A Training Proposal for e-Learning Teachers

Florentino Blázquez Entonado [blazento@unex.es] and Laura Alonso Díaz [laulonso@unex.es], Phone:+34924289690
Dpto. CC. Educacion. Avda Elvas s/n, C.P. 06071.
Universidad Extremadura, Badajoz, Spain [http://www.unex.es]

Abstracts

Spanish

Con la intención de mejorar en la formación de tutores de e-learning, hemos realizado un estudio sobre la práctica del profesorado de enseñanza virtual sobre las tareas, deberes y mecanismos que resultan eficaces en la formación on-line. Se han analizado cinco aspectos de los procesos de enseñanza/aprendizaje que giran en torno al contenido teórico, las actividades, los mecanismos de interacción, las herramientas de comunicación y el diseño de la formación. Hemos utilizado una muestra de 354 participantes de dos ediciones de una misma acción formativa, 12 de ellos fueron tutores que han ido recibiendo feed-back continuo durante y después de cada edición. Así, mediante una metodología de corte cualitativo, hemos obtenido conclusiones para una propuesta formativa dirigida a los docentes que practiquen e-learning.

English

In an attempt to improve the training of e-learning teachers, we have carried out research into tasks, exercises and mechanisms that have proved to be effective in online training. Five aspects of the teaching / learning process (theoretical content; activities; mechanisms of interaction; communication tools; and design) were analysed. A training course was assessed at two different times using two cohorts of students, which in total comprised 342 participants. The second delivery of the course was modified following feedback on the first course. In order to further increase our understanding of the effectiveness and value of the course changes, 12 teachers were also questioned throughout the development of the course. The overall aim of the study was to determine what training methods were most effective in the delivery of an online teaching training course.

Keywords

Technology uses in education; Online courses; Teacher training; Teacher education; E-learning; Online tutoring.

Introduction

After five years successful delivery of an e-learning course for teachers, the university teachers responsible for the delivery of the programme decided to review and update the course in order to identify what aspects had been most successful and to incorporate new emerging techniques for teacher training. In this paper, we review and analyse the development of our own e-teaching practice developed during the delivery of the same course in the first and second semesters during the academic year 2004 / 2005. The overall aim of this study was to discover common characteristics of successful e-training teachers, if they exist, and establish specific tasks to be developed with the aim of identifying criteria to formulate proposals for the training of e-teachers.

The first part of this paper will examine current literature related to the training of e-learning teachers. Afterwards, the methodology used will be described, illustrating the triangulation of methods (questionnaires, focus groups and interviews) used to ensure the validity and reliability of the data; the different perceptions of the course of the students and teachers will also be explored; and, finally, the three different points in time in which data were collected will be described. So, a longitudinal and iterative study was designed: longitudinal, because it analysed teaching effectiveness at three different points in time; and iterative as after studying the results, a process of continuous improvement of our own practice was implemented. These subsequent changes were then analysed to determine their impact on the programme effectiveness.

Finally, this paper will present an analysis of the results obtained, illustrating the five overarching categories identified: theoretical content; activities; mechanisms of interaction; communication tools; and design. To conclude, a proposal for the training of online teachers based on the findings is formulated.

E-Learning Teachers

The teacher in the 21st century faces a challenge of having to update their knowledge to be able to make appropriate use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) either as a teacher who uses ICT in the classroom, or as an e-teacher or e-moderator of open and distance learning. This is a challenge that has caused teachers to reflect on how they adapt to new educational changes without compromising the quality of education (Ham and Davey, 2005). This suggests that what is required is, rather than just a 'transmitter of knowledge', an e-teacher who plays the role of mentor, coach (Volman, 2005) and facilitator, (that is the so called 'e-moderator' (Salmon, 2004). Murphy et al. (2005) explain further what is required when performing these roles. Mentoring is a one-to-one relationship between an expert and a novice in which the expert guides the novice by behavioural and cognitive modelling, academic and career counselling, emotional and scholarly support, advice, professional networking, and assessment. Coaching is observing learners' performance and providing encouragement, diagnosis, directions, feedback, motivational prompts, monitoring and regulating learner performance, provoking reflection, and perturbing learners' models. Facilitating is providing technical, pedagogical, managerial, and social activities that maintain sustained and authentic communication between and among instructors and students.

If these roles are adopted, the e-teacher will switch from the precedence given to the transmission of knowledge to applying her or his teaching energies as a 'facilitator' so that the student is able to reach the proposed educational objectives through a learning process which allows information to be converted into knowledge (Martinez Casanova, 2003; Gray et al., 2004; Eisenberg, 2005; Cabero, 2006). Murphy et al. (2005) believe teachers are caught in the role shift from 'content expert' to 'facilitator of learning'. According to Lentell (2003), teachers should facilitate and guide the learning of their students, in order that students develop their knowledge and understanding.

