DRAFT: Do not quote.

To appear in

The Virtual University? Information, Markets and Managements

Kevin Robins and Frank Webster (eds)




Virtual University: The learner’s perspective


Within the evolving debate about virtual universities, the voice of one particular stakeholder seems strangely absent. I am thinking of the student. Certainly, students participate in research concerned with implementing the tools of virtual learning. So, they may complete questionnaires to help evaluate such innovations, or they may take tests that furnish data on "learning outcomes". Yet such material represents a very modest depth of curiosity about students’ perception of these matters. The apparent lack of probing into what current undergraduates think about the virtual agenda is odd. It is true that such an agenda stresses learning as "continuing" and "lifelong", but this should not imply any strong political ambitions to break apart the present contiguity between secondary and tertiary education. In which case, whatever gets done to virtualise universities had better be acceptable to current undergraduates, because individuals very like them could be populating these new institutions in large numbers. The present chapter is partly concerned to embrace a view from that student constituency.

Some might argue (discretely, perhaps) that students themselves do not enjoy any particular authority in debates about developing virtualization. First, they may have a poor grasp of the technical ingenuities that will be supporting new forms of education. They are simply, as yet, unaware of how powerful the resources will be. Second, they lack a further sort of expertise: namely, an understanding of the optimal conditions in which learning occurs. Such matters are best debated among educational theorists and researchers; students must trust the judgements they make. The first point is doubtful. It can be argued that many students are well placed to predict the way in which technology might realise virtual institutions. Certainly, the students to be discussed below were often quite comfortable with the trajectory of this technology and more fluent in exploiting it than most of their tutors. The second point is simply misguided. An important – albeit neglected – form of material for educational research is the very issue at hand: the student’s own experience of teaching and learning. As one architect of the influential "learning styles" tradition reminds us: "Students react to educational situations differently from the ways experimenters predict. This is because they react to the situation they perceive, not always the one that researcher and teachers define" (Ramsden 1987, p. 277). To take seriously the student’s voice in this sense is to prioritise their experience in any psychological account of learning: it is to theorise what it is that students are supposed to do. So, another concern of the present chapter is to consider the relevance of such psychological theory and research to developments in virtual education.

The chapter is organised as follows. First, I shall configure a set interests at the intersection of psychology, learning, and information and communication technology (ICT). These themes relate as follows. A central aim for any reform of higher education must be to enrich the experience of learning. The realisation of virtual formats for education depends upon the mobilisation of ICT. The prospects for virtual learning mediated by ICT should be evaluated against insights offered by psychology. So, in this first section I shall identify the virtual agenda in relation to new technology and note the ways in which psychology has previously guided both applications of educational technology and popular understandings of learning. In the second setion, I shall converge on a "cultural" version of contemporary psychology as being one of particular relevance to any analysis of virtual scenarios. This frames the theoretical context of the arguments here. However, there is also a research context. The arguments made will be illustrated with findings from studies with which I have been involved. This research context is briefly sketched in the third section below. The remaining sections of the chapter address the prospects of learning in a virtual university in relation to four themes (a taxonomy suggested by my adopted cultural perspective): that is, learning in relation to time, place, community and materials. I believe that the two resources I have identified above – the students own voice and the lessons of psychological research – can help our understanding of these four themes. My aim is not a thorough research review: it is more to map a landscape of issues for participating in the virtual university – as seen by a psychologist.

Psychology, learning and technology

Here, I understand the concept of a virtual university to refer to the presentation of higher education that are more loosely distributed in time and place. Virtual undergraduates will configure programs of study to a more flexible timetable and they will not be obligated to congregate for study at particular places. The possibility of such virtual formats is commonly associated with opportunities afforded by new communications technology. It might be tempting simply to presume that the psychology of virtual learning is the psychology of learning with ICT. Yet, as others have argued (e.g., Clark, 1994), media do not have such direct effects. Where new technology is in use, it is important to notice the teaching and learning practices that are guiding the design of its application. It is evident at the present time that the appropriation of ICT is confounded with a number of parallel enthusiasms for higher educational reform.

