A Systemic Approach to Learner Support

Yannis Karaliotas
PGCertODE(Open), MA in ODE Student, OU/UK
July 1999

This paper outlines the structure and associated dynamic implications of an envisaged Online Learner Support System by identifying the parts and analysing their relationships using a System Thinking (Brown, 1990 - Senge, 1990 - Forrester, 1994 - Richmond, 1994) and System Analysis (Bertalanffy, 1968 - Yourdon & Coad, 1991) approach.

It particularly focuses on the perceived needs of learners participating in the TEL (Technology Enabled Learning) programme outlined in Accessible Online Learning (Online Ref. 1) and Charting A New Online Course (Online Ref. 2). The work has drawn on Thorpe's (1999) analytical Learner Support Overview Essay and on peers' online exchange of relevant observations within the H804, MA in ODE, course learning environment.

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The Centre for Technology Enabled Learning (C.T.E.L)

The Hellenic Centre for Technology Enabled Learning is a complex system for learning with Open and Distance Learning services, Face to Face learning facilities network, online 'Virtual School' site which accommodates its online services, and an online integrated hypermedia learning environment as its main learning system component (Online Ref. 2).

The structure of CTEL shares features from both large-scale and small-scale learning systems as it caters for all age groups of learners with a diverse variety of social, educational and disability backgrounds (learners with special abilities/needs from all educational levels, parents, volunteers, teachers, trainers and supporting personnel), but it is still in a position to provide a highly individualised learning setting due to student population distribution, i.e. the small number of students allowed to enrol in each of its programme modules (15-20 in 3-4 groups) [ Online Ref. 2 ].

For its online environment, CTEL utilises the World Wide Web and the SIMULAB / TELSIpro software (Telematic Environment for Language Simulations) an Internet-based open learning environment developed by the Continuing Education Centre of the University of Oulu, Finland. The choice of platform and software reflects the learner-centred (Harasim at al, 1995), constructionist (Papert, 1990) learning principles which are embedded in the system's design (Online Ref. 2).

CTEL's Strategy for a Learner Support System

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Reflecting on the concept definitions appearing in Robinson (1995), the process of designing the Learner Support System starts with an analysis of the overall learning system of CTEL. By defining the telos and the boundaries of the system, its operational components, the processes and flow of data expected to occur, solid and stable grounds are created on which the design of a Learner Support Subsystem may be based. The design of such a subsystem should be responsive to the questions:

The answers to the questions above, which project the observer / stakeholder ideas and beliefs (Mental Models) used to explain cause and effect, will set up the values of variables in the envisaged subsystem.

Proposed Principles of Learning Systems Analysis (Online Ref. 3)

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General System Theory seems to be an important headway towards interdisciplinary synthesis and integrated education. According to it, systems are functional entities that exist "in order to" reduce complexity. Learning systems function in order to reduce complexity in learning, i.e. are organised to facilitate learning.

Systems are organised by processes of selection, relationing, and control / steering. The principles that do this are different for different kinds of systems, that is, for different levels of emergent order. There are mechanical systems, organic systems, and meaning systems. Each kind of system has a different "code" or principle of organisation which selects, relates, and steers in a different way. Since learning systems are meaning systems, the code that organises them is semiotic in nature, which means that selection, relationing, and steering of operations occur by means of communicative actions.

Communicative actions occur in the three dimensions of syntactical organisation of signs, semantic structuring and pragmatic action. They also occur on three levels: argumentation, boundary setting and transformation. Argumentation is oriented toward the future, boundary setting toward the past, and transformation is rooted in the present moment.

Learning systems, as social systems, accommodate different classes of operations, i.e. production, social interaction, co-operation, collaboration, knowledge construction, conflict management etc. A subsystem for Learner Support should be seen as a Conflict Management operating system which makes use of all the available classes of operations within and across the boundaries of the overall Learning System.

