Peculiarities of Cyberspace


"A complaint from a client is a gift from heaven."

Choice of subject

This thesis focuses on the importance of the role of the teacher as a telecoach in online learning processes. It is my final project for the post-academic MSc training 'Telematics Applications in Education and Training' at the University of Twente (Faculty of Educational Science and Technology). This training is described in detail in the empirical part of this thesis. Yet, not only the content of the training is described but also coaching within the training, since that is the subject of my research project.

I have chosen telecoaching as my main research subject from two angles:

  • my background as a teacher of English and student counsellor in regular, secondary education;
  • my experiences as a student in this experimental online training.

When I was a teacher of English at a secondary school somewhere in Holland I did my utmost to be a good coach for my pupils. I have experienced that many students benefit enormously from good coaching by their teachers. Most students greatly appreciate a personal approach, the 'human touch'. Personal attention for and help with their study problems is likely to increase their motivation and often their results. Unfortunately quite a few teachers do not endorse this view or simply aren't capable of providing good supervision or coaching or don't consider it to be important.

Another reason for pursuing this subject is that I study Telematics Applications in Education and Training [TAET] at the University of Twente. It is a one-year experimental study, fully at a distance - apart from a few face-to-face meetings on-campus - and subsidised by the European Social Fund. My role has changed now: from being a teacher and coach in the face-to-face delivery mode I have become an online distance student, experiencing telecoaching for the first time in my life. Both roles have an impact on my view of telecoaching.

Telecoaching is a relatively new field of expertise. This means that we only have limited experiences and evaluations of these experiences of telelearners. It also means that there are very few differentiated and tested models for telecoaching. The particularities of telecoaching are still mainly weighed against the defining characteristics of conventional, formal lecturing styles. Telecoaching is still looking for its own form. Yet, there are some basic characteristics and possible features that we can identify. When we put these bits and pieces together - which I tried in this study - a remarkable picture arises. It is a picture of a completely transformed educational principle and practice. We have just started to experiment with telecoaching, and it is amazing to see the speed at which the practice and theory of telecoaching progresses.

In an online educational programme, in which there is hardly any face-to-face contact with instructors, different demands are made on coaching, both in the instructional and the interactive or communicative sense. Coaching is important in any field or form of education. In my view coaching in distance educational programmes is even more important and requires specific strategies and skills [Mason & Weller 2000, Prendergast 2000]. Coaching has to be organised in such a way that asynchronous learning can take place in a fruitful way. In this research project I will try to present a clear view on the essentials en peculiarities of telecoaching.

Research question and general design of the study

My final project consists of an analysis of our TAET programme as to coaching aspects. The main research question in this thesis is: what activities and roles of coaches have an impact on the learning process as well as on the development of a learning community? This general question can be divided into two subquestions:

  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 next section I have outlined the theoretical background of this project: Telecoaching in Theory. I analyse the main characteristics of and problems involved in the process of telecoaching. This results in an analytical framework for the evaluation of telelearing: Evaluating Telelearning. This second section also describes the project in question as a qualitative research project, that makes use of webbased questionnaires for students and teachers, supplemented by expert interviews. A description of the electronic learning environment, TeleTOP, will be included and course documents and communication tools are consulted for further information.To top it off, interviews with coaching 'experts' of the Open University (Heerlen) will be included to make some comparisons and to illustrate certain conclusions. In the third section I present the results of my empirical research, starting with a description of the TAET course: Empirical Results. In the fourth and last section Conclusions and Recommendations are drawn based upon the empirical results and expert consultations.

Next to these four main sections, and apart from the list of used Literature, my thesis contains several other related documents. In four annexes I elaborate on themes such as the meaning of Hypertextual Skywriting for non-linear learning processes, the importance of clearly organised Navigation Structures in educational sites, some principles and pros & cons of Web Design in online courses.

In the last annex I have written A Personal View. I was a participant in this course myself so I was able to combine empirical results with 'a view from within'. But this also made it sometimes hard to make a clear distinction between the results of my empirical research and my personal experiences and views. To smoothen this process of tearing myself apart, I stored my strictly personal experiences, views and criticism in a separate document.

It should be emphasised that my research project is not focused on the design of a new instructional model for this training (design of an effective training strategy, information presentation and so on). It is primarily directed at tracing the problems connected with online coaching and learning and provides suggestions for improvements. In my theoretical framework I have held on to this problem-directed approach, without any pretension of a 'systematic theory'. That is why I call it 'telecoaching in theory' and not 'theory of telecoaching'. In the empirical and conclusive chapters I have followed a similar logic: tracing literature on the problems involved in telecoaching and telelearning, designing an analytical framework for the evaluation of telelearning, and collecting and processing data according to this analytical framework.


In this study I will use the terms online learning, distance education, webbased learning and telelearning more or less indiscriminately, although I know they cannot be equalled. When I use these terms I refer to educational programmes that are to a great extent delivered through the internet. When I refer to telecoaching I mean teachers' support in instruction and communication within virtual learning environments. When I use the term traditional education this refers to frontal or formal educational practices that are described in the section in which I make a comparison between non-linear telelearning and traditional learning. To enlarge the contrast I only present a simplified - and perhaps even exaggerated - picture of the traditional education practices and the frontal style of teaching.


Writing this thesis has been a wonderful, instructive and fascinating experience. When I started the project I realised that - as a researcher and participant of the training - it was of the utmost importance to remain as objective as possible. Writing a webbased thesis made it easy for me to let different people (students and teachers) read parts of it in different phases of its development. This was tremendously stimulating and I am very grateful to quite a number of people.

First of all I would like to thank my mentor, Hans van der Meij. With his critical remarks he helped me structure my ideas, gave me a lot of food for thought, and most importantly urged me to make my own choices in my research. In times of severe insecurity his kind and constructive reactions helped me to overcome my fears.

Secondly, my external mentor, Albert Benschop, who patiently and - foremost - lovingly supported me during the whole training. As my private tutor, living only one floor below, he helped me enormously to structure my learning experience and never let me down when I almost lost my nerves.

I thank all the TAET teachers who took the time to fill out my questionnaire, and especially Wim de Boer, Alfons ten Brummelhuis and Tim de Jong who gave their comments on the first draft of the empirical results. They patiently and critically read the text and discussed omissions and disputable issues with me at length. With my two mentors they gave me the self-confidence to go on with my work.

I also thank Willibrord Huisman, Marcel van der Klink and Wil Verreck who gave me the opportunity to look behind the scenes of the Open University (Heerlen), and the other experts of the Open University who gave me their professional views on some complex coaching issues. Ton Korver (Katholieke Universiteit Brabant) was so kind to critically read this thesis and to draw my attention to some important but still sketchy telecoaching issues. With Frans Jacobs (Hogeschool Maastricht) I developed a mutual distant bond of support and I thank him for his efforts to find an apprenticeship and for the attentive reading of my work.

I am also very grateful to my friends and relatives who had to put up with me during this year and all the time showed their belief in my abilities.

Last but not least: during the whole training and while writing this thesis my fellow students have been of great support, most of all Sylvia Walsarie Wolff, who zipped me up daily with her cheerful and inspiring emails. Without their help and unrestricted stimulation I couldn't have finished the TAET course and I certainly couldn't have realised this research project. And this counts for all the people mentioned here.

And now all the others are saying, "What about Us?"
So perhaps the best thing to do is to stop writing Introductions and get on with the Book."
[A.A. Milne, 'The World of Pooh']

TeleCoaching in Theory

Structuring Telelearning 

Learning at a distance
In traditional education (be it secondary or higher education) pupils or students and teachers come together in a classroom or lecture-hall at the same time. The teacher takes place in front of the class and starts telling and teaching. The students are expected to pay attention, take notes, and do exercises on the spot. An essential characteristic of this type of education is that almost everything is learnt by means of teaching. This type of education is often not very effective: there is hardly any check if students really pay attention or if they have really understood what is being taught. Much subject matter seems superfluous or irrelevant to students [Benschop 1996-2000; personal experience and communication with ex-students]. Although students and teachers are physically present in the same room, the question is whether they really make use of their communication possibilities. More often than not students are afraid to ask questions. More often than not there is no room for extensive discussions (unless this is incorporated in a lesson). The students depend on their teachers as to the structuring and the content of the classes.

The rise of modern internet and telecommunication technologies makes it possible to change traditional education radically and to create webbased distance education of high quality. The communication between students and teachers and among students that is required for a fruitful learning process is not confined to the physical classroom any more. More and more educational institutions offer distance education courses, especially in higher education. Teaching and discussing topics can nowadays be realised in more or less completely virtual learning environments that facilitate all forms of synchronous and asynchronous communication, and utilise videoconferencing techniques.

Distance education, however, is not the same as 'learning at a distance'. In nearly all definitions of distance education lies the presupposition that the basis for learning is that there is someone who teaches.

"Distance education is planned learning that normally occurs in a different place from teaching and as a result requires special techniques of course design, special instructional techniques, special methods of communication by electronic and other technology, as well as special organisational and administrative arrangements" [Moore & Kearsley 1996].

Although the emphasis in this definition lies on learning it is assumed that education is a service offered to students instead of a self-directed learning process.

'Learning at a distance' places learning and the learner at the centre of the learning process. The learners are the creators of their own learning process, making use of modern communication technologies which enable them to search for the most relevant sources of knowledge. 'Learning at a distance' facilitates learning processes that are non-directive, interactive and creative. Learning styles and teaching styles will need to change in four directions:

  • A shift from frontal education ('klassikaal onderwijs') to computer-mediated access to educational resources;
  • A shift from the student as a passive receiver of education to a learning process that is student-centered;
  • A shift from individual learning to a new balance of individual and collaborative learning; and
  • A shift from homogeneous and stabilised learning content to a fast changing content that is presented in different forms and formats [Benschop 1996-2000].

Taken these points together we can say that we are moving into the direction of a student-centred approach of education that generates a higher degree of learning autonomy.

Traditional face-to-face learning versus non-linear webbased learning
In traditional learning processes people are taught subjects in a linear way, with few side-steps permitted, and this only depending on the flexibility of the instructor. Often it is a non-flexible and sometimes even boring way of both teaching and learning. I have experienced this very often myself, e.g. while giving a lecture on English literary history. It deprives learners of the possibility to work and learn according to their own pace, associations and interests. Traditional learning processes are prescriptive: authors of coursebooks and teachers dictate the path the learners are to follow. After the coursebook and the teacher have decided that a subject has been covered, the learners have to submit a test and the next subject has to be tackled. The test is usually the teacher's only check to see if a learner has mastered the subject or not. However, a sufficient mark doesn't guarantee in any way that the learner has grasped the subject. A sufficient mark can, for example, have been reached by cheating or by learning certain aspects of the subject matter by heart. Usually, if a test has been 'rewarded' by an insufficient mark, the test doesn't have to be redone, at least not in secondary education. The mark is compensated by other components of the subject. The learner usually has no opportunity to correct mistakes and submit the work again. 

Let's take a traditional English grammar course as an example. This type of course usually consists of a large set of grammatical items, such as the definite and indefinite articles, adjectives, adverbs, word order, and so on. These items are ordered and taught in a specific way over the years. In the grammar books available in Holland the first graders usually start with the use of the present continuous in English, followed by the simple present. Each grammatical item is accompanied by exercises: filling in the right grammatical forms or translating sentences from Dutch into English. And this goes on and on. From present continuous to simple present to simple past to present perfect and so on. The course books usually offer no possibilities for diversions. This also counts for integrated courses, in which grammar is not taught separately, but in a textual context of certain British events. Here text, vocabulary, grammar, listening practice and exercises are integrated in chapters, but the only diversion consists of the different items, not of the different directions that can be taken. When a grammatical item has been covered according to the teacher's standards, a test is submitted. If it turns out to be a very complex item, it is up to the teacher to decide whether to elaborate on it and give some extra exercises before the test is submitted. Again, in this specific case, a sufficient mark doesn't have to mean that the subject matter is understood.

Student who has just taken a non-linear course.
In non-linear learning processes the teacher is a facilitator of a learning route that can be followed by choosing different paths: following one's own associations, interests and pace. Learning becomes something like criss-crossing landscapes: "self exploration of the learning content by criss-crossing the learning content as a 'scout' and by doing so building one's own impression of the learning content" [Collis & Peters 2000]. It is a much more interesting and effective - and on the long run maybe even most economic - way of learning, because learning takes place through exploration, within boundaries set by the teacher, but not fully prescribed by the teacher. However, in non-linear learning processes, facilitated by webbased environments, learners have to "learn to learn" in a new way and to make the best possible use of these environments. Teachers have to "learn to teach" in a new way [Collis & Meeuwsen 1997].

Non-linear learning is not the mirror opposite of linear learning in the sense that it is completely non-directive or not focused on a more or less well-defined field or level of knowledge. Non-linear education does not prescribe but structures the learning experiences: Non-linear courses determine the boundaries in which learning behaviour can vary, and within these boundaries the chance that specific learning trajectories are actually followed. 

This general proposition has some specific implications for the design of the learning process. Learning processes should always be: (a) organised around a specific problem or cluster of problems; (b) demarcated in terms of levels of complexity and/or abstraction; (c) structured by the educational material that has been embedded in a virtual learning environment, and last not but least (d) guided by a knowledgeable and sensible educator or coach [Benschop, personal communication]. In this study I will concentrate on the last point.

An illustration of the differences may be two perceptions of how to offer history as a subject. In a traditional learning process the world's history is usually presented in a chronological (and often quite factual) way, which may lead people to believe that historical events are not related. Or, that history is established in a such a deterministic way that there is no room for critical questions like: why have historic events taken the course they have taken, if they could also have taken another course? A non-traditional presentation of history would allow people to relate historical events to each other according to their own interests and to go back and forth in history

Objectivist versus Constructivist Learning Perspectives

When we want to teach somebody, we have to know what learning means and how students expand and enrich their knowledge. It seems that the academic educators can be split in two groups with different, mutually excluding visions on learning as a cognitive or knowledge process: the objectivist and the constructivist perspectives.

Benefits of the objectivist stance

The objectivist perspective on learning and the related objective-rational instructional design model has often been criticised from the opposite, constructivist point of view [Spiro et al. 1991; Willis 1995; Tam 2000]. Therefore it might seem to be 'cursing in your own church' to pose the question if the objectivist stance has any benefits at all.One of the basic characteristics of the objectivist approach is that the learning and instruction process are sequential and linear. For both students and teachers this seems to be the most 'natural' way of working. Every part of the learning process is organised in a simple consequential order. Linear education consists of units (paragraphs, pages, articles, books) which are connected to the preceding or the following unit in a straight line from beginning to end. Students just have to follow this line and will never have to ask themselves: "What would I like to read next?" Linear education looks very much like a prearranged trip in which the whole trip and excursions are planned beforehand in a certain order by the travel agency. Students seldom 'get lost in linearity'. The greatest benefit of the objectivist stance is that this kind of education is well-embedded in the traditional (linear) way of thinking and literacy.

A serious weakness of the objectivist stance has been the lack of detailed instructional models for training complex cognitive skills. But the benefit of some recent 'instructional design models' is that they usually are strong in analysing the recurrent and non-recurrent complex cognitive skills that can lead to '(self)reflective expertise' and increased performance on transfer tasks [see for instance Merriënboer e.o. 1997]. This is especially important in a situation where there is an increasing need for effective strategies and guidelines for the training of intensive problem-solving cognitive skills.

