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To appear in Understanding Distributed Learning

Editors: Mary R Lea (Open University), Kathy Nicoll ( Open University)

 

 

Learning as cultural practice

Charles Crook

Loughborough University

The psychologist Roger Saljo has remarked that when he began his research on learning, he was struck by the fact that the strongest predictor of a student’s success was whether or not they read many books. This apparently commonplace observation may only be striking to professional cognitive psychologists. For it confronts them with a sobering idea. It suggests that the theoretical structures of their psychology may not be up to analysing what really makes a difference when it comes to successful learning. Accordingly, Saljo himself sidestepped the information processing metaphors of cognitive psychology and concentrated instead on researching students’ private conceptions of knowledge and what it was to engage in learning. This work became an early landmark in the now substantial literature on "learning styles" (Marton and Saljo, 1976).

Arguably, that tradition has fostered the idea of individual students possessing characteristics – rather like personality traits - which determine the approaches they adopt to studying. "Style" of learning became especially associated with the distinction between surface and deep approaches (Enwhistle and Ramsden, 1983). In the projects of many researchers, that distinction became a matter of measuring and correlating individual differences. However, as Ramsden has noted, this individualised conception misrepresents what was intended: "An approach to learning is a description of a relation between a learner and a learning task – the description of an intention and an action. An approach is not something inside a student" (Ramsden, 1987, p.276). The significance of accepting this conception is that it must shift our attention from the taxomony of individuals to the variety of settings in which learning is organised. It is the texture that is found in a learning context that then encourages the idea of "cultures of learning". A prominent concern of the present chapter is to characterise learning as a form of distinct cultural practice. In one important sense of "learning", this is something that we decide to do.

A second concern in this chapter arises from current preoccupations with developing more virtual forms of education, particularly in the sector of higher education. I take virtualisation to involve an agenda of "de-schooling" (Illich, 1973) higher education such as to make it possible to study within a less rigid schedule of time and place. Such study becomes loosened from the bricks-and-mortar world of institutional education. New information and communication technology (ICT) is strongly implicated in the realisation of these new structures. The apparent impact of ICT in de-schooling study is the second major concern of this chapter. I wish to theorise such impacts in relation to learning as cultural practice.

There are many reasons to embrace more virtual forms of study. This virtualisation agenda promises to make educational opportunity available to a wider constituency of students. Such developments might also offer economies in the financial management of education. Finally, study in an ICT-intensive setting might provide a more powerful form of learning experience. In the present chapter, I wish to argue that appropriating ICT to virtualisation ambitions does not ensure any of these outcomes. There are choices as to exactly how the technology gets used as a resource for learning and we need to debate those choices now. Some of them may lead to an empowering of de-schooled learners, some may serve to set them adrift. More particularly, I wish to suggest here a framing for the necessary debate: a framing that takes seriously the notion of learning as cultural practice. This invites us to understand better the current organisation of that practice. The reward should be a firmer basis for managing virtualisation and predicting its likely success.

In what follows, I shall first make some observations that concern reactions to more virtual forms of teaching and learning as I have investigated them in a traditional university setting (Section 1 below). Broadly, speaking these reactions are not encouraging of an easy transition to such new methods. This is data that suggests the conditions for electronically-mediated learning demand some scrutiny. I believe it requires us to notice the difference between informal and formal learning. That distinction is explored here by taking its expression in early childhood as a particularly accessible example (Section 2). It is in relation to formal learning that the idea of cultural practice is developed. Moreover tension between the informal and the formal bears on the important idea of "communities of practice" in learning (Section 3) In Section 4, some aspects of formal learning culture are exposed by documenting disturbances to an existing educational culture that are brought about by more virtual practices. In a sense, virtualisation is used here as a lever to access and notice certain features of established institutional life.

1. Reactions to the virtual in higher education

Here I am going to dwell on some difficulties that seem to attend the virtualisation of university teaching and learning. Because what is claimed might suggest a somewhat negative and pessimistic attitude, it is important to preface these observations with some qualifying remarks that serve to recognise a degree of complexity in the situation.

There is no question that educational experiences based on distance teaching methods can be highly successful. The UK Open University is but one example of how readily students can engage with learning methods that are not strongly tied to working at particular times or working in particular institutional spaces. Of course, the success of the Open University may depend on the fact that it does manage a particularly large and expensive infrastructure of support and communication. However, there are other emerging "electronic universities" where the management of teaching and learning is more narrowly focussed on computer networks. These modes of learning also claim successes. Yet, it is important to keep in view the self-selected nature of the student constituency in each case This is not necessarily a mode of study with universal appeal (Schlosser and Anderson, 1994). Indeed, electronically-mediated versions of distance courses have been shown to be particularly daunting for some (Hara and Kling, 2000). So, if society wishes to sustain the contiguity between secondary and higher education, then it must be determined whether distance and virtual methods of learning will prove engaging to the that large constituency of young people who currently dominate undergraduate campuses. They are not well represented in research celebrating the attractions and successes of distance methods.

