Article 4: Studiy circles at a distance – the meeting between the participants is recreated on Internet.

Study circles at a distance

Like elsewhere in the world distance education in Sweden has developed since the middle of the 1990’s using modern information and communication technology (ICT). But distance education actually has a long history in Sweden. It has played an important role for adult education since 1898, when the first correspondence school started. Other correspondence schools followed later and in the 1960’s Sweden had one of the largest number of distant students in the world in proportion to the population. At that time – in the 1960’s – when the population in Sweden was approximately 7,5 million, the largest correspondence school had for example 100.000 students enrolled.
However, at the end of the 1960’s adult education colleges (komvux), high school/secondary level for adults, were set up all over the country and all such studies were made free of charge.That changed the situation for the old correspondence schools and they either had to shut down or reduce their business.
Until the 1990’s distance education was mainly based on letter correspondence between the teacher and the individual student. However, that form only suited the most ambitious and persistent students. But the breakthrough of modern information and communication technology changed all that. Since then it has become possible to have distance courses where the students work together in small groups or classes. Consequently, distance education has experienced a renaissance – both within universities and within adult education.
There are of course modern distance courses – in Sweden like elsewhere in the world – where the individual student is alone with the course web pages, independent of other students. Those courses function like the old correspondence schools, they just use a more modern technology. Such courses give you maximal freedom as a student, because it allows you to start your studies whenever you want and proceed in your own pace, independent of other students.  
However, as was the case with the old correspondence courses, that kind of studies suits only a small number of students, who have to rely on themselves much more than ordinary students. Besides, such courses do not give you the benefit of learning and getting support also from other students. Furthermore, they give you no chance to develop your knowledge and understanding through discussions in a study group where the members have a mutual interest for the subject and a common goal to understand the subject and not only study for a test.
Most of the modern distance courses in Sweden, offered at universities and within adult education, are courses where the individual student joins a group of other students. However, the degree of emphasis on the meeting and the collaboration between the students differ quite a lot.

Deep understanding
When study associations offer study circles at a distance the meeting and the collaboration is at the center. In such study circles, the meeting between the participants is recreated at a distance in order to create more flexible learning situations, deeper understanding and good learner support.
When the purpose of the studies is not limited to mechanical reproduction of information for a formal exam, meeting-based learning is fundamental in a constructive learning process for reaching deep understanding. “Deep learning is the acquisition of higher order skills such as analyzing, interpreting and evaluating information rather than simply amassing, reproducing and describing it. Deep learning is holistic, deepened by an integration of facts to produce understanding, rather than atomistic, characterised by the accumulation of disparate facts” (Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983; Hill et al., 2002).  
Biggs (1987) regards deep learning as promoted by active learner participation; the participation is an ”affective involvement” which is supported by interaction, and the interaction takes place in a social context, such as group learning. Lipman (1991) highlights that this social context – group learning – is the place for the development of a “community of enquiry”, which is essential for the development of higher level, critical thinking skills and deep learning within the individual. In the practical experiences within folk high schools and study associations we can find such “communities of enquiry” in their small study groups. Whenever there are a need for analysis, critical discussions etc, many students need the group to reach a deeper understanding of the topic.  
The group is also important to create what Tait (2000) defines as one of three primary functions of learner support: the ”affective” function, that is ”providing an environment which supports students, create commitment and enhances self-esteem”.

Virtual meeting places…
In the middle of the 90´s some folk high schools and study associations in Sweden started to developed ICT-supported distance courses. That development could continue at a larger scale from 1996 with the establishment of a common virtual conference network, the ”Folkbildning Net” ( That network is open to all study associations and folk high schools. It is used as a pedagogical tool for distance studies – or for ”flexible learning”, which is a common term in Sweden.
With the help of the ”Folkbildning Net”, study associations and folk high schools try to bridge the geographical distances between participants and create virtual ”meeting places” where deep learning can take place and where the participants can support each other. ”Folkbildning Net” is also used as a forum for sharing experiences and as a support network for teachers and study circle leaders who work with distance courses.
The benefits of modern ICT-based distance education are obvious: it makes it possible for people to take part in education without having to be in certain places or to study at certain hours. Distance education is not only for people living far away from each other. It is also a possibility for people who for some reason cannot participate in studies with regular meetings or in full time studies.
This development has been encouraged by the government. For example, a public authority, The Swedish Agency for Flexible Learning (CFL), played for a few years, 2002-08, an important part in this process. CFL was established by the government in order to encourage and stimulate the development of using ICT in adult education. CFL cooperated with adult educators in order to accumulate knowledge about flexible learning based on practical experiences and presented it in a series of reports and at conferences or seminars. CFL also offered folk high schools and study associations free teacher training in ICT-based teaching, technical and methodogical assistance, project funds and so on.

