Virtual learning and virtual teaching: challenging learner and teacher identities in a distance learning professional development programme

Authors: Mark Pegrum and Marion Spöring


This paper examined the dual roles - student and teacher - played by participants in a postgraduate programme for language teachers, the Master's in Teaching Modern Languages to Adults (TMLA), run in online mode at the University of Dundee, Scotland, since 2003. It was explained that in order to enrol as a student on the programme, an individual must already be a practising teacher of languages, usually at post-compulsory level. Participants are spread across the world, from Asia and the Middle East to Europe and the Americas.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference, 30 June - 1 July 2004.

Balancing learner and teacher roles

With its constructivist underpinnings, the online Master's in Teaching Modern Languages to Adults (TMLA) is designed to promote the active construction of knowledge by participants, the bringing of personal knowledges into the classroom, and the sharing of multiple perspectives in a collaborative online environment. Ongoing dialogue, which is at the heart of constructivism, is promoted through weekly tasks carried out on asynchronous discussion boards. Students are able to teach and learn from each other, sharing details of their varying experiences and practices in vastly different international contexts.

In the first part of the talk, VLE screen captures were used to demonstrate the stages of a typical week's discussion: in the example presented, a tutorial group of six students had been asked to analyse a number of lesson plans, discussing their appropriateness and highlighting strengths and weaknesses. The initial posting on the first morning was from a student based in Portugal, who commented on several of the plans. The lecturer responded that evening with a number of specific points and questions which the student duly addressed - after taking a little over two days to reflect in depth before answering. Even before the lecturer entered the conversation, however, a student from Germany had already posted a number of follow-up suggestions and questions, to which several UK-based students responded in turn. Here again, the lecturer intervened, probing the German student's comments and encouraging elaboration, which was quickly provided. Within 24 hours of the opening of the discussion, all of the students had posted initial reports and most had begun to ask questions and make comments, some addressed to individuals or groups, and others to the entire cohort. For example, a Chinese student addressed both the lecturer and her fellow students, pointing out ways in which certain communicative activities considered appropriate for European languages might be less effective with some Asian languages or in Asian contexts. A Mexican teacher of Spanish followed up almost immediately, directing her questions to several peers but in particular to the Chinese teacher. This set in motion a relatively long dialogue between the two individuals, with occasional interventions by other students. By the end of the week, the Mexican student and the Chinese student were discussing how best to exploit the notion of fortune telling in a language classroom, while their peers offered suggestions based on their own experiences and perspectives. In total, 95 postings were generated. A general consensus was reached on the applicability of individual lesson plans, but participants agreed to differ on what techniques could and should be employed in their own specific contexts. All had had something to teach and something to learn from each other - including the lecturer.

Staff running an online, discussion-based course in constructivist mode find themselves playing a complex, interwoven set of roles. Our experience with the Master's TMLA suggests that these roles can be classified into three broad types:

Roles in a discussion based course

Role Functions Example from VLE Discussion
1. Teacher Structuring the learning experience; guiding and facilitating; giving direct input on factual issues; supporting students in exploring and synthesising their ideas. The teacher asked probing questions early on in the discussion, in order to encourage students to reflect more deeply on the issues at hand.
2. Monitor Stepping back and observing from a distance as students get on with the business of teaching and learning from each other. As the discussion progressed over the week, the teacher increasingly withdrew to an observing position, only intervening occasionally.
3. Learner Acting as a learner in areas where the teacher lacks the expertise, experience or perspectives brought to the discussion by some of the students. The teacher was able to learn from the Chinese student who elucidated problems with the application of Western techniques to the teaching of her language.

[Model based on Pegrum & Cook (2003)]

Thus, staff must attempt to juggle teaching (including monitoring) and learning roles. To the extent that they succeed, they act as role models - in every sense!

We are not suggesting that teachers and students are entirely structurally equal in institutions of learning, nor that they should be - teachers only accede to their positions through many years of study and experience, which they then impart to a new generation - but we are suggesting that there can and should be at least some distribution of teaching and learning across both teacher and learner roles. While such a teaching-learning balance is central to constructivist contexts, all the more so at postgraduate level, it has a particular resonance and is perhaps most easily realised in the online arena. And certainly, in a professional development programme for teachers such as TMLA, it is essential to instil the notion of the inseparability of teaching and learning - a message whose effects may well be felt by future generations of teachers and students.