For example, this is visible in the MacFarlane report (CSUP, 1992). While the report is often read as influential guidelines on the use of technology in universities, its principle concern was to define the possibilities for an economic mass higher education system. This was judged to demand, first, greater emphasis on student-managed learning in which "students take more responsibility for their own learning...relinquishing dependence on the teacher as the main source of knowledge judgement of progress, and encouragement" (p. 5). Second, it invited a greater investment in standardisation of courses and the development of a strong culture of quality audit. This, in turn, suggests a greater proceduralisation of educational practice. One sign of the influence of such ideas is the adoption of business process re-engineering (Hammar and Champy, 1993) within universities. Such proceduralisation and commidification of education readily invites conceptions of knowledge itself in "delivery" terms. So, educationalists promoting Hammar and Champy’s approach re-invent the learner in consumer terms: ".. as customers of higher education institutions, students are interested in a smooth, integrated process which will produce the results they need." (Hafner and Oblinger, 1998, p. 5). Moreover, it is a "wired university" (Massey, 1997) that is cited as the model for realising this process-oriented vision.

For neither of the above enthusiasms can we be confident how their application will influence learning. Student-centred methods may not necessarily lead to a genuine intellectual independence (Scott, 1995) and business process re-engineering may misrepresent the manner in which education works as a form of social practice (Brown and Duguid, 2000). In short, virtual learning structures, and ICT within them, have become awkwardly correlated with various parallel agendas for educational reform. Although there must therefore be a web of causal factors behind activities observed in any particular virtual scenario, I am taking ICT as a way of creating a focus for my own analyses here. This will be pursued in two ways. First, in reviewing the place of psychological theorising, I shall sketch a history of influence as it has been exerted on the design of educational technology. This is merely a device. Psychology’s theoretical preoccupations are simply made visible when we examine its influence on ICT in learning. Second, the personal research I shall cite on students as potentially virtual learners is based upon observations of how they use new technology in that context.

The remainder of this section is concerned to sketch how psychological theories of learning have been implicated in the design of educational technology. The aim is to converge on a current theoretical perspective that could be helpful for thinking about virtual learning. This will be a cultural perspective. Having done this, I shall then explore its application in relation to four particular themes of virtual education practice.

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 his 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 by selectively applying reward to (initially spontaneous) activities, such that they successively approach the desired behavioural goal. All organisms were judged to learn in this same way. Accordingly, the study of learning dwelled on laboratory animals, for convenience. The invention of teaching machines made clear what followed from this perspective. Transforming knowledge to a form that facilitated such learning demanded a process of analysis and reduction within the domain-to-be-learned. Peoples’ complex understandings were manifest as complex behaviours and complex behaviour was acquired through processes of rewarding its simple components. While there is a useful insight in the principle that individuals are influenced by the consequences of their actions ("contingencies" with the world), this principle was not powerful enough to prove very useful in practice. Behaviorism has declined from its prominent influence. Yet one legacy is important: it frames learning as a matter of "acquiring" something (responses).

It is commonly claimed that this theoretical tradition was displaced by cognitive psychology. While behaviorism rejected the need for postulating hidden (non-behavioral) psychological processes, cognitivism positively celebrated the role of invisible symbolic structures mediating between stimulus and response. The prevailing influence on this theory was "information processing", for this was a period in which cybernetics and engineering control theory 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. In terms of educational technology, this perspective grounded its concerns in understanding "knowledge representation". A particular challenge was to devise mechanical systems that might diagnose an individual’s representational structures for some domain to be learned (say, some area of physics). Once properly analysed, then such a diagnosis could be data for an intelligent tutoring system (ITS): a sort of teaching machine where the selection of "problems" for the learner was much more carefully crafted to a theory about their existing knowledge.

Intelligent tutoring systems have had modest impacts. Again, the implementation of educational technology may be a yardstick for the scope of an underlying psychological perspective. Cognitive psychology seems to do well in handling memory (modelling the storage and retrieval of information) but says less about learning. A preoccupation with cognitive architecture renders the learner as somewhat inactive. and the whole issue of motivation – what engages learners – is neglected. Although the psychological vocabulary has shifted from behaviour to mind, one important legacy is similar to that claimed for behaviourism: namely, a concern for "acquisition" – albeit in relation to representations, rather than responses.

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. For Constructivism does view the learner as very much an active agent. Within education, Piaget’s ideas has been particularly influential. As such, Constructivism has been taken to encourage a view of educational practice as a task of "facilitating". To a significant extent, instruction is 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 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 surely be its insistence that the learner is self-directed.

