Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The interesting article below based on a study showing that effective
communication is not happening virtually, and that this fact is leading to
fragmentation of a learning community with feelings of isolation and
confusion among some students. It offers a set of 14 pilot guidelines to
help address this important issue.
The article is the ninth posting in a series of selected excerpts from the
National Teaching and Learning Forum newsletter reproduced here as
part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of
information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not
already a subscriber, you can check it out at [http://www.ntlf.com/]
The on-line edition of the Forum--like the
printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to
share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of
learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Oct. 2000 Vol.
9 No. 6 ? Copyright 1996-2001. Published by Oryx Press in conjunction with
James Rhem & Associates, Inc. (ISSN 1057-2880) All rights reserved
worldwide. Reprinted with permission.
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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COLLABORATIVE LEARNING IN A VIRTUAL CLASSROOM
Lessons Learned and a New Set of Tutor Guidelines National Teaching and Learning Forum
Feb. 2001 Volume 10 Number 2
Dr. Julie Ann Richardson, Kings College London
Anthony Turner, Canterbury Christ Church
In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of "technology and
education" publications, from Computer Assisted Learning (CAL), to the use
of multimedia applications in distance education, to the use of the World
Wide Web as a resource in the traditional classroom, to the virtual learning
environment or classroom. Since 1991, when it was released as a component
of the larger Internet, the Web has grown greatly as an informal and formal
instructional environment, and Web-based instruction is now being offered
by an ever-increasing number of institutions all over the world. However,
there is little in the literature about the process of creating or adapting
a traditional university course to an online format. In addition, few
publications about this topic are written from the perspective of the tutor
who is not a technology expert.
The Web Came upon Us
In 1998 virtual learning environments were introduced to the university to
promote the use of distributed learning in undergraduate courses. Module
tutors [i.e., instructors] were encouraged to rewrite modules for this
method of teaching and learning. During 1999-2000 we designed and carried
out an extensive and ambitious evaluation of the use of virtuallearning
environments across the university. As part of this evaluation we have
described what we learned from the process of developing a series of online
courses for the first time, and the opportunities and constraints inherent
in the process. This part of the evaluation focuses on one particular
element of the virtual classroom--the interactive communication systems that
give students the opportunity to communicate and discuss their courses
The various types of asynchronous systems--e-mail, listservs, and
conferencing--allow participation from different locales and at times
convenient to the individual student. Synchronous tools, such as chat rooms,
voice-based teleconferencing, or video conferencing, allow tutors and
students tointeract at the same time but from different places. At present
no single mode or technology dominates because the availability of equipment
varies, as do the goals of various institutions and the teaching styles of
The Experience of It
It has become evident from interviews with students taking part in these
modules that their perception and the "reality" of virtual interaction were
different from face-to-face traditional classroom interaction. Most such
interaction lacked the visual,kinesthetic and sound cues that facilitate
communication. Most virtual interaction took place asynchronously where
students and instructor posted messages at different times and from
different locations. Perhaps as a consequence, it did not have shared
sociolinguistic conventions to guide the initiation, development and closure
of group discussions. There is little research about the nature of virtual
interaction and few models for tutors and students to follow. The following
comments show students' recognition that this form of learning is uncharted
territory fraught with new frustrations:
I think [the problems we have been having] are because in this new kind of
learning we can't do the same kind of things that we do in our normal
seminars . . . I mean that, in a way, I don't know what we are supposed to
do with it. It seems unnatural that we have to think about what we want to
say instead of just saying it. It's difficult as well to work out what the
"tone" of the conversationis. And I feel like I'm letting the world know how
good I am.
I don't like the way you say something and then you have to keep on checking
to see if any students or the tutors have responded . . . it's frustrating.
They also seem to drag on a bit with no-one really saying anything useful. .
. . another problem is that people keep starting new discussions so it gets
After initial analyses of the data collected from interviews, and
conversation analysis performed on the actual discussions taking place, we
have arrived at two conclusions.
1.Effective communication is not happening virtually, which is leading to
fragmentation of a learning community with feelings of isolation and
confusion among some students.
2.We need a set of guidelines to help facilitate online discussions.
In an effort to progress through this rather significant problem, we drafted
a set of proposed guidelines for "virtual" communication and asked a group
of students and tutors to review them and make suggestions for revisions.
Frank comments like the following offered genuine help in redrafting our
"We have to accept that the dynamics of posting on Lotus are different from the
seminar discussions. At the same time, some of us, and I include myself
here, need to remember that the courseroom is a discussion, not a chance to
wax eloquent. All lecturers, regardless of training, like being in front of
the class. . . . It takes mighty strong medicine to stop us from turning
responses into mini lectures."
We are currently test-piloting the following procedural guidelines to see
whether, with such a set of guidelines, discussions, and thus
students'experience of online learning, can be improved.
