Skip to content Skip to navigation

Collaborative Learning in the Virtual Classroom

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 


The interesting article below based on a study showing that effective

communication is not happening virtually, and that this fact is leading to

fragmentation of a learning community with feelings of isolation and

confusion among some students. It offers a set of 14 pilot guidelines to

help address this important issue.

The article is the ninth posting in a series of selected excerpts from the

National Teaching and Learning Forum newsletter reproduced here as

part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of

information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not

already a subscriber, you can check it out at []

The on-line edition of the Forum--like the

printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to

share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of

learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Oct. 2000 Vol.

9 No. 6 ? Copyright 1996-2001. Published by Oryx Press in conjunction with

James Rhem & Associates, Inc. (ISSN 1057-2880) All rights reserved

worldwide. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Faculty Diversity - Myths as Barriers to Problem Solving

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


-------------------- 1,478 words ------------------


Lessons Learned and a New Set of Tutor Guidelines National Teaching and Learning Forum

Feb. 2001 Volume 10 Number 2

Dr. Julie Ann Richardson, Kings College London

Anthony Turner, Canterbury Christ Church

University College


In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of "technology and

education" publications, from Computer Assisted Learning (CAL), to the use

of multimedia applications in distance education, to the use of the World

Wide Web as a resource in the traditional classroom, to the virtual learning

environment or classroom. Since 1991, when it was released as a component

of the larger Internet, the Web has grown greatly as an informal and formal

instructional environment, and Web-based instruction is now being offered

by an ever-increasing number of institutions all over the world. However,

there is little in the literature about the process of creating or adapting

a traditional university course to an online format. In addition, few

publications about this topic are written from the perspective of the tutor

who is not a technology expert.

The Web Came upon Us

In 1998 virtual learning environments were introduced to the university to

promote the use of distributed learning in undergraduate courses. Module

tutors [i.e., instructors] were encouraged to rewrite modules for this

method of teaching and learning. During 1999-2000 we designed and carried

out an extensive and ambitious evaluation of the use of virtuallearning

environments across the university. As part of this evaluation we have

described what we learned from the process of developing a series of online

courses for the first time, and the opportunities and constraints inherent

in the process. This part of the evaluation focuses on one particular

element of the virtual classroom--the interactive communication systems that

give students the opportunity to communicate and discuss their courses


What's There

The various types of asynchronous systems--e-mail, listservs, and

conferencing--allow participation from different locales and at times

convenient to the individual student. Synchronous tools, such as chat rooms,

voice-based teleconferencing, or video conferencing, allow tutors and

students tointeract at the same time but from different places. At present

no single mode or technology dominates because the availability of equipment

varies, as do the goals of various institutions and the teaching styles of

individual instructors.

The Experience of It

It has become evident from interviews with students taking part in these

modules that their perception and the "reality" of virtual interaction were

different from face-to-face traditional classroom interaction. Most such

interaction lacked the visual,kinesthetic and sound cues that facilitate

communication. Most virtual interaction took place asynchronously where

students and instructor posted messages at different times and from

different locations. Perhaps as a consequence, it did not have shared

sociolinguistic conventions to guide the initiation, development and closure

of group discussions. There is little research about the nature of virtual

interaction and few models for tutors and students to follow. The following

comments show students' recognition that this form of learning is uncharted

territory fraught with new frustrations:

I think [the problems we have been having] are because in this new kind of

learning we can't do the same kind of things that we do in our normal

seminars . . . I mean that, in a way, I don't know what we are supposed to

do with it. It seems unnatural that we have to think about what we want to

say instead of just saying it. It's difficult as well to work out what the

"tone" of the conversationis. And I feel like I'm letting the world know how

good I am.

I don't like the way you say something and then you have to keep on checking

to see if any students or the tutors have responded . . . it's frustrating.

They also seem to drag on a bit with no-one really saying anything useful. .

. . another problem is that people keep starting new discussions so it gets


After initial analyses of the data collected from interviews, and

conversation analysis performed on the actual discussions taking place, we

have arrived at two conclusions.


1.Effective communication is not happening virtually, which is leading to

fragmentation of a learning community with feelings of isolation and

confusion among some students.

2.We need a set of guidelines to help facilitate online discussions.

Planning Guidelines

In an effort to progress through this rather significant problem, we drafted

a set of proposed guidelines for "virtual" communication and asked a group

of students and tutors to review them and make suggestions for revisions.

Frank comments like the following offered genuine help in redrafting our

test set:

"We have to accept that the dynamics of posting on Lotus are different from the

seminar discussions. At the same time, some of us, and I include myself

here, need to remember that the courseroom is a discussion, not a chance to

wax eloquent. All lecturers, regardless of training, like being in front of

the class. . . . It takes mighty strong medicine to stop us from turning

responses into mini lectures."

We are currently test-piloting the following procedural guidelines to see

whether, with such a set of guidelines, discussions, and thus

students'experience of online learning, can be improved.

