The virtual classroom: Learning without limits via computer networks

The virtual classroom: Learning without limits via computer networks

NORTH- HOU.AND Book Review Starr, Roxanne Hiltz, The Virtual Classroom: Learning without Limits via Computer Networks, Ablex, Norwood, NJ, 1994, 384 ...

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NORTH- HOU.AND

Book Review Starr, Roxanne Hiltz, The Virtual Classroom: Learning without Limits via Computer Networks, Ablex, Norwood, NJ, 1994, 384 pp., ISBN 1-56750-0552. Do we live in an era of total "virtualization"? Terms such as virtual machine, virtual memory, virtual organization, virtual reality, and recently the virtual classroom (the latter being a trademark of the New Jersey Institute of Technology) appear more and more frequently in publications. According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, virtualmeans, "existing in the mind, especially as a product of the imagination" [1]. In the sense of educational effects the classroom described by Starr Roxanne Hiltz is not imaginary, it is real. The author defines the virtual classroom (VC) as "the social invention of building and operating computer-mediated communication systems to support dispersed communities of active learners," and as "a teaching and learning environment located within a computer-mediated communication system." The book is an extensive description of a whole set of experiments conducted by the author and her team at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. The goal of those experiments was to explore properties and to assess the effectiveness of new methods of education based on computer conference-type of communication between the instructor and students, and among students, in college-level courses. The virtual classroom environment included delivery of lecture materials, assignments, conducting class discussions, providing advice, evaluating student contributions, and grading them via computer network. The system was equipped with a special software developed for this purpose. Courses of a different nature, ranging from Introductory Sociology, Anthropology, and Management, to Computers and Society, Introduction to Computer Science, and the Statistics for Technology, were offered in this mode quite successfully. Research on the educational merits of the virtual classroom compared such a type of learning environment with the traditional classroom. The author reviewed and contrasted a number of features of both environments:

Traditional Classroom

Virtual Classroom

Speaking and listening: One person at a time. Mostly the teacher talks Entire class must move at the same speed. Set time and place. Mostly individual assignments. Students must take notes.

Typing and reading: Multilogues in which students actively participate. Self-pacing. Anytime, anyplace. Mostly group exercises and assignments. Complete transcript automatically saved.

Starr Roxanne Hiltz not only presents a description of new technique of teaching/ learning and a detailed analysis of educational results, but she also examines this experimental approach in a broader context of the learning process. Four basic types of learning are used to formulate hypotheses and to establish measures of educational outcomes: (1) Rote learning, whereby a student memorizes facts or acquires specific skills; (2) integrative/critical knowledge building, whereby a student is able to pull together or synthesize Technological Forecasting and Social Change 51, 301-303 (1996) © 1996 Elsevier Science Inc. 655 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10010

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diverse facts, ideas, or procedures by analyzing and organizing them into larger conceptual frameworks; (3) attitudinal change, whereby a student acquires standards for behavior or increased interest in pursuing further knowledge in a particular field; and (4) application, whereby a student is able to use the knowledge, skills, or attitudes gained through the course in new situations. Eleven hypotheses were formulated and tested empirically in courses delivered in two schools: The New Jersey Institute of Technology and Upsala College. Results are very favorable for the concept of the virtual classroom. One of these hypotheses was related to feasibility of collaborative learning. It seems to be a central property of the system under consideration. According to the author, collaborative learning means that, "both teachers and learners are active participants in the learning process; knowledge is not something that is 'delivered' to students, but rather something that emerges from active dialogue among those who seek to understand and apply concepts and techniques." The book shows how the on-line courses of the virtual classroom stimulate and enhance that type of learning. Starr Roxanne Hiltz presents strong evidence for the feasibility of collaborative learning. Using this principle both students and faculty achieve high satisfaction by joint effort, exciting debates, and productive shared contributions. Excerpts of student statements, transcripts of discussions, examples of instructions, teacher reports, course descriptions, and student questionnaires and evaluations constitute about 30°7o of the book. This documentation is very useful as illustrative material and practical example of implementation. The author provides a number of recommendations for teachers who would like to apply the virtual classroom principles in their educational practice. There are also some warnings against potential abuse of the medium by some students. Some of the potential advantages and disadvantages of the virtual classroom as listed in the book are:

Advantages

Disadvantages

Location (where you are) Flexible time No travel Collaborative learning opportunity More active learning

Limited offerings Equipment requirements Delayed feedback Textual and technical skills required Motivation and regular participation required Potential "information overload"

Complete notes

Active student involvement in the virtual classroom is a critical factor of success. This technique is more efficient when used with mature and highly motivated students than with freshmen or passive learners. The attitude of students and teachers seems to be of great importance in this kind of education. According to Alan C. Kay, one of the pioneers of personal computing and the author of a thought-provoking article on computers in education, there are some special conditions under which the computers and networks open new and exciting opportunities in education. He believes that, "globally networked, easy-to-use computers can enhance learning, but only within an educational environment that encourages students to question 'facts' and seek challenges . . . . Networks serve as much more than a conduit for retrieving fixed data; they allow students to develop knowledge of their own coUaboratively" [2]. Hiltz's book not only supports this point of view, but it also defines several details of the educational environment (at the college level) conducive for computer-mediated collaborative learning. For purposes of measurement and comparative analysis the author evidently and justifiably concentrated her attention on "pure" modes of delivery (on-line vs. face-to-face).

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Mixed forms are included in her analysis, but their importance has not been emphasized or discussed in the context of distance education. My own experience, gained during several years of teaching at the National Technological University (satellite TV-based) and in other distance-education programs offered by the Michigan Technological University to major industries of Michigan, suggests that multiple formats of communication need to be combined. Videotape and on-line video transmission may be combined quite effectively with computer networking and with telephone conference calls. Standard e-mail and mailing list system arranged with participating students are very useful in advising, consulting, discussion, and project work. In a distributed learning environment those types of tasks may be performed successfully with standard and generally available software. Even short teleconference calls, arranged periodically, constitute a complementary means of fast (audio) communication, enabling quick and informal discussion or explanation. This experience seems to suggest that in a distance-education environment a semi-virtual classroom may be a good alternative. It might also support the idea of virtual university, which is briefly discussed in the final part of the book. The author left the economic analysis of the virtual classroom outside of the scope of the book. It would be interesting to estimate total costs and to assess the potential economy of scale, and potential savings, of the virtual classroom. This may become a critical issue for broader applications of that method in the future. Multiple options of application may arise in the context of dynamic expansion of computer networks and integration of multimedia technologies. A review of educational opportunities related with the information highway, which has recently been presented by N. Baran [3], suggests that several projects in the United States, Canada, and other countries are oriented toward a massive application of concepts similar to the virtual classroom, which makes Hiltz's book even more valuable as a source of knowledge on applications of the new paradigm of virtualized education. This book may also be considered a natural continuation and extension of the fundamental study on networking that Starr Roxanne Hiltz published earlier together with Murray Turoff [4]. K A R O L I. P E L C Houghton, Michigan

References 1. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rded. Houghton Mifltin, Boston, 1992 (accessible by CompuServe). 2. Kay, A. C., Computers, Networks and Education, Scient~ic American, September, 138-148 (1991). 3. Baran, N., Inside the Information Superhighway, The Coriolis Group, Scottsdale, AZ, 1995, pp. 147-164. 4. Hiltz, S. R., and Turoff, M., The Network Nation: Human Communication via Computer, rev. ed., MIT Press, Cambridge, 1993. Received June 27, 1995