Communication Plan for the TeLeTOP project

Door Els Dragt, Matt Fildes & Renate Spreij
students of Toegepaste Commmunicatiewetenschap (TCW)
Universiteit Twente.

Completed June 22, 1998

1. Introduction

In Autumn, 1998, students at University of Twente, in Friesland, and across the Netherlands will be able to study in one of thirty new telelearning supported courses. Differing from traditional distance learning technologies, telelearning takes advantage of email, computers, and the World Wide Web to test and educate students at any time and any location. However, this ambitious project requires training fifteen instructors in the use of an interactive classroom, scheduling plans for students in three different locations, and some advanced computer skills.

A special team named TeLeTOP, short for TeleLearning at Toegepaste Onderwijskunde Project, has been hired to support the project and teach the instructors how to work with telelearning computer technologies. TeLeTOPís two objectives are to implement the technology necessary for the interactive classroom and to teach the instructors how to use these new tools. Since January, 1998 TeLeTOP has been holding workshops and designing tools for the instructorsí benefit.

We examined the communication between TeLeTOP and the instructors they instruct. Through interviews and simple email questionnaires, we determined the effectiveness of communication as it appeared to a sample of the instructors. Similarly, we interviewed Oscar Peters, the communication member of the TeLeTOP team, to learn how the TeLeTOP team collects instructor feedback and what kind of responses it gets from instructors. We also interviewed a representative from the BOZ, the class scheduling and administrative division of TO. From these interviews we concluded that communication between the instructors, the BOZ and the TeLeTOP team could be improved with a communication plan.

2a. Summary of the interviews with the instructors

We interviewed the p-instructors during week 17 to learn their opinions on the TeLeTOP project. From a sample group of 5 people, several trends appeared.

First, the instructors know the general content of the TeLeTOP project and why the TeLeTOP project has started. However, the implementation of the project has been left the instructors feeling unorganized, under prepared, and unheardóparticularly when they try to understand the projects fundamental ideology.

The root of this negative attitude stems from the instructorsí impression of distance between them and the TeLeTOP team. They cannot communicate the problems of the project effectively, and thus they do not receive clear understandings of TeLeTOPís tasks and responsibilities. Comments and criticism they do make to the TeLeTOP team do not seem to influence it. In general, they think communication flows from the TeLeTOP team to the instructors in only one direction.

Communication must be more open so the team gives more information about their ideas and their progress. In addition to TeLeTOPís aloof appearance, the teachers feel somewhat intimidated by the project and do not comment as freely as they would like.

Instructors suggested the team could benefit from more philosophical collaboration, so the best knowledge and experiences of the instructors on the area of new educational development.

The instructors also want more and clearer feedback from the team. They want a sort of user group that will decrease the distance between them and the TeLeTOP team and improve the feedback given by the team. The instructors also have an aloof attitude towards the learning of the required technical skills. They expect a lot of initial problems with the new technology and they would rather wait until these problems are solved.

However the technical exercises done in TeLeTOPís workshops do not give enough criticism or feedback.

Another subject of confusion was the hierarchy of the project. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the roles of all the projectís participants. From the instructorís point of view, Betty Collis has the overall picture of the TeLeTOP project and is ultimately in control. The TeLeTOP team is hired to support the implementation of the project and build tools for the teachers. The instructors do understand they will have to carry out the project next school year.

The instructors expect a lot of organizational problems and because of that they feel very insecure about the project. It is also not clear to them how the whole project will be controlled and how they can influence the direction of the project. Thus, the instructors feel confused and uncertain about the who, what, when, why and how of the TeLeTOP project.

 2b. Summary of the interview with BOZ

We spoke to one person who is involved with the BOZ.

He saw communication as a problem between TeLeTOP and the instructors, but not with the BOZ. The BOZ simply schedules classes and has little to do with the philosophical basis of the TeLeTOP project. He emphasized Betty Collis was the initiator of the TeLeTOP project and continues to be the major influence.

In addition, BOZ offered its opinions on instructor and TeLeTOP interaction. In the past, projects in TO similar toTeLeTOP have been thoroughly discussed before implementation, but have rarely brought lasting change to the department. For this reason, instructors were slow to respond to the challenges and only gradually became aware of the requirements for the projectís success.

2c. Summary of the interviews with TeLeTOP

We did talk several times to Oscar Peters, the spokesman for TeLeTOP.

Unfortunately, Betty Collis the TeLeTOP teamís originator was unavailable for an interview.

TeLeTOP describes its communication methods as mostly informal. Informal hallway and classroom conversations seemed to be enough. Instructors did not appear to have any problems talking with the TeLeTOP team.

The TeLeTOP team mentioned it did not get much feedback. The instructors are much more interested in their own research and projects other than TeLeTOP and do not give feedback frequently.

Technical difficulties are always changing TeLeTOPís schedule and they have trouble keeping an up to date plan. For example, they may schedule teaching about a software program for one day, and not be able to run the program because of unsolved technical problems. The newness of technology keeps TeLeTOP busy building the computer architecture and working

The TeLeTOP team and the instructorsí relationship was too informal because TeLeTOP team members were former students of the instructors. It was difficult for the TeLeTOP team to become instructors and the instructors struggled to become pupils.

