Netla – Veftímarit um uppeldi og menntun

Rannsóknarstofnun Kennaraháskóla Íslands

Ritrýnd grein birt 10. desember 2004

Samuel C. Lefever

ICT in teacher education

What an e-learning environment has to offer

This study looks at an e-learning environment used for distance education courses in an English language teaching program at Iceland University of Education. The main elements of the learning environment are based on communication, autonomous learning and cooperative learning. Information and Communication Technology plays a key role in each of the elements through the use of course websites, Internet links and asynchronous Web-based tools. Participants in the program were asked to evaluate the content, organization, and the pedagogical effectiveness of the learning environment. The findings focused on how Information and Communication Technology provided distance learners with increased opportunities for effective communication and feedback between learners and the teacher. The technology also assisted learners in working together in their studies despite the physical distances between them. Information and Communication Technology also increased learner autonomy by providing learners with broad access to information and resources. These results are in line with those found in other surveys conducted in 2001 and 2002 that looked at the views of teachers and learners regarding Information and Communication Technology use and its influence on learning at the upper secondary and university levels in Iceland. The author is an Assistant Professor at Iceland University of Education.

Introduction

Distance and/or distributed learning programs are increasingly popular options for students at upper and higher education levels in Iceland due to the high degree of computer technology and Internet access available in the country. Due to these technologically assisted options, time and location are no longer defining criteria for participation in further education. Institutionally imposed schedules and classroom walls have been eradicated and adult learners are taking increasingly more control of their own education.

With the ever-increasing emphasis in society on further education and lifelong learning, more and more individuals are recognizing the advantages that distance/distributed learning have to offer. Online education makes it possible for people to combine their professional lives with study. It also allows them to remain in their home environment and adapt their family situations to suit their study needs. Another strong advantage is being able to combine and build on work experience and directly apply new learning in on-the-job practice. The advancements in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) have made distance/distributed learning opportunities more accessible and viable for a growing number of people in society.

This paper looks at the use of Information and Communication Technology in distance learning courses in a language teaching program at the Iceland University of Education. The learning environment that was used in the program was built upon the three main elements of communication, cooperative learning and autonomous learning. Information and Communication Technology played a key role in each of the elements and linked them together.

The purpose of the paper is to describe and discuss an informal study of the online program for distance learning students in English language teaching at the B.Ed. level. The main elements of the program and courses are outlined and described, and examples of teaching and learning approaches are provided. Analysis of the pedagogical effectiveness of the learning environment is based on course evaluations made by students and the results of the study are compared to the findings of other recent studies looking at distance learning programs at the upper secondary and university levels in Iceland.

Historical background

Iceland University of Education (IUE) has been a leader in the field of distance education in the country. It began with a teacher certification program in 1979 primarily aimed at teachers from the countryside. It was intended for practicing teachers who needed additional education in order to meet the requirements called for by new legislation defining and protecting the professional status of teachers and school administrators. In the following years, additional distance learning programs were set up by IUE to serve the needs of other groups of educators, such as teachers at the pre-school and secondary level and in special education.

During the 1990s, the use of ICT in the distance learning programs offered by IUE steadily increased. In 1993, a distance learning program offering a B.Ed. for the primary school level was initiated with a strong emphasis on online education. By the end of the century, online distance learning programs were offered at the Bachelors and post-graduate levels and in Continuing Education. The use of email, the Web and the internet has expanded and flourished in the distance learning programs with the introduction of numerous ICT innovations including synchronous and asynchronous communication tools, e-learning tools and Web page software. Currently, IUE provides online courses and study programs at all levels of instruction at the university, and ICT plays a central role in the teaching and learning methods of the programs.

Distance learning and the English language teaching program

In the B.Ed. program at IUE students must choose an area of specialization and complete a minimum of 30 units of study, including teacher training in the subject area (five units of practice teaching). Students can choose between two languages in the language teaching specialization: English and Danish.

