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Structuring the Learning Experience
- Telecoaching in Practice -
Description of the Training
Students in Pieces
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:
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:
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']
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