|Teaching and Learning Forum 2006 [ Refereed papers ]|
Tanya Dalziell and Lorraine Sim
English Communication and Cultural Studies
The University of Western Australia
By virtue of their respective designations, the secondary and tertiary education sectors are often conceived of as separate communities. While notable differences do arguably exist between the two sectors, strict separations are diminishing as the pedagogical principles of lifelong learning and outcomes based education reshape both students' experiences and teachers' philosophies and practices. The SmARTS program, run for Year 11 students by the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at The University of Western Australia, operates in a space in between secondary and tertiary education and as such, it offers particular insights into both sectors, the students they support, and the pedagogical tools and assumptions that shape student learning.
This paper proposes to focus on the SmARTS program as a case study for examining the 'pearls, piths and perils' involved in the creation of virtual learning communities. An online learning environment is central to the SmARTS program for both practical and pedagogical reasons, and as a consequence of its unique positioning in the education environment, the issues it raises about the impact of new media and communication on student learning resonate well beyond its immediate concerns. The authors of this article co-coordinated the SmARTS program in 2004 and 2005, and we seek to raise issues that are of relevance to other teachers negotiating virtual communities. After all, the students participating in this program are very likely to constitute the next cohort of university undergraduate students, and their responses to virtual learning in the SmARTS program assists tertiary educators to appreciate and reflect on the skills that students bring to the university learning setting. The experiences of these students also ask us to look again both at the ideas that underpin virtual learning and at the effectiveness of this forum for student knowledge and community building.
The impact of new media and communications is becoming increasingly pervasive in the education sector, and teachers are faced with a number of opportunities and challenges as they strive to create effective virtual learning communities. (Christopher et. al., 2003) In his book, Visual Culture, Richard Howells suggests that "new media" technically refers not to "new forms of communication" per se, but rather to novel delivery methods that more convenient and consumer friendly hardware systems facilitate: information is conveyed in different ways without altering its content or 'message'. (Howells, 2003, 221) In the educational context, though, an innovative delivery system is not as simple as Howells might assume: it can profoundly effect the way information is interpreted, assimilated and acted upon, and shape the nature of interpersonal relations between educators and students, and between peers. There is a popular perception that young adults, and today's students, represent a technologically savvy generation, already equipped with the skills they require to be effective members within virtual learning communities, which assume and utilise such delivery modes. Here we reflect upon the virtual learning communities that the SmARTS program facilitates, and students' and instructors' experiences as members of those communities.
SmARTS runs each year for seven months, from March to September, and it sees approximately sixty-five high school students work for one or two hours per week in teams on structured, theme based projects with the guidance of FAHSS staff. Typically, each SmARTS group comprises six students (two students from three different high schools), and these learning communities are central to the program, with students and participating schools attesting alike that: "SmARTS has involved our students in projects that enable academic extension as well as opportunities to negotiate and share ideas with students from different backgrounds". (SmARTS school coordinator, 2004 survey) In other words, SmARTS does not simply respond to the needs of a specific cohort; it actively creates learning communities. In terms of content, each student team works to produce two 'assignments'. The first piece is a group project on a cross-disciplinary cultural studies topic. While the topics from which students choose undergo some revision each year, topics have included the following areas:
While the SmARTS program orients the students to produce two tangible pieces of work at its conclusion in September, its core objectives are to enable students to develop both the skills that they require to engage critically, collaboratively and creatively with information and ideas, and the interpersonal aptitudes they need to operative effectively in recreational, work based and virtual communities. Further, the very requirement of students to work within a virtual context determines and supports these outcomes. Learning outcomes are not simply or only presentations of the students' labour; they can also be defined "as the processes that learners engage in as they work together". (Paulus, 2005, 112) In other words, students' learning in the virtual environment of the SmARTS project is directly linked to the peer interactions that the technology expressly facilitates and encourages.
