Draft – do not quote without permission

To appear in Networked Learning in Higher Education (Editors Chris Steeples and Chris Jones)


The campus experience of networked learning


Charles Crook


During the course of a collaborative project about virtual universities, Viv Light started to refer to student study-bedrooms as "nests". There was something engaging about her metaphor. Cosy, personalised spaces: private, yet securely embedded in a larger community. If equipped with networked computers, these rooms become "learning nests". I suspect this particular theme resonated well with our romantic image of learning. It suggested contented young scholars, absorbed in research, insulated from distraction, yet reinforced by a slightly monastic community around them.

Of course, all good terms of this sort invite the construction of an acronym. My idea for acronymic expansion was "networked environments for student tenancy". Despite vigorous exposure at conferences, this verbal trick did not seem to catch on. Eventually, we ourselves became disenchanted with it. Possibly, there was some tension between the agreeable conviviality of "nest" and the soulessness of "networked environments" or the subservience of "tenancy". However, perhaps such semantic tensions alert us to a risk of idealising the learner. Implementing a campus-wide computer network may create our romantic "learning nests". For it may release existing obstructions to effective study and thereby resource "the insatiable desire of students for more and more information at a higher level of complexity" (Cole, 1972, p.143). On the other hand, such networked learning may simply foster a "knowledge-delivery view…[that] portrays students as vessels into which the university pours information" (Brown and Duguid, 1998, p.40)

It is seductive to think that learners are held back by various sorts of institutional "obstruction" to their enthusiasms. The idea encourages a search for new techniques to unblock their path or to somehow re-route them. Yet the history of innovation with educational technology tends to suggest that obstructions to effective study are not so easily dislodged (Cuban, 1986). At the time of encountering the learning nest metaphor, David Barrowcliff and I were wondering about the potential of campus computer networking in this regard. At Loughborough University we were studying just the sort of learning nests that such networking seems to afford. There seemed to be good reasons for investigating what goes on in these new spaces of networked study bedrooms.

Two particular reasons for studying this seemed clear. First, extensive campus networking had become a resource that residential universities feel under strong pressure to provide. As discussed further below, much enthusiasm for the computer as an educational tool assumes that it is equipped with fast and easy access to local and global networks. So universities will feel compelled to invest in such networking and research must help clarify what follows in terms of educational practice. Second, enthusiastic projection of these networking initiatives promises more radical visions for the future of higher education. Such visions question the necessity of traditional, full-time, residential universities (Duderstadt, 1999; Tiffin and Rajasingham 1995). For computer networking invites the fragmentation of educational provision such that it can be distributed in both time and space. The virtual learner will have no need to congregate in set places at set times. There is evidently a need to evaluate the prospects for such developments.

It is very unclear how far the virtualisation of higher education could be pursued. At the time of writing there are certainly commentators who are sceptical of both the reach and appeal of so-called "e-learning" (Economist, 2001), The research discussed here on the virtualisation of residential provision may be our most helpful empirical window onto these prospects. The basis for such a claim is as follows. Society may continue to expect higher education to be contiguous with secondary education. So we may still wish to invest in furnishing an intense period of organised learning prior to encouraging learners to embark on their careers of employment (albeit careers with greater openings for continuing and flexible learning). In which case, what is happening now in networked study bedrooms becomes particularly interesting. For the occupants of these spaces are the current representatives of the very constituency who will be lined up for the de-schooled future of virtual learning. For this reason, we need to make visible the experiences of these "partially virtualised" learners and consider how readily they take to this mode of education.

The structure of the present chapter is as follows. I shall first review some opportunities that are expected to arise from access to networked learning on a traditional residential campus. I shall then introduce the context of the research reported here: a study which documents reactions within one community of staff and students to such a networked resource. After summarising certain of these reactions the chapter will conclude with some conjectures about how networked learning could be designed to have a more productive impact within a residential university context.

The opportunities of networking

It can be claimed that no media (such as a local computer network) itself has an effect on learning. If there is an impact associated with some technical innovation then – or so it has been argued - this will be because "learning is caused by the instructional methods embedded in the media presentation" (Clark, 1994 p. 26). Yet certain technologies will invite certain instructional methods more readily than others. In which case, making a technology institutionally accessible and creating pressure to use it must mean that the methods easily afforded by that technology will become more widely visible. It is not necessary that such possibilities of a technology are immediately obvious to potential users. Sometimes the practices that follow are propogated more by the particular enthusiasms of professional advocates for that technology.

