerlen 'case' as an example of 'best practice' to heap abuse on TAET/TeleTOP, but to see how the Open University solved some of the problems that emerged from the empirical part of this study. I interviewed a number of their 'coaching experts' on their experiences with the 'rising coaching expectations' of their students. I also had the opportunity to have a look at the preparatory online courses they have developed for students and teachers, which are intended to enhance their computer skills and skills to study and teach successfully in their electronic learning environment 'Studienet'. This was a very useful addition to my own research. The results of these interviews have been included in the conclusions and recommendations of this thesis.

First and foremost we can conclude that in order to study online effectively, students have to be truly well-prepared. In this study, lack of computer and internet skills, and a lack of the 'look and feel' of an electronic learning environment led to many frustrations and to running behind in courses, possibly even to dropping out. In the TAET-training students were not tested on these skills when they applied. It turned out that many students had a lot of trouble to keep up with the assignments while at the same time having to learn the required technical skills, especially skills for building websites. These frustrations might very well be avoided by a better selection procedure, in the sense that students have a chance beforehand to learn the required skills to reach a set standard and can get familiar with all facilities their electronic environment - in this case TeleTOP - has to offer. But this is not only advised as a sound preparation for students: also teachers should be well-prepared to teach online and to develop a 'feel' of the problems students may encounter in this electronic learning process. Some examples of preparatory computer/internet/electronic learning environment courses are given.

It has also been argued that in online learning processes instructions for assignments have to be clear, carefully designed and demarcated, otherwise they can lead to a lot of confusion and redundant to-and-fro emailing. It is suggested too that assignments are - from the beginning - directed towards a more or less integrated final assignment for this TAET-training, so that students can 'shape' their own work for themselves and not for the teachers. This implies that the TAET-courses - be it a core course or an optional course - are more tuned to each other, which means that teachers are well-informed on content and assignments of other courses and are willing to cooperate to achieve this goal ('culture of cooperation'). This was apparently not the case in this training and could have added more coherence and depth to the whole and could have prevented 'assignment overload'.

The essence of telecoaching seems to be feedback. Teachers should provide students with adequate, fast, constructive, motivating and personal feedback. The TAET-students have indicated that they disliked it most when feedback came too late, or not at all and when feedback was formal or detached. We have shown that this occurred in quite a few courses. Most of all they appreciated feedback that showed that the teacher was involved in their work and appeared to do something with their work. In general we can conclude that teletutors need more time to prepare and execute adequate feedback. Therefore 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 in the distribution of the educational workload. Student support costs time and money, but is also the secret of successful online learning.

Online learning facilitates collaborative learning. Students can learn from each other's previous experiences and work on interesting problems and projects together. Both the TAET-teachers and the students in general favour collaborative learning. It would have been helpful and illuminating if students could have worked on complex (aspects of) courses together and informed each other about their final project and possible future professional practices. Unfortunately, this was not stimulated by the programme management and the programme itself was too full to allow for intensive collaborative work. Collaborative learning takes an effort and there was simply no time for this. Students see this as a missed chance. There were one or two occasions in which students did cooperate on a specific task, but especially during the phases of the optional courses and final project the students worked almost in isolation. This was regretted intensely by a lot of the students.

Telecoaching is an intense process. In the TAET-training it should be intensified, at least for the students who ask for it. The students of this training were 'hauled in' as 'the chosen ones' but in the course of the training it seemed as if interest in the group faded. Many students developed the feeling in the course of the training that they were left on their own. In this thesis it is recommended that students are coached - both by teachers and programme management - in their development of constructing websites or instructional design models for online learning, and in their integration-effort to get a clear picture of the complex connections between the themes and theories, tools and practices of the various courses that were presented. Students should also be offered the opportunity to work towards their final project from the beginning of the training. It is important that right from the beginning students are informed about possible themes and professional domains which could be the subject or focus of their final project and thesis. This could have structured their learning process much more effectively.

The issue of the division between face-to-face and computer-mediated communication is raised. Some students and teachers regret the fact that there were so few on-campus meetings and that there was so little opportunity to get to know each other. I argue that co-presence is not a necessary condition for a feeling of social presence. The communication forms that can be used in virtual learning environments approach the richness of the co-located face-to-face interactions more and more. Computer-mediated communication offers many more - synchronous and asynchronous - qualities which are difficult or impossible to realise in face-to-face situations. The main point is whether it is really necessary to meet someone to develop satisfactory personal communication. Maybe it's time to disenchant the magic of face-to-face communication. As one TAET-student put it: "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."

TeleTOP, the electronic learning environment in which the TAET-teachers and students operated, is relatively advanced and was designed to do what many of these integrated and higher-end applications are supposed to do: giving teachers better tools to improve their conventional educational practice. It is argued that TeleTOP provides too little room for students 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. The question is also raised whether TeleTOP - in this age when highly advanced electronic learning environments shoot up like mushrooms - should not apply more 'open source' politics and if possible 'dare to share' with others.

Piglet tries to be happy

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