The Basic Elements - Constants of a System for Learning

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A system is an entity with a purpose, that maintains its existence and functions as a whole through the interaction of its parts. If the purpose, the telos , of a system for learning is the acquisition of knowledge, then this appears as the product of minds engaged in a process of knowledge construction using bits of information which may be received through various media and are constructively observed and actively experienced and reflected upon. Hence, human minds (at least from an anthropocentric perspective), media / technologies and information / knowledge constitute the basic three elements - constants whose interaction and relationships bring about the organic function of a learning system ( Karaliotas, 1998 ). The nature of its telos institutes an open status, i.e. a system that interacts with its environment, gaining resources across its physical boundary. In the CTEL system environment there is already a fairly strong communal element, because of the pre-existent relationships among potential learners (many disabled individuals residing in different, distant locations across the country are acquainted and often meet face to face on social or syndical occasions).

A Learner Support Subsystem should serve the system's telos by providing the appropriate mechanisms (relationships) which set the system environment for an unimpeded and seamless interaction (flow) between the elements. It operates as a conflict management mechanism, hence, "learner support is one of the most important subsystems in ODL ..." (Thorpe, ibid. p 82) and "... is not an add on but an all pervasive component of educational processes which ensures that learning and teaching are approached from a learner centred vision of education" (Nunan in Reid, 1995 p 269).

Image of the CTEL LS System

Figure 1. Basic structure and flow diagram of the CTEL Learner Support System in the overall (individual/institutional) learning environment.

The CTEL Learner Support System is an open and transparent subsystem within the open and transparent CTEL system for learning. Central to its structure is teaching . In the words of Jay Reid (ibid. p 269): "Learning support is as important as teaching; it is teaching; it is central to all we do as professionals". The CTEL LSS structure depicts on the 'new', yet to be accomplished, role of teacher as facilitator ( Freire's animateur ), on the concept of moving from teachers to mentors described by Mandell & Herman (1996). As Figure 1 suggests, the Learner Support System is conceived as Teaching with an aura . Humanity-old elements of good teaching which ensure Open-Access to learning and, thus, knowledge are contained in this aura. On the convergence of those 'new' elements and the conventional elements of contemporary teaching is where Supporting Roles are defined and their content informed.

What might learner support needs be within the context of the CELT system?

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Understanding Learner Support Needs

Profiling learners is central to the process of understanding and keeping up with learner support needs and requirements. Analysis of accumulated data in learner profiles enables the recording of possible support needs which, in turn, facilitates the definition and distribution of supporting roles.

CTEL's strategy for meeting the support needs of learners must be a long-term one, reflecting on the communal nature of its environment and on the emerging common need for lifelong learning .

The Centre's actual learner profiling process starts with the inclusion in the application form of basic questions regarding personal circumstances and educational background (marital status, work status, previous education and learning experience).

A more detailed questionnaire would be attached to initial enrolment forms for further collection of data regarding special learning circumstances and requirements, and previous online experience (Fig 2).

  1. Please state your full name, age, city and country where you live.
  2. What kind of disability are you involved with? (This question is to classify or separate different disabilities)
  3. When did you start to use a computer?
  4. When did you start to use the Internet?
  5. What do you use it for?
  6. Have you had any experience with learning at a distance?
  7. What are the learning subjects you would like to deal with at a distance?
  8. What technical support do you use?
  9. What special devices and techniques do you use for accessing your computer and the Internet?
  10. Who pays for the technical support? You yourself, the government, your school or else?
  11. Is there anything that is possible for you to do now since the Internet is around, that was not available before?
  12. What problems have you faced when starting to use the Internet?
  13. How accessible would you say most Internet sites are for you? Good - bad?
  14. Would you like to share with us a couple of examples of good and bad Internet sites? Any favourites?
  15. Do you have any special suggestion to the web designers to make the sites more accessible to the people with different disabilities?
  • If you have any problems filling in the questionnaire, please call ****** to talk to ******

Figure 2. Proposed Questionnaire

Information gathering concerning personal learning styles would be facilitated through an online, auto-responding, multiple-choice questionnaire form available to anyone enquiring the system. Resulting information would be used to assist in diagnosing possible individual requirements (e.g. braille vs audio in delivering course preparatory material) rather than categorise future learners (Online Ref 4).

Once forms are collected, there would be face to face or telephone interviews conducted by corresponding tutors establishing initial rapport, where missing responses will be gathered and questionable points clarified.

The accumulated data would be recorded and taxonomised in database and/or spreadsheet format, securely accessible online for interpretation and/or updating by authorised personnel. Online access of appropriate status (read-only or full access attributes) to selected data is considered essential since teaching and administrative staff would be operating, mostly online, from different geographical locations.