Contructivists regard learning as an active process in which the learners create their own knowledge by experience. Objectivists, on the other hand, regard learning as a rather passive process in which knowledge is seen as something that exists independent of and external to the learner [Miller & Miller 1999; Tam 2000]. From the constructivist point of view the learning process is an active mental process in which learners construct their own knowledge, and not a process of passive reception, acquisition and reproduction of knowledge. The student's and teacher's roles have changed: in the constructivist view it is not the teacher who is central in the learning process but the student who discusses and shares his understandings in collaboration with other students and the teacher. The teacher becomes a facilitator and a guide. This is not to say that 'anything goes' [Spiro et al. 1991], i.e. that everything is right and nothing is wrong. The instructor structures the learning experience to a certain extent.

There might be some good arguments to build a 'third way' between the two polarised perspectives that dominated the educational debate for so long. In this transformational perspective non-linear education does not prescribe but structures the learning experiences. Teachers can only determine the boundaries in which learning behaviour of students can vary, and within these boundaries the chance (or structural probability) that specific learning trajectories and structures are actually followed. But teachers don't determine the specific learning trajectories or outcomes of individual students. Students have the freedom to bring their preferences and choices into the individual learning processes. They have to learn (i) how to determine and develop their own learning trajectory, (ii) how to participate in knowledge networks, and (iii) how to contribute to the 'open sources' development within the academic world. The measurement of progression in learning will be concentrated on the valuation of the results of assignments. Although peer assessment will become increasingly important, teachers will not be freed of the obligation to qualify the final result.

Learning processes should always be structured by a problematic situation or context that is central to the learning process. This is emphasised in the constructive theory tradition. The learning environment should adapt to and stimulate the learner's interest in solving puzzles (like many people are interested in solving crosswords or riddles). Essential is also that education and training take place in a collaborative situation in which the learner can make meaningful connections between prior knowledge, new knowledge and learning processes. Hypertext and webbased learning can facilitate finding these connections.

From a transformational point of view there are two central characteristics in the learning process: (a) solving of meaningful, relevant and realistically complex problems and (b) learning through interaction with others [Tam 2000]. "It is through communication with others that learners construct meaning from their experiences" [Miller & Miller 1999]. This implies a close cooperation between students and teachers and among students. It also implies that teachers no longer function as instructors but more as guides or facilitators, participating with their students in solving meaningful and realistic problems. Thus, both knowledge, authority and responsibility are shared among teachers and students. Students are no longer the 'empty barrels' into which knowledge can be poured.

What might be the consequences of these general deliberations for the learning goals and design principles of online learning processes? In webbased education I would define the general learning goals as follows:

Present a problem-solving situation in a - virtually reconstructed - realistic context: "right to work on interesting problems".

Rights and Obligations
It goes without saying that this list of 'rights' should be completed with a similar list of obligations. Obligations of teleteachers toward their students (such as to give good feedback within a reasonable time-span) and vice versa (such as student obligation to participate in the online learning community and to correct their failures). At the same time it should not be forgotten that teachers also have their rights (such as the right to the final grading or qualification of students' products).

  1. Provide opportunities for learners to collaboratively construct knowledge based on multiple perspectives, discussion and reflection: "right to cooperate with colleagues".
  2. Provide opportunities for learners to articulate and revise their thinking in order to insure the accuracy of knowledge construction: "right to make and correct failures".
  3. Create opportunities for the instructor to coach and facilitate construction of student knowledge: "right to have intensive telecoaching".

For each goal communication and information strategies and practices can be defined. The teacher has to arrange learning elements (learner navigation, access to information, self-tests, assignments etc.) to structure the learning process and the students' construction of knowledge [Miller & Miller 1999; Benschop 2000; Salmon 2000:32-35;141-2]. In this study I will concentrate on the last learning goal.

The transformational perspective has some determinate implications for non-linear instructional design that deviate from traditional instructional design:

  1. The traditional design process is sequential and linear: design, production/development, implementation and maintenance/revision. In the tranformational view the instructional design process is recursive, non-linear, complex and probably chaotic.
  2. Traditional instructional designers tend to break down content into component parts. In the transformational view designers tend to avoid this and try to construct environments in which knowledge skill, and complexity exist naturally. No more cutting of content into small pieces.
  3. In traditional design the goal is delivery of preselected knowledge. In transformational design the instructional goals evolve as learning progresses.
  4. While traditional designers tend to reduce the level of complexity transformational designers are building learning environments that facilitate the mastery of complexity in understanding by fully exploiting the hypertextual and multimedial repertoire [see below].

The design should be such as to provide learners with a rich learning environment in which they receive relevant information and guidance and in which they can learn how to build their self-regulated learning process [Willis 1995; Tam 2000]. I've elaborated on this theme on two special pages: Navigation Structures and Web Design.

Cognitive Flexibility
The Web environment, because of its associative, hyperlinking and non-linear features, is well-suited for the support of non-linear learning [Miller & Miller 1999]. Good web-design is of major concern for this kind of learning. The Cognitive Flexibility Theory (CFT) offers a framework for how to design well-navigable web sites [Spiro et al. 1991].

"Everything should be made
as simple as possible,
but not simpler"
[Albert Einstein].
Many instructional systems fail because they represent complex subject matter in an unrealistically simplifiedand over-structured manner. Many deficiencies in learning are caused by a tendency to oversimplify knowledge. This reductive bias, which occurs in many different forms, is mainly a compartmentalisation bias: conceptual elements that are really highly interdependent are treated in isolation, missing important aspects of their interaction [Spiro et al. 1991]. Teachers have a tendency to oversimplify abstract concepts in the hope that they will thus be easier to comprehend. The only domains where compartmentalisation of knowledge can work very well is in introductory learning, and in more well-structured domains, when learners have to get familiar with - well-defined and highly consensual - key concepts and indisputable facts.

Within the transformational perspective a theory of learning and instruction is emerging that has strong family resemblances with the cognitive flexibility theory: it emphasises the real world complexity and ill-structuredness of many knowledge domains. Many domains rather look like a 'patchwork quilt of competing concepts and methodologies' than a 'system of systematised knowledge'. Ill-structured knowledge is evident where: (i) each case involves multiple conceptual structures (multiple schemes, perspectives, organisational principles) each of which is individually complex; and (ii) the pattern of conceptual incidence and interaction varies considerably across cases of the same type: the domain involves cross-case irregularity [Cronin 1997].

Ill-structured knowledge domains are for example medicine, history, sociology and literary interpretation. Learning deficiencies due to subject complexity and irregularity can be remedied by means of learning processes that allow for greater cognitive flexibility.

Cognitive flexibility is the ability to:

  1. represent knowledge from different conceptual, methodological and case perspectives;

  2. represent knowledge at different levels of thematic specification or units of analysis;

  3. represent knowledge on different levels of hierarchically ordered levels of complexity or abstraction;

  4. transfer acquired knowledge to different problem-solving situations. [see also: Spiro et al. 1991]

This includes approaching problems from different conceptual viewpoints at different stages of problem solving at different stages of learning within the advanced knowledge acquisition stage [Cronin 1997]. This should lead to mastery of complex knowledge and transfer of complex knowledge.

In order to gain cognitive flexibility, flexible learning environments have to be designed in which the same items of knowledge are presented and learned in a variety of ways and from different perspectives. The computer, by its nature, is ideal for stimulating cognitive flexibility in ill-structured domains, especially because of its multidimensional and non-linear hypertext systems. Hypertext systems offer possibilities of non-linear and multidimensional traversal of complex subject matter, returning to the same place on the conceptual landscape on different occasions, coming from different directions. Learners have control, or rather should be offered the possibilities to have control to 'criss-cross' the instructional landscape in order to view subject matter from multiple perspectives [Spiro et al. 1991] and levels of complexity and/or abstraction. Multiple representations of complex subject matter and different levels of abstraction are required for full coverage of it. I've elaborated on this theme on a special page: Hypertextual Skywriting.

  • Some Famous Analogies & Metaphors
  • The base-superstructure metaphor in the Marxist inspired tradition of social theory
  • The Es-Ich-ÜberIch metaphor in the psycho-analytical tradition
  • The family analogy used to explain state and corporate economies.
  • The biological analogy of the human body used to explain the societal processes, structures and institutions.

Analogies and metaphors are situated on 'the threshold of a concept' [G.W.F. Hegel]. They are like crutches: you'll finally have to walk without them. When the analogies and metaphors have done their work - preliminary organisation of complex phenomena - you can leave them for what they are and go on with the difficult task of defining scientific concepts.

Especially at early stages of learning educators often use analogies or simple metaphors to explain complex concepts. In order to teach these complex concepts they start to reduce their complexity. This strategy of reduction, however, may interfere with more advanced treatments of the concepts later on.

The transformational perspective has some specific implications for the design and use of virtual environments. The main implication is: virtual learning environments must be constructed in such a way that they allow students to revisit the same material, at different times, in rearranged contexts, for different purposes, and from different conceptual perspectives. This is essential for attaining the goals of advanced knowledge acquisition: mastery of complexity in understanding and preparation for transfer [Spiro et al. 1991]. Realising these goals is not easy; it is not just a matter of connecting everything to everything else. The aforementioned risk of 'getting lost in cyberspace' is on the lurch when teachers are not able to build learning environments that structure the learning experience. Hypertext design should be based on a suitable theory of learning and instruction.

The general approach that is compatible with the transformational perspective is based on the steps represented in the next figure.

Risks of telelearning
From a transformational perspective learning in virtual environments seems to enable an almost perfect combination and balance of individualisation and collaboration, flexibility and structuring, articulation and reflection, complexity and transparency, non-linearity and recursiveness, that are all contributing to a stimulating and progressive student-centred learning process. But the balance between all these elements was always hard to find, and we are just passing the threshold of building and using the first generation of virtual learning environments. So we will be confronted with some old problems in substantial new contexts, and with some new risks that are immanent to all virtual learning environments. And therefore we must not be surprised to hear some objections against telearning. The three most heard of objections against telelearning are: (a) anonymity, (b) a too strong individualisation, and (c) increase in social distance between students and teachers.

  1. Anonymity
    It has become a non-argumentative statement that learning in a virtual environment will inevitably lead to a situation where students lose their personal identity and will suffer from their anonymity. The assumption of this statement is that people can only gain a sense of personal identity when they meet each other face-to-face. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) however, seems to make this traditional condition of co-presence obsolete: personal relations and networks of social relations do not necessarily presuppose physical presence in one place anymore. Personal interactions that in earlier days took place in one room, will be more and more mediated by computers. Social interaction and communication can be digitally replicated. This is possible now because the current generation of computer and telecommunication technologies allow us to duplicate almost all the cues we use in personal communication: text, sounds, pictures, movies, and even smell and - still very primitive - tactile experiences. So (the sense of) anonymity might be a transitional problem that will be solved (i) when we will get access to fully multimedial computers that are embedded in fast and reliable global networks, (ii) when we will get used to and skilled in working with these new technologies, and last but not least, (iii) when we get used to completely new - virtual - forms of personal communication and interaction. And therefore we must be realistic and say: at this moment, in this phase of learning how to live and behave in virtual environments there is a risk of anonymity. We know that some students prefer to remain anonymous and perform well in contributing to online discussions. But others become inhibited because of this feeling of anonymity. These complaints should be taken seriously. Instructors or tutors can do something about this, for example by eliciting simple social contributions in the beginning [Salmon 2000].

  2. Individualisation
    ln fully virtual learning processes a student is only connected to teachers and other students by wire. This does not necessarily mean that students are 'on their own', because virtual learning environments provide a whole range of synchronous and asynchronous forms of communication that facilitate collaborative learning processes. In ill-structured virtualisation experiments that try to copy the classical form of linear learning students will almost certainly have the experience of a much too strong individualisation that is not balanced by collective and collaborative learning activities. On the other hand online learning has to give room to acquire 'deep understanding' including the quiet to read, write and think on your own. This can best be realised with asynchronous forms of communication.

  3. Social Distance
    The real challenge of telelearning is implied in this question: how can 'distance learning' in a virtual learning environment narrow the social distance between teachers and students? The conventional 'frontal' style of teaching has always created a social gap between the ex-cathedra speaking teacher and the students as a passive, listening audience. Learning 'at a physical distance' does not necessarily imply that this social gap will be deeper. On the contrary, the variety of communication and interaction tools that are embedded in webbased learning environments can be used to reduce the social distance between teachers and students. But this will only happen when teachers and students are able to fully use the interactive potential of webbased learning processes. Most current forms of online learning look like 'broken windows' that reflect both the obstinacy of the frontal style of teaching and the laborious attempts to discover and use the interactive potential of synchronous and asynchronous forms of online communication. In this transitional phase students might easily get the impression that their teachers have retreated behind an electronic wall and that there are no new interactive places where they can meet at a more or less equal level. Complaints about increasing social distance between students and teachers have to be taken seriously. At least they indicate that it takes time and effort to realise the social-interactive potential of computer-mediated communication in learning processes.

A synchronous class is a live broadcast event. For many educational organisations, synchronous webbased training is the 'killer application' that balances their self-paced online learning with the benefits of classroom instruction. But how can we determine when it's appropriate to use synchronous forms of webbased training. Synchronous tools make sense when (i) real-time interaction with tutors or subject-matter experts is critical; (ii) face-to-face interaction is not critical; (iii) the students are geographically dispersed. A synchronous technology — instructor-directed or student-directed and conducted in real time — can be implemented to supplement self-paced webbased training or to realise a telementoring programme. Jennifer Hofmann[Jan, 2000] has made a useful compilation of the capabilities found in synchronous learning applications. Synchronous features include:
  1. Audio
    One-way or two-way audio - available in most synchronous packages - can be delivered either over the Internet or by using a phone bridge (audioconferencing). Audio provides the most common synchronous medium.
  2. Shared Whiteboards
    The shared whiteboard is the synchronous equivalent of the traditional flipchart, allowing instructors and participants to post ideas and to illustrate them. Images can be placed on prepared whiteboards ahead of time, or can be pasted on the fly. Sophisticated whiteboards can be archived for reuse in asynchronous applications or emailed to class participants.
  3. Synchronised Web Browsing
    This capability allows instructors or participants to 'guide' the rest of the class to any site on the internet or intranet. A variation of the feature allows browsers to also be used to run short, self-paced exercises as part of a synchronous session.
  4. Text Chat: Virtual Classroom
    Chat allows another avenue for interaction between the students and the instructor. Private chat messages to the instructor allow students to signify if they're having difficulty with the material or need to step away, without disrupting the session. Chat dialogues can be saved for future reference. Participants who are shy and reserved are more likely to interact when text chat options are available.
  5. Application Viewing/Sharing
    This feature allows the instructor to share applications with participants over the synchronous application. There are many varieties of this capability - ranging from viewing only on the client side to the ability of learners to upload and share applications. Participants can share applications that allows simultaneous editing by multiple users. This is ideal for long-distance, collaborative work efforts.
  6. Content Windows
    Content windows are used by instructors to display content in plain text, smart text, HTML, PowerPoint, Excell, or other Web-ready media. Some products limit the types of file formats that can be displayed via content windows.
  7. Video
    More sophisticated synchronous applications offer a one-way or two-way video. This is a very powerful, but also the most bandwidth- and technology-intensive tool. In most actual learning conditions this will limit its use to audiences with broadband connections. The exception is the use of streaming media in one-way video configurations, which can be fed to participants on connections as slow as 56 Kbps. One of the factors that will drive videoconferencing into the mainstream is that it saves on travel expenses. However, what really separates the teleconference from the conference call, what makes videoconferencing so provocative, is the whiteboard. This particular application can be used to mutually manipulate charts and graphs, or to effectively communicate some other visual elements.
  8. Discussion Boards
    An asynchronous feature of some synchronous products, discussion boards are used to post class information, FAQs, pre- or post-session assignments, insights of subject-matter experts, and other information relevant to the synchronous session.
  9. Record and Playback
    Many e-learning platforms allow the instructor and/or student to record synchronous events, play them back later, and edit them into asynchronous sessions. This feature benefits individuals who miss sessions and allows quick creation of asynchronous training content.
  10. Breakout Rooms
    This feature allows individual students or small groups to share information within a larger synchronous session. It is ideal for training sessions in which separate teams or groups can share specific content.
  11. Polling
    Polling is the ability to conduct instant polls of participants (quizzes, self tests, surveys). The results of these polls are displayed in a graphic format and allow the instructor to gauge participant knowledge during the session. This feature is increasingly common in synchronous packages. Polling is particularly valuable when the audience is large and soliciting feedback individually is impractical.
  12. Hand-Raising and Yes/No Buttons
    This feature allows the instructor to direct questions to the entire class or individuals, and offer participants software-based options for responding or getting the instructor's attention. This is a common feature of many packages that rely on two-way interaction between instructor and learner. It is the communication binary model of the principle that has been eloquently argued by Dick Morris - the former chief strategist and political advisor in the 1996 campaign of (the former president?) Bill Clinton.
  13. Pre-Session Content Distribution
    Some packages include features for providing content to participants' PCs prior to the session that is then integrated into the session, allowing for less streaming and more interactivity.
  14. Assessment/Testing/Scheduling
    Although these features are common in most learning management applications, nowadays they are beginning to show up in synchronous applications as well. Instructor are allowed to conduct pre- and postsession assessments and tests, the results of which can be automatically tabulated and saved.

