LEARNING THROUGH VIRTUAL CLASSROOM

Atasi Mohanty

Madanmohan Samanta

 

 

Introduction

In the recent era of globalization, technological advancement has increased dramatically in every sphere including mainstream education. These advances have introduced new educational nomenclature i.e. “virtual education”, “virtual classroom”, “virtual Universities”, “on line Courses”, “electronic” and “cyberspace institution” etc. Profound investments in technology in this decade have given rise to a worldwide explosion of information. Many educational institutions have been mystified by this information chaos. They  are driven by the goal to use newly found access to global data communication.This step will increase enrolment and will award a vast range of degrees through massive investments in distance education programmes. There has been much talk among educators that these acts begin to modify the students’ worth to the academic world, as the students begin to assume both the tangible and intangible characteristics associated with those of a “Customer” as opposed to the characteristics of a student. Marketing strategies abound that beseech the “students-customer” to take advantage of “fast, universal access”, “earn a degree in a short period of time”, and other creative approaches that guarantee satisfaction and quick delivery of the degree-of-choice. Moreover, in the  fast growing competition in the job market, there have been  increasing demands for specialists, professionals over population, increasing awareness as well as demand for higher education, shortage of qualified teachers and infrastructure facility. Virtual classroom has taken a lead role in the teaching-learning process. Generically, the virtual classroom is a teaching and learning environment located within a computer mediated communication system. It consists of asset of group communication and work “spaces” and facilities that are constructed in software.

 

Virtual learning, environments are hugely diverse in size, capability and services offered and can cater for individuals ranging in attainment, ages, and special needs. Virtual schools are of three broad categories i.e., independent, collaborate and broadcast. According to Russell (2001) independent models can often be referred to as “asynchronous” because they do not rely upon direct communication between teacher and students, as they do not avail of chat or video conferencing facilities. Synchronous models usually involve more communication and collaboration through video conferencing and live chats. Broadcast models allow students to access lectures or broadcasts on the Internet.  All these models offer a wide range of learning flexibility in virtual environments that serve the individual needs of the learners regardless of their age, gender, religion, nationality or disability. A virtual classroom environment successfully mixes up different media inputs i.e., (a) face to face plus virtual classroom which can vary from adding system use to enrich on-campus courses conducted to traditional means; to distance courses where system, use is supplemented by one or two fact-to-face meetings (b) virtual classroom as the sole means of delivery, with the use of print media in the form of text books or course notes, and (c) multi-media i.e., virtual classroom plus video, audio or audio-graphic media. Thus, there is a  move towards multi-media based interactive learning process and computer assisted instructional system.

 

Characteristics of Virtual CLASSROOM LEARNING

Virtual classroom also needs equivalent equipment and tools in the form of network-based software application to allow a group of instructors and students to carry out the learning process. The sophistication of such software structures vary widely, from simple electronic mail systems to systems that have been specially enhanced to support classroom – like experiences, such as virtual auditoriums. Some of them are well established on the Internet and new ones are still emerging. No physical boundary is required for getting access to virtual learning; entire universe is the classroom. But unlike the formal school learning, virtual learning is a collaborative process and emphasizes on cooperative effort and interactions. The medium of instruction in virtual learning in India is broadly restricted to English and Hindi languages, and occasionally some regional programmes are being telecasted. It would take some time to develop the software for teaching-learning in vernacular languages. The output of virtual teaching-learning process depends upon the factors like students’  motivation for self-learning, subject expertise and communication skills of the teacher, on-line problem-solving facility, connectivity to e-library, and use of technology based lightly interactive multimedia, etc.

 

Basically, there are four principles to be kept in mind for successful teaching in the virtual classroom such as dealing with i) media richness, ii) timely responsiveness, iii) organization and iv) interaction. In the traditional classroom, a pleasing voice, occasional jokes, dramatic gestures, eye contact with the teacher and the classroom interaction can help to enliven a long lecture. But in virtual classrooms, there is only the computer screen and the printed pages. Even if the multimedia is there, long segments of lecture-type materials are boring. Hence, in order to maintain interest, the instructor should use written language in a skillful way by putting some humour and metaphors. It is better to orchestrate active participation by the students and stimulate collaborative assignments that involve both social and task-oriented activities. The instructor should deliver small segments of lecture with print/pre-recorded materials accompanied with opportunities for students’ participation. Secondly, unlike the traditional classrooms, the students in the virtual classroom will not receive an immediate response to their questions and comments. This can be very frustrating, especially if they are ‘stuck’ in the middle if a mathematics problem or project assignment. In this case, in order to encourage the students, the instructor can promote more active participation / interaction and provide the feedback to students in the virtual classroom more frequently/daily. In the ideal situation, the conscientious teacher/instructor can become a “perpetual professor” when he/she could realize that teaching is continuous, like parenthood, rather than being confined to computer screen, printed materials or a few specific hours of lecturing. Thirdly, unless the study materials of online courses/virtual classrooms get organized, students will become very confused. Therefore, the instructor must establish regular rhythms and schedules, based on dividing the course into modules which last a week, a week and half, or two weeks each so that the participants can plan ahead in terms of when they will need to sign online and when work will be due, and so that the group moves through the topics in an orderly manner. One basic strategy to segregate and organize different modules and activities is to use several conferences for different types of activities, and to have the class move from one to another as they progress through topics.