Flexible learning
There are distance courses that take part entirely online without the participants meeting each other face-to-face. However, a lot of the ICT-supported education within folk high schools and study associations is actually a mixture of online and face-to-face meetings. That is one of the reasons why it is called ”flexible learning”.
In many groups it is important to start with a face-to-face meeting – especially if it is the first time for some of the participants to take part in a distance course. Many people are still quite unaccustomed to computers and Internet and if they encounter too many technical obstacles in the beginning they run the risk of becoming dropouts. Therefore it is important for the teacher to collect information from the participants before the course starts about their computer skills etc, and also to be very observant of possible problems during the start-up period.  
But of course, it is not always possible to arrange face-to-face meetings – not even in Sweden, which is a much smaller country than China.

Freedom in time and space
The basic idea behind the use of ICT in education is that the course participants can have a certain degree of freedom in time and space. But that freedom is not unlimited. If you want to create groups where the participants are really ”meeting” and learning from each other you need to stick to some basic conditions:
• The participants in each group have to join the course at approximately the same time and proceeed with the studies at approximately the same pace.
• Each group can’t be too big.
• The participants need to be present at those evenings, days or weeks when there are face-to-face meetings (unless it is a course entirely online).
• As in ordinary study circles, the participants have to understand the importance of sharing knowledge, experiences and ideas with each other and to give each other support. At the same time they also need to be crtitical and keep a high quality in their dialogues.
• They have to set a minimum amount of times a week, when they must connect to the virtual study room and be active in the discussions. For example at least three times a week for the participants (while the teacher or leader should connect almost every day, and at least a couple of times during most days).
Consequently, there can’t be a total freedom in study circles at a distance. As Ingemar Svensson writes in an anthology published by The Swedish Agency for Flexible Learning (CFL) and The National Council of Adult Education (FBR):
We cannot trick the participants into believing that distance studies mean a complete freedom to study when and how they like. If we want to form closely connected groups, based on nearness and dialogue, both participants and course leaders must be prepared to regularly log on, read and answer messages, otherwise there will be no dialogue. Too many delays, days or weeks, easily lead to stagnation or double-tracks in the virtual dialogue. More and more parallel discussions, in a mess, in a conference can lead to a break in the dialogue so that it, instead, turns into a number of monologues.” (Axelsson et al, 2004)

The importance of meeting
You can say that within ”folkbildning” each student or participant is too important for the group process to be allowed to be by himself or herself. In the mentioned anthology the editors write:
The flexible learning in ”folkbildning” is naturally based on the sense of community in tightly knit groups. In ”folkbildning” at a distance you do not have to be alone with your studies. It is never just you and the computer, it is always you and the others. This self-evident principle in the methods of ”folkbildning” is fundamental and constitutes the heavy and vital base for the qualitative pedagogy that ”folkbildning” at a distance wants to offer.
It is quite obvious why this is the case. It is based on the fundamental idea of ”folkbildning” about knowledge growing when people come together freely and voluntarily with their curiosity and their thirst for knowledge, in order to cultivate their knowledge in a democratic dialogue. So, the meeting is therefore essential…” (Axelsson et al, 2004)

To create good conditions for a good meeting
In order to recreate the good meeting at a distance you need to create an environment where the participants can form tightly knitted groups, where mutual learning can take place. Each group need to be small enough so that each participant can be active and big enough to get a dynamic interaction between the participants. So, what is ”small enough” and ”big enough”? It depends of course on the subject and the participants, if they for example are disabled or not, but generally you would probably prefer at least 10 participants in each group and not more than 20-30.
The group cannot be too big if the participants shall be able to feel free to ask all kinds of questions and to express their opinions – but also to show their ignorance.
You need also a computer application that makes it possible for the participants to easily and intuitively take part in online discussions. The application must also be simple to use so that any teacher, with only basic computer experience, can manage his or her own virtual study room with all its resources. In many institutions teachers in distance courser have standardized virtual ”class rooms”. However, most study circle leaders prefer to be more flexible.
In ordinary study circles the participants and the leader form their own studies. It should be the same for distance study circles. Therefore, when study circle leaders in Sweden take part in further trainings about how to be a good adult educator at a distance, they also learn how to arrange the virtual study room to their likings and to the demands of the subject and the participants.
The participants are not only expected to share information and understanding about the topic or subject they are studying but also about themselves. That is the reason why there often is a special online forum called the ”café” as an essential part of the study environment (in China it probably would be a ”tea house”).

