"Creating Virtual Learning Communities through Distance Learning Technologies: A Course Examined"
Ernestine Enomoto and Lynn Tabata
Abstract Electronic technologies and internet communication have created new distance learning environments which increasingly use web technologies to link students with instructors thereby creating educational communities. This type of distance education environment can successfully create engaged, student-centered collaboration among its participants. In this paper, we discuss one such distance learning environment and the communication occurring between students and instructor in a graduate course offered in fall 1998. We explore the extent to which such interactions create and sustain a sense of community among the participants.
Introduction Recent advances in electronic technologies and internet communication have catapulted a reluctant educational community into new distance learning environments which now increasingly use web technologies to link students with instructors. There is a greater potential for sharing ideas, reflective thinking, and cooperative learning in such learning environments. According to Feasley (1992), "distance education programs have emerged throughout the world to serve new students in ways that are important to them" (p. 334). Van Dusen (1997) also identifies technology as a means for supporting "collaborative learning, heterogeneous groupings, problem-solving and higher order thinking skills - educational processes that a lecture format cannot facilitate" (p. 45). Along with these promising programs, there are numerous challenges for students and faculty members in distance education delivery. Besides learning to use and access technologies within traditional institutional constraints, there are questions about providing viable alternatives to the usual face-to-face delivery of instruction. For example, Schwan (1997) examines the computer conferencing technologies (bulletin board types) that have gained increasing importance in distance learning environments. While there are similarities with face-to-face classroom delivery, the method of delivery in these computer conferencing classes significantly impacts the learning process. Likewise, Warschauer (1998) questions the assumption that the alternative mode of online learning necessarily promotes student-centered communication, collaboration, and inquiry. In examining a computer-based English as a Second Language (ESL) writing course, Warschauer found that sociocultural factors, such as a college philosophy, teacher beliefs, and different approaches to language teaching, greatly influenced the ESL learning. As with most of the recent educational technologies, much of the discussion centers around applying the technology to the traditional classroom with little regard for how the technology is to be used and for what ends. Even less attention is given to whether or not these technologies are appropriate delivery systems for the classroom instruction and learning and whether "far more valuable and contemporary ways of learning are [being] disregarded . . .[and] important student needs are not being met" (Privateer, 1999, pp. 60-61).
In this paper, we examine a distance education course from student and faculty perspectives, weighing the creation of a viable, interactive, and virtual community through a variety of electronic, multimedia technologies. We begin with the premise that a distance education environment can successfully create engaged, student-centered collaboration among its participants. We then proceed to examine the resulting online communication occurring among class members and between students and instructor in order to determine whether such interactions create and sustain a sense of community among the participants.
Virtual Educational Communities Despite the various definitions of "community" (Bennis, 1993; Peck, 1987; Sullivan, 1994), it is generally agreed that the term suggests interconnecting human relationships fostered by communication that establishes common ground and reinforces social bonding. The two primary functions of a community are social reinforcement and information exchange (Moller, 1998, p. 116), with both functions interacting with each other. Sharing information promotes social networks and engagement, which in turn reinforces and bonds members together. The same is true in virtual communities as Rheingold (1993) describes in writing about his participation in the computer conferencing system WELL (Whole Earth Lectronic Link). He defines the phenomenon as "social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussion long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace" (p. 5). To characterize a virtual educational community, Gates (1996), Lenning & Ebbers (1999) and others envision the following things: 1) self-directed student learning with a students interests directing the inquiry; 2) individualized and customized curriculum, instruction and assessment; 3) mediated learning blending traditional modes of instruction with interactive multimedia instruction; 4) networked learning communities bringing those outside the school into the classroom; and 5) home-school-business partnerships for a truly collaborative learning environment. In building such a community, Paloff & Pratt (1999) emphasize that "attention needs to be paid to the developing sense of community within the group of participants in order for the learning process to be successful" (p. 29). The rapid growth of the Internet and increased numbers of online courses have facilitated the emergence of virtual educational communities that promote the collective sharing of information, knowledge, and resources through individuals who can assemble as a group yet whose individual participants often remain autonomous and able to work independently. Because of computer mediated conferencing and web-networking, these virtual communities extend beyond geographic boundaries and without time limits on participant involvement. Doheny-Farina (1996) offers a critical perspective on virtual educational communities. "If teaching is merely information transfer, then the most important quality of the teacher is clarity" where according to communication theory, the key is to insure a clean, clear conduit (p. 110). But, he argues, "teaching and learning are actually far more complex than that. They involve the negotiation, construction, and reconstruction of meanings in the minds of the participants" (pp. 111-112). Both students and teachers are interacting in a process of teaching and learning where knowledge is being created, interpreted, and reconceptualized. Such process limits the number of students that one teacher can teach. While computer-mediated conferencing can enable a teacher to reach more students simultaneously, the best of these technologies requires intense involvement of all participants. Involvement may encompass various types of interaction occurring within a virtual environment, such as those involving the learner and the content, the learner and the instructor, two learners, the learner and the interface (Van Dusen, 1997, p. 39). Not only should the technology be examined but the relationships among the various participants, student to student, student to teacher, student to content. Doheny-Farina contends that as information on the Internet becomes ubiquitous and online distance education more available, "the real problem will be limited access to face-to-face teaching and learning environments" (p. 116). In his estimation, only the wealthy will be able to afford the human interaction of a flesh and blood teacher.
