Online communication and informat...
Journal of Information Technology Education Volume 5, 2006 Editor: Linda Knight Online Communication and Information Technology Education Aleksej Heinze and Chris Procter University of Salford, Salford, United Kingdom firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com Executive Summary Blended Learning, a learning facilitation that incorporates different modes of delivery, models of teaching, and learning styles, introduces multiple media to the dialog between the learner and the facilitator. This paper examines online communication as the link between established theory of learning and literature on e-learning in order to better understand the appropriate use of blended learning in an actual Information Technology course. First, previously defined theoretical con- structs that utilize communication as a facilitator for learning are considered. Then, using the In- terpretivist standpoint, we examine data gathered from focus groups and interviews to gauge the experience of staff and students who were participants in a Blended Learning course. There are four previously defined theoretical constructs of greatest relevance to blended learning. Vygotsky���s Zone of Proximal Development highlights the importance of communication with capable peers who can provide stimuli and feedback to a learning individual. Wegner���s Commu- nities of Practice are groups of individuals who share a common practice interest and rely on a dialogue to facilitate learning. Laurillard���s Conversational Framework includes a pragmatic 12- step model that teachers can use to structure their learning facilitation. Finally, Salmon���s E- Moderation considers five stages of online communication in terms of how the moderator might facilitate dialogue among learners. These four theoretical models form the basis for understanding the implementation of blended learning discussed here. The course studied was a part-time Bachelor of Science degree in Information Technology (IT), delivered using Blended Learning. Students were required to attend one evening per week and make substantial use of Web based learning over a period of five years. Students were mature, some already working in the IT field. Forty students in a first cohort and eighteen students in a second cohort were studied during the first year of their course. While students in the first cohort who succeeded in the course often found the discussion boards to be of considerable value in dis- cussing assignments and sharing learning, the boards also could discourage those with less tech- nical backgrounds. There is data to suggest that a high rate of dropouts and failures among the first cohort after just one year may have been influenced by discouragement felt by those who could not keep up with the technical level of the discussion board posts. As a result of this data, for the second cohort, the number of online commu- nications was reduced to one assessed online discussion that was closely monitored. As a result, discussions were more on-topic however students reported significantly less sense of community. Again, a high dropout rate resulted. Material published as part of this journal, either on-line or in print, is copyrighted by the publisher of the Journal of Informa- tion Technology Education. Permission to make digital or paper copy of part or all of these works for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that the copies are not made or dis- tributed for profit or commercial advantage AND that copies 1) bear this notice in full and 2) give the full citation on the first page. It is permissible to abstract these works so long as credit is given. To copy in all other cases or to republish or to post on a server or to redistribute to lists requires specific permission and payment of a fee. Contact Editor@JITE.org to request redistribu- tion permission.
Online Communication and Information Technology Education 236 Our results suggest that communication is both a challenge and an enabler for facilitating a suc- cessful blended learning course. Blended learning is not simply a matter of the combination of face-to-face and online instruction, but it has to have elements of social interaction. It appears to be important to allow students to bond together and to socialize. Knowing each other eases the communication barriers and reduces the fear of posting messages into an open forum. At its best, online communication can provide study help, social interaction, and a sense of community. We have evidence that when students are required more frequently to cooperate online, they share a common problem and on some level create their own ���problem solving��� community. However, our data from the first cohort indicates that unguided communication of a Community of Practice can lead to undesirable effects. At the same time, our data from the second cohort indicates that a very structured approach is also undesirable. The ideal situation, it seems, is somewhere in the middle. However, the middle is not easily defined. Because the community depends on the indi- viduals who are the main components of it, it is difficult to predict how the same environment would influence different individuals or different cohorts. Thus, the ultimate responsibility is on the lecturer to listen to the students and engage in continuous dialogue. Keywords: Communication, Blended Learning, Communities of Practice, E-Learning Introduction The widely accepted definition of blended learning is a combination of face to face and computer based teaching. An example is given in the quote by Graham below: ���Blended Learning Systems combine face-to-face instruction with computer mediated instruc- tion.��� (Graham, 2005, p. 3) However, this definition is so general as to encompass nearly all higher education. As Oliver and Trigwell (2005) argue: ���The term ���blended learning��� is ill defined and inconsistently used. Whilst its popularity is in- creasing, its clarity is not. Under and current definition, it is either incoherent or redundant as a concept���. It is our view that the term blended learning only has value when the practical combination of learning and teaching techniques is based upon pedagogy rather than expedience. The verb ���blend��� means ���to mix ��� together to improve quality��� (Collins dictionary) or ���form a harmonious combination��� (Oxford English dictionary). Thus to lay claim to the term blended learning should require action and reflection based upon knowledge. Compared to the definition of Graham, we advocate a more extensive definition that highlights the importance of practice and theory in underpinning blended learning: ���Blended Learning is learning that is facilitated by the effective combination of different modes of delivery, models of teaching and styles of learning, and founded on transparent communication amongst all parties involved with a course.��� (Heinze & Procter, 2004, p. 12). Whilst we recognise Oliver and Trigwell���s (2005) argument that blended learning must be de- fined from the perspective of the learner and not the teacher, the above definition has proved a valuable background to the action research that we have conducted. One other aspect that we found useful is the issue of communication within the learning process. Blended Learning intro- duces multiple media to the dialogue between the learner and the facilitator. We examine the is- sue of online communication as the link between established theory of learning and literature on e-learning in order to understand the Blended Learning in practice see Figure 1.
Heinze & Procter 237 Literature Learning Our discussion is grounded on the early work of Vygotsky (1962), in particular on his concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). We then relate this concept to the later work of Wenger (1998), Laurillard (2002) and Salmon (2002) paying particular attention to communica- tion. Zone of Proximal Development The work of Vygotsky influenced theories of learning in the 1970s and 1980s (Cottrell, 2001). In his relatively short life he was able to produce concepts that were further developed by colleagues such as Luria and Leontiev. One of the most applicable theories proposed by Vygotsky is the ZPD. The Zone of Proximal Development is defined by Vygotsky as the: ���Distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent prob- lem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solv- ing under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.��� (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86) Essentially the ZPD states that the learner has greater potential when developing in collaboration with others or when supported by competent facilitators. Based on the ZPD, Vygotsky proposes that the creation of such a Zone is an essential feature of learning (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 90). He then goes on to specify that for development to occur, a number of internal processes have to be initiated. These in turn can operate only when interacting with people in one���s environment and cooperating with one���s peers. It is the ability to communicate with others in a specifically social way that differentiates surface learning from deep learning. Surface learning would occur in a situation where ZPD is equal to zero, deep learning would be based on a dialogue and hence provide a ZPD. In other words dia- logue or communication is essential in establishing a ZPD. Communication: ! Zone of Proximal Development ! Communities of Practice Blended ! Conversational Framework Learning ! E-Moderation Model Practice Figure 1. Communication and Blended Learning