While there is extensive literature on materials and resources on open and distance leaning (Mason, Pegler & Weller, 2006), there is relatively little written about e-learning tutoring (Lentell, 2003). The design for e-training which most effectively procures the type of learning on the part of the student should be based on the constructivist theory. According to which knowledge is developed by means of the active involvement of the student, where collaboration and negotiation of meaning are fundamental; and where individuals create or construct knowledge by attempting to bring meaning to new information and to integrate this knowledge with their prior experience (Rovai, 2003; Blázquez y Alonso, 2005; European Commission, 2005).

The functions attributed to the e-teacher, considered as a mentor, coach or facilitator, are multiple as others have previously identified (Bonk and Dennen, 2003; Salmon, 2004; Stigmar, 2005; Cabero, 2006). These can be outlined as follows:

In order to perform these teaching functions, teacher training should focus on how to develop a series of abilities and strategies (Bonk & Denen, 2003; Hsu, 2004; Salmon, 2004; Alonso, 2005; Stigmar, 2005; Wong et al., 2006) that can be divided into:

The teacher in e-learning does not act independently, but rather forms part of a system in which her or his functions and roles are situated, since every process of distance training is made up of a series of intervening elements (see Figure 1), as is recognised by, among others, Bonk and Denen (2003), Rovai (2003), Ham and Davey (2005), Cabero (2006). Thus, we distinguish between human elements (student, teacher and support personnel) and non-human (content and technology). In this context, it is argued that in every learning process there exists a negotiation of knowledge (content) between teacher and student, facilitated by the necessary support personnel within a structure of a marked technological character (not forgetting that such technological means are no more than mere instruments, given that the principal object will always be learning).

Elements of the learning process in e-training

Figure 1. Elements of the learning process in e-training (Alonso Díaz, 2005)

Research Method

A qualitative approach was chosen since this methodology is better able to indicate reasons why participants of  an e-learning programme are satisfied or not with the efficacy of e-teachers' tasks. The participants in this study included the teachers and two cohorts of students who participated in two different deliveries of the same e-learning programme:

  1. Teachers (n=12), first and second delivery of the e-programme. (T)
  2. First cohort of students (n=157), first delivery of the e-programme (S1)
  3. Second cohort of students (n=157), second delivery of the e-programme (n=185)

To ensure the validity and reliability of the data, three different methods (open-questionnaires, focus groups and semi-structured interviews) were triangulated during three different points in time: during the first delivery of the e-programme, between the first and second delivery and, finally, after the second programme delivery.

The process followed was longitudinal and iterative; longitudinal because it analysed teaching tasks throughout two continuing deliveries of an e-learning programme; and circular because continuous improvements were made to the teaching training following the outcomes found through the analysis process (see Figure 2).

Process of data collection

Figure 2. Process of data collection

The training tasks of e-teachers are well documented in current research and literature, see for example, Blázquez et al., 2002 and 2004; as well as those of Wilcox & Wojnar (2000); Manson (2003), Rovai (2003); Murphy et al. (2005); Lam and McNaught (2006); Wong et al. (2006); and Cabero (2006). The 5 essential categories applied in the analysis processes were informed by previous literature, these categories included:

Content analysis was applied to the non-structured information gathered during the interviews, focus groups and questionnaires. 'AQUAD 6' software was used to codify, reduce, categorise and establish relations. Specifically, a triple analysis was applied which enabled us to reach each of the proposed objectives: This triple analysis included analysis:

The categories and sub-categories established after the codification, re-codification and the analytic process and their corresponding description are presented in the table below (see Table 1).

Table 1. The categories and sub-categories

Categories

Subcategories

Description

Theoretical Content

 

Mastery of substantive knowledge base

Up to date knowledge of the topics to be taught

Preparation of  topics

Requirements of the design and creation of the theoretical content

Clarity

Way in which content is expressed principally as regards vocabulary, written text and examples used

Structure

Way of organizing theoretical content: linked script, interrelated contents, presence of schemes and conceptual maps

Quantity

Amount of content to study in the space and time that the training action lasts

Links

Quantity of internal and external links provided

Connection

Inter-relation between topics

Format

Ability to find appropriate formats for delivering content

Practical Content

Preparation of the activities

Requirements of the design and creation of the activities

Explanation

Explanation and orientation at the moment of carrying out the activities

Practice

Activity which proves useful for learning the topic and for the value of experience itself

Implication

Activity which supposes the personal implication of the student in the development of their learning

Time

Scarcity of time to implement the activities in relation to the quantity of content

Work in collaboration

Cooperation and work between students

Interaction

Tutors

Teaching and pedagogic knowledge that the teacher should to have

Availability

Availability of and access to the teachers

Orientation

This is the following by the teacher of the student's learning process, materialized in initial explanations of the study process and continuing throughout the e-training: resolving doubts, providing study guides etc.

