Coordination and Teacher Development in an Online Learning Environment

Universitat Oberta de Catalunya

This paper shares some of the experiences in online coordination and teacher development which have emerged in the English Language Department at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya. The advantages and disadvantages of coordination in an asynchronous computer-mediated environment form the backdrop to those issues which we consider to be vital, both for the success of online language courses and in the training and support of online instructors. Among the issues discussed are the course coordinators� role in developing awareness of the specific needs of the online learner, encouraging teacher reflection and the construction of knowledge on new pedagogical approaches inherent in online learning, and promoting a sense of community among online teachers. Specific examples of coordinating activities developed within the English Department will be examined, such as face-to-face meetings, training of new teachers, reference documents for teachers, coordinators� feedback on teachers� work in the classroom, and online discussions of pedagogical issues. These all play their part in helping educators to deliver online courses �to learn from the experience of others and to encourage and evaluate educational innovation� (Gooley & Lockwood, 2001, p. 12).


Asynchronous Online Learning, Coordination, Distance-learning Development, English for Special Purposes, Teacher

THE Universitat oberta de catalunya (WWW.UOC.EDU)

Based in Barcelona, Spain, the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya `Open University of Catalonia' (UOC) was established in 1995, originally with the aim of establishing a new system of online distance education in Catalan.1 Currently with over 30,000 students studying in both Catalan and Spanish,2 the university offers 17 undergraduate degree programs, various postgraduate and masters courses, a doctoral program centered on the information society, and various university


extension courses. The majority of students are professionals aged 25-45 who choose the virtual option of study either as a way of updating their professional qualifications or extending their knowledge of an area of special interest to them.

In contrast to the many universities which now offer blended courses, UOC offers exclusively online courses, relying predominantly on asynchronous computer-mediated communication, with a purpose-built virtual campus catering to the entire university community (see Figure 1). Teaching materials are in web and print format, with all students having the personalized service of a counselor (tutor at UOC), who advises the students throughout their studies, and a teacher (consultor at UOC) in each subject, who guides and assesses their learning, delivering the activities which form part of the system of continuous assessment. Full-time academic staff are employed by each faculty, although counselors and teachers work part time from home. There are two optional face-to-face meetings each semester when students can meet their counselors and teachers in person and discuss issues related to their studies.

Figure 1

Welcome Screen of the UOC Virtual Campus

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The majority of the undergraduate degree programs at UOC require students to complete three one-semester courses in English language: English 1, 2, and 3. Currently, there are approximately 6,000 students enrolled in these obligatory courses with 3 full-time coordinators and over 65 part-time teachers based in various locations throughout Spain. The majority of the classes have 50-70 students. The level of the courses is intermediate/upper intermediate, and the course syllabuses emphasize that students should have a solid base in the language before enrolling. The courses are skill based, with the emphasis on reading, writing, and listening. Grammar has a secondary role because it is assumed that students will


have encountered the most common structures in previous courses. Due to the university's firm commitment to asynchronous learning and to the fact that not all students have access to broadband Internet connections, speaking is currently not one of the main focuses of the courses.

In each course, teachers lead students through a series of six classroom activities. Four of these are centered on units from the course materials on CD-ROM, which students work through autonomously following their teachers' guidelines for study (see Figure 2). The other two activities are based on online English-for-special-purposes (ESP) materials presented in a format similar to that of the other units but designed specifically for students of the various degrees offered by UOC: economics and business administration, computer science, psychology, law, political science, humanities, and tourism. In the English classes, students are grouped by degree program and are expected to work on the ESP activity corresponding to their area of study.

Figure 2

Title Page from One of the Units in the CD-ROM Materials from English 1

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After working through the materials for a given unit, students are asked to post written contributions to a class discussion moderated by the teacher in the online classroom forum. Approximately 75% of the students enrolled choose the continuous assessment option where evaluation of the course is based on their participation in these discussions (50%), in addition to the results of two online tests taken during the semester (50%). Alternatively, students may pass the courses by taking a face-to-face final exam at one of the regional examination centers.