Not one product currently encompasses all these capabilities, and not one capability is universal in the sense that it demonstrates the diversity of synchronous products.

Peculiarities of Telecoaching 

Prerequisite skills of coaches/teachers 
Relatively little is known about what an instructor should know to be a good coach or facilitator. There are some guidelines to scaffold students learning electronically: for instruction, offering feedback, asking questions, structuring meaningful tasks, etc. [Bonks e.a. 2000]. But these guidelines are only a first step. It is crucial that the role of the teacher be redefined.

The Open University Business School has developed online training for around 300 of their tutors. "We believed that the tutors needed to be exposed, in a real but risk-free online environment, both to the software and to the way learning can be developed online before they themselves assumed the role of moderator" [Salmon G., Developing learning through effective online moderation, Active Learning 9: 3-8 (1998)].

In online learning processes the teacher will be introduced in a different way than in regular education. Teachers who want to gain their students' confidence will have to present themselves in a very distinct and open way. Moreover, and more importantly, teachers will have to be trained thoroughly to be able to operate in online learning processes. Tutors (or teachers) have to be trained for this purpose in 5 different stages [Salmon 1998:25-37]:

  1. Access and motivation
    A stage in which the tutors are supported in gaining access to the virtual learning environment. Tutors must be able to ensure that the students are welcomed and motivated and to point to sources of help in gaining access to the learning environment.

  2. Online socialisation
    A stage in which the tutors learn to take part in the online learning community. Tutors must be able to build bridges to ensure that the students make the successful transition from operating in the familiar face-to-face learning world to the new virtual environment of learning online. A key feature of online learning is that it is interactive and collaborative. The role of the tutor is that of enabling effective and purposeful collaboration.

  3. Information giving and receiving
    A stage in which the tutor learns to find his or her way in the huge amount of information that is available. Tutors must be able to act as research leader and supporter in assisting the user in identifying and finding the information he or she really wants. Reference point: "If you don't know where you are going, then any road will take you there" [Alice in Wonderland].

  4. Knowledge construction
    A stage in which they learn how to make use of interaction in order to create a new cognitive process. Tutors and students must learn to work together to generate and make new meanings through their collaboration. Tutors must be able to provide stimulus and facilitate the process of interaction. "Knowledge construction occurs when students explore issues, take positions, discuss their positions in an argumentative format and reflect on and re-evaluate their positions" [Jonassen et al. 1995].

  5. Development
    A stage in which the learner becomes independent online. Tutors must be able to provide encouragement and, if necessary, access to facilities to encourage the individual to continue his or her self-development through the medium. Tutors progressively withdraw as the students become more self-directed.

Mason & Weller [2000] suggest similar measures to prepare teachers for online teaching. Since teachers have new skills to learn and new working practices to adopt they need the help of experienced tutors and help with the use of technical issues (e.g. conferencing software). They could benefit from ready-made activities and support conferences (in which they receive help with building educational sites).

Need of additional skills
Although it is obvious that in quite a few respects online teaching is different from traditional face-to-face teaching, there is hardly any recognition of this fact yet and often there are no resources available to prepare teachers adequately. Staff members are often not properly prepared to undertake the tasks they have to perform with the use of the new medium. Teachers should be given the opportunity to experience online learning themselves. This will make them more aware of the problems their students will have and make them more supportive. Moreover, too often teachers have to develop online skills alone and in the process they will experience the same problems and frustrations as their students. They should be offered computer training to reduce computer anxiety [Prendergast 2000].

Prerequisite skills of students
In order to follow an online course successfully, students also have to develop several new skills that they don't need as much in face-to-face education. First of all, students have to get acquainted and comfortable with their computer and its possibilities. They have to know how to browse the web and find relevant information. Students have to become familiar with the electronic learning environment in which they learn and how to interact in conferences and group work [Mason & Weller, 2000].

All cases of online education studied made it clear that a certain level of technical skills is a first prerequisite for successful online studying. But these skills are usually developed during and not before the course, thus taking up a lot of the students' valuable course time. Novices in 'computerland' say that they spend much more time on an online course, especially in the beginning, due to having to learn these technical skills. Mason & Weller [2000] report that in one of their 1999 courses - due to a delay in course mailings - "computer novices did not have sufficient time to get comfortable using their PC before the course started." They wrote a booklet for the 2000 course to help make newcomers familiar with Windows, navigation and study skills, so they had about 2 months' time to prepare themselves. An online orientation course or training may help students understand the communication complexities of asynchronous text-based communication and provide them with competencies for learning with new media [Wegerif 1998]. Students new to computer-mediated communication need to feel comfortable in the new medium first. They should be trained and inducted first, preferably online to get the 'feel' [Salmon 2000].

Yet, not only technical computer skills are required in online learning. Since students do not have a 'physical' guide to steer them through a course, they have to create their own discipline and motivation to come to independent learning. They have to 'learn to learn'. In the 'learning to learn'-process in webbased environments Collis and Meeuwsen [1997] distinguish 5 different levels of skills and indicate the problems involved in acquiring these skills levels:

  1. Articulation and reflection
    It is quite difficult for students to reach a 'proper' level of articulation and reflection due to the relative newness of webbased environments. Students have to deal with new concepts, learn a new language (computer-speech and network-jargon), and develop computer and network skills. Acquiring these skills usually take up so much of their reflection time that there's hardly any time left to reflect on their study material, let alone on their own performance (see also 5: self-evaluation). It also makes it difficult for students to articulate their problems.

  2. Planning skills
    Also due to the newness of web environments realistic planning is difficult because students are not prepared for the technical problems they will encounter, do not know how much time these problems will take, or how long it will take to perform any other task to work properly with their computer.

  3. Study skills
    While in traditional education students have a long period to acquire 'proper' study skills, they have to start anew in a webbased environment.·Students not only have to learn from webbased information, they also have to develop some new social competencies, such as "networking (building a close circle of people), team-working (collaborate and share knowledge) and dialoguing ('rid your minds of any preconceptions and listen to arguments with full attention and without trying to interject')" [Jacobs 2000]. Although these competencies can also be developed within a local and formal learning environment, in online learning processes they not only are much more critical ('strategic competencies') but they are also strongly facilitated by virtual learning environments.

  4. Finding and applying relevant examples and resources
    This is a complex matter because so much material is available on the internet and students usually have to find their own way in a maze of information. Students have to learn how to search the internet: using virtual libraries, subject guides, search engines, meta search engines and special navigators. And students must learn how to evaluate the quality of online documents and information systems: using criteria such as accessibility, credibility, coverage, accuracy, currency and design.

  5. Self-evaluation
    It is already difficult for instructors to support self-evaluation in traditional learning. In webbased education this will most certainly not be easier. The reason for this is that students engaged in virtual learning environments use so many different resources and take so many different learning paths. Therefore support of self-evaluation should be differentiated for several learning trajectories.

Monitoring the development of these skills and monitoring student progress is of the utmost importance, but is complex and time-consuming. It's not easy to monitor students' problems and their technical skills level, because they are easily embarrassed when they have problems with their PC, software and the learning environment. It's not easy to monitor students' cooperation and their individual and group progress.

A sense of social presence
Student surveys at the Open University UK from over nearly 30 years show that the support and guidance of a tutor is a crucial component in students' satisfaction with their learning experience. If there are no face-to-face meetings the tutor's quality as a good coach is of paramount importance if students' satisfaction and support is a serious goal [Mason & Weller 2000]. In webbased courses students should never be 'left on their own' with no support, direction or leadership. This is where the telecoach comes into the virtual classroom [Salmon 2000].

Early studies on CMC were based on the filtered-cues position. The medium internet was described as one bereft of social context cues. These cues define the social nature of the situation and the status of those present and include aspects of the physical environment, body language, and paralinguistic characteristics. Because these cues are largely filtered out in CMC, the internet has been described as a lean medium that is relatively anonymous. In more recent studies the benefits of online anonymity for teaching and learning have been stressed, such as increased equity and higher participation rates.

Without the cues that can sometimes obstruct contributions, otherwise quiet students might find a voice. Other authors have questioned the assumptions and research findings associated with the filtered-cues approach. From the perspective of social information processing, Walther [1996] has argued that CMC can be as deeply relational as face-to-face interaction. All that is required is sufficient time and message exchange. The narrow bandwith may at this time deny users non-verbal cues, but they adapt to the medium and use textual cues to form impressions of other. CMC not only provides for the interpersonal, but also for the hyperpersonal.

Hyperpersonal is a more intimate and socially desirable exchange than face-to-face interactions. According to Walther, the hyperpersonal nature of CMC is enhanced when long-term future interaction is anticipated and when no face-to-face relationship exists. In cyberspace people can construct impressions and present themselves without the interferences of environmental reality.

It goes without saying that telecoaching requires different skills than traditional coaching. In the absence of mutual physical presence and of physical cues the instructor has to resort to different strategies to guide the students. Quite often this lack of physical presence is regarded as one of the main objections against distance education, but it need not be. After all, the question is whether physical presence in a physical space is actually needed to develop a sense of co-presence. Goffman's classical definition of the condition of co-presence has been: "persons must sense that they are close enough to be perceived in whatever they are doing, including their experiencing of others and close enough to be perceived in this sensing of being perceived" [Goffmann 1963:8]. The question is whether you have to be in someone's physical proximity to experience being perceived in what you are doing.

  • "The combination of computer and telecommunication technologies has paved the way for a revolutionary compression of time and space. The acceleration of time and the contraction of space have created completely new possibilities for personal interaction and direct communication. Many forms of social interaction and communication can be mediated by computers which are connected to Internet. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) seems to make the traditional condition of copresence obsolete: personal relations and networks of social relations do not necessarily presuppose physical presence in one place anymore" [Benschop 1996-2000].

Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) is "the process by which people create, exchange, and perceive information using networked telecommunications systems (or non-networked computers) that facilitate encoding, transmitting, and decoding messages" [John December 2000]. Computer-mediated communication can certainly create a sense of social presence [Steinfort 1999; Benschop 1997-1998]. The essence of the social interaction is not the direct physical presence, but social presence, that is the ability of a communication medium to allow the group members to feel the presence of an actor with whom one can communicate interactively.

Teaching online and not being involved in face-to-face education may also have the advantage that teachers are not confronted with some aspects of physical copresence that most of them don't want to transfer into a digital environment, such as bored faces or other annoying aspects of some students that occur in local classrooms [Lucinda SanGiovanni, personal email].

Teaching in cyberspace has also given us a chance to (re)view the familiar in our educational practice, thereby using our life online to inform our face-to-face teaching. Debates about new educational technologies have led to a (re)viewing of pedagogy [Atkins 1991; Chester/Gwynne 1998].

A sense of accomplishment
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].

  • "Teaching, especially online teaching, provides an immediate sense of accomplishment and a means to exercise one's creativity" [Bonks et al. 2000].

In the physical classroom teachers often have to deal with a large group of students. In Dutch secondary education many classes consist of 30 pupils. Individual assistance in such large groups is nearly impossible or given outside of the regular classes. The largeness of the group and the teacher-centredness of face-to-face education makes extensive communication and collaboration almost impossible. Yet, if given the chance, students do communicate with each other, but most often about matters that are personal and have nothing to do with what is being dealt with in the lesson.

The added value of online learning is that instructors can offer their students more individual assistance, and can stimulate learning through collaboration. This will take up (much) more tutoring time, especially for the novice online teacher. This might be one of the most resistant obstacles for the future of telelearning. Especially because at the present time the staff is often not properly prepared to undertake the tasks they have to perform with the use of the new medium [Prendergast 2000]. Yet, spending extra time doesn't always have to be seen in a negative light, especially not when it can make the learning experience more meaningful [Mason & Weller 2000].

Distance education students often have different expectations than students in conventional education. Since they learn in a much more flexible learning environment and more often than not can work at their own pace they expect immediate feedback at the moment when they need it. For example if instructions are not clear, which asks for a prompt reply because otherwise students cannot continue with their work. In physical face-to-face situations the problem of ambiguous instructions and expectations can easily be solved. In asynchronous communication there may be a significant delay in the teacher's answering of the students' questions [Hara & Kling 2000]. This is a serious problem because teachers will never be available all the time. However, the necessity of explicit instruction and of timely feedback is taken very seriously in many studies, and it can save the teachers a lot of time and stress. Teachers and students should learn to manage their expectations about timely and effective communication. They must find the practical solutions that can create a balance between increased coaching expectations of students and the time limitations of teachers.

Frustrations in online learning
Until recently, most research on distance education emphasised its virtues and paid little or no attention to the difficulties students experienced [Hara & Kling 2000]. These researchers focused on distress: feelings of isolation, anxiety, confusion and panic in an online learning process. The original research question was on how students learnt to overcome their feelings of isolation in order to create a community of learning. It turned out that isolation wasn't the main problem. Frustration, confusion and anxiety were. There are two main sources of distress: (a) technical and technological problems due to lack of skills, (b) problems with course content and instructor's practices in managing the communications with students, and (c) problems with communication conventions and rules.

  1. Technical and technological problems concerned for example not being able to keep up in MOO field trips because of lack of knowledge of what to do, how to perform, or because intended commands didn't work. Lack of technical skills are mentioned in almost every study [Hara & Kling 2000, Wegerif 1998, Mason & Weller 2000, Salmon, 1998, Salmon 2000, Prendergast 2000, Rowntree 1995]. Another source of frustration is the lack of immediate technical assistance. Frustration can also be stimulated by unclear technical prerequisites: saying that no prior knowledge of HTML is needed, and having students build a website as one of the first assignments (this was also the case in our TAET training) .

