Draft chapter for fortcoming Virtual Society? book edited by Steve Woolgar

and published by OUP

Do not quote without permission


Virtualisation and the cultural practice of study

Charles Crook and Paul Light


The university community has become keenly aware of "virtual society". There is no shortage of commentators urging the appropriation of information and communications technology (ICT) into higher education. Political analysts identify issues of economy and enfranchisement: arguing that virtual education both may cost less and may make possible greater social inclusion (Hague, 1991). Principals and Vice Chancellors uneasily observe the growth of corporate universities and the accreditation of for-profit institutions with no bricks-and-motor identity (Duderstadt, 1999). Educational managers sense a danger of being left behind as they see neighboring universities develop new technical infrastructures (Oblinger and Rush, 1998). The ICT industry promotes positive images of computer-supported learning. Not least in significance, a number of academics are publicising their own teaching achievements that involve the new tools of ICT (White and Weight, 2000).

Consequently, undergraduates entering universities now can expect learning to be organised in a context that is increasingly fluid. They may find that the community of higher education feels more virtual, as staff are drawn to new learning practices that ICT makes possible. Yet it is by no means clear what the prospects are for such new forms of higher education. In this situation it may be tempting to extrapolate from the various localised successes of distance education, where these virtual methods are more developed. However, this may be unwise. For the motivations, aspirations and life circumstances of most distance learners are very different from the typical student transferring directly from the secondary to the tertiary sector. Moreover, while there are virtualisation success stories involving this more traditional community, they typically refer to piecemeal innovations that involve just parts of the total system. There are still very few universities – distance or otherwise - whose use of virtual practices can be said to be comprehensive.

In discussing these uncertainties here, we shall draw upon experience from our own research in the Virtual Society? Programme. This research has been concerned with virtualisation as it is gradually being adopted in traditional higher educational contexts. After Richardson (2000), such contexts may be termed "campus" universities; i.e., settings that are largely full-time and, often, significantly residential. Thus, we have not been studying fully virtualised institutions. Instead we have considered the process of transformation as it is gradually taking place in circumstances that are more familiar: circumstances that largely involve students fresh from secondary education who are entering universities that are still firmly bricks-and-mortar institutions.

The empirical work we shall outline later in the chapter draws attention to how difficult it can be to establish virtual learning practices among undergraduates. Evidently, it is important to understand why this is so. Thus, the first half of this chapter is concerned with establishing a conceptual framework which may help with that understanding. In particular, we are keen to establish that study is a culturally distinctive form of human activity: a cultural practice. Where cultural practices are firmly entrenched, interventions can be problematic. We argue that this may be the case for attempts to engineer new forms of virtual learning.

The virtualisation agenda within higher education

Going virtual entails core institutional activities becoming more distributed in time and space. For universities, this means modifying traditional practices such that they may support students who will rarely congregate in shared spaces for study. Such students may also wish to extend their education over longer periods of time. At first sight, trends of this sort suggest a form of higher education that seems less participatory. Going virtual may thereby make university teaching less about orchestrating a kind of communal experience and more about properly pacing the delivery of learning materials. Indeed, this apparent commodification of educational practice is increasingly visible in the language of senior academics. For example: "A knowledge economy connects the producers and suppliers of knowledge to the consumers of their product, and to the provider of related services such as tutorial support, assessment and certification" (MacFarlane 1998, p.84).

These students/consumers will need new forms of resource to support their learning in the virtual society of higher education. They will require materials that can be readily dispatched to their chosen private study spaces – for where they choose to work might not form part of any designed environment of labs and libraries. Moreover, these materials will need to be authored to match the framework of use dictated by the computer desktop. Yet MacFarlane’s reference above to "tutorial support" reminds us that higher education in a virtual society may still aspire to the intimacy of tutor-to-student contact. Achieving that goal must depend upon other potential uses of new technologies: in particular, uses that allow communication where engagement at the same time and place is not possible (that is, "asynchronous" communication). So, personal computing will not simply be a materials delivery technology; it will also be implicated where practitioners need new techniques to protect the sense of community within their teaching.

The principle of education freed from constraints of shared places and times is often celebrated in economic or social inclusion terms. However, enthusiasts for virtual education may also refer to the quality of the learning experience itself: sometimes characterising it in liberational language. Such visions are captured in the following claim about virtual education: "When students can get cash at 2 a.m., download library materials at 3 a.m., and order shoes from L.L. Bean at 4 a.m., it is only educational inertia that keeps them convinced that they must learn calculus by sitting in the same classroom for fifty minutes three times a week" (Blustain, Goldstein and Lozier, 1999). Yet while this observation at first sight seems to get to the heart of virtualisation, it also should encourage us to think about what is involved in the activity of "learning". In the quotation, learning seems framed as a distinct domain of human activity, self-contained in a way that makes it potentially comparable to shopping. So, by analogy, if the purchasing of shoes is just one possible activity drawn from the larger domain of "shopping", then the study of calculus is just one possible realisation of the larger domain "learning".

It is an intriguing notion that the convenience of purchasing shoes at any time we fancy could provide a model for educational reform. Such manifestos for virtualisation argue that opportunities to study should be accessible with the same consumer-friendly convenience as opportunities to shop. However, the analogy is an uneasy one. Not just because of the commodification implied, for a virtualised "loosening up" of education does not necessarily require that knowledge should become merely a delivered commodity. The real problems with the analogy may arise from the fact that, as an activity system, learning is significantly unlike shopping. Just as it is also unlike climbing or singing, or any variety of these more circumscribed human pursuits. The nature of the difference between them is worth highlighting.

