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Virtual University: The learner’s perspective


There are many reasons given for developing virtual universities. Those most frequently heard concern the ambition of greater social inclusion and the promise of greater cost-effectiveness. It is not so common to hear arguments based upon advancing the quality of the learning experience itself. Nevertheless, some advocates of virtualisation indicate high expectations about that experience. For example, it is frequently claimed that virtual learning offers to students a new intellectual independence; it does so by providing them with greater freedom in the management of their studies. Yet there is little sense that such promises are based upon any principled consideration of how people learn. The academic discipline of Psychology is expected to offer insight on these matters. Accordingly, one aim of the present chapter is to consider how our thinking about virtualisation might be informed by psychological perspectives. I shall note what these have had to say about the issue of learning and how this, in turn, has influenced the design of educational technology.

This chapter has a second theme. Within the evolving debate about virtual universities, the voice of one particular stakeholder seems strangely absent. I am thinking of the student. It is true that students do participate in research on virtual learning interventions. Accordingly, questionnaires are filled in and tests are taken that furnish data on "learning outcomes". Yet such materials seems to provide only a rather superficial analysis of the student perspective. A lack of probing into how current undergraduates relate to the virtual agenda is odd. Perhaps this is because opportunities for virtual learning have generally catered for students that are "continuing" or "lifelong". However, consideration also must be given to those who make up the bulk of the present higher education constituency: full time and younger students. The general trajectory of their education will not necessarily be effected by virtualisation. For there is no obvious political ambition to break the present contiguity between secondary and tertiary education. In which case, whatever gets done to virtualise universities had better be acceptable to traditional school-leaving undergraduates, because individuals very like them could be populating these new institutions in large numbers. In the second part of this chapter, I shall draw from my own involvement with research directed at students facing opportunities to take part in more virtual practices.

The chapter is organised as follows. In the next two sections, I configure a position at the intersection of psychology, learning, and information and communication technology (ICT). I shall identify the virtual agenda in relation to ICT and note how psychology has previously guided both popular understandings of learning and practical applications of educational technology. In the third section, I propose that a "cultural" version of contemporary psychology offers the greatest promise for analysing virtual scenarios. The empirical case for such a perspective then will be made by drawing from my own involvement with projects investigating this area (Crook, in press; Crook and Light, 1999; Light, Crook and White, 2000). These findings are described in the second half of this chapter. There I shall illustrate a cultural perspective on the virtualisation of undergraduate learning: the discussion being organised into four sections, around the themes of time, place, social relationships, and materials. I believe that the two resources I have identified above – the students’ own voice and the lessons of psychological research – must contribute to the debates exercised in this book. My aim is not a thorough research review: it is more to map a landscape of issues for participating in the virtual education project – as seen by a psychologist.

Psychology, learning and technology

I understand the concept of a virtual university to mean higher education that is more loosely distributed in time and place. Virtual undergraduates will configure programs of study to a more flexible timetable and they will not be obliged to congregate for study at particular places. The possibility of such virtualisation is commonly associated with opportunities afforded by new communications technology. It might be tempting simply to presume that any psychology of virtual learning simply will be the psychology of learning with ICT. Yet, as others have argued (e.g. Clark, 1994), such media do not have direct effects. Where new technology is being adopted, it is important to notice the underlying teaching and learning practices that are guiding the forms of its use. Although there must therefore be a web of causal factors behind activities observed in any particular virtual scenario, I shall nevertheless use ICT as a way of creating a focus for my own analysis of virtual education here. This will be pursued in two ways. First, in the remainder of this section, I shall review how psychologists have theorised learning, sketching three traditions, each of which have influenced the design of educational technology. Then, in the sections that follow this theoretical sketch, I shall develop more fully one particular strand of theorising -–cultural psychology – by reference to research on student learning.

1. Behaviorism. Cuban (1986) has reviewed the history of teachers and technology – reminding us of how resilient educational practice has been in the face of such new tools. The term "teaching machine" only gains currency, however, towards the end of Cuban’s story. It was the psychological tradition of behaviorism that gave authority to this form of device (Skinner, 1968). From behaviorism we derive the idea of learning being a question of acquiring new responses. New responses must be "shaped" out of an existing behavioural repertoire. This happens as the environment selectively applies reward to (initially spontaneous) activities, such that they are successively fashioned to match the desired behavioural goal. All organisms were judged to learn in this same way. Accordingly, for a long time the study of learning famously dwelled on laboratory animals, simply for convenience. The invention of teaching machines made visible what followed from this theoretical perspective on learning. Presenting knowledge in a form that facilitated learning was achieved by analysis and reduction of the domain-to-be-learned. The learner’s encounter with that domain was therefore orchestrated as a gradual re-building: a path of rewarded interactions with those components of the domain that had been ordered by the designer/teacher’s analysis.

While there is a useful insight in the principle that individuals change and develop according to the consequences of their actions (their "contingencies" with the world), this principle was not powerful enough to prove very useful in practice. In particular, teaching machines were neither popular nor very successful in the form that this theory encouraged. Behaviorism has declined from its prominent influence. Yet one legacy is important: it frames learning as a matter of "acquiring" something (responses).

