Draft: Quote from J. Bliss and and P. Light "Learning Sites" 1999.




Information technology and the culture of student learning

Charles Crook and Paul Light




The reform of universities is prominently placed on the political agenda in many countries. In the UK, there is considerable pressure to extend the reach of higher education. This has come to mean more than simply increasing numbers. It means a greater concern for the participation of less traditional students - those whose circumstances might require more flexibility from the curriculum and timetable. Yet such goals have to be attained in a stringent economic climate. So universities must be more versatile and more accommodating but, at the same time, they are expected to be more efficient and more economical. In seeking to resolve the tension inherent in such a set of demands, many policy-makers (e.g. Hague 1991) have appealed to developments in information technology. Perhaps, it is argued, a greater deployment of computers in the educational environment will allow teaching and learning to be both more flexible and more affordable.

Here is a quotation from an article in a European Union magazine concerned with IT development. The article anticipates a computer-driven reform of higher and vocational education. We are invited to:

Picture a system where every citizen would have on-line access, via individual workstations, to terabytes of information...Individual students would have access at any time to material precisely geared to their needs, and would themselves determine the pace of their studies...Of course these developments would not dispense with the need for teachers: instead they would free them from routine tasks and leave them more time for individual supervision of self-guided study, at a higher level of the coaching process. (IandT, 1995 p.13)

This quotation will have a familiar ring to anyone who follows the political and promotional literature surrounding educational technology. Typically the rhetoric of this literature invites us to picture a system of the future. The author will then helpfully conjure up a careful selection of features to populate this picture. Emancipation is a common element. So, we are assured, every citizen will have on-line access. Individualisation is another element. So, students will enjoy material precisely geared to their needs. Accounts of this kind typically converge on that liberating slogan: self-guided study.

However, students guiding their own study is a sobering idea to contemplate because it demands that we address the fate of teachers in any such learner-centred future. Just in case student autonomy is misunderstood to mean teacher redundancy, it is common to declare that the only impact on teachers will be a process of freeing up. Thus, in the computer-supported educational future entertained above, teachers are (characteristically) promised individual supervision of students and the opportunity to enjoy interventions at a higher level of the coaching process.

Such descriptions are dangerously seductive because they are so easy to construct from a selective collection of ingredients. In particular, the participating students in such visions are conveniently uncomplicated people: usefully equipped with wholesome motives, ambitions and enthusiasms. Yet these sketches of the future lack authority. Certainly, they are rarely derived from present reality in any systematic or convincing way.

Sometimes, the uneasy feeling of contrivance is sharpened by the photographs used to accompany such projective journalism. In the case of the article mentioned above, we see a 20-year old male dressed in smart denim in a study/bedroom, lounging back on a swivel chair, trainers pushing against the surface of his desk. One hand hovers over the keyboard on his lap, the other moves a mouse. On the computer screen is Leonardo's Mona Lisa, with a colour palette tool to one side. The overall image successfully captures something central to what we commonly understand about being in the state of studying: namely, that it involves a reflective and private engagement with some text. However, pictures of studying that is computer-mediated typically conjure up richer associations: the relaxed posture of the user suggests a continuity between recreation and study, while the computer graphics package suggests a distinctly exploratory or constructive relationship between student and subject matter.

New technology can indeed offer learners ready access to scholarly material. It is also true that this technology can set such material in a challenging exploratory environment. These are appealing features, for they resonate well with prevailing constructivist accounts of learning. On the other hand, the image of the student-at-study considered above makes a number of assumptions. In particular, it makes assumptions about motivation. To take the example offered in the photograph a little further: what inspires a student to inspect or manipulate reproductions of renaissance art? How do people come to want to do such things?

