Virtually isolated?

February 7, 2003

Check out students' varying skills in ITand literacy before using the internet indiscriminately as a teaching tool, warns Barbara Hull

Many of us in education are well versed in the use of the virtual environment - the internet. We use it to read and download reports the day they are published, to participate in email discussions with like-minded colleagues we have never met and to retrieve data from databases on the other side of the world. Life without a virtual environment to complement the concrete is hard to imagine.

The virtual learning environment (VLE), dubbed the smarter grandchild of the old correspondence course, eliminates the need for synchronicity between learner and teacher. This is a welcome development in flexibility, given the contemporary trend for irregular non-standard patterns of work.

In full-time mainstream education, increasing use is also being made of the VLE as an enhancement tool: lecturers' handouts are posted on space intranets, and students can email tutors with queries when they cannot catch them in person. Students can now access online information sources, previously available only by visiting their library, from home via the net.

All these advantages are genuine for the literate, IT-literate and information-literate student. But we must not assume this description applies to all students, especially those "non-standard" ones recruited through widening participation initiatives.

Those championing the VLE often fail to acknowledge that it delivers a different educational experience from that hitherto enjoyed by most students. Budget-holders can be reluctant to acknowledge, or seek to limit, the differences between VLEs and traditional delivery. "Putting it all on a website" may be seen as a cheaper, more profitable alternative to providing a human interface.

Some concerned "liberal" educators resent the way in which the internet is seen as substitute for face-to-face education. In the US, only 3.5 per cent of all internet access is concerned with online educational courses.

Students generally need some degree of human contact. We cannot ignore the fact that we are by nature gregarious: most of us learn our skills in a group environment.

Recent research indicates that even highly motivated students can experience profound feelings of isolation when participating in distance learning. What chance is there for those less motivated and less articulate? Those studying online miss out on informal peer group interaction and mutual support. Ask any student who has sampled both traditional and online learning, and the chances are they will prefer the traditional.

If face-to-face informal contact were not important, academics would not invest time and money attending conferences; they would merely read the published papers. We know that face-to-face interaction is a superior experience, with some of the most useful discussion and interaction taking place informally in non-judgemental and unrecorded sessions.

The UK government's target for participation in higher education is 50 per cent. Increasing overall participation involves recruiting more students from the ranks of those underrepresented in higher education. This will be realised only if the support mechanisms are there for students.

Since the move towards mass higher education in the 1990s, levels of concern about the rates of student retention and non-completion in higher education have risen. Indiscriminate, insufficiently supported use of VLEs will not improve retention levels.

Not surprisingly, home access to IT is concentrated in the more affluent social classes and areas of Britain, thus giving students from those homes a distinct advantage in the VLE. Students without internet access at home can gain access through public libraries but provision is patchy and often inconvenient.

Providing free access is not enough in itself since there is evidence of a broad spectrum of IT skills across the population. As the government tries to move towards e-government, we should pay heed to this uneven spread of IT-related skills.

For example, in a recent pilot that put health information on the web, some participants understood the term "homepage" to mean "the page about health in the home". If educators intend to make widespread use of VLEs, they must ensure that the acquisition of associated skills is addressed comprehensively first.

Weak levels of literacy can also create problems. Widening participation initiatives may bring in some students who, although not illiterate, still experience problems with spelling and punctuation. This could frustrate their attempts to access websites and online databases.

If students are to learn mainly in a VLE, it is important for them to be given a comprehensive induction session to ensure that they are competent and comfortable working in the virtual environment. Even where the main mode of delivery is virtual, it should be backed up by the possibility of regular human contact to deal with particular difficulties and to maintain motivation. Please, let's not send students up the VLE creek without a paddle.

Barbara Hull is subject information team leader, library and information services at the University of Teesside.

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