In contemporary debate concerning the implementation of virtual learning, we find influence from all these psychological perspectives. The notion that learning should be active and self-managed is particularly widespread. The MacFarlane report develops this theme 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). There is an implicit diagnosis of the status quo in this promise of "transformation": one that trades on psychological notions of learning as active. So, by implication, current practices are insufficiently flexible, the student is not interacting, and learning needs to be more experiential. There is a sense of students being held back in their inquiry by obstacles: by the slow, resilient and inaccessible procedures of current practice. Technology is expected to liberate students from some current curricular organisation. Yet the possibility of this rests on the success of another sort of structuring. For these visions typically invoke (but rarely elaborate) structure in the design of the new learning materials. Something in their design will ensure that such resources enjoy more engaging properties and will, in particular, look after the task of students self-managing – as virtual settings will deny them such elaborate systems of external management: "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 vision that technology can be designed to liberate the active learner is a promise needing closer scrutiny.

I shall revisit these issues later. First, comment is needed on one further theme from the discussion above of psychology and learning. The metaphor of "acquisition" is an idea that pervades this theorising, and one which is also central to agendas of ICT-supported education. It is a seductive notion, as it fits well with the common sense intuition that the mind is a kind of container. Of course, this is not merely a common sense idea; for it also captures the core principle of much cognitive psychology. Namely, that the currency of mental life must be some or other sort of entities (representations, say) and that learning, thinking, remembering, and the rest are merely the private manipulations of such raw material. Interestingly, neuroscience research does not strongly encourage this view. While the brain admits a coarse localisation of function, it does not seem to be structured like a filing cabinet. Bereiter and Scardamalia (1996) have critically discussed this mind-as-container assumption; drawing attention to a more appealing modern alternative for theorising learning. That is 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 adapting to the environment (very broadly understood) in a "finding our way around" kind of manner. Thus, for this conception, canonical achievements of learning are the achievements of familiar cultural practices: such as commanding some social protocol, playing poker, navigating a city, being a policeman, parenting etc. Learning is about atunements to the environmental structures in which these practices are encountered.

The case for connectionism is yet to be made in terms of some educational technology: although a case has been developed through the construction of learning automata based upon connectionist design principles. The connectionist influence upon educational technology is more through the design of learning environments: contexts in which ICT catalyses meaningful disciplinary practices (e.g., Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1992). In such examples, there is played out a different metaphor for learning to that of acquisition. The consequences of learning seem here to be characterised more in terms 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 the rules for manipulating 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 education: namely, that it must 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 machines), cultural psychology is more oriented towards anthropology and ecology (therefore tending to build learning environments). Thus, cultural psychology makes a useful reference point for our present concern with evaluating virtual environments.

Learning and cultural psychology

Cultural psychology invites us to view mental life as essentially mediated. Uniquely, human beings everywhere act upon the world through mediational means – artifacts, tools, technologies, social practices, genres of speech and so on. The psychology of intelligence thus becomes a concern with a new analytic unit: people-acting-with-mediational-means. Intelligence ceases to be a private, in-the-head repertoire of generic processes, to be studied in context-free laboratories. Intelligence becomes a socially-cultivated phenomenon: activity distributed over systems of artifacts and technologies, as well as systems of social organisation. Learning is of great interest to cultural psychology. For a central concern must be how communities rapidly empower newcomers (children) to identify the historically-evolved affordances available in local cultural resources. Much attention has been directed at such enculturation as it occurs within the pre-school years. Indeed, emphasis on the participation metaphor in current accounts of learning is encouraged by observations of how young 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) to 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 might be said to be "scaffolded" by adults (Wood, 1988).

These cultural perspectives have encouraged two related concerns about the management of schooled learning. First, should the experience of schooling endeavour to reproduce conditions that more closely approximate the authentic practices and values of actual disciplinary communities? Second, should interactions among teachers and learners more closely approximate the dynamic observed in the powerful exchanges of informal learning – say, as we witness them between children and parents? The first question is about the construction of communities of practice (Brown, Collins and Duguid, 1989). The second question is about importing into formal education experiences of "assisted performance" which some have argued define optimal methods of teaching (Tharp and Gallimore, 1988). Each of these 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 case studies 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.. It is less obvious that the distributed social relations of virtual institutions will be able to deploy technology in ways that claim quite such a degree of authenticity.