Doubts about the comprehensive appeal of such methods to traditional undergraduates might be countered with examples of courses in current higher education that have successfully adopted computer networks as the central context for their teaching and learning. Yet these are necessarily self-contained case studies. Typically they are research-led examples in which the virtual mode of delivery will be relatively insulated from a traditional curriculum experience that students are otherwise getting. It is one thing for traditional students to thrive on some isolated courses with a virtual flavour, but another to manage their whole degree in distance terms.

My own expectation is that wholesale transition to virtual higher education will meet with difficulties. This view arises from researching the impact on teaching and learning of computer networking in my own institution. Of course it is not a virtual university. However, at present there is no such institution to be observed – at least, none that is catering for an arbitrary sample of the young people drawn from the population we are making projections about. However, the developments on this campus were vigorous enough to give some useful pointers to the problems and prospects for a larger scale appropriation of this technology. It was a campus institution and an unusual proportion of students (over 50%) lived within its boundaries. All of the associated study bedrooms have now been linked to local computer services as well as to the internet. Students have generous access to network tools. Moreover, every taught module in the university has unlimited filespace on a "learn server". Staff have this discspace available as a directory on their own office computers and can easily mount material accessible by web browsers. Training in use and development of such material is widely available. In addition, a specialist unit in the university maintains a "CAL server" offering what 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).

Elsewhere, I have described and interpreted use of these materials in greater detail (Crook, in press). Here I will merely summarise the main observations that concern staff and student use.

The learn server has been active for almost three years. Yet, at the time of writing, more than 70% of modules have no resources mounted. This is so despite a demanding period of external teaching audit in which web-based resources might be regarded as a straightforward way to display innovative attitudes. While the university has remained light-handed about prescribing such new methods, it certainly has been generous in the level of material encouragement it has provided. Despite this, it is clear that most staff are not persuaded that it is an important priority for them to publicise learning material in this networked arena.

The picture in relation to student use is somewhat different. A sample of 45 undergraduates (stratified by Faculty affiliation) was recruited from doorstep invitations in residence halls. Few people declined to help and so these conversations represented a good cross section of student reaction. Over half of them felt the university could make more use of ICT. The resource most in demand was lecturers’ notes, which it was thought should be published as web pages (in fact, this was already the most common form of published material on the course sites that staff had developed). On the other hand, students had no particular enthusiasm for more CAL software and our system logging of their own computers indicated this was rarely accessed from their study bedrooms. Neither was there any student appetite for the email-based text conferencing facilities that were attached to each module on the learn server. In sum, these students were confident users of the technology but fairly pedestrian in their preferences and habits of use.

However, the most striking findings concerned their perception of virtual university as a mode of learning. These reactions are very relevant to the arguments developed here. While there is much rhetoric concerning the importance of moving towards more virtual forms of higher education, there is precious little consideration of what students themselves might want. The informants here are one small sample but their views are likely to be representative. After all, they were drawn from all academic disciplines and they had no inhibitions about using technology. We asked whether virtual universities were likely to happen, was this desirable, and would they study within one. Students did differ as to whether they thought it was a likely to happen. Fifty-two percent thought that it would. Many were unsure and only 20% gave a confident "no". On the other hand, when discussing whether it was desirable, they showed themselves to be quite comfortable with the public arguments for pursuing this vision. In particular, they spoke of economies in delivery, flexibility in terms of when courses might be taken, and the prospect of greater social inclusion. However, these were theoretical arguments. Not one of these 45 students would wish to study at a virtual university themselves – despite a recognised reducation of present financial commitments. Many of them vigorously dismissed the whole virtualisation prospect.

The basis for their doubts were (1) the essentially social nature of learning, (2) a variety of reservations about the bandwidth of electronic media in terms of capacity to give a rich basis for study, (3) doubts regarding their own ability to sustain motivation in a more unstructured learning setting, (4) a need to protect the social and recreational life associated with full-time institutional study, and (5) attachment to the breadth of experience associated with the independence and variety of university living. Taken together the various comments of all these students were broadly about two central issues. The first was a feeling that sustained and effective learning depended upon the opportunity for face-to-face interaction. The second was an understanding that what was acquired at university went beyond what was tested in Finals examinations.