Learner and teacher autonomy

The second part of the paper explored the concepts of learner and teacher autonomy as educational goals and as developmental processes, based on work by Benson, Little and Sinclair. In essence, we asked the question: how can teachers encourage their learners to work independently if they themselves do not demonstrate this in their own practice (albeit within cultural constraints imposed by their institutional and cultural contexts)?

This issue doubly impacts participants in the TMLA, working as language teaching professionals in real-world contexts but interacting as students in the VLE. How do they view and cope with this dual role? To what extent do they develop and practise autonomy as learners on the programme and as teachers in their own professional practice?

All students in the initial Certificate phase of the programme are required to address the concepts of learner and teacher autonomy as part of one of their modules, and are encouraged to reflect on changing perceptions of their roles in online discussions. A selection of comments from past discussions was presented, from which the following key themes emerged:

  1. Students had changed their original perceptions of their own roles as teachers: "It reminded me of the need to change on my part as well", said one; another commented that "[g]ood language learners and teachers are made by each other"; and a third noted: "It opened my eyes to realise to what extent we are responsible to [sic] our students' learning process". One student wrote of the course texts: "I found myself hiding there behind the lines", reflecting on the fact that as a learner he had discovered a mirror image of himself in the role of the teacher portrayed in the texts.
  2. There was a levelling of traditional student and teacher roles: Within the TMLA, students supported each other and commented on one another's work as professionals of equal standing in a similar way to lecturers on the programme, resulting in a reshaping of traditional teacher and learner roles in their own professional practice. One student wrote: "I began questioning my own theories, it taught me numerous important things about myself"; a second stated: "I [now] encourage my learners to accept more responsibility for their own learning".
  3. Reflection on professional practice and the dual role of learner and teacher was fostered through peer and lecturer support: One typical comment read: "I have also gained a lot of insights [...] through the discussions and debates with the students and the lecturer. Sharing ideas, experiences and values has helped me [...]".
  4. There was a process of continuous switching between teacher and learner orientation: This was facilitated by a constant feedback loop between students and lecturers, who interchanged their roles, influencing the direction of discussion as they did so.

Sinclair (2000) refers to thirteen aspects of learner autonomy, among which we see evidence on the TMLA for the following:

  • Learners making informed decisions about their own learning;
  • Learners engaging in conscious reflection and decision-making (e.g., there is evidence of 'metacognitive awareness in the learner');
  • Autonomy taking place inside and outside the classroom;
  • Autonomy with a social as well as an individual dimension;
  • Autonomy being interpreted differently by different cultures.

Although in the given excerpts not all of Sinclair's notions of autonomy are reflected, while those notions that are apparent are not necessarily present to an equal extent, we can certainly observe a number of factors contributing to the development of autonomy in the participants' understanding of their own role(s) as teachers and as learners.

In conclusion, the TMLA can be seen as moving towards a Freirean concept of 'student teachers' and 'teacher students'. Traditional modes of interaction and flows of power can be challenged in a virtual teacher development programme such as this one, where lecturers and students construct knowledge, develop concepts and strategies, and broaden their experience through collaborative dialogue and interaction.

Ideally, such processes will not only have enriched the learning experience of participants on this programme, but will have continued to filter from the virtual environment into their own real-world teaching practice, where some of the benefits of a dialogic approach where everyone is, at least some of the time, both a teacher and a learner, will have been passed on to a new generation of learners/teachers.


Benson, P. (2000). Autonomy as learners' and teachers' right. In Sinclair, B., McGrath, I., & Lamb, T. (Eds.), Learner autonomy, teacher autonomy: Future directions (pp.111-117). Longman.

Freire, P. (1996). Pedagogy of the oppressed (M. Bergman Ramos, Trans.). Penguin.

Little, R. (2000). Learner autonomy and human interdependence: Some theoretical and practical consequences of a social-interactive view of cognition, learning and language. In Sinclair, B., McGrath, I., & Lamb, T. (Eds.), Learner autonomy, teacher autonomy: Future directions (pp.15-23). Longman.

Pegrum M., & Cook, B. (2003). Learning together: Fostering collaborative approaches among individualistic students in an online environment. Paper delivered at EuroCALL 03, Limerick, Ireland, September 5.

Sinclair, B. (2000). Learner autonomy: The next phase? In Sinclair, B., McGrath, I., & Lamb, T. (Eds.), Learner autonomy, teacher autonomy: Future directions (pp.4-14). Longman.