Relationships On the Line

Joan Cashion, Director, TAFE School of Social Sciences, Swinburne University of Technology, Wantirna, 3152

Phoebe Palmieri, Director, Phoebe Palmieri Pty. Ltd., East Ivanhoe, 3079.


Student involvement with on-line education is rapidly on the increase as educational organisations use the information communication technologies (ICTs) for the delivery and/or enhancement of many of their courses.  Student responses to this can be extremely positive, but that is not so in all cases.  Some of the critical components of quality on-line learning are the interactions and relationships that happen through the medium and the success of the experience will depend on the interaction and responses between teacher and learner, or between the learners.

The other relationship that is important with on-line learning is the relationship of the learner with the work.  Self-motivation and self-discipline are essential to on-line learning.  Vocational education and training (VET) students are not always necessarily ready for independent learning, and the blend of face-to-face with the use of the on-line technologies often provides the most successful, flexible solution for them.

This paper presents learner perspectives on relationships through the on-line technologies.  The research is part of a project commissioned by the National Centre for Vocational Educational Research to look at the’ Quality in On-line Learning: The Learner’s View’ in the VET sector.


On-line education is starting to be recognized as an excellent medium for learning, not just a medium for the transfer of information.  Original use of the Internet for education was for the transmission and retrieval of information, principally course notes and assessment details.  The interaction came in the form of students submitting their assignments and teachers returning them with comments.  By 1996, the Internet and World Wide Web were being referred to as the New Learning Technologies, giving public recognition that the medium could be used for learning, and by 2001, this nomenclature had changed to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), emphasizing the importance that communication plays in on-line learning.  In education, this communication aspect is increasing in importance with student interaction often considered the key to good learning.

In vocational education and training (VET) as in other sectors of education, there is a strong push from government as well as educators to take up information and communication technologies (ICTs) and to move into on-line delivery. This push has a number of drivers. These include the potential for enriching educational experience and for extending educational opportunities for access to education and training. They also include the perceived role of on-line technologies in improving the competitiveness of education and training providers in a national and global training market.

In this environment, it is incumbent upon educators to ensure that on-line technologies are employed in ways that benefit learners and do not disadvantage particular groups.

VET students are widely varied in their characteristics. They include, among others, young students who have recently completed school; mature people who are returning to education and training after a long interval; employed people undertaking short periods of retraining; and unemployed people seeking basic qualifications for entry into the workforce. A substantial proportion have found their previous experience of formal education less than enjoyable. The views of VET students about on-line learning are likely to be equally varied, and may differ from those of students in other educational sectors.

Previous research has taken place largely in the higher education sector. Much of it has taken the form of evaluations of particular on-line programs, or of discussions of or guides to good practice. The authors of this paper identified a need to seek the views of VET students about what they considered made for a good experience in on-line learning. The results of this research, described below, indicate the importance of teacher-centred communication and relationships for these students.

Background and relevant literature

Some of the research into on-line education has provided insights into on-line relationships for VET learners.  Linda Harisim (Harisim, 1990; Harasim, Hiltz, Teles, Turoff, 1995) promoted the on-line medium as a means of establishing relationships and setting up communities of practice.  Communication between learners and the learning relationships established are seen to be the key to good learning.  On-line education has the potential to change the learning experience from individual learning to one where there are communities of learners who support each other (McLachlan, 1999).  Many educators are embracing teaching on-line because they see it as providing an ideal environment for reflective and collaborative learning through communication between learners (Taylor & Maor, 2000).

‘On-line education can assist to create communities of inquiry capable of stimulating intellectual, moral and educational growth’

In such communities, on-line education can encourage reflective thinking, interactivity and deep learning where students interpret information and apply their knowledge.