Enthusiasts for virtual learning may argue that these student opinions are of little interest, as they are solicited from respondents with limited understanding of what new educational technologies will make possible. On the other hand, the precious features of university experience that were prioritised in these interviews were features that undoubtedly will tax the versatility of new media. It is not as if students’ doubts were about the adequacy of the possible learning resources – in relation to which enthusiasts may invoke all sorts of forthcoming wonders. Instead, students’ concerns focused on matters that were essentially about the possibility of synchronous and well-grounded social interaction. Although there is a long tradition of not paying particular attention to user opinion in the design of educational resources, it would seem wise to evaluate the user appeal of changes as radical as virtual institutions. This must surely be the case insofar as society wishes to continue serious provision for young people of school-leaving age.

In anticipation that there could be some level of student resistance to virtual education, my aim here is to make sense of this through a certain strand of theorising over the nature of learning. Through conceptualising learning in terms of cultural practice, I believe we get a grasp of why appropriating virtual methods might be troublesome. It may be naïve to imagine that some new educational technology is simply going to amplify the best of our existing education; or that it will helpfully brush aside whatever obstacles might currently be impeding energetic learning by students. However, the difficulties students experience in accommodating those new technologies may be useful in making more visible the important aspects of teaching and learning that we may not be recognising. Gaver puts this well in saying: "..new technologies seldom simply support old working practices with additional efficiency of 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." (Gaver, 1996, p. 112).

In the following section, some distinctions in relation to the meaning of "learning" are made. This will lay the ground for recognising "subtleties of existing social behaviors" that arise in the course of learning – and thus to consider consequences of their likely "disruptions" by new technologies.

2. Learning: the formal and the informal

As a developmental psychologist by background, I am keenly aware of how much a child achieves in its first four years. In fact, my own introduction to developmental psychology was in the context of studying children’s learning: researching its nature in the very earliest weeks of life. This challenge we approached as a matter of teaching, rather than learning. That is, ingenious arrangements were constructed for presenting and recording stimuli and responses. Such management of contingencies was the accepted basis for exposing and studying the early plasticity of behaviour. It certainly needed to be pursued in the setting of a laboratory. What impressed me was that it was quite possible to demonstrate such learning in early life, but it was hard work. The arrangements were certainly ingenious but the rate at which infants learnt about them seemed slow. It all seemed much slower than the pace at which they were learning about the rest of their world.

The fact is that a lot of learning does take place very early in life but, oddly, it seems to do so without much that looks like teaching going on. Perhaps the decontextualised procedures of the psychological laboratory define the sort of contrivance that infants find hard to learn about: an unusual encounter with just the kind of teaching that does not normally happen to them. Perhaps the point about early learning is that its progress does indeed depend on contingencies – orderly relations between infant and world – but, to make a difference, these contingencies need to be encountered in the natural flow of intentional action. They need to be relevant to the infants here-and-now concerns. The standard language of psychological description for these early achievements is significant. In my behavioural laboratory example above, the successful infant might be said to have "acquired a response". In the more contemporary climate of cognitive science, the infant might more likely be said to "acquire a representation". The acquisition-into-container metaphor is natural, but it is not our only option here. It might be more helpful to claim not that the learning child has "acquired" something, rather they have "come to take part". So that what is achieved in the early years is a capacity for co-ordinated participation within the local cultural context.

At least this is what will be possible in circumstances where sympathetic and experienced adults chose to orchestrate the world so as to encourage such participation. Fortunately, most infants will be surrounded by adults who are motivated to make such an investment. Note that this perspective on the first achievements of learning is rather different from that which has previously dominated the developmental psychology of early childhood: namely, the constructivist account associated with Piaget (e.g., Piaget 1953). The young child’s agency as an active "constructor" of knowledge has not been questioned; but what is now taken more seriously is the importance of other people for structuring a world in which such energy can be optimally exercised. What these grown-ups seem to do so vigorously is anticipate, predict and interpret the child’s momentary concerns. This species of adult social sensitivity and the resulting adult-child reciprocity has been well observed and documented (e.g., Schaffer, 1992). Only recently has it been appreciated how far the young child’s own motives for action are derived from the world of interpersonal events. The Piagetian infant is typically cast as experimenting on the material world (a putative physicist). The infant of contemporary developmental psychology (e.g., Dunn, 1988) is more curious about the world of other people (a putative psychologist)

All of this captures what might be termed "informal learning" - in its earliest and, therefore, most vivid form. By four years of age the typical child will have command of considerable resources relating to communicating and manipulating both the social and material world. Yet it is quite clear (if only from tragic cases of social neglect) that such achievements rest upon opportunities for participation in that world that are co-ordinated by sympathetic others. Most usually, these will be adults with the necessary long experience and interpersonal sensitivity – in addition to an emotional commitment to the responsibilities of enculturation. Indeed, human beings may be unique among species in respect of their motivation and capacity for instructing their young (Premack and Premack, 1996). Yet the term "instruction" sits uneasily in this description: because what is going on in these early years rarely resembles the kind of activities we normally label with that term. What is distinctive about the dramatic achievements of this early period is the indirectness of the underlying influences. What others do to effect an influence seems folded into the child’s (the learner’s) ongoing and spontaneous activities. Not, of course, that children are allowed unilateral control over their early social lives but, most likely, the richest opportunities for informal learning reside in situations that are both child-directed and that readily precipitate a guided mutuality with others.

