Monday, October 18, 2004

Who owns the Learning Space?

One of the reasons we provide communication tools in learning environments is to encourage our students to play around with ideas and re-conceptualise the knowledge artefacts they encounter.

In a learner-centred environment we expect students to accept a great deal more ownership of their learning activities and to feel safe within the learning group. Indeed, in more contemporary e-learning environments like simulations, or WebQuests, we ask the students to assume a role and to argue a case from that role’s perspective.

As we move away from the idea of a teacher-centred model we shift the power and control towards the learner. Learners, encouraged by this power shift, begin to test their ideas and assert their view of the world in what they then perceive to be a safe environment—one where they can take risks without being exposed to all of the consequences. Online role-play simulation is one of the best examples of this kind of e-learning environment.

But what if that trust is compromised by those outside the learning space? How sacred are the students’ ideas and thoughts, and what of the learning facilitator?

Unfortunately, there is a growing trend across the world to view the virtual world as one that, because of ease of access, requires a lower level of ethical capital. Where most of us would feel violated if our personal mail was routinely opened and read by postal officers or colleagues at work, a different set of ethical values seem to apply to email. It is common practice now for supervisors and IT managers to have access to your email account—perhaps because it is easier and less detectable than physically opening one of your letters!

But what about the private learning spaces within online courses? You know, that sacred area where you students have come to trust you and their peers. Should that communication be open to the scrutiny by others? Would you as a teacher, be happy with full-time scrutiny of your face-to-face classes? Would you allow video cameras and microphones in your classroom to document yours and your student’s actions? I think not.

So what of others monitoring and perhaps assessing your course online interactions? What if this is covert? How would you be able to build the level of trust required for effective interaction if students and teachers suspected that their interactions would be logged and examined by a third party?

As is often the case, new communication technology raises critical ethical questions that take time and a willingness to address.

More soon,



Alison said...

Scott - my -elearning students have people passing through the learning environment all the time. They don't have a fuss with it - they are kept in the picture. I don't have a problem with the scrutiny either as the teacher - I invite other teachers in often, to help them get a handle on what is happening, and the potential for online learning. It sounds like you are a little paranoid. Its great having other teachers dropping in and contributing to the ideas under discussion -

Scot said...

Hi Alison,

I guess there are a couple of issues here. Firstly, we attempt to create a supportive and safe learning space that encourages students to experiment and extend themselves. Scrutiny by others outside of your learning group may limit the degree to which this happens.

Secondly, some organisations have suggested that they may seek to access the learning space to investigate the worth of the teacher--in other words, assess their performance with a view to taking some kind of administrative action against the teacher. This kind of behaviour is worrying for teachers, particularly since an across the board evaluation of all courses in this manner most probably not occur.
Yes maybe I am being a little paranoid, but I have first hand knowledge of where this is currently occurring!
Many thanks for your comment Alison.



Anonymous said...


I think it is that shift from teacher-centred to learner-centred that many academics, trainers and designers are finding hard to integrate into both their thinking and their practices.

In the elearning sector of the academic field, whilst the calibre of intellect is not in doubt, the quality of humanity sometimes is.

It does appear that learner interactions conducted in learning management systems such as Blackboard and WebCT have simply become one more text to plunder .

I have worked with academics who feel no qualms whatsoever at representing the ideas and actions of learners in online environments for their own research without checking their conceptions and conclusions with those same learners.

I've observed academics behaving in ways that would not be acceptable in a face-to-face environment under the cover of anonymous posting and I've become exhausted at the argument that students won't be motivated to interact online if they are not being assessed for their participation.

I've sat through arguments with academics who believe that there is no such thing as private group space - that learners are aware that their words and interactions will be made available to others without their knowledge - and that researchers have an inalienable right to peer over the shoulders of these mini-communities.

However, it may be that these attitudes and actions are counter-productive. In various learning situations online, I and other learners have chosen to take important conversations offline after our trust has been breached. We've chosen to use email or instant messaging or telephone.

Should learners be penalised if they choose to make parts of their learning private? I think it's a question that needs to be asked.

Scot said...

Hi Anonymous,

You raise some important and valid points in your comment.

The final point is one that particularly caught my interest. The idea that all communication and collaboration should occur in a learning space that can me monitored by teacher/marker.
This attitude to me does indicate difficulties in moving from a teacher-centred to a learner-centred approach. The need to control is hard to let go.

In truth, we should make the necessary tools available for our students and allow them to choose how they use these and others that we have not thought of.

Surely the learning process and its outcomes are what are important here and not our need to control?

Two years ago I was studying online myself and had an experience similar to that you described. The level of support (external to the learning environment) I received from fellow students for my comments in the discussion forum was enormous--the other students perceived the discussion forums to be a hostile environment to share their views.

Thanks for you comments.