One answer is to suggest that, under ideal conditions, motivation to learn arises from challenges encountered in the course of leading everyday life. So if the futuristic student looks highly motivated, this could reflect an assumption that IT will allow educational experience to be geared to personal and meaningful concerns - as they spontaneously arise within the student's leisure or work. Indeed, it is already commonplace to argue that new technology offers the possibility of more flexible learning, in just this sense, because it furnishes an educational infrastructure that may be available when needs arise - so-called just in time learning. Valuable though it may be to have an educational system that is flexible to people’s interests in this way, modern society demands skills that surely require a more accelerated or intensive form of educational preparation. Insofar as this remains the case, the attraction of becoming and remaining a student may often need to be generated in us by the inspiration and efforts of well-structured educational practices.

Another view about the successful management of motivation in an IT-rich learning setting might be that the resources offered by computers are so vivid, so interactive and so comprehensive in their scope that the student will inevitably be seduced into engagement. That computer-based learning materials can be compelling in these ways is not in doubt. However, they may not ever be so compelling that they will simply dispose of the problem of motivation. Those of us fortunate enough to have jobs that make multimedia learning materials readily accessible do not seem to have been transformed into obsessive students! Cuban's (1986) careful history of predictions for teaching technologies cautions us not to expect too much, as arguably we have done in every case in the past.

We are arguing that IT-led visions of an educational future take a lot for granted. Particularly where societies cultivate a period of dense learning in early life, there will remain inevitable problems of focusing and sustaining student engagement. Our own view is that this has traditionally been achieved through the socially-organised character of educational practice. Arguably, futuristic scenarios often seem to recognise this - for they typically acknowledge a continuing role for teachers. However, the form of that role is debatable. We do need to reflect more carefully on the organisation of our current social and cultural context for teaching - in order to notice how it works. In the example used earlier, the student-of-the-future encountered teachers as administering individual supervision of self-guided study and offering higher levels of the coaching process. In short, this model abstracts rather particular social features of current instructional practice: the setting of goals (to self-guiding students) and the management of coaching at higher levels (by implication, only at those points that can not be reached with some current state of educational technology).

How does our knowledge of current educational practice help us to judge the detail and workability of such visions of the future? In the next section we shall consider what psychological research can offer on the question of how the learner, the information technology and the teacher might engage together creatively and productively.

Psychological Perspectives

The traditional theoretical preoccupation's of psychology have not helped it in addressing questions about teaching and learning in higher education, and this is perhaps particularly true in relation to challenges arising from new educational technology. A key feature of cognitive-psychological theorising is its analytic focus on the (often isolated) individual actor. In relation to educational practice, this interest has encouraged the characterisation of learning styles - individual differences that learners bring to the circumstance of being a student. Indeed this has been one of the few active areas of psychological research on learning in the settings of higher education (e.g.. Saljo, 1984).

Though individualistic in its origins, such theorising can adopt a more situated flavour. Thus recent work in this tradition has acknowledged that such learning styles are not inherent characteristics of people but rather they arise from learners encountering particular institutional cultures of educational practice(Ramsden,1992). Such a perspective orients us towards understanding the dynamic of educational institutions themselves, and how that dynamic is experienced by participants in the teaching and learning enterprise. The learning styles tradition of research has not yet probed this territory very deeply, but the situated cognition approach, recently introduced to the discipline via cultural psychology, suggests some directions for such an analysis.

Central to this approach is the idea that what someone is said to know must be understood in terms of "a micro-culture of praxis" (Bruner, 1996, p.132). Knowledge is distributed in the material and discursive environment - in the tools, symbol systems, institutional rituals, physical spaces and ways-with-words that make up any micro-culture of intellectual life. Educational practice becomes an orchestrated encounter with such an array of mediational means. Ideally, it should involve organising for the individual learner an intensive exposure to the resources associated with particular disciplinary activities.

The concept of learning style might indeed emerge from an analysis of educational practice in these terms, to the extent that different forms of orchestration may lead participating individuals to adopt distinctive and persistent styles of approach to their exploration of some scholarly discipline. Thus the classic cognitive perspective on learning (learning style) does not necessitate empirical analysis at the level of de-contextualised learners: it actually invites an ecological approach. Analysis can best focus on the activity of being a learner, seeking to reveal the character and quality of students' situated interaction with disciplinary resources.