One construction of the networked computer is that it provides the basis for readily distributing rich sources of information and, it is claimed, this is what students lack. As one academic commentator expresses this, the university’s role now "is no longer to provide the main conduit for knowledge transmission. Technology does that more efficiently" (Delvin, 1997) The author of an influential report on technology in higher education (CSUP, 1992) exercises the same slippage between "information" and "knowledge" in celebrating the prospects of "richly structured, highly-accessible and interactive machine-resident knowledge" (MacFarlane, 1998, p. 83). In short, it is anticipated that learners on a fully-networked campus will enjoy extended access to a rich array of learning resources.

It is also expected that a consequence of this should be a greater degree of autonomy for the learner. "The classroom institution has historically centralized power and influence in the hands of the instructor….asynchronous learning networks in contrast, shift a considerable amount of power, authority, and control from the faculty to the students" (Jaffee, 1998). The success of this shift may depend on the networked resources conforming to a certain design: they may need to be fashioned into a learning "package". As two senior practitioner/researchers put it: "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). In the environment to be discussed below there were available computer-aided learning packages of the sort that Gell and Cochrane are perhaps contemplating. However, even more modest web-based course material is claimed also to offer this liberating potential of autonomy also. So, it is not unusual for enthusiastic developers of networked learning material to frame their activity as an affirmative one in relation to student identity: "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).

Associated with these projections there is often a theme of network resources offering a greater individualisation of learning. Even if it is not always clear how such customising is to be designed into materials. The MacFarlance report proposes that: "supportive learning environments would be created by using educational technology where appropriate, in many cases after the groundwork had been prepared through lectures and hard copy materials. As used here, the term supportive learning environment implies a shift to selfpaced teacher supported learning" (CSUP, 1992, 26-27 italics in original). The implication seems to be that technology again offers a potential to provide rich materials, with customising of study programmes merely requiring some individual routes to be designed by teachers.

However, the promise that distinguishes network learning from mere "electronic learning" is the promise of interpersonal communication. Students linked by a common computer network are empowered to interact with their peers and their tutors through this infrastructure. At present the commonplace realisation of this potential is asynchronous text messaging – electronic mail – but in the longer term it is reasonable to expect more synchronous communication and more vivid modalities, such as audio and video transmission. This feature of networking is much advertised as it seems to challenge the widespread worry that computer-based learning must necessarily be a solitary experience.

In sum, we might expect the extension of networked learning to a traditional campus setting to have a number of impacts. We might expect students to find new motivation in the scope and depth of learning materials that will now be readily accessible at their workstation. This, in turn, might encourage greater autonomy of study. We might also expect that new and extended conversations will be prompted by the ease with which tutors and fellow-students can be contacted in this networked space. Changes of this kind were sought in research to be described next: a study of networking in a classically campus and residential setting.


Research context

The research described here took place at a large UK university comprising a self-contained campus located on the edge of a medium sized town. The university enjoys particular strength in engineering and computing and, thus, had developed good IT facilities and a positive attitude within management to the use of technology for teaching and learning. 52% of undergraduates were resident on campus: a situation that had encouraged extensive networking of the environment. At the time of recruiting participants for the present research, approximately 800 study bedrooms had been networked for 1.5 years. The university had also created a specialised web server (the "Learn Server") which provided disc space for all 2555 taught modules. Each module could be accessed by students through a hierarchical system of menus, individual module areas had substantial storage space as well their own email discussion boards. Staff were vigorously encouraged to use this server. Each lecturer’s module filespace was easily mounted as a directory icon on their own office computers. Thus, managing webspace was relatively easy. Moreover, a variety of courses and workshops had been organised to promote both technical and pedagogic understanding of the resource.

