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 I)
This page was written by Alastair Reynolds

This assignment is concerned with the management of learning in the context of an on-line study environment. This part of the literature review will begin with a brief consideration of some management theory, followed by a review of some sources relating to the “virtual classroom” concept. The section will conclude with ideas about what constitutes effective management within such an on-line study environment. The second part of the literature review examines adult and distance learning theory and the issues that arise in adult and distance learning environments.

A framework for consideration of management issues

There are a vast number of management theories; most relate to the management of businesses rather than education, but the skills involved are often transferable between different contexts. Allen (1998) expresses concern that attention has been too focussed on “trying the latest management fads” and not enough on the basics which underlie all the theories. He suggests six functions in the work of a manager:

  1. Establishing Objectives
  2. Organising
  3. Motivating
  4. Developing People
  5. Communicating
  6. Measurement and Analysis
One of the noticeable features of the many management “fads” which come and go is that they tend to focus on a subset of these six areas, possibly on only one. This usually reflects a general need for improvement in a specific aspect of management. For example, in the Education Authority in which I work there is currently strong emphasis on establishing clear objectives, because this is an area where school management teams have been weak in recent years.

A model like Allen’s is helpful because an initial analysis of management issues can be carried out across all six functions. Closer attention can then be paid to individual areas where significant issues have come to light.

Much of the literature relating to on-line learning environments also makes reference to how the learning within these environments should be effectively managed. This will be considered in the next section, but it is worth noting a slight change in emphasis - this assignment is concerned primarily with managing learning whereas traditional management theory is concerned with managing people and assets.

Our focus is the management of a process rather than the management of resources. To understand how the learning can be effectively managed will require careful consideration of the learning process and the environment within which that learning will take place. Adult and distance learning have been considered in the first part of the literature review, and the nature of on-line learning environments is considered below.

On-line learning environments

Two of the main concepts considered in the literature about on-line learning environments are “computer-mediated communication” and the “virtual classroom”.

Paulsen (1995a) defines computer-mediated communication (CMC) as “transmission and reception of messages using computers as input, storage, output, and routing devices. CMC includes information retrieval, electronic mail, bulletin boards, and computer conferencing.” This definition is derived from Rapaport’s (1991) classification of CMC modes into one-alone, one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many, which correspond to the four components of CMC above.

McConnell (1988) describes how CMCs have an important role to play in the delivery of in-service teacher training. He sees computer conferencing as a way of encouraging peer group learning and the sharing of good practice amongst teachers who would normally be separated geographically. This is precisely the situation being studied in this assignment.

Hiltz (1995a) defines the virtual classroom as a “teaching and learning environment constructed in software, which supports collaborative learning among students who participate at times and places of their choosing, through computer networks.” The concept of a virtual classroom is developed from research conducted by Hiltz at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where “Virtual Classroom” was the name of the software used.

Kaye (1992) lists three features common to most on-line classrooms.

  1. The group size is comparable to that in a face-to-face class.
  2. There is at least one person responsible for guiding the group's activities.
  3. The principal mode of communication is computer conferencing.
The third feature in the list above is the link between the virtual classroom and computer-mediated communication; computer conferencing is an example of a many-to-many mode of CMC. Since this study is concerned with an on-line environment where a conference discussion is central to the learning process, this particular mode of CMC will be considered further. Paulsen (1995a) distinguishes between discussion groups, where a group splits into subgroups and discusses the material or questions under consideration, and discussion forums, where a group as a whole carry out the discussion. Smith (1988) states that a good conference system allows a number of separate discussions, which individuals may choose to contribute to. These discussions could be distinguished by groups of participants or discussion topics.

Paulsen describes the ‘moderator’ or ‘resource person’ in a discussion forum as the person “responsible for guiding discussion during which the audience is encouraged to raise and discuss issues, make comments, offer information, or ask questions of the resource person(s) and each other.”

Effective management of learning in on-line environments

In a discussion of the needs for advanced open learning systems, Davies (1988) suggests that research into the nature of the interaction that occurs in using such systems for teaching and learning is of key importance to the success of such systems.

Garrison (1989) recognises that technology makes possible the linking of students, teachers and resources in the distance learning environment, and that CMCs are therefore a “cornerstone in the theoretical foundation of distance education”. In his conclusion Garrison states that mediated communication (not necessarily computer-mediated) is fundamental to distance education. He asserts that the choice of method for distance-learning should not be determined by cost-efficiency but by the effectiveness of the method. He states that “effectiveness is very much associated with the appropriate form and nature of the communication process.” Encouraging effective communication is therefore a fundamental part of the effective management of learning in on-line environments.

Allen (1998) lists five ‘rules’ for effective communication. These are:

  1. To communicate there must be exchange of information.
  2. All information exchanged should be as clear and complete as possible.
  3. The information should be meaningful to the individual who is recieving it.
  4. Always get confirmation that the message you are communicating has been understood.
  5. Information can be given in many ways. The more ways you use, the clearer and more believable it will be. However, the message must be the same in all ways. It is vital to be consistent. Remember, actions speak louder than words.
These rules are incremental; for example if there is no exchange of information, then none of the other rules can be applied.