These sorts of outcomes are, perhaps, much more difficult to 'assess' and quantify. Nonetheless, at the completion of the program, in 2004 and 2005, formal surveys were sent to students to solicit feedback, to gain some understanding of students' experiences of the program, and to inform the planning of future SmARTS programs. Surveys were independent and anonymous, and the response rate was approximately fifty percent. As the academic course coordinators, we were struck by the similarities both of the students' survey responses, especially in relation to the online component of the program, and our experiences and understandings of students' involvement in this virtual environment. In part, we were interested to note that way in which students negotiated 'collaborative' and 'cooperative' modes of team learning and knowledge construction, in so far as collaborative learning sees tasks completed with students in dialogue with each other, and cooperative labour is distinguished by students dividing up tasks and completing them individually. (Roberts, 2005) Recent scholarship on online learning points to the ways in which "what may be intended by educators as a task to be completed collaboratively may well be undertaken as a cooperative one by students". (Paulus, 2005, 113; Kitchen & McDougall, 1999) Yet, our experience in the SmARTS program has been that students shift easily between these models, suggesting that distinction between the two modes may not be as fixed or as antithetical as some scholars have imagined. Such observations have prompted us to think further about other related issues that virtual learning raises for pedagogical scholarship and practice, and to share these thoughts with other teachers who might also be engaging with, or considering, online environments as part of their pedagogical strategies.
Before discussing this website and its learning implications in detail, it is useful to note the practical motivations for this particular forum in the SmARTS program. Firstly, SmARTS participants are able to meet regularly online with other students as well as their tutors without making unreasonable demands on their parents and carers. Secondly, the online environment is one that is gaining an ever greater presence in university education; to expose students to this mode of communication and learning is to inaugurate them into one of the many modes that university learning now takes. Thirdly, the online forum permits students to work with students from other schools, therefore opening up opportunities for collaborations that might not otherwise be possible.
This online mode of communication and its community building aim is supported by a website equipped with password accessed bulletin boards for each group and a general discussion board open to all SmARTS students. It provides instructional material about research planning, successful collaborative project work, and specialised resource information relating to each topic, and it offers online discussion and tutoring of groups in 'real time'.
In order to induct students into the online environment in which they are being asked to work, during the initial chat sessions at the beginning of the year, students are encouraged to discuss short online essays about virtual group work. These sessions are designed to ease students into the online format. They also aim to provide students with the opportunity to get to know each other; to allow them to be, as a community, self reflective about their group and their expectations of each other. Indeed, the online format is not the only part of the project that is new to most, if not all, of the participating students: the concept of group or team work as a mode of learning and collaboration offers a format distinctly different to the competitive individualist model of knowledge making and achievement with which these students are most familiar. In recognition of this point, students are also given the opportunity to devise rules for online etiquette, and are encouraged to familiarise themselves with concepts such as critical thinking and the practice of research. This range of tasks and objectives indicates the extent to which SmARTS is structured to develop crucial life and learning skills, which students explicitly recognise:
I have learned extensive group work, research, leadership and communication skills. (former SmARTS participant, 2005 survey)There were times at which certain group members proved difficult, however it taught me to deal with these situations, which will inevitably face us in later life. (former SmARTS participant, 2005 survey)
I have gained a lot from being forced to think and write in a different way to school work, not simply working from the text book, but really reading from other books, and forming my own ideas. (former SmARTS participant, 2004 survey)As the year progresses, the tutor inclusive online sessions provide the chance for students to discuss ideas and topics that are related to their project; to consolidate their sense of themselves as a productive member of an online learning community; and to receive feedback from peers and their tutor. Typically, the tutor will prompt the discussion with questions, but the emphasis is on student directed discussion. Prior to the independent online sessions, tutors suggest objectives or points of discussion for the students to consider during their online meeting that week and one member of the group provides a brief summary about the meeting, which is posted onto the discussion board.
