Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

A new literacy not just a new tool: Asynchronous e-tutorials/ web conferencing in first year teacher education (1997-1999)

Barry Osborne, Eric Wilson and Merle Iles
School of Education
Cairns Campus, James Cook University
    We are convinced of the importance of electronic interactions as a teaching/learning tool for teachers of the future. We also see it as an important tool for students to apply within their teacher education program. Accordingly since 1997, our first year student teachers have been required to use one such asynchronous electronic interaction tool as an alternative to some face to face tutorials in subjects with over 150 students in each class. These have included using Pine and Eudora e-tutorials in 1997 and 1998 respectively and then Web Conferencing in 1999. Each year we have collected feedback from students via questionnaires (both structured and open ended) about their experiences with e-tutorials/ Web conferences and have used it to modify our practices. Student responses to the utility of these innovations have been very positive despite dilemmas with servers, computer access and software. Furthermore we have found that important percentages of the students lack computer familiarity and struggle with the literacies of the software.

    This paper presents the feedback they have given to the various alternatives we have provided, showing both the difficulties and successes they had employing the tool. Furthermore we show the increased awareness we have had to gain both of the students and the software we have selected. We conclude with reflections on the need for, and ways to provide, meaningful teaching of the new literacies. We also reflect on the strategies we that have introduced to support students, as they need support.

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This paper documents some strategies we have employed to introduce first year teacher education students to electronic communication. We describe some of the successes and refinements we have made from our new understandings. We all believe that it is essential for teachers of the future to use information technology meaningfully.

To that end we have used asynchronous e-tutorials in both core first year subjects from 1997. We staggered the email tutorial component of the two subjects to reduce overcrowding of the computer labs. Initially we used Pine, then Eudora and finally Web Board and monitored student reaction each year. This progressively increased the power of what we might achieve, but even now three years into our ongoing experiement, we are finding ways to make the pedagogy more productive.

Pedagogic rationale

We are committed to graduating teachers who have an embodied understanding of the use of technology in their professional lives and a capacity to use technology in socially critical ways. Here we parallel Halliday's model of building embodied understandings of language, as represented by Christie (1979). It comprises three elements: learning language; learning about language; and using language to learn. This then becomes our pedagogic model: learning technology; learning about technology; and using technology to learn.

We acknowledge the transformation that has occurred since Green's (1993) description of 'techno-kids' as 'aliens in the classroom'. It is our concern that it is now the teachers who are showing up as the 'aliens' (Wilson, 1995). As a result of this concern, we immerse our preservice education students in various forms of technologies from their first semester, first year, so that by graduation they have become 'fluent' and 'critical' users of various forms of technological language and literacy. Like becoming users of other languages in functional, critical and applied ways, students need immersion and application in real and purposeful social contexts involving electronic communications.

Central to our rationale is challenging students to develop deeper understanding of subject content which is supported by improved feedback during learning. Our ongoing research indicates that electronic tutorials/conferences do encourage: greater engagement with set academic reading (Gardner, 1996: 4); focussed and "educationally significant" discussion of reading (Iles, 1996: 2 & 3); and improved feedback when students and tutors interrogate each others' texts at times individually expedient to them. The asynchronous nature of electronic communication also significantly supports students' critical engagement in the creation of and response to texts.

Other major reasons for including asynchronous electronic tutorials/conferences include:

We also believe that Gergen's (1991) "saturated selves" is an appropriate reading of many students in our program, given their multiple responsibilities with family and substantial travel/work commitments limiting time available for study. There is also institutional pressure to provide subjects via flexible delivery: electronic tutorials/conferences are an appropriate response to this pressure while meeting the educational needs of saturated selves.

A review of literature

Blanton, Moorman and Trathen (1998) have reviewed the literature on "the application of computer based telecommunications to teacher preparation from the perspective of social constructivism" (p. 239). Their search of almost 800 articles narrowed to just 52 that were not "poorly written, described poorly, designed or methodologically flawed[ ] and/or incomplete" (p. 240). Their review covers three fields of study of which only the section titled "Use of Telecommunications in On Campus Courses" is relevant and from that we use only the twelve studies involving undergraduates. In that section they report that while the use of email is common, the majority of selected studies were "atheoretical" (p. 243) about links between teaching/learning or about telecommunications and anxiety. Eight of the studies merely provide descriptive analyses of email messages.

Two of the remaining studies "provided at least limited theoretical rationale" (Blanton et al (1998: 243). Norton and Sprague (1996) framed their study in terms of educators' resistance to change and compared undergraduate and in-service teachers' pairing in email collaboration "to create lessons that integrated databases into the curriculum" (p.244). They found "no differences in the quality of lesson plans on any of five criteria" but significant changes "in beliefs and attitudes about telecommunications...only among undergraduate[s]" (p. 244). The other study in this pair, by Williams and Merideth (1995) was framed from a "social and cognitive construction of knowledge perspective... [and] hypothesised that computer mediated communications would enhance 'undominated dialogue'" (p. 244). Email was widely used, had high levels of satisfaction and a small increase "in sense of professional competence" (p.244).

The final undergraduate study, by Anderson & Lee (1995) had a stronger theoretical grounding in multiple literacies (Blanton et al 1998: 245). They found that electronic networking "can provide a means for requesting support, building support, building concepts, taking risks, supporting and affirming membership in the class, and building a more democratic environment. The permanent and asynchronous quality of email networks is thought to lead to more recursive and reflective dialogue, particularly when the dialogue is brought back into the class" (p.245).