 

Another strategy is for the instructor to enter the stimulus materials for each week’s work on a regular basis, with new material predictably appearing at least twice a week. The most significant determinant of the students’ satisfaction in the online courses/virtual classrooms is the amount and quality of interaction between the instructor and the students, and/or among the students. This is not always easy for the instructor, but if he/she can cajole or coerce the students into this collaborative approach to learning, then they would share ideas with each other. This is both the key and challenge for being an effective teacher in the virtual classroom environment. Collaborative learning is encouraged in case of virtual classrooms which emphasize group / cooperative efforts among faculty and students. In this context, knowledge is viewed as a social construct, and therefore, the educational process is facilitated by social interaction in an environment that facilitates peer interaction evaluation and cooperation (Bruffee 1984; Whipple 1987). The “teacher” becomes primarily a facilitator who structures learning opportunities, serves as a resource, and encourages the students to work together to build a common body of knowledge. The virtual classroom/learning environment not only facilitates collaborative learning but also supports independent learning and generative, active learning techniques that are self-paced by each participant.

 

Merits & Demerits of Virtual Classroom

Merits

For centuries, textbooks have been the most important teaching-learning tool in all types of schools. The physical format of the textbook does not easily allow student and teacher to depart from the prescribed path, or to link to new concepts and ideas from other disciplines (Liaw 2000). Whereas the virtual textbooks move the learners beyond content mastery to information seeking and problem solving skills. This enables the learner to evaluate and synthesize information from diverse sources and understand and apply the difference between facts and opinions, grasp multiple and diverse perspectives and draw insights from these and utilize these within the context of one’s own knowledge base and experiences (Siegel & Sousa 1994). In comparison to traditional textbook, the Web seems to be more suitable for  learning, where the information can be delivered in both linear and non-linear format. It can be presented via multimedia with text, pictures, video, sound and animation. Vast amount of information can be searched and downloaded from Internet. In traditional classrooms, most teachers make use of a chalkboard for further clarification of a point. But the instructor of a virtual classroom may use the whiteboard to answer questions from students. Such tools allow images to be displayed, manipulated, annotated, and shared between two learners or among a whole group (Turoff 1995). An important part of the physical class environment is the personal interaction as questions are asked by the students. Allowing all students to ‘hear’ the questions and answers helps everyone to learn and encourages additional questions. In virtual learning environment, list servers can be used to redistribute e-mail messages. Usenet newsgroups, computer conferencing and collaborative work spaces may serve for sharing this kind of interactions. More dynamic questions and answer interaction can be created using text-based chat sessions, text-based virtual learning environments and  net-based virtual auditorium or lecture room systems. The net-based virtual auditorium or lecture room systems are more sophisticated and provide voice communications and more features of traditional classrooms such as slides, application sharing and students’ feedback. Virtual classrooms  use videoconferencing, and teleconferencing to make the presentation more attractive and lively.

 

Virtual classrooms are more accessible, flexible and convenient in their approach towards education, students and teachers. Virtual learning environment encourages freedom of expression and students are more open to communicate and express opinion and would often thrive in these environments. Studies have shown that online learning has a valuable learning experience due to its novelty effects, which creates a perception of increased value (Wright et. al. 2000). Recent research found that online courses supported critical thinking skills, leadership, communication, problem solving and ethics.   Often the students’ prefer the delivery mode and work at their own pace and take time to analyze and synthesize the learning materials. Research has shown that students take online classes because they are able to get the course schedule they want to fulfill the degree requirements.Moreover, multimedia use has made the virtual learning more interesting and lively, thus has paved the way for fulfilling the emerging needs of higher education (i.e., mass education, professional education) in 21st century India. Online courses offer more flexibility, convenience and access to students. Virtual classrooms promote collaborative learning attitude among students.   Through Web based learning, vast amount of information can be searched, reorganized and downloaded from decentralized worldwide digital libraries. Also the quick delivery feedback ability of the Web can make learning more effective (Liaw 2000). Through virtual collaboration researchers can also share data visualization and create documents collaboratively producing and editing text in real time.