The English language teaching program at IUE has four main objectives - that students gain:

  • understanding of the nature, structure and use of the English language

  • knowledge about language teaching theory and language learning and their practical applications

  • proficiency in English language skills sufficient for teaching at the primary level

  • insight into the daily life, culture, and literature of English language countries

The course work for the English language teaching specialization is roughly divided into three components: language teaching theory and practice, English language skills and English language culture. All teaching, course work and communication is done in English. All the courses in the program are offered both on campus and through distance learning.

The learning environment used in the distance learning courses is built upon three main elements, which will be described here in greater detail. They are ‘communication’, ‘cooperative learning’, and ‘autonomous learning’.

Communication

The learning environment created in the distance learning courses is based on Vygotskian sociocultural learning theory where communication and personal interaction are seen as important keys to learning (Bonk, 2002; Vygotsky, 1978, 1986). In language learning, communication plays an even greater role, since it is through the use of the target language that learning occurs and language skills are practiced (Communicative language teaching). Great emphasis is placed on creating opportunities for effective communication between the teacher and students and between the students in the distance learning environment.

In a report prepared in 2001 by the IUE Research Center assessing the distance learning programs at Iceland University of Education, the importance of communication between students and the students and the teacher were clearly reflected in the assessment of the programs (Kristinsdóttir, Matthíasdóttir, & Macdonald, 2001). Both teachers and students at IUE emphasized the importance of making personal connections on a face-to-face basis. Only 13% students felt that no ‘real communication’ took place through the internet and 92% liked using the internet for communication in distance learning. Over half the students (59%) reported using the internet for communication with fellow students once a week or more often. Almost two thirds of the students (65%) stated that communication with their teachers through the internet helped them in their studies.

A second survey looking at the use of ICT in teaching and learning at Iceland University of Education was conducted in the fall of 2002 (Svavarsdóttir, 2004). It replicated the above findings and showed increases both in ICT use and in positive attitudes. In the second survey, a vast majority of students (89%) reported that communication with fellow students helped them in distance learning. Most of the students (86%) also reported that communication with teachers helped them in their learning, which was a considerable higher percentage than in the 2001 survey.

Distance learning programs at IUE generally begin with a campus session. Students attend a week to ten day session of courses where they have the opportunity to meet their instructors and fellow students face-to-face. A main objective of the campus sessions is to create a ‘group connection’ between the teacher and students and enable the students to more easily communicate within the group following the campus session. Many teachers take photographs of the class members and put them online to help facilitate the face-to-face connection.

In the English teaching program, following the campus session, all communication and interaction takes place through ICT supported means; chiefly the use of email, a course website, web conferencing, and telephone conferencing.

The function of the course website (created in FrontPage by the teacher) is to disseminate information to the students. It contains all the practical information concerning the content and organization of the course including the course objectives, a list of the reading materials, and information regarding assignments and assessment. The web site also provides a course plan that indicates how the course is organized into units and time periods. In addition, students can access study guidelines for each ‘unit’ or section of the course. These guidelines are created by the teacher to assist students in the learning process. They are used to explain and complement the reading materials, to provide questions and topics for discussion and to encourage students to engage in and reflect upon their learning. They also contain suggestions for practical tasks and assignments that students are asked to complete.

The course website also contains collections of hyperlinks and suggestions for further research and information pertaining to the coursework. Links to websites that provide language skills practice (e.g. listening and grammar) are also included. In addition, Powerpoint presentations, lecture points, and video and audio files can be accessed through the course website.

Another feature of the online learning environment is web conferencing. A number of choices exist in terms of online communication, both synchronous and asynchronous. Various approaches have been used ranging from one-to-one email and closed discussion groups to open web discussions on the course website. All the approaches have had their advantages and disadvantages and the wide choice of collaborative e-learning tools has made it necessary to try out various methods. Synchronous communication tools such as chat groups have not been actively used primarily because they require that the participants all be online at the same time. One of the main advantages of distance learning expressed by students at IUE is that of not being bound to an externally set schedule. Students decide for themselves when and where they do their learning (Kristinsdóttir, Matthíasdóttir, & Macdonald, 2001; Svavarsdóttir, 2004).

