A Preliminary Consideration of Learning Processes in Virtual Learning Communities

Ben Daniel and Richard Schwier The Virtual Learning Community Research Lab University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada Email: ben.daniel; richard.schwier@{usask.ca} Please cite as: Daniel, B.K., & Schwier, R.A. (2009, October) A preliminary consideration of learning processes in virtual learning communities. Proceedings of E-Learn 2009, Vancouver, British Columbia, October, 2009. Abstract How do we understand and support learning in virtual learning communities? The main goal of this research was to take the first steps toward instantiating a model describing the fundamental processes of learning in virtual communities. We administered an online survey to graduate students to gain a better understanding of their perceptions about their own learning processes in virtual learning communities. The results of the study suggests that the process of learning in virtual learning communities can be understood through the analysis of two broadly defined learning variables, intentional and incidental, with each category playing a different role in enhancing the process of learning and community engagement online. Our work has two main contributions: to substantiate the fundamental variables constituting the process of learning in virtual learning communities and to use the results for the development of a model of learning process in virtual learning communities. Introduction Conventionally, we think of learning happening in schools. We learn in classrooms, we need to interact with an instructor and sometimes peers in formal settings to learn, in preparation to go out into the world. However, in the increasingly complex interconnected world in which we live, work, and learn, people do not learn in merely conventional ways. Learning as we experience it today is tied to continuous processes of interacting with instructors, information, individuals, books, and various objects and it is not confined to classroom or formal settings. Learning as we know it today, takes place in a variety of ways, through intentional and incidental means, in formal and nonformal settings, through well-crafted instructional methods and informal learning environments, in class or online, in groups or in communities. It appears that the evolution of learning in virtual communities has taken a complex turn and requires critical analysis in order to understand and support it. This paper reports on the result of an initial survey administered to 56 graduate students aimed at gaining a better understanding of students’ perceptions of their own learning processes in virtual learning communities. The construction of the survey instrument was based on the results of previous study focused on content analysis of students’ online interactions transcripts. The analysis of the transcripts was aimed at identifying the variables constituting the process of learning in virtual learning communities (Daniel, Schwier & Ross, 2005). The study discovered two equally important categories of variables constituting the process of learning in virtual learning communities—intentional and incidental variables. These variables help researchers and instructors examine learning in virtual learning communities and provide appropriate support to students in these environments. Intentional learning variables are those variables emphasized in formal learning environments. They include variables necessary to achieve learning goals and they are prescribed and based on the content of the course (e.g., readings, assignments, formal communication protocols and institutional regulations). Incidental learning variables, on the other hand, are comprised of those activities that are not directly related to formal program (course) requirements but yet are critical to the process of learning and community engagement. Examples of these variables might include sharing personal information, sharing prior knowledge, shared understanding, reflections and any other discourse out of formal requirements. While these types of learning devices can be parlayed in intentional and incidental environments, in this paper we begin to uncover which learning processes are predominantly employed by learners in the service of intentional or incidental learning. This paper is organized as follows: first we briefly examine related literature on learning in virtual learning communities. Second, we describe the goals of our study and the research protocol used in the study. Third, we present the results of study and discuss their implications for supporting learning in virtual learning communities.

We then present a tentative model describing the process of learning in virtual learning communities and summarize the paper. Future directions for validating the model are proposed. Related Work Universities and other institutions of higher education are increasingly examining the potential of virtual learning communities (VLC), searching for ways that VLC can mimic traditional classroom environments and also inventing novel ways to support learning in virtual learning environments. Virtual learning communities enable learners to share knowledge and engage in discourse that enhances their learning in different settings; on-campus, distributed and blended. Our interests in learning process in virtual learning communities builds on the growing research aimed at informing our understanding of learning technologies and their general application to distributed learning and technology-mediated learning communities (Garrison & Anderson, 2003; Schwier, Daniel, & Ross, 2005; Murphy & Loveless, 2005; Murphy, 2006). For years, researchers and scientists have written about the process of learning in various contexts; resulting to the development of competing theories and principles explaining how people learn and absorb information. Despite a growing body of work in the area, educators, parents, policymakers and researchers alike hardly agree on what constitute learning. However, most of the learning theories share common assumptions about the nature of learning, but there are also important differences among them. The divergent views on what constitute learning are primarily based on varying epistemological stances, belief systems, and paradigms. Common across theories of learning is recognition that learning involves a persistent change in performance brought about by learners’ experiences and interactions with the world or the object of learning. Learning is also regarded as changes in patterns that might have an implicit or explicit impact on performance outcomes, including the means to stimulate the conditions that can promote learning (learning processes) and the results of that process (learning outcomes). In a community context, learning theories tend to maintain that people learn by constructing knowledge and connecting meaning to their understanding and by sharing these meanings with others in the community. It is also widely acknowledged that the process of learning in communities is both formal and informal. Moreover, fundamental to all kinds of virtual communities is learning (McCalla, 2000), a simple idea that is easily overlooked. Loosely defined, a virtual learning community is normally comprised of a group of students who may be in the same class, the same institution or who are geographically dispersed but connected through information and communication technologies. The creation, initiation or sustainability of this type of community is primarily the task of an instructor or learning leader who can employ various computational tools for communication and engagement. Although current theories are adequate for describing learning in communities in temporal communities, they do not adequately describe the process of learning in virtual communities, and given the availability of learning technologies, educators in higher education are faced with the enormous challenge of creating high quality learning environments, where learning standards are defined, and assessment criteria are explicitly specified—in other words, where learning is an intentional undertaking. While it can be acknowledged that the process of learning in most virtual learning communities is formal and can be tracked and measured, little is known on the contributions of other factors that are not part of a formal learning program and that might significantly contribute to the process of learning. We explore both formal and informal factors that constitute learning in virtual learning communities. Intentional learning The notion of intentional learning in traditional learning environments emphasizes the importance of intent, purpose, and intensity in the learning process. Intentional learning is normally deliberately planned both from the instructional design perspective as well as from the learner’s point of view. In intentional learning environments instructors typically specify ahead of time the required social protocols for interaction with peers, course content and the instructor, course expectations, required readings and learning activities. The learner in turn is expected to work out a plan or intentions on their own toward the achievement of the stated goals in the course or program. Intentional learning is not a new construct. In recent years, research into intentional learning environments has grown. Most of this research has focused on basic learners’ needs, individualized attention in technology enhanced learning environments, and support for self-motivated, independent learners and reducing this psychologically perceived distance to help learners develop social presence in support of collaborative relationships and the development of community in online learning environments and self-directed online learning (Dixon, Crooks & Henry, 2006; Martinez & Bunderson, 2000). Our work extends this research with the goal of arriving at a model of learning in virtual learning communities. In all kinds of learning environments, intentional learning is conceived as transformative, and it pre-supposes an environment in which learners express or see intent, ability, and effort as