The context of the English language courses at UOC is distinct from most other online or distance learning situations in a number of respects. First, because UOC


is totally online, its courses have no face-to-face classes or tutorials, unlike blended or most other distance-learning situations. In addition, since the majority of the university's administrative, academic, and social activities take place in the virtual campus, all those involved (i.e., students, teachers, counselors, and administrators) are accustomed to working and studying in an online environment.

Yet another difference lies in the institutional support students receive. Before embarking on a course of study, for example, students are required to complete a foundation course which provides them with training on how to use the various facilities available via the virtual campus, including how to use the online library, how to participate in online discussion forums, how to search the web effectively for information, and how to use programs such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. As a result, unlike many online learning situations where teachers invariably find themselves responsible not only for the delivery of course content but also for ensuring that students can access and use the technology (Bates, 2000; Anderson, 2004), teachers at UOC do not generally have to deal with this aspect.

As noted earlier, classes at UOC have 50-70 students each, and providing quality courses for such large numbers is one of the main challenges facing the coordinators of the English Department. It has been suggested (e.g., Turoff, 1997) that administrators may be keen to adopt web-based technologies as a means of delivering courses economically to large numbers of students at a time, and, at first glance, it might appear that the situation at UOC is an example of this. However, it must be emphasized that UOC was established within the context of the Spanish public university system, which has always been firmly committed to providing affordable tertiary education, albeit with large class numbers due to limitations in funding. Much less a consequence of the implementation of web-based technologies, therefore, the large student-to-teacher ratio at UOC is more a result of the historical tradition of Spain's university system.

Finally, another major difference at UOC, compared to most institutions offering online courses, is that the great majority of communication among students, teachers, course coordinators, and university administrative staff takes place asynchronously, within the virtual campus, via email or online bulletin boards and discussion forums. This almost total reliance on written asynchronous computer-mediated communication (ACMC) has both advantages and disadvantages. As regards the former, we would agree with those (e.g., Warschauer, 1996; Salmon, 2003) who argue that ACMC can benefit both students and staff by giving them more time to reflect on and formulate what they want to say, which may lead to more even participation in online discussion forums. In addition, because this type of communication is text based, it is relatively easy for all concerned to refer back to what has been said, and, for coordinators in particular, this is a very useful means of keeping track of all that happens in the department (e.g., recording, modifying, and updating policy decisions).

A major disadvantage of ACMC, however, is that the lack of visual or audio cues and immediate feedback may contribute to feelings of stress, isolation, and frustration among participants (Wellman, 2001). As course coordinators, we have found, for example, that certain conflicts which could no doubt have been


resolved rapidly in real-time conversations can last days or even weeks and may involve numerous exchanges of messages before a satisfactory solution is reached. We have learned from experience how important it is for teachers to receive a very prompt response to their messages (preferably within 24 hours) or at least an acknowledgement that their query will be dealt with shortly. In addition, we find that it is invariably more efficient and less stressful for all concerned to deal with delicate issues in person or by telephone (e.g., providing teachers with less-than-positive feedback on their teaching).


The introduction of web-based technologies in higher education has been hailed by some as the “holy grail” sought by university educators from time immemorial (Daniel, 1997). However, technology in itself does not ensure quality and does not automatically lead to pedagogical innovation (Turoff, 1997; Werry, 2001). Berg (1998) claims that providing quality online courses in fact requires more faculty time than face-to-face classes, and we would agree with this view. Indeed, our experience is that delivering online language courses is extremely labor intensive, requiring a considerable time investment to deal with such matters as materials development, close collaboration with other departments to guarantee that students receive accurate information about the courses, as well as short- and long-term planning. In order to ensure the success of our courses, however, we have found that we need to spend more time on teacher support and development than on any other area of our work. The various initiatives undertaken during the past 10 years are described in the following sections.