In many societies enculturation is achieved solely through such informal experiences of learning. Yet what is striking about our own culture is that we have evolved practices that capture, concentrate, and re-locate the events of these early learning encounters. We thereby turn the experience of learning into something with a more recognisable formal structure. So, around the age of four or five years most of us will go to school. This is not a seamless transition of experience, but it is abrupt in terms of offering a rather new basis for orchestrating action. Most central of the differences between the domestic and the scholastic are those that concern motivation and relevance. Many demands of schooled intelligence simply do not surface in the spontaneous world of childhood social relations – the world outside of school. Typically, the young child will have at the outset of school no strong appetite for the challenges of number, reading or writing. Perhaps, therefore, the motives for engaging with such material have to be generated from within the contrived agendas of schooled life. This makes the practice of educational institutions very important to investigate. A further handicap the formal teacher suffers over the informal adult (the parent, say) is a lack of intimate knowledge of individual children: their histories, vulnerabilities and fancies. Thus the anticipation and exploitation of optimal learning chances may be more difficult to achieve.

It is valuable to notice how these constraints are dealt with. This involves constructing a circumscribed and ordered world: a design-for-living in which the locations, rituals, roles and agendas are carefully stage managed in the interests of making curriculum material "matter". There is nothing particularly sinister about all this. In fact, it is a difficult transformation of experience that is generally handled with great sensitivity by the cast of characters involved. The metaphor of theatre is quite apt here. Children generally accept the terms of a schooled world much as any of us might adapt to the narrative and context of a dramatic production we enter into. Children agree to suspend their indifference to the demands of certain classroom tasks and they engage with the relevant stage directions. A more difficult issue to assess – and one that I shall return to in the context of undergraduate learning – is whether or not what pupils end up doing is another species of "taking part". For if it does mirror something of what we recognise as participation in the world of informal learning, then the conditions of that schooled life have arguably achieved something significant.

The basis for achieving this difficult contract with the learner (a suspension of indifference and an active appropriation of the curricular agenda) is a certain de-coupling from the informal world of out-of-school life. Thus, formal learning is institutionalised in that it takes place in specialised premises relatively insulated from the surrounding community. Moreover, the adults involved are typically not informed by out of school contact with their pupils; those adults may, for example, live outside of their own school’s catchment area. This world is so decoupled, that children may not seem to allow the two to cross-talk. Parents often comment on how difficult it is to get young children to discuss the events of classroom life. This segregation of school and home experience is clear. Less obvious is a form of activity segregation that is typical within school. That is, the separation of the timetable into periods of classwork and periods of recreational play. From a very early point, the agenda of formal learning creates an eccentric pattern of relationships with peers. The same group of children are encountered as companions in two very different settings, with very different terms of engagement. Peers are companions in the unstructured and (largely) child-directed context of the playground and they are also companions in the more orchestrated and (largely) teacher-directed context of the classroom. What takes place between them in these two settings is often very different.

There is a further social feature of these "dual worlds" of learning that is useful to note. It is one that highlights problems of inter-penetration. The literature celebrating the potency of informal learning makes strong assumptions about learners’ motivation – that willingness to be "scaffolded" through social participations as those outlined above. Lucinda Kerewalla and myself are investigating children’s use of ICT in their homes: looking at their use of educational software in particular. We find that most children’s experience of home computers tends to be solitary rather than collaborative. This is the case despite advertising images encouraging the idea of parents supporting the children doing school-like ICT-based activities. One observation a number of parents make is that their children can be resistant to parental involvement with such activity. Our understanding of this reaction is that it concerns an unease about parents (or other people close to the child perhaps) acting in a tutorial role. At least this may be felt where the mechanics of scaffolded tuition somehow become visible to the learner: where the teaching role is made explicit.

Comfortably maintaining the relationship between the worlds of formal and informal learning is of special concern in this chapter. For it is argued that virtual technologies of learning may have a strong effect at this interface. Examples will be given below but, first, it is necessary to note some further conceptual distinctions that have been made in the interests of understanding the optimal management of the formal In particular, I am interested in the notion of the formal harbouring "communities of practice".

