Adult Supervision in the Distance Learning Classroom: Is it Necessary?

by DR. JONATHAN J. FYOCK, Teacher Owego Apalachin Schools Owego, N.Y. and DR. DEAN SUTPHIN, Associate Professor Cornell University Ithaca, N.Y. A lone student walks into the empty distance learning laboratory at Tioga Central High School, a small rural school in South Central New York. A teacher approaches the console through an open door from the adjoining room, collects the student's homework, turns on the TV monitors, adjusts the sound, faxes the homework to the broadcasting site, and returns to his English class next door. The student takes a seat in the first row in front of the camera and is greeted with konnichiwa by the teacher on one monitor and by groups of students from different schools on the other two monitors. The student performs a slight bowing motion and responds with the same greeting. The Japanese I student, alone in the room, is conversing in Japanese with the teacher and other students located in Owego six miles away and Newark Valley 15 miles away. Later in the school day, two students at Newark Valley sit in the distance learning classroom with the only direct adult supervision coming through the fiber optic cable from the Spanish V teacher at the originating site in Owego nine miles away. They speak rapidly with great animation to the teacher and students at the other sites. Later, one of the two students g'es to the console for a face-to-face debate with a student from one of the other sites. It is obvious that these students are not in a beginning language course. Are these scenarios further examples of the cold and impersonal technological wizardry of the 21st century, or do they represent a positive humanistic outcome of distance education? Do these situations merely reinforce the belief of some that education cannot breach the barriers of time and space? Or, is it offering students the opportunity to take charge of their learning and accept responsibility for their own education? The answer to these questions depends on what you read and with whom you talk. This small study sought to address these questions. Some Related Literature Several educators believe that the absence of an adult in the room is one of the major shortcomings of distance learning. Withrow, for example, summarized results from the Star Schools distance learning program and found that supervision in the classroom by an on-site adult, whether teacher or paraprofessional, is a major determining factor of the success of the program.1 Holt indicated that what constitutes interaction and what is adequate interaction are hotly debated topics.2 Those who oppose distance learning advocate only face-to-face classroom discourse. Yet Wohlert compared interaction in a foreign-language classroom versus interaction at a distance and found that student-teacher interaction in the traditional classroom is limited to 60 seconds per period, which he notes, "can hardly be considered a significant contribution to the learning process."3 In this study, regular observations of two distance education language classes showed almost 40 minutes of interaction between the teacher and students, along with student face-to-face interaction during each class. The teacher took care to assure that each student was actively involved in the dialog. The classes were small; the teachers were seasoned veterans; and the students had exceptional academic ability. The level of interaction exceeded traditional classrooms cited in many studies in terms of students and teacher dynamics. It was neither enhanced nor limited by the physical proximity of the participants. By contrast, Schmidt and Faulkner are concerned that, in interactive television, some students have difficulty adapting to learning without the presence of a classroom instructor and without being able to interact with other students.4 Similarly, Sch'ellhorn observed a satellite-delivered course in agriculture: "Still, no matter how good the project is, nothing catches your attention like the exchange of ideas with someone you can touch, which is a good thing, because we would otherwise forget that interaction and touch are where all learning begins."5 A Focus on Four Issues Is it crucial for teachers to be present at remote distance education sites? Distance learning students in this study of three small rural schools do not believe it is necessary to have direct adult supervision in the classroom. Four issues addressed in this study merit discussion: the variability of teacher attention to students at home versus remote sites; student ability to acquire teacher assistance; prevention of cheating; and teacher classroom presence to enhance student learning. Students responded to a survey (Table 1) using a six-point Likert scale for each item. Teachers pay the same amount of attention to the home site and remote sites. Teachers paid equal attention to students at the home and remote sites. By gender, 84% of both male and female students agreed. Comparisons by other variables-gender, class, site and school- showed no significant influence on students' perceptions of equal attention. Ten of the 53 students who responded to an open-ended question suggested that teachers should visit remote sites more often. D'es this mean that students need a teacher or an adult physically present in their classroom? Not necessarily. Six of the ten students cited above were from the home site where the teacher was located. Moreover, students may be expressing concerns of ownership, the need for sharing or concern about other issues. Students felt satisfied that they were able to get help from their teachers. Students felt satisfied they were able to get help from their teachers. One exception was the AP Math class where 43% felt it was hard to get help. Not surprisingly, 48% of remote site students compared to 19% of home site students found it hard to get help. Several students explained they received help by calling the teacher on the phone located in each classroom or by faxing personal messages to them. Most students did not feel communications between broadcast and distance sites was a major problem. It would be difficult to cheat in the distance learning class. Most students (76%) believe it is difficult to cheat in the distance learning classroom. However, students at home sites perceived that "...kids in other site