Guide for English Teachers at UOC

In an online situation such as ours, with more than 65 teachers working at a distance, it is essential to have a user-friendly document clearly defining the diverse aspects of the teacher's role and the official policies of the English language program. This information is contained in the Guide for English Teachers at the UOC (see Figure 3), currently in its 17th edition and updated each semester to clarify new issues and reflect changes in the courses, materials, and policies. The Guide, which is available to teachers via the home page in the staffroom is, in effect, a compendium of the past 10 years of our online teaching experience. Current contents include such things as a detailed description of teachers' tasks throughout the term, course contents, evaluation criteria, official policies on dealing with student plagiarism, and advice on solving common technical problems. Feedback from teachers regularly confirms that they find the Guide an invaluable tool in organizing the different aspects of their work. As coordinators, it is also very important for us to be able to refer to this document when there is any controversy or confusion among teachers over policy decisions.

Training of New Teachers

Before beginning their first term, new teachers are sent general information about


the courses and a copy of the Guide for English Teachers. This is followed by a face-to-face hands-on session in which the coordinators answer queries and provide advice on how teachers can use the virtual campus, conduct their online classes, and deal with problems which typically arise during the first few weeks of the course. To avoid information overload in this initial session, further training for new teachers takes place via email at various key points throughout their first term in a “just-in-time” approach. A distribution list of new teachers is also created, and teachers are encouraged to write to the coordinators with their queries. Assuming other new teachers may have the same doubts, these queries, along with the course coordinators' responses, are sent to all members on the list.

Figure 3

Title Page and Table of Contents of the Guide for English Teachers at UOC

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Class Visits

When the English courses began in 1995 the coordinators implemented a system of periodic in-service `visits' to teachers' classrooms in order to provide them with feedback on their teaching. Originally, these visits were conducted on an ad hoc basis, with few preconceived notions or expectations of what teaching in this environment should be like. Over the years, however, a number of key qualities have emerged as crucial to effective online teaching practice, such as frequent teacher presence in the classroom, appropriate language in messages, positive responses to students' postings, and so forth. Teachers are, therefore, now provided with a checklist of online teaching behaviors the coordinators expect to see in their classrooms (see Figure 4), and these points are reflected in the detailed feedback sent to each teacher after the visit.


Figure 4

Checklist for English teachers

When we visit your classrooms we will be looking for the following

1. Presence in the classroom

• Message from you somewhere in the classroom at least every 48 hours.

• At least 2 messages responding to each classroom discussion (preferably more).

2. Language used in messages

• Concise messages with a format that enhances clarity.

• Correct spelling, grammar, vocabulary, paragraphing, register.

• Appropriate length (neither telegraphic nor too long).

• Appropriate tone (neither too informal nor unnecessarily formal).

3. Teaching

• Proactive enough?

- Provide guidance/help for students.

- Encourage contributions/participation, particularly from weaker students.

- Appropriate balance between types of messages: formal/informal; brief/detailed.

- Students are reminded of important dates (especially test dates).

• Reactive enough?

- Positive reaction to students' contributions.

- Include references to students' work + mention students by name in relation to something praiseworthy/interesting.

- Participate in classroom discussions, giving own opinions on topic.

- Regular, informal references to students' grammatical errors (e.g., `people are' NOT `people is').

4. Classroom activities and exercises

• Guidelines for classroom activities and exercises are posted on or by the established dates.

• Clear and appropriate instructions: How/where to send responses, it is clear what is expected from students, optional extras are clearly marked as such.

Open-door Policy: Online Peer Observations

Peer observations have long been considered a valuable tool for teacher development in foreign language teaching (Wajnryb, 1992; Nicas & Hopkins, 2001). In order to facilitate a similar experience in an online environment, English teachers at UOC all have access to the other classrooms of the level at which they are teaching, and are strongly encouraged to visit them as frequently as possible. Teachers can thus benefit from being exposed to diverse examples of online teaching practice, have the opportunity to acquire new ideas for their own classes, and can also provide each other with feedback and mutual support.