Select findings

Our research has continued over three years; here we present some key findings from 139 students from a class of 165 in 1998, using Eudora. 22.8% chose to use e-tutorials for their own convenience, so apparently this option appeals to some - possibly those with heavy off campus commitments. 75.4% found feedback from peers helpful and 78.7% found feedback from tutors helpful. Indeed 45.7% found that e-tutorials "let [them] say their piece better than face to face tutorials and 54% found that "email tutorials made [them] more careful about [their] answers than face to face tutorials". These are encouraging trends, but clearly not everyone felt these advantages accrued to email tutorials. Nevertheless, 60% were impressed by them although only 25.4% had been email users before semester began and by the end of semester 74.8% claimed to be an "experienced email user". Conversely only 21.6% claimed to learn more from email than from face to face tutorials and only 16.6% preferred the former, but 83.1% claimed to have learned a valuable skill. At the beginning of semester only 18.8% of students had access at home to email and by the end of semester this percentage had risen to 26.7. At the same time access to university computers "was more than adequate" for the needs of 62.5%. Furthermore, the percentage of students who "hated computers" from 19.4% to 9.7%.

In 1999 we switched to web conferencing using WebBoard software which is potentially more powerful but also more complex to access. In the early days we sat with students and found a large cohort who had difficulty joining conferences from which we constructed a list of 35 potential difficulties they were confronting. They were grouped in a survey as: keyboard skills; careless mistakes; access errors; confusion across subjects and over terminology; dilemmas with the process of group allocation; system glitches; support dilemmas; and the WebBoard screen itself. Only 17.3% of the 127 responses indicated satisfaction with their groups' inputs; only 10.2% found Web conferencing helpful. Many others had problems with the technology, accessing it, were perfunctory in their use of it or were dissatisfied with how their group worked.

For a subset of students, however, web conferencing worked very well. They mastered the technology, and ran interesting e-conversations about and beyond the set questions. These students managed the technology to enhance their learning in critically reflective ways. Their interactions showed high levels of intellectual engagement and assumption of the role of critical text analyst (Freebody & Luke, 1990) through the 'new literacies' of electronic conferencing. Their reading and responses to set questions and to peers' input showed a 'fluency' of critical language awareness that was far greater than shown in the face to face (F2F) synchronous sessions. Factors such as time to reflect and analyse their own responses and those of others fulfilled our desire to see them becoming more engaged at the critical level in tutorial work.

Our challenge now is to maximise the numbers in this latter category by teaching both the technology and about the technology better as well as by improving the systems that deliver/support web conferencing.

Issues embedded in our collective experiences of using electronic communication technology in preservice teacher education

As we reflected on this and other feedback as well as our experiences as teachers of the new literacies we came to understand more fully:


Throughout our use of and reflections on e-tutorials and web conferencing, we have been reminded of the intimacy of the text-context relationship. Like all other forms of text, we have seen that the creation and response to electronic text(s) is always a function of the reader's (and writer's) referential worlds. In addition, we have seen that the 'new literacies' demand the ability to negotiate the particular semiotic systems through which electronic interactions are construed. We have also seen that the effective use of asynchronous e-tutorials/web conferences to learn involves going beyond the mere mastery of the technology at a technical or semiotic level. Those who still struggle with learning the technology or learning about the technology are poorly placed to use the technology to learn.

Furthermore, we have seen that pre-service teacher education students are differentially positioned in mastering electronic interactions across a range of personal and social factors, including age, class, ethnicity and gender. All other factors may operate in favour of the students but they may still be left unfulfilled if they lack access to reliable networks and systems. Both learning the technology and learning about the technology are necessary but not sufficient to achieve the embodied understanding that enables using the technology to learn. Without mastery of all three elements, the capacity to operate in a socially critical way is severely impeded. Our collective efforts to build embodied understandings of the use of new (information) literacies in ourselves and our students substantiates our commitment to social critical literacy.

A cautionary equity note

Making curriculum space in higher education for the development of social critical literacy skills involves creating opportunities and challenges for students to examine reading and viewing, writing, speaking and listening electronically as situated social practice. It involves providing students with the means to consider electronic texts as socially constructed phenomena, to see their own lives as a series of texts or scripts, to compare and contrast what is with what might be and what else might be. It involves helping students see their participation in electronic texts as a dialectic process, on one hand framing their experience, and on the other hand, framing the possible worlds of other texts. It means taking opportunities to 'problematise' electronic texts, to examine how these texts construct knowledge and world views and thus can act to marginalise the experience of both individuals and groups with low levels of involvement in or access to electronic interactions. We have only just begun.


Blanton, W. E., Moorman, G. & Trathen, W. (1998). Telecommunications and teacher education: A social constructivist review. Review of Research in Education, 23, 235-275.

Christie, F. (1979). The Language Development Project Phase II. Occasional Paper Number 1, Curriculum Development Centre, Canberra.

Freebody, P. & Luke, A. (1990). "Literacies" programs: Debates and demands in cultural context. Prospect, 5(3), 7-16.

Gardner, J. (1996). Electronic mail tutorials: Alternative learning strategies for undergraduates. Paper presented at the Latrobe University Language and Academic Skills Conference, 18-19 November.

Green, B. (1993). Aliens and their others. Metro Magazine, 100, 68-75.

Iles, M. (1996). Using email tutorials in pre-service teacher education. (Unpublished Paper, University of Tasmania).

Wilson, E. (1995) Virtual literacy: Critical issues in 'doing literacy' in the technological classroom. Paper presented at Trends, Trendies and Troglodytes, Conference of the Regional Australian Reading Association and English Teachers Association of Queensland, Cairns.

Please cite as: Osborne, B., Wilson, E. and Iles, M. (2000). A new literacy not just a new tool: Asynchronous e-tutorials/ web conferencing in first year teacher education (1997-1999). In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/osborne.html

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