Suppose there are people who feel that being in a bathroom is the only time and place that they should sing. Then, we can imagine new cultural practices that might empower them to sing more freely – just as new cultural practices might be designed that liberate people to do their shopping at 4 a.m. However, learning is not necessarily fluid in the manner being claimed here for shopping and singing. Arguably, the analogy is attractive because these latter activities seem to us more self-contained: there is nothing particularly problematic about exercising them. Once we have decided, say, to shop, we simply get on with it. However, learning does seem different: perhaps it is better considered as "activity-in-context". How easily we can "do" it depends more upon an environment being in place that is more structuring of the activity: an environment designed for configuring a form of participation. Learning is not activity to be readily abstracted from context, such that it might be calmly executed at other arbitrary times and places. Although this is not to imply that such dependencies are to be rigidly felt forever. The activity-context relationship of learning may evolve for the learner. Experience of learning in some domain may empower the student to become more versatile in managing these environmental relationships, more emotionally comfortable in entering them. Indeed this is part of what successful educational contexts may achieve. However, the autonomy of this learner "becoming" may not be easily won. Appropriate experience must be gathered and, so, environments must be crafted to support such progress. It is this embedding of learning in a cultural context that defines a significant challenge for virtualisation – or any initiative that radically re-mediates the underlying practices.

The conceptual language of psychology may have played some part in tempting us towards this decoupling of learning from context. Psychology has encouraged analyses of human action in terms of "behaviours". Attention is thereby narrowly focused on observable forms of action. More recent developments in psychology, particularly in the form of cultural psychology (Cole, 1996), offer a different perspective. The cultural perspective invites us to view human activity as everywhere embedded in a medium of cultural resources. When we set out to understand it, human activity should not be decoupled from the artefacts, technologies, symbol systems, institutional structures and other cultural paraphernalia within which it is constituted. Moreover, some forms of activity have evolved to be particularly well binded into particular cultural conditions. This may be so for learning.

Invoking this cultural theorising creates a significant stock-taking point in our argument about learning and its potential for virtualisation. The claim about learning being firmly embedded in contexts is really a claim about it being a special form of cultural practice. Yet this is confusing if a further distinction is not kept in mind. That distinction concerns what may be termed the "formal" and the "informal" in relation to learning. There is a sense in which human beings are learning all the time – as developmental psychologists are keen to point out (Wood, 1988). This is an claim about people’s dynamic relationship with their environment: they are constantly being changed by its influence. On such an analysis, learning is certainly not a form of activity episodically carried out, like shopping or singing. It is pervasive: something that just happens to people as they engage with the world. The sense of learning under discussion here (and the sense potentially challenging for virtualisation) is more circumscribed. It concerns the case of learning as cultural practice: as a particular form of activity-in-context. It concerns circumstances where the pervasive capacity to learn is allowed to be orchestrated by others – often in an institutional context. Such distinctions invite reference to "formal" learning, because what is meant applies to situations where some type of culturally-organised activity is going on. Circumstances have been formalised in the interests of promoting learning that is deliberate or intentional. This sense of learning might be more naturally called "study"; indeed that term has been our preference for the title of this chapter.

A somewhat glib summary of our thesis is that learning-as-study is often a difficult thing for students to do. Certainly it is expected to be much more demanding than shopping. What "difficult" means here is that, to be stimulated and sustained, the activity of study depends upon an embedding in certain cultural settings: it is activity-in-context. So, if learning is successful this is often because (educational) institutions have fashioned a supportive context that works in sustaining the engagement. Perhaps participants in education become numb to the presence, structure and importance of this context – rather as the proverbial fish is the last to discover water. This possibility is considered below when we comment on a slowness in the adoption of virtual learning resources by students. We argue for understanding their reticence in terms of designers failing to notice how the activity being re-mediated (with ICT) was firmly grounded in a context of practice: a context that may be unhelpfullly disturbed in the virtual transformation.

Once it is decided to theorise the activity of study in terms of cultural practice then it is natural to consider educational experience in terms of "enculturation". In fact, this is a perspective that is already well-developed within research on apprenticeship learning (Lave 1988) and research on learning at work (Wenger 1998). It is a perspective that invites seeking insight from the broader literature concerned with psychological processes of enculturation during development (e.g., Valsiner 2000). Here we find an interesting emphasis upon how individuals experience the interface between new systems of cultural practice and those with which they have become familiar. So, influencing the enculturation of others may often concern the careful management of an interplay: namely, that between novel and entrenched modes of acting. We turn to this issue next: considering how such an interplay may arise in the domain of higher education.

The nature of study: accessible representations

Here, we wish to consider what this contrast between established and novel cultural practices might mean within the context of entering higher education as a student. In particular, we dwell upon the dynamic relationship between "everyday" or familiar cultural practices and the practices of study. This discussion will better contextualise the successes and difficulties of virtualisation.

To capture the relevant contrast, it is tempting to employ the distinction between curricular and extra-curricular. Yet we are uneasy about the term "extra-curricular" as a description for one pole of the distinction at issue here. This is because it seems to be constrained to activities that are, by definition, quite independent of study. Instead, a distinction is needed that seems to refer less to differences in the content of the activity and more to differences in the conditions governing its conduct. Accordingly, we invoke again the distinction introduced above: suggesting that living in an educational context comprises the "formal" and "informal". This contrast is still broadly about life within the curriculum and life outside of it, but the contrast seems more readily to admit a possibility of traffic between the two activity settings – something we believe needs to be understood. In a sense, the "informal" remains a pole of the distinction that is defined by exclusion: it is activity that is not directly managed by the institutional demands of a curriculum. It is what students are doing "the rest of the time". There is a risk of implying that such activity does not have "form": that there are no forces shaping its content. This is not intended; although what is implied is that the content of informal student activity is felt by students as being more under their own control. That is, it is guided by choices that are more continuous with an individual student’s history of personal concerns and preferences.

