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The implied teacher-student dialogue in distance education

Garry Gillard, 1981

Australian and South Pacific External Studies Association Forum, Suva, 1-4 September 1981

Printed course materials written for the use of distant students may themselves contain elements of distance in the way that they are written, in their style. Consider these three examples, and reflect on the stylistic differences between them, and the effects they would be likely to produce.

1. A student taking the English 100 course is assessed for the most part on the basis of five major items of work: two Departmental assignments, and the three answers required by a single three-hour examination paper. A student will be expected to reach a pass mark in both forms of assessment in order to pass the course. Normally, each of these five marks will be of equal importance in the overall assessment, but in determining a final grade the Department may compensate for a poor score on one item when this seems untypical of a student's performance as a whole.

2. Our contemporary energy problem, or 'energy crisis', is associated with the loss of cheap accessible supplies of two fossil fuels, oil and gas, coupled with rising use and rising waste of these non-renewable sources of energy. Some of the constraints on the use of energy are provided by the science of thermodynamics, while our dependence on energy sources is highlighted by the use of energy analysis. These two sets of concepts and techniques of analysis will be considered in the lecture.

3. Structure, Thought and Reality as it is offered in this external course is a modified version of the internal form. We have included a number of tapes to give you the experience of listening to lectures. You will have the disadvantage of not seeing the lecturer, but you have the compensation of being able to make him or her perform for you as often as you want. The printed lectures are mostly edited forms of lectures that were delivered orally, so they will not seem as polished as some of the books you will read for the course. We hope that these different kinds of material will complement each other, to help you to get the most out of the course as a whole.

The first uses a rather pompous tone, speaking as if from a great height to the reader below. In fact, the main impulse on the part of the course writers seems to be to protect themselves by stating the requirements in precise, legalistic language, rather than merely to give students information about the course. The second is neutral as far as the reader is concerned: it seeks merely to describe the course content. The last is written in a more friendly way, rather like a letter, or the transcription of a conversation.


The particular difference I want to draw attention to is distance: the examples varied as to the distance that the writers put between themselves and their readers. Obviously I am using the word in a metaphorical sense: if there were no physical distance between the participants, there would be little point in written communication. I am referring to the distance that we feel or perceive exists between a writer and ourselves as readers.

'Distance' is of course part of what is becoming the standard term for what we are all interested in: distance education (Keegan, 1980). The idea that I want to develop in this paper, however, is the notion that there is an element of distance in any teaching-learning mode, and not just the one that we call 'distance education'. My aim is not to blur the clarity of the definition, but to point out this other kind of distance, with a view to looking at ways of reducing it where this is appropriate.

Writers have often begun to define 'distance education' in terms of what it is not: in the tertiary sphere, the conventional lecture and tutorial. It might be worth spending a few moments, however, in showing how elements of distance are involved even there.

In the traditional lecture, for example, students are at some physical distance from the lecturer, and separated by the furniture of the room. The lecturer will mainly use the oral verbal medium, but he may also distribute lecture notes, use overhead projection, slides, films, tapes, black- and white-boards, and so on. And above all, he will be able to control or vary the affective distance between himself and the students by the manipulation of the elements mentioned. At one extreme, a lecturer may stand behind the lectern and read verbatim from a formal script, couched in belletristic language; at the other extreme, he may approach the front desks, speak without notes in a colloquial style, invite questions, and allow interruptions. Similarly, in the tutorial situation, the tutor may use the time for a monologue: an exposition of his views, again couched in formal language; or he may attempt to develop a lively and intimate relationship with his students.

Although the most tangible content of teaching materials in these traditional situations takes a verbal form, non-verbal modes of communication, notably body language, will also play an important part in controlling the distance between teacher and learner. The formal lecturer behind the podium may be largely invisible to his audience, he may stand almost without moving, without gesture, hands holding the lectern, eyes fixed on his notes; or he may act out part of what he is discussing, use gesture rhetorically, and interact in various ways with students. A tutor may also wish to keep his students at a distance by remaining behind his desk, doing most of the talking, and using a lexicon, concept density, and elevated style unavailable to his students. Another tutor may wish to become more closely involved with his students, and indicate this through a lively interest in their views, by asking open-ended questions, and so on.