Tutor and mentor reports, which would be known and readily available both to the learner and the institution, would be serving as additional data source on a long-term basis.

Learner portfolios (Online Ref. 2), highly important learner generated information, would also be publicly available on the Centre's site and would be introduced as a primary source to staff involved in the learner's ensuing choices.

Perceived Learner Support Needs

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Individual learner support needs expected to emerge from the analysis of the data gathered are likely to belong to the six general areas suggested by Thorpe, 1998, p 65.

However, the most important support requirement of CTEL prospective learners is a universally fundamental one: the need for accessibility to information and resources.

Prolonged lack of accessibility has brought about the need for subject related guidance and recapitulation , especially when learners wish to pursue further studies in the specific domain (Online Ref 2).

Under the present Special Education system and policy, disabled learners of all educational levels often have to travel distances of over 400km and spend days or even weeks away from home in order to receive library support and study guidance from the Special Needs Institutes which are physically located in only five major towns.

Some have even had to leave home at the age of 5 or 6 and spend six to twelve years in asylum in order to attend school, thus running the danger of becoming institutionalised.

Successive national policies, showing preference to private enterprise, have dictated further constraints to learner support services provided by the Special Needs Institutes and for some of them this might even mean closure (Online Ref. 1).

A growing number of young individuals and their families have resorted to attending schools at their home location where learning support depends on the good will of individual teachers who are not familiar with or have no access to enabling devices and technologies.

Disabled young adults and professionals are anxiously seeking access to learning opportunities which have either been officially considered inaccessible to certain disabilities, or have to be attended at inaccessible physical locations.

For those reasons, investment in Computer Enabling Technology and online connectivity has been a strong trend in the disabled community growing in numbers, during the last decade, faster than the national average of computer users. The Internet is regarded by disabled users as an excellent platform for communication, but the absence of national online educational programmes and the language barrier for utilising the existing international ones have kept out of online learning opportunities most of the technologically able.

The CTEL learning system, following the emerging paradigm shift in education and in an attempt to inform a new learning culture enabling autonomous active learners, intends to provide open access to integrated educational opportunities in all domains and levels by utilising the power of technology enabled learner-centred environments and the subject expertise and enthusiasm of educators who are willing to give it a go.

The utilisation of situation-based, role-generating simulation scenarios (Online Ref 2) under constructionist principles (Kafai and Resnick, 1996) which can create the necessary playful, social interactive environment for supporting learning how to learn, would help integrate learner support processes with teaching (Reid, ibid.) and promote and develop the highly desired and painfully acquired teachers role as facilitators of learning (Mandell & Herman, 1996).

Who might meet them and by what means?

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Media and Technologies

The CTEL learner support system may utilise a variety of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) and other media technologies for opening and maintaining Communication Channels and for producing universally accessible (hybrid) materials useful to its operation:

Yet, the basic principle in the system's operation is that there must always be an option for human interaction, a readily available channel of communication with a live agent . Staff introduction and welcome messages will be strategically placed online in audio-visual as well as textual form (Online Ref 5 & Appendix 1) in order to establish social presence by facilitating further contact ( Gunawardena & Zittle, 1998 ) and help remove possible psychological barriers ( Appendix 2 ).

Apart from the obvious, offline but highly accessible communication channel, the telephone, there is also the advanced and more suitable (hearing impairment) online option of VoxChat, a many-to-many technology already in use by the online disabled community, which combines text e-chat and webboard with audio conference , and it is publicly available on the WEB.

More importantly, there is the possibility of establishing voluntary local Orientation and Support Services in five major towns across the country where Special Education Institutes ( Online Ref. 2 ) or Disability Association branches exist, which could form a network of face-to-face support centres ( Reid, ibid ). The role of these Ground Centres is considered as central to the CTEL support system since they would be expected to meet pre-course and ongoing emotional learner needs spotted and addressed in detail by H804 peers ( Online Ref 5 ). Ground Centres would be used as portals to the main system environment offering initial guidance to enquiring individuals and contact information for further counselling. They could also provide hands-on familiarisation with enabling technology and equipment.

Figure 3. Graphic represantation of the structure of elements and processes in the CTEL Learner Support System.