2. Cognitivism. It is commonly claimed that behaviorism was displaced by cognitive psychology: roughly within the 1960s and gaining central status in psychology thereafter. While behaviorism rejected the need for postulating hidden (i.e. non-behavioral) psychological processes, cognitivism positively celebrated the role of invisible symbolic structures acting somewhere between stimulus and response. The prevailing metaphor for this theory was "information processing", for this was a period in which engineering control theory and cybernetics were attracting wide interest. The project adopted by cognitive psychologists became one of modelling how information was detected, discriminated, transmitted, stored and retrieved by the complex mechanism of the human information processing system. Thus, the human mind was conceptualised as a symbol-manipulating apparatus. Like behaviorism, this perspective also encouraged a distinctive form of educational technology. Design of that technology was inspired by the cognitivist concern with "knowledge representation". A seductive challenge was to devise mechanical systems that might diagnose an individual’s representational structures for some domain that they wished to learn (say, some area of physics). Once properly specified, such a diagnosis could then be data for an intelligent tutoring system (ITS). The "syllabus" designed into an ITS would then not resemble the rigid and reductionist formats of the behaviorists teaching machine. With this new educational technology, the selection of "problems" for the learner was much more carefully crafted to a theory about that person’s existing understandings (and misunderstandings).

Intelligent tutoring systems have had only modest impacts. Diagnosis and utilisation of student’s putative knowledge structures proved difficult: simulation of tutorial dialogue proved even more challenging. Again, the fate of educational technology may be a yardstick for judging the psychological perspective that inspired it. While cognitive psychology does well in handling memory (modelling the storage and retrieval of information), it seems to say little about learning and even less about teaching. A certain preoccupation with cognitive architecture renders the learner as relatively passive; moreover, the whole issue of motivation – what engages learners – is seriously neglected. Although cognitive psychology shifts the conceptual vocabulary from behaviour to mind, one important legacy resembles that claimed for behaviourism: namely, a concern for specifying some entity that the learner "acquires" – albeit in relation to representations, rather than responses.

3. Constructivism. Parallel with the growth of cognitive psychology, has been an increasing interest in theories variously termed "constructivist". Such perspectives can moderate the more passive model of learning propagated by some cognitive psychology. This is because constructivism does view the learner as very much an active agent. Within education, Jean Piaget’s work has been particularly influential. As such, constructivism has encouraged a view of educational practice as a task of "facilitating". Instruction becomes about orchestrating optimal conditions for learners: conditions that allow active processes of knowledge building. Learning arises from guided exploration of the world consolidated by the student’s own reflection upon the consequences of such exploration. The growing influence of constructivist theorising is evident in the direction taken by educational technology. Experienced commentators (e.g. de Corte, 1996) judge there to have been a drift from instructional software (such as the teaching machine and the ITS) towards more pupil-centred tools that are less directive in their design. A landmark example is the problem-solving language Logo theorised by Papert, with extensive reference to Piaget’s constructivism (Papert, 1980). If there is a distinctive legacy from this form of theorising, then it must be its insistence that the learner is self-directed. Thus, the computer in education should become less a teacher and more a "pupil" – a resource that the learner can control, explore or "instruct".

Evaluating psychologies of learning

The value in reviewing these psychological traditions is to help us identify the theoretical assumptions that could be driving current interest in virtual forms of learning. However, such links between theory and practice must be tentatively made. It is not as if the designers of virtual learning environments have been explicitly invoking psychology. However, it is clear from the sketch above that the discipline has been implicated in the design of many other computer-based educational technologies. There is every reason to suppose that psychological theorising informs the present agenda of virtualisation – even if that influence is sometimes tacit and not formally acknowledged.

I wish to identify two particular theoretical themes that are apparent in the arguments that promote virtual practices. They both have roots in the psychology of learning and yet they are both problematic – arguably because of limitations in scope of the underlying psychological thinking. The first concerns learner autonomy: the expectation that virtualisation allows students to take greater control over their own study. The second is more abstract and its influence is more subtle: namely, a conception of learning that supposes it involves the "acquisition" of something.

First, prioritising learner autonomy clearly resonates with constructivist theories of learning. Practice based on such theories equips learners to achieve understandings through their own exploratory actions. In turn, they may consolidate these experiences by actively reflecting on the logic and consequences of those actions. Virtual learning seems to promise this, insofar as it offers to liberate the student from institutional direction; stressing instead resource-based and independent learning. However, cognitive psychology is implicated along with constructivism. For the credibility of learner independence must depend on the quality of the "resources" upon which it is based. There is an expectation cultivated by cognitive psychology that the conceptual sophistication of learners is something that might be diagnoseable – thereby locating their exact state of "readiness" and selecting learning resources to match this well. Again the MacFarlane report provides a good marker for this. It does so at the very outset, in a chapter that explicitly grounds their deliberations in psychological knowledge about learning. MacFarlane himself, writing later, declares: "Technology can transform an individual’s learning environment by presenting richly structured information to aid the assimilation, by providing highly-structured instantiated knowledge for easy and flexible interactive access, and by generating highly-interactive simulations for experiential learning." (MacFarlane, 1998, p. 83).