I believe that this interest in the student and in the relationship between teacher and learner can have an important bearing on the degree and the kind of learning which results. In this I have been influenced by the humanistic view of teaching and learning exemplified by Carl Rogers (1967, 1969). Rogers' model places the emphasis on the development of the learner as he proceeds towards the goal of self-actualisation, 'the fully functioning person' (Rogers, 1969). However, the role of the teacher - or 'facilitator of learning' is also significant, and its importance is in the development of a close relationship. As Rogers says,

... the facilitation of significant learning rests upon certain attitudinal qualities which exist in the personal relationship between the facilitator and the learner. (Rogers, 1969: 106)

This same interest in the relationship between teacher and learner is reflected in some writing on distance education, particularly in that kind which starts from the desirable features of face-to-face teaching, and tries to extrapolate from that into the distance mode. This is the basis of the literature concerned with the search for media of effective two-way communication between teacher and learner: it is an attempt to reproduce desirable features of classroom teaching such as simultaneity, openness, and personal relationship. But of course, as I have said, in any communication there must by definition be some distance between sender and receiver (teacher and learner), and a technical medium must be involved.

It is a paradox that in much of the literature of distance education, writers spend a deal of time talking about face-to-face teaching, often to draw analogies between the two, or else reflecting on ways to minimise or reduce the effects of physical distance. Not much has been said, on the other hand, about the fact that distance in metaphorical or affective senses inheres in any mode of teaching and learning, and that it is possible to vary this distance by the manipulation of variables which are intrinsic to the particular mode. I have already given examples of ways in which lecturers and tutors can vary distance of this kind. What I now want to do is to investigate ways of conceptualising and of reducing distance in course materials used in the external mode. I emphasize the print medium, but there will be implications for teaching and learning at a distance generally.

You may feel that nothing new can be said about distance teaching in print, which after all has been with us for a long time (Elliot, 1978). There has been some interesting work recently on such things as typography (Macdonald-Ross & Waller, 1975), but writers of general handbooks are usually content to pass fairly rapidly over matters of style, not to mention sequencing, signposting, structure, and status of material. Harris, for example, suggests that

the course writer should be given an independence of writing so that he can express himself creatively and imaginatively. He should be allowed to express himself in a personalised style, but a style that is both confident and authoritative. Short sentences and simple language will help to achieve this. Paragraphs of mixed length are valuable for visual reasons. Obviously, the type of style must suit the seriousness of the subject matter ... (1977:19)

Bååth exhorts his readers to

cultivate an encouraging and personal style. (Avoid officialese, abstract and insipid phrases, long and involved sentences, foreign and incomprehensible words.) (1974:73)

Macdonald-Ross & Waller suggest that no writer

can hope to succeed unless he is a skilled wordsmith. Experience and experiment teach us that simple sentences with active verbs and familiar words can be read and understood by most adults ... (1976:146-7)

In the earlier of his two handbooks, Holmberg introduces what he calls 'didactic conversation', through which

the lesson becomes easily readable, attractive and stimulating, and further contributes to creating a friendly tone. This is no plea for an over-chatty style. However, it must be borne in mind that too compact a style of writing, in which the reader must be on the look-out for important information in each qualifying word or clause, is tiring to read. ... Easy style with somewhat colloquial language and without unnecessarily abstract or otherwise difficult expressions makes the course attractive to read and easy to follow. (1974:27-8)

In his later handbook, however, Holmberg develops in much more detail the notion of didactic conversation, now based on seven postulates, some of which refer to the importance of personal relationships. Assumptions relevant here are

1. that feelings of personal relation between the teaching and learning parties promote study pleasure and motivation;

2. that such feelings can be fostered by well-developed self- instructional material and suitable two-way communication at a distance; ...

4. that the atmosphere, language and conventions of friendly conversation favour feelings of personal relation according to postulate 1;

5. that messages given and received in conversational forms are comparatively easily understood and remembered;

6. that the conversation concept can be successfully translated for use by the media available to distance education. (1977:97)

In sections following I want to suggest in some detail ways in which some of Holmberg's postulates might he implemented, with the assistance of a contribution from the theory of literature.

The Implied Teacher

There is a considerable body of writing in the theory of literature on the representations of author and reader in works of fiction, and it is theory of this kind which I propose to appropriate in order to construct a model of the implied teacher. (See especially Booth, 1961a, 1961b; Iser, 1974.) Two sentences of Booth's sum up perfectly what is needed:

The implied author may be more or less distant from the reader. The distance may be intellectual ..., moral ..., and so on. From the author's viewpoint, a successful reading of his book will reduce to zero the distance between the essential norms of his implied author and the norms of the postulated reader. (1961a:182)

My argument is that in the same way there is an 'implied teacher' in off-campus course materials, and that the process of teaching and learning which is implicit in those materials should be the tendency to zero of the distance, intellectual, moral, and so on, between this implied teacher and the postulated learner in relation to the matter which is to be learnt. What I mean by the 'implied teacher' is the person (or persons) who we imagine to be speaking to us - teaching us - through the course materials we read.