The concept behind the asynchronous discussion board is to provide a forum for the students to develop lines of thought over time, and build upon ideas and lines of inquiry as a group. Throughout the year, students are encouraged to create threaded discussions that might be based upon their responses to a selected article, impression or question posed by the tutor or a group member. Students are also petitioned to post any reflections, thoughts, concerns and queries that they may have to the rest of the group, as well as drafts of their own work for peer feedback. Thus, the discussion board format is a forum for both threaded discussions and unsolicited comments. The asynchronous discussion board is a vital aspect of the students' learning in that, unlike the chat sessions, the information remains available all year, and it ensures that each student has a forum in which to express their ideas at all times during the program.
Knowledge building is a collaborative, intentional effort to improve knowledge itself by considering ideas in regard to their strengths, weaknesses, applications, limitation, and potential for further development. (Law & Wong, 2003, 57)The online learning environment in the SmARTS program is an important component in the knowledge building processes in which the students are involved, and promotes community building and interpersonal development. Students have responded positively to the online components of the program, finding them to be user friendly, useful in terms of their learning, and conducive to the facilitation of frequent and convenient meetings. The following comments are representative of the formal student feedback we have received:
I think the online forums were great. They were a fantastic way of communicating regarding the project. They were easy to use, extremely beneficial and of great assistance throughout the project. (former SmARTS participant, 2005 survey)While the students engaged in animated, and often fruitful, discussions about their projects, the process alerted us to certain challenges that they faced during the online sessions, and which speak to wider pedagogical issues facing both secondary and tertiary educators. The first of these concerns turns around the students' ability to maintain focused dialogues on particular topics within an online forum. Secondly, while students were very positive about the online aspects, many found the process of creating effective and productive communities in a virtual space to be quite confronting:
The online components allowed me to express my ideas with group members from other schools. Without the chat and discussion board it would have been difficult to communicate with the other members. (former SmARTS participant, 2005 survey)
It was hard but very rewarding. It was challenging to get so many different people to cooperate and agree but in the end it was fine. (former SmARTS participant, 2004 survey)On the whole, students accepted mutual responsibility for the progression of online discussions. They also reflected an impressive ability to democratise knowledge, by asking questions if a group member's comments were not clear, and by actively responding to, or developing upon, each other's ideas. However, there was a general resistance amongst the students to engage in any preparatory reading prior to the online sessions, even if this was agreed to by the students the previous week, and this resistance to engage as a group with set critical sources meant that the students were less equipped to develop in depth lines of discussion, even with the guidance of their tutor. This pattern coincides with other studies on the nature of knowledge building by high school students engaged in online research projects, which reports that students tend to reflect collective "cognitive responsibility" and equitable participation in knowledge building but a lesser ability to contribute innovative, critically refined ideas within online settings. (Law & Wong, 2003)
[SmARTS] taught us a lot about team work and gave an insight into the difficulties of group work. (former SmARTS participant, 2004 survey)
The online, synchronous chat format, with its emphasis on immediate responses combined with its tendency towards anecdotal comments, easily lends itself to less in depth and more fragmentary lines of discussion, and some studies have shown this to effect the strength of discussion across education sectors (Dozier, 2001; Romeo, 2001). This result is even more probable with high school students who typically utilise technology for informal and social modes of communication and are less accustomed to the use of chat forums for educational purposes.
One practical obstacle to online synchronous discussion for the students that we observed is their relative typing abilities, an issue that is less likely, perhaps, to pose a problem for university students who might have been exposed to this skill for a longer period of time. SmARTS participants also noted this issue, writing in their surveys:
I found it a bit tricky to get a good discussion going online. I couldn't tell if other people were thinking or typing so it took ages to get a point out. (former SmARTS participant, 2004 survey)Indeed, the opportunity for students to write detailed, critical comments was additionally impacted on by the fact that new threads of discussion would arise, taking the discussion onto a different track. Alternatively, numerous threads of discussion could occur simultaneously, a situation that is challenging for tutors and students alike to manage. The discussion board, as an asynchronous environment, provided an alternative opportunity for students to develop their ideas without the pressures of time that are integral to synchronous chat forums. (Christopher et. al, 2003) Although tutors posted weekly notices encouraging group members to build threaded discussions around particular topics or issues, there was a general lack of engagement with this forum, despite repeated reminders from tutors and students' own recognition of its usefulness for sharing knowledge between peers. Students seemed to be more willing to engage with the more socially immediate forums of online chat and face to face tutorials.