In the English language teaching program, communication between the students and the teacher and between students was initially carried out through email and the use of closed group lists. Any question or correspondence that was intended only for the teacher or an individual student was sent through email. Messages intended for the entire group, whether they were practical information or for discussion by the group, were sent through a specially created email group list which was open only to participants in the course. Anything sent to the group list could be read by everyone on the list. Students used the group list for discussion of topics related to the course or general topics of interest. They were also asked to send their assignments through the group list and were encouraged to read each other’s work and provide feedback to their fellow classmates.

Similarly, the teacher used the group list for all communication intended for the group such as announcements, course related questions and suggestions, and group feedback. One-to-one email was used to send individual feedback and grades and responses to individual requests or messages.

Students were asked to do their assignments in Word and send them through the group list as attached files. There were two main advantages with this method. The advantage for the students was that they could easily utilize spelling and grammar correction tools provided in Word to edit their work before submitting it. The advantage for the teacher, which was also of benefit to the students, was that the teacher could easily use editing tools to make suggestions for corrections, add comments to the student documents and return them through email. All of the work was done through the computer and was paperless. This saved both paper and time and made the submitting of assignments and giving of feedback much more efficient.

Due to a number of reasons, mainly technical, it was decided to alter the learning environment and replace the email group lists with a web conferencing tool. The online courseware platform WebCT is widely used in distance learning at IUE and many students were familiar with its use. An increase in technical difficulties involving the use of group lists and the sending of attached files through email led to the decision to incorporate the WebCT format into the course learning environment.

The WebCT format was used for written communication between the teacher and the students and between the students both for individual messaging and group discussion which was open to all participants in the course. Another feature of WebCT was used for assignments, which enabled students to electronically submit their assignments and automatically receive feedback and their grade from the teacher according to the time settings designated by the teacher. However, materials submitted to the assignment area could be viewed only by the teacher and therefore omitted the possibility of peer feedback. On the other hand, students were free to send their assignments to the discussion web for others to read and comment upon.

Communication through email and web conferencing is still heavily text oriented, although applications for audio and video files are becoming more user-friendly and feasible. In order to provide students with opportunities to practice their English speaking skills and communicate orally, telephone conferencing was used. As a group, students and the teacher negotiated times for the telephone conferences and prepared the previously determined topics for discussion.

An example of a task that is well suited to a telephone conference is a film analysis. Students were asked to view and prepare an analysis of a chosen film and then participate in a small group discussion in a conference call. This approach works well with groups of 5-6 and allows the participants to share their opinions, hear those of their peers and react to them orally and spontaneously in a similar manner as face-to-face communication. It facilitates active and equal participation among class members, creates a situation for authentic language use and provides variety in the learning environment.

Cooperative learning

Collaboration is widely viewed as an essential part of work and learning (Bonk, 2002). Cooperative learning methods are a main element of classroom teaching with emphasis on group work and social interactive skills. Adhering to social learning theory, cooperative learning was viewed as a main element of the distance learning environment in this study.

As stated earlier, the campus sessions played an important role in creating a feeling for the students of belonging to a group. The emphasis on cooperative learning through web conferencing was intended to prevent students from becoming isolated after the campus sessions. Importance was placed on working together as a group and making group decisions regarding both the content and organization of the courses. Group discussion on the web was learner centered and largely generated by the students. Students shared their beliefs and opinions with each other and gave and received reactions from the teacher and each other. Peer feedback was encouraged and helped them in their own reflection.

A majority of distance learners surveyed in the two studies at IEU previously mentioned reported positive experiences with the use of web conferencing systems such as WebCT and Webboard. In the 2002 survey, a majority of distance learners (65%) felt that it was helpful to use web conference systems in their studies (Svavarsdóttir, 2004). Students were also asked to evaluate various teaching methods used in the distance learning program and most of them (74%) felt that online (web) discussions were a beneficial part of their studies (Svavarsdóttir, 2004).

Web discussions in the English language teaching program were organized in such a way as to stimulate interaction and provide structure to the discussion. All students were expected to participate, and group sizes were kept small (no more than 10 per group) so that the amount of reading was manageable. Students were encouraged to read each other’s work and provide feedback on a regular basis (e.g. weekly) to minimize time lag between sending comments and receiving responses and prevent procrastination. The role of the teacher was very much that of a facilitator and primarily entailed providing task structuring, pivotal questions, general recommendations, feedback and indirect instruction. Group cohesion and the structural guidelines provided were successful in guaranteeing that everyone participated.