Inter-relational skills

Establishing communication, expressing opinions, etc.

Student's personal organization

The student's' habits of study

Different personal aspects of the student.

Other personal aspects which influence learning

Quantity

Number of interactions between teacher / student

Speed

Speed of answers to e-mails

Instruments

of Communication

Technological Knowledge

Technological Knowledge a teacher should have

E-mail

E- mail as an instrument of interaction

Chat

Chat as an instrument of interaction

Forum

The forum as an instrument of interaction

Design

Information

General information about the course

Dates

Establishing and providing information about dates

Technical Aspects

Technical problems

Distribution of space and time.

Possibility of combining study and work

Results

The following provides a brief summary of the results of these analyses, following the order of the categories studied:

  1. theoretical content
  2. practical content
  3. interaction strategies
  4. communication tools
  5. design of the e-training.

Theoretical Content

Included questions referring to:

Practical Content

Included questions referring to:

Interaction

Included questions referring to:

Communication tools

Included questions referring to:

Design of e-training

Included questions referring to:

Discussion

We proposed as the aim of our research, to obtain criteria to formulate a proposal about training of teachers of e-learning. The conclusions obtained in each of the categories studied, allow us to propose the following suggestions for training of teachers of e-training, which include the following six aspects:

  1. Theoretical content of e-training
  2. Practical content of e-training
  3. Strategies of interaction in e-training
  4. The communication tools in e-training
  5. Design of e-training
  6. Evaluation in e-training

Theoretical content of e-training

It seems to be indisputable that the e-teacher, like any other specialist teacher of a theoretical area, should be capable of functioning adequately within the area, fully understanding the topics as well as frequently updating her or his knowledge with respect to current trends, theories and research into the topic. It is also seen to be necessary that he or she develops psycho-pedagogic skills so as to be capable of transmitting this knowledge using the resources which e-training provides. This educational expertise will be crystallised among others aspects by developing skills which allow him or her to:

The preparation of an appropriate set of topics has proved to be a fundamental factor in our study. At the present, there exists a wide choice, a "repository of content", and we should ask ourselves what sense there is replacing a set of topics which already exists in written form. It is not so much a question of using content which already exists, although this aspect is completely legitimate as long as it is done appropriately, but rather to know how to adapt such content to the characteristics of our own teaching / learning process. Thus, beginning with the characteristics of the students and of the  particular didactic objectives, the teacher (in this case creator of the content) should be capable of preparing appropriately the set of topics, something which some of teachers consider complicated in comparison with traditional face to face education. The texts need to speak for themselves. For this reason teachers will have to dedicate more time to their design, achieving a more elaborated written discourse, with an appropriate learning chain which includes schemes, conceptual maps, etc. Alternatively, they have to assume that they need to stop "controlling" the access to knowledge, given that the Net provides multiple links, which implies more effort should go on synthesis, as it is not so much a question of re-inventing content as of guiding students in their learning. Thus they special care with the design of the written discourse needs to be taken, including:

Practical content of e-training

As suggested earlier, it is relatively easy to develop content of a theoretical character relating to a defined conceptual area; nevertheless, it is the practical activity which the student develops with the teacher which marks profoundly its suitability, originality and internalization. For this to happen it is fundamental that the teacher be able to:

Strategies of interaction in e-training

The teacher of e-learning should be trained to establish an appropriate relation with the students; in fact in our study, the process of teacher / student interaction has appeared as one of the fundamental pillars of the teaching / learning process, and this can be appreciated principally in the number and quality of the commentaries and controversy which this aspect awakens. The explanation of the theoretical content is the deciding factor. This aspect differs enormously from that adopted in traditional education and our students prefer face-to-face teaching in this respect, as it is easier to study content when they have previously experienced a didactic exposition face to face. In this sense it seems that the only advantage of e-training is that it permits the achievement of really autonomous learning, for its convenience in time and space.

The teacher of e-learning in the process of interaction with the student will assume that:

The communication tools in e-training

Where technological knowledge is concerned, the teacher should to have a mastery of the medium, in other words, a correct handling of new technologies, which implies not so much a perfect knowledge of all the mediums, but rather mastery of those which are going to prove basic and strategic for the processes of e-training. This involves knowing one's way about the platform, even having tried personally the functioning of all the possibilities which it offers, handling the communication tools and the language of the platform, since they are basic tools for making the teaching / learning process more active, constructive and participative and also to set out, in an appropriate way, the material on the Net.