Such celebrations of student autonomy typically carry an implicit critique of the status quo in this promise of "transformation". By implication, current practices are insufficiently flexible, the student is not interacting, and learning is insufficiently experiential. It is as if the spontaneous curiosity of students is held back by institutional obstacles: by the slow, resilient and inaccessible procedures of current practice. Learner-oriented technology will liberate students from some stifling curricular organisation. On this model, the design of "richly structured information" will be guided by cognitive psychology and the constructivist student can pursue such resources free from the constraints of timetable and classroom. Put starkly: "Online self-learning packages fundamentally question the traditional role of the educator by giving students greater individual control. Effective learning can be realized by providing a student with a computer, loading the educational software and walking away" (Gell and Cochrane, 1996 p. 252). However, this liberational vision is a promise needing closer scrutiny. Psychological theory is relatively silent on whether the orchestration of learning might depend upon traditional communities of peers and tutors. Just as it has little to say about how easily student learning can actually be scaffolded by the less animated formats of learning materials and distance communication. I shall revisit these concerns later by discussing a more cultural theory of student learning: one that is more centrally concerned with the situated nature of learning and its scaffolds of support.

A cultural form of theorising can also be derived from consideration of my second psychological theme that fuels expectations for virtual education. That theme concerns the metaphor of "acquisition": a term that pervades all three psychological theories considered above. It is also a term that sits comfortably with the implicit theme of "delivery" that characterises resource-intensive modes of education – such as is associated with virtual learning. It is argued below that the acquisition metaphor inevitably cultivates a relationship to knowledge that is more "taking in" than "taking part".

Within psychology, learning-as-acquisition finds its clearest endorsement in the behaviorist view that learning is manifest as a repertoire of acquired responses. It is a seductive notion, for it fits well with our natural intuition that the mind is a sort of container. This is not merely a common sense idea. It also captures a core supposition of much cognitive psychology: namely, that the currency of mental life must be some sort of entities (representations, say); then learning, thinking, and remembering, entail no more than the acquisition, sifting and sorting of those entities. However, neuroscience does not offer much support for this conception. While the brain admits a coarse localisation of function, it does not seem to be structured like a filing cabinet. This, therefore, does not encourage a view of the mind as a spatial architecture into which knowledge gets strategically "placed". It does not encourage a model of learning in terms of the "acquisition" of any such items-for-storage. Bereiter and Scardamalia (1996) have critically discussed the mind-as-container assumption. They draw attention to a more appealing alternative for theorising learning, namely connectionism (e.g. Rummelhart, 1989). Connectionist theories invite us to think of the mind as primarily an environmental pattern-detecting device. Learning involves recognising such patterns and thereby adapting to the environment in a "finding our way around" manner. For this theory, the canonical and telling achievements of learning are those arising from routine cultural practices: achievements such as tending the garden, playing poker, navigating a city, being a policeman, parenting etc. Learning is successful atunement to the environmental structures in which these practices are encountered.

The case for connectionism has not yet been made in terms of some educational technology: although a case has been developed through the construction of learning automata (robots) based upon connectionist design principles. Indeed this perspective tends not to encourage the design of educational tools that are conceived to promote information-delivery relationships with the learner. The connectionist influence upon educational technology is more through the design of learning environments: contexts in which technology can be recruited to catalyse engagement of learners with authentic disciplinary practices (e.g. Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1992). In such instances, there is played out a different metaphor for learning to that of acquisition. The consequences of learning in these settings seems more a matter of "participation" than acquisition (Sfard, 1998). The notion that instruction involves designing opportunities such that learners may "come to take part" resonates more with modern connectionism than does the notion that learning is a matter of acquiring representations, and rules for sifting and sorting them.

However, it also resonates with conceptions of learning derived from social anthropology (Lave and Wenger, 1991). Within this tradition we find a similar theoretical perspective on educational practice: namely, that it should involve orchestrating students’ entry into communities of (disciplinary) practice (Wenger, 1998). This more anthropological version of such theorising is represented within psychology as "cultural psychology" (Cole, 1998). While connectionism is oriented more towards neuroscience for grounding its theories (therefore tending to build learning automata), cultural psychology is more oriented towards ecology (therefore tending to build learning environments).

In this section I have dwelt upon the learning rhetoric of student autonomy and the metaphor of acquisition; suggesting that psychological thinking has tended to cultivate these virtualisation themes. The argument has converged on the attraction of an alternative psychological theory of learning: one that takes participation as its central concern and which views study as a form of culturally-embedded practice. Such a cultural psychology could offer a useful reference point for our present concern with evaluating virtual education. That claim is developed in the next section.