Paulsen (1995b) states that the role of the facilitator in an on-line discussion is similar to that in a face-to-face discussion. He uses Carlson’s (1989) description:

The facilitator needs to “help people get started, give them feedback, summarize, weave the contributions of different folks together, get it un-stuck when necessary, deal with individuals who are disruptive or get off the track, bring in new material to freshen it up periodically, and get feedback from the group on how things are going and what might happen next.... (Further, the facilitator needs to) communicate with the group as a whole, sub-groups, and individuals to encourage participation.” (Carlson 1989, 6.11)
Clearly there is much for the facilitator to do in managing the learning process and ensuring that it is effective. We can see examples of all six of Allen’s (1998) basic principles of management, with the possible exception of establishing objectives.

In a discussion of the role of a moderator in a computer conference, Paulsen (1995b) makes reference to Mason’s (1991) identification of the three role functions of such a moderator:
Organisational role One of the first duties of an on-line tutor is to set the agenda for the conference: the objectives of the discussion, the timetable, procedural rules and decision-making norms. Managing the interactions with strong leadership and direction is considered a sine qua non of successful conferencing.
Social role Creating a friendly, social environment for learning is also seen as an essential moderator skill. Sending welcoming messages at the beginning and encouraging participation throughout are specific examples, but providing lots of feedback on student's inputs, and using a friendly, personal tone are considered equally important.
Intellectual role The most important role of the on-line tutor, of course, is that of educational facilitator. As in any kind of teaching, the moderator should focus discussions on crucial points, ask questions and probe responses to encourage students to expand and build on comments. (Mason, 1991)

In his conclusion Paulsen (1995b) suggests that although there is much advice about conference moderation available, most of it is specific to particular contexts. Instead of offering general guidelines for effective conference moderation, he suggests that moderators should “identify their preferred pedagogical styles, based on their philosophical orientation, chosen moderator roles, and preferred facilitation techniques.”

Kearsley (1997) discusses the nature of on-line learning and what can make it more effective. He states that interaction among participants is the most important factor in successful on-line education. The responsibility for ensuring a high level of interaction lies with the facilitator. He suggests two main ways to encourage regular participation - the use of regular assignments and group activities. The assignments can take the form of questions posed by the instructor, and participants’ responses can be discussed by the whole group, resulting in a sharing of knowledge and ideas. For group activities, Kearsley suggests division into groups of three or four with common interests or skills, who can discuss relevant issues and work collaboratively on group assignments. He also notes that the teacher does not automatically command a presence in on-line environments - the teacher’s role is to encourage participation and keep discussions focused on certain topics. He points out that this is more difficult than face-to-face teaching.

Bracewell et al (1998) identify two important conditions for student participation in on-line environments:

  1. The clarity and centrality of expectations to participate.
  2. The specification of complementary roles and responsibilities.
They assert that the discussions need to form a central part of meaningful learning activities, and that it must be clear that all are expected to participate. The specification of roles and responsibilities allow participants to focus on particular activities and aspects of the discussion.

Kearsley (1997) notes that participants in conferences react differently depending on upon their personalities and interests. Some are happy to actively participate and others prefer to simply read messages but not respond. Harasim (1997) reports that in the early weeks of on-line discussion, many students reported communication anxiety and feeling 'lost in space'. Kearsley states that one factor can be the participants’ writing skills, although the asynchronous setting where responses need not be immediate gives people a chance to think carefully about what to write. Teachers need to be aware of these factors. Feedback is also important to participants in on-line courses - if no feedback is given on their responses then they will eventually stop posting.

Hiltz (1995b) suggests that some students and instructors are much happier with the predictability and familiarity of the traditional classroom. “They won’t feel challenged and motivated. They won’t work harder at teaching and learning. And, they will probably learn less than they would have in the familiar lecture hall.” In “Teaching in the Virtual Classroom”, Hiltz (1995a) suggests that the virtual classroom may not be the best mode of course delivery for every faculty or student. On-line courses do not work as well with a small number of students, and a minimum of ten are required to maintain lively interchange. The students who gain the best results in on-line environments are those who are “well-motivated and well-prepared, who have adequate access to the necessary equipment and who take advantage of the opportunities provided for increased interaction with their professor and with other students.” The determining factor in whether the virtual classroom mode is ‘better’ than the traditional classroom is how well the tutor is able to build and sustain a cooperative and collaborative group.


When considering management issues arising from the tutoring of an on-line course, it is necessary to consider the context; the learning environment and the intended style of learning. Allen (1998) offers a breakdown of the functions of a manager which would usefully form the first stage in classifying the issues which arise.

On-line learning environments have many differentiating features, including the modes of communication, the size of the groups involved, the extent to which face-to-face communication is possible, the nature of the teaching and the ways in which the course moderator sets and organises tasks.

An essential part of effective distance education is mediated communication. The moderator has a key role in coordinating and developing discussion between the course participants. As well as this ‘organisational role’, Mason (1991) also identifies social and intellectual roles for the moderator.

Kearsley (1997) states that participant interaction is fundamental to successful on-line learning. Regular assignments and group activities are two methods for encouraging such participation. Students need to be clear what their roles in the course are, and about the extent to which they are expected to take part. Feedback is an important factor in maintaining student interaction.

It is recognised that on-line learning will not suit every student; some will reject it in favour of the traditional classroom but others will find it a motivating and stimulating mode of learning.


Click here to go to the assignment references page.

You may now wish to go to Part II of the literature review if you have not already read it.
Otherwise you can move on to the Case Study Introduction or return to the contents.

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