The Role of Mediating Teachers in
New Model of Distance Education
Michael Barbour and Dennis Mulcahy
As the education system in
This article will consider the role of the school-based or mediating teacher in the new model of distance education offered by the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation (CDLI). The initially discussion will be a review and commentary of the literature surrounding the role of school-based teachers in the traditional distance education system to the new web-based, e-learning model. This will lead into a consideration of the duties and time commitment of the school-based or mediating teacher during the CDLI’s first year of implementation.
New Model for Distance Education
Online learning will become even more prevalent in the coming years. Our challenge as administrators will be to differentiate those that have the appearance of quality from those that truly deliver unique and enriching learning experiences for students (Berman & Pape, 2001).
The traditional or legacy distance education program for rural high school students in
The legacy distance education program made use of the postal service and telephone system. Required course materials, such as textbooks and student handbooks, were sent to students by mail. Assignments and student questions were faxed between students and their teachers. Synchronous communication between the teacher and learners would occur though the audio graphics technologies (e.g., teleconference and telewriters or electronic whiteboards) developed by
When it began in 1988, the legacy distance education program offered only one course - Advanced Mathematics 1201. This course had an enrolment of 36 rural students in 13 different schools. The initial pilot worked well and by the 1999-2000 school year the legacy program had grow to 11 courses and almost 900 enrolments. A total of 703 students in 77 different rural schools were taking one or more courses in Chemistry, French, Mathematics, and Physics (Brown, Sheppard & Stevens, 2000).
In 2000, the Ministerial Panel on the Delivery of Education in the Classroom has recommended a number of significant changes to the legacy distance education. These changes were outlined in chapter six of their final report, Supporting Learning (2000). Four key recommendations provided the direction for the changes:
that the province embark on a program to substantially increase the scope of distance education offerings in the schools through the establishment of a “Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation.”
that the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation consist of a number of teachers, who may be termed Electronic Teachers or E-teachers, with primary responsibility for course delivery and evaluation and that, at the school level, teachers be assigned from the regular school allocation as mediating teachers to ensure appropriate interaction between students and E-teachers.
that an approach be taken to content packaging and delivery that is not totally dependent on high bandwidth technologies.
that most communications be through an Internet-based system incorporating e-mail, conference forums, Internet fax and similar devices, with minimal reliance on synchronous communications, fixed schedules or other constraining elements. (p. 73)
These changes will have a potential impact on all students and teachers in the province. The Panel believed that students in all schools should have access to computer-mediated, Internet-based distance education opportunities.
In implementing these changes, the Ministerial Panel (2000) stated that “teachers exert a more significant influence on educational quality than does any other aspect of schooling” (p. 50). It is school-based teachers who will have the responsibility of making the new model of distance education work. As the reliance on distance education increases, especially for small rural schools, the kinds of human and technical support provided by teachers will be crucial if students are to have any chance to succeed.
According to the CDLI (n.d.), in 2002-03 there were 317 schools with 83,000 students and projections indicate there will be around 59,000 students by 2010. Approximately two-thirds of these schools are classified as rural schools. Traditional distance education programs have tended to target higher ability students in these rural schools. The new web-based model of distance education being implemented by the CDLI is being designed for all learners at both rural and urban schools.
However, much of the literature on distance education suggested that it may not be appropriate for all learners. E-learning places a much higher level of responsibility on the student for independent study and self-regulation than does traditional face to face instruction. Barbour (2002) found that students in web-based distance education should be able to work independently and have an intrinsic source of motivation (or be self-motivated) to be successful in that type of environment. The Ministerial Panel (2000) recognized this fact when it stated the “students are selected who are most likely to be able to function independently” (p. 78).
Yet, the Panel contends that “any initial disadvantage” created by the “high level of reliance on distance” will be “offset by the support system that would be put in place” (Govt NL, 2000, p. 86). The support system being referred to by the Panel consists of a distance education teacher (an e-teacher) and a school-based classroom teacher (m-teacher) whose job it will be to “ensure appropriate interaction” between the students and their “e-teacher” (p. 79).
This is one of the distinguishing features of the new model of web based distance education: the identification of, “an important mediating role for school-based teachers…“ (Govt NL, 2000, p. 78). The legacy system of distance education has no formal or recognised role for school-based support.
Distance education courses are separated from others and students are expected to operate relatively independently of the teachers in the school. It is mainly for this reason that numbers have to be limited and students are selected who are most likely to be able to function independently. While the school principal has a role in scheduling and other teachers do assist with supervision, technical problems and content, this is not an inherent feature of the [new] system. (Govt NL, 2000, p. 78)
In the new model, school based teachers are given “direct responsibility for facilitating distance education courses…” This facilitating role includes, “liaison with the e-teacher and attending to matters of attendance, discipline, homework, assignments and other normal aspects of classroom life” (Govt NL, 2000, p. 82).