Learning and cultural psychology

Cultural psychology invites us to view mental life as essentially mediated. Human beings everywhere act upon the world through mediational means – artifacts, tools, technologies, social rituals, genres of communication and so on. The psychology of intelligence is thus concerned with a novel analytic unit: people-acting-with-mediational-means. Intelligence ceases to comprise an in-the-head repertoire of generic processes: skills that psychologists might isolate for study in context-free laboratories. Intelligence becomes a socially-cultivated phenomenon: activity that has come to be distributed over systems of artifacts and technologies, as well as systems of social organisation. It is best cultivated by students taking part in the contexts where such resources are made available.

Learning is of great interest to cultural psychology. The approach is quite naturally concerned with how communities rapidly empower newcomers (children) to take advantage of the historically-evolved possibilities available in a local culture. From this perspective, learning becomes a matter of "enculturation". Much attention has been directed to how that is achieved within the pre-school years. Indeed, an emphasis on the participatory dimension of learning has often been grounded in observations of how children readily learn the language and social practices of their culture without anything that looks like "teaching". This informal learning seems to depend upon the willingness of adults (say, parents) join in and thereby orchestrate children’s interactions around cultural material. This is achieved in such a way as to create episodes of creative activity that could not be achieved by a learner acting independently. Such openings for participation are commonly said to be "scaffolded" by adults (Wood, 1988). Put against agendas for virtual education, this perspective makes a striking claim for the central role of interpersonal support in learning.

The interest of cultural psychologists in educational practice has encouraged research on two particular questions. The first concerns the idea that learning as enculturation must always entail an effort to capture some "culture of practice": how things get done in the discipline. For example, in the curricula of schooling this might be the culture of mathematicians, chemists, geographers and so on. The question then arises as to whether schools should reproduce conditions that more closely approximate the practices and values of actual disciplinary communities. A second research interest of cultural psychology dwells on expert-novice (say, parent-child) scaffolding in accounts of learning outside of school. Here the question is whether interactions among teachers and learners should more closely approximate the dynamic observed in the powerful exchanges of informal or domestic learning. The practical agenda arising from the first question is one of how to construct "communities of practice" in educational contexts (Brown, Collins and Duguid, 1989). While the second question invites consideration of whether formal education can import arrangements for "assisted performance" which some have argued define optimal methods of teaching (Tharp and Gallimore, 1988). Each of these cultural psychological concerns can be considered in relation to ICT-intensive versions of virtual education.

Enthusiasts for creating communities of practice have found new technology a powerful tool for the design of more authentic learning environments (e.g., Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1990). However, such interventions do embed the technology in a strong classroom culture of face-to-face interaction: authentic practice being supported by new and powerful tools, but also being supported by a social context of communication and collaboration. While conventional schooling may be criticised for not giving learners a strong enough sense of disciplinary participation, these case study interventions show that good approximations are possible (see also, Brown, 1992). It is less obvious that the distributed social relations of virtual education will be able to deploy technology in ways that claim quite such a degree of authenticity. It will be necessary to debate whether a significant strand of development in educational practice will thereby be sacrificed.

Enthusiasts for assisted performance as a learning arrangement may also mobilise technology. For computers can provide particularly rich (interactive and resourceful) settings for catalysing an effective episode of such tuition. Perhaps virtual education could also provide such collaborative experiences "around" technology (Crook, 1994). However, it could do so only at considerable expense, because such interpersonal occasions are inherently synchronous and are most naturally managed in learning environments where participants are in close and regular contact. It might be supposed that a substituted form of interaction could be devised for virtual learners, one that involved ICT as a tutorial partner for the learner – rather than a catalyst. This is no more than the vision of intelligent tutoring systems mentioned above. The study of learning as social practice has clarified why this is a seriously limited ambition. The capacity for both strategic collaboration and for organised instruction seems to depend upon a uniquely human capacity: in psychology this is often termed "intersubjectivity" (Rommetveit, 1979). Indeed the distinctiveness of this capacity accounts for why other species lack anything resembling pedagogy (Premack and Premack, 1996). Intersubjectivity refers to the projection of psychological states into other people: it describes an inclination for supposing that the behaviour of others is directed by mental dispositions such as belief, desire, and fear. As will be argued in below, this allows human beings to do the sort of anticipating, predicting and hypothesising that underpins the subtle interpersonal process of instruction.

It is now possible to state summarily what follows from this sketch of cultural psychology. It promotes a conception of learning that stresses two designs: participation in communities of practice, and expert-to-novice engagements through scaffolded or "assisted" performance. I have argued that neither arrangement is easily configured in a virtualised context of learning. Yet it can be also be argued that neither is very often realised in traditional institutions either (Lave, 1991; Tharp and Gallimore, 1988). Thus the poor prospect of doing so in virtual settings is hardly a fatal critique. Accordingly, although such ideas may be central to cultural psychology’s manifesto for educational design, they need not be the main reason for invoking this version of psychology to help our thinking about virtual learning.