can cheat and get away with more" although no one observed any cheating. Most felt that the opportunity exists, but, due to the high quality of students in the distance learning program, few would take advantage of the system. Several students felt that "regular" students would abuse the system and cheat at the remote sites. Students were uncertain that a teacher or a facilitator in the room enhances learning. Students were somewhat neutral and did not strongly agree that in-room teachers or facilitators enhanced learning; no one strongly agreed with the statement. However, 60% of the students at the remote site agreed a teacher or facilitator in the room enhanced their learning, as compared to 80% of students at the home site. This is explained by the remote site students during interviews: They were unanimous in their positive feelings about being trusted in the classroom without adult supervision. Many commented that the responsibility of self-discipline was beneficial in preparing them for college and adult life. Students at the home site also wanted the opportunity for self-direction. As one student stated, it could be helpful to "have the teacher move to a different site at least once a week." At one school (not an originating site) 53% of the students felt that a teacher or facilitator in the room would not enhance their learning and appreciated being trusted with self-discipline. Table 1 shows students' responses on a six-point Likert scale; it illustrates general support for teacher or facilitator presence in a distance learning classroom. Yet, qualitative data from student interviews show that they appreciate being trusted with the responsibility of self-discipline in a classroom without direct adult supervision. Table 1: Problems Associated with the Teacher Being at Another Site SD D DS AS A SA Meana Std. Dev. The teacher pays the same 1 3 4 5 26 12 4.7 1.2 amount of attention to the home site and the remote site. It would be difficult to cheat 4 3 5 15 13 11 4.2 1.5 in the distance learning class. Sometimes it is hard to get help 6 18 10 7 10 - 4.1 1.3 from the teacher. (recoded) The teacher or facilitator in the 4 8 8 16 12 2 3.6 1.3 room enhances my learning. Note: SD = Strongly Disagree; D = Disagree; DS = Disagree Somewhat AS = Agree Somewhat; A = Agree; SA = Strongly Agree a Range - Minimum = 1.0; Maximum = 6.0; Mid point = 3.5 Is In-Room Adult Supervision Necessary? There are questions yet to be answered. To what extent can a high school student, sitting alone in a classroom, participate in meaningful learning experiences? Can clusters of students receive effective instruction in a warm and caring way when the teacher or supervising adult is located miles away? Can this sophisticated technology replace the face-to-face experience of the traditional classroom? What is the role of adult supervision in the classroom to assure a suitable educational environment? This study provides insights into the questions for one consortium of three small rural schools in South Central New York. Yet, further depth of inquiry and replication of this study in other locations is needed. The discussion and summary that follows pertain to small schools in this study and may provide insights into other schools with similar problems. Distance learning provides meaningful learning experiences for students-whether they are in the same room or located miles away. Students are never alone or unsupervised by a caring adult, nor are they without classmates. Not only are the teachers of these advanced placement and enrichment courses usually master teachers, the expectations placed on the students are challenging as well. Critics of distance learning may consider the absence of direct adult supervision a shortcoming. Conversely, in this consortium, it was viewed by many students as a catalyst for self direction. Not only do the students appreciate being trusted, they naturally perform cooperative learning by helping one another. They are exposed to an important level of learning: teaching others. Many students believe the education experience is superior to traditional classes because it provides them more responsibility, the opportunity for participatory learning and increases their sense of ownership. Teachers and facilitators agree that students were able to effectively supervise themselves at remote sites. The school staff did not experience any discipline problems and were comfortable with the amount of supervision. There was face-to-face student /teacher interaction in the distance learning classes. Two-way interactive television, over fiber-optic cable, is the next best thing to being there. Students were particularly pleased with the level of communication among the students and staff. They saw the experience as an opportunity to extend their circle of acquaintances and friends. This study of three small rural schools, where distance learning is the only way students can take enrichment and AP courses, indicates that the students are willing, eager and able to take charge of their education by accepting the challenge of this new technology and its responsibility of self-discipline. The students, teachers, facilitators and administrators agreed that direct adult on-site supervision was not absolutely necessary, yet there have been perceived benefits. Jonathon Fyock, who recently received his docorate in education from Cornell University, has been a teacher for 28 years in the Owego Apalachin school in upstate New York. Dean Sutphin, associate professor of education in the Field of Education at Cornell University, was Fyock's special committee chair. References: 1. Withrow, F. (1992), "Interview: Speaking Personally with Frank B. Withrow," American Journal of Distance Education, 6(1), pp. 67-68. 2. Holt, S. (December 1991), "Video-Delivered K-12 Distance Learning: A Practitioner's View," T.H.E. Journal, 19(5), pp. 61-62. 3. Wohlert, H. (1991), "German by Satellite," The Annals of the American Academy of Political & Social Science, pp. 107 & 514. 4. Schmidt, J. & Faulkner, S. (Fall 1989), "Staff Development Through Distance Education," Journal of Staff Development, 10(4), p. 4. 5. Sch'ellhorn, R. (February 1994), "A Student's Perspective," The Agricultural Education Magazine, 66(8), p. 17.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.

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