The Ministerial Panel (2000) emphasised that the mediating responsibilities of the school-based teachers does not include any planning, preparing or instructional duties for the courses they are facilitating:
This role would involve facilitating student learning but not direct responsibility for course preparation or instruction. (p. 78)
These teachers would not be expected to prepare for each course under their supervision. (p. 82)
The Panel noted that there “would be nothing to preclude these teachers from assisting students with matters of content” (p. 76) but the point is that it would not be part of their designated role responsibilities (Mulcahy, 2002).
Under the legacy system of distance education it was widely known, but rarely documented, that students often required and received a significant amount of assistance with matters of content from school based personnel. Students from the legacy system were also a select group chosen for their academic ability and their predisposition for independent study. Given that a wider range of students will be taking distance courses in the future it is expected that academic and pedagogical assistance would continue at the levels experienced in the legacy system or even increase.
The Panel recommended that “mediating teachers would be assigned to distance education classes as part of their normal teaching assignments” (Govt NL, 2000, p. 82) and offered this view of their working conditions:
Freed from much of the preparation burden it would be reasonable to expect classroom teachers to facilitate groups larger than the regular high school class, with these groups having several courses in progress simultaneously. … The underlying principle is that multiple courses would be in progress in a single class. (p. 82)
The new system, as it is currently deployed, has 1-6 computers in one or more locations that are specifically designed as Centre for Distance Learning Innovation (CDLI) computers. These computers may be placed in an existing classroom, a computer laboratory, a learning resource centre, or a distance education room. While students may be enrolled in more than one web-based distance education course, only six students (i.e., the number of CDLI computers that are available) can be scheduled at any given time. With most rural schools using a timetable that offers 14 or 16 credits, this means that the greatest number any m-teacher could have is 42-48 students.
Given the wider range of students taking distance courses, the increased reliance on distance education to provide basic educational services, the role of school based mediating teachers are crucial to the success of the new model. The failure of the Ministerial Panel and the new model to recognise this and make the mediating responsibility a separate and recognized part of a rural teacher’s designated workload, with an appropriate and distinct provision of time during the instructional day, undermines this most important aspect of the new model.
Mediating Teachers in Practice
During the 2001-02 school year, the CDLI piloted ten of its web-based distance education course across the province. Each of the ten English-speaking districts was responsible for one course with 18-22 students from 3-6 schools in each course. Each school was responsible for placing the CDLI computers in an appropriate location (at the school’s own choosing) and selecting a mediating teacher. At the district level, each district would have one teacher for the web-based course (an e-teacher) and one district administrator (known as the Web-based Initiatives Facilitator). In some instances the e-teacher and the Web-based Initiatives Facilitator were the same individual.
In the implementation year, the mediating teachers in the five CDLI schools in the participating district could be broken down in two ways. The first way was based upon area of on teaching expertise. In this regard, two of the mediating teachers were Social Studies teachers (or content-based teachers in the case of this district's pilot course), two were Mathematics/Science teachers (or non-content-based teachers), and one was a Technology teacher. The second way was based upon type of teacher. In this regard, four of the mediating teachers were classroom teachers and one was an administrator (who has some teaching duties).
According to a memo from the CDLI on 23 April 2001, an initial draft of the duties that may be included in a mediating teacher's role were:
· supervising distance learning students while they engage in online activities;
· monitoring the progress of distance learning students, including accepting e-mail notification from the e-teacher which express concern regarding the failure of a student to submit assignments, exams, etc. on time;
· following-up with such students to ensure future compliance;
· accepting grades and reports from the e-teacher and ensure that these get entered in the students term/end of year report cards;
· providing limited assistance to students who encounter difficulty in using asynchronous communication tools (chat, discussion threads, e-mail, etc., web browser, and learning management system);
· including online students on the teacher's class list and as such follow-up on absences from class as would be the case with other students in that class whom the m-teacher instructs directly;
· meeting, as requested, with the e-teacher, web-based initiatives facilitator, high school program specialist;
· in consultation with the CDLI, Virtual Teachers Centre of the NLTA and the School District, assisting staff colleagues in acquiring skills necessary for accessing web-based professional development opportunities;
· participating in district pilot course implementation team meetings upon request; and
· participating in provincial in-services and forums upon request.