Educators consider the establishment of on-line communities one of the essential ingredients of quality on-line learning for VET students  (Cashion & Palmieri, 2000).  In order to do this, it is important to build an environment where the interaction enhances the learning and all participants feel safe to express their views and opinions.  Interaction needs to include structured as well as spontaneous components, as Corderoy and Lefoe (1997) note:

The subject should also provide activities that will help the ‘doubters’ accept and use the medium, promote interdependence amongst students and convince them that a community of learners is important because they can learn from other students, not just the instructor.

Good practice principles for on-line education include:

(Chickering and Gamson, 1991; University of Illinois, 1999; IHEP, 2000)

The learning relationship is considered the critical component of quality on-line learning.  However Peter Smith (2000) has suggested that VET students are not ready for these experiences.  His research has found that VET learners tend to be dependent learners as against self directed, and are neither willing nor ready to take responsibility for their own learning.  This view is supported by the work of Warner, Christie and Choy (1998). VET learners expect the teacher to detail the requirements for students and lead the students in their learning.  While they have a strong preference for learning in ‘warm, friendly’ social environments, they are not ready to accept the responsibility for establishing these environments. This presents problems when assuming that VET students will adapt to on-line learning with the ease of their higher education counterparts. If VET students are not ready to take responsibility for their own learning, how will they manage in the on-line context and how will they develop collaborative learning communities?

This Research

In 2000, the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) commissioned a research project to investigate the learner’s view on quality on-line learning.  This research aimed to elicit learners’ views into what constitutes quality in on-line learning and to put those views into context by comparing them with educators’ views and by means of case studies of VET organisations.  Student views on what constituted quality on-line learning were gathered through an on-line questionnaire, which can be viewed at [HREF1].  Three hundred and fifty-seven students responded to the questionnaire nationally with an additional 55 being part of the pilot study.  There was an equivalent questionnaire for educators to which 63 educators provided input in the main study and an additional five in the pilot study.  Seven focus groups of educators, four workshops at conferences and one session of on-line synchronous chat were held to explore what constitutes quality on-line learning for students.  Additionally four individual interviews of educators were carried out.  The focus groups, workshops and interviews provided more in-depth information from educators and enabled the researchers to get feedback on some of their findings during the research.

The questionnaire asked a set of demographic questions followed by four open-ended questions on quality on-line learning.  A set of 46 questions invited answers on a Likert scale  (e.g strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree) and another 8 questions enabled a Gap analysis to examine the importance of identified aspects of quality compared with the students’ own experience.  These provided different insights into on-line learning.  As expected, the open-ended questions brought out the critical factors for quality on-line learning, while both the Likert and Gap questions provided some quantitative comparative data.

One of the limitations of the research is that it was only directed at on-line learners rather than all VET learners.  It is a self-selected sample, as against a random sample.  Students studying on-line were approached through their VET provider, and in most cases directly through their teacher.  This means that students who had discontinued their on-line studies or who had been unable to gain access to on-line study did not respond to the questionnaire.

On-line Relationships – The Student Perspective

Students considered a quality on-line learning experience to be one that provides flexibility, reliable technology and fast, responsive communication with the teacher.  Their relationship with the teacher is of great importance in the provision of quality on-line learning.  Educational relationships with other learners are of minor importance and appear not to be developed at this stage for VET students learning on-line.

Teachers contribute enormously to the quality of on-line education, and are very important in the whole process.  Quality on-line learning includes supportive, responsive teachers who provide clear instruction and answer queries promptly and constructively.  Their interaction with students is an essential ingredient. When students received individual, speedy feedback they were delighted with the experience.  Students expected prompt thoughtful replies to requests for help.  When the teacher did not provide feedback or took too long to respond, then quality was lacking.  Responsive teachers were the second critical factor for quality (after flexibility), while lack of response from teachers was the fourth highest deterrent to quality.

