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Structuring the
Learning Experience

A Personal View

Author:
Connie Menting

What I Expected

Background

In the period 1985-1997 I worked in the field of secondary education. The first few years only as a teacher of English but gradually my domain extended to student counselling. Guiding students through their school careers turned out to be a very rewarding experience. I supported many students in their struggle to solve study and/or personal problems. It led to a huge growth of mutual trust and respect and also made teaching much more interesting, inspiring and not to forget much more fun. The management of my school offered me the financial means to attend a 2-year course in counselling to 'bring my counselling skills to perfection'. The result of this was a valuable certificate and an ever-growing increase of students who came to ask for advice or support. My colleagues considered me to be the 'expert' in counselling as well and consulted me more and more. The greater part of this work was done in my spare time: in breaks and after classes. No more coffee breaks or lunches for me. In combination with still quite a few teaching commitments and a coordinate of the top forms of my school this turned out to be too much altogether. Colleagues warned me that I worked way too hard, but I brushed these warnings aside. My pupils' well-being was too important for me. Nobody was surprised when I collapsed in 1997, except I. Recovering from this was an enormous struggle, which I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. Great was my joy when I was selected for the TAET training in September 1999. My motivation was astronomic but, to be honest, my computer skills were less than average. I am a good typist, but my familiarity with the computer was not well-developed when I started the training. In the selection procedure I made it clear that I had 'high personal support' at home: from a partner who is the creator of the SocioSite, a huge sociological information system. This promising support apparently compensated my admitted lack of computer skills.

Specific expectations

It is difficult to describe precisely what my expectations were when I started. Clearly I expected the instructors and the programme management to have taken into account the specifics of our group. Quite a few of us had not studied for a long time, some of us had been out of the working process for a while. We were all adults with quite some working experience behind us. Since the training was - both in its form and content - experimental and subsidised I expected some sort of 'special treatment' of the group and perhaps also extra preparation on the part of the instructors to coach us successfully through the learning process and to our professional future.

As to the subjects of the course my mind was nearly completely blank. I did expect the courses to be relevant for our professional future - however vague this future was. I had some indistinct ideas about the content of the courses, but no more. As to coaching I expected the instructors to give constructive, personal and if possible prompt feedback and to help out if I took the wrong course. I also expected my teachers to take me, my background and my motivation seriously

Index
Learning Experience

After the starting signal for TAET had been given I felt as if I was learning three new languages at a time. (a) the computer language; (b) the instructional design language and (c) and the website-building language and how to 'behave' on the web. Not to speak of learning a lot of new content. It was awesome and sometimes awe-inspiring. It often made me feel very stupid when I had forgotten some computer-related action for the umpteenth time. Practice makes perfect but there was no time for proper practice: assignments had to be handed in, week after week after week. The website had to be finished and filled with content. There was no time to slow down, hardly time to relax. I only worked like mad (often much more than 40 hours per week). Quite a strain for someone who had not studied for years. On the other hand, although I have not learnt to speak the three languages fluently in this year, I have gained a tremendous amount of new knowledge in the field of distance and online education.

In this training I personally experienced how important coaching and communication with teachers and students is, perhaps even more in distance education than in face-to-face education. Good telecoaching is an art, so is giving good feedback. I revived immediately when a teacher sent me a swift and personal reaction, showing that my work had been read with interest. I lost courage when I received meaningless, impersonal feedback. There was a great diversity in the group of teachers in this respect. It made me proud when a teacher praised a new educational application or an innovative initiative. It rubbed me up the wrong way when a teacher denounced an assignment because it didn't match his or her idea of how the assignment should be worked out. It annoyed me when assignments were too theoretical or at least had no link whatsoever with our future professional practice. There was a great diversity in the group of teachers in this respect as well.

Working together with fellow students from a distance was a useful and enjoyable experience and so was the email contact I kept up with quite a few of them. I took the initiative to start an e-group and quite a few students joined, but it never really blossomed - apparently because nobody really had time for collaborative work. Especially in the period after the core courses, when there was not such strict guidance and fairly little contact with the teachers in most courses, I often felt left alone. In most optional courses I missed good coaching, clear guidelines and instruction. It seemed as if we had to figure everything out for ourselves. It seemed as if the TAET students did not matter or exist anymore. There was no regular 'check' from the programme management to find out how we were doing and progressing and how our plans for our thesis and apprenticeship were coming along. To me it felt as if they were putting up barriers and this discouraged me to ask for help. It reduced my enthusiasm for this study. We received no insight in how other students were progressing unless we contacted them ourselves. Some students seemed to have disappeared completely. Until now I have no idea how many students are going to make the finishing line and when. The contact I kept up with my fellow students compensated for the feeling of loneliness. We exchanged our final project plans, supported each other with literature or other useful tips, or swapped our frustrations. They helped keeping me going and so did my partner. I realize that I am the kind of student who thrives most in a learning community.

