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    Virtual Learning Environments and the Role of the Teacher

    Report of a UNESCO/Open University International Colloquium

    Professor Tim OShea & Dr. Eileen Scanlon

    August 1997

    Institute of Educational Technology Open University

  • Acknowledgements

    This report draws on a UNESCO firnded colloquium held at the Open University, Milton Keynes,

    England in April, 1997. Papers were commissioned from leading researchers (see list of Colloquium

    papers at end of report) and an intensive three day discussion of the papers, of software

    demonstrations and of general issues was conducted. We have drawn on these papers and on the

    related discussion in producing this report. The responsibility for producing this document and the

    views expressed in it are, however, ours alone.

    We should like to thank Anne Downes, Janet Vroone, Zoe Worth, Julie Gowen and Richard Adams

    for all their help in organising and running the colloquium,


  • Virtual Learning Environments

    and the Role of the Teacher

    Report of a UNESCO/Open University International Colloquium

    Professor Tim OShea & Dr. Eileen Scanlon

    August 1997

    Institute of Educational Technology

    Open University


    Virtual learning environments represent an entirely new form of educational technology. They offer

    the educational institutions of the world a complex set of opportunities and challenges. For the

    purposes of this report we will define a virtual learning environment to be an interactive educational

    computer program with an integrated communication capability. An example of a virtual learning

    environment is a package such as that described by Crewe*, which supports learners as they work

    with mathematical formulae and makes it possible for them while using the package to send

    mathematical working, tables of values and mathematical sketches to other students and tutors, and to

    receive similar information back from them, either while they are working or later. It is the

    combination of individualised adaptive interaction with communication on demand that provides the

    unique form of support for the learner. A classroom or a library is an example of a real learning

    environment, and a computer program which supports a non-trivial scientific simulation can be

    considered to be an interactive learning environment. A virtual learning environment may support

    similar forms of learning to a real one but it is not a physical space like a classroom or lecture

    * Undated references listed in this way refer to papers presented at the Colloquium and listed at the end of this report.


  • theatre, and learners may work closely together while not being active at the same time. In addition

    to having a different relation to space and time, a virtual learning environment will also be different

    from a real one with respect to memory. Virtual learning environments are realised with computer

    technology, and can thus be designed to have their own memory of what the learner or group of

    learners have been doing.

    Virtual learning environments are a relatively recent development and they arise from the convergence

    of computer and communication technologies that has accelerated over the last ten years. This report

    is based on a workshop which dealt with a wide range of examples of virtual learning environments,

    and consideration of these leads naturally to the consideration of a new set of educational

    opportunities. The educational community has only recently begun to think through the possibilities

    for learning environments that are not restricted to particular places and times and that can remember

    past events. But associated with the possibilities are some very serious challenges and concerns. We

    focused particularly on how these developments might change the role of teacher. That issue leads on

    to the key question of scaleability. For any particular virtual learning environment we need to identify

    the types of human teaching role that are necessary to support learning gains, and how the number of

    persons in the teachin, 0 role changes as the number of learners rises. Some virtual learning

    environments can yield significant economies of scale and provide a route for enhancing educational

    provision in countries where educational resources are very limited. Others do not yield economies of

    scale, and in fact require extra layers of human administrative support as student numbers rise

    This theme of the colloquium and the motivation of UNESCO as sponsor was well expressed by Colin

    Power, UNESCOS Director General for Education, in his opening remarks -

    ...In helping to reconfigure how learners can learn, modern information and communications

    technology presents a very complex set of challenges for teachers and teaching...There are

    nearly 60 million teachers in the worlds formal education systems alone...Up to now,.the

    implications of recent developments in information and communications technology for

    teachers and teaching have probably not received the attention at the international level that

    they merit. The traditional mode of contact between teacher and learner, at least that on

    which the worlds formal education systems have been largely constructed, has been face to

    face in the classroom. ..Modern information and communications technology challenges the

    traditional teacher-class relationship, in particular the necessity for face to face

    contact...UNESCO needs to understand what this development means, what the implications


  • could be for the way education is provided, and in particular what could be the implications

    for the purposes of education and for those who are entrusted by society with ensuring that

    these purposes are pursued, namely, the worlds teachers...There is another reason too: the

    design of virtual learning environments is surely a pedagogical or teaching activity. We are

    beginning to witness, it seems, the emergence of a new class of teachers: people who are never

    seen at all, even at a distance, by learners, yet who essentially determine how learners are

    going to go about their learning tasks. On what pedagogical principles do these virtual

    teachers design the new learning environments? What are the pedagogical and technological

    design issues? It was originally these questions that prompted UNESCO to consider having

    this colloquium.

    Report Structure

    This report starts with a general contextual discussion and then focuses on the key technological

    trends and pedagogical approaches that relate to \,irtual learninS environments. It then summarises a

    number of the special proper-ties of \irtunl learnin LJ en~irorlments discussed at the workshop. The

    nest section addresses some of the L\YI~s the role of the teacher \vill change as a result of the

    introduction of these new technological means for supporting learning activity. The final section is

    concerned \vith the practicalit\, of scaling u p the use of \G-tual learning environments from tens and

    hundreds of learners in small numbers of schools and colleges to thousands and millions of pupils in

    national educational s\stems


    Educational technology was an important concern in the latter part of the last century as attempts

    were made in Europe and the United States to implement elective systems of universal schooling

    Hartley, in his paper for the Colloquium, restricted his historical overview to the post war period

    focusing on the theme of knowledge acquisition, highlighting the following developments :

    Vannevar Bush, through his hIEMEX machine, proposed a method of cataloguing and

    retrieving information based on associations rather than on hierarchical systems when one

    item is within its (the minds) grasp it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by

    association of thoughts in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of


  • the brain. Engelbart (the designer of the mouse and father of e-mail) further developed this

    concept producin g, in 1960, his system AUGMENT which stored information in ways which

    allowed non-hierarchical browsing accessed by the mouse, and with viewing filters to improve

    efficiency. However it was Nelson who coined the term Hypertext to mean non-sequential

    writing and his publishing system XANADU (released in 1989) linked electronic documents

    and other media such as audio and graphics. Thus Hypermedia came into being, but note that

    initially these systems were self-contained and used specific equipment.