Supporting Roles

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In the CTEL system, online and offline roles of support would be allocated to closely cooperating individuals and teams which will be using technology as a tool in order to provide holistic and integrated online learner support (Fig 3). The subject online tutor and mentors, the environment facilitator, the web facilitator, the system facilitator and the ground supporters.

The role of the tutors is fourfold: pedagogical, social, managerial, and technical ( Freeman, 1997 & Northedge, 1994 ). They facilitate the building of the online learning community and route the dynamic flow between groups in their simulation environment. Tutors contribute knowledge, keep the discussion on track, weave together various discussion threads, maintain group harmony and assess learners progress. They are assisted by Mentors and the Environment Facilitator.

Mentors facilitate learning for particular learners or individual groups by offering their expertise and/or their previously accumulated experience.

The environment facilitator is responsible for each and all of the running simulation environments and offers her required expertise to tutors and mentors. She follows the proceedings of each simulation as an observer, discreetly offering backup support when needed and her contact address is known to all participants. She also plays an active role in the evaluation stage of a simulation ( Online Ref 2 ), and her observations are used to inform the agenda for the teaching-team's meta-discussion where she is a key participant.

The web facilitator provides technical and navigational support in relation to web presence and hypermedia (e.g. learner portfolio), and to course related web resources taking up the role of digital librarian. She is responsible for the technical configuration and maintenance of all online system components (web site, database, simulation environment) and her contact address is known to all participants.

The system facilitator chairs teaching-team meetings and she is responsible for the overall running of the system. She is particularly responsible for the smooth operation of the Ground Centres and she is in direct contact with Ground Supporters routing their queries to people and resources. She formally welcomes all participants and she offers initial navigation in and around the system. Her contact address is known to all participants and prospective learners.

Ground supporters are providing most of the offline support, meeting pre-enrolment and ongoing learner support requirements through f2f or telephone sessions.

All staff undergo initial and regular inservice training and are obliged to participate in the online teaching-team meetings which each and every member of staff has the right to call for.

Supporting the Supporters

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The system's provision of support to the people and devices engaged in supporting roles is of utmost importance since negligence on this part would certainly weaken the operational capability of at least one of the basic three systemic elements - media / technologies - bringing the system to a state of imbalance and posing limits to growth.

Staff training in learner-centred pedagogy is considered to be the basic support requirement in this area. Lack of such training might mean that the need for learner support is not appreciated ( Lewis, 1998 & Hawkridge, 1998 ).

The Staff Simulation Scheme

In order to fulfil such a commitment, the CTEL system will commence its operation by running a series of Staff Simulations which will be offering to prospective staff hands-on experience in six areas:

This scheme will continue to be part of the system's operation providing a learning platform for practitioners wishing to become familiarised with learner-centred environments.

Experts Involvement Scheme

For general system support, academic and field experts would be invited to visit simulation sessions either as learned quests offering insights to questions raised, or as system mentors to particular groups or simulation environments.

They will also be honorary subscribers to the CTEL Mailing List, presenting short papers and initiating discussions.

Previous Students as Online Consultants Scheme

In a way similar to the one Usenet University - Global Network Academy has been utilising since 1993, previous students who complete a CTEL course would be asked to become online consultants to a new cohort of students ( Online Ref 6 ).

CTEL Mailing List Scheme

The CTEL multilingual mailing list would be open to subscription by everyone concerned with Learner-Centred Learning Systems, their relevant theoretical underpinnings, design, implementation and management.

It is intended to function as an open forum which would generate discourse on issues surrounding theory and practice, which might facilitate further development in the area and provide support to CTEL practitioners. List contents will be archived and remain publicly available on the web.

Teaching-team Meetings Scheme

CTEL teaching-team meetings, which include all learner support system staff, take place regularly at the beginning and end of a simulation course, and whenever any one of the staff members feel the need for. They are held online in the VoxChat synchronous environment, are chaired by the System Facilitator or, in her absence, by the Environment Facilitator and make decisions on issues relevant to learner support provision. Non-regular meetings are held within 24 hours from the relevant e-mail announcement.


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Accessibility to and by a system and its components affects interoperability and common functionality . Having common functionality does not guarantee interoperability. Likewise, having interoperable interfaces does not imply functionality. Thus, a close analysis of functions and their relations is necessary for the creation or modification of a common system interface which ensures open and transparent access to people and resources.