It was hard to comment as it took time to type and the comment was often 'outdated' by the time it hit the screen. (former SmARTS participant, 2004 survey)
The synchronous online sessions were vital to the delineation of group determined lines of inquiry and argument, and project planning. They were also central to the formation of student communities and teams. The students tended to utilise the online chat sessions not so much as a space in which new knowledge about their particular topic was collectively developed, but as an opportunity to become more acquainted with other students. This enabled SmARTS participants to begin to identify as a group, a community of peers, and to make informed decisions as to which lines of argument and which approaches would best accommodate the perspectives and tendencies of the group as a whole. The online sessions also afforded the groups the opportunity to engage in a good deal of project planning, by making collective decisions about the nature and scope of their project, its arguments, as well as designating responsibilities and tasks. Thus, while the online forums were not primarily spaces for the development of new, refined ideas about the groups' chosen topic, they were vital in enabling the students to collectively determine their objectives, critical positions, and short term goals. The online forums also operated as the means by which individual students came to form and consolidate a sense of group identity and responsibility.
Online learners have found the limited social interaction and negotiated meaning of the virtual environment less satisfying than the face to face format. (Anderson & Kanuka, 1997, cited in Christopher et. al., 2003, 167)A student disengaging from online discussion due to their typing speed, a lack of confidence to venture comments to the rest of the group, or an uncertain grasp of the discussion at hand, are potential scenarios a virtual community has to negotiate and that we encountered teaching on the SmARTS program. The inability to see facial and other gestures as indexes of meaning presents an additional challenge to students and teachers who are new to online learning forums (Dozier, 2001) and require students and teachers to develop methods and cues of resolving these glitches in the dialogic space. As Beuschel (2003) has suggested, such informal cues within virtual learning environments are particularly important for young adults who have grown up with the latest technologies, such as cellular phones, and all their attendant informal communication signs. Informal modes of communication are vital for the formation and success of face to face communities and while equally necessary in virtual environments, technological or other conventions that support this mode of interaction are lacking. (Beuschel 2003)
Yet, what we observed in some groups was their capacity to collectively, and almost unconsciously, invent informal communication cues many of which became formalised for that group within the SmARTS online environment. The one structural design of the chatrooms that could be described as an informal cue was a series of symbols from which students could select to indicate their postings for that chat session. A range of symbols was available, and while most students selected the same symbol each week - one that seemed to reflect an aspect of their personality or attitude - students sometimes chose alternative symbols that became an informal register of their mood (for example, a smiley face). Abbreviations for names also became a commonplace in some groups as the program progressed and reflected a level of informality and friendship between students.
Students also developed a series of abbreviations for phrases, many of which were expressions of affect, and functioned as the sorts of interpersonal, informal gestures Beuschel argues are lacking in online learning forums. For example, one group used the abbreviation 'lol' ("laugh out loud") common to SMS messaging, as a way of responding positively to a peer's comment. Smiley and sad faces were similarly adopted as cues for expressing emotion as were exclamations ("!", "?") and capitalised words and phrases. Some groups adopted particular phrases, such as "wait", "hang on...", "stop!", as a way of indicating to the group that they wanted discussion to be temporarily suspended so that they could compose a more in depth response. This enabled students to formalise periods of silence in order to facilitate longer responses, although such responses were, as we discussed above, infrequent. If students misunderstood each other, tutors adopted certain phrases such as "do you have another suggestion to offer?", which students soon recognised as a gesture on the part of the tutor that such behaviour was not in keeping with the groups' established rules for online etiquette. The other cue that tutors sometimes adopted was virtual silence, as a way of indicating to students that the responsibility for the discussion was being relocated onto them.
