Greg Rosenstock, Bluefeather School of English, Dublin

The Role of Personal Contact in Distance Teacher Training

1. Introduction

When the honour of reading a paper at the ITT conference in Ceske Budejovice highlighting the role of personal contact in distance learning was offered to me by Jürgen Wolff of TANDEM® Fundazioa, I was intrigued by the paradox involved in what would normally seem to be anything but personal. It is, after all, distance learning, not nearness learning. I had, however, already been drawn to the idea that e-learning was, although distant, not at all as impersonal as one would imagine.

On the contrary, e-learning afforded a type of rapport which dispensed with all of the obstacles to communication that permeate our society at large. In the informal e-world (a little bit like the Irish pub!) there is no guest and no host, no formal uncomfortable distance between performer and audience, no complex body-language and innuendo, no visible cultural or educational or gender or personality or physical "baggage" involved in the pursuit of knowledge - all these fruits of the richness and diversity of life can be appreciated off-stage if the participants so wish - but a selective use of quality time during which participants literally speak their minds and eventually, because all true learning is ultimately affective, their hearts.

Teacher-trainee contact time, by the way, is also 100%!


The concept of Distance Training (as differentiated from Distance Learning) was also new to me, putting the onus back on the trainer. The word training itself as opposed to teaching has often been questioned, but training from a distance? And while we are on the subject, how effective is face-to-face teacher-training anyway? Many believe that a good teacher is born, not made. Do we really train the teacher to teach?

This paper hopes to explore the notion that all we can do as trainers is enable the trainee to develop all those innate multiple skills which is required of a language teacher and expand the range of tools and materials involved in the trade, the application of which can only be improved with experience. The most valuable gift of all in teaching is empathy; you can't teach that. You can't even teach teachers to listen, especially if they think that their role entitles them to speak. And you can't teach them to learn, because as teachers they are taught how to teach. All one can do is hope that the teacher is already endowed with the gifts of empathy, humility and the willingness to learn. The rest is in the lap of the gods.

I would also venture to state that in the field of education at large, beyond our own small area of teacher training and language learning, the world would be a far far better place to live in today if teachers, despite all their training, had the gifts of empathy, humility and the willingness to learn.

2. Distance Training and Distance Learning

Ten years ago, the Association for Teacher Training In TEFL ( ATT ) was founded by Dr Kevin McGinley in Dublin and , then brought to fruition by a group of people (the present writer included) with the aims and objectives of creating and providing quality teacher-training courses in Ireland comparable to the best of what had been on offer in Britain for more than a generation before that. A panel of moderators guaranteed standards and a suite of eight separate teacher-training courses were produced over the years, including two courses specialising in Distance Learning for Teachers of English as Foreign Language (TEFL).

a) Content

There is nothing radically new about the ATT Distance Learning Teacher-Training courses. They offer as much as can be presented in such circumstances to enable the trainee to inform himself / herself as comprehensively as possible about the world of English Language Teaching. Naturally, there is always room for improvement and the ATT will seek to include whatever is needed to ensure that the trainee is given more personal support in his/her studies than would be possible in a contact course.

The introductory course includes an overview of the history of the development of the language, teaching methodologies, the four principal skills, phonetics, teaching aids, lesson plans, and how to analyse errors. Each unit has a number of assignments which have to be completed and returned, culminating in an end-of-course test. It is hoped that the trainee will also find the time to read some of the books listed in the bibliographies supplied. But by and large, the material provided should be in itself sufficient, after a hundred hours' study, to equip a teacher with the knowledge required to enter a classroom and teach.

Despite the fact that teachers who wish to work in the field of TEFL in Ireland are graduates, most of the trainees would encounter their greatest difficulties in dealing with the grammar unit, as many of them would not have studied English grammar formally at school. This is where the training can be compared to driving lessons where the learner finds out about the engine, the nuts and bolts of the language. Although we try to avoid "lifting the bonnet" as much as possible in the classroom, a knowledge of the metalanguage is mandatory as it deepens the trainee's appreciation of how a language works effectively.

But this is where it gets personal: some trainees about to embark on stint or even a career of TEFL are naturally embarrassed about exposing their lack of knowledge of the blueprint of the language, but e-learning allows them to drop their defence mechanisms and genuinely work with the trainer on questions of grammar that may never have occurred to them before. The fact that the medium is currently exclusively in writing also helps to enhance their writing skills (and spelling!) which have seriously deteriorated amongst school-leaves for a generation. As the medium is generally 1:1, they don't have to worry about making a fool of themselves in front of their peers in the classroom or about taking up valuable classroom time by asking what they might perceive to be silly questions. They are not pressurised and restricted by the tyranny of a class hour or afraid that they have been left behind because they missed a class or weren't in the mood or slipped into a daydream while looking out of the window. Generally, there is no time for questions such as Why do we use the word do in some questions and negatives and not in others? After all, they are supposed to know that already, aren't they? And if they don't know, they should know where to go to find out. (Shouldn't they?)


b) Technique

The imparting of skills relating to style or technique in distance training presents greater challenges for the trainer but as stated above, in the final analysis the only way to learn how to teach is to teach. And we all have our own styles, thank goodness.