An example of the type of web discussion that was used in the courses was literature analysis. Students read a novel and discussed it while reading in a way similar to a ‘reading circle’. Both the teacher and students sent questions and comments regarding the novel to the discussion web and they were discussed. Another example of an active web discussion was focused on current issues in the English language media. Students chose a topic of current importance in the media and followed it for a set period of time, primarily through the use of internet sources. Students presented their topic on the discussion web and regularly updated their findings. They also read about their peers’ topics and commented on them through the discussion web. The discussion web thus became a medium for passing on information and for stimulating thought and interaction.

Autonomous learning

A strong characteristic of distance learning is the element of learner autonomy. Time and physical location does not dictate when and where learning takes place and the role of the teacher is less dominant. Learners have much more independence regarding decisions affecting their own learning. The distance learning environment generally calls for self paced and self directed learning. This can prove challenging to learners who are accustomed to teacher directed learning and the social controls embedded in conventional school learning environments and classroom settings (Bonk, Daytner, Daytner, Dennen, & Malikowski, in press). This shift in control was recognized by distance learning students in a third survey conducted in Iceland in the fall of 2002 at the upper-secondary school level (Matthíasdóttir, Dal, & Lefever, in press). When asked about learner autonomy, 89% of the students in the survey responded that they were more responsible for their own learning in distance learning than in the conventional classroom setting.

The distance learning environment in the English language teaching program provided a degree of organization and structural guidelines in order to facilitate and support learners in the learning process. The supportive feedback and encouragement provided by both the teacher and fellow students played an important role in motivating students to be active and reflective in their studies. It also gave them a sense of ownership over their learning since so much of the course input came from them. The feeling of belonging to a group, which was instilled during the campus sessions and upheld through the web discussions, provided a sense of group responsibility and connectedness. Nevertheless, ample freedom was provided in the environment to allow students to direct their own learning and manage it according to their own needs and situations.

One of the structural supports provided in the courses was the course reading lists. The reading materials included required reading and optional reading. Some of the materials were in conventional form, such as course books, printed literature and printed articles, but great emphasis was also placed on the use of web sources and links. Students were assisted in using these sources to find their own topics of interest and information. Distance learners at IUE have access to all the resources of the university library and information center, including electronic journals and other online resources. They also have access to the support services provided by the library. ICT has had a huge impact on the ease and accessibility of information irrespective of time and location, which has greatly enhanced autonomous learning, especially in the case of distance learners.

Additional support is provided to the distance learners through the ‘unit’ guidelines created by the course teacher. As described above, these guidelines assist the learner by drawing attention to the reading materials and facilitating discussion and personal reflection. They also provide information about assignments that clarifies what is expected of the students and prevent confusion. The unit guidelines also set up a time framework to promote continuous and active participation by the learners.

Questionnaire

Students taking the distance education courses in the English language teaching program were asked to complete a course evaluation at the end of the courses. They were asked to comment in writing to the following questions regarding the content, organization, and quality of the courses:

  • Comment on the organization of the course, the format of instruction and the workload. (unit guidelines, group list, web discussions, and way of giving feedback)

  • Comment on the unit tasks and assignments. What did you find most beneficial or interesting? Why or why not?

  • What did you think of the reading materials: course books, handouts, online materials?

  • What have you gained from the course?

  • Would you recommend any changes in the content or organization of the course?

Results

The findings based on the student evaluations were positive in general. The following comments taken from the evaluations (in italics) are representative of the students’ responses.

Students said that the courses were well organized, instructions were clear, and information was easily accessed through the course website.

The organization was very good and the instructions clear.

I like to be able to know in advance when to turn in my work. It was excellent to get the course plan ahead of time and also the way you would be grading us because then I quickly knew what was expected of me.

Unit guidelines are clear and have good information about how to do the exercises.

