Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

How does one develop tutor-led distance materials for use in collaborative learning groups, with an emphasis on constructivist learning

Daniela Gennrich
TELP Project: Strengthening Academic Development
University of North West, Mafikeng, South Africa

Leanne Long
School of Education, Training and Development
University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa

This paper provides the background to the dilemma question posed. We describe the historical and institutional background that has led to the collaborative materials development process which aims to develop a Higher Education program for academic staff for use at any South African institution. After describing the first module, we outline the assumptions underlying our chosen design. We go on to explain the nature of the three different types of materials, which are designed for groups at higher education institutions to use under the guidance of a tutor. The goal is to provide adequate opportunities for individual and collaborative learning within a constructivist framework. We report on tutor and learner evaluations of the first pilot of the module, with particular reference to the types of learning experiences engendered and the tutors' sense of the value of the tutor notes in empowering her to facilitate learning. Our dilemma question can be elaborated as follows. How can tutors (many of whom will have little prior knowledge of HE as a discipline) be given adequate guidance and base knowledge, while being allowed enough freedom to facilitate the genuine construction of new knowledge that is anchored in the experience of the participants?

Historical context

Since the dawn of the new dispensation during 1994, a combination of political, social and economic pressures have caused Higher Education institutions to come face to face with their own inadequacies.

These pressures include:

RegistrationAll qualifications now have to comply with strict quality and other requirements in order to be accredited (and thus subsidised) as part of a single, coordinated system, from preschool to PhD level. This has meant that Higher Education (HE) institutions have had to sacrifice their independence to some degree.
OutcomesPolicy has embraced a South African re-interpretation of outcomes based approaches. However, all levels of education in SA (including HE) have traditionally operated on an input model.
MassificationAs in other countries, the nature of the tertiary student is changing but in South Africa, a simultaneous relaxation of access criteria in many institutions, particularly those of Historically Disadvantaged (HDIs), has added to the imperative to develop ways of providing for all levels of student, to give all (including those traditionally excluded from HE) an equal chance of graduating.
TechnologyAs the numbers of students who are either unable or unwilling to take a residential degree increases, and as the notion of lifelong learning becomes more of a reality in our society, technological solutions are increasingly sought.

Predictably, reduced government spending means that no extra resources have been allocated to the task of improving quality and accountability in HE institutions. As in other countries, we are expected to do 'more with less', the responsibility for which has ultimately been laid at the door of academic staff.

However, many academic staff experience difficulties undertaking the tasks required to make the sometimes radical paradigm shift required in response to the national transformation agenda in HE. This is partly because most academic staff in HE have no formal qualification in education, although some may have a school teaching diploma. What staff development does exist is in-house and non-credit bearing. For instance, the University of Natal has developed an HE program ranging from a single module certificate (Higher Education Practice: HEP) to a full Master's degree. However, participation is entirely voluntary and largely unrewarded. The University of North West has no clear policy on this, although this year one faculty approached UN for assistance in offering a certificated module.

There is limited capacity of support staff able or available to provide guidance to academics trying to adapt. For example, in each of our two institutions, there are perhaps 5 people with the interest, experience and time to respond to the needs of 1000 staff.

These pressures led the two institutions (although 800 km apart) to seek to work collaboratively in establishing a research linkage focused on developing a joint materials-based distance module in Higher Education Practice for use in both institutions, with the intention of later widening access to address the staff development needs at Higher Education institutions across SA. Further modules will be developed in an incremental manner until the full program is materials-based.

Description of the HEP Module

There is ongoing debate in academic circles about the benefits and drawbacks of distance learning[1], particularly regarding changing learners' actual practice. Our materials respond to this by requiring a substantial measure of independent study, whilst also offering regular opportunities for interaction in 12 weekly 2-hour sessions. By complementing individual study with tutor-led contact sessions, we have attempted to marry the best of the flexibility and accessibility of materials with the benefits of direct contact with a learning community.

Informing principles

Three integrated principles underpin the program: the 'reflective practitioner' (Schon, 1987), collaborative learning, and constructivist learning.

Developing reflective practitioners

This involves a dialectic between theory and practice, as practitioners reflect upon their practice, dialogue with relevant theory, and thereby construct new knowledge, which in turn influences their practice. This constitutes an action research cycle, in which the focus of the research is the teaching-learning practices of the lecturers. The central goal of this module is to empower lecturers to engage in ongoing curriculum- and self-development (Luckett, 1996).