 

3. Communities of practice

The distinctions and arguments above have been cast in terms of early child development. My wider interest here is in higher and continuing education. Yet it is important to notice the developmental roots of educational practice. This encourages consideration of how the separation of formal and informal evolves over the timescale of human educational experiences.

It may be attractive to believe that the culture of educational practice in later years (say in higher education) comes to take on a character that is more in harmony with the student’s informal world of learning. One hint of this is available in the promotional imagery that is associated with, say, universities. Pick up an undergraduate prospectus and consider the photographs that illustrate departmental entries. David Barrowcliff and I have done this in a carefully-sampled manner and have classified the contents of these images. The prospectus student is typically active, exploring, often out-of-doors and - most of all – is social. In short, such students are portrayed doing things, and often doing them in harmony with others. These "others" rarely seem to be tutors however. In fact, the concerns of the prospectus student seldom require that they be in lectures or libraries and it is unusual for them to be simply reading. Yet, it is libraries, lectures and books that activity-diary studies show occupy most of the "real" student’s time. These images are curiously discrepant in another sense. In terms of mood, the prospectus student is decidedly upbeat. There is no suggestion that study might ever be tiring, frustrating, tedious or lonely. Of course, to convey such messages to intending students would be perverse. The prospectus is about projecting an attractive image and, increasingly, universities embrace promotional methods to achieve this (Wernick, 1991).

The important point to make here is not simply that these seductive images are dishonest. Some of the time at least, study can be constituted in the ways portrayed. But most of us would accept that being a learner at university level is often felt a demanding commitment. Learning is about doing things and doing them well is not always easily motivated or easily achieved. What is interesting about the promotional imagery of higher education is that it actively suggests that there is no significant discontinuity between formal and informal learning. It suggests that what the intending student will be doing as a learner looks and feels like only a modest transformation of the kind of fun they normally enjoy.

However, a gap between the formal and the informal continues to be visible well into this later period of education. Many of the students we interviewed (see above) were quite clear that their principle orientation was towards the social and recreational life of university. Study was coped with, sometimes enjoyed, but not strongly constitutive of their identity. Students also revealed this split in another way (that I shall return to below): they often partition their social relations into the curricular and the recreational, such that the concerns of each did not strongly overlap. Perhaps this echoes that earlier partitioning of social relations within a single peer group: into classroom and playground.

Many commentators have been concerned at the failure of educational provision to close the gap discussed here: that is, to make the experience of formal education shift to resemble more the flavour of learning captured in promotional prospectuses. For example, Tharp and Gallimore (1988) propose the closing of this gap as a necessary educational goal: "When true teaching is found in schools, it observes the same principles that good teaching exhibits in informal settings" Central among these principles are methods of "assisted performance": that is, occasions (as discussed above) in which a child and an adult participate together in joint activities scaffolded by the sensitivity and judgements of the more experienced partner. Tharp and Gallimore conclude that "Even with the benefits of modern instructional practice, there is still too large a gap between the conditions of home and school. Most parents do not need to be trained to assist performance; most teachers do" (op cit).

Tharp and Gallimore acknowledge one reason assisted performance is lacking in classrooms: a large group of pupils and one teacher simply does not allow such dedicated interaction. However, perhaps assisted performance should not be seen as the inevitable means to realise the goals of formal settings. It may be that this intimacy of social exchange actually becomes less well suited to what formal education strives to achieve. A possible limitation is the scope of what can be encountered in that format. Assisted performance is a close interaction between expert and novice (teacher and pupil; parent and child) in which the novice is co-ordinated into appropriating some cultural artefact, tool, or practice. The skill of this co-ordinating empowers the novice to take part in an experience that is otherwise beyond their solitary capabilities. However, in complex social orders, much of what must be learned involves knowledge that is inherently distributed. The novice needs opportunities to participate in social coordinations that are less intimate in the sense that they require coordination among groups of people. Such possibilities shift attention from dyads as the unit of participative "assistance" towards communities as the ideal context for learning.

Invoking the notion of community is characteristic of a general move in educational theorising from metaphors of "acquisition" to metaphors of "participation" (Sfard, 1998). That is, learners are conceptualised less as containers into which knowledge is delivered but more as actors who are co-ordinated into "taking part" in knowledge. This, in turn, reflects a contemporary interest among formal educators in the successes of learning as managed informally. So, in the reform of schooling, Tharp and Gallimore illustrate a hankering after the sort of tutorial intimacy that characterises the informal learning typical of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. The notion of "communities of practice" also represents a hankering for the potency of the informal. But it takes us beyond the tutorial dyad. It recognises a complexity that evolves for informal learning: a move towards modes of interaction and learning that are more socially dynamic, more distributed, more systemic. One consequence of this community emphasis is a greater interest in making educational experiences more authentic. This principle is central to theoretical arguments in which education is urged to respect the "situated" nature of cognition (Brown, Collins and Duguid, 1989); or instruction is designed to be "anchored" to disciplinary practice (Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1990).

