University of Exeter - School of Education B.Phil / M.Ed Modular Degree Programme
Managing and Organising IT effectively for learning G163 - Spring 1999 Professor Niki Davis
A case study of tutoring an on-line course
Submitted by: Alastair Reynolds and Megan Dick Previous modules undertaken : G162, G161, P51

Literature Review (Part II)
This page was written by Megan Dick

In order to understand how learning on an on-line course can be effectively managed, research about the pedagogy of such a course needs to be discussed. This section of the literature review will discuss adult and distance learning in order to consider how an on-line environment can effect learning. Related issues that arise in the management of an on-line course will then be considered.

Adult learning

Adults do not necessarily learn differently from children but an adult's life is different from a child's in that adults are learning in conjunction with social responsibilities. This means that they often need to integrate learning and living. (Garrison, 1989) Andragogy or adult learning is different from pedagogy as adult learners are self-directed and are usually responsible for their own learning. In the TIP database (1996) Knowles' theory of andragogy is explained. He makes the point that courses designed for adult learners should take these four things in account:

  1. Adults need to know why they need to learn something
  2. Adults need to learn experientially,
  3. Adults approach learning as problem-solving, and
  4. Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value.

Courses designed for adults should focus more on process than content as this better suits an adult's learning situation. Additionally, instructors should be facilitators rather than lecturers. Knowles gives the examples of case studies, role-playing, simulations, and self-evaluation as the most useful strategies to be used with adult learners. All of these points should be kept in mind when designing a further education course for teachers. Self-evaluation or reflection is a very useful strategy for teachers as a large part of teachers' learning focuses on reflection of their current practice.

Learning Environments

In an adult learning situation, adults with varied experiences and learning methods will be on the same course. Adult learners need a learning environment in which a diverse group of learners can thrive. Susan Imel (1995) describes a different conception of pedagogy that creates an inclusive learning environment. She describes a theory called "new pedagogy", termed by Taylor and Marienau, which explains that a learning environment can be inclusive if it incorporates,

  1. the validity of the student's experiences as well as support for the emerging self as a focus of education;
  2. the contextual nature of knowledge, including the relationship between the learner and his or her knowledge base; and
  3. the notion that learning can be a transformative process.

This 'new pedagogy' is useful in adult education and the further education of teachers as it also addresses and includes the teachers' context and experience. This type of learning should foster a reflective atmosphere so that learning can be a transformative process.

However, it is important to note that issues relating to control and power might arise in an inclusive learning environment. In a traditional learning environment, the power relationship between the learners and teacher has an established form. All participants have expectations about their roles and the teacher is seen as the source of knowledge. This gives them a power role. The learner has a subservient role and is perceived to be the receiver of the teacher's knowledge. An inclusive learning environment should try to give value to the learners' knowledge and experience as well. This shifts the power relationship between teacher and learner and can be unsettling. (Imel, 1995) If this issue is dealt with reasonably, this should not be a problem with adult learners. Instead, it should add to the course, as the adults' previous experiences and knowledge will be given validity in the learning process.

Learning Communities

As adults have previous experience with learning, sharing their ideas and opinions is a valuable method of learning. Learning collaboratively should be a useful model for adult learners. A collaborative learning arrangement that can be well supported by technology is a 'learning community'. In a learning community, students create and pool information in a joint process to share knowledge and skills. (Abdous et al, 1998) A learning community is built based on shared goals to be achieved and the learning methods used should be formulated based on the group's ultimate learning goals. Another aspect of a learning community is that it should be set in a specific context, such as teaching, from which students can draw meaning and motivate themselves in their learning activities. Learning should be a collaborative process, with the main features being co-operation, dialogue, mutual help and negotiation.

David H. Jonassen et al (1998) describe "learning communities" as models for instruction using both technology and constructivist theory. The learning environment should offer students many resources to explore, rather than forcing them to "swallow instructional packages likes pills." (Jonassen et al, 1998) Learning communities should put the emphasis on the whole group, which should then collaborate and support each other towards their learning goals. The students will contribute to the community and co-operate for the learning of the whole group. This model depends on both students and teacher taking responsibility for their learning and motivation. This model also requires many learning resources for students to utilise. The authors believe that technology can support the creation of learning communities. In particular,

the Internet can become the communications vehicle that both liberates and ties learners together, including students and teachers, into coherent learning communities. Through its powerful communications and information-access capabilities, the Internet can be part of the glue that keeps people connected-talking with each other, noticing and appreciating differences, working out divergent views, serving as role models and audiences for one another. The education future portended by the Internet, therefore, is not isolated, individually tailored to each child; rather, it is a community-centered future that accommodates the individual through the workings of the larger community.

David H. Jonassen, 1998

For adults learning on-line, the theory of "learning communities" offers them a model whereby they can learn together, using rich information sources and integrating their own experiences and contexts. In this way, the learners collaborate towards the learning of the group and could support each other towards becoming reflective teachers and learners.