In that same memo, the following were listed as responsibilities that would not be included in the list of mediating teacher's duties:
· providing regular instruction or tutorial assistance; and
· providing technical troubleshooting related to the CDLI workstation, network hardware or the operating system, as this was to be performed through a central help desk.
It was stated at this time, that as the 2001-02 pilot year progressed these duties would be further refined and defined based upon the experiences of mediating teachers themselves.
As a means to refine this list of duties for mediating teachers in the participating district, this list was sent to all mediating teachers during the first semester of the 2001-02 school year and they were asked to comment on which ones they were responsibility for in their school, to what level they were responsible for these duties, and if there were any duties that they had assumed that were not listed in the above memo. The responses of the mediating teachers are summarized in the following table.
Table 1 - Summary of M-Teacher Feedback of Various Duties
As is illustrated in the above table, these m-teachers were performing roughly the duties that were outlined initially by the CDLI. Of some concern is that some mediating teachers have to perform some instruction, tutorial assistance and technical troubleshooting, particular the technical troubleshooting. For the most part, mediating teachers did not see their m-teacher duties as adding a great deal of work time to their current teaching loads. However, according to these m-teachers any increase in the number of students or in the amount of technical troubleshooting that is required would create a substantial increase in their work load.
In the words of one mediating teacher, "the role of mediating teacher does not add a significant amount of work to my day. I have it easy to communicate with the electronic teacher as well as the Web-based Initiatives Facilitator. The establishment of a troubleshooting site is great. For teachers with a limited technology background this will definitely help them deal with the technological problems. I have only 5 students to look after so I don't have a lot of concerns but I would be concerned about the amount of extra work 20+ students would create (e.g., report card time)."
More strongly worded were the comments of the mediating teacher with the largest number of students during this period, who commented, "the role of mediating teacher has used up much of my preparation time and lunch periods. In the future, a strong consideration should be given to scheduling time for mediating teachers."
These comments outlined some of the concerns that will need to be addressed. From this mid-term evaluation, there were two main concerns that need to be considered:
1. the issue of the responsibilities of the m-teacher in terms of maintenance of the CDLI workstations; and
2. the issue of the amount of time required to do the administrative duties of an m-teacher when the total number of students begin to increase.
As a follow-up to the mid-term evaluation, all mediating teachers were asked to complete a second survey in late May (a copy of which can be found in Appendix A). In their responses to this survey, the mediating teachers’ impressions of their duties did not change significantly from the mid-term evaluation. Table 2 considers their comments.
Table 2 - M-Teachers Feedback of Various Duties (Year End)
As should be expected, the m-teachers indicated that they were responsible for most duties "sometimes." These duties were the ones that were initially outlined for m-teachers and it was assumed that none of these duties would place an onerous task upon any of these mediating teachers. The fact the mediating teachers responded that they were responsible for particular duties "often" in so few instances was a positive indication.
However, when asked about specific tasks, some of which were stated as not being the mediating teachers’ duties, a slightly clearer picture emerges. Table 3 provides both the number of teachers who stated that they undertook specific duties and the amount of time that these duties took on a weekly basis.
Table 3 - Time Spent per Week on M-Teacher Duties
This is a greater indication of the work involved in being a mediating teacher, particularly during the implementation year. By considering only the lowest values indicated for each duty, the m-teachers report approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes of direct involvement in the CDLI course in the span of one week. Over a 38 week period this would be 60 hours and 10 minutes or approximately the amount of time allocated to a one credit course at the senior high school level. By considering the highest values, the m-teacher spent 4 hours and 15 minutes per week or 161 hours and 30 minutes for the school year. This is the amount of time that a regular teacher would have allocated for three credits.
This amount of time becomes even more onerous at schools during the CDLI implementation during the course of the 2001-02 school year when other teachers, beyond the mediating teacher, is considered. When asked how many schools had other staff members who undertook certain duties in relation to the CDLI and how much time they spent on a weekly basis, the mediating teachers responded as indicated in Table 4.
Table 4 - Time Spent per Week on M-Teacher Duties by Other Staff Members
By adding this to the amount of time spent by the m-teachers themselves, a considerable amount of time was expended during the 2001-02 school year without any course relief or additional remuneration. It also appears that the mediating teachers with stronger backgrounds in technology spent the most time in mediating teacher related duties.