We may have a very strong sense of the personality of this teacher - he may sound pompous, or friendly - or he may tend to be absent as a person, in that the course materials are merely a series of declarative statements. The 'implied teacher' may seem to be interested in us, in our views, in our responses to the materials. He may ask a lot of questions, questions which may lead us to discoveries, and he may make friendly suggestions about the kinds of answers we could come up with. On the other hand he may simply issue instructions, like a martinet. The effectiveness with which we learn from the course materials will probably be related to some extent to our perceptions of the teacher implied in them.

A relationship with an implied teacher is often not the only one available in the actual practice of distance teaching which may include 'the provision of two-way communication' and 'the possibility of occasional meetings' (Keegan, 1980: 33). Here, distance can be controlled and varied by the nature and frequency of actual contact, by the kinds of feedback given, the use of the telephone, weekend schools and other on-campus activities, study centres, and so on. A close and meaningful teacher- learning relationship can be set up with some sincere effort on the part of the tutor. The teaching materials themselves, however, also have the potential ability to control and vary the degree of distance between the teacher (as writer of the material) and the learner (as reader).

To some extent this control is exerted by design factors, such as layout and typography, and by the structure and sequencing imposed by the instructional design. To some extent it is controlled by stylistic factors, by the way in which the material is written. There are a number of variables involved in this stylistic control, including such things as person and mood of verbs, syntactical complexity, modes of address, lexicon and grammar. They also include implicit tonal indications of the personal position and attitudes of the writer with regard to the subject under discussion, and a continuous indication of what the reader's position is expected to be.


A number of verb and pronoun forms are possible as a basic strategy in written teaching material, each with a different attitudinal set or range of connotation. For the writer, the original model is probably the textbook which uses only the third person. Only the matter being taught is referred to, and there is no involvement of the teacher, and therefore no-one to whom the learner may relate. This is a manner still widely used, especially in technical education where it is believed there need be no attitude change in the learner, no effect on the personality, no moral or emotional development, but only instruction in the cognitive or psychomotor domains. The tone in many instances of this style could be described as neutral, as there is no interaction between implied teacher and student.

Another form of third-person usage is that in which the writer expresses his expectations concerning his readers by speaking of 'the student'. Because he is not addressed, an actual student will have difficulty in identifying with this lay figure, with the result that he will be alienated by the text, and will be less - or not at all - involved in the learning proposed.

Since a greater degree of self-consciousness has come to tertiary distance education, and particularly with the development of instructional design at institutions like the Open University, many teachers have come to feel a need to personalise their materials, with the result that first and second person verb forms have become common. It is now often advised, as we have seen, to address the student in the second person singular, with an obvious decrease in distance. Another way to include the implied student in the learning process is to use the first person plural with the sense of 'you and me', teacher and student together. With this usage, writers have to be careful not to fall back into another mode which they would recognise as a possibility, but which most students would find too formal and old-fashioned: the 'authorial we'. This is even further complicated by the fact that institutions often mount courses written by a team of writers, who may wish to represent the group origin of some material by the use of this verbal form. But in practice there need be no ambiguity about the referent intended by the pronoun provided that the author has a clear idea in his mind as to the convention, made explicit at the outset, and that and that it is used consistently.

Finally, it is possible to use the first person singular to refer to the teacher as an individual, although this occurs relatively rarely. This may be because the model that many teachers have in mind is that of the lecture, rather than that of the one-to-one or small group tutorial, the model implicitly advocated by all those who speak of the 'didactic conversation' or the 'tutorial-in-print' (Rowntree, 1973). It may also be because some teachers think of their written materials as a model for their students' own writing, and they prefer to offer students the opportunity of imitating a relatively formal style, ultimately based on suitability for publication in an academic context.

These verb and pronoun forms can now be summarised in a table.

the matter
'the student'
('authorial') we
we (the course team)
we ( = you and I)

Of course verb forms are only one aspect of style, but it is an important aspect when one is discussing style in the context of dialogue.