Instead, what is provocative about a cultural approach to learning is something more basic: namely, its conception of learning as "practice" – activity that always entails a dynamic of engagement with cultural resources. Other psychologies tend to promote a conception of cultural context as no more than a background (perhaps this is the common sense understanding).. In the case of educational settings, the background is one against which some set of activities we term "studying" gets played out. So, it is easy to suppose that this context could be radically reconfigured, if only political will and some technology or other invited it. In particular, the institutions that orchestrate this context are not recognised as crucial to the principle activity of learning itself. This marginalisation of cultural context readily encourages upbeat visions of virtual alternatives. For instance, visions in which "..information technology would be used to provide self-paced and asynchronously-accessed learning support delivered as, when and where the learner needed it. Such support, delivered at a user’s request and convenience, would be paid for like any other commodity." (MacFarlane, 1998, p. 86).

One way of casting the role of the institutional context into more familiar language is to invoke the notion of motivation and the particular idea that studying is invariably demanding of us. I have already noted that learner motivation is neglected by the mainstream of psychological theorising. What is potentially problematic for virtualisation is how far the traditional cultural contexts of education helps students with the demands of learning: serving to sustain and – where necessary - insulate the activities of study from competing alternatives. Experience and/or career aspirations may supply such motivation among "continuing" and "lifelong" learners: indeed, this may underpin the successes of virtual education within such constituencies. However, the traditional school-leaver is a more serious challenge in this respect (Magee, Baldwin, Newstead and Fulerton, 1998). Insofar as this is acknowledged in the agenda of virtualistion, it is portrayed as merely a skills training challenge: "Students will have to be taught how to manage their own learning processes to an unprecedented degree" (MacFarlane, 1998, p. 83). There may be a skills aspect to such self-management. However, at present, the main burden of sustaining study may be carried by the curriculum, rituals and architecture of traditional institutions. This fabric deserves some consideration. It would be helpful to understand more of how it works for the learner and what we might expect to follow from disturbing it. Accordingly, the remaining discussion here moves towards this in relation to four ingredients of culture as we find them in current higher educational settings: time, place, community and materials. First, I shall introduce the research contexts which inform my own commentary around these themes.

A research context for observing the culture of learning

In this second half of the chapter, I shall make reference to a variety of published psychological research in order to identify themes that seem challenging to the virtualisation project. However, there is an emphasis on studies with which I have been personally involved. These concern students who have been provided with extended access to learning technologies that are central to virtualisation. They are not participating in a fully virtual university but it is a setting where virtualisation is in progress. Thus, it furnishes a chance to capture reactions to such resources at a point of transition. Our observations were based upon various methods. Interviewing was one: 45 students drawn from a cross section of the university took part, discussing various aspects of current study practices as well as perceptions of virtual and ICT-based learning methods (Crook, in press). Half of these students had networked PCs in their study bedroom and half did not.

Networking gave students access to a file server that provided web space for all taught modules in the university. Each of these course sites also offered a text-based conference forum. In addition the university maintained a further file server dedicated to providing computer-aided learning applications for all disciplines. Finally, at this time, the university library was part of a project that allowed full text of all nominated course reading to be made available at any station on the campus computer network. A group of 26 students with networked study bedrooms and a matched group of 19 without kept detailed diaries of their study practices in this environment. We also took system logs from the PCs of the networked students: this recorded all their room-based computer activity (Crook and Barrowcliff, in press). While not a particularly large sample, every effort was made to recruit a cross section of the whole community – indeed, refusals to participate were infrequent.


The temporal organisation of study

Innovators of educational technology often project a somewhat romantic view of the student. So, they may conjure up such ideal notions as "the insatiable desire of students for more and more information at a higher level of complexity" (Cole, 1972, p. 143). Against this it is common to set the constraints of current institutional life: perhaps characterising a system that obstructs the student’s spontaneous enthusiasms for knowledge. New technology then may be cast in the role of a resource for lifting such obstructions. Yet the spontaneous motivation of school-leaving students cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, researchers are often disappointed at not discovering among students a greater commitment or "thirst for knowledge" when their motives are investigated (Kuh, 1993). A study by Newstead (1998) reminds us that a rather small number of undergraduates regard their higher education in terms of such "personal development" and many (around a third in his sample) see university as merely a stop gap – dominated by the prospects of a vigorous social life. These observations are complemented by Newstead’s sobering discovery of the considerable amount of cheating that occurs in the conduct of coursework.

Similar observations are reported from North America where statistical surveys imply a growing trend towards greater disengagement from study. For example, the percentage of students reporting being "frequently bored" in class has risen from 25% in 1985 to 36% in 1997 (Sax, Astin, Korn and Mahoney, 1997). This may be seized upon by virtual innovators. They will often claim to be offering a more active, experiential, and collaborative approach to study - contrasting their vision with an existing system which is said to involve rigid and unstimulating methods. Yet, other North American evidence questions this; suggesting that, across this same period, faculty were engaging in more student-centred practices than ever. They were lecturing less and were doing more class discussion and more group projects (Sax, Astin, Arredondo, and Korn, 1996).