Having just made a distinction, we now wish to blur it a little. Formal learning may appear a sharp enough polar term in this distinction. For it seems easy enough to identify when it is in progress: students are seen immersed in texts, attending to lectures, contributing to seminars, or systematically manipulating apparatus. Such contexts for engaging in the formal (texts, lectures, seminars, apparatus) are a natural extension of what people persistently do during their "informal" lives (for example: reading, listening, talking, playing). This continuity identifies a "blurring" of the distinction that is inevitable but useful. For the formalising of learning involves cultivating in students a certain stance within what is already well-practiced activity: a certain kind of required adjustment to otherwise traditional frameworks for interacting with the world – social or material. That stance comprises a willingness to arrange such established interactions into new formats – formats intended to concentrate engagement with disciplinary material. So, the well-practised activities of reading, listening, talking and playing become subject to explicit management. They become focussed, sustained, directed and variously coordinated towards goals imposed by the cultural device of a curriculum. This describes how humans (uniquely, perhaps) are led to learn by design. Therefore, what educational enculturation achieves is the engineering of already-established repertoires of human communication and interaction: orchestrating them towards serving the more particular goals of an instructional agenda.

Within our Virtual Society? project, we tried to make visible these continuities: the links between a cultural practice for interacting with the world called "formal learning", and people’s otherwise spontaneous and improvised interactions. In doing this, we considered how learning has become publicly represented. Specifically, we examined how institutions created visual images that portrayed learning. University prospectuses provided a rich source of such material and we analysed all the relevant photographs from a random sampling of ten UK institutions. Pictures accompanying departmental entries often illustrated students purportedly studying (see examples in Figure 1). Yet their activity rarely corresponded to the canonical images of formal learning discussed above. They were rarely shown in lectures, libraries or states of private study with texts. Rather, the prospectus student was engaged, active, exploratory, often out of doors and, above all, social. Indeed, it might sometimes be hard to judge what these photographs were about – if the viewer had not been tipped off where they were taken from.

Insert Figure 1 about here -

The reason these images "work" is surely because they celebrate a grounding of formal learning in everyday cultural routines: informal activities which potential students already recognise and find comfortable. The images are reassuring, for they promise that learning will be a version of familiar and agreeable cultural experiences. It will be about conversational engagement; it will be about taking part in communal activities; it will be about investigating and exploring material things. And so it will be. However, if there is any dishonesty in all this, it is the mild form associated with being selective. So, the critical viewer may spot the failure to include many examples of learning as potentially a solitary and more passive activity. They may also spot another missing ingredient: something selective about the attitudes portrayed. Students in promotional representations are decidedly upbeat. It will never be suggested that learners can lack confidence, that they become frustrated, or that they may sometimes encounter a stressful impasse in their explorations. Yet we do expect students to experience these things, simply because the demands of formal learning often will be difficult and relentless. It might be said that formalising everyday interactions into learning often involves turning those everyday interactions into routines that become "hard" for us. Formalisation involves orchestrating and channeling familiar interactions such that they become dense and probing encounters with disciplinary material. Sustaining such activity – adopting the stance of a learner - may not always be an easy or welcome invitation.

The emotional demand of formal learning is edited out of promotional material. This happens easily (and perhaps innocently) enough, because the static quality of pictorial imagery conceals some of the formalisation guiding what is being portrayed. For example, learning conversations (say, tutorials) may be represented; but the conversational moments captured in photographs cannot easily suggest that managing learning talk between expert and novice (tutor and student) might often be problematic. Similarly, in showing students engaged in more solitary explorations, there is no indication that these are embedded in a (perhaps stressful) regime of deadlines and time management. There is no hint that the learning resources might sometimes be arid, or that the necessary engagement with them could be lengthy and tiring, or that these explorations have to be accompanied by stylised record-keeping.

In short, the familiar interactions captured in popular images of studying deny the intensity, persistence and focus that is often demanded when learning-by-design.

A central ambition of institutional life must be to create conditions for learning that make tolerable the felt pressure of such demands. In this spirit, institutional contexts start from the everyday repertoire of learners (narrative, conversation, play etc) and formalise it such as to support purposeful learning (lecture, tutorial, investigation etc.). First, this will entail exposing learners to a curriculum: an organised passage through some syllabus of disciplinary material. Second, formalisation also involves designing a physical environment that supports the management of time and effort. This architecture helps focus and sustain activity towards disciplinary exploration: it will include spaces with specialised functionality, including suitable insulation from competing forms of activity (Jamieson, Fisher, Gilding, Taylor and Trevitt, 2000). Finally, institutional design for formal learning includes creating occasions for exercising the discourse of a disciplinary community.

It is these features of an educational environment that come to mind when learning is framed as "cultural practice": when it is formalised. The curriculum, the material setting, and the community that makes up educational institutions together provide a set of resources to make learning happen. These are the artefacts, technologies and specialised spaces of institutions – as well as the rituals, routines, and roles that comprise their bureaucratic traditions. An established motive and energy for sustained learning cannot be taken for granted in most intending students (Newstead, 1998). Institutions have evolved in the terms we have described so as to engineer learners’ behaviour towards the disciplinary goals set by educators. The success of educational practice will often depend on the skill with which these "learning sites" (Bliss, Saljo and Light, 1999) are designed. We have argued that such design entails a skillful weaving of informal cultural practices into the formalised investigations that comprise "studying". The risk of new learning technologies is that they disrupt rather than support the process of enculturation - by creating experiences of discontinuity.

The nature of study: student diaries

Discussion in the previous section was largely focussed on the formal: that is, study as a special set of cultural practices into which students are drawn. However, we were anxious not to over-sharpen distinctions; in fact, it was the continuity between the formal and the informal that was more at issue. The content of promotional imagery was used to make visible how educational practice might "work". It works through the possibility of grounding the design of formal learning in the familiar and informal communication practices of everyday experience. In the photographs, this continuity is implicit as an ideal - one that portrays the events of learning as having an agreeable familiarity and spontaneity. Admittedly there may be a romantic flavour to this suggestion of a particularly strong continuity between the informal and the informal. For implying that this idealised experience of study is easy to enculture could be a bold promise.

