Chatline in virtual classrooms

January 29, 1999

Is online learning a lonely, isolated business or is the internet a friendly technology that builds virtual classrooms with human contact? The email exchange between Open University tutor Robin Goodfellow and Helen Chappel about her postgraduate course in educational technology gives us a clue

From: Helen(student)@globalsite To: Robin(tutor)@milton keynes

It's been a productive year, I've learnt a lot, thoroughly enjoyed it all (nodding approvingly). But I really wonder about your role in it. We never met, and most of my online interaction was with other students. I word-counted all the comments you made on my essays and incidental email - total words 1,600. Translating this to spoken word at a generally accepted rate of 160-180 words per minute (BBC estimates) then you spoke directly and personally to me for about ten minutes in the entire course.

From: Robin(tutor)@milton keynes

To: Helen(student)@globalsite

Ah ... but the online tutor's role is different from face-to-face teaching. In the hi-tech virtual classroom (pompously) the tutor's job is to facilitate online collaboration among the students. I did some counting and see that in every one of the computer conferences that were our "classroom" interaction, you "spoke" most out of all the students - not only that, but you are referred to by name in other people's messages more often than anyone else in the group. That puts you pretty much at the centre of our virtual community. I think as facilitator I did my job rather well.

From: Helen(student)@globalsite

To: Robin(tutor)@milton keynes

Our conferences were certainly fun, informative and witty places (smiling brightly but not too brightly). Not unlike an actual classroom except that it's all done through text, and classmates are dispersed around the world. But writing style needs to be much more informal, more personal, if the online environment is to come alive.

I now count as friends those of my fellow students who, like me, decided to take the plunge and start posting messages sharing thoughts and feelings, instead of just doing collaborative tasks.

From: Robin(tutor)@milton keynes

To: Helen(student)@globalsite

But (furrowed brow, haggard look) being online adds hugely to the distance teacher's workload. Just imagine if every time one of your face-to-face students came to see you, and you were out, they could leave their words hanging in the air in your office for when you returned. That is what it is like trying to "moderate" a computer conference full of enthusiastic, knowledgeable adults, all poised to give back 100 words for every ten you give them. What with reading and summarising all that, plus sorting out individual students' problems, not to mention marking all those assignments (involuntary shudder). There didn't seem much time for socialising.

From: Helen(student)@globalsite

To: Robin(tutor)@milton keynes

Well, it ups the student workload too - but it gives us the chance to humanise the learning process. The question is:

how much or little interaction is enough? The technology allows us each to participate to the level we need - but I need to know much more about the people I am "with" on the internet. I work actively to include context and personality as well as message, but practically all I discovered about you was that you are a good listener.

From: Robin(tutor)@milton keynes

To: Helen(student)@global site

Hm ... (pensively) ... I suppose I could have been more chatty. But I think it's a matter of personal style. You are someone who actually has a lot to say - you think and type fast (honourably refraining from pointing out typo-rate), I imagine you compose online, writing pretty much as you think. Me, I need to reflect before I write, being a tutor makes me extra nervous of saying something stupid, and I know some of the other students felt the same. Quite a few of them confined most of their contribution to commenting on the course content, didn't they?

From: Helen(student)@globalsite

To: Robin(tutor)@milton keynes

I think that some people just wanted to get a collaborative task done quickly, get a grade and get out.

But sometimes the personal background that some of us gave helped others who were struggling with the context of a discussion. If you worry about what education is about and are searching for new ways of understanding - you appreciate every reflective voice you find. For global distance education, wherein people don't meet face-to-face and whole courses are conducted online, we may need to develop different conventions of interaction. We need even longer exchanges, even more time to reflect.

From: Robin(tutor)@milton keynes

To: Helen(student)@global site

Well, there's food for reflection here. What you're suggesting is the opposite of what some people think the internet offers to distance education: convenient instantaneous communication. Read any advert for an educational "solution" in the computer press. But I think our experience on this course bears out what you say.

One of the most significant outcomes has been the sense of community that you, and our other online extroverts, have created. Sure, I wouldn't like it if everyone interacted as you do - I'd never get away from the screen.

But I agree that it's my responsibility as tutor to be more personally involved online - to be more "visible" as you put it. This was MY lesson... Thanks, and a happy new year to you and learners and teachers virtually everywhere.

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