Together, these various observations indicate that students’ natural enthusiasm for study should not be taken for granted. An important issue, then, is whether the new formats of virtual learning will serve to increase, rather than further dampen, motivation to engage. Success will depend in part on whether virtual learning materials can really be made more vivid and stimulating than those which students currently use. This seems fanciful, although the prospect will be discussed further below. Otherwise, success will depend on whether a virtual university is able to cultivate strategies of independent study management among students, or whether it is able to impose them externally. Previously, such study skill training has not met with very striking successes and, in some cases, has actually led to students developing a more superficial study approach (Ramsden, 1987). On the other hand, the external imposition of study regimes does not seem very promising either. Indeed, it seems at odds with the "flexibility" agenda that has been strongly promoted as a feature of virtual education.

Our own interviews with students suggested that the temporal structure of the traditional curriculum was very important to their capacity for remaining on task. Over 60% of their diary-recorded study time was not timetabled: it was private - and usually solitary – study. In talking about this, students identified the manner in which the formal curriculum imposed a necessary discipline on the management of their activity. At a coarse-grained level of temporal organisation, they referred to a strict system of dates and deadlines, admitting that they often worked very close to them. At the finer level, they noted how the organisation of a daily routine – lectures, meal breaks and social events - were important in framing their private study episodes. There was a sense in which their accounts suggested that the corporate nature of this pattern motivated some of the individual investments made. Certainly, the pattern of daily life was often punctuated by brief exchanges in which checks were made on how other people were managing with current assignments, reading and other course-related obligations.

It is hard to be confident regarding the significance of this temporal structure. Certainly, it is commonly invoked by students when explaining the management of their own study practices. Its prominence in their conversations about sustaining study does suggest a need to consider whether the temporal "flexibility" of virtual practices are potentially problematic. However, one further aspect of study time in this community needs mentioning. Our group of students in networked study bedrooms had ready access to a wide range of ICT-based resources of just the kind contemplated by virtual institutions. Their need to respect the temporal order of campus life – by joining in at the sites at which students congregated – should thereby have been reduced. Going to the library, even going to lectures was less necessary: for resources were more to hand. Furthermore, their ability to communicate electronically with others rendered less necessary face to face social contacts in these traditional study places. Indeed, these students did use their computers for private study significantly more than their non-networked peers. However, the total amount of time they invested in private study was no more or less than those matched peers. In fact, no aspect of campus life - time in lectures, libraries or other public spaces - was significantly changed by flexible access to more powerful computer-based learning resources. This suggests that the institutional timetable is not readily subverted by ready access to virtual tools. However, this is a point about the resilience of institutional space as much as about institutional routine. We turn to this aspect of the cultural context next.

Study and place

Virtual education fractures the temporal structure of study; it also loosens up the traditional associations between study and places. At the end of the last section, it was commented that when traditional students were given more virtual learning tools, they were not seduced away from the familiar bricks-and-mortar contexts of their study. I will not dwell further on the significance of this large-scale institutional environment but, instead, comment on an aspect of the micro-environment of study: an issue that became visible when we considered the way our students organised their activity at the computer desktop.

Although universities do provide a wide range of locations that support private study, most of the students we interviewed reported did such work in their own rooms. Moreover, those with networked PCs recorded that significantly more of their room-based study was carried out at their computer. In other words, this technology had become a distinctive point at which study was now focussed. This is the pattern that must be expected for the virtual university student. The learning materials and the communication infrastructure of virtual universities will be focussed at a single technology in just this manner. Moreover, distinguished educational commentators assure us that the present generation of students do expect learning to be situated within this interactive media: "Unlike those of us who were raised in an era of passive, broadcast media such as radio and television, today’s students expect – indeed demand – interaction. They approach learning as a ‘plug and play’ experience" (Duderstadt, 1999).

Full time students have presumably always had to deal with the tensions of segregating their recreational interests from the obligations of study. As suggested in the previous section, the temporal organisation of a curriculum and the functional geography of a campus may help them to manage this segregation. Inevitably, the personal spaces in which so much study is concentrated will provide distractions that may sometimes make such self-management difficult. However, students may evolve routines for protecting themselves from competing interests, and students that we interviewed did identify such strategies. Yet new technology achieves a precarious juxtaposition of both playful and study resources. This single site of activity – the computer desktop - resources both agendas. Detailed system logs from the computers of students in networked study bedrooms revealed much computer activity that had little relation to the formal curriculum. Consequently, over half of these students had commented during interviews that they felt they spent too much time on ICT distractions.

However, the main point is perhaps not the absolute amount of time given over to playful interests. What was more striking was the animated nature of the activity. So, the common expectation that a lot of time might be invested in prolonged game playing was not supported. Rather, the pattern of activity was highly interactive and mobile, in the sense of skipping frequently from one application to another. Typically, the computer desktop was populated with media players, web browsers, email readers, instant messaging software, and news tickers – in addition to tools concerned with study, such as word processors or spread sheets. Such a tightly localised collection of resources with strong interactive affordances necessarily invites a multi-tasking style of engagement. In particular, the networked status of these computers adds the extra temptation of opening up conversational exchanges, as friends logging on elsewhere on the network become visible at the desktop.