However, a model of learning-as-enculturation must do more than just declare that there is a grounding of the sort discussed above. The model must also address a dynamic associated with this grounding: a dynamic concerned with traffic at the borders between the formal and informal. This traffic moves both ways. Thus, while the formal gets to be grounded in the agreeably informal, there is also an influence in the reverse direction. Put simply, successful enculturation into educational practice will also entail the cultural practices of the formal coming to re-configure activity within the informal. The intellectual conventions of analysis, investigation and discourse that students practice in an institutional context may be appropriated into their more everyday interaction. In short, students come to act and talk more generally in ways that echo their disciplinary experience in learning: perhaps this is exactly what is entailed in their becoming authentic practitioners. Indeed, it seems to be traffic from the formal to the informal that inspires some theorists to dwell on learning as a matter of shifting identity (Wenger 1998)

In the previous section, we were concerned with idealised representations of learning such as those in promotional imagery. Now we consider students’ own reports of how they spend their time. Sketching this investment in general terms provides a vehicle for introducing the study contexts that have provided settings for our own research on virtualisation. The lessons of this research are then discussed in the remainder of the chapter.

We obtained self-reports of study activity by recruiting a sample of 48 second and third year undergraduates from one campus university. This university has made particular effort to develop ICT for teaching: for instance all its study bedrooms now allow network access for student computers. As this initiative was in development at the time of our project, it conveniently allowed sampling such that half the students were networked this way, and half not. Care was taken to recruit learners across all academic disciplines and very few students we approached declined to take part. The research we were able to do involved personal activity diaries, interviews with the students, cataloguing of email traffic and, for those with networked computers in their rooms, continuous system logging of how they used this technology. We shall draw on this material below. We also refer to other cohorts of students at a second university who took part in various initiatives to establish computer-mediated seminars.

One thing the students did for us was keep diaries across a full week; logging in 15-minute intervals details of their activity, location and any study resources that might be in use. Figure 2 is a typical summary made possible by these records: it displays three forms of aggregate measure. Across the whole sample, it describes the probability of recording within successive units of time each of three general activities: being in class (tutorial, seminar, field work etc), being engaged in private (solitary) study, and studying with a peer (out of any classroom context).

- Insert Figure 2 about here

Investment of time is evenly spread between classes and unscheduled study periods. In principle, this class time could be targeted for virtualisation (with, say, network-delivered lectures, laboratory simulations and so). These methods had not been pursued at this campus university; indeed, they remain uncommon more generally. Yet, such virtualisation of study may be taking place indirectly. Indeed the liberational claims for virtualisation might imply that this would readily happen. As staff increasingly offer course-related web resources, students may thereby chose to make this more the basis of their engagement with a course. Students may even elect to follow their own route through the curriculum by combining these course-designed network resources with opportunities provided by their internet access: thus taking more control over the assembly of learning material.

However, this did not seem to be happening. To notice this, the comparison between bedroom-networked and un-networked students is useful. The former have intensive access to local and global network resources. So they can adopt more virtual modes of study in the manner just proposed. Their networking allows access to learning material at times they chose and in a place (their own room) separate from the formal spaces of institutional learning. There was no doubt that the networked students spent more time using this technology. Indeed, during the typical afternoon and evening period there was around a 50% chance that the typical study-bedroom computer would be active (Crook and Barrowcliff, in press). However, in two other measures there was no difference between these computer-resourced students and their peers. First, they did not spend more time in study-related activities (scheduled or otherwise). Thus, easy access to the technology did not stimulate greater academic productivity. Second, their study practices did not migrate into this medium in the sense speculated above: namely, that students might be more active in designing independent curricular routes. That is, they spent no less time in scheduled classes and no less time in libraries and other campus resource areas than did their un-networked peers.

One way to summarise these observations is to say that the shape of the curves in Figure 2 are not significantly different according to whether or not a student is well resourced with the basic technology of virtual learning. Their patterns of study are comparable. How should this be interpreted? The failure of accessible ICT to shift engagement with timetabled learning occasions could reflect either the poverty of the virtual alternatives, or something precious about the traditional formats that sustains their appeal. Most likely, both possibilities are involved. Certainly, our interviews suggested that the latter of the two was real enough: participating in traditional classroom formats was an important experience for these students. Not entirely because those meetings inevitably exposed students to brilliant lectures, animated tutorials or engaging practicals. Perhaps sometimes they did. What students more often remarked upon was the organising discipline that this timetable imposed on study. They also referred to the opportunities class meetings provided for peer contact: such contact was important to them for its casual feedback about personal progress and targets (Crook, in press). The failure of virtual tools to re-mediate this communal dimension of learning is a theme developed further below.

So there may be something quite precious in the traditional formats. Whether their continuing appeal also reflects a poverty to the virtual alternatives is harder to assess. All modules at this campus had web pages but not all staff made use of them. Of course, students also had full access to the internet but perhaps the scope of the learning materials to be found there is limited.

One form of network-based resource that was unquestionably available and encouraged was text-based communication tools. Moreover these are central to the virtualisation agenda and they were certainly widely used by these students. For these reasons, we give closer attention in the next section to forms of virtualisation that are based on this form of computer-mediated communication. We were particularly interested in how far such tools would come to re-mediate traditional modes of academic communication: those involving students exchanging with each other and with tutors. Hence, below we discuss the fate of the interpersonal dimension of learning when it encounters virtual tools: that is, we consider the virtualiation of informal collaboration, tutorials and seminars.