Naturally, ATT schools offer trainees the facility to visit the schools whenever they can and observe classes and even teach volunteer students after class-hours but failing that, the distance learning courses are so designed that the material is user-friendly, easily comprehended and written in a way which talks to the reader. (The ATT Advanced TEFL Distance Learning course has an optional module which incorporates an invitation to join the staff and feel at home in the school for a week).

'What happens if you run out of materials?' or 'What do you do if you don't know the answer to a question in class?' are all FAQ's that can be raised and addressed on a 1:1 basis through by e-mail. Even questions such as 'What is a good teacher?' can provide stimulating and helpful discussions which again, may not be raised in a an intensive face-to-face teacher training course owing to time restraints. The many websites for language teachers can also provide excellent topics for discussions on teaching techniques. E-learning affords the trainee time to reflect and absorb, time to read around the subject and deepen his / her understanding of what is involved. The trainer / facilitator at the other end is available for comments or advice which can also be done without the pressure of time restraint, ideally in the comfort of one's own home. It can therefore take the form of an interesting dialogue rather than "work", and the informal nature of the exchange of information enhances the feeling of person contact between trainer and trainee.

If driving lessons may be used as an analogy for content in teacher training (and eventually, the only way to learn how to drive is to drive), tennis coaching may be used as an analogy for technique, and for tips to hit the sweet spot in your teaching as often as possible, 1:1 tennis coaching is preferable to doing it in a group. It also makes up for the loss of non-verbal signals and physical demonstrations one picks up during face-to-face observation. As technology develops, however, these deficits too should become a thing of the past, e.g., with the proliferation of fibre optics instead of copper cable and photonic technology to replace electronic technology (instant communication world-wide with pictures as clear as if your partner were at the other side of a window). Contact teaching does not always offer all the advantages of contact teaching either: I have heard of one spurious TEFL teaching organisation here in Dublin that had as many as 80 'face-to-face' trainees in one class!


3. Personal Contact in Cyberspace

In e-learning, the teacher is a partner, not a teacher. This is an integral part of the philosophy of TANDEM® learning. In TANDEM® partnerships, the natural joy of teaching experienced by all children is awakened in both partners who help one another to learn their target languages. Maybe children are innately aware of the fact that they learn more themselves by teaching what they know. Docendo discimus, by teaching we learn. As in e-learning, the learner is enabled by being in control of what is learned. By being enabled, the learner has a pro-active approach to learning, is intrinsically motivated and with that total involvement, greatly enhances the assimilation and retention of language or whatever the subject may be in a positive, enthusiastic and meaningful way.

Relating to the need for students to evaluate ideas properly, Prof. Henry Widdowson of the University of London uses a map as an analogy. "Maps are models of reality designed for different purposes…If the need for a map is other than it was designed to meet, the map will be uninformative, misleading. It misrepresents reality from your point of view. So what do you do? You draw your own map, but in reference to those that already exist."

He explains that there would be no point in starting from scratch and working out a map of our own "surveying the terrain with a home-made kit." In what he describes as "the nature and use of conceptual cartography", he proceeds with his analogy, describing two kinds of map: the directional and the spatial kind.

"A directional map provides you with a recommended route and includes only the information necessary for you to keep to it. If you do not follow the directions, you are lost. Many of our problems in language pedagogy have arisen because teachers have been persuaded to follow maps of this kind, maps of method. But a spatial map gives you model of the terrain with reference to which you can decide your own route. This is the kind of map I have in mind."

Ema Ushioda, in her paper, Tandem Language Learning via e-mail: from motivation to autonomy, refers to the "exercise of freedom, control and choice" in the learning process. She cites the "principles of autonomy and reciprocity on which successful tandem learning is founded." How much reciprocity can you find in the average classroom? How much autonomy? Ushioda recommended institutional co-operation and guidelines as a solution to assure compatibility. I'm not so sure if I agree, however, as this can also be done on a bilateral basis. Part of the personal contact involved in e-learning has to be setting up the props, so to speak, preparing a framework within which to operate successfully. This can be fun too as it elicits all those areas of interest and needs which will enhance more complete involvement in the partnership.