In addition, a support unit in the university maintained a "CAL Server". This acted as a single and central repository for specialised teaching and learning packages including a number of generic items relating to numeracy and study skills. In fact it is claimed to be "one of the UK's largest collections of fully-functional, networked LT [learning technology] materials" (http://www.lboro.ac.uk/service/fli/services/lt/matl/lt2.html) Finally, at the time of the present research, the university was part of the Acorn project which empowered the library to make full text of any recommended reading available on local networked computers. In short, while this site hardly defined a virtual university, it had taken a number of infrastructural steps that should permit the evolution of more virtual practices. The research discussed below considered the impact of these developments through conversations and observations involving a group of students either living in networked study bedrooms or – for comparison – a group living in a student room with no such PC facility. Attention has also been directed towards what staff have done with their opportunities to create web-based learning environments.

Matched groups of undergraduates were recruited. It was intended that half would be in networked rooms and half would not. All "networked" participants were required to have had use of this service for at least one full semester. A total of 168 letters were sent to a random selection of residential students stratified by their university Faculty assignment. Letters explained the project and the possibility that they may be visited to invite participation. The aim was to recruit 28 students in networked rooms and 28 in non-networked rooms. .

Students were then visited. Where an individual was not available, two further visits were made. Of the 168 potential recruits, 69 were unavailable after three visits and 20 declined to take part. Finally, administrative problems and difficulties of timetabling interviews led to a total of 26 networked students being interviewed and 19 non-networked students. Arguably, compared to typical work of this kind, the sampling can be regarded as furnishing a good cross section of the community. Selection was paced to include all academic departments; reasons for not taking part were usually good natured and typically to do with arbitrary circumstances at that time.

The focus in what follows is upon an interview carried out individually with each of these students. It lasted for approximately an hour. Reference will also be made to summaries of study-related activity that were derived from parallel research projects based on diaries and computer system logs. As it happens, much of the innovation within this networked environment is accessible in web-based format because of the increased versatility of the web browser as a network tool. Accordingly, much of the present report concentrates on web activity on the so-called Learn Server. However, before commenting on how students’ use of this material, it is necessary to examine what staff have provided. I shall do this next.

What teaching staff do with the web

The first thing to observe about Learn Server activity by staff is that it was surprisingly underused. Of the 2555 modules catered for, only 29% currently contain any resources. Moreover a significant number of those have only a minimal set of materials. This is the case despite three years of availability and, as yet, no constraints on the amount of filespace available to developers. Deering recognised the modest uptake of teaching technology by university staff, noting that it was "far from being embedded in the day to day practice of learning and teaching in most higher education institutions....the main reason is that many academics have had no training and little experience in the use of communications and information technology as an educational tool" (chapter 3 Section 61). It is hard to accept this as an adequate explanation of the present case. Certainly, for most academics, composing and organising even simple HTML will require some instruction. However, this university had been very generous in offering such support, and would do so at a very intense tutorial level where that was invited. Moreover, being in the midst of quality auditing, individual departments would have been highly motivated to display innovative practices.

Clearly academics do master other information technology tools routinely – where they are perceived as powerful resources for their work. So, one is bound to suppose that many teachers are not convinced that the investment in this case is a particularly good one. So learning resource development of this kind does not become a high priority for them. I shall not dwell further on the issue of modest uptake. Except to note that it may be naïve to dispose of it in terms of inexperience coupled with indifference to training. This may be part of an explanation but it will also be important to research just how academics do perceive this form of educational innovation and, perhaps, learn from whatever reservations they express.

We may turn instead to what staff users actually did offer students. I base the summary here on a random sampling of 10% of the modules that did have material available The single most commonly provided resource was notes arising from lectures. 45% of module websites offered these. (Here, and in other cases, percentages need careful interpretation. Some modules had such minimal amounts of material that a more telling sample for a percentage calculation might be the number of modules where the amount of provision suggested a more serious intent to develop the site.) Often lecturers would supply sizeable Word files of their notes, others provided the PowerPoint slides used in a session and a small number merely supplied some annotated diagrams and images that had been used to support a lecture. The next most commonly provided resources related to assessment. This would take the form of old exam papers (41% of sites) and details of coursework assignments or problems (35%).

Some sites (21%) provided reading lists although it was unusual for individual items in these to be hotlinked to the library catalogue. Only 3% of sites provided full texts of supplementary material although a fair proportion (24%) did include mention of some useful URLs. Otherwise, content was characterised by timetable information (23%), course outlines (37%) and other administrative details such as membership of tutorial groups (11%). On the whole, sites were visually simple in construction with only 7% using frames and 15% using any kind of graphic design.