Virtualising the person-to-person exchange of study

In comparison with, say, videoconferencing, the textual and asynchronous nature of email may suggest an impoverished form of computer-mediated communication. However, email tools remain prominent in virtualisation agendas, very much because of their asynchronous property. The liberational promise of virtual education – to free learners from the constraints of time and place – rules out any communication medium that assumes students will congregate, such as would be required for conversational styles of contact. Asynchronous text messaging is, therefore, an attractive medium because it does respect the principle that individuals are free to chose the times and places of their participation. Moreover, where several learners are involved in a communication, email can preserve the history of the ongoing exchange such that newcomers may easily enter at any point in its development.

Here we shall comment on the use of email in two formats. First, in its traditional design: that is, private text messaging between individuals (students to students as well as students to tutors). Then, in the following section, we shall consider a more orchestrated design: namely, text conferencing or the coordination of email traffic among a group – on the model of a seminar. Here, a web-based tool can be used to collate and systematise email contributions from individual participants; thereby creating a sense of a single, evolving discussion.

If a traditional educational community is receptive to the virtualisation of its learning, then the accessibility of email makes it a resource that should easily be adopted to support study. Our observations of students (and staff) in such a campus university suggest that this appropriation to study is not quick to happen. To research this take-up, we must discover how students actually use their email. However, such patterns of use are hard to expose. Asking to look directly at people’s mailboxes seems an unreasonable invasion of privacy; yet relying on their own remembered summaries of use is unlikely to be reliable. We opted for a compromise procedure. A computer program was written that would organise the inspection of a student’s mailbox message by message, allowing each to be classified in respect of origin, content and value. The resulting description could then be systematised. This tool was sufficiently accessible that students could process their own mailboxes on our behalf - following a short session of introduction.

The findings most relevant to our present discussion are these. All students welcomed and made use of email. Students with networked computers in their study bedrooms were significantly heavier users. However, the profile of use (what messages were about and who they were from) was not different between the networked and the non-networked groups. Extending network access caused more use of email but it did not seem to change what the tool was used for. Most significant, the nature of that use was dominated by social or recreational.. In coding the main purpose of messages, students reported that less than a third (29%) of incoming mail made any reference to study. Moreover, only 6% of the total mail was judged to reflect academic debate – asking questions or otherwise discussing course-related matters. So, most email with any academic content was not an alternative version of exploratory learning conversations: instead, the course-relevant mail was largely exchanges of a purely administrative nature. The same observation has recently been made with U.S. students (Gatz and Hirt, 2000)

This finding fits our own experience gathered across a longer period. One of us was attracted to the potential of email as early as the mid-1980s (Crook, 1988). Starting then, colleagues and students in the author’s department elected to use email for coordinating routine communication. In looking back on a long period of encouraging students to adopt such a practice, it seemed that email was accepted with enthusiasm, yet never became widely used for tutorial or peer discussion about study (Crook, 1994). The idea arose that this could be because access to the tool was never optimal: perhaps it was never to hand when it might be most needed – say, as difficulties were encountered during periods of private study. Consequently, as a stronger test of its tutorial potential, computer-based course materials were designed that incorporated an easy method for sending email to the appropriate tutor (Crook, 1997). Specifically, hypermedia revision materials were composed for two courses that were shortly to be examined. Embedded within these materials were links to the appropriate course tutor: in effect, an email launcher inviting students to pose queries in a text box on screen, and expect replies later via their normal email account. Logs revealed that the study materials were used by most students and sometimes quite intensively. Yet the feature of "just in time" email facility was not used – apart from some requests that these computer-based materials might be made available on paper (Crook and Webster, 1997).

Perhaps email fails to stimulate study-related dialogue because existing face-to-face opportunities for talk already meet students’ needs. However, we also know from research on university essay writing that students infrequently discuss such work with peers or take full advantage of staff availability for informal tutorial support (Crook, 1994, 2000; Hounsell 1987). With hindsight, our simple expectation as innovators was that this new medium would, as it were, "unblock" whatever obstacles were impeding scholarly conversation. Thereby the natural energy of informal human communication would be released and channeled toward formal academic goals. Our metaphors for thinking about these matters have now almost reversed. Many of the institutional factors previously seen as "obstacles" now appear more like scaffolds. The natural energy of human communication seems to need appropriation rather than release. It is the scaffolds of institutional learning practice that help stimulate this process of encluturation.

Here is the simple principle we are promoting. The success of a new communication tool within an educational community depends on how effectively it recruits informal practices of exchange (with which members are comfortable) into an organised structure of formal communication (such as tutorial talk or collaborative investigation). Designing for this therefore should be based upon a good understanding of existing patterns of interchange and, in particular, how the borders between formal and infomal communication are managed.

Our research findings allow us to pursue this line of reasoning in relation to the particular case of sluggish email take-up for study. We have other observations relating to the nature of existing communicative practices within the campus community. It was noted above that earlier research implied many undergraduates traditionally have rather little informal course-related collaboration with either staff or peers. This might imply the virtualisation problem is one of confronting a too-deeply entrenched inertia. However, the situation is not that simple. For a claim about inertia would be based on observations about collaborating that take it to mean well-orchestrated out-of-class meetings. During interviews, our students confirmed that such meetings were relatively unusual but they still reported quite frequent occasions of discussing study (Crook, in press). However, such occasions were brief and somewhat improvised or serendipitous in character. They typically took the form of snatched conversations made possible by the routine of campus life – say, encounters between lectures, in libraries or in cafeterias. Often these moments allowed traffic in course-related tips and warnings as well as (much-valued) opportunities to benchmark ones own progress on assignments. These could be so casual that we suspect few of them figure in the diary records summarised in Figure 2. Nevertheless that Figure might imply that rather a lot of peer collaboration took place. For this summary suggests modest but significant investment of time in private study with others ("social study"). However, closer analysis suggests that these exchanges were often associated with co-presence in institutional spaces (such as computer and resource rooms). Such collaborations again seemed serendipitous in nature: although they were definitely made possible by a cultural context. That is, they arose within the design of the curriculum and the material architecture for learning.