    The development of the Internet, form its military origins to a world-wide client-server

    computing network with a common protocol, was followed by the establishment of the World

    Wide Web in Geneva. Hypertext documents that could incorporate multimedia materials, and

    followed specified mark-up conventions known as HTML (Hypertext Mark-up Language),

    were able to be placed on the Internet thus forming a distributed interconnected library of

    documents. Through these common protocols and conventions, users were able to produce

    and access materials and did not need to concern themselves with the particulars of individual

    computing systems..

    . Hence the prospect of having a Virtual World-wide Library of Material - produced by a

    population of potential users who could communicate and engage in collaborative projects

    (the initial impetus for the development of World Wide Web) - became a practical reality...

    For knowledge acquisition, developments in Hypermedia and the InternetWorld Wide Web

    provide a network of content, but raise problems of learning management and control.

    Structuring by function, adaptive navigation and related open-access question

    asking/answering can provide support. For knowledge application, multimedia simulations

    and virtual reality scenarios increase interactivity and the scope of learning with broadband

    networks enabling Videoconferencing to be a learning support, Collaborative study methods

    using conferencing techniques have been developed, but how are all these resources and

    techniques to be organised etfectively into distributed learning systems ? Some use the

    conventional curriculum as a focus, but other developments are less constrained and aim for

    greater multi-user interactivity and sense of presence. They use a wider range of

    organisational metaphors, and place tools for organising learning with teachers and students.

    Although the main drivers for the development of virtual learning environments are technological,

    developments in cognitive science, instructional theory and ideas of educational reform also have a

    role. Koschmann takes a synoptic review of cognitively-oriented initiatives for reform in education

    which he regards as diverse both in form and in theory. Most, however, can be clustered together

    around a small set of underlying themes. Three such themes are Activeness, Collegiality, and

    Authenticity. He comments :

  • Traditional models of instruction based on notions of delivery or transmission treat the

    learner as a passive recipient of knowledge. One important goal of current reform is to effect

    a shift in the students role from one of passivity to one that necessitates active engagement in

    the learning process, that is to increase student Activeness. This has been an a recurrent

    theme in educational reform efforts in this country (the U.S.A.) for many years. Past

    innovations in instructional practice designed to increase Activeness include learning by

    discovery, open-classroom learning, experiential learning, and inquiry learning. With respect

    to educational technologies, Paper-t has argued that engaging learners in the construction of

    microworlds and other computer-based artefacts is an excellent way of facilitating active


    Congruent with this movement to increase learner Activeness, another focus of change has

    been toward increased Collegiality in the teachers role within the classroom. Traditionally,

    the teachers role has been to acquire formal knowledge, find efficient ways of sharing it, and

    determine whether pupils have learned what was taught. Reform efforts, however, have

    attempted to transform this traditional role into one of team facilitator or learning coach (i.e.,

    a transition from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side)...

    Research in the emerging area of Computer Supported Collaborative Learning has focused

    on the ways that technology might be used to support reform on the dimension of Collegiality.

    A third theme for instructional reform has been to dissolve the barriers between what one does

    and studies within the confines of school and the aptitudes called for in the world outside of

    school, that is, to increase the Authenticity of the curriculum through the design of new

    instructional materials and curricula. Theoretical approaches, such as Situated Cognition, call

    for increasing the resemblance between contexts of learning and contexts of application...

    Technology can, and has been, used in a variety of ways to support authenticity in

    instruction. It can, for example, increase the realism with which problems are presented to

    learners, or facilitate the storage and retrieval of instructive cases Technology can also

    support Authenticity by providing a window onto the world outside of the classroom while at

    the same time, helping to make the activities of the classroom more visible to the surrounding


    Each of these three themes can be seen as orthogonal to the other two in that each addresses a

    different aspect of reform. Activeness, for example, concerns changes in the role of the

    learner, while Collegiality is more concerned with changes in the traditional role of the

    teacher. Authenticity, on the other hand, is concerned with the design of new curricular

    structures and the materials needed to support such curricula.

  • There is currently a wide range of technological choices with respect to both communication and

    computer technologies, and each instance of a virtual learning environment can be viewed as

    essentially based on a pair of choices which must together support some category of learners in some

    physical setting. The most mature pairings are described by Hiltz as :

    Asynchronous Learning Networks, teaching and learning environments located within a

    Computer-Mediated Communication system designed for anytime/anyplace use through

    computer networks.

    She writes :

    Over the last decade, a research team at New Jersey Institute of Technology has been

    involved in constructing a specific version which we called the Virtual Classroom, and

    studying its use in a wide variety of courses, including all of the major courses for a BA in

    Information Systems degree.

    These take advantage of the combination of electronic mail packages augmented to support computer

    conferences with the types of communication networks found within technologically advanced

    educational institutions.

    A radically different model was proposed by Emal, who describes the...


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