A more ecological approach inevitably takes the social organisation of instruction seriously. However, the study of learning, conceived as a situated achievement in this sense, must entail more than a consideration of the localised circumstances of teacher-learner dialogue. Thus, any evaluation of the possible future impact of IT should not be limited to consideration of the prospects for this form of exchange alone. Our traditions of institutionalised higher education have evolved various forms of community structure. This is rarely acknowledged in visions of the future based on educational technology such as the extract cited at the start of this chapter. Typically, these visions preserve the social dimension of educational practice in only the most narrow sense: in terms of the need for tutors to supervise the self- guided learner or to pursue increasingly high levels of coaching.

Educational practice may depend on more than this - for example educational communities may provide crucial ingredients for motivating and sustaining the activity of study. Likewise the creation of common knowledge (Edwards and Mercer, 1987) within such communal settings may provide important resources for intellectual reflection and development among community members. So, this cultural context may both motivate and resource learning. The neglect of such considerations is hazardous, given that IT has the potential to transform, and perhaps to undermine, educational communities as we currently understand them. In the following section we shall explore some of the types of research that are needed to rectify this neglect.


Researching Student Learning in Context

What kinds of research are necessary to expose and evaluate more of the culture of undergraduate learning as it takes place in traditional full-time, residential settings? In addressing this question we shall allude briefly to some findings of our own work. Our research has looked at just two university settings, one a relatively old University and the other a metropolitan more recent one each having about 10,000 students. Much of what we can report is probably typical of current practice in the UK but we do not claim that it is a fully representative snapshot. Rather we have been attempting to identify prevailing patterns of educational life in selected (but unexceptional) higher educational settings, and then exploring the manner in which new technology interacts with them.

Adopting a situated perspective invites a particular analytic stance for research into teaching and learning. In particular, it requires recognition that educational practice, as we find it now, has arisen through a long period of historical development. Resources, institutional structures and interpersonal rituals have evolved to their present forms, and researchers cannot take them for granted as if they simply provided a neutral backdrop to the interactional business of teaching and learning. Once the situated perspective is adopted and learning is viewed as an activity, we must attend to how today's students enter an arena in which established materials and practices heavily circumscribe the very ways in which it is possible to act.

The conceptual vocabulary of activity may conjure up associations with apprenticeship models of learning (e.g. Rogoff, 1990), but we mean something more general. Learning as mediated activity might describe the concerns of our research more adequately. To learn about, for example, chemistry or geography is to participate in structured relationships both with a particular set of materials (texts, equipment etc.) and with a particular set of other people (tutors and peers in particular). The encounter with cultural resources (texts, technologies, rituals) may sometimes be in intimate relation to the actual practice of the relevant discipline, as in apprenticeships, but that encounter may also be a relatively arid experience, perhaps quite remote from actual disciplinary practices.

In either case, the business of unravelling the learning experience demands research in an ecological tradition. A start was made on such a research agenda more than thirty years ago (e.g. Becker et al., 1961; Wallace 1966), though this work was largely undertaken from a sociological standpoint, and made limited reference to any psychology of learning. Our own research starts from the rather particular purpose of locating the impact of new technology. But since we suppose that the impact of any new mediational means on education should be evaluated by reference to the existing culture of learning activity, it has been necessary to try to understand more about this setting as we find it.

In this spirit, we asked students to keep diaries that document a wide variety of study-related activities to a fine temporal resolution. We carried out self-report surveys of study practices during a period of revision for examinations. We created sociometric representations of students' collaborative relations with peers. We made direct observations of students working together at academic problems and we organised focus group discussions concerning the experience of local educational practice. The research was in both universities, some of it involved a few students and some of it many. Very little was duplicated on both sites.

In the diary study, 60 students were recruited by post, from a randomly selected list of second year students drawn from six disciplines. Each respondent was required to record their study activity on one day per week, over a period of five successive weeks. In the survey of study and revision practices, the respondents were identified by compiling a random sample from the main student data base representing 20% of the second year student body. 20 student helpers were recruited to conduct the survey, with some respondents living on campus and some in town (1:3 ratio living in/out). The final number of returns was 159. For the focus groups, four sets of three group meetings were held between November 1996 and July 1996. In each group there were six students drawn from each of three faculties, Science, Social Science and Arts. The first set of meetings focused on the broader culture of student life, for example, College life, departmental life, being at University, relations with ones course peers, relations with staff. The second set of meetings focused on extra curricular study, student-tutor relations and students' experience and attitudes to Information Technology.