CTEL considers Learner Support as the key element for the creation of such an interface, and a core system component which allows transformation of teaching practices directly affecting learning processes and the acquisition of knowledge.

... think hard about how we can provide access for all to the Net, build a fully two-way communications system, invent systems of payment for digital work, decide who has property rights in cyberspace, debate the role of state regulations over the virtual world and so on. The building of the infobahn will never be accomplished by divine revelation. It can only be achieved through the pragmatic application of our collective imagination and effort.

Richard Barbrook in The Fallacies of Memetics


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Bertalanffy, L. v., 1968: General System Theory. George Braziller New York.

Brown, G. S., 1990. The Genisis of the System Thinking Program at the Orange Grove Middle School, Tucson, Arizona . Personal report. 6301 N. Calle de Adelita, Tucson, AZ 85718: March 1, 1990.

Forrester, J. W., 1994. Learning through System Dynamics as Preparation for the 21st Century. Keynote Address for Systems Thinking and Dynamic Modelling Conference for K-12 Education, June 27-29, 1994 . Available: ftp://sysdyn.mit.edu/ftp/sdep/Roadmaps/RM8/D-4434-1.pdf

Harasim, L., Hiltz, S. R., Teles, L. and Turoff, M., 1995. Learning Networks: A Field Guide to Teaching and Learning Online, MIT, Cambridge, MA.

Hawkridge, D., 1998 - A Master's in Open and Distance Education for University Staff - Chapter 25 in Staff Development in Open and Flexible Learning ed. Latchem, C. Lockwood, F., Routledge 1998.

Kafai, Y. and Resnick, M. (Ed.), 1996. Constructionism in Practice - Designing, Thinking, and Learning in a Digital World. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1996.

Karaliotas, Y., 1998. Interactivity in the Learning Environment - Distance Education. H802 Project Report, 1998. Available: http://users.otenet.gr/~kar1125/iaction.htm

Lewis, R., 1998. - Staff Development In Conventional Institutions Moving Towards Open Learning - Chapter 3 in Staff Development in Open and Flexible Learning ed. Latchem, C. Lockwood, F., Routledge 1998.

Lockwood, F. 1998. - Creating an Environment for Staff Development - Chapter 24 in Staff Development in Open and Flexible Learning ed. Latchem, C. Lockwood, F., Routledge 1998.

Nunan, T. (1993) in Reid, J., 1995. - Managing Learning Support - Chapter 25 in Open and Distance Learning Today, ed. Lockwood, F., Routledge 1995, p 269.

Papert, Seymour (1990). - Introduction: Constructionist Learning - Idit Harel (ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Media Laboratory.

Reid, J., 1995. Managing Learning Support - Chapter 25 in Open and Distance Learning Today, ed. Lockwood, F., Routledge 1995.

Richmond, B., 1994. - System Dynamics/Systems Thinking: Let's Just Get On With It - Paper delivered at the 1994 International Systems Dynamics Conference in Sterling, Scotland. Available: http://www.hps-inc.com/st/paper.html

Senge, P., 1990. - The Fifth Discipline - NY: Currency/Doubleday, 1990

Thorpe, M. 1995. The Challenge Facing Course Design. Chapter 17 in Open and Distance Learning Today, ed. Lockwood, F., Routledge 1995.

Thorpe, M. 1999. Learner Support - Planning for People and Systems. Milton Keynes: H804 Course Guide, Block 3 Overview Essay, 1999.

Yourdon, E. and Coad, P., 1991. Object-Oriented Analysis, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1991.

Online References

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  1. Accessible Online Learning: Building an Online Centre for Technology Enabled Learning. H804 Paper by Y. Karaliotas, 1999. Available: http://users.otenet.gr/~kar1125/doit/bcentre.html
  2. Charting A New Online Course: Technology Enabled Learning - Alternative Learning Environments. H804 Paper by Y. Karaliotas, 1999. Available: http://users.otenet.gr/~kar1125/doit/ncourse.html
  3. Online Discussion on Self-Organisation of Social Systems and Autopoiesis - Rome meeting of SOEIS (Self-Organization of the European Information Society) project, June 1999. sois@thrace.ee.duth.gr
  4. Peer message on Learning Styles " ... Learning styles should be used as a springboard, not a categorical tool", 19-Jun-99. Available:$msgnum=668;dbnum=14
  5. Peer messages: a) On pre-course counselling, 28-May-99. Available:$msgnum=596;dbnum=14 b) On Assessing the importance of learners' problems, 28-May-99. Available:$msgnum=595;dbnum=14
  6. Personal introduction to H804 Forum, 13-Feb-99. Available:$msgnum=9;dbnum=16
  7. Usenet University - Global Network Academy Development Plan, 1999. Available: http://uu-gna.mit.edu:8001/uu-gna/admin/info/long-term.html


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  1. Yannis Karaliotas

    Hello All!