It is interesting to note, however, that while new teachers regularly visit their


colleagues' classrooms, comments from more experienced teachers indicate that they tend not to take full advantage of this opportunity. It seems likely that this is due to various factors. First, as all UOC teachers work on a part-time basis for the university, they invariably have commitments at other institutions. They may therefore have little time to devote to such “extras” as looking in on other classrooms. In addition, the current structure of the online campus requires teachers to click through several screens in order to access one of their colleagues' classes. Finally, another reason why most teachers do not visit their fellow teachers' classrooms is no doubt because it is not required by the department. As suggested by Nicas and Hopkins (2001), even if teachers are willing to observe other classes, they may feel that they are imposing, or even spying, on their colleagues unless peer observations are an obligatory part of their work.

The Online Staff Room

The online staff room (see Figure 5), similar in format to that of the online classrooms, constitutes the main meeting point and resource center for teachers and coordinators and fulfills a similar function as staffrooms in face-to-face environments. It is a space for sharing news, teaching materials, and methodological tips and for providing support, feedback, and communal “warmth” for all staff. In the Llista de companys `list of colleagues,' for example, teachers can see which of their colleagues are connected at any given moment (i.e., which of their colleagues are “in the room”). In addition, beside their names, there are icons enabling teachers to send messages directly to their colleagues (or to call them into a text chat) and also to send messages directly to the course coordinators (Envia missatge al responsable). There is also web space to store important documents (Espai de disc).

Figure 5

Online Staff Room of the English Language Program at UOC

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The most frequently used features of the staff room are undoubtedly the four communication spaces described below. Teachers have direct access to the staffroom and to these spaces from the welcome page which appears each time they log onto the campus. If new messages have been sent to any of the spaces, these are signaled by means of red flags. Unlike the case of the online peer groups, the staff room is highly visible and easily accessible, which helps to ensure that teachers frequently visit the space.

1. Notice Board

The Notice Board is used by the course coordinators to post important information such as the academic calendar, documents to be distributed to students, reminders of important deadlines, copies of tests to be used in the classes, and so on.

2. Forum

The Forum is used for a variety of purposes, the most important of which is the sharing of teaching materials. This area is especially important for new teachers because it is here that their more experienced colleagues provide them with examples of successful classroom activities, along with useful advice and general support. There are also regular discussions among the teachers about common teaching problems, such as how to evaluate students, how to deal with cases of plagiarism, what to do if student participation levels fall, and so on. In addition, teachers use this space to share articles dealing with online teaching issues and to announce upcoming conferences for language teachers. Finally, the Forum is also a venue for socializing, a key point for strengthening the interpersonal bonds of the online community. Jokes are shared, alongside personal announcements such as successful defenses of doctoral dissertations, births, adoptions, and the like.

3. Debate

Debate is used primarily for the discussion of specific teaching issues that have emerged from the Forum. For example, after several teachers had expressed concern about a recent change in the format for the continuous assessment tests, a formal discussion on this topic was established by the coordinators in Debate. Based on the issues raised and conclusions reached, the official policy was subsequently modified. It should be noted that contributions to this space are always of key importance in helping to shape the general policies of the whole English language program. Policies on evaluation and plagiarism, for example, were finally established only after receiving input from the teachers through online discussions in Debate. This space is also used each semester for the discussion of articles on relevant pedagogical topics such as online moderating skills (Feenberg & Xin, n.d.), which are posted by the coordinators.

4. Tips

The Tips space is devoted to technical matters, and queries sent here by teachers are answered by a colleague or one of the coordinators. Information


is shared by all on such things as improving technical skills, finding short cuts for dealing with regular teaching duties, using new authoring software, creating online learning materials, and so forth.

In addition to the communication spaces, in the Recursos `resources' space there is a link to the English Teachers' Homepage, which includes the following:

1. Guide for English Teachers at the UOC

See Figure 3 and discussion above.

2. Bank of past activities

At the end of each semester, a selection of useful classroom materials which have been sent to the Forum are selected by the Coordinators and added to the English Teachers' Homepage for future use.

3. Links to useful sites

These include links to sites of particular interest for learners of English.