In many ways these sites are telling for what they do not offer, and I shall return to comment more on this towards the end of the chapter. At this point it might be claimed that the rather pedestrian content undermines any further research on what the students do in this networked environment. It might be claimed that this case study furnishes too inadequate a model of networked-supported learning. Yet, as illustrated more below, it seems that the sorts of things that are being provided are very much what the students say they want. This observation may, in turn, invite a retort along the lines of "but they don’t yet know how it could be better". However, what it is in this environment that is "better" may not be easy to get accepted. Observations below about student’s typical study practices suggest that some features of the existing learning culture may be in tension with the kinds of networked innovation we may be contemplating for the "better" learning environment. Activity here has a systemic feel to it.

Whatever conclusions get drawn about these matters, at this point what is emerging does seem to justify yet further exploration of students perceptions and activities within this particular setting. To that end, I shall next comment on the specific issue of what students understand by virtual forms of education, and whether they find it an attractive notion.

Students perceptions of networked resources

Perhaps the most striking outcome of interviewing these students concerned their general attitude towards the prospect of virtualising higher education. This part of the conversation was organised around three questions. The first concerned whether they believed that virtual universities would become commonplace. The second concerned whether they believed this to be desirable. The third concerned whether they themselves would be prepared to study in a virtual university.

20% clearly thought that higher education would eventually come to take this form. 52% did not see this as a realistic development and the remainder were uncertain or thought that some partial form of virtualisation might occur. The question as to whether it was desirable was reacted to in objective terms. That is, answers did not reflect the students’ own preferences but were an opportunity to rehearse the accepted public arguments for and against such developments. In these terms, the students showed themselves to be very comfortable with the claims that are commonly deployed in support of virtualisation. They referred to the potential freedom associated with being able to study at times the learner wished. They referred to the financial benefits of distributed education and the social benefits of a potentially more inclusive system. Although only 11% invoked the idea that such education might involve a richer learning resource base.

However, these generally positive explanations of the advantages of virtual learning contrasted with students’ responses to the question of whether they themselves would be happy to study at a virtual university. Not a single student interviewed found this prospect appealing. Many vigorously dismissed it and defended enthusiastically the character of their present undergraduate experience. Their responses suggested five themes that underpinned the feeling that virtual education was an unwelcome prospect.

(1) Not congruent with the nature of learning. 49% of students invoked the idea that learning was an inherently social process. It worked because of the intensity of interaction made possible by involvement in educational discourse. In replies to these questions and also from their own experience of using networks, they revealed that they understood the potential for computer-mediated interaction. However, clearly there was a view that the intensity, spontaneity and serendipity of face-to-face conversation could not be captured within the virtual university scenario.

(2) Limited bandwidth of the medium. 51% of students made a variety of specific points to identify perceived limitations in the technologies of virtualisation. For example 18% believed that the quality of their present hands-on or practical experience could not be reproduced in a virtual university. Similar numbers claimed feedback and support inevitably would be less prompt and that tutorial support only worked well when it was based on closer and more personal familiarity with the individual student.

(3) Problems of sustaining motivation. 40% of students predicted that they would not find adequate sources of motivation to persist with studying in this way. Around half appealed to the expected lack of explicit structuring. They noted the discipline that was imposed by the present university curriculum: for example, the corporate nature of lectures and tutorials, the deadlines, and the organised pace or routine of institutional life. Instead, they expected the autonomy of virtual learning would make them vulnerable to a whole range of distractions and, consequently, studying would suffer. Around half made reference to the particular benefit of being in close contact with student peers. In the traditional system, participating in this community provided the subtle benchmarks, challenges and standards that students felt were important to remaining self-confident and engaged.

(4) Lack of adequate social life. 42% of the sample cited the importance of the social life they enjoyed at university. The potency of moving away from home was often mentioned in this context. Clearly, the opportunities for socialising with a wide range of peers was a very significant part of what these students valued about being at university.