Before a module begins, tutors should be well versed in good practice in
courseroom discussions. They should also have their own resource bank of
information and guides for students to assist them in their
discussions.These may include: good examples of successful courseroom
discussions; guidelines for how to read and reflect critically on
seminar papers; guidelines for working effectively as a team.
The Pilot Guidelines
1.Tutors should clearly state (for their own benefit) the purpose of the
discussion--asking themselves, How will this discussion help each student to
achieve the learning outcomes in terms of skills, knowledge and
understanding? They should also be clear in their own minds why the
courseroom is the best method of developing these outcomes.
2.Students and tutor should, at the beginning of a module, spend time
raising the metacognitive strategy awareness of the participants. (In other
words, How is this going to help me . . . ?)
3.Tutors and students should come to mutual understanding and agreement
about the style of writing and conventions they will adopt during
discussions. This is most effectively achieved during a face-to-face
4.Courseroom discussions should be linked either formally or informally with
assessment arrangements, and these expectations should be communicated
clearly to students.
5.The tutor clearly states the minimal number of postings expected,per
student, per discussion.
6.To initiate a discussion, the tutor posts course questions or issues,
using concise and clear language. Students respond directly to the question
keeping their responses short and to the point.
7.The tutor models how to facilitate virtual discussions. When students feel
comfortable with the new medium, student-led discussion should be
encouraged. When using a seminar format,students, individually or in small
groups or dyads, are given opportunities to identify critical issues in the
lectures and readings, and lead discussions related to those and other
related topics, because (as research shows--Harasim, et al., 1997) active
student involvement strategies are an effective way of promoting student
critical thinking and interaction.
8.Students should communicate with the tutor via e-mail to make suggestions
for discussion topics. The tutor should then use these as (1) an opportunity
to take advantage of students' own questions as a starting point, (2) a
basis for modeling the skills required to ask effective questions, and (3) a
means of building a one-to-one relationship with
9.The tutor or facilitator should act as moderator of the discussion,
guiding individual students if their contributions do not follow the agreed
10.The tutor or facilitator should continually evaluate the "academic"
contributions students are making. For example, is there evidence students
are supporting their views with self-study? Is there evidence that students
are developing their skills of critically evaluating/responding to assigned
texts, as well as each other's contributions? The tutor should use e-mail
messages to encourage participation and positively reinforce contributions
11.When new or related topics arise during an ongoing discussion, the tutor
or facilitator should start a new conversation. Tutors need to decide
whether this is best run concurrently or consecutively.
12.The tutor should advise students of the days when she or he will visit
the conferencing environment to participate in ongoing discussions, or
check on them.
13.Discussions should occur during a specified time frame. For example,
students may have two weeks to participate in ongoing discussions, starting
with the date
of their first posting. The conversations are then closed.
14.Once a discussion is closed tutors should provide feedback to all
participants via the courseroom which 1) summarizes the discussion and
conclusions made, 2) refers students to further reading, etc., and 3)
evaluates the quality of
the students' overall contributions. This responsibility could also be given
to one or more facilitators.
These guidelines are currently being adopted. All tutors who are involved in
the module have been introduced to each of the points above and given
opportunities to discuss with each other their most effective
Crossman, D.M. 1997. "The Evolution of the World-Wide-Web as an Emerging
Instructional Technology Tool." In Web-Based Instruction, B. Khan, ed.
(Englewood Cliffs, NJ: EducationalTechnology Publications), 19-23.
Harasim, L., Hiltz, S.R., Teles, L., & Turoff, M. 1997. Learning Networks
(Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press).
Khan, B. 1997. "Web-Based Instruction (WBI): What Is It and Why Is It?" In
Web-Based Instruction, B. Khan, ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational
Kirkwood, A. 1999. "New Media Mania: Can Information and Communication
Technologies Enhance the Quality of Open and Distance Learning?" Distance
Murray, D. 1998. "The Context of Oral and Written Language: A Framework for
Model and Medium Switching." Language in Society 17:351-73.
Richardson, J.A. & Turner, A.E. 2000. "A Large-scale Local Evaluation of
Students' Experiences Using VLEs." Educational Technology and Society
Sneiderman, B. 1998. Designing the User Interface Strategies for Effective
Human-Computer Interaction (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley).
Walther, L., Anderson, J., & Park, D. 1994. "Interpersonal Effects in
Computer Mediated Interaction: A Meta-analysis of Social and Antisocial
Communication." Communication Research 4:460-87.
Stefanov, K., Stoyanov, S. & Nikolov, R. 1998. "Design Issues of a Distance
Learning Course on a Business on the Internet." Journalof Computer Assisted
Woolley, D.R. 1996. http://thinkofit.com/webconf/wcchoice.htm
Dr. Julie Ann Richardson
Kings College London
3rd Floor, Weston Education Centre
UK SE5 9RJ
Telephone: +44 207848 5718
Faculty of Education
Canterbury Christ Church
North Holmes Road
UK CT1 1QU
Telephone: +44 1227 782880