It is much debated how far formal education should embrace communities of practice as a structural principle – perhaps such as to make learning resemble more the apprenticeship experience. There is no space within the present chapter to add significantly to that particular debate. I am especially anxious not to promote stark dichotomies between, say, didactic methods of schooling and methods that are community and practice oriented. However, I am also uneasy about reinforcing too romantic a vision of education such as is often the connotation surrounding "community of practice" - as if learning could and should always have the authentic and uplifting quality visible in undergraduate prospectuses. It is doubtless right that we should strive to ensure students do have a stronger sense of (communally) practising their discipline. Yet, certainly for the bureaucratic/scientific forms of practice so valued in western culture, it has to be noticed that what legitimate "practice" often involves is activities very close to the formalisms of traditional schooling. The authentic practitioner who is, say, an accountant, a technician, a manager, or a psychologist has to engage in activities that closely resemble those of deliberately planned learning. Documents are read, positions are synthesised, calculations are performed, the expositions of experienced colleagues are attended to, summarised and re-visited. What is distinctive about the schooled experience of such activities is that they are intensively concentrated and, perhaps, too rarely linked to any natural motives of the learners. Yet in both traditional formal education and in authentic communities of practice, we witness the same forms of intentional intellectual engagement: forms of activity that people arrange in order to promote their own learning.

The sorts of activities being discussed – practices of deliberate study – are often demanding for us. They require relinquishing our availability to the improvised flow of social life and making a commitment to what may be focussed and socially insulated states of engagement. Often they will involve struggle with representational formats that have been designed to optimise the summary and organisation of conceptual material (maps, diagrams, symbol systems, texts). Such "struggle" perhaps involves disciplined private dialogues with this material, as it is interrogated for meaning. The challenging question is how we motivate and sustain such commitments – made in the interests of concentrating learning. One answer again invokes communities of practice: suggesting that we manage this by ensuring legitimate and relevant purposes for such activity. The problems served by it must be problems we want or need to solve. For learning practitioners this comes more easily; as study is bound into their identity as defined by the type of practice they have chosen to cultivate. For learners in education, with perhaps a variety of parallel disciplinary obligations, it is much harder to create convincing motives of that kind. Creating a stronger sense of "community" within institutionalised learning is one route, (and one that is usually underdeveloped). Otherwise, the challenge of motivating study is met by thoughtful design of the learning environment: creating a fertile ecology for sustaining that learning.

This analysis merely takes us to a position that our interviewed undergraduates (above) had already put to us in their comments. In part, they found the virtual university unattractive because it would deny them an organisation or design that was important to motivating their engagement as learners. If cut free from the familiar structuring of institutional education, many current students seriously doubted their capacity to manage the distractions of their extra-curricular lives and balance this with the demands of study. Yet, in one way I have tried to go beyond what traditional undergraduates have already warned us about: I have suggested that the demands of "doing learning" are unlikely to be comprehensively dealt with by cultivating within educational settings communities of practice - even though this surely remains a worthwhile ambition. There are limits to how convincingly such a culture can be adopted where the breadth of the syllabus demands membership of multiple and parallel disciplinary communities. There are also limits arising from our ambitions in formal education to force an exposure to disciplinary tools that is particularly intense and concentrated. Finally, practitioners outside of school, in their authentic communities, will often themselves have to wrestle with demands of doing deliberate learning. Formal education offers experience in the personal management of such demands.

A declared concern of this chapter was to address possible difficulties associated with virtual learning methods as they might be applied to the principle constituency of students now populating higher education. I have raised above issues concerning how bricks-and-mortar institutions distinctively sustain the demanding activities of deliberate learning. However, in the final section I shall address this issue of virtuatisation more directly. The point will be to relate the problems just considered – problems of sustaining deliberate study - to structural features of virtual education.