Students also commented on how ICT provided them with opportunities for effective communication and feedback between learners and the teacher. They welcomed the web discussions and the interaction with the teacher and fellow students.

I liked the web discussions – the communication with the fellow students and the teacher. I found the way of giving feedback very useful and clear.

(I recommend) more discussions, group work, even reading more literary works or watching films that are symptomatic for British culture and society.

The students also felt that telephone conferences enhanced communication and were beneficial for oral language practice.

I really enjoyed the oral discussion on …

It was good to hear and talk to the other students in the class.

The telephone conferences were necessary to practice speaking English.

The technology also assisted learners in working together in their studies despite the physical distances between them.

It was interesting to do the assignments and work in small groups. We were ‘forced’ to communicate. ...there were a lot of issues in the book worth discussion.

Information and Communication Technology also increased learner autonomy by providing learners with broad access to information and resources.

It was good to look for information, e.g. on the internet, about British culture. The course provided support and promoted learner autonomy. ...encouraged students to do their own information searches and work independently.

Discussion

The results found in this informal study are in line with those from other studies looking at distance learning programs in Iceland. All these studies show positive attitudes from both teachers and students towards distance learning. A majority of students (75%) surveyed by Kristinsdóttir, Matthíasdóttir, & Macdonald (2001) reported that the distance education program at IUE met their expectations. One of the advantages of distance learning frequently reported by adult learners is being able to manage their own learning and combine it with their work and domestic situations.

This study and the others also highlight the importance of organization in distance learning courses. Being able to work independently is an important skill for distance learners. Clear and complete course plans facilitate independent learning by providing the information needed by the learners to know what is expected of them and fulfill those expectations. Clear guidelines provide support and encouragement, and help students to learn on their own and feel confident in themselves. In relation to learner autonomy, students in the English program commented on gaining self-discipline, learning to take the initiative, and developing independent work habits. They viewed these increased skills as positive aspects of distance learning.

Participants in the study felt that active communication between students and the students and the teacher was very important, which matched the views expressed by other IUE students (almost 90%), who felt that communication with fellow students and teachers helped them in their learning (Svavarsdóttir, 2004). The use of ICT provided learners with a venue and opportunities to exchange ideas, opinions, and concerns, both related to the coursework and their studies in general.

In this study, participation in web discussions was active, as was the case in the 2001 survey by Kristinsdóttir, Matthíasdóttir, & Macdonald, which reported that 65% of the respondents participated in web discussions once a week or more often. Students felt that the features offered by the courseware platforms such as WebCT helped them in their studies. These include individual and group messaging, discussion formats, and electronic submission of assignments. Students in the English teaching program commented on the value of being able to read each other’s work and that it provided them with an ‘invaluable source of information and basis for discussion’. Clearly, the open and frequent communication and interaction stimulated and motivated students in their learning and helped prevent isolation and discouragement.

Participants in this study also felt that ICT and the internet provided them with excellent resources and numerous opportunities in terms of language learning, especially in English. ICT and the internet enable learners to access a vast range of English language materials which they can use to increase their reading, listening, grammar, vocabulary, and writing skills. Many ICT language tools are interactive, providing learners with immediate feedback and assessment, making it possible for learners to self-assess and direct their own language learning. ICT and the internet allow learners to choose when, where, what and how much they use these opportunities to improve their language skills. They facilitate independent learning and contribute to learner autonomy.

Conclusion

The learning environment described in this distance learning program in English language teaching at Iceland University of Education is heavily influenced by Information and Communication Technology. The technological advances of recent years have greatly widened learning opportunities and have sharpened the role of communication, collaboration and learner autonomy in distance education. ICT has been instrumental in increasing the efficiency of distance education and in giving it more variety, making it more appealing and viable to both learners and teachers at higher education levels in numerous ways. Access to vast sources of information through the internet is now widely available and is increasing the number of learning opportunities. Communication between students and the students and the teacher in distance learning has become quicker and cooperation has increased. Finally, web conferencing tools are helping learners to socially negotiate new meaning through their interactions with their peers and teachers. Clearly, the use of ICT is shifting the center of control in the e-learning environment and is enabling students to enrich and be more autonomous in their own learning.

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