The ”café”
During every ordinary study circle meeting in Sweden you have a coffee break. During coffee breaks you can talk about all those things that are important issues between people but not directely related to the subject you are supposed to study. The participants talk about their families, their personal interests and hobbies, about what is happening in the society and in the world etc. In doing so, they hopefully become more close and trusting towards each other. In that way it also becomes more easy to contribute with their own personal knowledge and experiences related to the subject they are studying. It also becomes easier to take part in deeper and more serious discussions about the subject.
Of course, in the virtual ”café” at a distance you will not get any coffee served by the study circle leader. Instead you will have a special discussion forum called ”Café” or something like that. While you in the main forum discuss the course subject you are free to bring up any topic in the ”café”. Quite often those conversations actually develop into wider and deeper understanding that become important for the course subject.
The teacher can also use the ”café” to get a ”soft start” with the distance communication, especially when the students are unfamiliar with digital communication in virtual discussion forums. As Ingemar Svensson writes in the anthology:
So, how do you use the café? As I mentioned before, it can be a good idea to place the course’s soft start there, with the introductions of the teacher/leader and the participants and the introductory social conver- sation. Then you have emphasised which role the café should have, and as soon as the participants are ready for it, you start the study process in the course’s main conference. Left in the café is then the chatting, the small talk, which, if you want to maintain the activity, also should stay as small talk. Teachers that have the ambition to keep the café discussion alive often make the mistake of not stopping teaching there, or they, in moral eagerness in one or another way, continue chatting around the subject of the course. This is a safe way to quickly make the participants lose interest in the café.
Instead you talk about things that are close, involving or burning issues for the participants themselves, or simply about things that are amusing. You talk about your children, about love, about what you are going to do on your vacation or at the weekend. You flirt a bit, joke with each other, tremble together from being upset by the inequalities in the world, or suffer together over catastrophes or tragedies.” (Axelsson et al, 2004)

Online seminars
There are also other devices than the ”café” to make the communication between the participants, more variated, more dynamic, more dramatic – and yes, more flexible. For example, you can use different group projects, when the participants during a period work more intensively in smaller groups or pairs. You can also use so called online seminars where all the participants during a few days focus intensively on one important or interesting issue. During such short periods every participant connect to the virtual room maybe three times a day instead of three times a week.
The meetings and the conversations at a distance almost always go on asynchronously. As a student or participant you connect when it suits you and your conditions. The group has its virtual study room and each participant is free to enter any time during day or night. Only occasionally groups might ”meet” simultaneously in a chatroom. But then all participants need to agree upon a date and hour when all can connect.

Flexible and committed teachers
You also need flexible teachers, teachers that are willing to work also in evenings and during weekends – which often is when the participants have time to be online. That does not mean that you have to be connected at the same time, unless you decide to have those kinds of meetings every now and then. However, it is important that the participants or students do not have to wait long until they can get a response from their teacher or leader. That is why the teachers should be able to be online at least once a day but preferably more often than that.
That does not mean that you as a teacher necessarily have to work more hours. However, it does mean that you have to be more flexible with your working hours. When distance courses are not functioning, the reason often is that the teacher seldom is available.
On the other hand, the teacher should not be too eager to answer all kinds of questions from the students. Each student has a lot of knowledge, experiences and ideas and it is important to make them feel free to share them in the group. As a teacher you should be prepared to give support to your students when they need it, but often it is appropriate to wait and let the other students give their comments before you give yours.
However, the teacher need to be present. It is the same as in an ordinary group that meet face-to-face. The teacher is not always talking – and should not always be talking. However, he or she needs to be around, ready when needed to give advice, inspire, support etc and even to lecture now and then.
Above all, the most important factor in all education – and of course also in distance courses – are committed teachers and study circle leaders. Those working within ”folkbildning” are probably among the most committed, especially because many of them are ideologically motivated in the cause of those non-governmental organizations which are the founders of the study associations.

Some advantages
When some study associations started to arrange ICT-supported distance courses around fifteen years ago, that was highly controversial. Most study circle leaders did not believe that it would be possible to recreate the good meeting at a distance. However, gradually as practical experiences have accumulated, more and more people have understood that it is possible.
But it does not happen automatically; the teachers and leaders often need special training. And it does not make courses a lot cheaper. The main reason for that is that you cannot have too many participants if you want to have a vivid dialogue in the group. As a teacher you also have to be present in all the discussions that take part in the group.
On the other hand, studies at a distance have some advantages besides the fact that it makes it possible for more students to take part in studies. One advantage is that students who are more thoughtful and may have difficulties to spontaneously express themselves in a classroom have much more time to think before they ”talk” in the virtual study room.  
Another advantage is that several parallel discussions can go on simultaneously in the virtual study room. At an ordinary study circle meeting, or in a classroom, only one person can talk at a time. In the virtual study room you are not disturbing anyone when you are ”talking”.
A third advantage is that ”talking” in the virtual study room gives more training in reading and writing because the communication is mainly text-based. In the mentioned anthology Roger Saljo, Gothenburg University, writes about the text as a resource for thinking:
Skills as reading – and to an even larger extent creating texts that develop arguments and opinions – are very demanding intellectual exercises that require quite a long cognitive socialisation for most people. But the point in this context is that education, from now on, will be about how to participate in a text-based knowledge world with a conceptional and analytical knowledge concept, with which help the world around us can be made understandable and comprehensible in new ways. The text also began to infiltrate the educated conversations. People began to comment and discuss such things they read and were fascinated by, in exactly the same way as we today discuss not only what we have experienced but also what we have heard on the radio or seen on television.” (Axelsson et al, 2004)