This identifies two versions of extra-curricular collaboration. Typically, they are each characterised by informality and a lack of organised intent on the students’ part. However, both of them arise out of the cultural context of institutional design. First, students launch their brief collaborative conversations as they move across the campus in pursuit of their social and classroom schedule. Second, the more sustained episodes of "social study" (in our diary records) are constructed in those class-related spaces that afford spontaneous cross talk – labs, libraries, resource areas, computer facilities and department common rooms.

Such is the status quo into which electronic communication tools are placed. If email makes only a modest impact, this seems to reflect a mismatch between the design of the tool and the structure of the practice that it seeks to re-mediate. Existing collaborative conversations about study seemed supported by the cultural context of the community (visiting a resource room, heading for lectures, meeting at lunch etc.) and, when they did occur, they seem unplanned. However, sending an email is not at all like triggering one of these conversations. The point at which an email is composed is not one of a shared cultural context with the correspondent. Asynchronicity denies this mutuality. Moreover the decision to communicate in this way and the medium of composition (text) creates a sense of formality that is dissonant with the more improvised exchanges that have evolved as the familiar style for informal collaboration. So, however informal the tone of email messages, the conditions and medium of their composition creates a formality that seems to have been resisted in established extra-curricular collaboration.

This also applies to understanding the low exchange of email between students and staff. Again, this was not simply a question of inertia arising from low baseline levels of existing communication. The students whose email use we monitored were also interviewed about staff contact. Almost half of this sample reported at lease one out-of-class exchange with a staff member during the preceding 24 hours. Yet few of these seemed planned. As with peer conversations about study, they arose in the spaces between curricular activities or as a result of chance encounters during the normal course of moving about the campus. We suggest that the implicit formality of an email message does not complement the pattern of interaction that has evolved. In focus group discussions with students as to why they did not open more email dialogue with tutors, it was common to hear of concerns about "interrupting" or "disturbing" staff (Crook and Webster, 1997).

These points need to be integrated with our earlier remarks concerning study as encluturation and the management of continuity between the formal and informal. Email relates to learning as a form of conversation. Being a student involves exposure to a range of conversational opportunities. At one extreme of formality is the tutorial meeting. This has evolved as an arena for motivating, structuring and sustaining a certain kind of investigative discourse. At the other extreme is the very informal: the various spontaneous conversational exchanges that arise from simply living amongst others. Successful enculturation will involve a certain disturbance of the gap between these points. So, talk in tutorials may draw upon some of the fluency and confidence of everyday conversation – as participants become more comfortable with their developing shared knowledge. While, in turn, everyday informal talk may be shaped to reflect the formal – as participants appropriate topics and modes of discourse encountered in study settings. Earlier, we noted that much campus collaborative talk was unplanned. However, we also noted that the design of the institutional context supported these improvised possibilities for interleaving the formal and informal. Arguably, the management of that design is important to understand if the learner is to be encultured into new communities of practice.

The asynchronous and textual nature of email may obstruct its potential as a resource at this interface. Yet, other electronic media may be better matched to what is needed. For example, our computer logs from students in networked bedrooms revealed that three quarters of them made intensive use of "instant messaging". With such a tool users can maintain on their computer desktops a list of other users with whom they routinely communicate. Names become "active" when that person’s computer is connected to the local network (although individuals can block their visibility). Then, as individuals do become visible so there develops a traffic in text, images, audio files, or website addresses. This species of computer-mediated communication seems closer to the character of the familiar and informal. A user’s responsivity for communication can be assumed from their "visibility" and while the medium does involve distance between the communicators, the text exchange itself is more conversational. Instant messaging systems were more attractive to these students than the official electronic communication (email) promoted by their university. We believe this preference echoes a point made above: namely, that in this community as it stands, the most valued peer interaction often remains contained within brief and serendipitous exchanges.

Unfortunately, email resonates with a simple but seductive model of communication: packets of information efficiently going to and fro among conversants. If educational discourse is conceived in these terms, email may inspire great hopes. Yet it is clear that such hopes are not easily delivered in practice. Insufficient attention has been directed towards the way in which a formalised mode of communication (a learning conversation) remains grounded in familiar traditions of the informal (spontaneous conversation). Similarly it is important to understand the reverse: how spontaneous conversation is exposed to openings that allow appropriation of elements from the formal. Then, on reflection, working on these continuities with new media may well seem fruitful. However, some such tools may offer a better "fit" than others: in this case, more might be expected of instant messaging than electronic mail.

This argument has been focused on the relatively intimate setting of tutorial exchange; next we consider the more communal quality of group or seminar discussion


Virtualising the group communications of study

A seminar may be re-constructed in virtualised form by arranging that members of the group can send contributions to a common email address. In this way their views are circulated: messages sent by any one member to this address are automatically distributed to the other participating members. The resulting exchange is gathered and made browsable to all. Of course the asynchronous nature of the exchange means that these discussions can last much longer than traditional seminars. However, this may be judged an advantage – if the consequence is to cultivate more measured contributions. This illustrates an important point: the re-mediation of electronic seminars entails a different kind of experience. As such, in comparison with traditional seminars, the resulting exchange may be enriched in some respects, yet impoverished in others.