    Recent picture of mine Yannis Karaliotas is my name and this is how it looks in Ellinica: my name in Ellinica my surname in Ellinica . To get acquainted with the alphabet open this window . To hear my greetings you'd need a free RealPlayer(tm) .
    I live in Thessaloniki and have been a teacher of Languages and Drama for 20 years. Travelled globally in the 60s and 70s and have resided in London, England for ten years. Concerned with Open Accessibility, both on the Net and in Education, I'm very much in favour of open public transactions on material produced through a learning process - this includes almost everything :-). Hence, work I have done in recent years can be found published on the WEB - including H802 assessed papers.

    I have taught all ages and, for the last 10 years, my audience consists mostly of visually impaired learners as I'm deeply involved in Special Education. Future plans include the development of a Virtual Centre for Special Education which will facilitate access to Hellenic and other online learning modules at all levels by offering consultation/collaboration to the producers or/and by directly adapting material, act as a alternative resource centre and offer its own courses on Accessibility and Sp.Ed. technology. As it should be expected, I'd like to have my H804 project related to this end.

    I'm a Netizen and accessibility activist since the early 80's and a founding member of WAOE , the World Association for Online Education . EBBS and the overall virtual presentation of these MA courses is my favourite educational interface model (credits to Matthew et al!) because it combines simplicity (short and pretty smooth learning curve) and in-house adaptability with a high level of accessibility to all its modules, though I'd like to see speedy development of a faster and more functional File Area, and of its missing synchronous modules (MOO - Chat) in order to increase communicability. Perhaps, it is high time the OU upgraded its serving power and bandwidth to the backbone if it's to accommodate such online courses.

    My usual daily course navigation starts from the Alumni board and, through the personal info link at the bottom of each page, follows the links to individual groups and to the rest of H804 pages. I prefer reading and saving individual messages, so I very rarely use the all in one option. In any case, I have the entire H801/97 and H802/98 volume of postings on my hard disk if anyone is interested....

    I am proud to have been a co-learner with all students and faculty of last year's H802, and glad to have Helen next door - well, 500km away from Thessaloniki, Macedonia, but still in Ellas. I'm now looking forward to collaborating with you in constructive and meaningful tasks :-)


  2. Message to ITFORUM


    > From Rob Walker of U of East Anglia :

    Over the past 15 years I have produced a number of audiotapes as part of a range of courses, using myself, interviews with others, small group discussions and occasionally 'professional' voices. Usually these have been produced with distance students in mind and recorded in a studio for use in the car, the office or the kitchen.

    I can endorse what Harry Matthews says his students report. I have sometimes been surprised, when talking with distance students on the phone, at the ease with which conversation flows - until they remind me that they feel they 'know me well' having heard my voice on numerous tapes. I have become convinced that most students feel a need to 'know that someone is there' and to have a sense of personal connection with those who teach them and this is obscured by a 'professional voice'. For many it is the voice of their teacher that gives continuity to the different concepts and ideas they encounter in a course.

    Students also value being able to hear the voices of those who have written papers or books that they have read. hearing an author in conversation often engages students in much closer appreciation of a technical text.

    I have also found that it is extremely difficult to manage and produce a professional voice - the emphasis often falls on the wrong part of the phrase or the intonation confuses the message. Where professionalism is needed I believe is at the control desk. Getting good quality tapes that are well balanced and free from distractions is essential. I have also found that I have had to learn to work closely with an editor, even with tapes that at first appear to need little editing.

    Rob Walker
    Centre for Applied Research in Education (CARE)
    University of East Anglia
    NR4 7TJ
    phone +44 (0)1603 592870
    fax +44 (0)1603 451412

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Copyright 1999 Yannis Karaliotas