I would like to take this opportunity, if I may dare, to coin a German-based word Lehrner which incorporates both teacher (Lehrer) and learner as descriptive of the role of personal contact on the parts of the partners in the e-learning world. As Wilhelm von Humboldt once said, "We cannot teach a language. We can only provide the conditions in which a language can be learned." What better conditions can you have than the comfort of your own home and a personal contact as your 1:1 teacher? Ushioma agrees that asynchronous communication where partners do not see one another is not necessarily a handicap. For languages like English, for example, where correct pronunciation is notoriously hazardous for students at all levels, the time is rapidly approaching where asynchronous access to voice in e-learning will also be easily available. Ushioda also refers to a project which was carried out in Dublin (TCD) in 1997-8 in which 34 Irish university students learning German were twinned with German students learning English at the Ruhr-Universität in Bochum. And the overall result? There were the usual problems with grammar corrections, etc. but the overwhelming response was that the students felt encouraged to express themselves in a more informal, familiar and comfortable way in the target language, they took risks, tried out new phrases and developed a facility to operate bilingually with their partners abroad. The colloquial, conversational, chatty language both sides used was "useful and relevant to their own needs and interests and improved their fluency."

This was the living language, the German that was spoken in Germany (or for their German partners, the English in Ireland), not the language of text-books. Equally important, "students also valued the personal dimension of their tandem partnership…" They may have been communicating in cyberspace, but the feeling was that they were talking to a real-life person like themselves, "as if that person were sitting at the table next to them". This would not have been possible by snail-mail correspondence. E-learning afforded them the speed, immediacy, informality, economy and convenience of personal communication which focused on the participants' needs and wants. Clearly, affective learning led to their response referring to "interaction with real people".

In the 'setting up the props' preliminary stages of an e-learning exchange, what partners may be doing without knowing it is teaching each other how to learn. Teachers may go though a whole career of teaching without ever once considering the importance of learning how to learn, both for themselves and for their students. As Henry Adams put it, "They know enough who know how to learn" (The Education of Henry Adams, 1918) or to quote Patrick White's character in his novel The Solid Mandala, (1966), "I dunno", Arthur said, "I forget what I was taught. I only remember what I've learnt."

Prof. David Little in the Guide To Language Learning in Tandem via The Internet defines autonomy as "the capacity for self-direction". This self-direction is "based on a need to say, not an obligation to do." He elaborates on autonomy:

"…but it is also fundamental to the process of developmental learning in the sense that each of us cannot help but construct his or her own knowledge." (ibid.)

Helmut Brammerts of the Ruhr-Universität in Bochum writes in the same publication about the Principle of Reciprocity in which "both partners are beneficiaries in learning" but also assume responsibility for each other's success.

The attractive idea of being in control of your own education is further corroborated by Howard Gardner, famous for his study of multiple intelligences. In an Irish Times interview this year he said: "If you don't know something, you should know how to find out about it. Education must ultimately justify itself in terms of enhancing human understanding" .(Irish Times, 22.05.2001)

At a conference in Dublin in June 2001, TEFL guru Jeremy Harmer spoke about the development of teaching methodologies since the 50's and 60's to the present day and remarked that the biggest change that has taken place in teaching is the shift of focus from teacher to student. In the seventies, we all had to be clowns prancing about to sustain the students' interest but now as facilitators, the teacher is the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage. E-learning sharpens the focus even more on the learner in which learning becomes more student-centred than ever with the teacher assuming the role of consultant.


4. Brick In The Wall

So how will an emphasis on the personal role in Distance Leaning make a difference?

It will make all the difference.

Education has failed us all for thousands of years. You might even compare it to the craze of 1995-2000, the virtual Gold Rush which fooled everybody into thinking that the tools were the gold although everybody suspected all along that there was never any gold there to begin with. Similarly, you go to school for twelve years to learn languages badly and study facts that you will instantly forget once the examinations are over. Head cocked, sporting a mortar-board, the emperor has been strutting around for centuries with no clothes on. Centralised education confined by brick walls has failed the world. If our civilisation today could be described in terms of the health of a person, then that person can now be found stretched out in an intensive care unit. 80% of the population of the planet have never made a phone call. The rest of us have allowed such grotesque imbalances to occur because most people don't think. Most people don't think that in order to redress the balance and get the patient off the emergency list, the first thing they have to do is think. Half of the electorate in the so-called first-world countries don't even vote. We just don't want to know. And why? Because we are the products of our education. From an early age, restricted to confined spaces in confined buildings, those great factories of unlearning, we have had no personal role in the acquisition of meaningful education.. Most of us are duped into believing that education grinds to a halt the moment we start contributing as taxpayers to the economy. As adults, in our desperate pursuit of comfort and instant gratification, we have lost all personal contact with meaningful education and what is meant by the quality of our lives.

