On June 16th, 22 students graduated from the Master’s Program on ICT & Learning (MIL) at Aalborg University, and this is where I’ve been running courses on SL for my PhD-project since 2007. As always, graduation day was an exciting day combining student anxiety and great relief and joy. After all the exams, there was a reception where the Masters received their diplomas, the daily manager of MIL, Ulla Konnerup and the Dean of Humanities, Lone Dirckinck-Holmfeld spoke about the students’ achievements and their new roles as “ambassadors of ICT & Learning”. Finally, we finished off the day with a wonderful dinner/dance at the Utzon Center, downtown Aalborg.
As something new, the steering committee behind the MIL Program had decided to award the Program’s “Teacher of the Year”. All courses/modules are anonymously evaluated by the students, and based on these evaluations; I was fortunate to receive this award :-)
Ironically, I’ve not (yet) seen these particular students evaluations, however, based on the evaluations the students and I did as part of the SL course, I do have a few ideas as to why the students find teaching and learning in SL so satisfying. To understand this a little background information is necessary. In my PhD-project, I’ve conducted 4 research cycles, spanning from 2007-2010. Each cycle consisted of designing, implementing, and evaluating a 6-8 week online course on ICT and instructional design based in SL and a conventional 2D VLE. From a theoretical point of view, I’ve been inspired especially by Wenger’s (1998) social theory on learning as participation in Communities of Practice (CoP), Schroeder’s (2011) ideas on presence and co-presence, and Bolter & Grusin’s (1999) concept of remediation. From a methodological point of view, I’ve been inspired by Insider Action Research (Coghlan, 2007), and ethnographical methods such as longitude participant-observation (Boellstorff, 2008). 53 adult MIL-students (majority are educators) in total have participated in my study. The table below provides a brief overview of the research cycles.
Based on my data, I’ve been able to identify 3 analytical units that will inform the answering of my research question; namely what it means to learn via 1) a new, virtual environment, via 2) a new, virtual body, and finally via 3) new, virtual activities. The picture below shows the 3 units and the related topics that emerged in all four research cycles.
In this short post, I will not go into details with the units, but my findings show that being remediated as avatars in a new, virtual environment where it is possible to participate in a variety of new virtual activities greatly influenced the students’ perceptions of presence and co-presence, and from a Distance Education perspective this is one of the most valuable contributions SL has to offer. Conveying a sense of “being there together” as Schroeder puts it, is essential in Distance Education, not only in terms of student satisfaction, but also in terms of learning outcome. Further, SL also provides the participants with unique opportunities of “doing things together”, and as such it is possible to attribute some of the students’ satisfaction to SL’s affordances. I would, however, like to stress that relevant affordances do not necessarily guaranty satisfaction, and though this holds true for all technology, especially in a complex system like SL, the instructional design becomes pertinent. Basically, my PhD-work has been about designing for optimal learning via SL, and in this respect, I’ve found great inspiration in Wenger’s four dimensions of learning;
- Learning as a process of experiencing – outcome: changed meaning
- Learning as a process of becoming – outcome: changed identity
- Learning as a process of belonging – outcome: changed community
- Learning as a process of doing – outcome: changed practice
In short, the figure shows how the sense of presence facilitates the creation of meaning and identity, while the sense of co-presence facilitates the creation of community and practice. In practice, the elements overlap, and it is in fact the oscillation between the elements, which constitutes the dynamics of SL as teaching and learning environment as seen from a CoP-perspective. Based on the findings from my study, I believe that the combination of a social pedagogical strategy and the use of a medium that affords a strong sense of presence/co-presence and which is rich in terms of co-creative possibilities, actually can promote student satisfaction. Evidently, this is a very brief description of my work … more details will follow in my forthcoming dissertation that is due in September.
*) For an excellent example of integrating Wenger’s principles and ideas in design for teacher development in an online community, please have a look at my (now former) colleague Dr. Mayela Coto’s PhD-work.