3. Problem Analysis

There is a clear discrepancy between the existing situation and the ideal situation. Three problems exist in TeLeTOP:

  1. The concept of TeLeTOP is not clear.
  2. There is no obvious communication structure.
  3. Instructors do not have enough skills and knowledge of computer technology.

Actors

There are three basic categories of actors in the problem:

Instructors of Toegepaste Onderwijskunde(TO)

The instructors do not act as teachers in this project. They are studying the new telelearning technology of the TeLeTOP Project.

BOZóBureau Onderwijs Zaken of TO

The actor who plans the schedules for the instructors and the students.

TeLeTOPóTeleLearning at TO Project

TeLeTOP supports the instructors in web development and distance learning.

Processes

How to encourage instructors and BOZ by demonstrating new technologies and teaching.

Products

Better communication between instructors, BOZ and TeLeTOP

Context:

Attracting more students by offering more flexible education. The project is not voluntary; it is required by the university. B. Collis is responsible for the project. TO is used as a pioneer for new educational development.

Causes of the problem

The communication between TeLeTOP, the instructors and BOZ does not flow freely. Because the TeLeTOP project must be implemented, the instructors have to work together with the TeLeTOP team for the realization of this new curriculum. The lack of fluid communication results in problems with the implementation of TeLeTOP such as poor education outcomes. Thus, the problem is the result of bad communication.

Problems with knowledge, attitude and behavior

There is a knowledge problem because instructors lack basic technical skills.

There is an attitude problem because new technology scares people, e.g. the instructors.

There is a behavior problem because the instructors give little feedback or criticism about TeLeTOP. They are not especially enthusiastic about the project because it is required and is happening so quickly. In addition, TeLeTOP does not give instructors much of a chance to practice teaching with the new technology.

Causes and factors with possibilities for change:

There are no causes or factors that cannot be solved.

The possible changes

The solution of the problem can be found in the communication. (see text above)

Benefits for actors

All actors benefit from better communication because they will understand their roles and the roles of those around them more clearly. Specifically, this communication should harness the mental abilities of all the actors and allow them to cooperate more effectively. The benefits for each set of actors are listed below.

Instructors

Will get better practice by teaching the new technology

Will know what they are to be expected to do,

Will be less confused

Understand the planning

Are ready for the new college year

TeLeTOP

Give and get better feedback to/from the instructors

Establish their role as a guide and mentor instead of computer technician assistant

Is more technical oriented

BOZ

Receives and delivers the administrative communication (like rosters and study points) fluidly

In summary, the communication plan has to further a good communication structure between TeLeTOP, the instructors, and BOZ as they come in the new p-study year. Then the students will get the best teaching because of the good communication between the ones who are involved.

Conditions:

The communication plan has to be solved by June 1998.

The Current Communication Structure

Figure 1: The people involved are B. Collis, the TeLeTOP team, BOZ, and the instructors. B. Collis has the ability to express the philosophy about TeLeTOP. The TeLeTOP team implements the project and is the intermediary between B. Collis, BOZ, and the instructors. It is mainly technical oriented.

There are two kinds of problems surrounding the people involved. First there are technical problems. Instructors and members of BOZ are not skilled with computer and distance learning technology. The newness of the technology brings a lot of confusion also. Second there are communication problems. TeLeTOP should give more feedback about instructorsí assignments. There is lack of planning and goal communication at the side of the implementers. Instructorís fear to disagree with aspects of the project because there is no open communication structure, the communication does not flow freely.

4. Problem definition

Four problems hinder communication between the TeLeTOP- team, its supervisors, the BOZ and the instructors participating: poor feedback from activities, lack of planning, a disjointed communication structure and different computer skill levels among the instructors. These problems support the main problem: an accelerated implementation of the TeLeTOP-project.

5. Problem Solution

Improve Feedback

Both TeLeTOP and the instructors have problems collecting helpful feedback. Instructors need to know whether they are successfully creating class plans and TeLeTOP needs to know the instructorsí level of understanding of topics. Most feedback is collected informally right now with no opportunity for anonymous comments. Several simple tools and techniques can solve these problems.

First, weekly surveys after each class can ask how instructors feel about topics and assess their rate of progress in online classroom programs. These surveys should be brief "yes/no" type questionnaires, and should take about five minutes to fill out. A comments box at the end of the form would give the instructors room to make suggestions or complaints.

Comment forms for each assignment would help instructors see the specific ways their work can be improved. Detailed feedback on assignments is very important for instructors, and a comments sheet helps the TeLeTOP team keep their standards uniform and specify their criticism. Not only does this give useful, clear criticism to instructors; it strengthens the TeLeTOP teamís understanding of instructorsí abilities because they analyze assignments more closely.

Another option to collect feedback would be holding user group testing. Instead of irregular comment periods, scheduled user testing once a month with each instructor can give the TeLeTOP team an opportunity to ask more indepth questions than on the survey and get more experience with their target audience. These testing sessions would be up to 20 minutes long and the focus would be an objective the TeLeTOP team chooses.