Case Study Methodology The case study examined in this paper is an interactive televised graduate course on educational technology which was broadcasted in the fall of 1998 to four different locations, a main campus, and three geographically separated sites. As a supplement to the televised class sessions, the course featured WebCT, a web-based software interface for creating online courses. This software interface offered a variety of tools and features used to assist communication and learning by students, including electronic bulletin boards, private e-mail, chat rooms, quiz feature, student presentations, and online search engine access. WebCT enabled the instructor to sustain an educational environment between class meetings. In addition to WebCT communication and televised classes, other technologies available to students were the universitys internet server, e-mail system, department fax, and telephone communication. To assess the viability of a virtual educational community, we conducted a content analysis of the texts and transcripts generated by the participants on WebCT. All participants are referenced by pseudonyms. For the purpose of this paper, we elected to focus on the public entries which were viewable by all course participants. A total of 468 public entries were posted by the course participants with an additional 99 entries posted by the instructor. By analyzing the entries, we traced communication occurring among and between the participants. We examined patterns of communication over the course duration, asking questions such as: Who was communicating with whom? How frequently and extensively? Did communication increase over the duration of the course? We also examined the content and substance of the entries, that is, what was the subject of the public discourse. Additional information gathered and examined were the number of times participants accessed, read, and posted messages on the web site. We do note the limitations of our analytic capability given the multiple modes of distance technologies used. In addition to the WebCT interface, the course included weekly televised class meetings which allowed for face-to-face viewing. Since the course included both synchronous and asynchronous modes of communication, it would be unfair to claim that the engagement and social interaction that developed could occur from strictly online communication.
Results and Discussion Our findings support the contention that a virtual educational environment can promote and maintain a community of learners who are engaged in an active sharing of information as well as can provide personal support and encouragement. The analysis of the first class assignment showed the majority of students directed their responses solely to meet the requirements with communication directed to the instructor and little exchanged among individuals. Students hardly acknowledged each other and were less interactive or responsive to others postings. However, with each progressive assignment, there was a noticeable increase in communication interchange. Students initiated messages to others with the content mimicking oral communication through their use of slang ("How cool!" "See ya in class tonight!"), Hawaiian words and localisms ("Aloha e Jason," "I especially liked the cafeteria and talking story"), and humor ("Even now when people say "surf," I still assume wave surfing"). E-mail postings on the bulletin board had a more personal tone. Students began acknowledging each other by name ("Hi Marilyn, this is Mel"), offering others thanks ("Thanks for the message"), giving compliments to each other ("Well done, Doreen") and seeking advice and information ("Glenn, by the way, what did you think?). There were more messages containing personal information that the sender was willing to share with others ("Being from the older school I wonder about the impact . . . ") and increased exchanges between students concerning non-class related subjects. When a musician in the class shared his recorded CD, a fellow classmate wrote appreciatively, "Glenn, I would like to thank you for the CD..." In addition to directing messages to specific individuals, the messages began to assume an inclusive quality by including names of other students and shared activities. At one point, students were encouraged to try out the chat room. They organized themselves and arranged for times to meet. "Lets talk tomorrow at 10 pm in chat room #1." "How about taking votes for the following chat-times?" After a successful chatting session, one student sent this e-mail, "Had a great chat Thursday night with Alisa, Mark, and Glenn." Upon reading about a chat session, a student responded, "Glad to hear that you and Janice are chatting away." E-mail offered support as students shared their problems and frustrations. "I logged into the chat room but the computer I was using malfunctioned on me. I saw all of you there and couldnt talk to you!" With each successive assignment, there was a noticeable increase in the number of students commenting on each others work or introducing new material that would generate new conversations. Students were engaged in problem-sharing and problem solving ("Glenn, I just hit the return key", "To send a message after you type it, just hit "return"). They worked together to coordinate events and activities. "Do you want to join us? It will be in Spalding 353 at 9:00 on Wednesday." By the final assignment, there were more electronic messages exchanged among the participants, more responses to what others wrote, and greater personalized messaging even in the public discourse. One might wonder where the instructor is in all of this e-mail messaging. There seemed to be little mention of dialogue between instructor and individual students in these findings. While the instructor-student relationship was present at the start of the course, the relationships among the students dominated the messaging at the end. In examining the student engagement and interaction, we found the social bonding and information exchange functioning to create and sustain a learning community that was student-centered. Students were building a community of equals by supporting, complimenting, reinforcing and responding to each other. What might have begun as a teacher-dominated course had been transformed into a student directed, peer learning experience.
Concluding Remarks The rapid growth of distance learning programs using online web-based technologies has increased educational access by enabling teaching and learning to occur outside of the traditional classroom. This new paradigm has instigated the emergence of a virtual educational community where individuals assemble, interact, and converse. What these virtual communities are, how they are constituted, how the technologies are employed, and how learning occurs are important questions that should be examined. This study provides a look at one such virtual community and attends to these questions, taking into account the perspectives of the participants.
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Authors: Ernestine Enomoto, Ed.D. & Lynn Tabata
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