Such a fluid style of computer use might be regarded as productive where the focal interest was academic. Agile movement between information sources, or unplanned exchanges with peer collaborators could be powerful forms of study practice. However, our records indicate that such agility was only occasionally exercised in the interests of formal study. Instead, the strong impression was one of an interactive technology that somewhat undermined sustained periods of engagement with a single academic task or document. The aim here is not to hazard confident predictions of how such students would study if they were part of a virtual university. However, the fact that the key technology of this future is a single site that hosts such a mixed range of applications – playful and more scholarly – is something to be reckoned with. Just as there is a helpful discipline imposed by the temporal organisation of the curriculum, so the physical design of traditional learning spaces also affords a framework for study management. Again, the loosening up of existing structures by virtualisation is something whose effects deserve closer consideration than they currently enjoy.

Study and community

Conventional universities derive their institutional identity from temporal and spatial orders. However, they also manifest a social structure. Learning is organised in relation to the student’s participation in a community. Two research traditions have considered the nature of this community, both of which concentrate on the North American case. The first has been associated with those organisations in American colleges known collectively as "student affairs". They embrace the more pastoral and extra-curricular care of students and, interestingly, were stimulated in an earlier era by a concern for the growing influence of business and industry on university life (Verblen, 1948/1918). The second research tradition is sociological and flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. Partly stimulated by social upheaval in university communities at that time, it dwelt upon understanding how personal identity might be shaped by the broad experience of college (e.g., Chickering, 1981; Perry, 1970; Sanford, 1968).

Both of these traditions are vigorous in stressing the extra-curricular dimension of full-time college experience. Reviews of the literature reinforce an association between progress with learning and campus residence (Pascarella and Terenzini, 1991) as well as between learning achievements and the scope of informal contacts with peers and faculty (Astin, 1993; Terenzini and Pascarella, 1996). Unfortunately, few studies have taken a very fine-grained approach to such matters such as might reveal more of the social texture mediating the useful benefits claimed. Neither has the nature of the benefit itself been very deeply theorised; say, in terms of clarifying the links between social practice and forms of cognitive development. Once again, care must be taken not to over-romanticise a feature of traditional university experience. The nature of the prevailing undergraduate community may not involve intense and frequent episodes of collaborative working. In fact, evidence suggests that these might be rather rare among undergraduates (Crook, 2000). Yet, such an observation should not force the conclusion that academic community is no longer particularly significant (cf. Finnegan, 1994).

In our interviews, students confirmed that orchestrated work-related discussions were indeed quite unusual. For example, in an invited consideration of the preceding 24 hours, most students had had some informal study-linked discussion with a peer. But only 15% of those had been by previous arrangement, or the result of actively setting out to find the other person. Most social encounters concerning study were serendipitous and arose as a by-product of routine movements between occasions of organised study. Moreover, not only were such encounters short and improvised, they did not seem particularly probing. Three quarters of them concerned coursework and assignments, and much of what got said seemed to concern the monitoring of corporate progress. In fact, many students made explicit reference to the aim of seeking via their peers "reassurance" about their own study routine. Sharing gripes about lectures and lecturers was another commonly cited theme. A similar pattern arose in relation to encounters with faculty. These were also rarely by arrangement but, nevertheless, 42% of this sample had had at least one unscheduled conversation with a member of staff in the preceding 24 hours. Again, there was a sense of improvisation about these staff-student consultations out of class time.

This pattern of engagement with peers and staff is echoed in how these students used electronic communications on campus. It was rare to use email for discussion of study and the electronic discussion conferences associated with course web pages attracted virtually no traffic (Crook, in press). Such communication media seemed to create a formality to exchanges that was at odds with the more unplanned form of campus-based exchange that was sketched above. That formality arises from the textual and asynchronous nature of the computer-based communication. There is no shared context at the point of launching a message, talking in text seems to demand greater care with composition and, if the target is a discussion forum, then the student’s contribution remains hauntingly visible thereafter.

None of this should suggest that the communal nature of study is not important. In fact, students were quite clear that they regarded it as precious. However, while academics might prefer that participating in this community should lead to deeper and more extended collaborative conversations than we observed, the fact that the community may not be working in that particular way does not mean that it is not working at all. The dominant pattern of study-related conversations - brief, serendipitous and frequent - seemed very important to these students. We also sensed that towards the end of the undergraduate period these encounters were sometimes transforming into more substantial collaborative occasions. In the virtual university, whatever social interaction there might be is likely to be dominated by computer-mediated communication. Yet it is not clear that text (or even video) conferencing captures what it is that is potent for current students’ experience of peer-supported learning. Such collaborative ICT arenas have been largely tested on a different constituency of distance learning students: individuals who may differ a lot in experience and motivation. For any future cohort of (school-leaving) undergraduates, these communication tools may not be capturing the improvised camaraderie that seems to dominate what is currently valued.

Study and its materials

The learning materials to be enjoyed by virtual undergraduates are typically computer-based. They are often promoted in terms of their depth, accessibility, and dynamism or "richly structured, highly-accessible and interactive machine-resident knowledge" (MacFarlane, 1998, p. 83). Moreover, it is promised that they will be encountered in a student-centred culture: "Yesterday’s classrooms were defined by what the teacher did; tomorrow’s classrooms will be defined by what the learner does" (Conway, 1998, p.203). Indeed, virtual innovators still trapped within conventional settings can unpick traditional formats and advertise their online replacements with a rhetoric of student-centred practice: "By cancelling traditional lectures as we have done and making the material available online we are supporting the ideals of having student-directed and student-controlled learning." (Smeaton, and Keogh 1999, p. 84).