Prerequisite Assumptions

Before a module begins, tutors should be well versed in good practice in

courseroom discussions. They should also have their own resource bank of

information and guides for students to assist them in their

discussions.These may include: good examples of successful courseroom

discussions; guidelines for how to read and reflect critically on

seminar papers; guidelines for working effectively as a team.

The Pilot Guidelines

1.Tutors should clearly state (for their own benefit) the purpose of the

discussion--asking themselves, How will this discussion help each student to

achieve the learning outcomes in terms of skills, knowledge and

understanding? They should also be clear in their own minds why the

courseroom is the best method of developing these outcomes.

2.Students and tutor should, at the beginning of a module, spend time

raising the metacognitive strategy awareness of the participants. (In other

words, How is this going to help me . . . ?)

3.Tutors and students should come to mutual understanding and agreement

about the style of writing and conventions they will adopt during

discussions. This is most effectively achieved during a face-to-face


4.Courseroom discussions should be linked either formally or informally with

assessment arrangements, and these expectations should be communicated

clearly to students.

5.The tutor clearly states the minimal number of postings expected,per

student, per discussion.

6.To initiate a discussion, the tutor posts course questions or issues,

using concise and clear language. Students respond directly to the question

or issue,

keeping their responses short and to the point.

7.The tutor models how to facilitate virtual discussions. When students feel

comfortable with the new medium, student-led discussion should be

encouraged. When using a seminar format,students, individually or in small

groups or dyads, are given opportunities to identify critical issues in the

lectures and readings, and lead discussions related to those and other

related topics, because (as research shows--Harasim, et al., 1997) active

student involvement strategies are an effective way of promoting student

critical thinking and interaction.

8.Students should communicate with the tutor via e-mail to make suggestions

for discussion topics. The tutor should then use these as (1) an opportunity

to take advantage of students' own questions as a starting point, (2) a

basis for modeling the skills required to ask effective questions, and (3) a

means of building a one-to-one relationship with

individual students.

9.The tutor or facilitator should act as moderator of the discussion,

guiding individual students if their contributions do not follow the agreed


10.The tutor or facilitator should continually evaluate the "academic"

contributions students are making. For example, is there evidence students

are supporting their views with self-study? Is there evidence that students

are developing their skills of critically evaluating/responding to assigned

texts, as well as each other's contributions? The tutor should use e-mail

messages to encourage participation and positively reinforce contributions


11.When new or related topics arise during an ongoing discussion, the tutor

or facilitator should start a new conversation. Tutors need to decide

whether this is best run concurrently or consecutively.

12.The tutor should advise students of the days when she or he will visit

the conferencing environment to participate in ongoing discussions, or

check on them.

13.Discussions should occur during a specified time frame. For example,

students may have two weeks to participate in ongoing discussions, starting

with the date

of their first posting. The conversations are then closed.

14.Once a discussion is closed tutors should provide feedback to all

participants via the courseroom which 1) summarizes the discussion and

conclusions made, 2) refers students to further reading, etc., and 3)

evaluates the quality of

the students' overall contributions. This responsibility could also be given

to one or more facilitators.

These guidelines are currently being adopted. All tutors who are involved in

the module have been introduced to each of the points above and given

opportunities to discuss with each other their most effective



Crossman, D.M. 1997. "The Evolution of the World-Wide-Web as an Emerging

Instructional Technology Tool." In Web-Based Instruction, B. Khan, ed.

(Englewood Cliffs, NJ: EducationalTechnology Publications), 19-23.

Harasim, L., Hiltz, S.R., Teles, L., & Turoff, M. 1997. Learning Networks

(Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press).

Khan, B. 1997. "Web-Based Instruction (WBI): What Is It and Why Is It?" In

Web-Based Instruction, B. Khan, ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational


Publications), 5-18.

Kirkwood, A. 1999. "New Media Mania: Can Information and Communication

Technologies Enhance the Quality of Open and Distance Learning?" Distance

Education 8:228-241.

Murray, D. 1998. "The Context of Oral and Written Language: A Framework for

Model and Medium Switching." Language in Society 17:351-73.

Richardson, J.A. & Turner, A.E. 2000. "A Large-scale Local Evaluation of

Students' Experiences Using VLEs." Educational Technology and Society

Sneiderman, B. 1998. Designing the User Interface Strategies for Effective

Human-Computer Interaction (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley).

Walther, L., Anderson, J., & Park, D. 1994. "Interpersonal Effects in

Computer Mediated Interaction: A Meta-analysis of Social and Antisocial

Communication." Communication Research 4:460-87.

Stefanov, K., Stoyanov, S. & Nikolov, R. 1998. "Design Issues of a Distance

Learning Course on a Business on the Internet." Journalof Computer Assisted

Learning 14:83-90.

Woolley, D.R. 1996.


Dr. Julie Ann Richardson

Kings College London

3rd Floor, Weston Education Centre

Cutcombe Rd



Telephone: +44 207848 5718


Anthony Turner

Faculty of Education

Canterbury Christ Church

University College

North Holmes Road



Telephone: +44 1227 782880