This research has revealed a good deal about the texture of studying in a full time, residential setting, and has helped to provide a framework within which we may interpret the ways in which computers are entering the teaching and learning system. In reviewing what commentators say (and illustrate), we noted a blurring of the distinction between recreation and learning, and between teaching, coaching and self-directed study. More generally, the formal and the informal curriculum are made to seem less distinct from each other. With this in mind, in our own analysis of the culture of undergraduate learning we have paid particular attention to the informal, out-of-class experience of study. For example, we have focused upon the possibilities for informal collaboration with peers and informal contact with tutors that arise from participating in a full time community of study.

In fact, however, our various empirical techniques all tend to reveal a strikingly low level of study-related informal collaboration with either peers or (out of class time) with tutors. For example, student diaries recorded very little casual conversation about work with fellow students. Similarly, sociograms of interaction amongst students following the same courses showed few connections based on any form of collaborative study. Revision for examinations tended to be an almost exclusively solitary enterprise.

Some of the ways in which aspects of the local institutional culture support or inhibit informal collaboration emerge from this research. One theme that emerges is that of place: institutions provide spaces in which out-of-class study can go on. In particular, such work tends to be concentrated in libraries and in study-bedrooms. Rules of conduct in the former and room allocation policies in the latter both tend to militate against the effective use of these study spaces for collaborative learning.

How might new technology fit in to this? Where it takes the form of powerful workstations provided in the students own (private) room it might further militate against face-to-face interaction and collaboration; although, at the same time, it might afford possibilities for computer-mediated interaction. On the other hand, provision of computing resources in so called public computer rooms might afford new possibilities for face-to-face interaction. We conducted (in the older University) an observational study of activity in campus computer rooms, with a view to establishing their significance in supporting informal collaborative exchanges. This study was facilitated by a PC based programme (written by Simon Clark) which allowed both the schematic representation of a room with the location of PCs marked, and an indication of persons, male or female, via appropriate icons. 8 rooms were observed, including one library. Snapshots of the computer room were taken at 90 second intervals and 10 snapshots per session, 33 sessions being recorded. Although such spaces do not demand that users are quiet (like libraries), we found little evidence of casual collaborative exchanges mediated by this arrangement of computing. Instances of productive interactions "around" the technology (Crook, 1994a) were few and far between.

Colleagues from other universities have expressed surprise at this finding. To some extent this may simply reflect selectivity in what the undisciplined observer of such spaces notices. However, it may indeed be the case that aspects of institutional organisation such as time tabling, or the location of public rooms on the campus influence what happens in these spaces. The point then is not that our observations expose an inevitable pattern of using computer rooms but they do remind us that collaborative interactions around computers are not easy to provoke. Perhaps, their mediating function in this respect is moderated by other factors in the physical and social context. To this extent, the effect of IT provision needs to be understood in terms of the niches that are created for it within the learning community. The way in which computers work for the students we have observed, for example, may well reflect prevailing traditions of their learning practice such as their relatively modest experience of peer-based collaboration.

One feature of the computer rooms we have studied is that any informal collaboration is likely to depend upon chance encounters among course peers using these facilities. What is the impact of IT-based resources in situations where the joint activity is more planned? To investigate this, we have observed pairs of students who volunteered to work together out of class, revising a course either from their own (paper based) lecture notes or from a (computer based) hypertext document developed for the purpose and covering the same lecture course (Crook, 1996). The interaction within these pairs was very different. Students working around their own notes developed a deeper exploration of the core ideas. Those working around the computer-based document frequently became more enmeshed in discussion about the hypertext itself and the possible motives of the author. More work needs to be done to establish how far this is an issue of private vs. public resources for revision, and how far it relates to the use of new technology per se.