On the other hand, we have to recognise that a great number of our students prefer face-to-face teaching because it is more direct and in it doubts can be more easily clarified, since they can count on the personal help of the teacher. Individualisation is important too and can be much more easily carried out where it is feasible to follow-up the learning when students contribute commentaries, diaries and frequent interventions. It is for this reason that the teacher needs to develop knowledge about the existing communication tools, be they synchronous or asynchronous, and more concretely the type of communication which each one favours, using those which adapt better to the objectives of teaching/learning, their functions, potentialities, limitations and good use.

Thus, as we can observe, the characteristics of the communication tools vary according to type. We will concentrate on some of the aspects studied about e-mail, chats and the forum:

E-mail: The asynchronous character of e-mail seems to be a fundamental element which has to be used with criteria that views it as a tool at the service of training, because a message by e-mail can produce the same type of reply as a face-to-face message or it can motivate students not to desist in their training. Thus, it is fundamental to inform the students, answering their questions in time and appropriately. It is especially valued when the message is short, direct and that it is correctly written. E-mail is definitely useful and efficient when it has been answered immediately.

Chat: In the use of this synchronous tool it is fundamental that the teacher fix the number of participants, which should not be too great, around 5 / 15 per teacher At the same time he or she should to inform the participants of the rules of functioning of the medium, as regards behaviour, reading of the conversations before writing, texts without meaning, use of capital letters, emoticons etc. The teacher should to set the task about which they are going to work, and prepare, adjust and modify the questions which should be treated by the students, maintaining a clearly sequential and planned structure, without discarding flexibility. In order to do that he or she should to begin with possible questions or statements, which provoke thinking and encourages the students to learn during the development of the discussion. Some of the problems which we can encounter in the use of Chat are problems of speed of key board use, waiting time to be able to participate and reply, differences of opinion, excessive number of students, the different types of technologies which can be used, lack of technical knowledge on the part of the students, lack of personal interaction etc..

Forum: The forum is an asynchronous tool which provides the possibility to work in collaboration, to communicate, to interact and to interchange for the development of learning, giving possibilities of communication which facilitates group work and mutual learning between users. The teacher has to learn to manage it and, in order to do so, prepare the topic for discussion so that the proposed objectives are reached. The teacher will define the task to develop as well as the character which he or she wants to give to the line of discussion, designate, or cooperate in the designation of, roles between the different participants, role of moderator, spokesperson, animator etc. The teacher will inform students about the rules to be followed in the debate, provide complementary material, establish dates etc. In addition he or she should to be able to synthesise what the students have been saying with the object of drawing conclusions about what the combined meanings of negotiations have been.

Design of e-training

In the design of the course, the aspects relating to the information which the students possess about its management are fundamental. On some occasions, questions related to content are obviated because the students are more worried about learning aspects of management, which have not been made clear, be it in reference to marks, dates etc. For that reason, it is considered fundamental to offer detailed information which makes it easier for the student to concentrate on her or his own training content. Another factor we have noted is the need for taking particular account about dates

Evaluation in e-training

This aspect, as commented earlier, we are studying in depth at this moment.

Conclusion

To conclude, the main findings of this study included six different aspects of the teaching / learning process.

These were: theoretical content, activities, and mechanisms of interaction, communication tools and design.

Considering the responses of teachers and students through interviews, questionnaires and focus groups, the main components of every aspect were established,. Based on those aspects and their main components, a training proposal for e-learning teachers was designed.

The research suggested that e-teachers should manage the theoretical content, the online activities, the strategies of interaction, the communication tools and the design of an e-programme. E-teachers should prepare the theoretical content by organising a set of clear topics, adequate schemes, comprehensible conceptual maps, and appropriate internal and external up-to-day links. The online activities should be useful to develop students' skills, be properly planned, plus be well explained, presented and designed. The strategies of interaction during the course should have a primary function as orientate, motivate and guide the students, showing adequate inter-relational skills and accessibility of teachers; teachers also should learn how to interact strategically and motivate their students by stimulating students' intellectual activity. The communication tools to be used on the online course depend on the objectives of the e-programme; chats and forums will be planned by informing the participants of their objectives, rules and functioning; e-mails should be answered before 48 hours to avoid "isolation" feelings. At last, the design of the e-training is considered to offer detailed information, which makes it easier for the student to concentrate on her or his own training content.

Finally, we need to add that to test the effectiveness of this training proposal in e-teaching, our research group, which is in a permanent process of reflective learning in the aspects described, has designed an e-course of specialization where we apply the conclusions described throughout this section. In this way, we intend to continue advancing in our research into the training of the e-teacher, and we will do so as we have suggested in the proposal of this research, in a longitudinal and iterative way.

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