We noted modest take-up of email for person-to-person exchanges about study. Is an email configuration for group interaction any more attractive? Questions about user reactions will be difficult to answer at a stage when most students will never have tried the resource. At the present time, the virtual seminar has not been widely adopted by university staff and, therefore, not widely experienced by students. Of course, neglect by staff may not signal poor functionality: it may merely suggest that the effort required to get started is, at present, unacceptable. This suggests studying contexts where that overhead is intentionally made very small. Such a situation held at one of our research sites. Here an email discussion tool had been incorporated into the local web space created for each module taught at the university. Yet although these electronic seminar spaces were easy to enter, they remained unused by over 90% of the modules. Moreover, where they were used, that use appeared to be dominated by small numbers of individuals and they were tending to make only routine two-turn queries directed at tutors.

This might imply that there is indeed a problem that goes beyond the effort of getting started. This encouraged us to create an organised comparison between experience in conventional group discussions and experience in a virtualised seminar. Accordingly, studies were carried out with a number of classes; again in the context of a conventional residential university setting (Light, Nesbitt, Light and White, 2000). Despite their inevitably slow pace, these virtualised seminars still allow comparisons with face-to-face alternatives. When we did this we found a different pattern of participant contributions across the two formats. Electronic seminars generated a better gender balance in the exchange and encouraged less domination of discussion by particular individuals.. However, two other aspects of the resulting discussion deserve mention, as they may relate to why this format for discussion is demanding. The first relates the interactional management of the discussion; the second to the text-based nature of the medium.

First, managing the talk. With virtual seminars, the initiative for launching and sustaining the discussion may reside much more with students themselves. Indeed this autonomy may be something that is seen as a potential strength of the resource. The practical issue here is whether or not the electronic discussion should be moderated. We studied virtual seminars in which moderation was rigorous and pervasive, as well as others in which it was totally absent. Where there was no moderation, student participation tended to lapse into abrasive exchanges, irrelevance and irreverence. Again, this makes visible the subtle discipline that often underpins activity in the formal contexts of education – even where what is happening on such occasions looks very similar to an informal equivalent (in this case, casual peer-centred conversation). In a conventional moderated seminar, the intrusions of, say, a tutor serve to fashion and shape practices grounded in informality: directing free-wheeling conversation such that it is recruited to promote learning. In the absence of this management the playful volatility of spontaneous conversation seems to surface quickly – often at the expense of aspirations for focus and direction in the talk.

Accordingly, expectations for virtual seminar discussions may be over optimistic. At least if it is not noticed that dissuasions of this general sort usually depend upon skillfully managing the formal-informal axis. The labour of doing this in the virtual case may be an important demand that leads teaching staff to neglect this tool. However, even when virtual seminars are taken up and moderated by tutors, it is clear that there are other factors that influence success. This introduces the second issue that struck us in the groups that we studied: namely, the text-based nature of the exchange.

In a conventional seminar, speech equips participants with a resource that all human conversation allows: a capacity to improvise, experiment and self-correct as prompted by events in the evolving discourse. Experience of informal conversation prepares students for doing this, although it needs to be done more systematically in the formal arena of a seminar. On the other hand, realising a conversation as a sequence of typed contributions has no strong parallel within everyday interactions. If any parallel exists to guide a student’s activity, it is probably the writing of essays or answering of exam questions. Accordingly, many participants in these electronic seminars invested much effort in carefully crafting their written contributions. Thus, the slow pace of turn-taking and the lasting and visible log of these contributions led to a very measured style of participation - quite different to that typical of synchronous conversation. Ironically, although contributors had fellow students in mind as their potential audience, students in general placed little reliance on the textual comments of their peers. The net effect could be unrewarding, and yet quite demanding of effort.

The two issues mentioned here pose problems for the development of virtual group discussion among students. Again, we suppose that the root of the problem is a neglect of the subtle way in which the established cultural practices of education have evolved to manage the gap between formal and informal experiences. In the case of moderation, the problem is one of neglecting the need to manage conversations that have academic goals. This is about recovering the formal. While the second issue – the textual character of the discussion – is about the reverse: that is, recovering the informal. Conventional seminars go well because they are grounded in our everyday experience of talking. This is usefully appropriated to a curricular agenda; thereby importing the versatility of spoken conversation. Text-based seminars can be problematic because they do not have this natural rhythm. Moreover, the nature of contributions is far from transient: indeed the visibility and permanence can sometimes be intimidating to the novice.

None of this should imply the medium is intrinsically problematic. These issues may not arise for some constituencies of students and, in any case, they are issues that invite strategies for management. Thus, success is quite possible (Tolmie and Boyle, 2000). Indeed, in our own sample, by the third year of exposure to virtual seminars a much more positive attitude among users was becoming visible. This might be taken to imply adaption to the demands of the tool. However, it might also reflect the enculturation of these students into a more confident relationship with the cultural practices of learning more generally. The borders between informal conversation and the formalities of seminar discussion may have shifted sufficiently to make coping with the challenges outlined here more manageable.

Virtualising private study

In this final empirical example, we continue the theme of virtualisation acting at a point of discontinuity between formal learning and students’ everyday informal lives. The case concerns private study which our diary records (see Figure 2) showed to be a more common use of undergraduate time than lectures, seminars, practicals or other corporate occasions of formal learning. Private study is liable to virtualisation through its coming to be carried out more on networked computers. We studied a group of 34 students who had network access in their study bedrooms; all their computer activity was logged over a period of one week (Crook and Barrowcliff, in press).

In what particular ways does a networked PC used in a conventional university illustrate a trend towards the virtualisation of private study? It could be argued that the networked student merely has access to a large corpus of distributed information (internet and intranet) and that they act towards it no differently than what they do in using a conventional library. (Although some will argue that students will use it more – as information has been rendered more accessible.) However, compared to a library, the networked PC is far less circumscribed as a space for studying. For what it "contains" is far more diverse. Moreover, its networked status makes it highly interactive. We believe that this combination of properties can create obstacles for the student. The versatility of the networked computer cultivates forms of use that mean there is more at stake than just accessibility gains. To explain this concern, it is necessary first to locate private study as another cultrual practice of formal education.