It is crucial for a lecturer's reflection to dialogue with relevant "new knowledge" (derived from theory, practical examples, other participants, or the tutor) in order to construct new understandings. Although individuals may undertake such dialogue in isolation, it is possible that this can become a process of self-deception (Habermas, 1974, cit Luckett 1996). In this staff development context, we recognise the importance therefore, of the role of the contact sessions and the tutor notes which aim to empower the tutor to facilitate learning through dialogue and collaboration.


Central to our understanding of the reflective learning cycle is a constructivist theory of knowledge and learning where knowledge is viewed not as preexisting, but constructed. Learning is not a matter of the mind simply processing pre-existing knowledge that may have been transmitted. Rather, this knowledge is constructed and reconstructed in the context of past experiences and ongoing interactions. Thus, learning is seen to be as an active process, to overcome obstacles, contradictions, or "cognitive puzzlement" (Savery and Duffy, 1995, p.31) that arise as the learner engages in achieving a specific purpose.[2]

This raises questions about how the materials are able to anchor the learning in the lived contexts of the participants in very different institutions, and the extent to which learners are challenged to overcome obstacles by means of exploration. A further issue is the extent to which the materials allow for the inclusion of multiple perspectives (of tutor and participant) to allow not only for smoother transfer, but also greater elaboration of the knowledge constructed.

The reflective practitioner model implies, firstly, that repeated reflection on one's professional experience and the development of work-based tasks allow for situated cognition to take place. Secondly, course participants are encouraged to develop the ability not only to have the confidence and curiosity to explore ways of overcoming obstacles, but also to recognise them in the first place. This requires that the material build in flexibility without losing direction.

Collaborative learning

The underlying notion that knowledge evolves through processes of social negotiation and an evaluation of individual understandings means that our educational approach must facilitate this. Although we accept that the experience of being in a learning community need not come only from face-to-face contact (as in a virtual classroom), we believe that in an institutional environment like ours there is value in bringing lecturers together in a nurturing environment. The aim is to complement and broaden the individual reflective process with collaboration with other participants who "act as mirrors which reflect back to one another images of our own practice" (Luckett, 1996, p.10).

This is why we have avoided designing a purely individualised distance learning program, and have opted to combine individual and collaborative learning experiences, through the use of a campus tutor/facilitator and activity-based contact sessions.


An important role of the tutor is to exemplify the type of facilitator required to enable the collaborative construction of knowledge, to provide clarity as to the nature of our approach as well as adequate guidance as to its implementation. Naturally, the extent to which tutors at institutions have been exposed to this kind of approach will vary greatly, and it is important that we chart a route that neither patronises nor confuses prospective facilitators. (Perhaps a first step in the change of consciousness, would be simply to replace the word 'Tutor' with 'Facilitator' in all documents!)

Discussion of the materials

Tutor-led, collaboratively explored

The crux of the Reflective Practitioner approach, in which lecturers are involved in an action research process, is the facilitation of meaningful reflection on one's practice. The integration of interaction within oneself, with a learning community and with a tutor/facilitator aims to ensure that participants do not get 'stuck' at any of the stages of the reflective cycle (and thus unable to improve their practice).

Print based

The materials are currently print-based, partly because of the lack of universal access to technology at many SA institutions. However, since they are communicated to tutors electronically, the potential exists for the tutor to make amendments before using the materials with learners. Both tutors and learners, however, tend to view print based text as "final" and authoritative, rather than negotiable, which can undermine our purposes.

The interface between tutor and learner materials

Study Guidesprovide a variety of tasks including original texts of varying perspectives mediated by guiding reflective questions, workplace activities, observation tasks, and preparatory tasks for each next session. Participants record responses, ideas, impressions in a journal or as case notes.
Participant Notesguide the participants during the contact sessions by articulating the aims and projected outcomes of the session and the activities planned for the session, with spaces for participants to capture the understandings created by the group in discussion or activities.
Tutor Notesguide the tutor in facilitating a session, by providing a balance of step-by-step guidance (instructions for activities, resources that the tutor will need to prepare) and conceptual support (eg. background, activity intentions, likely participant responses, appropriate approaches, etc.).