(5) Narrowness of personal experience. Related to the above point about socialising, 29% developed the idea that university gave you a breadth of experience that went beyond the official curriculum. University was seen as an arena providing rich opportunities for personal development – opportunities over and above the possibilities of intellectual growth. Sport and recreation were cited in this context but also the challenges of adapting to and learning from a wide variety of same-aged peers. The advantages of a controlled move towards greater everyday independence was also recognised. These were all features of traditional university experience that were regarded as precious and not likely to be protected by any virtualised alternative.

The percentages above are merely to give credibility to the status of these themes as central issues. These conversations were not surveys and no attempt was made to press students for a position on all the possible issues of virtualisation. Accordingly, some students made perhaps one strong point and felt no need to list any further reservations. It remains for future research to determine the exact priority of concerns among the basic reservations that were expressed. Whatever the detailed picture looks like, these interviews do give a strong signal that the traditional constituency of higher education – young people who have recently left school – is unlikely to be easily seduced by the prospect of independent learning that is decoupled from the bricks-and-mortar world of institutional learning.

It could be argued that a cohort of young people such as this will not have an adequate grasp of the technical and institutional possibilities of more virtual education. Students may be unfamiliar with the visionary detail of such developments and, accordingly, their reservations about it may be unfounded. Yet in other things they said, these students did reveal themselves to be quite sophisticated in their understanding of computer-supported activities. Remember, half of them had their own PC and had elected to connect it to the campus network in their room. Our records of what these students did on their computers (Crook and Barrowcliff, in press) suggests that they were very comfortable with a wide range of tools including video-mediated communication, instant messaging, text conferencing and more general internet browsing strategies. Finally, some of their reservations are unquestionably a problem for any future de-schooling of higher education. These include issues of enjoying a richly orchestrated social life, of taking part in extra-curricular recreation or creative activity, and of controlled opportunities for independence. These are all experiences that depend upon the face-to-face circumstances of organised community life.

However, other comments were made in the responses summarised above that do refer more directly to the experience of an academic curriculum. For instance, points were made about the basis of motivation for study, the potency of peer or tutor discourse, and the significance of teachers having a more thorough personal familiarity with learners and their predicament – all such learner perceptions deserve more careful scrutiny. Optimistic claims about the ease with which learners will engage with networked resources, will function independently, and will sustain their motivation are all claims that are poorly researched. The simple fact that, at the present time, there are successful distance and continuing education students is not in itself a good basis for wholesale projections of what is possible on a grand scale. Success in such educational niches provides no strong promise that distance modes of education will work comprehensively, such as to be attractive to all learners. We must attend in particular to the more reluctant scholars - many of whom may perhaps be found among the young school-leavers that make up the bulk of current university students.

Students’ use of their own networked environment

Reservations about joining a virtual university should not imply these students had some general unease about computer-supported learning. Over half (56%) of them thought that the university should be making more use of information technology in teaching. Moreover, many of those who said "no" to this question were not necessarily negative about computers – often they simply believed that the present level was about right. When asked exactly where any future institutional investment should be made, they were fairly conservative in their preferences. 18% thought that the basic infrastructure should be better; either in terms of public access points or in terms of network delivery speeds. Only 11% thought there should be more specialist discipline-relevant software and only 4% cited the need for more computer-mediated communication structures. On the other hand, 36% said that more lecturers should put their notes and lecture slides onto module web pages. 16% suggested that staff should provide more direction in using internet resources.

This pattern of student preferences could be seen as reflecting the pattern of what staff have so far developed on the network. (Although there is no evidence that student opinion had been polled prior to the development of network resources.) So the somewhat scorned policy of putting lecture notes on web pages is a practice that is welcomed by many students. On the other hand, computer-mediated communication is largely neglected. There was virtually no use of the discussion boards associated with each module site; what use can be found was often restricted to two-turn exchanges with staff regarding problems over assignments. Moreover, in a study of a parallel student cohort, David Barrowcliff and I have found that email gets very little use for academic purposes in this community. Mail that contains study-related advice or help accounts for only 5% of incoming mail for student in networked rooms and 7% for a matched group not networked. Certainly, there are respectable proportions of emails that are more broadly about academic matters (28% or 26%). However these tend to be impersonal announcements about course administration – many of them are lecturer-to-class general mailings. On the other hand over 60% of networked students made heavy use of instant messaging. Often they used the program ICQ to exchange short text messages, files or URLs according to who of their friends they could "see" was online at a particular moment. Interestingly, no one within the whole fabric of teaching and computer administration had recognised the student preference for this style of communication over traditional email.