  2. Students can get frustrated and confused when they have problems with course content, teachers' instructions and feedback. The case study of Hara & Kling demonstrate that most students get increasingly anxious due to ambiguous instructions of the teacher, lack of clarification of instructions and lack of teacher support. They usually stopped asking for clarifications after asking for a second time and again not understanding the explanation. Teachers often underestimate the problems the students are confronted with and have to be more explicit and specific in their assignments.

  3. Another source of frustrations is anxiety about communication or discourse conventions appropriate in class [Hara & Kling 2000; Wegerif 1998]. The barrier may be caused by the perception of differences in the use of language and style of contributions [Wegerif 1998: 8]. An overload of emails and attachments can cause distress, leading to falling behind in reading and responding online. If students have to perform procedural tasks, e.g. printing extensive study material from a WWW site, they also get annoyed [Collis & Gervedink Nijhuis 2000].

Yet, these negative experiences and frustrations can also be interpreted positively, to experience what your own students may experience when you start teaching online [student in Hara & Kling 2000, Frans Jacobs, personal communication].

How can a telecoach constitute and guide learning communities?
Cooperation is regarded to be of paramount importance to deepen understanding, sharpen judgement, and extend knowledge. Cooperative learning leads to higher achievement in almost all respects: the mastery and retention of material, the quality reasoning strategies, and the transfer of thus acquired knowledge to different situations [Jacobs 2000]. Therefore a positive attitude towards working cooperatively is essential for the success of online learning strategies that are student-centred.

"Because webbased environments offer non-linear navigation of hyperlinked resources, the student, in theory has at his or her fingertips not only all the materials of the course, but also a cyberlibrary of resources from all over the world, as well as contact possibilities with experts and fellow learners alike" [Collis & Meeuwsen 1997].

In a learning community, which is student-centred and collaborative, students can learn as much from each other, as from the course material as from the interactions with and interjections of their teachers. Collaborative learning can start with sharing difficulties going online and getting to know each other. "Forming a sense of community (...) seems to be a necessary step for collaborative learning" [Wegerif 1998]. Without this feeling of a community students can feel lonely, anxious, defensive, and so on. A learning community should be democratic, respectful, open to challenges, and so forth. Instructors can help create a community of learning, students can help themselves as well as the others, by supporting them. Two-way technology allows for interactions among students and between students and teachers and can thus support this sense of a community [Hara & Kling 2000].

What students learn in such a community is not so much product as process. They can develop their own creative cognitive process of contributing ideas, having them criticised or expanded on, giving them the chance to reshape them or abandon them in the light of peer discussion. The learning becomes not only merely active, but also interactive. Students cannot only turn to others to ask for an answer to their questions or a reaction to a new idea, but also can turn to others to comment on their ideas [Rowntree 1995]. Careful planning of online discussions have to be part of the guidance of this process.

Yet, becoming a well-functioning member of a learning community doesn't always go without saying and can be troublesome for some people. In his study on the social dimensions of online learning Rupert Wegerif argues that a 'proper membership' of a learning community is preceded by the process of changing from 'outsider' to 'insider' in the community. Individual success or failure of the course depends upon the extent to which students are able to cross a threshold from feeling like outsiders to feeling like insiders. When learning is considered as socially situated it is also "a process of becoming part of a community of practice" [Wegerif]. Telecoaches have to support students in crossing the threshold from outsider to insider. In order to achieve that students behave as 'proper and proud members' of a learning community telecoaches first have to introduce them in this community.

Successful support of learning is achieved when students can participate in the practices of the community and can move from the 'side' to the centre in an easy way. This feeling of becoming part of a group or learning community can be blocked by (a) lack of access and therefore problems with submitting contributions, (b) lack of technical skills, (c) lack of self-confidence, (d) lack of time, (e) unfamiliarity with the proper discourse, (f) an 'ignorant' moderator who is unaware of these problems.

The main task of telecoaches is to help students to become involved in various forms of 'virtual dialogue', so as to enable them to become more actively involved with subject and material, to help them relate to previous knowledge and personal experience, and to become a builder of an online learning community.

That's where the art comes in...

In this study I analyse the main characteristics of and problems involved in telecoaching against the background of a transformational perspective on non-linear learning processes. In this perspective the main task of teachers is to structure the learning experience of students. Teacher don't prescribe the learning path nor the outcome of learning processes — they only determine the boundaries in which learning behaviour of students can vary. This student-centred approach is exemplified in some general instructional goals for webbased education. In the new virtual learning environments students can claim the right to work on interesting problems, to make and correct their failures, to collaborate with other students, and last but not least: to receive intensive telecoaching. The main goal of non-linear learning processes in virtual environments is to develop and cultivate cognitive flexibility that leads to a mastery and transfer of complex knowledge.

Apart from some transitional problems - such as anonymity and social isolation - the main obstacle for a successful application of the new non-linear learning principles seems to be the intensity and flexibility of telecoaching. We have seen that distance education students often have different expectations from coaches than students in conventional education. Because they operate in a much more flexible learning environment and can work at their own pace they expect immediate feedback at the moment when they need it. It seems that the introduction of tele-education generates a growing need for telecoaching. This 'revolution of the rising telecoaching expectations' puts telecoaches under very high pressure. Even in cases in which telecoaches are well-prepared for their instructional tasks, they are always in danger to fall short of the coaching expectations of their students. Webbased telelearning can be timesaving in many respects, but certainly not in the domain of telecoaching.

Telecoaching has opened a new branch of expertise in the educational sciences. There are only a few systematic evaluations of these experiences with telecoaching. And we don't have any serious models for telecoaching which have been tested in the field. Attempts in this direction are mainly focused on the differences between coaching in conventional, formal education and in telelearning settings. Telecoaching is still looking for its own form. Starting from the transformational perspective on education I have identified the basic characteristics and possible futures of telecoaching. We witness the beginning of a revolutionary transformation of educational principles and practices. And it is good to see that the practice and theory of telecoaching is progressing at high speed. The informational revolution thunders past all educational tracks — not to be run down by it, that's where the art comes in.

Evaluating Telelearning

Analytical Framework 

In the previous chapter we have seen that the structuring of the learning experiences (i.e. telecoaching) is a complex process that comprises almost all levels and aspects of the educational practice. In order to evaluate this telecoaching process in a systematic manner I have chosen for the transformational perspective on education. In this chapter this analytical perspective will be used to specify (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. I will start with the construction of a more general analytical framework that can be used to evaluate the entire process of telelearning.

In educational research of online courses we can differentiate seven analytical levels which have to be taken into account. Each level has its own peculiarities, potentials and problems. In the absence of a funny acronym, I will call it the SLNM: Seven_Levels_ No_More. In the next table these seven levels of telelearning are presented in a scheme in which the main features of the levels and the corresponding potential problems are outlined.

Possible Problems
Intricate system of evaluation instruments and procedures
No/inadequate evaluation tools; unsystematic use of evaluation tools
Intensity and temporality of individual and collective return-information
Lack of or inadequate feedback: too little, too late
Lively learning community that motivates individuals and stimulates them to cooperate in collaborative learning
Failing community building: boring, irregular contact, etc.
Structuring and content of assignments
Badly composed series of assignments

Ambiguous, insufficiently demarcated assignments

Structured & non-structured assignments

Course Content
Quality & transparency of course information
Poorly specified course content; unclear level of expectations, etc.
Basic Skills
Basic computer, network & internet abilities of students
No or not enough computer, network and/or web literacy
Access to network and to personal computer
No access, slow access, disturbed access to network

No access to computer or access to 'underachieving' computer

This SLNM-model can be used for (a) the construction of a theoretical framework and literature study, (b) the development of a questionnaire for TAET students and teachers, and (c) the empirical analysis of TAET course. In this thesis I concentrate primarily on the community and the coaching level. Since coaching is also inextricably bound up with course content and assignments, these levels will also be discussed. Other levels will only be touched on briefly, either due to time constraints or due to a lack of direct connection with the subject of this thesis: What does coaching 'look like' in a virtual learning environment and how can coaches stimulate the development of a vital learning community.

My hypothesis will be 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 presuppose that the creation of a learning community during a course is one of the most critical success factors of tele-education.

My empirical investigation will be directed by this main question:

  • what activities and roles of coaches have an impact on the learning process
    as well as on the development of a learning community?

This question can be subdivided into these subquestions:

  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?

Below I will indicate what aspects of the different levels I believe are important and can be analysed and what I will leave out due to time constraints (pragmatic reason). For some levels I have worked out some indicators to be measured. Some of the questions that were asked in the questionnaire are inserted behind these indicators.

Infrastructural Level

The infrastructural level is defined by the conditions that facilitate good (fast, reliable etc.) access to personal computer, local networks, and the internet. The infrastructural level doesn't really concern the main theme of my thesis. Yet, some TAET students didn't possess a PC when they started the course and were enabled by the faculty to borrow one. And as we will see in the next chapter, some students had problems getting a reliable connection with the TAET-site.

In the questions on infrastructural level respondents were asked to briefly state the problems they had with the technology (network, computer) and also indicate positive experiences. This was specified in the following questions:

  1. Did you have problems with the technology (computer & network)?
  2. Did you have problems with your personal computer?
    1. No computer, Computer too slow: underachieving PC
    2. Inadequate Software
  3. Did you have problems to get access to the Twente network?
  4. Did you have problems with your own internet connection?
  5. How did it influence your work rhythm?

Basic Skill Level

The basic skill level is defined by the specific state of the basic computer, network, and internet abilities of students. In the studies I've read so far a recurring problem is pointed out: the lack of basic computer skills and webwisdom, combined with unfamiliarity with the electronic learning environment. Some studies report students' frustrations due to technological problems and suggest an introductory course before they really get started. In such introductory courses students can acquire basic computer skills, learn how to surf on and search the web, and get familiar with the electronic learning environment. We know in advance that quite a few TAET students had problems originating in a lack of computer- or webwisdom, especially with building a website in one of the first courses. They also had to become familiar with the electronic learning environment.

The questions on basic skills can be specified as follows:

  1. What was your basic skills level like when you started?
    1. related to computer skills
    2. related to internet skills
    3. related to electronic learning environments

  2. How long did it take you to get familiar with TeleTOP?

Course Content Level

The course content level is defined by the quality and transparency of the material that is used in an online course. Course content relates to:

  1. Quality and level of difficulty of the study material.
  2. Structuring of the whole course (order of subjects).
  3. Relationship between study material and new subject.
  4. Logical coherence between subjects.

On all these four items students will be asked some questions.

Assignment Level

The assignment level is defined by the structuring and content of assignments. The assignment level can be questioned and analysed as to:

  1. investment of time
  2. connection of assignments per subject
  3. clarity of assignments
  4. scope of assignments: too broad, too narrow (restricting creativity)
  5. relevance of assignments, etc.

It will not be easy to answer questions for this level for TAET students, because there were generally many assignments per subject and memory may have faded.

Community Level

The community level is defined by the imagined and experienced community that motivates students and stimulates them to engage in collaborative learning. The danger inherent in distance learning is that the social aspects of learning are getting lost. Social embedding of a learning process is of paramount importance, not only for an efficient learning process, but also for future professional practices in which collaboration is of vital importance. In some studies students' wishes to be part of a learning community is explicitly reported (transformation from outsider to insider) .

Cooperation can be measured for example as to

  1. Broadness of participation
  2. Intensity of participation

Sources of information for TAET-students are

  1. Discussion page
  2. Q & A page
  3. Workspace
  4. Groupmail
  5. Personal email between students (this can only be measured by asking the students if and how much email contact they had with fellow students).

Coaching Level

The coaching level is defined by the intensity and temporality of individual and collective return-information. Coaching refers to coaching activities of the instructor. In general we can say that coaching has two basic components: (a) instruction and (b) process control. These components will be subdivided later (e.g. different roles of the teacher: instructor, judge, motivator, provider of examples, advanced organiser, etc.). The instructor is the person to develop and control the quality of the (collaborative) learning environment and learning process and the one who can moderate the social embedding of the learning process.

In the teachers' questionnaire questions concerning available time for coaching and views on coaching will be included (for example: "what has been - or should be - your role in stimulating a collaborative learning process?") . In the students' questionnaire explicit questions about expectations and appreciation will be included.

Evaluation Level

The evaluation level is defined by the intricate system of evaluation instruments and procedures. In my empirical investigation I will not enter into the discussion about course evaluation. My investigation is itself a form of evaluation research.

Yet I will complete my TAET research with conversations with some experts of the Open University [Heerlen] on the issue of coaching strategies and practices. My hypothesis will be that the introduction of tele-education generates an increasing coaching need of students/trainees. A kind of 'revolution of rising coaching expectations'. Telelearners who present a paper or assignment expect an adequate, personal and above all fast reaction. My question to the experts will be how they practically handle this increasing demand of adequate, personal and fast feedback. (a) What problems do they identify: where do things go wrong and why? (b) What are the strategies to solve these problems: how can you realise a good coaching that comes up to the coaching expectations of students in a situation of scarce means?

Research Method 

In my qualitative research project I have drawn upon the following sources of insight and information:

  1. A webbased questionnaire for my fellow TAET-students (also for the students that dropped out).

  2. A webbased questionnaire for the TAET-teachers (core courses and optional courses).

  3. My own knowledge of the TAET course stemming from my participation as a student [see A personal view].

  4. Personal email messages from and to students and teachers (during the whole training).

  5. Workspaces on TeleTOP for the different courses.

  6. Question and Answer pages on TeleTOP for the different courses.

  7. Course instructions.

  8. A questionnaire for some experts in the field of coaching at the Open University (Heerlen)

  9. Personal communication with some university teachers who have had experience with coaching in online educational learning processes.

  10. Personal communication with three teachers whom I asked to read part of my thesis (results of the empirical part).

Questionnaires and Response

The urls of the questionnaires were sent to my fellow students and teachers in a letter sent by email, explaining the purpose of my research. In the weeks after I was so fortunate to receive quite a number of replies.

Of the 16 students 11 responded. 3 out of 16 students dropped out and although I asked them to respond I received no reply. I did not fill out the questionnaire myself. In the period when the questionnaires came in it turned out that 2 had disappeared somewhere in cyberspace. I had not been clear in my instructions that the questionnaire had to be filled out online. This omission may be due to the fact that I have a fast cable connection and can remain online all the time. Quite a few of my fellow students have a telephone connection and limit their time online for economical reasons. That might have been the problem. One student tried to file it halfway the process of answering the questions. When she tried to retrieve the answers it appeared that they had got lost. I approached the two students whose questionnaire had disappeared and came to an agreement with them. I had an interview with one of them at her home and a telephone interview with the other (who had sent in the questionnaire twice already!). I sent a reminder twice to the students who hadn't responded (4, including the 'dropouts'). I asked them kindly to give me a reason for not filling out the questionnaire if they couldn't or wouldn't respond. From none of them I received an answer.

Of the 19 teachers who taught in the TAET course 16 responded. I sent them a reminder once and also asked them to give me a reason for not filling out the questionnaire if they couldn't or wouldn't respond. The same story counts here: no replies from 2 teachers. I assume no teachers' questionnaires got lost in cyberspace, at least not to my knowledge.

The main problem with the questionnaire was that the senders received no 'copy' of it. This was not possible because the senders were outside of the domain of the server of the University of Amsterdam, where the questionnaires were sent to after having been answered. This is a problem to be avoided in future research.