Solitary investigation geared towards learning (private study) may resemble public discourse geared towards learning (the seminar) in that they both demand forms of management. We noted above that the seminar moderator acts to manage the boundary between an formal and an informal conversation. There is a sense in which private study also must be protected. Although this protection is more often by the design of spaces and the exercise of self-imposed rituals rather than through the intrusion of human moderators. In fact, libraries are particularly effective spaces: designed such that study can be concentrated and sustained in the direct presence of relevant resources. The concept of a study bedroom may also be supportive of the formal learner in that it is also situated well in respect of learning resources, yet ensures a certain degree of privacy for focussed study.

Our diary records revealed that the networked students did concentrate private study on their computers. Almost half of the time given to such study was computer-mediated. However, they reported spending even more time in computer pursuits that were recreational. We expected this to be long sessions of video gaming or web surfing. However, neither of these patterns were very common. Instead, what was striking from our logs of computer activity was the variety of different things that would get done in any one session. It could be said that students’ use of this technology was highly animated. Often our logs showed an active task that was clearly related to study (say a word processed document) but one that was present on the desktop with many other active applications – all of which would be in strong competition for the user’s attention. Some of these applications almost demanded attention, notably email and instant messaging. But others simply had very strong affordances for unplanned interaction. Thus, students would frequently leave a focal task to tinker with a media player, or do some recreational web browsing, or check a news ticker and so on.

Put simply, private study on a networked computer can be very distracting. However, it is not that simple claim that we wish to labour here. What the example illustrates once again is the grounded and subtle nature of the activities constituting formal learning – in this case, activities of private study. In the institutional settings of education it is expected that private study will be focused and sustained. So, we may cease to notice that the achievement of this depends upon the design and cultivation of various institutional spaces and practices (as well as personal techniques of self-management).

However, this balance between the more disorderly world of informal pursuits and the disciplined world of pursuing formal learning needs to be better understood. Here, we are drawing attention to the way in which virtual practices break some of the helpful insulation between the two. Nevertheless, such insulation is not always and inevitably helpful. We have noted distracting ways in which networked technologies encourage vigorous movement between different applications. Yet this mobility could also define the very kind of exploration that supports active research around some study topic. Ironically perhaps, the same opportunities of technology design that can empower a student’s study can also undermine it. From our own observations we were more stuck by the disruptive than the empowering dimension of interactivity.

Concluding remarks

The impression left with us as researchers is that virtual practices in higher education are not easy to get going. This is certainly not because students are unfamiliar with the technical tools, or hostile towards them. In fact, many students are vigorously using these tools for routine writing and computation, and certainly for recreational purposes. If there is a problem of takeup, it arises from the ways in which virtualisation involves doing things differently. This point is familiar to those studying other areas of human-computer interaction: "new technologies seldom simply support old working practices with additional efficiency or flexibility. Instead they tend to undermine existing practices and to demand new ones. In this disruption, subtleties of existing social behaviors and the affordances upon which they rely become apparent, as do the new affordances for social behavior offered by technology" (Gaver, 1996 p. 112).

In this chapter we have dwelt upon Gaver’s "subtleties of existing social behaviours" that apply to the domain of undergraduate study. We have argued that such study is often difficult. Not just because the concepts being studied are themselves difficult – although often they may be. There is another layer of difficulty associated with what is required in orienting towards those concepts. Deliberate learning involves engaging with exposition, orchestrated discussion, research, systematic annotation, the focused reading of text, and a variety of other directed activities that many students may not always find easy to mobilise and manage independently. Sites of formal education have evolved structures that sustain and coordinate such activities with a scaffold of cultural resources: timetables, curricula, designed spaces, discourse rituals and so on. We argued that making progress within this infrastructure amounted to a process of enculturation. Students are confronted with the various arenas of study as formalised versions of activities well rehearsed in their informal lives. The enculturation of knowledge is then a subtle management of the interface between the demands of the formal and the fluency of the informal. Successful education involves making students comfortable with the activities demanded by formal study: encouraging them to allow their repertoire of informal cultural practices - listening, talking, investigating etc. – to be formalised in ways that then support learning.

Where educational experience is particularly successful, notions of changing identity may be invoked; students are thereby said to "become" disciplinary practitioners (Wenger, 1998). At which point, the cultural practices of learning are transformed from hived off occasions dependent upon the institutional scaffold. Instead such practices become visible in the repertoire of the informal: they are imported into the individuals spontaneous concerns and thereby demand less formal scaffolding. However, such transformations may still be slow. The important point remains that formal learning can be very difficult for the novice. The orchestration of deliberate learning is an extraordinary human achievement – perhaps a uniquely human achievement (Premack and Premack 1996) – it would be surprising if the structure of those activities involved was not a sensitive fabric. Our argument is that ambitions for virtual learning must be grounded on a better theorising of these matters – and, then, more informed design of the tools and the associated practices.

Yet we do not wish to appear unreasonably negative over future prospects for virtualisation. The difficulties we have documented relate to conventional university settings with their conventional constituency of young learners. The motives and lifestyles of other intending learners may be better oriented to studying in a virtual environment. Moreover, there is another way in which the virtualisation of learning may become more easily realised. If the activities of formal learning are grounded in students’ more informal cultural experiences, then dominant practices of individual socialisation will help explain what tends to happen. Learners confronting virtual methods today have one sort of personal history for interacting in the material and social world. The methods of formal learning try to make contact with that history. Learners in the future may more readily respond to virtual tools of instruction than they do now – for they would recognise them from their own informal enculturation.



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Figure Captions


Figure 1: Images of learning from a university prospectus


Figure 2. How study time is distributed through the day for scheduled clases and forms of private study.






Figure 1








Figure 2