As teachers, we have to teach how to learn, that is our only duty. As learners, if we learn what we love, we will love what we learn. Education of any kind can only take place when the student is in control of it. That can only happen when the walls come down and none of us ever have to go to school again.


5. Conclusion

Nobody today talks of the great pioneers of de-schooling such as Ivan Illich and Everett Reimer any more, but these people were visionaries in that they imagined a future in which schools ceased to exist and people were in control of their own education. The Internet did not exist when they were writing a generation ago but my guess is that the huge potential of the future rushed in a lot faster than they had ever imagined.

In an interview in the Sunday Times, Niall Ferguson, Professor of Political and Financial History at Oxford University said: "It's pretty medieval to teach on the basis of a crowd of people sitting in a room with a man standing there talking to them. They have been doing that at Oxford since the 13th century." (Sunday Times, 04.03.2001)

In the same edition, an announcement read: "Some of the world's leading academics will tomorrow launch a series of internet-based lectures, enabling thousands of students to share what was previously restricted to those who could be in the same room." (Sunday Times, 04.03.2001)

World-famous writers such as the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene) and the Psychologist Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct ) feature among the lecturers involved in the project.

 The shift in America towards student-centred learning and interactive learning and coaching in a world without walls has firmly placed the "emphasis on the creative examination of ideas, rather than the absorption of facts" stated Dr Edward Galiano, President of New York Institute of Technology (Irish Times, April 13. 2001).

Dr Shane Harte of the Institute for the Advancement of Science, Technology and Economics in Detroit says, "We want to provide students with materials which will capture their interest and then motivate them to take more control of their education. The education here and in many countries is geared for the "mass production" of graduates. It is one product for everyone and if you don't like it, tough. I think the system fails in that way." (Irish Times, 05.07.2001)

The site they work with includes interviews with professional scientists applying the material being learned by their students.

"Personalisation is the key to what we do," he adds.


Motivated by the personalisation of the field of their study, it would seem that the virtual medium can put people more in touch with reality and personal contact than the medieval dungeon of the classroom.

The future of e-learning, or should I say, the e-learning of the future is dependent on personal contact, personal input and personalisation to generate the transition from a passive, non-critical acceptance of things as they are, to an active interpretation of knowledge and its application. It may be that for the first time in history, more people than ever on this planet will be empowered not only to demand but to effect change. It may be that more people than ever will enjoy a meaningful interaction with world culture and the arts when they are provided with the conditions whereby they can seek and find the meaning for themselves in world culture and the arts and control their own education, the quality of their lives and thus indirectly, the quality of the lives of others.

It may be that the role of personal contact, personalisation, and control in education will soon become one with the definition of education itself.



1.The Irish Times can be accessed through the portal

2.Prof. Widdowson is quoted from "Some Observations on Teacher Development" in Distance Learning in ELT, Eds. Richards and Roe, 1994, Macmillan, ISBN 0-333-61058 X

3. Ema Ushioda's paper was published in ReCALL 12 (2) , Cambridge University Press 2000

4. Professor David Little of Trinity College Dublin and Helmut Brammerts of the Ruhr-Universität Bochum published their articles in the CLCS Occasional Paper No. 46, 1996, ISSN 0332 3889

5. Dr Howard Gardner's book is called Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983) and is available in many languages world-wide. His new book, in collaboration with the Good Work Project, is called Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (Basic Books), and will appear in the autumn of 2001. He has worked with Project Zero for over thirty years, one of the US's leading educational research centres. It also runs online courses on Multiple Intelligences. The Project Zero website is

6. The Bluefeather website is Send us an e-mail and we'll forward you a copy of our e-ROM.

7. Full details about the TANDEM Foundation and the TANDEM Network of Quality Language Institutes world-wide can be found on and


8. The Association for Teacher Training in TEFL (ATT) website is

9. The 12 academics (including Dawson and Pinker) delivering pre-recorded talks can be reached at

10. Ivan Illich wrote a book called De-Schooling Society and Everett Reimer is the author of School is Dead.

11. Jeremy Harmer wrote The Practice of English Language Teaching, Longman, 1991 (current edition is revised) He is also involved in the teacher development website

Meeting with Greg Rosenstock, Bluefeather School Dublin:

Friday, 14 of september of 2001, from 18 to 20 h (Middle European Time), in "New Technologies"