The critical factors nominated for the provision of quality on-line learning in priority order are:

  1. Flexibility
  2. Responsive teachers
  3. Quality of materials and course design
  4. Access to resources
  5. Online assessment and feedback
  6. Increase in IT skills
  7. Learning style
  8. Interaction with other students
  9. Communication
  10. Ease of Use
  11. Hybrid mix of face-to-face and on-line learning.
The main deterrents to quality were found to be:
  1. Unsatisfactory technology and access to the Internet
  2. Self-motivation, self-organization, time etc.
  3. Unsatisfactory assessment
  4. Lack of teacher responses
  5. Confusion
  6. Inadequate resource materials
  7. Lack of support
  8. Unavailability of help desk support.
The other relationship that becomes apparent from the student responses is their own personal relationship with learning on-line.  Self-motivation, time management and discipline to learn are all issues for these students.  Interaction with other students did feature as one of the quality factors, but the comments from students mostly indicated a social pleasure, rather than enhanced learning with peers.  This agrees with the research of Smith (2000).

Figure 1: Quality factors reported by students

The Teacher-Student Relationship

Students really appreciated the unwavering support and one on one interaction and feedback they got from their teacher.  There were many cases (50) where the teachers were noted as being accessible and provided fast, informative responses.  The quality of the teaching was excellent and facilitators/tutors/teachers were helpful. Among the comments of this kind were the following: One to one learning was very attractive to students.  However, when the teacher was not available to support them, the learning situation was considered by students to be bad (25 instances).  In some cases, the students perceived that there were not enough teachers to do all the work, and this may be indicative of the heavy workloads of on-line teachers.

The student responses give a sense of expecting a teacher to help them whenever they have a problem.  There is an expectation that the teacher will solve all the problems, not that the students will try to find the answers for themselves.  Most of the negative comments regarding the on-line teaching pointed to the need to have more teachers, to have a faster response from teachers or to have the teacher on-hand to solve the problems.

There is obvious confusion about who provides the ‘teaching’ on-line.  There were only two cases where the teacher was named and the terms lecturer, instructor, tutor, facilitator and teacher appeared to be interchangeable.  Overall, students relied on the ‘teacher’ to help and support them with the study.

Responsibility for One’s Own Learning

One of the critical factors in quality learning is oneself, and this was acknowledged by the learners.  Their relationship with the work was a critical success factor.  Students who took responsibility for their own learning found that this contributed to the quality of their on-line learning experience.
Learning as I go, satisfaction of achieving something.

Unfortunately, the positive comments were outweighed by the negative comments.  Many students recognized that they were not motivated to do the online tasks, they were not self-directed, nor adequately disciplined to study on-line.

Some students commented that they felt alone in their studies; this finding clearly relates to dependence on the teacher and the limited benefit obtained from on-line communication.  It also endorses the work done by Smith (2000) and Warner et al (1998).

The Good and the Bad of On-line Interaction

Students were neutral about the communicative potential of on-line study.  They felt that it gave them more time to reflect, but had no overall opinion about how worthwhile it was.  They saw e-mail contact with their teacher as fast and efficient, but they did not interact more with other students on-line than they did in class.  While the communication facilities such as web discussion boards, e-mail and chat provided a much-appreciated dimension to on-line learning, the acknowledgement of the benefits of this form of interaction with other students was not as high on the list as might have been expected from the literature.

The Likert style questions did not bring out any strong feelings about on-line communication.  The most positive response was in agreement with the statement ‘I like studying on-line because it gives me time to think about my answers to questions’.   While students indicated some agreement that the on-line chat helped them feel connected to other students, they disagreed with the statement that they interacted more with other students on-line then they did in class.
On-Line Communication Mode Med Av
9 On-line chat helped me feel connected to other students in the course 3 3 3.3
10 I was able to express my opinions on-line 4 3 3.4
11 Email communication with my tutor/teacher is fast and efficient 4 4 3.4
12 I found on-line chat really worthwhile 3 3 3.1
13 I interact more with other students on-line than I ever did in class 2 2 2.5
14 I like studying on-line because I can ask dumb questions without feeling a fool 4 3 2.9
15 I like studying on-line because it gives me time to think about my answsers to questions 4 4 3.6

The open-ended questions on quality got some responses indicating that on-line communication provided quality on-line learning.  A small percentage (5%) of students stated that they benefited from on-line communication.  They had a willingness to learn and found the chat sessions and discussion board provided interaction and sharing of knowledge.  They were able to get help from other students and enjoyed the new experience of meeting people on-line and the chance to make great friends.  Working on-line in a small group made it easier to learn.