Empirical Results

Description of the Training

The training under investigation is called Telematics Applications in Education and Training (TAET) and is offered by the Faculty of Educational Science and Technology, University of Twente. It is a 1-year course leading to a MSc degree as 'educational telelearning designer'. The training started in November 1999. The course is new, and experimental in the sense that it is the first training that has been offered completely online. The training was intended for unemployed post-academics and unemployed post-higher education students and was subsidised by the European Social Fund so that no tuition fees were required.

The background of the students varied greatly. A requirement was that applicants had an educational background, either as a teacher or as an 'organiser' of educational or training activities. The students were also expected to have a good knowledge of the English language and to possess the required computer skills. These skills were not tested before the training started. The actual group started with 16 students: 6 male and 10 female. 3 of the students had a different mother-tongue than the Dutch one. Students were expected to work 40 hours a week on the different courses. The students and teachers only met at an introductory meeting, at the end of each set of core courses, and for the introduction of some optional courses.

The core courses consisted of the following subjects:

  1. CC1 = Telematics Applications for Education and Training
  2. CC2 = Learning and Instruction Supported by Telematics
  3. CC3 = Design, Development and Evaluation of Tele-learning Systems
  4. CC4 = Policy, Strategy and Management of Telematics Applications in Educational and Training Organisations
  5. CC5 = Implementation of Telematics Applications in Education and Training
  6. CC6 = Student Assessment & Programme Evaluation in a Tele-learning Environment

Each subject required 20 hours of studying per week and took 6 weeks to complete. Two subjects were taken at the same time. Of these two subjects one was more theoretically and the other more practically oriented. The final assignment of each subject consisted of taking an exam, developing a website or writing a thesis. After the core phase followed a phase of 9 optional subjects, out of which 4 had to be chosen, with a 'workload' of 120 hours each. It was also possible to write a literature study instead of one optional subject. The final phase of the training consisted of an apprenticeship in an educational or training institution and resulted in a final project/thesis.

During the course 3 students dropped out. At this stage of the training it is not known how many students will complete the training within the set time. Apparently the programme management realised at a certain moment that it would be impossible or very difficult for some students to finish their final project on time, so in September 2000 they informed us that we were granted an extension of one month.

At the end of the course students were expected to be able to:

  1. start a career as educational designer with telelearning as field of application.
  2. support a school or training organisation in strategic and operational policy development before and during the introduction of telelearning.
  3. manage and support teachers/trainers/instructors in the implementation process of telelearning in the organisation.
  4. communicate effectively with experts in the field of ICT, network technologies, and educational software.

A TAET-graduate has the professional capacity to transform traditional educational services into new telelearning environments and is well-equipped to guide educational and training organisations on their road to computer-mediated learning practices

Students in Pieces 

First we will see what the students of TAET have to say about their expectations of the training, their study experiences and joys, their worries and dreams. How did they respond to the questionnaire? 11 out of 15 students responded to the questionnaire. I excluded myself from answering the questions. My personal view on the training can be found in the appendix 'A Personal View'. From the 4 students who did not respond 3 had stopped studying and 1 did not react to several requests from my part [see also section Questionnaires and Response]. Besides using the information from the questionnaires I also made use of several Question & Answer pages and Discussion pages in TeleTOP and personal email.

Previous work experience and basic skills

All students are adults with quite some working experience behind them. They have worked in quite a few branches of society: education (teaching and educational management), health care, welfare work, computerisation, translation, municipality. Their working experience ranged from approximately 10 years to more than 30 years. Not all students were unemployed and received a benefit: 6 out of 11 did receive a social or other benefit. Some of the students worked part-time beside the training.

In order to find out whether the students were well-equipped to follow the courses I asked them about their computer-related skills. A majority of the students reported that their computer skills-level was average. Three students called themselves highly skilled and three students had no previous computer experience at all. During the presentation of their first website in January 2000, which had clearly taken them quite an effort to complete, one student jocularly remarked that when he started "he couldn't distinguish the keyboard from the computer screen." As regards their internet skills-level most students called it average. One student was highly skilled and a minority possessed no internet skills at all. None of the students had any experience with electronic learning environments. Therefore it seems a bit surprising that a vast majority of the students called themselves sufficiently prepared to follow the training. Only one student called herself insufficiently prepared and one student more than sufficiently prepared.

However, in an informal discussion round in an earlier stage of TAET the students discussed their tremendous workload of the first month. This was done in the Discussion section of CC1, which was actually intended for discussions on topics related to the course, such as whether to buy or build a course support system. Since they had no asynchronous conferencing system at their disposal, students started using this Discussion page to ventilate the problems they experienced in the courses. One of the students regretted that they had not been given the opportunity to use the first two weeks of November 1999 to get familiar with the subject matter and the computer, with TeleTOP and especially with html. Given the relatively low level of basic skills of most students, this would certainly not have been a luxurious investment.

Technology-related problems

In practice students experienced quite some technology-related problems. Half the group had problems with their computer. These problems varied. It took some students a great deal of effort to master the technical aspects of the computer: how to send in assignments, how to use html and build websites. One student reported 'fear of failure' and by just trying and doing and some outside help she could overcome this. Another student had extreme problems during the first exam, which they took at home. While working on it he lost part of his exam and couldn't retrieve it anymore. Later he had his computer completely reinstalled.

Access to the Twente-server was hardly any problem for the students, with a few exceptions of being denied access to the Twente server a few times. One student, however, found herself in a maze in the beginning: trying to find the right pages, remembering her password, not being able to 'hop' from one course to the other. Nowadays students even have to log in twice to get access to a course.

Some software problems were met with. These mainly had to do with unfamiliarity with existing programmes that could be helpful in their course, such as a programme to make flow charts, an anti-virus programme, a webdesign programme and a drawing programme. It took quite some time to get familiar with particular software programmes, such as Cosmo World. Even with the help of a - terribly long - manual it didn't really work properly. However, some students found it a challenging experience to find out by trial and error how to work with some of these programmes.

The internet connection was sometimes problematic. Some students mention the slowness of their connection and the expenses of telephone ticks, which often made them work late at night. Sometimes it was difficult to get connected to certain sites, but this may also be due to outdated internet addresses.

In the category other problems some students mentioned problems that were already signalled in the previous categories: students were quite distressed by their lack of html skills and consequent difficulties in building a website. There was hardly any time to learn these skills, because handing in assignments was already a race against the clock [see section on workload]. Moreover, more "guidance and more background information about the structure" would have been helpful in this process. During the presentation of these first websites in January 2000 many students made it clear that they had spent an enormous amount of time on building the website and therefore had not been able to spend much time on the content of the course (CC1). Finally, two students mentioned lack of typing skills as a huge drawback.

All these problems together have influenced the students' work rhythm. Although we have seen earlier that most students called themselves sufficiently prepared to follow the course, even more students stated very clearly that grasping the technology and getting familiar with html and building their (in most cases first) website took them quite some extra time and in some cases led to a delay in submitting assignments in the first 6 weeks of the training. Two students expressed their feeling of discouragement and suffered from lack of concentration at different points of time, leading to arrears in work. A minority of the students quite often worked at night, partly due to the internet connection and cheaper telephone ticks, but also due to domestic duties during the daytime (some students had to combine study and family obligations).

We were also curious to find out about the positive experiences students had with the technology. It is clear that most students have learnt a lot: they have acquired much more computer knowledge, "more feeling and more practice", and they have discovered many of the possibilities of the internet. Students have also been introduced to and have learnt to work with quite a number of software programmes which are useful for their working practice, such as PowerPoint, Filemaker, MindMap. Two students expressed that their main 'gain' was overcoming their computer fear. One student made it clear that the study opened the world to her professional interests. For some students the advanced technology (and the distance learning mode) enabled them to study again. Due to their personal situation (family life) they would never have been able to take regular courses at pre-set times.

It didn't take most students long to get familiar with the TeleTOP environment. Only two students replied that it took quite some time at the beginning of the training.

Coaching expectations

Students were questioned about their expectations of coaching by their teachers when they started with TAET. The group was divided in their opinions. Nearly half the group expected nothing or hardly anything when they started. Their view was that TAET was an independent distance training and perhaps all that could be expected was that course matters were well-organised, that there would be some sort of logical order of courses and events, that teachers would correct submitted assignments and that there would be clarity of assignments and expectations. One student elaborates on this issue of clarity. Being clear in instructions already takes quite an effort, so perhaps no more than this can be expected of teachers.

Instructions in the champions league

Instructions play an important role in the structuring of the learning experiences. Therefore it is important to know how the students valued the instructions for the assignments. I first asked the students about the six core courses and let them choose between the options 'clear', 'ambiguous' and 'unclear'. In order to make a comparison between the instructions of the different courses we first have to aggregate the qualifications for the instructions of the individual courses. The most effective - but maybe not most elegant - way to accomplish this is to apply the 'rule of the champions league': 'clear' gets 3 points, 'ambiguous' gets 1 point and 'unclear' gets 0 points. In order to get a clear view on the relative weights of the instructions of individual courses, I have divided the amount of scored points by the maximum number of points that could be scored (11 students could each have given maximally 3 points per course, so the maximum number of points is 11x3=33). The results are presented in the next table.

Table 1: Instructions in Core Courses

'clear' = 3 points; 'ambiguous' = 1 point; 'unclear' = 0 points

[CC1 = Telematics Applications for Education and Training; CC2 = Learning and Instruction Supported by Telematics; CC3 = Design, Development and Evaluation of Tele-learning Systems; CC4 = Policy, Strategy and Management of Telematics Applications in Educational and Training Organisations; CC5 = Implementation of Telematics Applications in Education and Training; CC6 = Student Assessment & Programme Evaluation in a Tele-learning Environment].

From this table we can infer that the instructions of 2/3 of the core courses have been clear for only a slight majority of the students, while for almost half of the students they were ambiguous or unclear. This overall result can hardly be called a very positive evaluation of the instructions of core courses as a whole. But there are rather big differences in the valuations of the individual core courses. The average weighed score of the core courses is 19.5 points. The instructions of courses CC2 and to a less extreme extent CC4 are least valued by the students, while CC5 gets the highest value.

It is not easy to induce more specific conclusions from these scores, since I did not ask the students explicitly what their opinion was based on. Yet, some explanations can be given if we consider the reactions on the Q&A pages and reactions elsewhere in the questionnaire. A high score on clarity of instructions is not always given on the basis of clear instructions from the beginning, but also on the willingness of the instructor to explain the intention of assignments from different angles, over and over again. This was, for example, the case in CC3 (Design, Development and Evaluation of Tele-learning Systems). Students had problems in understanding the final assignment and its relation with earlier assignments. In the Q&A page they frequently asked the instructor for clarification, which he patiently and rapidly gave. And this may explain the relatively high score of the instructions of this core course.

In the next table the results for the optional courses are presented. These figures have to be handled with more prudence, because the number of students participating differ per course. Therefore we have not only added the weighed points, but also divided them by the maximum amount of points that could be scored by the number of participating students per course.

Table 2: Instructions in Optional Courses

'clear' = 3 points; 'ambiguous' = 1 point; 'unclear' = 0 point

[IPSS = Integrated performance Support Systems; HRD = Human Resource Development; VE = Learning in Virtual Environments; HCI = Human Computer Interaction; TEL = Tele-Learning; TS = Teacher Support; WBT = Web-Based Training; CE = Cost-Effectiveness of Technology in Education and Training; TM = Inleiding Telematica].

From this table we can infer that the instructions of the optional courses have been clear for only a minority of the students, while for most students they were problematic (i.e. ambiguous or unclear). Therefore it seems fair to conclude that the overall result is a rather negative evaluation of the instructions of the optional courses, and certainly worse than the general evaluation of instructions of the core courses. And just like in the case of the core course, the students' valuations of the instructions of the individual optional course vary strikingly.

Taking into account the number of participating students, the average weighed score of the optional courses is 0,6. The instructions of HRD and TM and to a lesser extent WBT are most valued by the students, while IPSS, VE, TS and CE receive the lowest value.

Return information on feedback

We have seen above that a high valuation of the instructions of courses is not always given on the basis of the instructions as such, but also on the willingness of the instructor to explain the purpose of assignments from different angles, over and over again. Learning is a communicative process, and therefore the return information of instructors is of eminent importance for the quality of the learning experiences. In order to get an idea of what might be important in feedback in online learning processes we asked the students about their appreciation of the feedback of their teachers (on assignments and exams).

Just as students are divided in their opinions on their teachers' instructions, they are divided in their appreciation of the feedback given in the different courses. In general, though, one can state that the students appreciate fast, to-the-point, constructive and personal feedback. The problem in describing this issue is that some students were specific as to the feedback given in the separate courses, and others were more general in their reactions. I will try to clarify this in the table below.

Table 3: Feedback in Core Courses
In general their feedback was appreciated positively, although some students 'complained' that their feedback was sometimes too brief, too abstract or came too late to continue with the practical work (building a website). Their motivating emails were mentioned explicitly.
In general their feedback was appreciated negatively. Feedback on assignments was often late and not to the point. This was, according to quite a few students, caused by the fact that the subject was taught by different instructors who did not seem to coordinate their work and did not show an interest in the group. It seemed as if no one took responsibility for the course. And therefore some students felt like orphans.
In general the feedback in this course was appreciated positively, in spite of the sometimes indistinctness of the open assignments. This has already been reported in the previous paragraph. Feedback was timely, useful tips were given, and the instructor really seemed to think along with the students in the development of their design project. One student says that this feedback helped her to construct her own understanding of webeducation, which was a very valuable experience.
The students' reactions are clearly ambiguous. In general the students appreciated the personal feedback they received as precise, positive and constructive. However, most of them objected to the overload of feedback (lengthy answering models and personal feedback) and its rigidity and formality. Students put forward that it was not a matter of knowledge construction but of pure knowledge reproduction: if they accommodated the instructor(s) they had it made. If they did not, they had to 'do their homework again'. This was quite frustrating in a period which was generally experienced as the heaviest in the core course phase.
Most students appreciated the feedback given in this core course. It was personal, useful and constructive and here again the instructor(s) seemed to think along with the students and to really do something with their work. As objections were raised: too abstract return information on the theoretical part of the course and an apparent missing link between the two instructors.
In general the appreciation of return information given in this course can be rated as average or at least ambiguous. Some students thought the feedback was too brief and regretted that the teacher remained more or less invisible. Others were satisfied with the amount and timeliness of feedback because they could follow the course independently and needed no more. The ambiguous attitude of students may be explained by the fact that there had not been a face-to-face introductory meeting for this course and that immediately after the final exam the instructor made his exit. A request to give feedback on the exam (if desired) in the Q&A page was never answered. This was very much in contradiction with his timely replies to the many questions for explanation on the Q&A page during the course.

In general we can conclude that the feedback that was given in some courses (CC5, CC3, and CC1) is rather highly appreciated. Students value the feedback on these five expectations: 1) feedback must be timely: not too late but 'just-in-time'; 2) feedback must be supportive: useful tips, constructive suggestions instead of 'abstract' -i.e. formalised - criticism; 3) feedback must be motivating and not frustrating; 4) feedback must be given in a personal and not formal style, and 5) feedback must be given on a more or less regular basis without unannounced interruptions. In some other courses (CC2 and to a lesser extent CC4) the given feedback was valued relatively low because the quality, frequency and timeliness of the return-information did not meet one or more of the five students' expectations.

It is less easy to give an accurate description of students' appreciation of the feedback that was given in the optional courses. The first reason is that sometimes only 1 student gave specific information. A second reason is that some students had not yet started one or more optional courses at the time of this investigation. Still, a tentative attempt will be made to point out some strengths and weaknesses of the feedback given in these courses.