Collaborating involves negotiating common knowledge, and the prospects for that enterprise will typically depend on the shared resources towards which the collaborators can orient. Our survey data indicate that, first, this kind of joint activity may be surprisingly rare in HE communities but also that, second, computer-based resources may not necessarily have an empowering impact. Yet this need not reflect something intrinsically limited about the medium. How students collaboratively approach on-line access...to terabytes of information may depend upon prevailing attitudes to the curriculum and towards texts; attitudes that have been cultivated through extended participation in their existing learning communities.

The examples above have concerned the support of collaboration through interactions around and at computers. Arguably, IT might be expected to lend itself better to supporting asynchronous collaboration; interaction through" the technology (Crook, 1994a). In this connection we have been interested in the use of email and electronic bulletin boards. This mode of exchange is not so radical a departure from existing practices within a residential learning setting as it might seem at first sight. To some degree participants have always created shared meanings from events or contributions that are scattered within the time and space of institutional life (via. notice boards, pigeonholes and so on). Computer-mediated communication (CMC) formalises and reconfigures some of the possibilities for this kind of interaction. However, our own observations of its use suggest that the resource does not merely reproduce existing practices in another medium.

One approach we used was to conduct a user-managed survey of email usage among students. This indicated few spontaneous study-related exchanges with peers or tutors. A more proactive approach involved building an email facility (to contact the tutor) and an anonymous bulletin board facility (for comment and discussion) into a set of hypertext course materials. Despite the fact that the course materials themselves were heavily used, the students hardly made any use of the CMC facilities at all (Crook, 1994b).

When writing to email lists is made a more central course activity, the picture can be different. In such skywriting (Light, 1996; Light and Light, in press) students write to a list consisting of all fellow students on the course and the tutor(s) of that course. On one largish nine-week lecture course for first year students (108 students, half registered for psychology and half taking course as an elective subsidiary to other degrees) which we monitored, the lecturer was highly responsive to direct questions. Both questions and answers were broadcast to the full list. In this instance, skywriting soon became entirely a question-and-answer exchange, supplementing the opportunities usually provided for asking questions of the lecturer (at the end of lectures, in tutorials, etc.).

About half the students made use of the opportunity to ask questions, with more than half reading the exchanges. The medium seemed to provide for a kind of vicarious learning (Mayes and Neilson, 1995) and, importantly, allowed the students to gauge their own level of understanding relative to that of their colleagues. Interestingly, in this situation skywriting exchanges were less dominated by male students than were the traditional face to face tutorial meetings that accompanied the course, and levels of participation were independent of the students' attitudes towards, or experience with, computers generally.

By contrast, where the lecturer offered skywriting as an opportunity for the students on another large lecture course to enter into debates with one another about the issues covered in the course, participation levels were extremely low, and almost all participants were male. Students reported great self-consciousness about their own contributions and, sometimes, ambivalence bordering on antagonism concerning the contributions of others. It seemed that skywriting in this context cut across some of the conventions of this student group (as regards criticising one another in public, for example), and it fairly rapidly died out.

Skywriting proved more successful on the two smaller courses we observed. These were followed by only 5-10 students who all knew one another personally. In this setting, the skywriting medium came to be used for mutual support, to the extent that students would copy materials to one another and (given encouragement to do so) even share work assignments. All of the students involved felt that the small group size and the fact that they knew each other well were important to the way the skywriting developed.

The lesson we take from these observations is that the established culture of learning can greatly influence the prospects for new CMC initiatives. Existing institutional practices can equip students with particular experiences of their relationship to both their disciplines and their peers, and these experiences will dictate the way in which new technology is appropriated - or, indeed, whether it is appropriated at all.


Actual and Virtual Community in Higher Education

We have argued that learning is best conceptualised as arising from the participant structures created by the formal and informal curricula of the learning institution. In our own research we have been trying to interpret the impact of educational technology with reference to the community contexts in which such innovations are set. In general, our results confirm us in the view that students are enculturated into particular communities of learning, and the resulting practices will offer resistance to the bolting on of new educational technologies.

