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,
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
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
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
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)
Cooperation among students
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
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
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:
The main deterrents to quality were found to be:
Quality of materials and course design
Access to resources
Online assessment and feedback
Increase in IT skills
Interaction with other students
Ease of Use
Hybrid mix of face-to-face and on-line learning.
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).
Unsatisfactory technology and access to the Internet
Self-motivation, self-organization, time etc.
Lack of teacher responses
Inadequate resource materials
Lack of support
Unavailability of help desk support.
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.
Prompt response/support from the teacher
I have an excellent instructor (name) who answers all questions promptly
The lecturer was supportive of the task I was undertaking and responded
quickly and positively to a couple of my panic emails
Easy Tutor access
Well prepared and technologically competent facilitator
A resourceful and responsive teacher, easily accessible online and offline
Facilitation by an expert who is experienced at knowing how to structure/restructure,
lead, push, pull and follow at appropriate times and takes a personal interest
Any difficulties and you can easily obtain assistance from the teacher.
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
If I was having any problems with a question, the teacher was not there
to explain it to me
The worst problem (I think) is if you have a question that you need to
ask, instead of getting an immediate answer like you would in a classroom,
you have to wait for the instructor to go online and reply to your question.
There are not enough tutors/markers
Lack of contact from teachers
Failure of course facilitator to answer questions and a long time to receive
feedback on assignments.
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 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).
Too easy to let study slide
Difficulty getting fired up
Lack of time to do it or making time to do the work
Also you can get a bit lazy if no one is telling you what you have to do
Motivation to continue. You don't have a lecturer to take you through each
step - I prefer real life contact
Keeping myself on track while working full-time.
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 chat helped me feel connected to other students in the course
||I was able to express my opinions on-line
||Email communication with my tutor/teacher is fast and efficient
||I found on-line chat really worthwhile
||I interact more with other students on-line than I ever did in class
||I like studying on-line because I can ask dumb questions without feeling
||I like studying on-line because it gives me time to think about my
answsers to questions
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.
Help from others in discussion groups
Good platform for discussion & good group of students in cohort
Interaction with other learners
Reading other student’s comments for activities
Discussion with other students makes me feel I'm part of something.
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.
It would be nice to 'see' the other students - to feel freer to speak ones
Finding my own way, with limited guidance and unsatisfying interaction
with other students and teacher
If you do all classes online, you don't meet new people.
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
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.
Quality of interaction with peers and teachers, the online extension of
f2f has helped busy people fit this study into their lives.
Sharing knowledge and support from other students participating in the
The constructivist nature of the material
The opportunities for collaboration
The ownership of progress: the students who got most from the program were
those who relied on their own efforts and took responsibility for the outcomes
Face to face workshops to help support learners if required
Tutor and peer interaction as part of the learning activities
Facilitators presenting a human face - someone to contact when there are
problems. Lot's of content doesn't make a good course. You need interaction
with facilitators and other students
Development of group synergy
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
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
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
A few classes to explain from the absolute basics!
More guidelines for when to log-on to chat with other students
Improvement on the chat room facility
Interaction with teachers
Perhaps an open chat forum at a particular time, once a week on line, even
with a particular subject in mind
Extra teacher, as it is difficult for the teacher to be able to assist
all of us
More support for students in remote areas through the provision of workshops
at regular intervals.
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.
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
Teachers to keep in contact with their students. Don't just dump the modules
up there and effectively say ‘Here's the stuff you need. Call me if you
have a problem.’
Teachers need to generate a feeling amongst the students of being part
of a group
More interaction with the people who are the teachers of the course.
Availability is very limited.
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.
Face-to-face interaction would help
Inclusion of at least one face to face
A personal workshop every six weeks - mid term
More support for students in remote areas through the provision of workshops
at regular intervals - feedback and encouragement for work submitted
A few classes to explain from the absolute basics!
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.
A highly interactive course that has a good balance between on-line and
Face to face workshops to complement the on-line material.
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.
Face to face workshops to complement the on-line material.
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
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
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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Andrew Treloar, © 2000. The authors assign to Southern Cross University
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