Tutors' experiences of using the tutor notes to facilitate a teaching/learning session

This pilot phase has used 5 tutors (including ourselves): three at UN, two at UNW.

Some tutors have raised a sense of being disempowered by the tutor notes. On the one hand, the readings and the approach taken in the tutor materials are seen as useful input. However, some tutors feel that professional integrity can be compromised by a seemingly restrictive process which may not flow with a particular group. Some tutors have tried rather going with the dynamics in the group and returning to the material periodically, simply to ensure achievement of the outcomes. This has been particularly problematic when participants at one institution respond very differently to the materials than was expected.

Another issue that the materials do not take into account is the variability among the learners, which calls for greater flexibility.

The issues are bound to become a lot more problematic when tutors use them who have had nothing to do with the actual writing of the materials (which all 5 of the current tutors have, to varying degrees). Moreover, it can be expected that not all tutors will have the same level of understanding of HE issues or the methodology adopted. A central dilemma for the course developers is the tension between a conviction that the approach adopted is a good one and should not be tinkered with, while seeing the need for tutor autonomy. While it has been possible for the current tutors to move in and out of the materials and even adapt them, it is not likely that all tutors will have the capacity to do this. Herein lies the basis of our problem.

Learner evaluations of the materials

Some learners expressed a sense of security engendered by a highly structured course and pointed to its usefulness in containing tangential discussions. Others found the materials restrictive for this very reason, saying that they stunted discussions, because the tutor had to keep returning to the 'next activity'. This problem was exacerbated by the number of activities in each session, and it was suggested to reduce each session to no more than 3 or 4 'leading questions'.

Another mentioned a sense of being patronised, while others found the level quite challenging. This points further to the need for greater flexibility to respond to different learners.

The readings and the study guides, although useful to a degree, were also criticised for not providing a variety of routes through the readings.


The evaluations point to the need to reconceptualise exactly what it is that we want to do in the three types of materials we use. We need to ensure that the individual study materials facilitate the learning of base knowledge, and provide an opportunity for self-reflection on the part of individuals. The contact sessions are then to problematise key issues, share and evaluate examples of participants' work. This does more than just talk 'common sense', and makes space for genuine collaborative knowledge construction, thereby facilitating the development of lecturers as reflective practitioners.

It seems that a shift in approach is required if we are to achieve the purpose of the program. This is to develop a genuine constructivist approach which goes beyond participants merely articulating their experiences, in a semi-distance learning environment where a facilitator uses materials developed outside of the context in which they are used, for use with educators in HE.

The basic question is this. How does one provide adequate guidance to ensure the aims of the program are achieved, while at the same building in enough flexibility to enable facilitators and participants the freedom to explore in such a way as to empower them to improve their practice? This is our dilemma.


  1. This is evidenced, eg., in a raging debate during the month of November this year on the IT Forum, an international listserv discussion forum on the role of technologies in education. (ITFORUM@UGA.CC.UGA.EDU)

  2. We have provided a simple working definition of constructivism here, but are aware that the concept is itself contested territory (see, eg, Phillips, 1995).


Brown, John Seely and Duguid, Paul (1995). Universities in the Digital Age. Work in Progress Paper: Heldref Corp. http://www.parc.xerox.com/ops/members/brown/papers/university.html

Chai, Jeong-Im and Hannafin, Michael (1995). Situated Cognition and Learning Environments: Roles, Structures and Implications for Design. ETR&D, 43(2), 53-69.

Luckett, K. (1996). The Reflective Practitioner. Journal of Education (Natal) 21, 5-16.

Phillips, D.C. (1995). The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly: The Many Faces of Constructivism. Educational Researcher, 24(7), 5-12.

Savery, John and Duffy, Thomas (1995). Problem-Based Learning: An Instructional Model and its Constructivist Framework. Educational Technology, Sept-Oct, 31-38.

Slavin, Robert (1991). Synthesis of Research on Cooperative Learning. Educational Leadership Journal, February, 71-82.

Please cite as: Gennrich, D. and Long, L. (1999). How does one develop tutor-led distance materials for use in collaborative learning groups, with an emphasis on constructivist learning. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 143-148. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/gennrich.html

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