Table 4: Feedback in Optional Courses
Feedback unclear and assignments too brief.
No complaint, helped by feedback.
Feedback mediocre, teacher left for three weeks without notice.
Good feedback, sometimes untimely but useful.
Feedback was given with a lick and a promise, just like the course was organised.
No complaint, helped by feedback.
Feedback mediocre, teacher left for three weeks without notice.
Good and useful feedback, although untimely sometimes, motivating emails.
Very brief, came too late in the day and as regards content mediocre.
No complaint, helped by feedback.
Unstimulating feedback, unclear and too experimental.
Very good, but teacher suddenly left for a week without notice.
Clarity of course served as a guideline for good feedback.

As indicated before, some students made more general remarks on feedback in this training, and not per course. The biggest 'sin' seems to occur when a teacher does not give his feedback on time, i.e. at the time the student expects to hear something from his or her coach. One student was on the whole satisfied with the feedback from her teachers, but related this to the fact that she had her final project outlined from the beginning and could start working on it immediately in most of her courses. So the feedback she received was mostly usable for her final project. Another student argued that feedback is a critical issue in any learning situation, and that how it is appreciated greatly depends on the style of the instructor. The problem is that what works for one student doesn't have to work out for another. This can clearly be seen in the reactions on feedback in the optional courses.

Overall coaching

The TAET students value the overall coaching quite differently. Their assessment of coaching apparently depends on their specific individual needs and expectations. Some students have valued the coaching highly. The fact that this was the first time a fully online training was given was taken into consideration. Moreover, TAET-students are all adults and can decide for themselves if they need coaching. Other students are more ambiguous or negative. They say that some instructors did not seem to be interested in the 'specifics' of the group, did not stimulate open and friendly communication and could invest more in explanation and guidance. Attention for and involvement in students are reported as lacking. This might be an even bigger 'sin' than giving feedback too late. Good coaches give their students the attention they deserve and involve themselves in the learning process of their pupils. And therefore some students say that good coaching and giving good feedback go hand in hand and are completely dependent on the individual teachers.

Management support

Telelearning processes are not limited to the interaction between students and teachers. In order to get the most optimal results, clear and consistent management support is necessary. I asked the students how they appreciated the support of the management team (e.g. technical support, administrative support and general support).

Not many students needed technical support and if this occurred a fast solution was given in most, though not all cases. Often technical problems were solved with the help of someone in the neighbourhood. In general the administrative support is highly valued and there is great appreciation for their quick and friendly reactions to requests for information, literature and so on. Some students say that once in a while their requests were overlooked but these seemed to be mere incidents.

With respect to general support most students are less positive. More than half of the group are disappointed in the support given by the management team. They express the following shortcomings:

  • Difficulty in getting the proper information, e.g. possibility of writing literature study instead of 4th optional course.
  • Lack of time for the TAET students.
  • Apparent lack of interest in the students' advancement, problems and frustrations.
  • Lack of (fast) communication.
  • Hardly any information provided on fellow students (e.g. 'dropouts').
  • Lack of a proper student tracking system.
  • Unclear expectations of the final project phase as to structuring and content.
  • Lack of guidance and support during the optional course stage and final project phase.
  • Invisibility of general support.

The other students ventilate more positive experiences: they had no notable problems with the programme management and were apparently satisfied with the support they received. Reactions on the part of the management team to requests for information were timely and adequate in their eyes. They were also the students who expressed that they appreciated working on their own or who had to work on their own because of a job-on-the-side. They apparently expected no more. The TAET students clearly differ in their needs and expectations of general support. It seems as if the management team have overestimated many of the students' independence and underestimate their specific needs as distance education students. For many, though not all students, studying from a distance can become a very lonely adventure and the more so if they have the feeling that there is no one at the other side of the line who keeps track of them, supports them and guides them when and if needed.

From personal (email) correspondence with quite a few of the students I have understood that, especially during the optional courses and final project phase, they struggled very hard to keep up with their tasks, to develop a suitable final project, and to find a proper place where to execute their plans. This was a very cumbersome and lonely period for most of the students. If the management team had realised the pressure the students were subjected to at that time, they might not have waited till mid September to inform them that they had an extra month to finish their training.

Collaborative learning

I argued before why cooperation is of paramount importance to deepen understanding, sharpen judgement, and extend knowledge. Cooperative learning leads to higher achievement in almost all respects. I wanted to know if the TAET-students developed some sense of learning community and how well they managed to move from outsider to insider in this community. Therefore I asked them how they value collaboration with fellow students in a learning process. They were also asked how they experienced collaboration in this training, and what they valued most or least in this collaboration.

With a few exceptions the students endorse the idea of collaborative learning, but they differ in the extent of collaboration. Some students consider collaboration "extremely important" and see it as the "the strength of innovative learning." Collaborative learning is also seen as a good preparation for the future professional practice of the students, in which they will undoubtedly have to work together with other professionals. Collaboration can lead to a better understanding of content by sharing different views on a subject, but can also offer moral support and motivation, especially in 'lesser times'. However, it is also noted that collaboration should not be 'forced' on students: if a student prefers to work alone she or he should be able to do so. A minority of the students preferred to work alone in this training, mainly for pragmatic reasons, i.e. because they had a job as well and did not have the time or opportunity to work together with other students. It is also observed that collaboration has to 'click': if students with different 'levels' have to work together this may lead to severe problems in the group. This has been the case in some of the subgroups of TAET, as we will see below.

The students' actual experience of collaborative learning is for many of them a positive one. This collaboration was generally seen as very stimulating and motivating. If students had a negative experience with collaborative learning it always had to do with internal problems in a group, for example because a student did not contribute enough or submitted inferior work in the others' eyes. This was the case in 3 groups. These students valued collaboration in other groups, however. Collaboration kept students alert, helped them regain their study skills, functioned as the big stick and gave them a feeling of solidarity. Keeping others informed about the course of studying events and sending good tips by personal email, e.g. about relevant software, were also appreciated as small tokens of collaborative learning. So were the few informal dinners after the few on-campus meetings.

Some students noted here that unfortunately there was not enough time to test and discuss different ideas and assignments extensively. It was seen as a missed chance that there was so little opportunity to work together constructively, certainly when one keeps in mind that the students shared so many common interests and activities. Collaboration was - apart from working together on assignments at the beginning - restricted to exchanging frustrations, tips and tokens of encouragement. There was no or hardly any time to read each other's assignments, let alone work on them together to come to better products.

The main value of collaborative learning for the TAET students lies in going through the same process, sharing the same experiences, receiving feedback, advice and support from others. Most students considered it very important to have personal email contact with each other to ask questions about content and assignments, to get new ideas or to learn from questions of others and simply to keep in touch.

Nearly all students are of the same mind as to the formation of a learning community. No learning community was established and some students indicate explicitly that this has been a missed chance. During the first introductory meeting on-campus no time was allotted to getting acquainted with each other, though this was requested. This could have been the basis of the formation of a learning community, of a feeling of belonging to a special group and of being an insider of this group. The only 'collaborative activity' of that introductory day consisted of the formation of small groups of students for one course. These groups were compounded geographically, because the students came from different parts of the country. For collaboration it seemed better if students who lived closest to each other could work together.

The students have not been stimulated to form a learning community and the programme was too full to do it on their own initiative. In the Question & Answer page of CC1 students expressed their wish to change this style of learning. Collaborative work in small groups on assignments led to a continuation of contact in some cases, depending on students' own initiative. However, quite a few students worked more or less on their own after the core courses were finished. In the final phase of the course an attempt to a lively correspondence was set up by email to inform each other about their plans for the final project. This indicates that students realised that they hardly knew what the others were doing. Unfortunately, the correspondence ended after a few contributions. High workload may have been the reason for a number of students not to react.

Contents of TAET courses

For students the valuation of telecoaching is never disconnected from the appreciation of the content of a course. Therefore students were asked to select a qualification that fitted their appreciation of the content of the courses. They could choose between the following qualifications: excellent, good, average, bad. To aggregate the qualifications for the content of the individual courses we have to weigh the specific qualifications: 'excellent'=3 points; 'good'=2 points; 'average'=1 point, and 'bad'=0 points. In order to get a clear view on the relative weights of the valued content of individual courses, in the last column the amount of scored points is divided by the maximum number of points (10x3=30) that could be scored. The results are presented in the next table.

Table 5: Content of Core Courses
No choice

Excellent=3 points Good=2 points Average=1 point Bad=0 points

[CC1 = Telematics Applications for Education and Training; CC2 = Learning and Instruction Supported by Telematics; CC3 = Design, Development and Evaluation of Tele-learning Systems; CC4 = Policy, Strategy and Management of Telematics Applications in Educational and Training Organisations; CC5 = Implementation of TelematicsApplications in Education and Training; CC6 = Student Assessment & Programme Evaluation in a Tele-learning Environment].

If we compare this table with table 1 "Instructions of Core Courses" we can see that the results correlate extremely high: in both tables the individual courses have the same place in the order when we look at number of points. The calculated order from high to low valued is: CC5, CC1, CC3, CC4, CC6, CC2.

For the evaluation of the content of the optional courses the same procedure as before is followed, and the results are summarised in the following table.

Table 6: Content of Optional Courses

Excellent=3 points Good=2 points Average=1 point Bad=0 points

[IPSS = Integrated performance Support Systems; HRD = Human Resource Development; VE = Learning in Virtual Environments; HCI = Human Computer Interaction; TEL = Tele-Learning; TS = Teacher Support; WBT = Web-Based Training; CE = Cost-Effectiveness of Technology in Education and Training; TM = Inleiding Telematica].

Looking at these scores it can be concluded that the content of the optional courses is valued quite differently. Although most optional courses are valued as good or even excellent by a majority of students, some courses — VE, IPSS and WBT — are evaluated below average. If we compare this table with table 2"Instructions of Optional Courses" we can see that the results correlate highly: in both tables the individual courses have more or less the same place in the order when we look at the relative scores. The only exception of this rule is the valuation of the instructions and content of WBT and TS. The calculated order from high to low valued is: TM, HRD, TEL/TS, CE, HCI, WBT, IPSS, VE. The importance of this 'hall of descending fame' must not be exaggerated because at least two of the values that were attributed to the optional courses (TM and TS) are based on the opinion of one student only.

Sequence of Courses

Students valued the order in which the courses were presented as positive or at least had no objections against the order or hadn't really given it much thought. Some students, however, suggested possible improvements.The question was raised if CC1 (Telematics Applications for Education and Training), in which a website had to be built, should not be given at a later stage in the course or be given with more explanation and guidance. After all, not many students had previous experience with html or web-authoring and management systems. Most students had never built a website before and were not familiar with professional siteconstructing software (such as Adobe GoLive or Dreamweaver). At the on-campus meeting in January it turned out that the technical part of the course had taken them so much time that they had hardly had time left to work properly on the content of the website and the course.

The question was raised whether the combination of some subjects wasn't too hard and time-consuming, e.g. the combination of CC3 (Designing, Developing and Evaluating a Telelearning System) and CC4 (Policy, Strategy and Management of Telematics Applications in Educational and Training Organisations). These two courses demanded a lot of the students and perhaps they had better be combined with one of the later courses, which were generally experienced as 'lighter'. The question remains if this 'lighter' subject will not be treated 'more lightly' in case of such a combination.

Another issue was raised which had to do with both order and content of subjects. Some students were of the opinion that Instructional Design was underdeveloped in this training (CC2) and could well be combined with theoretical components of CC3 (Designing, Developing and Evaluating a Telelearning System) and CC6 (Student Assessment & Programme Evaluation in a Tele-learning Environment). Quite a few students see Instructional Design as the core of our future practice and - as was indicated before - are not happy with the way this subject was given as to content and instructions. Two students remarked that they would like to see CC4 (Policy, Strategy and Management of Telematics Applications in Educational and Training Organisations) replaced by another subject: HRD or Teacher Support, which were now presented as optional courses. Teacher Support could have prepared the students on processes of change in practice with the rising possibilities of the web: what will happen in the classroom, how does a teacher deal with these changes, and so on. HRD could have made students with an educational background familiar with the 'world of training'.

One student was very explicit in her positive opinion of the order of courses, because she already had her final project planned in the beginning of the training. The order of the subjects most of the time ran parallel with the phase of her final project she was in. I will return to this later [Final remarks].

Missing elements

"You can't always get what you want" [Mick Jagger] and no training is perfect. The students were asked which elements they missed in the courses, seen from their future professional practice.

Here is a list of elements that they have missed (with the number of students between brackets):

  • Information about the work field and possible professional future
  • More attention for instructional design and instructional methods
  • More guidance in experiencing the practice of designing
  • More attention for interpreting data and methods for data gathering
  • Practice in collaboration and discussions by means of the web
  • More experience in searching strategies
  • Much more advanced skills in technologies and modern internet tools
  • Information on programme management and knowledge management of educational and training institutions
  • Feel and look of electronic learning environments other than TeleTOP
  • A bridge between the training and 'real practice'
  • One or more additional on-campus meetings after summer to discuss their final project plans
  • More attention for practical computer, networking and internet skills

In my final conclusions I will use this list of missing elements for recommendations to improve the TAET course. Adding new elements is easier if we could eliminate, reduce or transform elements that might be problematic or weak. Therefore students were asked what they regarded as less relevant or superfluous. Nearly half the group proclaimed that they did not find any course elements less relevant or superfluous. One student called himself an "omnivore" that swallowed everything with great interest. Another student considered the content of the courses less relevant than the telelearning process in which he took part. Perhaps other subjects could have been added, but that was not the main issue, according to him. The rest of the students believed that (parts of) core course CC4 (Policy, Strategy and Management of Telematics Applications in Educational and Training Organisations) were superfluous or irrelevant for our professional future. This may also have been caused by the degree of difficulty of the course (and especially the final assignment, which can be seen in the Q&A page of that course) and in some cases a lack of interest in the subject. One student changed her mind about this specific course because it gave her an excellent opportunity to compare the teaching styles of two courses that were presented in the same period: CC4 in 'a rigid and formal way' and CC3 (Designing, Developing and Evaluating a Telelearning System) in 'a very flexible way'.

It is to be expected that when students are asked what they liked best about the whole course they will lay the accent on different aspects. This is certainly the case here. In general though, students mention the experience of the distance learning process itself. Different positive aspects are emphasised:

  • The new environment and the flexibility of distance learning (in time, pace and way of learning).
  • The possibility of getting acquainted with a completely new territory and technology.
  • The development of a different frame of reference to look at education.
  • The personal development and a new vision on didactics.
  • The practice of the training: theory disguised as assignments.
  • The variety in the courses and tasks, combined with different approaches.
  • The development into an e-learning expert in one year and the possibilities that it offers on the labour market.
  • The course itself: all aspects of studying pass in review - the stress, the competition, the anger about failing courses, teachers, the triumphant feeling when passing a subject.

One student emphasised some practical activities as 'best liked': "working together on assignments, surfing during CC1, designing a learning environment for CC3, exploring the teacher networks and making the implementation analysis (final assignment) of CC5."

In reaction to the question what they disliked most about the whole course more than half the group mentioned the stress and the pressure under which they had to work. As one of them described it:

  • "The course was full of stress, caused by lack of clarity, doubts, lack of technical skills, etc."