During the interviews, students were asked explicitly about the role of computers in their collaborative experience of learning. Only two mentioned ICQ in this context and it was clear that the use of this tool was largely limited to playful purposes. On the other hand 35% reported that they had used email to send work-related files to their friends. Typically this applied to the sharing of lecture notes although there was some passing around of "used" essays. Finally, listservs concerned with their disciplinary studies were not represented in our survey of student incoming mail. Thus, although these students were very comfortable with the various formats of electronic mail mentioned above, they were not making any strikingly novel use of these tools to support their study. Computer-mediated communication was largely limited to matters of course administration and to the occasional peer-to-peer circulation of lecture-related material.

However, networked computers afford another species of collaborative activity. Students may elect to assemble and interact "around" them (Crook, 1994 chapter 8). In this sense, they could be regarded as a resource-intensive and interactive site for joint study. Such congregating does happen, although not necessarily that often. 36% of networked students reported working with others in their room around their computer. On the other hand, even more (63%) of the non-networked students reported periodic collaboration of this kind. In their case, the work would involve gathering around a terminal in a public room. Computer rooms have a bustle that actually may encourage this more than would happen in domestic residences. At any given moment public computer rooms may also be more likely to be populated by same-course peers.

A networked computer in ones own room may not, therefore, confer any great extra advantage as a catalyst for joint work. There is another sense in which the ready-to-hand quality of the study bedroom PC may be suspect. These students were asked about the style of working they adopted when using computers. Most of those with networked computers in their room reported intensive use of network facilities. They would typically multi-task and move in and out of applications quite frequently. Of course, many of those applications were of more recreational than study-related interest: media players, games, messaging boards, email, news tickers, web sites and so forth. Elsewhere (Crook and Barrowcliff, in press) we have documented this animated style of working more fully. It was not typical of the way students worked on PCs in public spaces. A crude measure of this difference is found in what students said about having email available as they worked. 85% of networked students reported that they always had their email active on the windows desktop as they worked. While, only 21% of students who normally worked in computer rooms said this would be typical practice for them.

The observations made in this section do not suggest that access to networked facilities is radically reconfiguring patterns of study. Students’own vision about resourcing remains focused on lecture notes. They actively use computer-based communication but it hardly transforms their collaborative study or tutorial contact. Finally, easy access to a networked computer in ones own study space prompts intensive use of that facility (Crook and Barrowcliff, in press) but by no means for purposes that are well-focused on the curriculum. In fact, the highly interactive character of the networked PC may make it a somewhat problematic single site to focus so many tools. While study may always be vulnerable to the distractions of a student’s own living space, the peculiar concentration of such distractions in one physical site for working (the windows desktop) may serve to undermine habits of more sustained engagement with work-related projects.

Some of the observations made here may be clarified further by consideration of how students describe their study habits more generally. It is the resilience of this background of teaching and learning practice that may account for much of the difficulty of establishing and sustaining new forms of network-based learning.

The established framework of study practice

I am not concerned here to document the curriculum and, in particular, the specification of exactly how time is allocated between different teaching and learning arenas. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that the profile of this investment changes noticeably as you move from the images portrayed in undergraduate prospectuses, to the official institutional statement of modular teaching/learning hours, to the diary records of how students actually do spend their study time (Crook 1999). Just in terms of central priorities, prospectus students will be mainly doing practical things, the institutionalised reality will have them immersed in private study to reinforce teaching, and the actual student seems preoccupied with completing coursework assignments.

I shall focus here on the raw materials of study and how they are made visible within the interactions that students have with their peers. Thus, the summary observations in this section largely arise from responses to interview questions about study contacts with other students. This is a particularly pertinent domain for questioning as it is the communal dimension of existing higher education that may appear to be threatened by more networked learning. We do need to understand more of how current experiences of participating in such a community does or does not support study.