Last, but not least was the freedom I experienced when my internet connection changed from telephone to cable. What a reduction in stress! What freedom in being and staying online! In a training in which you have to spend so much time online this was an enormous relief.

Index

TeleTOP Environment

Working with TeleTOP was not very difficult and did not take me long, but often caused small irritations and raised questions about the student-friendliness of the system. The Roster, Newspage and Course Information were usually well-organised and clear (of course as regards content depending on the (un)clarity of the information written down by the instructors). These were the central information pages. Other facilities, such as for example Discussion page, Workspace, Q&A page, separate Plug-ins and Glossary depended on the teacher or on the students who asked for a specific facility.

The irritations were caused by the number of clicks, for example needed to get to a specific course, and from there to another course again. It is impossible to switch directly from one course to another. One always has to go 'back home' first or go there via 'Favorites'. Inside a course, though, just one click was required to go from one page to the other. Another problem is the difficulty of submitting larger numbers of webpages and to upload them again: first you have to throw all old files away separately (and sometimes there were quite a few to be replaced) and then the new ones had to be uploaded again separately. Why not an FTP facility? Then, the messy 'character' of the workspace once students had started submitting their work and the time it took to get to your personal space. There also was the relative obscurity of the Discussion page because there were no discussion threads and dates were mixed up. The tiny box in the Q&A page for submitting questions, which was so small that asking complex questions was a disheartening experience: after one line you could not read anymore what you had written before. The impossibility to interfere in a Q&A page when the dates of submitted questions were jumbled over and over again.The two 'log-ins' needed to get to courses after the system had been renewed during the summer.

Some of these inconveniences have been improved now: the Discussion page, for example, is much more surveyable now as to the different threads of discussions. The Q&A box is slightly bigger.

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What I Have Learned

In spite of everything I have learned a lot: technically, and as regards content and telecoaching. Taking into account that I only knew how to send and receive emails and to enter the WWW when I started with TAET I have acquired many new computer-related skills and can proudly call my computer skills level average to good now. I have learnt a lot about electronic learning environments. I have learnt that online learning processes are still in their infancy. Still there is a lot more to learn, but fortunately I will have time for that after my graduation.

As regards content I personally have enjoyed most those subjects with a more or less practical character or rather, with practical relevance: designing websites, designing and developing a webbased educational programme, getting familiar with the practice and progress of (innovative) distance education in educational institutions. Also thinking about and designing streaming video templates for educational purposes was very interesting and thinking about the use of Virtual Reality for educational purposes (and developing a VR application). Reflecting on hypertext and the possibilities of non-linear learning for innovative learning processes (and the consequences for webdesign and navigation) was an eye-opener to me. Discussing ways of implementing online learning in educational institutions. I have discovered that if there is no direct relation with my presumed future professional practice a subject is less interesting to me.

It will not be surprising that I also have learnt a lot about telecoaching. Immediately after the start of the programme I discovered the paramount importance of good coaching in distance education. When learning from a distance you have to have the feeling that you are 'in touch' with your teachers and fellow students. Personal, stimulating, swift and supportive feedback are most motivating. Impersonal, formal and slow feedback are not acceptable. Adult learners in distance education should be taken seriously. After all, they often already have a 'pile' of working experience in their backpack and this experience can also be of value for their educators. One teacher explicitly told me that he had learnt a lot from many contributions of our group. This type of students cannot be treated as novice students anymore.

What - in my view - is important too is that, although they are adults, it does not mean that they can do without attention. Admitted, some students prefer to work on their own, and some students need more attention than others. But from my contacts with a greater part of the group during the year I have learned that in many respects they have not been properly coached. And here I do not speak of the good coaches. It was sometimes almost heartbreaking to read students' accounts. As said before, this was especially the case in the second phase of the training and in the final stages. Telecoaching but also student-tracking should be intensive during the whole period, even if the students are adults. I do realize that this puts a heavy weight on the shoulders of the teachers and programme management but I think this is vital in a 'healthy and fruitful' distance learning process.

I would like to end with a poem from 'Now we are Six' by A.A. Milne.

There are lots and lots of people who are always asking things,
Like Dates and Pounds-and-ounces and the names of funny Kings,
And the answer's either Sixpence or A Hundred Inches Long.
And I know they'll think me silly if I get the answer wrong.

So Pooh and I go whispering, and Pooh looks very bright,
And says, "Well, I say sixpence, but I don't suppose I'm right",
And then it doesn't matter what the answer ought to be,
'Cos if he's right, I'm Right, and if he's wrong, it isn't Me.


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Peculiarities SocioSite Subject Areas Society Search About us Contact

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