However it is done, the important thing is to create the effect of a kind of dialogue. This is not to be confused with actual dialogue, which may occur face-to-face or where there is simultaneous two-way contact as with the telephone. The dialogue referred to here is symbolic, or implied. The writer may choose to create a fictive dialogue, in which a 'teacher' and a 'student' are given lines to speak. This has an effect rather like that of a figure, or diagram: it is a verbal illustration. The Platonic dialogue is a good example. But as opposed to this representation of a didactic conversation, an implied dialogue may run throughout.

One side of this dialogue, the implied student, can probably most effectively be represented by 'you'. This is the simplest and most effective way of referring to what the student knows, is learning, or is expected to be doing. As it happens, verb forms in English are identical, with this pronoun, in singular and plural so that both learner and teacher may slip invisibly from one to the other in their understanding of the meaning, as appropriate to the need.

The other side of the dialogue may actually be represented by 'I' or by 'we' (= the course team), or the whole dialectical process by 'we' (= you and I). Alternatively, attitudes on the teacher side may simply be implied by the structure and sequencing and the manner of presentation of the material. Indications of the writer's position are given by

Even if he does not use first person pronouns, the teacher engaged in this dialogue should always write as if he were writing in the first person.

At this point a range of very brief examples may be useful, ranging from the most distant to the closest in terms of the tone of the implied relationship.

(1) At the conclusion of this section of the course it is expected that the student will have reached these objectives...

(2) In this section we move to a consideration of the factors involved, and we will argue that...

(3) The subject considered in this section is...

(4) In this section we shall look further into this in the hope of discovering some of the underlying causes...

(5) I hope that when you have studied this section you will have a better understanding of ...

In (1) the main verb is in passive voice, student' is discussed in the abstract, the learning model is behaviouristic, and the general tone is authoritarian and alienating. (2) is intended to show the effect of 'authorial we' putting forward an argument which excludes the student and the learning process. (3) is neutral with regard to emotional tone, as no relationship is implied. In (4) teacher and student will move together through a simulation of a discovery process which it is intended will actually take place in the learner. In (5) the implied teacher not only indicates the objectives of the section, but also expresses a positive attitude to and interest in the process of learning.

These brief and rather inadequate examples are meant to suggest that there is a continuum of relational models implied or simulated by particular teaching texts, as shown in this figure.

distant formality <-----------------> neutrality <-----------------> close lively interest


I have suggested that the kind of relationship that the student feels he is developing towards the course materials with which he is working will have an effect on his learning, and that learning likely to be more effective in inverse proportion to the distance he perceives between himself and the material, that is, to the implied teacher which he perceives in it. This teacher is represented by the style that he adopts, by the mode of address he uses, and by the way in which his interest and attitudes are implied in the presentation of the material. If Rogers is right about the importance of the relationship between teacher and learner in bringing about 'significant learning', we need not leave it entirely up to the tutors who support a written course to create such a relationship: we should build it into the texture of the materials themselves. While it may be important to improve the appearance and attractiveness of course materials, it is arguably more important to improve style, in that this is more intrinsic to the actual process of learning.


Bååth, J.A. (1974) List of ideas for the construction of distance education courses. In Holmberg, pp. 65-86.

Booth, W.C. (1961a) Distance and point of view; an essay in classification. Essays in criticism, 9. Repr. in Davis, R.M. (ed.) The novel: modern essays in criticism, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1969, pp. 172-191.

Booth, W.C. (1961b) The rhetoric of fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Elliot, S. (1978) Tuition by post: an historical perspective. Teaching at a distance, 11.

Harris, W.J.A. and Williams, J.D.S. (1977) A handbook on distance education, Manchester: University of Manchester.

Holmberg, B. (1974) Distance education: a short handbook. Malmö: Hermods.

Holmberg, B. (1977) Distance education: a survey and bibliography, London: Kogan Page.

Iser, W. (1974) The implied reader: patterns of communication in prose fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

MacDonald-Ross, M. and Waller, R. (1975) Criticsm, alternatives and tests: a conceptual framework for improving typography, PLET, 12, 2, 75-83.

MacDonald-Ross, M. and Waller, R. (1976) The transformer. Penrose Annual.

Rogers, C. (1967) The facilitation of significant learning. In Siegel, L. (ed.) Instruction: some contemporary viewpoints. Scranton: Chandler.

Rogers, C. (1969) Freedom to Learn. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill.

Rowntree, D. (1973) Student exercises in correspondence texts. I.E.T. internal paper, Open University.

Garry Gillard | New: 17 October, 2009 | Now: 20 December, 2018