Regular contact with the teacher was seen as important by participants. Weekly emails were valued to maintain contact between the teacher and the course members. Having course members email work in to the teacher was seen as important by one participant because it meant that the teacher was monitoring to ensure that she understood the learning before moving on to the next step “you wanted to make sure that we understood what we were doing before we went to the next level so that was important”. Some participants liked contact with the teacher to affirm their learning or to gain support and encouragement from the teacher. Two participants stated that they needed speedy responses via email from the teacher and they mentioned a desire for a twenty-four hour turn around by the teacher.
This study found that the teacher asking course members to email exercises or information relating to the learning gave participants confidence in their learning. This enabled the teacher to ensure that the course members had developed knowledge or the teacher could clarify miscomprehensions to enable course members to move to the next step. This provided formative assessment throughout the online professional development as evidenced by “your replies clarified things for me or told me I was on the right track”. This finding supports Fahey (2004) who suggests that feedback initially needs to be frequent to ensure that the course members have a positive experience in their learning. Participants felt that that “it made me interpret or analyse in my own words and cemented my understanding” and gave them the confidence to enable the course members to continue their learning.
A significant finding in this study is that the teacher needs to take an active role in the interactions in the online environment. This is evidenced by participants noting that the teacher, in the online interactions, used “good questioning”, “good insights” to enable learning to progress to the next step. Having the teacher being an active contributor in the online discussions provided participants with support and guidance; this is shown by a participant saying that after contributing she would look for the teacher’s comments to know she was on the “right track” and another participant saying “it takes the teacher to pick up those links and respond to them”. The participants found that the teacher’s contributions created clarity for them to enable the learning to continue.
In this study the teacher monitored the discussions and interactions carefully to ensure that misunderstandings did not occur, to interpret what was being said, and to point course members in the right direction for their learning “it takes the lecturer to pick up those links and respond to those links and then things start to go from the murkiness to that clearness so I guess the lecturer in a sense creates clarity for you to keep building on”. This is how a teacher in a face-to-face class would be working however the online teacher needs to take the time to read carefully to ensure that they fully understand what the course members are saying and carefully word the response to ensure clarity.
These findings support Gorsky and Blau’s (2009) study which suggested that the teacher’s presence, particularly facilitating interactions, plays an important role in achieving and sustaining the learning. They also suggest that course members place a high priority on the role of the teacher to maintain momentum in discussions, a finding which is supported by my study. The findings from this study also support the study of Choy et al., (2001) who found that the participants in their online professional development valued quick feedback and regular contact with the teacher both for direction and motivation. However this study is in conflict with Hewitt (2004) who argue that some teachers do not support the teacher taking an active role in the online interactions.
A significant finding in this study is that the teacher needs to set and model a respectful learning climate to enable the peers to share contributions. Participants found that good modelling by the teacher enabled them to overcome their fears of contributing to the discussions “the guidance from the lecturer – it was well modelled” as well as “having it modelled helps you realise as a group this is OK, this is acceptable”. This finding supports Gorksky and Blau (2009) who argue that it is important that teachers model good online communication and Veseley, Bloom and Sherlock’s (2007) study where students perceived the teacher modelling as the most important element in building an online community.
In the online environment the teacher is not ‘seen’ or ‘heard’ in the traditional sense with the physical separation being a challenge for the online teacher. The social presence of the teacher is their ability to project themselves to develop personal and purposeful relationships (Gorsky & Blau, 2009). Discussion, where the teacher related stories of her own teaching experiences, was valued by participants and gave the course members an insight into the teacher’s own teaching life. As one participant said “What I like about you is that you put in your thoughts too”. One participant said that the teacher’s role in the interactions was “having a meaningful part in the interactions not just acknowledging that someone has made a comment”. This is a way of building these relationships. Having the teacher taking an active and meaningful part in discussion lounges was viewed by the participants as being important not only for the modelling but also to build relationships, help clarify points, and to question and challenge course members’ thinking. This finding supports Woods and Baker (2004) who suggest that an online teacher can foster the climate in the discussion lounge by incorporating real-life stories.
These findings align with Gorsky and Blau (2009) who suggest that there is a relationship between course members’ perceptions of social presence as a motivating force to participate online and argue that the social interaction may be a key element in the success or failure of an online course. This finding also supports Ukpokodu’s study (2008) which found that a key point noted by the participants to enhance their learning included the teacher relationships. Woods and Baker (2004) suggest that by the teacher using humour and real-life stories in discussions that these contribute to the building of the teacher relationships. This study found that the social interactions where the teacher takes an active role are an important component of the online learning environment.
Contributing to the discussion lounges initially held fears for two participants. One had prior experiences which had left her feeling reticent about contributing. The other participant felt “I was probably a little bit apprehensive” about contributing. She was worried about leaving her comments to be under the scrutiny of others. Unlike a verbal contribution a written interaction stays and may be reread many times. This finding supports Light, Colbourn and Light’s (1997) study where they suggested that some course members are hesitant to express their opinions in an online environment. They found the idea of contributing daunting and worried how others would view their thoughts. This points to the need for the online teacher to be vigilant to ensure that interactions in the site are not abused in ways that may give offence to others (E-Learning Advisory Group, 2004). Not feeling comfortable to contribute in the online environment can cause course members to waste time worrying and stifle their own learning.
An important finding in this study was that participants valued the freedom an asynchronous discussion gave them as evidenced by having “the ability to gather your thoughts” and having “the opportunity to reflect”. An important distinction here between the online environment and the face to face classroom is that often not all course members have the opportunity to contribute while in the online environment they are all able to contribute and be ‘heard’ by other course members. This finding supports Dede et.al. (2006) who suggests that there are opportunities for reflection in asynchronous discussions as some course members are able to find their voice in the mediated interaction.
In this study participants found that asking for help or support from the teacher was an important component in the online learning environment. This was evidenced by participants mentioning that they felt comfortable at being able to contact the teacher and confidently expected a prompt reply. By being able to contact the teacher participants felt supported and gained confidence in their learning. This was evidenced by participants saying “just wanting to check in – have a look at this – is it right” and “ask for help and to double check I was on the right track”. These interactions supported the course members in their learning. Two participants felt that a prompt reply was a twenty-four hour turn around supporting Gorsky and Blau (2009) and Ukpokodu (2008) who advocate that teachers need to reply in a timely manner.
This study found that giving and receiving feedback from others relating to their work was an important part of their learning. Participants said that “using other people’s knowledge to build a better picture for yourself” enabled the participants to use the feedback to encourage them in their own learning. This also gave the course members the time to read and reflect on the feedback to gain insights into their own learning. Giving feedback to others was “pivotal learning” for one participant who felt that by doing so was “like having my eyes opened” and this feedback gave participants insights into their own learning. Another referred to this part of the learning process as the “pìece de résistance ” as this part of the online environment was where she felt gave her insights into making the connections and linking ideas together. This study supports the view of E-Learning Advisory Group (2004) who suggest that course members value and can gain a great deal from viewing other’s work.