More active participants?
Practical experiences show that the ideals of folk high schools and study circles can be fulfilled in courses at a distance: lively conversations, developed group-processes and the strengthening of the participants’ self-esteem. Actually, combinations of meetings at a distance and face-to-face seems to give the best conditions for a good result. A proof of that is also the low rate of dropouts from such courses.
Experiences of courses at a distance also show that participants often become more active than participants in ordinary courses. The reasons are:
• The participants decide themselves when they are studying, when to be active and how often. That enhances their motivation.
• More participants can be more active, they don’t have to wait while someone else is ”talking”. At the same time the teacher can be less dominant.
• More equal conversations. The messages look the same, regardless of if they are from the teacher or the participants. Everyone has the same possibilities to be active.
• For the teacher it is more easy to individualize, to meet every single participant.
• Its is more easy for a participant to catch up if he or she has been sick because all discussions are saved in the virtual study room.

A special example…
There are also good examples that such meeting-based distance courses can function even with participants from different cultures and with different mother tongues. One such example is the united trans-national study circle that during 2005 was formed by two separate study circles, one in Romania and one in Sweden. That study circle was to run completely at a distance using the Swedish Folkbildning Net as the technical platform and English as the common language.
The subject for the study circle was the European Union and its constitution. Despite the geographical and cultural differences between Sweden and Romania – and language problems – the 18 participants produced 875 messages during eight weeks. Here is an excerpt from the project report:
From the beginning, we wondered if there could really be a good and fruitful meeting between two such different groups. The participants in the Swedish study circle were men only, mainly in the age of 50+ and (with one exception) rather sceptical to the existing EU democracy and the proposed constitution. The participants in the Romanian circle were mainly young university students with quite natural positive expectations on the coming EU membership. When we write this report we can sum up all 8 weeks of study circle activities (…) and we can establish that the discussions on our basic issues, and on other topics, have, during the whole period, been very active, open, free and critical. There has often been different opinions on issues but the discussions have all the time been respectful and exciting to take part in.
We all agreed that this kind of activity, an active on-line study-circle where people from different countries in the EU meet, even though they do not meet face-to-face, is an excellent way of empowering people for a European democracy. We also saw the importance of developing, or further developing, civic education within adult education as a way of building, strengthening and defending democracy. We saw that resources for this must be given by the government or the EU, but the education itself must be carried out by NGOs with strong popular support and that the study circle method, with its focus on learning instead of teaching then is preferable.

Gradually folk high school teachers and study circle leaders have realised that it is possible to create good learning conditions at a distance with the help of modern ICT. They have also realised that it is possible to create virtual forums where the participants can meet, learn from each other and give each other good support. And it has become more and more clear that learning at a distance does not have to be the second best alternative, but that it has some qualities of its own compared to face-to-face courses.

To reflect upon…
• What similarities and differences are there between distance education in China and in Sweden? What could be the reasons?
• What could be an ideal number of participants in your courses, if you would arrange them at a distance and if you emphasize a high degree of collaboration in the groups?
• Are there ”tea houses” in Chinese courses at a distance and how do they function?
• Would a joint study project, like the one between Romania and Sweden, be possible in China? For example between Chinese and Swedish groups? What subject could be of mutual interest to study?
• Etc…

• Lars-Erik Axelsson and others (eds.), – an anthology about folkbildning and flexible learning. The Swedish National Clouncil of Adult Education & The Swedish Agency for Flexible Learning. Second edition, 2004. (The chapters in the English edition of ” – an anthology about folkbildning and flexible learning” can be dowloaded from:
• Biggs, J. B. (1987). Student approaches to studying and learning. Hawthorne, Victoria: Australian Council for Educational Research.
• Lipman, M. (1991). Thinking in Education. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
• Hill, J. & Woodland, W. (2002). An Evaluation of Foreign Fieldwork in Promoting Deep Learning: a preliminary investigation. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, Vol. 27, No. 6. Carfax Publising.
• Entwistle, N. J. & Ramsden, P. (1983). Understanding Student Learning. London: Croom Helm.
• Tait, A. (2000). Planning Student Support for Open and Distance Learning. Open Learning, Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 287-99.
• Report from the Swedish-Romanian study-circle in the project “A wealth for Europe – Activating an educational wealth for Europe through Citizens’ Initiatives and Adult Education” (2005).

© Tore Persson