 

Demerits

Learning in virtual classroom is not natural and spontaneous rather artificially created. The teacher in the virtual classroom is present in virtual image, not physically. Thus, virtual classroom lacks the human touch. The virtual students seem more frustrated, not only from the technology but from the inability to ask the teacher questions in a face-to-face environment. As the virtual learning environment lacks human face-to-face interaction, critics are of the opinion that probably it has a long-term effect on the children’s emotional development and interpersonal relationship when they would be grown up as adults in society. It is thought that children will miss out on the important friendships that are usually formed in traditional schools and this will lead to poor social skills in adulthood. Virtual classrooms are suitable for higher learning only, not for primary level children. For availing the facilities of virtual learning the learner has to be matured, self-motivated, computer literate and well versed with the components of virtual classroom. Primarily the teacher in the virtual classroom follows the Lecture-cum-demonstration method with multi-media use which is suitable for higher level courses. It is not suitable for lab-based and activity oriented courses. There is no scope for testing the entry level behaviors; thus a teacher cannot judge the degree of disparity among students. Also the differences in learning styles and ranging aptitude levels would result in further discrepancy. Subsequently, some students would learn less effectively in virtual environments and thus would require more individual/personal contact with a teacher. Moreover, as more numbers of schools and universities are now operating online, it is becoming increasingly difficult to judge and evaluate the academic virtue and quality of education provided by them. In a virtual classroom set up, the role of a teacher is significant but students’ response is secondary. Hardly the teacher does have the scope to get an immediate feedback regarding his teaching. In virtual classroom, the teacher’s communication skill is more important than any other competencies i.e., managerial or interpersonal or liaisoning skills. There is a little scope for the all round personality development of the children. Individual caring, counselling, emotional sharing mentoring etc. are absent in virtual classrooms with the teacher only present on the audio-visual screens. There is little scope for direct teacher-student intervention and two-way communication. The factors, like subject expertise, communication skill, expression through body language, personality, skill of holding students’ interest and attention play a very crucial role in virtual learning and the success of the programming course primarily depends on these factors.

 

The whole system of virtual classroom education is based on technological advancement and operations and any sort of technical fault will create chaos in the education system. Even if the learner gets Web-based electric textbooks, often they do not provide all of the details that users need. Sometimes also insufficient emphasis given on good human-centered design of the interface and huge amount of overloaded information create frustration among the users. Another disadvantage with online courses is that students may encounter problems with software compatibility, connection, connection speed, server unreliability, computer problems etc. If students encounter problems they may become easily discouraged and dissatisfied with online education. Moreover, the misconception persists that online courses are easier. But in reality, online courses are equal or more challenging than traditional face-to-face courses because the primary responsibility for facilitating learning shifts to the students. Thus, if a student is not motivated and matured enough to be reflective and evaluate his won learning strategies, he or she  may not succeed in virtual education. So, the students need to be self-motivated to keep on track. (Wright et. al 2000).No face-to-face contact with classmates or instructors can lead to feelings of isolation or lack of connectiveness.

 

Future Challenges & Opportunities

Researches  have  found out some new trends for future which may have a beneficial impact on Web based learning, such as “Haptic Interfaces” “New Networks” and “PDA/Wireless Connections”. Haptic interfaces are not widely used in current Web based learning environments but are found in some commercial games (Bussell 2001). This technology has come to include tactile feedback for example, smooth and rough textures; and force feedback - kinaesthetic - sensation movement resistance and muscle tension. Many learning resources employ the sense of touch to involve learners for example children’s books with textures, illustrations or embossed letters or the wide use of sand, modeling materials in the classroom. The haptic technology can benefit the children with special needs especially visually impaired and also be used to successfully teach concepts in physics and math. It allows for a more interactive learning experience which could be potentially implemented across a wide range of subjects. The other future prospects in Web based learning is new network which can offer  opportunities to virtual learning environments. For example,  “Tele-immersion” is the technology that will allow people in different parts of the world to feel as if they are sharing the same physical space connecting the real places in real time through the development of “tele-cubicles.”  With such practices virtual learning environments would be able to make the real time tutorials and teacher-pupils meetings/interactions/discussions. The above techniques can also be used in new curriculum areas less suited to a virtual learning environment and with the objects even though these are miles away. Thus, it accelerates the interactive learning in virtual classrooms. Of course, these developments require much more organization and imaginations than simply placing text on the Web.Future developments in virtual learning environments may also embrace wireless and portable devices. The benefit of portable devices would mean that students would be able to collaborate and share solutions, thus fully acting out the learner’s roles of apprentice and peer-tutor as described by (Hung 2001). Students can also fully utilize a PDA by taking it with them for reference – for example a student on a biology field trip could use their device to identify an unfamiliar organism. Wireless local area networks, can also be used to provide access to virtual learning environments while allowing the learner to choose their own personal learning location. The future of virtual learning environments has many possibilities. If issues of cost and programming would be resolved one can undertake self-directed learning using a range of senses. New networks can allow students new opportunities way beyond those offered by the Web in its current state, but careful planning and innovations will be required to ensure that the potential for the scope of delivery is reached.

 

Conclusion

The future of virtual learning environments has many innovative and exciting possibilities. At the same time adventures in learning call for creative and  potent environments where individuals share meaningful knowledge and experiences in constructing new information and ideas. These adventures foster mutual collaboration that allows learners to apply newly acquired learning in the design of insightful, cognitive processing without detachment/ obscurity from real-life situations. A judicious blend of both traditional and virtual learning environment with special attention to students’ needs and satisfaction can create constructive and creative learners, teaching community and learned society.

 

References

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