Face-to-face Meetings with Teachers

UOC organizes face-to-face meetings for the entire university community at the beginning and the end of each semester. Students are encouraged to attend information sessions led by teachers of the various subjects they are enrolled in and to clarify any doubts they may have. At these meetings, the English-language coordinators regularly organize hands-on sessions for the English teachers on topics such as the standardization of grading criteria for students' written work or on the Hot Potatoes software suite for the creation of online learning activities. In addition, general staff meetings are held on these days at which policy is discussed and decisions are made. It should be noted that experience has shown that time is used much more efficiently here if the issues on the agenda have been discussed previously in the online staff room.

Finally, another key aim of these face-to-face meetings is to provide an opportunity for teachers to socialize with one another. While socializing is obviously a priority in the online staff room, this occurs within the inevitable constraints of an asynchronous, text-only environment (see Giese, 1998). The face-to-face encounters are therefore an extremely important complement to the online socializing, further strengthening the interpersonal bonds that have been created in the virtual environment.


In addition to the need to prioritize staff development via the elements outlined above and our ongoing involvement in the creation of relevant teaching materials, we have also become increasingly aware of other factors which are crucial for our work: the establishment of close working partnerships with different sections of the university community and the coordinators' role as liaisons between teachers and administration, the need to encourage reflection and self-evaluation among teachers and to promote awareness of the specific needs of the online distance


learner, and the development of an online community of teachers based on team work and collaborative relationships.

As coordinators, we have had to develop a plethora of professional skills: managerial, pedagogical, technological, and affective. We have also had to acquire other less formal skills, such as the ability to implement “constructive persuasion, inspirational appeals, exchange of favors and mutual help, coalition building and consultation” (Conger & Lawler, 2005, p. 7). We have had to become adept at anticipating, diagnosing, and rapidly solving all types of problems; publicly acknowledging when we make errors; and accepting valid criticism from teachers or students.

Developing Working Partnerships with Other University Departments

Two contrasting images form the basis of effective online coordination and teaching. On one hand, there is the solitary online teacher (or student) deciding when, where, and how this individual works. In order for online teaching and learning to be effective, however, alongside this solitary worker, there must also exist a complex network of collaborative relationships throughout the university, closer “day-to day-working partnerships” (Phelps, Ledgerwood, & Bartlett, 2000, p. 204) among coordinators, instructors, student counselors, technical support staff, administrators, and so on. New modes of course delivery thus need to be reinforced by new staffing roles and professional partnerships.

As coordinators, we have found that the time we have dedicated over the past 10 years to prioritizing and cultivating this support network at UOC has been of enormous value, currently enabling us to focus our work more effectively on pedagogical issues. We have made considerable progress from past situations where we had to deal with a multitude of nonacademic issues such as travel expenses for teachers attending face-to-face hands-on sessions or having to solve the technological problems of a student who, 6 weeks after the start of the term, was unable to access the online materials. We still find, however, that we frequently have to act as interlocutors between teachers and other university departments in order to guarantee the smooth running of our courses.

Highlighting the Needs of the Online Distance Learner and Teacher

Another significant area of our work lies in promoting an awareness of the specific needs of the online distance learner. English teachers at UOC are all highly qualified practitioners in the face-to-face academic environment, but they are invariably novices in the online environment when they start working at the university. This symbiotic relationship between expertise and novelty forms the basis of much of the work of online coordination and, just as students need relevant “scaffolding” to ease them into the online learning environment (Salmon, 2003), so too do teachers. In training sessions and in our regular control visits to teachers' classrooms, we repeatedly remind the teachers of points such as the following: the need to be aware of the online student's learning objectives; recognition that the teacher's fascination with the potential of the technological medium may not


be shared by their students, most of whom probably view the computer simply as an innovative means of study in new and complex circumstances; the need for teaching strategies which will combat students' isolation; the need for flexibility as regards deadlines for the submission of work and above all, patience and a sense of humor in dealing with technological problems. Our experience as online coordinators has confirmed our belief that, far from depending primarily on technological expertise, successful online teaching is most effective when based on a mixture of proficient face-to-face methodology and a continual awareness of the specific differences inherent in the online learning environment.

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