What these various processes particularly reflect is the students' creative abilities to collectively develop informal modes of communication, particularly ones that are linked to the expression of affect, which physical gesture often indicates in face to face communication. The development of a repertoire of such signs to represent emotions or attitudes by each group at the beginning of this and similar online programs, may offer a strategy for confronting this issue from the outset and potentially overcoming some of its attendant difficulties.
This virtual sign stem, developed amongst the peer group also emphasised to us the way in which students transferred 'informal' cues to the more formal, online environment. More precisely, the use of such informal cues assisted in establishing the 'formal rules' of the virtual context. It was not so much that the formal and informal spaces were blurred, as the cues from informal communications were re-deployed for the purposes of delineating appropriate group behaviours and responses in the virtual learning environment. Moreover, these cues assisted in the creation of these learning communities. Further still, such cues, and the relationships they mediated, also enabled students to undertake dialogues around the immediate issues discussed in the online forum. The virtual environment prompted students to find new ways of expressing affect and working relationships with others, and the discussing and building on extant knowledge. In other words, the virtual environment did not simply lend itself to the imparting of information and the easy facilitation of interpersonal connections; it necessitated students to rethink their peer interactions, the way in which the technology mediated the expression of their ideas, and how that technology shaped their learning and knowledge building through discussions with others. These demands reach far beyond the two ostensible 'outcomes' of a project and a presentation, and are set in motion by the online learning mode.
While students enjoyed these process of the online forum, they valued face to face meetings and found the social interaction and learning that occurred during such meetings to be very important to both their status as a group and the quality of the work that they produced during the course of the seven month program: "[I]t's definitely so much easier to talk face to face and get your point across". (former SmARTS participant, 2004 survey) The students' valuing of face to face contact is reflected in student feedback, which requests more on campus meetings during the year: "More on campus sessions!" (former SmARTS participant, 2005 survey) Furthermore, many groups that worked effectively, and that reflected a strong group dynamic, organised additional face to face group meetings in their own time, during which they would engage in group research, discussion and writing sessions. Indeed, many groups viewed such sessions, in conjunction with independent research time, as the periods during which their academic 'work' and learning occurred. This circumstance is, of course, largely a consequence of the fact that high school students are familiar with face to face learning formats. However, given broad cultural assumptions about young adults and their apparent obsession with technology, virtual modes of communication and virtual relationships (via SMS text messaging, online gaming etc.) we were somewhat surprised that SmARTS students found the online learning forums challenging in interpersonal as well as academic ways, and their expressed preference for face to face over virtual learning formats.
Yet, and perhaps most interestingly, the program illustrates students' willing flexibility with regard to different learning environments. Moving between collaborative and cooperative models of group work, and shifting between online and face to face modes of communication and knowledge building, the SmARTS students were energetic participants in the creation of their own learning communities. They did not passively translate their face to face experiences to the virtual environment, but rather adapted social cues to forge and continue online their intellectual dialogues with peers and tutors. While acknowledging the challenges that virtual learning poses for many students, the SmARTS cohort also came to recognise and appreciate the practical and pedagogical possibilities that virtual learning environments afford them.
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|Authors: Dr Tanya Dalziell is a Senior Lecturer in English, Communication and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia. Her research interests include contemporary literatures and theory, and critical pedagogy. In 2002 she received a UWA Excellence in Teaching Award; in 2003 she was an AAUT national finalist; in 2004 she was part of the AAUT institutional award nomination for the SmARTS program; and in 2005 was individually nominated for the AAUT by UWA.
Dr Tanya Dalziell, English, Communication and Cultural Studies (M202), School of Social and Cultural Studies, The University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley WA 6009. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Lorraine Sim is an Associate Lecturer in the Discipline of English, Communication and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia. She has published articles on Virginia Woolf, Emily Brontë, representations of twentieth-century women writers in contemporary biographical cinema, and teaching and learning theory.
Please cite as: Dalziell, T. and Sim, L. (2006). SmARTS communities and virtual learning. In Experience of Learning. Proceedings of the 15th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 1-2 February 2006. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2006/refereed/dalziell.html
Copyright 2006 Tanya Dalziell and Lorraine Sim. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.