How to fight solitary confinement

November 12, 1999

WHAT: Watching fellow students solve problems is invaluable, says John Lee,but technology threatens to stifle such vicarious learning. WHY: Today's students spend less time on campus and more time engaged in distance learning using a computer and the internet.

HOW: Imagine that you are a shy student in a medium-sized tutorial group. You do not like asking questions, and it is all too easy to keep quiet without anyone noticing. But there are some more voluble members of the group, and every so often one of them raises a question that relates directly to an economics problem you have been puzzling over.

As the student and tutor discuss the question, you follow the argument and gradually realise you had misunderstood one of the main points from an earlier lecture. You know how to solve your own problem.

Though you have not participated in the discussion, you have directly benefited from simply observing another student's learning experience and being able to relate it to your own. This kind of learning from others' learning we call vicarious learning.

In many areas of education, vicarious learning is almost institutionalised through such notions as the master class. In music, well-known teachers work with individual students in front of an audience of others to the benefit of all. Part of what is going on is that the students are all learning the vocabulary, locutions, normal topics and conventions of discussion in their particular discipline.

This is one of the most important contributions of vicarious learning: it helps the student gain entry into the culture or community of learners and practitioners in their discipline.

Direct student participation is essential, but it occurs in an environment where observation of others can inform and influence the nature of the participation. How to discuss academic material is a learned skill that seems to have an important foundation in observing others' learning.

For these reasons, vicarious learning is common at all levels of education. In higher education the trend is towards distance learning: students working primarily from home or some remote technology resource centre, accessing learning materials via the internet.

A worry for such students is that they may only rarely be able to engage in direct discussion of problems with a tutor; they are also cut off from situations where they can learn vicariously from the experience of other students.

Even where students are on campus, the pressure on resources means students working increasingly alone on computer-based materials and with dramatically reduced access to tutors.

At the Human Communications Research Centre in Edinburgh, two projects have been examining the nature and roles of vicarious learning, with a particular emphasis on the plight of the computer-based learner.

Consider a classic computer-based learning situation, where the student is delivered information in the form of "courseware" via the internet or a CD Rom. We see this as just the first stage of a learning process that cycles through at least two further stages.

The student may be provided with activities that relate to the information, such as example problems to solve. Sometimes, feedback on the student's performance can be provided by the courseware itself. Where we think of the initial

information delivery system as primary courseware, this more activity-based material is secondary courseware.

In the process of problem-solving, the student may naturally get into difficulties. Traditionally, students resorted to contacting tutors, but this provision to the computer-based learner is difficult and expensive. Perhaps if, as in the tutorial we imagined at the outset, the student can witness a discussion of a similar problem with another student, the underlying difficulty will be illuminated.

If there are no such discussions, the student will have to contact the tutor, but then if the outcome is a useful learning experience perhaps this can be kept and reused for future students in similar difficulties. We thus envisage the collection, organisation and recycling of tutorial dialogues to create another layer of tertiary courseware.

Obviously, we would like to know what determines the effectiveness of materials presented as tertiary courseware, in terms of conceptual development and problem solving as well as in "ways of talking" about the subject.

There are many gaps in our existing knowledge. The tradition of "observational learning" assumes it is more effective to observe expert performance rather than the struggles of a fellow student. Is this true? It has been argued that overhearers of a dialogue will absorb less from it than a direct participant - but to what extent? And may there not even be advantages to eavesdropping?

Many insist that learning derives essentially from activity and involvement. However, it is clear that observation has at least some value, so how do these interact? In our studies of vicarious learning, we have addressed some of these questions both in controlled laboratory studies and in live courses.

In one course, students were faced with the problem of learning formal techniques for analysing English sentences. There were exercises in constructing syntax trees depicting the grammar of sentences and other kinds of formal diagrams.

The students experienced many problems completing these. We developed a computer-based tool to assist the students to create and edit diagrams - a typical piece of secondary courseware. We were able to experiment with different kinds of tertiary material that might further support the students' task.

Using this system, we looked at the difference between expert monologue and student-tutor dialogue as learning materials. In the one case, a tutor constructed a diagram while explaining the activity for the benefit of students; this was captured as a movie of the manipulation of the computer tool, along with a recording of the tutor's commentary.

In another case, a novice student constructed the diagram, with assistance from the tutor where needed - which was often. These materials were presented to the students as animated diagrams accompanied by transcripts of the recorded speech.