4. Virtual disturbances to the cultural practice of learning

I have been arguing that formal learning is usefully recognised as a species of cultural practice. This is to say no more than that learning involves a set of cognitive activities involving distinctive coordinations with cultural resources. Such resources have evolved across a history in which prior human activity has fashioned them to their current form. This embedding in history gives the activities their status as "cultural". Naturally, formal learning must involve engagement with disciplinary material. But that engagement is structured by the formats and rituals of the institutional experience: expositions, texts, annotations, discourse genres, roles, social relations and so forth. While the virtualisation agenda may share many of the ambitions of conventional education, it does promise to unpick much of the detail in a structure defining the cultural practice of learning. In some respects we may welcome some re-design of this activity. Yet, in others, we may be apprehensive. To some extent we may be concerned because it seems unlikely that individuals well-encultured in the present system of learning practice will be able to easily adapt. Those who view learning as an abstract cognitive activity (perhaps a "skill") that exists free from a cultural context may be more optimistic about the unpicking of structure that we are considering.

Merely to illustrate (rather than analyse) the issue of virtual disturbance, I shall take three examples where virtualisation of higher educational practice is involved. The point will be to notice entrenched enculturation in the existing system that thereby can be revealed. One example is centred on the tutor, one on the peer, and one on solitary study.

A consequence of virtualisation seems to be a much less prominent role for the teacher. One enthusiast for these developments asserts: "Kids simply learn best when they teach themselves and each other … teachers have to stop teaching and get out of the way of student work; they have to stop thinking they’re conveying information and, instead, focus on strategies to help students learn" (Twigg 1995). This rhetoric of "learning autonomy" is seductive. So is the idea that such autonomy will be readily found outside of the institutional structure. Where some commentators expect to find it is through the supplementary training that can be applied to learning-as-skill: "Students will have to be taught how to manage their own learning processes to an unprecedented degree" (MacrFarlane, 1998, p.83). However, there is also an expectation that whatever processes of dialogue orchestrate students’ present approach to learning materials (practices of selecting, monitoring, pacing, giving feedback etc), this could be designed into the presentational format of the new electronic materials. One public report on the future of ICT in higher education comments: "..self instructional materials are designed not only to present information, but also to encourage an active approach to learning through question ‘boxes’ and built-in activities" (Committee of Scottish University Principals, 1992, p 8-9). Educational developers are themselves confident about the opportunity here and, thus, propose radical challenges to the status quo: "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).

As it happens, this example returns us to a topic raised at the very start of this chapter: namely, learning styles. In an effort to turn surface learners into deep learners, some researchers developed independent learning materials that did contain "question boxes" and the like – hoping to guide surface learners into asking the same questions to themselves that deep learners would do. As Ramsden (1987) notes in a review, this often had the opposite effect to the one intended. Often the focus for study got narrowed to a preoccupation with answering these questions (a ‘technification of the task’). This is not to challenge the enterprise of trying to design materials with a more effective dialogic quality. However, it does remind us that the management of, say, independent reading is, at present, much more subtly tied into an institutional structure (particularly involving tutors) than we acknowledge.

My second example concerns peers. In contemporary educational thinking, fellow students are significant for the role they play in furnishing chances for discourse and intellectual experimentation; openings for challenge and encouragement. On reviewing years of research, Astin concludes that for US collegue students, peers are "the single most potent sourceof influence" (1993, p. 398). So, it is natural that virtual universities will endeavour to provide arenas of peer communication in what is otherwise a socially-distributed constituency. Present solutions to this are dominated by asynchronous text conferencing. The success stories associated with this technology tend to be concentrated within non-traditional undergraduate populations. The technology is less obviously attractive to mainstream undergraduates (Light, Nesbitt, Light and White, 2000). Perhaps future communication media will be more successful. The point is not to rule this out, but problems in re-mediating such communication do remind us of the fragile nature of existing practices and alert us against making too many strong assumptions about the ease with which important educational experiences will be reproduced electronically.

Our interviewed traditional students (above) were again informative. They reinforced the suspicion (cf. Crook, 2000) that peer support did not typically occur as conversations in organised out-of-class gatherings: because students convened themselves in this way rather rarely. However, what did occur was a persistent practice of short and serendipitous exchanges as they moved about the university environment. Often these fleeting conversations allowed students to evaluate how a course was developing; or they allowed the sharing of gripes; or they helped with the search for reassurance and benchmarks on personal progress. In a more abstract sense, such improvised campus exchanges also seemed to create a feeling of corporate activity. This imparted a significant motivational dimension to the task of sustaining study. Given this pattern of communication in the background, it comes as less surprising that mainstream undergraduates make very little use of email discussion boards but prefer quick and occasional email exchanges or instant messaging (Crook, in press).