Enthusiasts for assisted performance as a learning configuration may also appeal to technology. However, the goal is not somehow to substitute the face-to-face dimension of such exchanges but to situate them in new and powerful settings. On this perspective, computers provide a particularly rich (interactive and resourceful) setting for catalysing an effective episode of assisted performance (Crook, 1994). Virtual education could provide such experiences around technology. However, it could do so only at considerable expense, because such interpersonal occasions are inherently synchronous and most naturally drop out of learning environments where participants are in close and regular contact. It might be imagined that a substituted form of interaction could be fashioned in some way that involved ICT as a 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: one often termed "intersubjectivity" (Rommetveit, 1979). Indeed the distinctiveness of this capacity accounts for why other animals lack 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 a little more detail below, this allows us to do the sort of anticipation, prediction and hypothesising that underpins the subtle interpersonal process of effective instruction.

The management of intersubjectivity is an important issue for the distinction between informal and formal instruction. Schooled societies formalise learning by creating institutions within which the human capacity for instruction is concentrated to an unusual intensity. Cultural critiques of this process worry that potent ingredients of the informal system (say, scaffolding interactions or its community structure) are thereby diluted or lost. Yet this decoupling from the informal experience of learning must be recognised as one of the aims of formal education. That is, the learner must be led to participate in new forms of cultural practice that have evolved to allow the deliberate production of knowledge – at least, knowledge of a sort valued in scientific-bureaucratic communities. Such practices include reading documents, synthesising the positions of others, making calculations, annotating procedures, attending to the structured expositions of experienced colleagues, summarising such material, editing and re-visiting it. Of course, these are recognisable as the familiar obligations of students, but they also echo the authentic activities of a whole range of practitioners. The student who aspires to be an accountant, a technician, a manager or a psychologist needs to be encultured into these methods of deliberate knowledge building. Yet, despite the upbeat images of study in university prospectuses, such activities can be experienced as "hard". That is, they do depart from the spontaneous practices of everyday life; they do involve unfamiliar forms of social relationship, and they do lack the motivation enjoyed by the legitimate, experienced and encultured practitioner.

These observations take us to a point where a brief summary is possible concerning what follows from these various psychological perspectives on learning. Technology can be recruited to virtual education in various ways. The acquisition metaphor developed in psychology may endorse practices based upon knowledge as a commodity and instruction as delivery: In such an institution "..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). The participation metaphor, on the other hand, invites a different structuring of the technology. This must be one in which ICT offers learners materials and tools that ensure authentic disciplinary experiences. It also would have to offer a rich communications infrastructure, within which learners could enjoy the negotiations, collaborations and relationships that reproduce legitimate participation in some disciplinary community.

However, existing bricks-and-mortar institutions already differ along these lines and there is no reason to expect that investing in a delivery model or a participatory model will itself be fatal to a virtual university. Yet the discussion above converged on an aspect of formal educational practice that is likely to be problematic for the virtual institution adopting either of these scenarios, or any position in between. It converged on the idea of formal learning as an enculturation into certain practices of intentional knowledge production. What is potentially problematic for virtualisation is the concealed (or, perhaps, neglected) issue of what motivates and sustains such activity. Experience and/or career aspirations may sustain study among those "continuing" and "lifelong" learners that already bear witness to the potential of virtual methods. However, the traditional school-leaver is possibly 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 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, the main burden of sustaining study may be carried by the curriculum, rituals and architecture of traditional institutions. This should encourage some consideration of this fabric in terms of noticing how it works for the learner.

The remaining discussion here moves towards this in relation to four ingredients: time, place, community and materials: introducing in the next section the research contexts which inform my own commentary around these themes. However, I shall conclude the present section by acknowledging a final tradition of psychological theorising that is influential in these debates: one that I suggest invites the same direction of empirical discussion that is taken below. This is the tradition of "learning styles".

The idea that individual learners acquire a "style" of study arose from research begun in the 1970s. Marton and Saljo’s (1976) distinction between deep and superficial learning styles has been especially influential. Innovators with ICT are often concerned to respect these putative differences. Yet it was never intended that such distinctions should apply in a trait-like manner to individual students. The taxonomies involved really refer to a relationship between a learner and some set of learning resources. This is put well by one major contributor to this area: "An approach to learning is a description of a relation between a learner and a learning task – the description of an intention and an action. An approach is not something inside a student" (Ramsden, 1987, p. 276). Thus, to do useful work with such concepts as "deep" and "surface" approaches we need to understand more of the sites, rituals and materials from which some setting for organised learning is constructed – and, then, the forms of interaction that these afford participating learners. I turn more towards such matters in what follows.

