Studying the behaviour of students in a virtual learning context

Studying the behaviour of students in a virtual learning context

July 1, 2002

How can you alleviate the sense of isolation that prevents some learners from taking full advantage of distance learning?

It's a fundamental problem, especially since the transfer of knowledge through information and communications technology is perceived as the salvation of teaching institutions that have real expertise in education and training.

To find a solution to the problem, Collège communautaire du Nouveau-Brunswick de Bathurst (CCNB Bathurst) has set up a high-level research laboratory on educational interactivity for distance learning. Using the new lab, CCNB Bathurst researchers are studying the behaviour of students in a virtual learning context, as well as the factors that improve learning in a digital universe. "The new lab will help us extend our work to integrate various education technologies, increase our expertise in virtual training, and develop approaches in the area of distance learning. This will enable us to offer our students from all regions the same high-quality training that students from major cities now get," says Jeanne Comeau, Dean of Development and Applied Research at CCNB Bathurst. "Furthermore, it will help us export our educational content to all regions of Canada and abroad."

The new research laboratory will be housed in the current facilities at CCNB Bathurst, which are currently under renovation for this purpose. Thanks to the new layout, the college will be able to house in one location all its research on learning behaviour in virtual environments, and on integration of technologies for the delivery of educational content.

The new research laboratory will be equipped with computer hardware and high-performance multimedia devices including computers, servers, databases, recording cameras, projectors, and multipoint audio-visual equipment. It will all be linked through a broadband communication network that will provide several users with simultaneous high-quality access to state-of-the-art information and telecommunications technologies.

The new infrastructure was made possible through a partnership between CCNB Bathurst, one of eleven colleges which form the New Brunswick Community College Network, the Association of Canadian Community, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

Starting in January 2003, a first group of 20 on-line students will serve as research subjects for the CCNB Bathurst researchers. Composed of professional teachers, this group of students will take a distance-learning course on learning and teaching strategies. Their approach and their cognitive evolution will be carefully analyzed and assessed using the technical tools available in the new laboratory.

The students will be divided into two groups of 10. One group will receive training in a traditional Internet setting: they'll exchange information in an indirect and time-shifted manner with the other students and the teacher. The students in the other group, however, will take the course in a 3-D environment, in which each learner is represented by an avatar (a virtual representation). The avatar can move around within a virtual school with doors, windows, and classrooms. In this way, students will able to exchange information in real time with other students and the teacher.

The experiment will be repeated three times using the exact same educational material. This will allow the researchers to isolate specific quantitative parameters and obtain comparative data on the results of the two groups.

"One of the problems that shows up in distance-learning experiments is that many learners find it difficult to stay motivated because they do not feel that they belong to a group, as is the case in a traditional learning setting," says Gildard Haché, a researcher who also co-ordinates the 3-D training project at the CCNB Bathurst Laboratory. "Many of them feel left alone and drop out along the way. The work that we will do in the new laboratory will help us find ways of addressing this issue."

"We will tackle this experiment from a purely cognitive perspective by assessing the impact that the 3-D environment and real time discussions can have on the socio-affective environment, on creativity, and on the motivation of learners," says Jean-Jacques Doucet, educational adviser for the project,

Studies on what causes learners to succeed or fail in a distance-learning situation confirm that a learner who is alone with a computer experiences what educators call a "spatial-temporal imbalance." Essentially, that's a lack of spatial markers and the absence of a feeling of time, both of which are intimately connected with the emotive well-being that is necessary in any learning situation. In a nutshell, the feeling of loneliness experienced by learners who are left alone with a computer sometimes discourages them and prevents many of them from learning.