Technological contexts such as the Web support constructivist approaches to learning. These approaches are based on the belief that learners will construct their own understanding or knowledge as they reflect on their experiences. (Kerka, 1996) Distance education lends itself well to a technological medium as teacher and learner can take part in the education process asynchronously. The learner is actively engaged in the learning process. Research into on-line computer conferencing shows that the instructor contributes only 10-15% of the message volume, compared to 60-80% in a verbal exchange. Instructors can coach, model and scaffold for their learners when helping them to accomplish learning tasks. (Vavik, 1997)

Distance Learning

Distance learning can be defined as, "consisting of all arrangements for providing instruction through print or electronic communication, media to person, engaged in planned learning in a place of time different from that of the instructor or instructors." (Vavik, 1997)

Keegan's model of distance education, as explained by Paulsen (1993), shows six major elements which define a distance education program. These are:

Holmberg's definition of distance education states that the forms of study are not under the, "continuous, immediate supervision of tutors present with their students in lecture rooms or on the same premises, but which, nevertheless, benefit from the planning, guidance and tuition of a tutorial organisation." (Garrison, 1989) This definition interestingly makes the planning, guidance and tuition of the course a function of the organisation and not a function of the teacher.

Issues arising from distance learning

In an article for the U.S Department of Education on distance learning using the Internet and the World Wide Web, Sandra Kerka (1996) makes the point that this type of distance learning could profoundly change the delivery of adult, career, and vocational education. She cites a continuing education program using computer conferencing conducted by Wiesenberg and Hutton in which they found that this medium necessitated two to three times more delivery time for the course. In addition,

Learners appreciated the convenience of asynchronous communication, but many were anxious about putting their written words "out there." The course was more democratic but less interactive than expected, and the instructors recommended giving learners a better orientation to the online learning environment, providing technical support, and fostering self-directed learning and learning-to-learn skills.

Kerka, 1996

Distance learning can create opportunities for further education for people who are working. The asynchronous nature of the discussion in a distance learning course is very convenient for those fitting their learning around other aspects of their lives, such as jobs and families. There can be anxiety about putting one's opinions and words onto a screen that remains for others to see. It is harder to take back an opinion you might later disagree with. This method of communication often necessitates a period in which participants can become comfortable with this alternate, and often initially uncomfortable and strange, method of communication.

In the same article, Kerka (1996) explains that other research has found that computer discussion, "both requires and facilitates learning-how-to-learn skills, such as locating and accessing information resources, organising information, conducting self-assessment, and collaborating." Adult learners in this study found that there were some strategies that were critical for success, such as the need to become comfortable with the technology. Other problems that arose were determining how often to go online, dealing with textual ambiguity, processing information on or off line, seeking and giving feedback, and using one's learning style to personalise the course.

Another issue common to distance learning is the "the loneliness of the long distance learner". (Kerka, 1996) Though students must interact in on-line discussions, learning at a distance can still be isolating. Relationships among learners must be actively developed and communication protocols should be established so that the possibility of the lack of non-verbal clues creating misunderstandings can be overcome. For these reasons, on-line courses should be based on consensus building and group projects. In these ways, learners can develop collaborating skills with distant colleagues and learn to co-operate with diverse individuals.

In an on-line course, it is often important for students to communicate in pairs or smaller groups as well as taking part in whole class discussions. It has been noticed that social interaction with ICT can create individualised dialogue relationships in which participants can support and help each other. Peer coaching and mentoring can be engendered and can contribute to a reflective colleague relationship. In a case reported by Russel and Cohen in which two education professors corresponded electronically, this relationship can be seen clearly.

The reflective colleague relationship contributed to ensuring constructive and thoughtful exchange on the actions taken and strategies used in the framework of positive and critical feedback on the teaching offered. The electronic correspondence gave meaning to shared and reflective action from which each partner derived real benefits in examining how to be a teacher.

Abdous et al, 1998

This example illustrates the concept of 'co-operative learning', which can often be of benefit in an on-line learning environment. The process of co-operative learning is driven by the idea that those involved in the learning process engage in a social process of learning and pay attention to the process in order to achieve their desired goal. (McConnell, 1994) In this way, co-operative learning can create end products that are not easily achievable by students learning on their own. There are other end products of learning co-operatively, as this type of learning has a social dimension to it. It can develop outcomes that are not purely academic, such as group skills and self-assurance as well as the academic learning outcomes. It can also foster a more democratic learning environment, in which the participants learning and experiences are made public. The tutor or teacher's role in co-operative learning should be to provide a supportive context for the group. Often the tutor will provide a structured activity in which they will assign work to the learners and provide them with roles within the group.


Distance learning is a useful method for the further education of adults. On an on-line course, the discussion is asynchronous so that adults can fit their learning around their social responsibilities. Courses designed for adult learners should focus on process rather than content, as adult learners are usually responsible for their own learning. A course designed for adults should create a learning environment that takes the participants' previous experience and knowledge into account so that it is given validity in the learning process. This type of learning can create a reflective atmosphere that is especially useful for the further education of teachers. They can collaborate and support each other towards their learning goals. A reflective and co-operative learning environment can then be created.

There are several issues that need to be taken into account when managing this type of course. The shift in the power relationship between teacher and learner, comfort with the technology and discussion style, and the isolation of distance learning should all be addressed if learning is to be managed effectively. If these issues are overcome, an on-line course can be an effective way for adults to learn.


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You may now wish to go to Part I of the literature review if you have not already read it.
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Assignment Quick Links
Title Page | Introduction | Contents | Literature Review (Part I) | Literature Review (Part II)
Introduction to case study | Analysis (Part I) | Analysis (Part II) | Conclusions | References | Appendices