Time to Study?
The required study time for this training was 40 hours per week. Students were informed that this study was a full-time job. I asked the students how many hours a week on average they spent working on this training. Here are the results:
  • "I spent
    • 15-20 hours" said 1 student
      20-30 hours" said 2 students
      30-40 hours" said 6 students
      > 40 hours" said 2 students

This indicates that most students have met the required workload standard. Taken into account that some of them had considerable working and caring obligations next to their study obligations, this is a remarkable accomplishment. On the other hand I have the impression that in the selection process of candidate students this 'time standard' should have been taken more seriously. The fact is that at least a quarter of the students didn't meet the time standard that was announced.

The short time in which students had to finish this training forced them to work under a lot of strain and brought along too much stress. The pressure was so high that there was no or hardly any time for reflection or internalisation of new knowledge ('intellectual recuperation'). Especially in the core course phase the students had to pull out all the stops to finish their weekly assignments on time. Often it was too much work for one week.There was no or hardly any flexibility: the courses and assignments were prescheduled. Flexibility on the part of the teachers as to handing in assignments did not really help out because all courses were tightly scheduled and succeeded each other immediately. The only official time off during the year was a two weeks' holiday around Christmas, but in this period most students had to finish their website and do some assignments as well. Later in the training the programme management recognised this 'stress problem' too and postponed one course one week to give the students a little extra leeway to finish core courses CC3 and CC4.

Other sources of displeasure was the enormous distance between some students' home town and the Faculty. Not only was for some the journey very tiresome, but it deprived them of ample opportunity to communicate with fellow students on-campus. Three students who lived in the south of the Netherlands had to travel 10-14 hours to get to the Faculty and back home again. Also the lack of coaching, especially after the core course phase, was disliked and one of these students emphasised that she had the feeling that they had been 'guinea pigs' in this new training and a good 'source of income'.

Distance learning on scales

Because for most students this was their first online learning experience and online learning was the main subject of the course we invited students to outline the advantages and disadvantages of distance learning.

As major advantages of distance learning are considered the possibility to work at your own home, at your own pace, in your own time. In other words: "to choose and manage your study-time." Flexibility is the keyword in this respect. As other advantages are mentioned: the possibility to study at a university that would not be accessible considering the distance or the organisation of the programme and the opportunity to combine learning with taking care of your family.

A critical note is made by one student who claims that in order for a distance learning programmes to be successful flexibility, temporisation, leeway and elasticity should be incorporated. If learning communities would arise, they make a chance of becoming very intensive. Distance and physical presence are not important anymore in that case.

The major disadvantages of distance learning can be summarised in four points:

  1. Nearly half the group believe that the main disadvantages of distance learning are the lack of communication with teachers and fellow students. This obviously is an observation made with the experiences with TAET at the back of their minds. We have seen before that the TAET programme allowed for little collaborative working and extensive discussion of each other's work, let alone future plans. However, it is also noticed that this lack of communication and personal contact can be overcome by the development and mastery of new technologies, which are on their way. It has to be kept in mind though, that more communication and contact can only be realised when students have enough time to spend on it in their programme.

  2. Related disadvantages are the risk of 'drowning' on your own, loneliness and insecurity, caused by lack of communication. Solving problems on your own was also mentioned as a disadvantage, although this can at the same time be seen as an advantage, because you are forced to learn to do things yourself.

  3. The distance is also seen as a disadvantage because many facilities of the University of Twente are out of 'easy' reach, e.g. consulting the library. Visiting the mentor or supervisor takes up a lot of time too.

  4. Another critical note is made here that if the condition of a good student tracking system is lacking it can turn into a disadvantage of a distance learning programme. This was the case in TAET. Some students started running behind and were not 'guided back in line' by teachers or programme management.

To get a more specified idea about how the students 'digested' their online learning experiences I asked them if they would take another distance course if they had the opportunity. If the students were given the opportunity to take another distance course nearly all of them would do so, but most of them with restrictions. Some students would appreciate a more practical course, e.g. breeding fish for consumption, in which there is an immediate relation between the course and practice and which can preferably be followed in a faraway country. The condition in that case would be that all elements of the course can be taken at a distance. Other restrictions mentioned are: as long as real time events, such as meetings with teachers and students and visitations of the library are necessary, a shorter distance would be desirable. A distance course, according to some students, had best be job-related and could also be embedded in network-learning situation.

Nearly all students would recommend distance learning to other people, but again with restrictions. Students have to be motivated and disciplined when they start learning from a distance. They have to show perseverance when there are setbacks. The question is also raised whether a completely online mode is suitable, especially for younger students who might still need 'socialisation in real time'. For these students it might be an additional form of education. One student believes that online learning is only suitable for short courses. It is also believed that distance learning can be very profitable to people who are looking for a second chance and/or who do not have the opportunity to go to school every day.

And last but not least, there are also students who look at distance courses without restrictions, because it has given them the possibility to investigate and challenge this mode of delivering courses. Or simply because it is more flexible and the only way to study for them (especially in combination with a family). Or simply to gratify one's curiosity.

Final remarks

Students were invited to add some final remarks to the questionnaire. One important suggestion was directed towards the programme management: why not let students develop a real practice project from the beginning, so that they can connect the content of the courses immediately to the construction of a final project. This way there would be a more structured building up of the final project.

The question of the order of subjects in the course was raised again. "Why this order? Can it be changed? The beginning was very heavy, 3+4 were top exertions, 5+6 were easier to do."

Some students used this space to show their appreciation for the training or to make clear that in spite of all problems, frustrations and discomforts they were happy to have taken part in the training.

Teachers Dissected 

Now we will see what the teachers of TAET have to say about their preparations and expectations, their work and joy, their worries and dreams. How did they respond to the questionnaire? 16 of 19 teachers responded to the questionnaire, which can be called extremely rich output. The extensiveness of the replies, however, varied greatly.

Sub-optimal preparation?

How well were the teachers of TAET prepared for online teaching? I asked the teachers if they had previous experiences with online teaching. Half of the group of teachers reported previous experience with online teaching. The other half were novices in distance education. One teacher's experiences with online teaching dated back from 1986. The others had previous experience with one or more (partly) online courses. You might be inclined to conclude that the teachers were at least sub-optimally prepared for their tasks in online courses. However, in the Dutch situation where we are all just starting to discover and practise the possibilities and problems of telelearning, this seems to be the 'normal' case and not the exception.

How were the teachers technically prepared to work with the TeleTOP learning environment? And how were they prepared to teach and coach online? All teachers say that they were technically sufficiently or even more than sufficiently prepared to work within this learning environment. In the preparation for teaching and coaching online teachers were supported in the form of some instructional sessions that were organised by the TeleTOP constructors ('teletubbies', which is clearly used as a pet name), problem-directed support, and a manual about the operation of TeleTOP. They could make use of these forms of support if they wanted to. Some indicate that it was a process of 'learning by doing' and 'trial and error'. The answers to the question do not reveal whether the teachers had had didactic support in teaching online.

Knowing your students' level of experiences and expectations is a crucial element of any educational preparation. How familiar were teachers with the background of the TAET students? What did they know about their level of previous education, working experience and level of computer skills? A majority of teachers claims to be familiar with the level of previous education and working experience of the TAET students. A minority was also familiar with their level of computer skills. And only they knew that the computer skills of some of the students were well below the minimal requirements for this course. From the beginning this was a serious problem in a course in which students had to show their technical computer skills, for example skills to build a website.

This indicates that the weakness in the teachers' preparation is located in the selection process of TAET-students. Telelearning is computer-mediated learning. This means that students who have insufficient basic computer skills are handicapped in their learning performances. And because of this handicap at start, these students keep on running after their tails trying to catch up with the tasks set.

Time is - more or less - on our side

Telelearning in a sophisticated virtual learning environment can save time in many respects. The conventional distribution of paper from teachers to students and vice versa was costly, laborious, inflexible and slow. The virtual distribution of digital documents is cheap, elegant, flexible and very fast. If this distribution is completely webbased, i.e. if everybody puts her or his own material on the internet and continues the responsibility to keep this information up to date, then the just-in-time principle of information transfer finally has a chance to punish the conventional just-in-case principle that keeps beating us users with more information overload. There are other aspects of teacher activities that could be done more quickly in a virtual learning environment: creating questionnaires for students to test their progress in the learning process, communicating with colleagues and students, giving feedback on assignments and students' papers. On the other hand we can expect that in student-centred non-linear forms of learning the teachers will have to spend much more time than ever on telecoaching. Will this emerging category of specialised teleteachers have to work harder than their conventional counterparts?

To find only the beginning of an answer to this question I asked the teachers to indicate how much more or less time per week they spent on teaching this course. More than half of the group spent more time on online teaching than on delivering regular face-to-face courses, ranging from 0-5 to 5-10 extra hours. The remaining teachers said that they spent less time on it. These are not results that permit some kind of muscled conclusion. But the teachers themselves articulate some good reasons that explain the difference in time.

As main reasons for this increase of time were given:

  1. giving students personal and regular feedback and tutoring;
  2. answering individual questions of students;
  3. writing precise instructions for assignments;
  4. presentation of communication.

A small minority mentioned typing instructions as a time-consuming factor.

The teachers who spent less time on this online course indicated that this was due to easier administrative possibilities or due to the fact that they were only the 'second' person in the course and could leave the main responsibility in the hands of a colleague.

Now we can conclude that online learning environments economise on teachers' activities such as distributing learning, self-testing and testing material. It rationalises the whole 'economy of information'. But teaching cannot be reduced to the sheer transfer of information in a well-structured learning environment and institution. The core activity of teachers is coaching. In virtual learning environments this coaching will be more and more realised 'at a distance', but it will also be intensified. It will be intensified for two reasons. (a) In a student-centred learning environment students need and ask for more intensive monitoring and guidance. This is what I earlier called 'the revolution of the rising telecoaching expectations'. (b) To prevent that 'learning at a distance' leads to an increasing social distance between teachers and students, teachers will have to intensify their asynchronous and synchronous communication with their students. Teaching at a distance might even facilitate the minimalisation of the social distance between teachers and students that is so prevalent in conventional learning environments. The teachers of TAET have indicated what the new or renewed, time-consuming activities are - in two words: intensive telecoaching.

Unexpected problems

We have seen that most TAET-teachers were familiar with the level of previous education and working experience of the students. To what extent did this familiarity with the 'entry level of knowledge and skills' enable them to anticipate the problems that TAET-students experienced in this course? And what kind of unexpected problems did occur?

Half of the group of instructors said that they were not prepared for some of the students' problems. I asked them to give some examples of problems that they did not expect to occur. The following examples of unexpected problems were given:

  • lack of commitment of students in some courses
  • lack of computer skills
  • lack of group-working skills
  • quarrelsome 'nature' of students
  • dependence on feedback before moving on to the next step
  • inability to deal with negative feedback
  • hardly any interaction between students and teacher
  • isolated position of students
  • the differences between the students in cognitive capacity, interest, motivation and emotional stability

Some of these problems - such as lack of computer and group-working skills - directly refer to the background of the TAET-students. The established 'lack of commitment', however, doesn't seem to indicate a general motivation deficiency, but rather a specific problem for some - less motivating - course elements. The lack of interaction between students and teachers and the connected problem of the isolated position of students seem to refer to a more general issue: how strong are the interactive and communicative qualities of the TeleTOP-system and how well did teachers and students use these qualities? One teacher suggests that those students who have worked in a rather isolated position in the TAET-course are people who have lost their prior job because of their low level of social integration: "I think this 'tele'construct is far from beneficial for them. I guess they would blossom more in the real campus setting." It is not possible to sustain this suggestion on the basis of our empirical research. But it is reasonable to assume that people with a low level of social integration might be better off in campus-based learning environments. And it is plausible to make a similar assumption for teachers: teachers with a relatively low level of interactive skills and communicative aspiration might blossom more in a local campus setting.

As we have seen before teachers underestimated the level of computer and internet skills of the TAET-students. This has been the main reason why some students had difficulties in participating in the online discourse. In the analysis of students' reactions we concluded that the 'speed of feedback' (critical interactivity) is one of the main factors that structure the learning experiences. Students expect a more or less direct and personal feedback on their accomplishments in order to move on to the next step. We have also seen that the quality and speed of feedback has been quite different for the separate elements of the course. Lack of clarity and sluggishness of return-information in some core and optional courses have been a breeding ground for students' complaints. And students don't have to be blessed with a 'quarrelsome nature' to articulate these complaints. Blessed are the teachers with many students who contradict them.

The TeleTOP System

The TeleTOP (TT) System is an ambitious telelearning initiative of the University of Twente, Faculty of Educational Science and Technology.

  • "The overall goal of the TeleTOP initiative is to stimulate the innovative and appropriate use of the WWW for learning purposes within the faculty in order to make the educational delivery more efficient, more enriched, and more flexible" [De Boer & Collis 1999].

The core ideas behind the TeleTOP System were supposed to extend the level of activity and commitment of the students and to extend the effect and influence of the teachers. This initiative runs parallel with a new educational approach of both regular students and more 'mature' students who wish to "remain in their homes and jobs while participating in our program" [De Boer & Collis 1999]. Since no existing system met the basic requirements that were needed it was decided to build their own system, based upon a Lotus Notes database.

In order to find out about the teachers' experiences with the TeleTOP learning environment they were asked what they see as advantages and disadvantages of the system. Let's begin with the advantages.

First of all, TeleTOP is considered to be a "simple, quick, and easy (....) tool for course organisation, information and communication." It is easy to insert relevant and interesting webpages and information sources and to point them out to students, which is seen as an improvement of both teaching and learning. Secondly, it is also seen as a flexible tool, enabling teachers to organise their course and course material in a way and at times convenient to them, even from abroad. The content can be tailored to target groups and "it is very easy to adapt guidelines, assignments, links, etc. during the course" when unpredictable events are experienced during a course.

TeleTOP 'forces' teachers to be more explicit in text writing and to have a closer look at the content, organisation and assessment of their course or subject. An added value of this is that it can lead to improvement of content. As another advantage of TeleTOP some teachers see the more intensive interaction with students compared with the regular lecture-based way of teaching and the possibility of stimulating active learning methods. TeleTOP can also function as a "starting point and archive for next years' courses." If desired, TeleTOP also makes it far easier to find relevant information about courses of fellow teachers.

As to the disadvantages one instructor remarks that it is not correct to talk of disadvantages because they are constantly improving the system and many things have been made handier already. No system can be perfect, and this also true for the virtual learning system of TeleTOP: "I don't see anything as a disadvantage, but I see many things we still will do to grow and mature." Yet, other instructors do report some disadvantages or perhaps it is better to speak of what they find is lacking. Not all functionalities are fully developed and are sometimes still in the prototype phase. What the teachers especially miss is:

  • Student tracking-signals: thus missing chances for motivating the slower students.
  • Stores for reuse: "for example giving the same kind of feedback to other students on the same assignment. Workaround now is the NEWS or Q&A."
  • Creativity possibilities for teachers.
  • Difficulty to stimulate student - student interaction through TeleTOP.

As technical disadvantages are seen: (a) in order to get an overview you need "a lot of clicking", (b) interface to fill out forms needs improvement, (c) "including external links is cumbersome." Some of the technical problems have been improved however and some new functionalities have been implemented, as I gathered from personal communication with one of our teachers. Workspaces have been made better surveyable. Students can add weblinks now. Some new resources have been added to the menu, such as quiz, archive and sheets. In the concluding part I will continue this discussion on the future of TeleTOP.

Learning in Collaboration

Learning in a virtual environment is a highly individual, but not a solo activity. Webbased learning facilitates cooperation between students. And previous research has demonstrated that this collaborative potential is the secret of students' better performances in online learning configurations. Therefore I asked the teachers to explain their ideas about collaborative learning. How can collaborative learning contribute to knowledge building? And how can teachers structure and coach a collaborative learning process?