Increase Planning

The TeLeTOP team must state the weekly plan and goal very clearly. While the TeLeTOP team has many technical problems that slow the implementation of some web projects, the schedule is vital to instructorsí success in assignments. A vague schedule that constantly changes will not motivate instructors to work.

Scheduling information should be in three places. The first, and most vital location, is the web page because it can be updated and accessed anytime. More importantly, using the web page as the primary means of scheduling shows instructors how to keep an online course on track during their own inevitable schedule changes and sets a great example. On a web page, the TeLeTOP team can change dates and plans as they desire while keeping an up to date copy of the overall schedule easily accessible to the instructors. However, instructors will need time to learn about the web page at the beginning of the course. At the beginning of the project a paper copy of the schedule should be given to each instructor. This will probably become outdated, but it gives a general overview of the course and it should have the web address for the projectís current schedule. Any changes to the schedule should be announced in class as well, and each classís plan for the day should be written on the board. With the plan on the board, everyone knows where the class is going and what topics to think about. Writing down the goal directs the class for both the TeLeTOP team and instructors.

Open the Communication Structure

Communication between the instructors and the TeLeTOP team is strained by two factors.

Betty Collis, who organized the project from the earliest conceptual phase, has a very big influence on the direction of the TeLeTOP team in two roles. First, she is the innovator of the TeLeTOP project, and second she is a member of the TeLeTOP team. However, as the only instructor on the TeLeTOP team, her input with the team seems to control the entire direction of the project. The TeLeTOP team can act independently of Collis as a team member, but her insight as the founder of the distance education effort is highly valued. To the instructors, Collis appears to control the project. Greater separation between her role as the conceptual authority and TeLeTOP team member would correct this misperception. Furthermore, as both conceptual authority and TeLeTOP team member, the philosophical basis of the project seems one-sided. Instructors have difficulty distinguishing between Collisí two roles. If Collis serves as an advisor to the TeLeTOP team or instructors take turns as representatives and work with TeLeTOP, instructors will feel more involved in the formation of the educational plan.

The TeLeTOP team members are not instructors, and were in fact former students of many of the instructors they work along side. Instructors may feel their experience outweighs that of the team members, and question the methods of TeLeTOP. Furthermore, TeLeTOP team members are somewhat reluctant to accept classroom authority because they respect their former instructors as peers and friends. Thus, instructors feel they can argue with TeLeTOP, and TeLeTOP team members do not always assert themselves to clearly express what can and cannot be done in TeLeTOP. Clear schedules with consistent updates and a more formal teaching style would help establish team membersí roles as instructors.

Assisting with Technical Skills

Distance teaching requires a new depth of technical knowledge for instructors. TeLeTOP creates some of the more difficult portions needed for an effective distance course. However, instructors must assume responsibility for their own web materials over the next few years. While most instructors are eager to work with the web, the technical skills needed for their goals seem daunting. A few workshops are not enough to learn this technology, and different instructors will learn at different rates. A recommended reading and web tutorial list along with suggested exercises from TeLeTOP would help ambitious individuals build their skills and provide additional help for instructors who need it.

The Ideal Structure for the TeLeTOP Project

Figure 2: This scheme represents the ideal structure for the TeLeTOP project. On the left there is the user group and Betty Collis who have a coordinate task in this project. They work closely with the TeLeTOP team. The user group reflects the ideas and problems of the instructors to Betty and the TeLeTOP team. The instructors can reach the TeleTOP team in two ways. Directly by contacting the team by themselves. Indirectly by contacting the user group

6. Conclusion

We studied the TeLeTOP project and examined how the instructors and TeLeTOP team members interact. We concluded a communication plan could help the TeLeTOP project and used interviews and questionnaires to probe the current communication structure. From our research, TeLeTOP and the instructors have a lot of time pressure to their project, and many unknown variables surround the two parties in both technical and strategic planning. This is the price for pioneering distance education research. However, the stress of being a leader in the field can be eased if a good communication structure exists. We found four points that can be improved simply between the TeLeTOP- team, its supervisors, the BOZ and the instructors: improve feedback from activities, increase planning, open the communication structure, and guide instructors to computer skill resources, such as books and web tutorials. With these steps, both parties will understand the possibilities that abound in distance education.

Appendix: Questions for the P-Instructors

  1. Can you describe the TeLeTOP-project in your own words?
  2. Why do you think this change in teaching and learning is going to be implemented?
  3. Can you name any specific communication activities of the TeLeTOP-team towards the instructors?
  4. One communication activity is the Decision Support Tool. What is your experience with this tool?
  5. Another activity is the weekly meeting. What is your experience with these?
  6. What do you think of the amount of support given by the TeLeTOP-team?
  1. Is the TeLeTOP team open to suggestions?
  2. Do they respond quickly?
  3. Does their advice solve your problems?
  1. Do you have enough time to do what TeLeTOP asks you to do?
  2. What do you think of the technical skills that are needed for teaching in the telematics way?
  3. How do you think the role of the instructor is changed by teaching in the telematics way?
  4. Have you got anything more to tell about the TeLeTOP-project?