Collaborative Virtual Environments to Support Communication and Community in Internet-Based Distance Education

Article excerpt

Introduction

The majority of pre-packaged multimedia education products are educationally poor--they simply deliver content with no recourse to assisting students to construct their own understanding or problem-solving skills (Chambers, 1999). The majority of web-based education resources continue this unfortunate tradition: the approach of one-way course content delivery has prevailed over socially interactive learning approaches. While the Internet is an ideal medium for delivering education "anytime, anywhere," educational institutions must be careful not to simply implement on online version of the traditional "one-way" correspondence model. While media-rich web-based courses are quite economical and easy to implement, we need to focus more on the pedagogical issues of distance learning as opposed to the technological issues of web-based media (Hiltz, 1998).

The longstanding literature of Distance Education (DE) has documented extensively the problems associated with its practice. The traditional one-way model of DE course delivery fails primarily because of the lack of support for social interaction. When interaction between student and instructor is constrained, questions can remain unanswered, information can be misinterpreted and never corrected, and instructors fail to gauge reaction to their courses. Another critical issue is the lack of interaction between students themselves: not being part of a campus population of students limits the provision of a socially supportive framework within which effective learning can take place. Studies have shown that these issues result in the specific problems of high dropout rates, isolation, procrastination, and poor motivation which plague DE (e.g. Bernard et. al. 2000).

An alternative to the pedagogical one-way model where learning is an individual responsibility is the constructivist approach, which sees learning not as an isolated individual act, but a collective result of social interaction. New knowledge is constructed by "anchoring" accumulated knowledge to the alternative points of view, understanding, and experiences of others (Strommen & Lincoln, 1992). To implement such a pedagogical model requires the building of a community of socially interdependent scholars; a learning community. While it may be possible for this to happen in a relatively natural and unplanned way in traditional "face-to-face" education, to do so in a DE context requires that software packages explicitly focus on the subtleties of developing strong, supportive, and trustful social relationships.

If computers (and the Internet) are to be used to mediate the process of DE, software designers must pay special attention to the issues of sociability and community development. In order to avoid a "high potential for misunderstanding" in communication, an ability to express non-verbal social cues is needed to: communicate an understanding of material discussed; signal a participant's turn to speak; and, obtain a better understanding of the material communicated by observing the speaker's non-verbal cues (Preece, 2000). In order to provide an effective collaborative learning community, we must look beyond the capabilities of current text-based Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) tools and address the provision of more highly developed means of mediating the collaborative learning process.

The Need for Communication and Community in Distance Education

For many years, educators have been exploring ways to combine theories of differing learning styles and student-constructed knowledge with the theory of practice-centred learning. We now consider students to be capable of constructing their own knowledge with guidance from the teacher and in collaboration with fellow students (Berge & Collins, 1995). People do not just learn individually, but through and in interaction with others. The students' ability to create knowledge can thus be enhanced when their instructors use varied instructional delivery formats and learning techniques to provide a richer environment than is used in most DE practiced today. …

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