These few positive comments did not indicate that in-depth learning was occurring through this interaction.  Some students indicated they would like to see and meet other students and missed actual discussion with other students. These responses would indicate that the community-building aspect of on-line communication has not been fully developed for VET students, and strategies are needed to help these learners benefit academically from peer interaction.  The reason could be that these methods are still in their infancy in the VET sector, or it could relate to the learning modes of VET students and how they view interaction with other students.

Educators’ Perspectives

The potential for interactive, cooperative, student-led learning was seen as a strong advantage of on-line programs.  Web discussion, group projects and other techniques can be used to enable students to build content, drawing on both their study and their own lives and experiences. The combination of immediacy and asynchronous activities is conducive to deeper reflection and learning.

Educators’ comments on on-line interaction demonstrated their understanding of the benefits of the medium for deep active learning.  They thought students would get quality on-line learning through sharing problems and finding solutions through group interaction.  The engagement and interactivity provided opportunities for collaboration and constructivist learning.

Students who accepted responsibility for their own learning got the most out of the learning experience.  Interaction with both students and facilitators was very important, but there was still a need for face-to-face tuition.  The educators noticed an increase in confidence with the communication tools over time.

Problems and Solutions

While the majority of students thought they had a quality on-line learning experience, 66% of the students put forward at least one example of dissatisfying aspects, and many included a range of negative factors.

One of the problems was the lack of a teacher on hand when difficulties arose. Some wanted a teacher on the spot; others wanted to be able to phone the teacher, as they found e-mail too slow to obtain responses.  Teachers have commented that interaction seems to work better when the students have a clear understanding of when the teacher will be accessible.  It is unreasonable and unrealistic to expect teachers to be always on hand.  A 24 hour help desk may solve some of the problems, though it is unlikely to solve the program-specific issues which require familiarity with the course content.
Lack of one on one with the lecturer.  Being able to ask what would be a simple question, and get the answer there and then so you can continue on.  As it is it may take till the next day to ring / e-mail etc.

While this is obviously an issue for the student, one has to wonder whether instant response is realistic for staff and for the organisation. Before promoting ‘just in time, just for me’ options, organisations may need to consider how far they are able to go down this path.

The ability of VET students to accept responsibility for their own learning has already been discussed.  Lack of motivation and finding time to do the work were often problems for students.  Induction to on-line learning seems the best way to tackle this problem.  Students need to learn to accept responsibility for their own learning.  Blended approaches that mix face-to-face with on-line delivery help wean students to independent learning.  Students provided ideas of how to make the on-line learning better.  These included:

For some, personal discussion in the chat room is a problem.  This could be resolved by putting aside a special social area on the discussion board.

These comments describe the importance of easy and fast access to tutors, teachers or lecturers.  Only in rare cases is the importance of discussion with other students mentioned.

What should we do to make it better?

Good teacher support was really appreciated by students. If the teacher kept in contact with them and was available to answer queries, then all was well. As one student said:

The secret is in the teacher!!

Many students wanted more teacher support than the support they were receiving on-line. For some, a hybrid model of face to face to complement the on-line environment was the answer; for others, more interactions from their on-line teacher, tutor or facilitator would solve the problem.  They wanted

Time for teachers requires realistic workloads.  Often the teachers are developing the on-line material as well as managing the students. Teachers are concerned about the lack of motivation and lack of student interaction.  They have proposed methods to improve this including face-to-face sessions and more teacher time to follow up students as individual attention and responsiveness all takes time.  Many teachers commented on the need for more time to follow up students and is an area which needs both attention and research.