Finally, we may consider the example of private, solitary study. Here there is a promise that: "Technology can transform an individual’s learning environment by presenting richly structured information to aid the assimilation, by providing highly-structured instantiated knowledge for easy and flexible interactive access, and by generating highly interactive simulations for experiential learning" (MacFarlane, 1998, p. 83). The libeartional flavour of this promise surely arises from the hint that such rich material must be inherently attractive It promises to cope with a problem I have identified above: namely, that intentional learning is often felt as demanding. Moreover, sustained private study (perhaps directed at material not of immediate interest) is one of the most demanding of activities. To cope with this, cultural practices of learning have evolved to optimise the circumstances for such activity: spaces, materials, schedules and various sorts of human support have been designed to nurture such focused private study effectively. The implicit promise of MacFarlane and others is that the paraphernalia of electronic learning will release the student from the necessity of this institutional framework. Yet we must not underestimate what such ambitions entail.

Observations of residential undergraduates making use of such rich ICT facilities suggest why this may be problematic. In a study of students computer use in networked study bedrooms, we found that the interactive versatility of this technology created distractions as well as academic opportunities (Crook and Barrowcliff, in press). The context for studying occupied by these students is very much a transition point on a virtualisation path. Students continue to enjoy a structure (deadlines, private living space, full-time study etc.) that supports independent learning. ICT facilities are merely superimposed upon this structure. However, the intrusion of such facilities reveals a delicate balance that has to be managed: a balance between the practices of formal learning and the rest of people’s lives. In this case, the ICT could possibly empower study and shift the balance of commitments towards investment in study. However, this single technology (the powerful PC networked to local and global resources) services both playful and learning motives. The interface between school and play is blurred at a single site for action. Our records of how students used the technology revealed a highly animated style of engagement, whereby activity was frequently moving between different multi-tasking applications: word processors, media players, email, instant messaging, news tickers, games and so on. In the end, these students spent no more time on private study than their matched peers in study bedrooms with no PCs. Indeed, over half of them expressed real concern in interviews that they spent too much time on recreational computer use (Crook in press)

Concluding remarks

Learning is pervasive to human experience. Dramatic achievements observable in the early years of life alert us to this fact. Uniquely among species however, teaching is also central to our nature. Those dramatic achievements of the early years do involve teaching, although the term is not commonly used to describe the participative coordinations that parents and others arrange for us. Beyond the early years, our culture offers ways of living that invite expertise or knowledge exceeding what can usually be provided in the arenas of informal learning. Formal education is designed to focus and accelerate experiences that support the demands and values of that society into which the novice or learner is growing. An important question then becomes how far the methods of formal education should echo experiences typical of informal learning. Schank and Cleary (1995) express such aspirations by quoting the novelist Walker Percy: "A young Falkland Islander walking along a beach and spying a dead dogfish and going to work on it with his jackknife has, in a fashion wholly unprovided for in modern educational theory, a great advantage over the Scarsdale high school pupil who finds the dogfish on his laboratory desk."

This certainly identifies a tension inherent in educational practice. We do expect the high school pupil to have a different quality of engagement to that of the Falkland Islander. There is much that could be done within formal education to capture back some of the difference: the motive of spontaneous curiosity and the goals of using and communicating discovery in an authentic manner. However, the high school pupil is challenged to achieve more than the skills of jackknife dissection and more than a working recognition of anatomical structures. The pupil must, from such opportunities as these, encounter material of a more cultural nature – diagrams, calculations, genres of description and so forth – all of which require the superimposition of other tasks at the "laboratory desk" beyond the pupil’s actions with a knife (record keeping, certain sorts of controlled investigation and so on). The persistent problem for educational design is to create a balance to learner experience. The balance concerns, on the one hand, imparting to students a sense of (disciplinary) identity and purpose (such as might be captured in a community of practice) and, on the other hand, designing materials, spaces, and social relations that give students experience in managing the demands of deliberate and, often, de-contextualised learning.

It is the embedding of student activities in a structure of institutionalised design that helps define what learning is as an expression of cultural practice - although exactly what form it takes may vary across the many cultural settings that support schooling. However, as participants in such structure, people develop and change. One way they develop is to be more firmly encultured into the relevant practices and, thereby, more autonomous (and more comfortable) in "managing" the underlying cognitive engagements. For such reasons, we might expect the effect of cutting learning lose form a bricks-and-mortar context would have different consequences for different students – according to their own cultural histories of experience. The older and continuing student does not confront learning opportunities in the same way as the school leaver. My argument here is fairly parochial: namely, that we must be wary of thinking that this de-schooling will be straightforward for the particular constituency of school-leaving undergraduates that make up the current population of higher education. Looking at virtualisation in progress can reveal some of these dependencies and their precarious nature. Then, if we are cautious and reflective in going about this re-mediation, there is every hope that new technology can be mobilised to further optimise the balances I am discussing here, rather than unhelpfully disturbing them.

 

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