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These aims necessarily imply a view of continuing education as a process that enables teachers to educate themselves as they move on in their task as educators. The course is organized into two components, one that focuses on activities for development and another one that concentrates on reflective sessions about the issues that require the most awareness and disposition for transformation. In both components participating teachers are encouraged to deal with important teaching and educational themes, as well as discuss central issues in their own professional lives, to communicate with each other through synchronous and asynchronous tools and to produce collaborative and individual tasks that others are invited to comment on.

In the activities of both components teachers are expected to go beyond exchange of information, brainstorming and exploration of ideas to gain critical thinking depth through integration of ideas and resolution of problems. However, as Celani and Collins have reported,. Either they are the only teachers in their schools and rarely meet other teachers of English, or they work so many hours and have so many groups to cope with that no time is left for exchange of ideas, let alone collective practices that might foster critical thinking".

So, when teachers join the program, they tend to have very little familiarity with critical thinking and reflective practices and only very rarely do they belong to a community of inquiry Garrison et al. As an online course, TL requires high levels of interaction among participants, individual and collective use of course resources and tools, and guided use of Internet resources. Course instructions, resources like orienting maps and diagrams, materials like reading texts, video-lectures and activities like debates, discussions and reports, to name but a few, are mediated by different course tools.

Together, course resources and their mediating tools require special study habits, specific navigation abilities, a reformulation of one's own concept of time and space and new communication dynamics. The use of the forum, as described below, will illustrate how and why this is so. The forum as a privileged data source.

The forum seems to be an appropriate locus for observation of trails of autonomous behavior, because it gives participants opportunity for planning and reflection, both of which are essential in the process of awareness growth. Of all communication tools, the forum is the one that best brings together the essential properties of online learning.

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As Garrison emphasizes, "It is the asynchroniticy and connectivity properties of online learning that offer the potential for the unique integration of reflective and collaborative learning opportunities". Besides, the asynchronous forum has received focal interest in this paper for the challenge it constitutes to all participants, teachers included: although it mediates the most important communicative events in the course, it is not easy to use. Communicating effectively in a forum, with autonomy, requires development of awareness with respect to a variety of specific features.

First, previous experience in the traditional classroom may not help for a successful forum discussion. However, a forum discussion does not share much with a traditional lesson but for the fact that it should have learning objectives, a theme and maybe make reference to specific course contents. Neither does it conform to a common lesson pattern, with a clear time-space context. Rather, the discussion must evolve during a certain period of time. And since it is asynchronous, it builds up as people in different places and at different times read previous messages and contribute with a new one.

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Therefore, an online forum discussion is constructed and registered in a given virtual space but originates from multi time-spatial initiatives. Second, a high degree of interaction with teachers and peers is expected.

Here, the main challenge is to go beyond brainstorming, questioning, personal reports on everyday situations, unjustified opinions and simple maintenance of social ties. For the teacher, the main challenge is to mediate discussion and model contributions, so that students learn to structure effective arguments.

As Coffin et al have stated,. A successful forum discussion may help participants develop learning autonomy and improve on the construction of justified opinions and points of view, of clear relations between ideas from different sources and of solutions to problems. In fact, a forum discussion "gives students greater time for reflection on their own and others' arguments than ephemeral seminar discussions" Coffin et al First, it is necessary to make it clear that the degree of freedom in TL is relative. When student teachers choose to take the course, they must be prepared to accept help and explicit orientation in order to do what an autonomy development process for online learning requires.

In other words, distance learning in TL requires a strong disposition to learn and a systematic process of informed and perfectly context-relevant decision making. In that sense, the course has some important pre-requisites. For those that manage to meet them, it promotes autonomous behavior of a certain kind.

However, not all teachers who choose to take the course succeed. Many dropouts have admitted that they thought the course would be less demanding, easier, less interactive and have claimed not to have had enough time for all expected activities. Distance learning as practiced in TL can actually be more interactive than many of the traditional courses some of our student-teachers have taken before and for that reason be considered too much. In fact, student-teachers who concentrate on the end product seem to regard a demanding process as a waste of time.

This may indicate that many students are less keen on ICTs than we often suppose, even if they do not reject them altogether This is in fact one of the major lessons of our experience at the CTU: initially aiming to exploit ICTs to the full, we found that students simply did not see the point of spending time mastering complex tools when a pencil and paper will do To try and bring these aspects of the problem together into a coherent reflection that can help us observe signs of autonomy development in online contexts, I would like to say that autonomy development will be observable in an online context when it is possible to see that there have been changes of behavior during the course of a learning process.

These changes of behavior should happen in the direction of what is considered an improvement in quality and in frequency of occurrence.

Instructions

So, for example, considering that systematic interaction in an online context is naturally threatening and time-consuming, an improvement in the quality and frequency of interaction will signal autonomy development. Changes in quality, in turn, can be observed in discourse. In order to show how autonomy can materialize as linguistic trails, it is important, first, to identify different kinds of behavior that will signal autonomy.

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Below are some of the most challenging and context specific activities in distance learning. I believe their presence will signal autonomy development in a distance learning context. Linguistic trails of autonomy development. In order to examine some linguistic trails of autonomy development, I have selected a focal student teacher that has been pointed by his teacher as a notable case of autonomy development during the first module of the course.

JR, as he will be referred to, is a state school teacher of English as a foreign language, has had near to no contact with technology when he joins TL, which is his first experience in online learning. Before joining the first discussion forum of the course, students have read a text about conceptions of reading. The forum invites them to contribute with reports on five different issues related to reading: Which everyday activities require reading? Is reading the same in all situations? What differences are there in the reading process in different situations? How do you react when you face a text written in a foreign language?

What makes reading in a foreign language easy or difficult? The instructions posted by the teacher remind the students that the questions must not be answered one by one, that they are an indication of the route along which discussion should go. These are given explicitly because in previous experiences we have found out that many students tend to simply answer questions put to them at the beginning of a forum. However, we want them to use the questions as stimuli for a joint discussion. Considering the messages written by JR in the first forum and the messages where JR or a contribution he has made is mentioned, I have put together a conversational thread.

Bearing in mind that the language used in the messages may signal changes and transformations during the course, I first focused on his ability to use interpersonal strategies. Subject: Why do we read? What does reading mean? When we are interested in some subject we try to understand it. So we start this process using everything we can. We look around looking for everything that could satisfy our curiosity; so every sense starts working. In my opinion, we cannot forget that we can understand things by sense of smell, sense of hearing, sense of touch and so on.

When I am inside a classroom I ask myself if my students really know how to use all their senses in learning. Many students of state schools are so stressed because of their family problems unemployment and alcoholism, for example that they cannot concentrate in class;. Maybe, we could start reading by teaching children and teenagers how to concentrate in class and how to use all their senses in learning with pleasure.

From the beginning of excerpt 1 it is clear that we is a collective entity he hides himself behind in order to express his world view, an impersonal choice he uses to expose his ideas about learning. For him, learning depends on being interested and waking up one's senses. Then he moves the argument to the classroom in order to say that his students are stressed , cannot concentrate, are prevented from being interested and from using their senses.


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Although this is a message in a discussion forum, interpersonal markers are almost absent. JR is talking about things, people, ideas, beliefs, opinions, his classroom, but he does not seem to be talking to anyone in particular. To illustrate the degree of interaction expected in a forum, let us look at excerpts 2 and 3, below.