Comments made earlier in this chapter about modest levels of computer-based collaboration might predict that students generally were not very active in orchestrating informal study-related meetings with their peers. While some students did occasionally work together in networked study bedrooms, they were in a minority. Accordingly, these students were asked whether and where they did have any work-related discussion with their peers. Certainly, some of this took place in their own rooms (29% reported this) and some took place in the context of routine social interaction, such as over cafeteria meals (18%). Neither of these frequencies is very high and, together, they might imply that students were not typically active in regard to informal collaboration (cf. Crook, 2000). This, in turn, implies that the campus-based community was not catalysing the sort of productive social exchange typically claimed for it.

However, the fact that students did not routinely congregate for organised collaboration does not mean that participation in an institutional community did not serve their study in other ways. Thus 62% of these students said they routinely discussed work in and around the timetabled teaching sessions of their course. "Walking between lectures" was a regular occasion upon which work would get discussed. When students were asked to think through the preceding 24 hours and identify any occasions when they had discussed work with peers, 60% cited chance meetings. 28% of examples were specifically between two scheduled teaching sessions. Only 15% of encounters involved an active effort or arrangement to meet another student. Thus, the way this community largely "works" to give a social texture to private study is more through providing an everyday routine within which improvised opportunities for (perhaps short) exchanges can occur. The same may apply to contact with staff. 42% of these students reported an unscheduled exchange with a member of teaching staff in the preceding 24 hours. Most of these were serendipitous encounters exploited during peoples’ movement through the shared spaces of the institution.

What gets talked about during these contacts that involve student peers? It seems usually to be coursework. 73% of students cited the management of such assignments as their main topic of discussion. 33% were more specific in citing "reassurance" as often the basis for launching such conversations. Arguably, the ecology of the institution affords a particular sort of social opportunity to students whereby they can be repeatedly checking their own status and progress with coursework by means of chance conversations with relevant peers. It was less usual for students to report talking about lectures in this manner. 27% of respondents did mention lectures as a conversational topic although several students qualified this by suggesting that such occasions might be more talk about lecturers than lectures: in particular, shared gripes about delivery and demands.

If coursework is the main currency of conversation, lectures are the main currency of material exchanges. That is, when students were asked what kind of documents they passed among each other, then 80% identified lecture notes: particularly to support their friends who had missed sessions. 44% reported the sharing of books and 29% the exchange of essays. It could be concluded that lectures and coursework surface in the traffic between these students in opposing ways. Lectures are not experiences that promote a lot of discussion, but they are occasions that students wish to have fully documented: thus students pass around written records of the events (and seek web-based versions of these). Coursework, however, is something that is talked about more (albeit often with benchmarking motives) but the written products are either guarded more carefully or perhaps are seen as less useful to others.

These observations about the established context of study do echo some of what was witnessed happening on the computer network. The apparent significance or authority of lectures locates them as events that need documenting on course websites and so this is what students are requesting. Their own notes from lectures then become important records to circulate electronically and this is what we find. In a learning culture strongly driven by assessed assignments and examinations, possibly there is a resistance against technologies that provide yet more resources. Accordingly, these students want clear, authoritative and bounded versions of what it is that is being tested. They are not asking for specialist disciplinary tools to be circulated on the network and they are not attracted by self-pacing computer-aided learning packages. In a parallel study (Crook and Barrowcliff, in press), we found only 2 out of 34 students making use of CAL server software within a week of sampling usage patterns on their networked PCs (an apparently higher level of traffic with this server merely reflected its easy use as a gateway to the library catalogue).

The observations above concerning routine collaborative activity also complement what is emerging as the social patterns of network use. Organised face-to-face meetings with other students and with tutorial staff are relatively rare and yet both peers and tutors remain valued resources for learning. However, the nature, timing and location of face-to-face contacts typically is improvised and unstructured - that is, not organised.. Students value this style of work-related interaction and, among the various benefits, it seems discretely to deliver the kind of progress benchmarks that motivate learners and give them self-confidence. It is therefore unsurprising that text conferencing discussion boards – with their formality and lasting visibility – are unattractive to networked students from this community. Neither would we expect much person-to-person email debate, given that most face-to-face initiations of academic discussion avoid too conspicuous an intentionality (cf. Crook and Webster, 1998).