It should be noted that this feedback was provided by m-teachers who were only responsible for one course and one to seven students (most being responsible for four or five). As one of the teachers stated in their response to the final open-ended question, "I teach a full course load and then some. I don't have the time in my schedule to spend with Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation students. With more courses being added, such as math, physics, chemistry, biology, etc., students need a teacher they can depend on for help with computer trouble-shooting, checking on assignments, etc.". An idea that has been proposed is to have mediating teams or a group of teachers who share responsibility for the CDLI students, equipment and administration in the school. While this would alleviate the time commitment upon a single teacher, it doesn't negate the fact that there is still a considerable investment of teacher time involved in ensuring that this program is a success. This teacher time needs to be considered when teachers are given their teaching duties or teachers should receive some form of financial incentive for assuming these additional responsibilities.
The 2001-02 school year, which has been used as an implementation year for the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation, have seen many changes in the way that distance education is delivered in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. One of the most dramatic of these changes has been the creation of a position known as the mediating teacher. This mediating or school-based teacher is responsible for all non-technical, non-instructional aspects of distance education in their own school. At present, this position does not provide teachers with additional time to perform these duties, nor is there a financial incentive attached to the position.
As has been illustrated through this example, during the 2001-02 school year the mediating teachers had quite a burden placed upon them due to the wide range of duties and time commitment associated with these new responsibilities. In addition to the time associated with the position, in many cases the mediating teachers responsibilities did include technical and instruction aspects. As has been well known, but rarely documented, in the legacy distance education system the success of distance education in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador has been in large part due to the assistance provided by teachers in our rural schools above and beyond their contractual obligations to the school or the school district. It appears, at least in the first year of this new model for distance education, that this aspect of distance education (i.e., teachers providing additional time and performing voluntary duties) will not change.
However, it should also be noted that this study was completed during the first or implementation year of the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation. As with any new model, there are bound to be growing pains in the relationship between the Centre and its client schools. These growing pains may have been further complication by a legal computer technicians’ work action that occurred in seven of the ten school districts (including the one considered in this study). It is clear from this study that more quantitative data needs to be collected on the duties and time commitment required by m-teachers as the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation continues to grow.
Barbour, M. (August 2002). Online Learning Opportunities - The Middle School Challenge. Principal’s Electronic Desk. Retrieved December 16, 2003, from http://www.myped.net/wwwsite/sections/middle/2002-08-13-15-53-47_article.jhtml.
Berman, S.H. & Pape, E. (October 2001). A Consumers Guide to Online Courses. The School Administrator Web Edition. Retrieved December 16, 2003, from http://www.aasa.org/publications/sa/2001_10/berman.htm
Brown, J.; Sheppard, B.; & Stevens, K. (2000). Effective Schooling in a Tele-Learning Environment. St. John’s, NL: Centre for TeleLearning and Rural Education, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland.
Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation. (n.d.). Declining Enrolment. CDLI Educator’s Reference Manual. Retrieved December 16, 2003, from http://www.cdli.ca/WholeStory.php?FileName=cdliman.php#over
Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. (1992). Our Children, Our Future. St. John’s, Newfoundland: Queen’s Printing for Newfoundland and Labrador.
Governement of Newfoundlland and Labrador. (2000). Supporting Learning. Retrieved December 16, 2003, from http://www.edu.gov.nf.ca/panel/panel.pdf
Mulcahy, D. (2002). Re-conceptualizing Distance Education Implications for the Rural Schools of Newfoundland and Labrador. The Morning Watch. Retrieved December 16, 2003, from http://www.mun.ca/educ/faculty/mwatch/fall02/Mulcahy.htm
CDLI M-Teacher Survey
The courses offered by the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation (CDLI) are new to the Vista School District. As these courses are taught over the Internet, the CDLI has asked schools to create the position of a mediating teacher or m-teacher. In order to determine the roles, responsibilities and time commitment associated with this position, you are asked to take a few minutes to complete this survey. All results will be kept confidential.
1. How would you describe your area of teaching responsibilities in relation to the CDLI pilot course in the Vista School District?
Technology-based Content-based (i.e., Social Studies)
None of the above
Please indicate how often you have been responsible for the following activities
12. What are some of the thing that you are responsible during the time you spend with the CDLI students? Check all that apply.
Tracking down missing assignments/homework
Recording attendance or other administrative data
Providing content-based tutoring
Providing technology-based tutoring
Providing technical trouble-shooting
13. Please indicate how much time (in minutes) do you spend on a weekly basis providing the following activities.
Tracking down missing assignments/homework
Recording attendance or other administrative data
Providing content-based tutoring
Providing technology-based tutoring
Providing technical trouble-shooting
14. Do other members of your staff provide any of the following activities to CDLI students? If so, please indicate the amount of time, in minutes, these individuals spend on a weekly basis.
Providing content-based tutoring ( minutes)
Providing technology-based tutoring ( minutes)
Providing technical trouble-shooting ( minutes)
Other ( minutes)