We observed that although there was no clear difference between students given the dialogues and those given the "direct instruction" tutorial monologues, both of these produced better results than further conditions where students were given only animations of the diagrams or only "primary text" materials.

Content analysis of the student-tutor dialogues showed that the students in the recorded dialogue brought up problems that a tutor may not have foreseen and did so in ways that would seem very natural and "friendly" to later students. So it does seem that the tertiary materials aid learning.

A study in a related PhD project produced further suggestive results when students learning to solve syllogistic reasoning problems were shown videos of earlier students being taught similar problems. The videos that most helped vicarious learners were those in which the original student had more difficulty with the problem (the "strugglers").

Although the vicarious learners preferred to watch the students who found the task easier (the "sailers"), they learned less from them. Presumably, the strugglers were more effective than the sailers in exposing possible difficulties in the task and eliciting valuable comments from the tutor.

In a fairly large-scale experiment, whose results are still being analysed, we drew on materials from another course, a module on the use of computers in education. This kind of topic benefits from sustained discussion among the students. We tried to encourage the use of a network-based system to promote online discussions that we could capture. We found that although there were some good

discussions, many students did not participate. But when, in a subsequent run of the module, we made participation compulsory, the quality of the discussions suffered badly.

In an attempt to improve participation plus quality, we devised a set of "task-directed discussion" (TDD) games, in which students, have to define terms to each other or investigate differences in meaning between terms used in the course. For our experiment, we collected TDD dialogues between students who had taken the module, and then used these in various forms - video, audio, text transcripts - as tertiary material for a subgroup of subjects enlisted to follow a short course based on parts of the module. The material was presented via a standard web browser.

After the experimental course, subjects had to discuss aspects of it online using an "internet chat" system. We noticed that those who had seen the tertiary material adopted different and more effective strategies.

This supports our view that discussion techniques, and perhaps other learning strategies, can be usefully acquired from observation of fellow students who are learning effectively.

There is still a long way to go in understanding the benefits of vicarious learning. We want to re-emphasise that we do not see it as a replacement for direct participation, but in these days of growing numbers, dwindling resources and more internet courses for industrial training and remote students, we view vicarious learning resources as providing useful additional learning materials, affective support through increasing the feeling of sharing in a learning community, and a means of more effective immersion into the language and practice of students' chosen areas.

It also provides a useful laboratory, which the centre will continue to use to investigate fundamental issues in communication, such as the differences in role and process between participants and overhearers in dialogue.


"It's eerily quiet round here at the moment. Is everybody beavering away or is the server 'bust'?"

- A plea on the Open University web from Chris Vardy, a technology consultant studying for a part-time MBA

The OU offers its students a virtual means of conferring through an email bulletin board system. Chris, while moving around the country for work, recently posted the following message: "Here's a question for all you travellers ... you are working away from home all week, staying in a hotel. You get back to the hotel around 8pm at night after reading and writing reports ALL day. How do you motivate yourself to study?

Any advice?

Regards, Chris."

Luckily, he found a sympathetic ear:

"Chris, I can relate to what you're saying. I've been spending five to ten nights away per month. I'm actually starting to find it easier to work when I'm away from home.

"Like you, I spend most of my time reading reports, analysing information, generating information and generating more reports. It is difficult to then come home or go back to the hotel and do more of the same. An added complication is that by travelling so much it becomes difficult to create any kind of routine.

"There's a group of us from work who are doing various OU courses and we swap tales and strategies as well as moan and bitch. It helps and it stimulates the competitive urge....

"That must ease the burden a bit.

"I always find long hotel stays a bit of a bore anyway. There's nothing that compares with the simplicity of your own bed and 'normal' food."

- Stephen Greentree

Mr Vardy agrees wholeheartedly and remembers with fondness his undergraduate days: "Apart from tutorials about once a month, and a residential annually, we don't get to meet up much on this course.

"It can be very difficult to motivate yourself to study after work, especially when you're trying to do 12 hours a week, but what I really miss is the dialogue with other students. During my first degree, after lectures we would all congregate in the cafeteria and often have a really good discussion about the topic of the day. That was all part of the experience, there was a real sense of comradeship and we formed strong bonds. OK, now we can talk virtually, but it's not the same."

* John Lee is deputy director of Edinburgh University's HCRC. The research is funded by the ESRC cognitive engineering programme and the EPSRC's multimedia and networking applications programme.

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