Looking forward

Notions of learning as "networked", "virtual" or "electronic" have not been carefully distinguished in this chapter. However, I take "networked" to invite a focus on the infrastructure that might deliver a form of learning that is intended to be more paced by the student, richer in resources for study, and affording new varieties of interpersonal communication. These are generous promises: understanding whether an investment in networking will shift the culture of conventional campus life is important. Not least, it will give enthusiasts for radically virtual universities some basis for predicting how virtual students will cope with their learning life on the network. Insofar as virtual universities will continue to be populated by the constituency of school-leaving young people, then how such individuals are reacting now to networked resources is very significant.

Given this framework, the observations made here surely represent a credible case study of "virtualisation". Yet the observed impact of networked resources and opportunities is hardly dramatic. Students do welcome this infrastructure within the context of their familiar experience of study. Yet they have no taste for comprehensively virtual education and their comments alert us to the breadth and drama of experience that is associated with being a full-time undergraduate. While they are quite comfortable using their computers to locate network resources or to engage in person-to-person communication, little of this activity seems particularly focussed on their studies. Indeed, the convergence of both study and recreational resources on one site for activity (the windows desktop) may be disruptive of learning for some. When asked if they felt they might spend too much time doing playful things on their networked computers, 50% of these students said that they did and, for many, this was a matter of concern.

One analysis of this situation would claim that the present case study is constrained by the unimaginative resources so far fashioned by the staff. Yet at least the circumstances of this case remind us that the enthusiasm of lecturers for working in this way can not be taken for granted. It also reminds us that taking seriously the students’ own resource preferences may lead to rather pedestrian forms of web-based material. Arguably, this will be a problem as long as the curriculum is driven by a relentless pace of modularised and competitive assessments. Ironically, enthusiasts for networking educational technology often are also enthusiasts for the model of student-as-customer and the procedures of highly formalised quality management. This package of ideas tends dangerously towards a commodity view of educational resources. Networking can thereby conjure up a setting in which "..information technology would be used to provide self-paced and asynchronously-accessed learning support delivered as, when and where the learner needed it. Such support, delivered at a user’s request and convenience, would be paid for like any other commodity." (MacFarlane, 1998, p.86).

Networking is not necessarily bound to the acquisition metaphor of learning, to the commodity metaphor of knowledge, and to the delivery metaphor of teaching. There is a set of alternatives based on conceptions of learning as "participation"; such that education is viewed as an inherently community-oriented activity (Sfard, 1998). There is no space here to develop this acquisition/participation distinction. However, raising it does provide an opportunity to close the chapter by returning to the observations above of what lecturers were choosing to do with their websites. Further consideration does indicate that there is little in what they are doing that much strengthens a student’s sense of identity as someone participating in a community of disciplinary practice.

Of the 71 course websites examined only one adopted a conversational manner in relation to the potential user. Not that familiarity of this kind is essential to building a sense of student participation. However, it may not be helpful if material offered to support learning is written in a prescriptive or directive tone. Moreover, there were few other signs of author-lecturers conceptualising courses as social communities. So, it was not typical for the webpage author actively to invite personal tutorial contact (only 18% of course sites had a live "mailto:" link that allowed email to be launched from within the website). No sites gave indications of times that staff might be available for "office hour" consultation. Only one site drew attention to the possibility of using the associated email discussion board. Most significantly, there were no opportunities taken to make reference to students’ own work. Whatever a module was producing in this sense was not celebrated in the webspace context. Even if this was not possible for ongoing projects, it would surely be possible to present outcomes from previous presentations of a course. Membership of a community does entail a sense of history and progression that can be captured if members are able to "leave tracks" in this sense.

In sum, there is much in these reactions of "traditional" staff and undergraduates for future observers and commentators to consider. Appropriating networked learning may not be willingly or comfortably done by those students who currently make up the bulk of our undergraduate population. Moreover, what it is that networks get appropriated to may turn out to be a model of teaching and learning that could be in need of some repair. One important focus for more vigorous debate is the distinction raised above between learning as acquisition and learning as participation. Whether networks are to become the conduit-of-delivery or the arena-for-community is an issue requiring a deeper level of pedagogic discussion than is commonplace within current university management.




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