Learning in Virtual Spaces
When someone tells us about somewhere to learn such as, a school, college, university or academy we are used to think about a building with its classrooms, tables and corridors. Usually our memory will lead us to a place related to past experiences or somewhere related to a place that we may have recently visited. In a teaching-learning process, we tend to suppose that the students and the trainer are in a classroom.
The learning process inside a classroom is essential mainly in children and teenagers when it is necessary to have an interaction: learning how to coexist, to work in group and to participate. In the case of adults, it becomes necessary when they need to learn, for instance, how to use a tool. The classroom then makes possible a physical, visual and communicative interaction probably difficult to substitute.
The advances and the more common use of information and communication technologies have made possible that we try to transfer this learning process to a virtual network, with undeniable advantages and ambitions, for students as well as for professors or teachers, although it has also some limitations. This would be the virtual learning process, also named on-line learning or distance learning. Regarding this particular article, I would focus on the comparison between the real training and the virtual one. The other way of learning, also called blended or mixed, is the one that combines both systems. Just a 100% virtual system is the one that offers a complete spatial autonomy and the attendance to courses even though if the institution which offers them is placed in another continent.
Virtual classrooms are implemented through LMS (Learning Management Systems) in which the trainers teach their students on different ways and methods mediated by the computer or the internet, by means of documents, forums, videos, auto-evaluations, competitions, etc. In order to facilitate the adaptation of those people, who start a virtual course and who bear a traditional physical classroom in mind, we could simulate places, such as the classroom, campus, cafeteria, library, etc. These would be virtual spaces that try to imitate the real ones.
In the picture above we could see a simulation of a classroom in Second Life. For instance, the cafeteria could be build by means of a forum including a virtual coffee dispenser that we could use to invite a classmate and talk about what we have learned. These coffees cannot be bought if we do not have a virtual coin, the campus coin, which would be the reward of doing and completing the tasks.
Doubtlessly, this simulation makes the adaptation of the students that have recently arrived to this virtual world easier. In fact, everything is more similar to what we actually think it should be a school. In the next picture, we can see a network synchronous lesson, similar to a class in which the teacher explains the lesson face-to-face.
It is not convenient to become infatuated in simulating in the LMS the teaching-learning environment and methods that take place in real classrooms in schools or colleges. In the same way, it should not be suitable to teach in a LMS, skills and competences that require student-trainer direct contact.
In LMS there are no walls, corridors, or teachers that go inside the classroom and teach the lesson, either the teacher is able to demand students’ attention in case they are distracted. In a LMS, the student finds, firstly, a screen with a window in it (no matter if it happens in a website, tablet or in a learning programme). The fact is that it is really easy to go up and down the window, minimize it or change it for another one. It is as easy to go to a different place as it is clicking a link, and if something is not of our interest anyone prevents us from skipping it.
It has no sense that the student memorizes data or information in a LMS programme, either the masterclasses. In the picture above it can be seen an example of what it would be an instructional class addressed to a group of students by means of a live (or synchronous) video lecture. However, to draw the attention of the students for a long period of time is not easy for a trainer.
I do not pretend to say that they should not facilitate documents, videos or video lectures in our LMS. Nevertheless, the key to success is to try not to use them in a traditional way. The new environment requires the use of new learning methods and to stay open-minded towards the brand-new tools and services provided by the network which, undoubtedly, might favour the learning process of our students.
In the following section we will deal with some suggestions or advices, that are not universal but which can result to be really useful:
Try to give students diagrams or maps that can help them recognize the context and its direction, instead of providing data or information that they have to memorize. Now the student has to learn to search for information distinguishing which data is reliable and comparing different sources of information.
Enrich the information
Do not propose composition or summary tasks based on already existing data. Try to join summary skills, abstraction, and analysis together with the opinions and the ideas of the rest of the classmates. The information must flow towards many and different directions. Therefore, it helps deciding what is more important or significant and, even more, it facilitates to accept or reject other people’s opinions thus, building knowledge.