I shall not dwell on the promise of materials offering greater richness-in-content. Certainly, our own sample of students had rather little appetite for the computer-aided learning applications that were on the network, and their interest in course web sites was largely focussed on the downloading of lecture notes, rather than the pursuit of scholarly URLs. Instead, I wish to consider one particular promise that these materials may have within their design. Namely, a capacity for helping students manage their own learning path: a promise to catalyse a form of self-teaching. Again, this comes down to an issue of whether a new form of cultural structuring (materials now, rather than time or space) adequately captures what gets achieved in the existing system.

The language describing online learning materials often suggests ambitions for being exhaustive, accessible, and well-structured. Designers may feel that their distance from the user demands that they make particular efforts to be comprehensive – that their commitment to doing so is what will distinguish this species of learning resource from its predecessors. However, research on the effective design of such materials is scarce and some of what is known might be taken to suggest that these apparently laudable ambitions of designers are misguided. The crucial issue concerns how keenly the learner becomes engaged with some material and how far its design maximises the opportunity for learners to interrogate the "text" in an active manner. Bjork (1994) has summarised a range of studies suggesting that a useful but curious consequence of variability and unpredictability in the design of learning situations. While such inexactness can slow down the pace of learning, it can extend the scope of what finally gets learned. Similarly, McNamara, Kintsch, Songer and Kintsch (1996) show how a minimally coherent (while still accurate) science text stimulates deeper student processing than that from a maximally coherent text. Such findings seem to echo earlier observations by Lepper and Chabby (1988) who studied how school teachers managed the discourse of classrooms. They compared this classroom talk to the forms of dialogue typically constructed by designers of educational software. The human teachers seemed actively to avoid the precision and explicitness of the software.

The core principle here is one that concerns optimising an invitation for the learner (listener/reader) to engage actively with the presentation – to be lead by it to points that demand active reflection in order to create closure. The idea is summarised by McNamara et al: "In general, researchers have found that people remember information that they have actively generated better than presented information and that they are better able to put such knowledge to use in novel situations" (1996, p. 3). One possibility is that the capacity to design discourse, assignments or demonstrations such as to leave meaning "suspended" or "provocative" in this sense is a capacity that may depend on intimacy of mutual knowledge between presenter and audience. Indeed, this fine tuning to the learner is perhaps a self-monitoring demand that makes the act of teaching so tiring. The problem for virtual teaching practices may be the difficulty that a fragmented community creates for the construction of such "common knowledge" (Edwards and Mercer, 1967) – and its subsequent exploitation as a platform for instructional communication.

Concluding remarks

Speculation about the prospects for virtual universities too rarely embrace psychological conceptions about learning. Psychology may not have made great strides in this area but, arguably, there are enough strands of research and theorising to make a provocative contribution to policy debate. In this chapter, I have been particularly concerned to foreground a culturally-influenced form of psychology: arguing that it is especially well-matched to the issues at hand. This led to a consideration of virtualisation in terms of its disturbance to four aspects of the traditional institutional culture: time, place, community and materials. If there is a central preoccupation underlying this presentation it is as follows. Whatever may be achieved with other constituencies of students, we must not take for granted the spontaneous motivation of traditional, school-leaving undergraduates. Insofar as, in some future, they may encounter virtual education, it is important to understand how far the capacity to sustain the demands of deliberate learning depend upon well-honed structures designed into the fabric of current educational institutions.

Orthodox psychologies have not chosen to theorise learning as a form of cultural practice in the sense that has been encouraged here. By doing such theorising, we are obliged to notice how the activity of learning is embedded in various forms of institutional organisation. Here I have considered the influence of such structure in relation to temporal patterns of activity, the organisation of activity in physical space, the social structure of the university community and the design of the artifacts mobilised for teaching and learning. In each case there are grounds for supposing that virtual practices will be hard placed to reproduce similar structurings of activity. This may compromise students’ capacity to sustain effectively their engagement with study.

However, if there are valid concerns here, it may be that they could have been detected more easily by simply talking with students themselves. Indeed, it is ironic that, while students are now often regarded as a species of customer, the tradition of interest in customer opinion is rarely applied. During the course of interviews, we asked our 45 undergraduates about the prospect of studying at a virtual university. In their answers they revealed a clear understanding of the likely technical configuration of such an experience. They also revealed familiarity with arguments of economy and social inclusion that the virtualisation project often attracts. However, without exception, they denied any interest in studying in such a manner. The reasons tended to congregate on two issues: first the idea that successful teaching and learning was inherently a face-to-face experience and, second, the idea that graduation involved valuable experiences that went beyond those tested in finals examinations. Whatever our reactions to social science research, there may be a neglected resource for planning virtual education in the voice of the principle stakeholder.




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