In general the group of teachers is positive about collaborative learning. Especially adult students can learn a lot from other students' previous practice experience (peer learning). However, the instructors differ in their views of what collaborative learning is and how far its scope should reach: to what extent can collaborative learning replace all traditional forms of education?

Some teachers support collaborative learning as a process of learning by doing, 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. In this view the teacher is more a facilitator of the learning process but also a learner in this process. Both teachers and students have to be explicit as to the division of the different tasks ("based on expertise, experience, interest, familiarity, etc.") and the division of responsibilities. For students who actively participate in the courses it can be a most rewarding, valuable and pleasant experience to contribute learning materials and resources to the course, which subsequently can be used for other courses.

Other teachers support cooperative learning, in which students work together on specific tasks, and which doesn't go as far as collaborative learning. Quite a few teachers mention the risks involved in such a learning process. How to organise it? How to provide the necessary and appropriate tools for building and sharing knowledge? One teacher is very outspoken about not introducing groupwork to beginning students, because of their lack of knowledge of a newly introduced subject. Moreover, the question is whether all traditional forms of education can or should be replaced by collaborative learning.

The ideas of the role of the coach in collaborative learning vary as well. Only a small minority of teachers did not express a view on the issue of collaborative learning. Some teachers support strong guidance by the instructor, not only in instruction, but also in creating a good group 'atmosphere'. Others see the teacher more as a member of the learning community and as a facilitator whose main task it is to support and control the knowledge transfer process between group members and to evaluate the learning progression of the individual students and the group. One teacher expressed a wish to alternate collaborative learning with face-to-face meetings once in a while. This is touched upon later again.

Coaching in online learning processes

Teachers were asked to describe their role as a coach in online learning processes. The variation in their reactions correspond with their views on collaborative or cooperative learning. There is a wide range of opinions. Some teachers regard their role as restricted to show students the essence of the content and to apply content. But they are exceptions to the rule. Most teachers mention the following 'services' as being part of their task as a coach:

  • structuring the content in the best way possible
  • providing the students with useful resources
  • structuring and guiding the learning process and learning activities in the best way possible
  • providing the students with regular, timely and individual feedback

There are also some teachers who try to articulate a new vision on the principles of online learning. They define teachers as moderators or coaches who offer the best possible conditions for the learning process and with whom the students share their responsibility for the learning process. Structuring and describing the learning activities should be done in such a way that it stimulates students to take up their tasks with a great amount of self-responsibility. These new principles of online learning are highly valuable for further elaboration.

The Value of Online Learning

In order to get insight into the foci of interest in teachers' perceptions of online learning I asked them what they valued most in this online course. Some teachers express their enthusiasm about the active participation of the students, their personal expertise and "the energy and the speed of most of the students, working on their assignments." This has been a relevant learning experience for them. Also the intensive contact (either face-to-face or by email) with the students, including reflection on and discussions about their work are valued highly by quite a few teachers. As one teacher wrote:

  • "Time by time, the students knocking at my door. These conversations gave a very precious 'personal' and 'direct' relation that overcame many smaller problems. In fact I concluded that particularly for the TAET students a personal assignment, directly related to their prior experiences and job aspirations would have been much more effective. These aspects came in my contact with 3 of the TAET students and worked out quite o.k."

Another teacher 'seconds' this statement and claims to value most "the professional input from students based on their own work or life experiences." One teachers sees this online course as a 'testbed for new ideas'.

The flexibility of online learning and subsequent opportunities for individualisation are also highly appreciated. The flexibility of TeleTOP (and online learning in general) has as a great advantage that students can follow courses which they wouldn't be able to follow in regular face-to-face education. Some teachers also mention as valuable the fact that you get an even better insight in your subject and the 'excitement' of having students translate organisational material to a telematics context.

Problems of Online Learning

It goes without saying that after asking what teachers valued most in this online course they were invited to describe what they find most problematic in this online course. It is clear that what some teachers value most also has a snag and can be the most problematic aspect of online teaching for them. Attributing high value to the personal expertise of the students implies that "the idea of a down-sized course is not good. It should be highly tuned to the students' situation, personality, prior skills, etc." This will definitely bring about extra work and extra time. The different personal expertise, academic backgrounds and differences in computer literacy of the TAET group are difficult to deal with and demand a differentiated approach, which is also time-consuming. Having intensive contact with students, which is seen as very valuable by a number of teachers, entails extra coaching time. Considering the course as a "testbed for new ideas" involves the difficulty of finding "the balance between providing a smooth, well-described learning experience and being a testbed for new ideas."

For many TAET-teachers the problems of online learning are concentrated on finding the balance between direct and computer-mediated personal contact, i.e. between face-to-face and CMC. Lack of face-to-face contact with the students, that is lack of direct personal contact, is seen as problematic by nearly half of the group of teachers. A face-to-face meeting once in a while would be very beneficial to both teachers and students. No face-to-face contact can also imply a lack of monitoring of students and unnecessary struggling on assignments, if they do not express their doubts online. One teacher is very firm about the consequences of a lack of face-fo-face contact and online learning:

  • "The lack of face-to-face contact and the enormous amount of typing work to do in TeleTOP cannot make up for the loss of the spoken word. This restricts your possibilities as a teacher very much. And obviously also the students in their learning possibilities."

Finally, planning of activities can be problematic because the online learning situation is more difficult to control as to time and content compared to formal lectures.

Final Remarks

Of course the teachers were also given an opportunity to add some final remarks or comments to the questionnaire. One teacher is very outspoken about not teaching completely online: "I think that the optimal mix of a course is 3 times live (start-intermediate-closing time) and the rest supported by the internet." This is of course a confirmation of what some teachers express as having missed or being the most problematic aspect of online teaching.

Some suggestions for improvement are given: It is very important that systems such as TeLeTOP are improved firmly in four directions:

  • Facilities to create ad hoc groups and networks in the participants group.

  • More sophisticated facilities for student learning (portfolio space) and progress administration (online gradebook).

  • Vehicles for 'quick diagnosis of student problems' and grounded procedures for the course-specific design of these vehicles.

  • A better selection/intake procedure.

Quite a few teachers are enthusiastic about the way this investigation was conducted and would like to be informed of the final results. And they will be!

Conclusions & Recommendations

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.
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.
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.
Try to be as direct and personal in your communication with students
Don't give students detached non-personal feedback that is not supportive.
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':

  • "I think that we could have meant a great deal for each other and could have learned a lot from each other, now and in the future. The whole course is individualistic. For me this is the greatest blunder of the Twente approach" [student email].

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:

  • As pointed out before, students should be tempted to introduce themselves properly before the beginning of the training. In our case we were asked to add some personal information on the 'address' page of TeleTOP, but more often than not this did not surpass elementary personal information (name, telephone number, address, brief description of previous working experience). It could be very useful to find out in which field students had been active before, in order to unite common working experiences and stimulate networked learning.

  • Students should be given more time and better facilities to be able to learn from each other's computer and internet experiences. If students have ample opportunity to gain a sufficient level of computer and internet skills they can support each other for example in building websites. In order to strengthen the cooperation between students, instructors should stimulate the process of mutual assessment and support. A simple way of doing this is to ask each group to review the product of another group, so that they can revise and improve their own product ('right to correct the first attempt').

  • Students should be enabled and stimulated to work on interesting problems together. An example: in one of their first courses students had to compare different electronic learning environments. These environments were completely unknown to all students. This very complex task of comparing the pros and cons of more or less highly integrated digital learning environments should be made feasible by task division in a cooperative context. The results of individual contributions for this task can be brought together after a process of mutual reviewing. Another challenging task that begs for intelligent cooperation is the decision on the implementation strategies for tele-education.

  • Teachers should stimulate the online exchange of relevant information on student results and problems (especially on the final project), new developments, interesting working areas, projects on educational innovation, seminars etc. In general their approach should be non-instructive, student-centred and directed at mutual collaboration among peers.

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:

  • The coaching in the TAET training should have been more intensive. It was an experimental ('first time') training that for many students was harder than they had expected. The training was composed of many new courses for both teachers and students, and students had to learn many new computer and internet skills. Many students needed intensive coaching of teachers and programme management. When students have to construct a website or a design for an online learning programme for the first time of their lives, they need regular coaching to test their pre-products. A part of this monitoring and coaching task can be 'delegated' to the students themselves. Students can 'pre-coach' themselves in a process of peer-reviewing the work of other students.

  • Coaching should be concentrated on supporting students 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. This is easier said than done in a situation where there is an apparent lack of internal cohesion of the TAET courses. Some more programmatic cohesion could have added so much to the richness of the learning experiences of the students. In a similar way some more integration of theoretical and practical elements could have given students a clearer vision on their future professions.

  • Coaching should be orientated towards a final project in a much earlier phase of the one-year training. It is recommendable 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. In the TAET course students could have benefited from earlier stimulation in this direction. Students have muddled too long finding a suitable project and developing it. One practical suggestion could be to arrange a special course site in which students can publish and discuss their propositions for their final projects, relevant links and drafts of their theses.

  • Coaching is not only a task restricted to teachers but also a task of the programme management. One of their coaching tasks is the monitoring of students in order to prevent them from falling behind or dropping out. This requires a sophisticated student-tracking system, and this did not belong to the toolkit of the programme management of this course.

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.

  • Very crucial clusters in the process of learning how to apply telematics in education and training are instructional design and instructional methods. This has been one of the weak links of the TAET course. In the future more attention is wanted for the design and methodical aspects of online instruction.

  • The TAET course has offered too little room to practise with designing. Teachers should guide students to develop their educational designing skills and students should be stimulated to present their final project as a web project. Students who graduate in the profession of 'teleducation' should at least once demonstrate their ability to construct website in which they present (a model or analysis of) an educational programme or other aspects of webbased education.

  • A number of the TAET students will find their place in teleducation at the management level. In order to be properly prepared for their work at this level students should be better informed on programme management and knowledge management of educational and training institutions. This could best be included in the implementation cluster (CC5).

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?


"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


Atkins, R. [1991]
Distance Education: New technologies and opportunities for developing distance education in New Sout Wales.
New South Wales Education Department.
Benschop, Albert [1996-2000]
Peculiarities of Cyberspace.
University of Amsterdam
In: SocioSite []
Bonk, Curtis B. / Cummings, Jack A. / Hara, N. / Fischler, Robert B. / Lee, Sun Myung [2000]
A Ten-Level Web Integration Continuum for Higher Education.
In: B. Abbey [2000] Instructional and Cognitive Impacts of Web-based Education.
London: Idea Group Publishing, pp. 56-77
Caluwé, L. de / Marx, E.C.H. / Petri, M.W. [1988]
A Developmental Configuration of Five Educational-Organizational Models.
In: idem [1988] School Development: Models and Change.
Leuven: Acco, pp. 99-124.
Chester, Andrea/Gwynne, Gillian [1998]
Online Teaching: Encouraging Collaboration through Anonymity
In: JCMC 4(2), December 1998.
Collis, Betty [1996]
Tele-learning in a Digital World.
London: International Thomson Computer Press.
Collis, Betty / Nijhuis, Gerard Gervedink [2000]
The Instructor as Manager: Time and Task.
Special Issue, The Internet and Education
Collis, Betty / Meeuwsen, Enrico [1997]
Learning to Learn in a WWW-Based Environment.
In: D. French [1997] Internet Based Learning: Higher Education and Industry.
Sterling: Stylus Publishing.
Cronin, P. [1997]
Learning and Assessment of Instruction
Unpublished report. Edinburgh: Univ. of Edinburgh, Center for Cognitive Science.
December, John [2000]
What is Computer-Mediated Communication?
Hara, Noriko / Kling, Rob [2000]
Students' Distress with a Web-based Distance Education Course
Indiana University, Bloomington.
Jacobs, Frans [2000]
Students' Benefits of Networked Learning in Dutch Higher Education.
Unpublished Paper, Open University, UK.
Jonassen, D et al, [1995]
Constructivism and Computer-mediated Communication in Distance Education
American Journal of Distance Education 9(2): 7-25.
Mason, Robin / Weller, Martin [2000]
The UK Open University.
Factors Affecting Students' Satisfaction on a Web Course.
Unpublished paper, Open University UK.
Merriënboer, Jeroen G./Jelsma, Otto/Paas, Fred G.W.C.
Training for Reflective Expertise: A Four-Component Instructional Design Model for Complex Cognitive Skills.
In: Educational Technology. Research and Development, 40(2): 23-43.
Merriënboer, Jeroen G./Dijkstra, S. [1997]
The Four-Component Instructional Design Model for training complex cognitive skills.
Tennyson/Schott/Seel/Dijkstra (eds.) [1997:427-45]
Training for Reflective Expertise: A Four-Component Instructional Design Model for Complex Cognitive Skills.
In: Educational Technology. Research and Development, 40(2): 23-43.
Miller, Susan M. / Miller, Kenneth L. [1999]
Using Instructional Theory to Facilitate Communication in Web-based Courses
Educational Technology & Society 2(3)
Moore, G.M. / Kearsley, G [1996]
Distance education: A systems view.
Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Peters, Oscar / Collis, Betty [2000]
Characteristics and Educational Functions of Asynchronous Audio and Video in WWW-based Learning Environments.
University of Twente, Unpublished Manuscript.
Preece, Jenny et al. [1994]
Human-Computer Interaction.
Harlow: Addison-Wesley.
Prendergast, Gerard A. [2000]
Creating Effective Online Collaborative Educators
Abacus Learning Systems.
Rowntree, Derek [1999]
The Tutor's Role in Teaching via Computer Conferencing
Institute of Educational Technology, Open University. online.htm
Salmon, Gilly [1998]
Developing Learning Through Effective Online Moderation.
Active Learning, 9: 3-8.
Salmon, Gilly [2000]
E-Moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning OnLine.
London: Kogan page.
Salmon, Gilly / Giles, Ken [1998]
Creating and Implementing Successful Online Learning Environments: a Practitioner Perspective.
Open University Business School.
Siegel, Marcelle et al. [2000]
Promoting Teachers' Flexible Use of the Learning Sciences through Problem Sovling on the WWW
Spiro, Rand J. / Feltovich, Paul J. / Jacobson, Michael 1. / Coulson, Richard L. [1991]
Cognitive Flexibility, Constructivism, and Hypertext: Random Access Instruction for Advanced Knowledge Acquisition in Ill-Structured Domains
Educational Technology, May 1991, pp. 243-33.
Steinfort, Sheila [1999]
Social Presence in CMC: An Explaining Concept?
Amsterdam: Dept. of Communications.
Surf [2000]
Advies keuze Teleleerplatform 2000.
Tam, Maureen [2000] (Lingnan University, China)
Constructivism, Instructional Design, and Technology: Implications for Transforming Distance Learning
Educational Technolgy & Society 3(2). ISSN 1436-4522.
Tennyson, R.D./ Schott, F./ Seel, N / Dijkstra, S (eds.) [1997]
Instructional Design: International Perspectives (Vol. I & II)
Hilsdale, NJ: Lawrecne Erlbaum.
Walther, J.B. [1996]
Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal interaction.
In: Communication Research 23(1): 3-43.
Wegerif, Rupert [1998]
The Social Dimension of Asynchronous Learning Networks.
JALN 2 (1).
Willis, J. [1995]
Recursive, Reflective Instructional Design Model based on Constructivist-Interpretist Theory.
In: Educational Technology 35(6): 5-23.