A research context

In the remaining sections, I shall make brief reference to a variety of published psychological research in the interests of identifying themes that seem relevant to the virtualisation project. However, I include studies with which I have been personally involved and which have concerned students increasingly well resourced with the tools of learning that are central to virtualisation. This does not involve a virtual university but it is 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 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 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). There is often an implicit analysis of existing practices: in terms of 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 can not be taken for granted. Researchers are often disappointed at not discovering among students a greater commitment "thirst for knowledge" (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 it as merely a stop gap – dominated by the prospects of a vigorous social life. These observations are complemented by Newstead’s uncovering of the considerable amount of cheating in students’ approach to assessment.

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 a more active, experiential, and collaborative approach - contrasting their vision with an existing system which is claimed to be characterised by rigid and unstimulating methods. Yet, other North American evidence suggests that, across this 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 new formats of virtual learning will serve to increase, rather than further dampen, motivation. Success will depend in part on whether virtual learning materials can really be made more vivid and stimulating than those which students currently enjoy – this seems fanciful, although the prospect will be discussed further below. Otherwise, success will depend on whether a virtual university is able to cultivate independently-managed study strategies among students, or whether it is able to impose them externally. Previously, 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 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 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 that the corporate nature of this pattern motivated some of the individual investments made: certainly, days were often punctuated by brief exchanges in which checks were made on how other people were managing with current assignments and 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 signals 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. 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 moving between the sites at which students congregated – should thereby have been reduced. Their ability to communicate (electronically) with others should thereby have been enhanced. 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 the matched peers. In fact, no aspect of campus life - time in lectures, libraries or other public spaces - was significantly changed by more flexible access to more powerful computer-based learning resources.

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 resilience of this geography but, instead, comment on a related issue that became visible when our students’ were working at networked computers. This issue concerns a finer-grained sense of study "place" than that captured by the campus architecture of learning. I mean a much more local study space: namely, the desktop.

Although universities do provide a wide range of locations that support private study, most of the students we interviewed reported pursuing such study 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 exactly 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 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, totday’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 social and 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 to manage the necessity of 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 resources both agendas. Detailed system logs from the computers of students in networked study bedrooms revealed much computer activity that was quite remote from the curriculum. 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, in the sense of skipping frequently from one application to another. Typically, the computer desktop was furnished 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 focussed 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 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 study practices by such students 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 fsalso 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; they both 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). Also 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 useful benefits. 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 does 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 quite unusual. For example, in an invited consideration of the preceding 24 hours, all 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 with much of the content seeming to be a device for monitoring corporate progress. In fact, many students made explicit reference to the aim of seeking "reassurance" about their own agenda and progress from their peers. 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.

This pattern of engagement with peers and staff is reflected in these students’ use of 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. The formality of these media coupled with the highly visible consequences of taking part seemed to make them uninviting. 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 it might be preferred that participating in this community should lead to deeper and more extended collaborative conversations, the fact that the community may not be working in that way does not mean that it is not working. Of course, planning for virtual universities typically prioritises computer-mediated communications. Yet it is not clear that text (or even video) conferencing captures what it is that is potent for current students’ experience of corporate 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 depth, accessibility, and dynamism. Thus, MacFarlane introduces such computer-based materials as "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, innovators still working within conventional settings can unpick traditional formats and advertise their online replacements in a student-centred contrast: "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. Again, this comes down to an issue of whether a new form of structuring (materials, 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. Yet, 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 might be 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 variability and unpredictability in the design of learning situations can slow down the duration of learning but can extend the scope of what gets learned. McNamara, Kintsch, Songer and Kintsch (1996) show how a minimally coherent (while still accurate) science text stimulates deeper processing than that from a maximally coherent text. Such findings seem to echo earlier observations by Lepper and Chabby (1988). They documented how school teachers managed the discourse of classrooms; comparing it 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 probably that 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" in this sense is a capacity that may depend on intimacy of mutual knowledge between presenter and audience. 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 communicaiton.

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 disturbances to four aspects of traditional educational practice: 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 in the structure of educational institutions.

Orthodox psychologies of learning have not chosen to theorise learning as a form of cultural practice. By doing so, we are obliged to notice how the activity of learning is embedded in various forms of institutional organisation. Here we 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 material nature of the artifacts mobilised for teaching and learning. In each case there are ground for supposing that virtual practices will be challenged 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 traditional levels of interest in customer opinion are rarely applied. In 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 potential consumers.




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