One area in which the results of our surveys of student routines surprised us was that they suggested that the quantity and quality of informal (out of class) collaboration is often extremely limited. Since full-time residential education is often defended in terms of the possibilities afforded for such collaboration, this finding is at first sight rather alarming. In particular, it might seem to question whether (residential) community is so precious that it needs protection from computer-intensive educational futures.

However, face-to-face familiarity amongst students may be important to their learning in less direct ways. Thus, for example, the very effective use to which skywriting was put in the small groups was seen by the students themselves to depend critically upon the fact that they knew one another well. Other research on CMC in the context of distance education, where the students are not close companions, has indeed tended to paint a fairly discouraging picture (e.g.Grint, 1992; Kaye, 1995).

More generally, the fact that full time residential institutions may not support a great deal of informal collaborative learning does not imply that the cultural supports they do provide are irrelevant to their success as places to learn. For example, various aspects of institutional culture (assessment, peer comparison, timetables and other rituals) may be important in motivating learning without drawing students into particularly collaborative relations. Becker et al. (1961) illustrate this in their ethnography of medical undergraduates. Our own focus-group discussions indicate that, although informal peer collaborations may be unusual, there remains a strong sense in which studying is framed in terms of such community structures and demands.

The radical potentialities of information technology for higher education are frequently couched in terms of reducing the constraints of time and space. Thus, for example, a head of a UK university recently prophesied that investment in IT, "...will redefine the locus of a university as a community of learning. It will free education from the constraints of time and space. It affords the chance to create a distributed community of teaching and learning" (M. Fitzgerald, Times Higher, July 1996).

The technology may indeed be available to free teachers and learners from the constraints of time and place, but our analysis suggests that conjunctions in time and place may as often enrich as constrain interaction - even if the present culture fails to take full advantage of this. For example, in our studies with full time undergraduates, none of those we interviewed would have willingly substituted electronically mediated teaching-learning interactions for face-to-face exchanges. This applied to even the most enthusiastic users of the skywriting facilities. A common observation was that while real-time conversation provides openings, triggers responses, and stimulates engagement, sitting at a computer composing a query or comment for an email list discussion does none of these things.

Contemporary experiments with virtual classrooms, even virtual universities, offer limited guidance here, since they tend to involve highly self-selecting clienteles. Certainly any demonstration that it is possible to support learning in this way should not lead us to suppose that the virtual classroom will be an inevitable and unproblematic substitute for present institutions. Relatively small numbers of people do presently learn in this way, just as relatively few academic researchers choose to join the communities of usenet or listserv electronic mailgroups.

Nonetheless, the success or otherwise of such virtual environments for supporting learning activities is eminently worthy of study. For present purposes, it is interesting to see that constraints of time and space tend to be reinvented virtually within such environments. Evolving from collaborative computer games, for example, MOOs (multi-user object-oriented environments) offer the option of creating both personal and public virtual places, resourcing particular kinds of interaction. Frequently, such environments for learning incorporate virtual spaces conceived only for informal interaction. Oldenburg's idea of "third places" is often cited; places distinct from home and work but within which "conversation is the primary activity" (1989, p. 42).

However, in comparison with communities of traditional full-time study, these virtual settings are relatively impoverished. The potency of interaction in learning does not arise simply from the availability of contexts for synchronous talk (or text). Productive interactions amongst learners depend upon a backlog of common experience and a mutual recognition that experience is indeed held in common. In other words, the context for collaborators in learning extends beyond the immediate resourcing of conversational exchange; it involves those institutional structures that allow individuals to be, and to know themselves to be, participants in the same events.

More generally, a situated approach to evaluating specific IT interventions may serve both to illuminate their impact and to suggest what may be necessary to make them more powerful resources. Both the possibilities and the limits of what can be expected from, for example, email or hypertext or computer rooms may be better recognised when the culture into which they are being introduced is more fully appreciated. At the same time that culture itself may merit more attention, lest we find that we have inadvertently thrown out the baby with the bathwater.




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