Hybrid delivery

The mix of face-to-face tuition with on-line learning is the solution to some of the students’ problems.  While this will not necessarily suit all those for whom the flexibility of time and place are of paramount importance, it will provide more teacher-student interaction and provide a forum for solving the difficulties students are encountering.  Students continue to value the face-to-face interaction and support of teachers and fellow students (Wheeler, 1996; Booker, 2000) This flexibility works well for students who are motivated, self-directed and well organized, but is not so good for others.  One group of educators suggested that open entry and self-pacing could work against the interests of students; they preferred to keep the students working as a group as the interaction and peer support enhanced motivation and increased completion rates. This need not detract too much from flexibility; one organisation is considering introducing group enrolments at fortnightly intervals.

The balance between face-to-face and on-line and the benefits of hybrid or blended delivery will become more apparent in the VET sector as the use of information communication technologies (ICTs) becomes further integrated into delivery.  In this survey, nine students commented on this mix as being a critical factor for quality. Many students commented on the importance of interaction with teachers.  Combining this with the flexibility desired might best be done through a hybrid model of delivery.  Quality on-line learning can be provided by:

Some students expressed their desire for blended delivery where they would see the teacher as well as work on-line. Some participants suggested that a regular on-line ‘class’ (such as a chat session) could be useful in providing structure and external discipline for those who need it. Where the learning is self-paced, students do not appear to be aware that their peers in a web discussion are at different stages of the subject.  Management of such a group can, however, be difficult for the teacher.

What does this mean for teaching on-line?

This research has uncovered three aspects of on-line relationships.  Firstly and most importantly is the relationship of the student with the teachers.  From the student’s perspective, this consists of rapid and responsive feedback from teachers to specific questions and assessment.  The vital aspect of the interaction aspect is that teachers respond promptly to students’ communications.

Students require many personal skills to learn on-line.  Self-motivation, discipline and time management are all essential for successful on-line learning.  Organisations can provide induction for on-line learning as well as helping students with their computer and Internet skills.

The third relationship is that of students with other learners.  This research would indicate that this needs much more development before it is a successful learning strategy for VET students.  Educators have a more complex and detailed perspective on this relationship and see the potential of the on-line technologies to provide deep learning.  VET students will need guidance and ready support to be able to take up these opportunities.

Good teachers, good teaching

The importance of good teachers, facilitators and tutors is a very strong message to VET organisations.  On-line education is not about replacing teachers with on-line content.  It is successful through the work of good teachers on-line.  It is essential that there should be clear standards and expectations regarding the level and nature of teacher interaction on-line.  The question arises of how this matter should be managed, by teachers, students and organisations, since it is clear that teacher-student interaction requires a good deal of time and thought.  A prominent aspect of this issue is the expectation of prompt responses from the teacher.  Just what is ‘prompt’, and when and how often can a teacher be expected to be at the end of the line?  Student expectations on-line are more critical than in face-to-face situations.  In class, students will wait for their turn, or will try to catch a teacher after class; the teacher can take speedy corrective action if a student becomes discontented.  On-line, the students want responses now, just when they need the help.  They do not want to wait for the next week or even the next day.

This message is clear from the current research with students who have the competence and confidence to proceed on-line with their studies.  It would be prudent to assume, unless further research indicates the contrary, that beginning students and those with low levels of computer competence will require thoughtful and timely help and support. Teachers need to decide what boundaries they wish to set so that they do not make themselves vulnerable to excessive student demands.  However students do appreciate the greater personalized teaching they get on-line than they would in a face-to-face class

The benefit of hybrid or blended delivery needs to be fully explored by all organisations.  Students clearly want flexibility, but most also want interaction with teachers and other students.  The balance between face-to-face and on-line and the benefits of hybrid or blended delivery will become more apparent in the VET sector as the use of information communication technologies becomes further integrated into delivery.


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