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?
These pressures include:
|Registration||All 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.|
|Outcomes||Policy 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.|
|Massification||As 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.|
|Technology||As 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.
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.
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.
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.
|Study Guides||provide 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 Notes||guide 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 Notes||guide 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.).|
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.
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.
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.
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Phillips, D.C. (1995). The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly: The Many Faces of Constructivism. Educational Researcher, 24(7), 5-12.
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|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|