The blackboard belongs to everyone
Blackboards, as well as presentations, are used in order to support the teacher’s lesson. However, you can let your students perform this task in the virtual blackboards allowing interactivity. Moreover, they can add comments to already proposed ideas by their classmates and also including their own creations.
Facilitate the discovery
Instead of providing loads of information, give your students clues or routes that they can use in order to learn and reach a conclusion by themselves.
Bring sense to the tasks
It is not strange that students do exercises or papers in class in order to introduce them to their classmates afterwards. In fact, it is especially useful because it adds a common objective to a task that is realized by each person of the group (common presentation). Besides, it lets them learn new aptitudes such as, communication skills.
Regarding the network, the dissemination of the results is not restricted to a physical local community anymore such as, a school or an education center. Thus, friends, relatives, or any particular person of the global village can learn about something done in class, however, this is a double direction path. Facilitated besides by social network, the impact can be massive. It might make the learning of creative skills easier thanks to the multimedia possibilities of the computerised media.
Feedback is still the key element
In a real classroom, student’s attention is easier to hold, non verbal language provides loads of information, and trainer-student interaction such as, the feedback, is extremely valuable for both the trainer and the student. It is necessary to provide activities in virtual classrooms with the aim of ensure that the course content has been understood. Nevertheless, they do not have to be questions with direct, simple, easy answers. Actually, these questions will require a deeper comprehension in order to formulate a response. Moreover, if this answer holds students’ personal and subjective point of view, which has to be always justified, it will have even more value. In this way, the trainer can obtain the necessary feedback from his or her students’ comments. So, they can also gain feedback checking whether the students have understood the content right or wrong.
Written language is our new ally
During classes and group works that students could realize in a real classroom, verbal language is the most used communicative means. For instance, they use it to ask, to clear up doubts, to organize the groups, to coordinate themselves in doing tasks, to correct exercises, etc.
In order to represent this reality in virtual classrooms, it is possible to use audios. However, it requires synchronization which means that it misses one of the potentialities of virtual classroom because activities should be asynchronous. Consequently, written language and activities that require the use of it become the only way of communication.
However, you must not consider it as an inconvenient but as an advantage since it favours reading and written comprehension. Besides, it requires a consideration and a previous processing of what have been learned in order to be communicated.
It is easy to get lost: anticipate it
In the case of a student who finds himself or herself confused or has doubts regarding how the course works, how it is organized or any other question, it is rather simple and easy to contact the trainer and it is easier to clear up any doubts. In contrast, in virtual classrooms to contact the trainer seems to be a little bit more difficult, especially if the student is confused and do not understand the organization of the course. In virtual classrooms, doubts are clear up by the use of messages what might become tiresome sometimes since this is an asynchronous communication. The proposed solution is the use of forums where students themselves can help each other not only to clarify doubts about the course content but also to enlarge their knowledge. Trainer-student interaction is possible but the connection student-student should be also promoted.
Students learn from their classmates
In this particular educational model the student is the director of his or her own training, he or she has to be conscious of this responsibility and has to avoid keeping static and becoming a non-participating or passive student. Therefore, the learning must be an active process otherwise it is not learning. Actually, virtual learning requires much more effort for both the student and the professor. In this sort of learning the professor is not the one who teaches but the one that provides the training revising and evaluating the information while interacting with the classmates.
To conclude, I will state some ideas and recommendations. In case you have any other ideas you would like to add please, do not hesitate to send them to me.
There are plenty of pedagogical differences between real lessons and virtual ones. However, we must not think that there are some which are generally better than others. By creating Edueca, we have built an educational and developmental environment that favours not only the delivery of information, but also the trainer-student as well as the student-student interaction. Thus, it must enrich the learning process by means of collaborative, interactional, and network activities that make possible the creation of knowledge and discovery while enjoying learning. Edueca tries its best to make it possible through an enriching and rewarding experience since we rely on people’s motivation and interest.