critical determinants of achievement. In addition, it is where explicit or implicit power structures between learners, instructors and the institution exist. Intentional learning presupposes that the process of learning in virtual learning communities is mostly determined by the instructor, the institution and the nature of the content of the course. It also means learners are deemed as recipients of the content of the course based on explicit sets of requirements. Further, depending on a particular instructional strategy, an intentional learning process can also suggest that learners are active participants in the learning and the instructor’s main role is to facilitate the learning, organize tasks and content to encourage engagement, and help the students monitor their own progress in the course. However, the process of learning leading to some learning outcomes is actually determined by what happens in the classroom and only incidentally outside it. Incidental learning Marsick and Watkins (1986) defined incidental learning as a spontaneous action or transaction, the intention of which is task accomplishment, but which serendipitously increases particular knowledge, skill, or understanding. Incidental learning, then, includes such things as learning from mistakes, learning by doing, learning through networking, learning from a series of interpersonal experiments (p.187). They believed that incidental learning occurs as a natural offshoot of engaging in professional work when individuals learn to reflect on their experience, design personal learning experiments and engage in self-directed learning activities. Incidental learning includes learner initiated and defined, unintentional and unplanned learning activities (Daniel, Schwier & Ross, 2005). Incidental learning can occur through personally defined, group-negotiated or serendipitous activities. For instance, it can occur in the process of completing tasks, through observation, repetition, social interaction, and problem solving and it can also happens when learners’ watch what others do and talk to peers or experts (Kerka, 2000). While learning environments can be intentionally organized, the process of learning itself is not limited to learning activities prescribed by instructors or institutions. Students might be interested in following what is formally prescribed but it is possible that many of the informal and non assessed learning outcomes significantly contribute to students learning especially within virtual learning communities. For example accidentally learning how technology works might evoke a tremendous amount of enthusiasm leading to more learning. Further, as a result of repeated observations students might decide to reflect upon their own learning. We are interested in understanding the contributions of both intentional and incidental learning in virtual learning communities. Research Protocol and Context This study was conducted within a formal virtual learning environment that included activities designed to encourage the development of a learning community. The study was administered to individuals who were members of a graduate program in Educational and Communication Technology at a Western Canadian University and were enrolled into a six credit course on theory and philosophical foundations of educational technology. An online survey instrument of 17assessment items clustered into two main categories (intentional and incidental learning variables) was administered to 56 students. The first category of the instrument (incidental variables) has 7 items and the second category (intentional variables) has 10 items. The survey items were based on results of content analysis of discourse and online communication patterns among graduate students as they participated in a seminar on the foundations of educational technology. Because of the preliminary nature of this investigation, the survey instrument was comprised of statements requiring participants to agree or simply disagree. The instrument is not yet formally validated, although two researchers reviewed the items independently to reach agreement on intent and wording. The recruitment protocol involved sending an email message to participants with the survey link inviting individuals to participate in the study. There was an 83% return rate to the survey. The survey aimed to elicit participants’ perceptions on a number of intentional and incidental factors—whether they contributed to learning in their virtual learning community. Results Results of the observations are grouped into two clusters of intentional and incidental variables. As indicated in beginning of the paper, the intentional learning cluster was related to those discussions that were specified by the instructor, requirements to achieve learning goals and were based on the content of the course (readings, exams, assignments). The variables in this category included argumentation, inquiry, uncertainty,

information sharing, evaluation, reflection, elaboration, clarification, feedback, and summation. The incidental learning cluster of variables on the other hand emerged from the interactions that were not based on the content of the course, in other words, those discussions that were voluntarily generated among individuals in the group around topics that were peripheral to the assigned discussions. Variables in this cluster included sharing experiences, reflections, shared understanding, observations, disagreement, peer support, and sociability. Figure 1 provides our initial model of the learning process as well as summary of the results of the survey.
Category Variable Value
127 92 409 451 59 294 95 395 334 95

Example

127 1375 35 177 409 352 334

Figure 1. Frequency of the Fundamental Variables of Learning in Virtual Learning Communities The gross values represent frequency counts of responses suggesting the presence of the variables in enhancing participants’ learning process in virtual learning communities. At this point it is difficult to differentiate between the two categories and among the variables in each category, but we will offer some tentative observations. It appears that intentional learning processes received higher scores than incidental processes on average, and there was greater variation in the distribution of incidental variable scores. One finding in this study was that students made a clear distinction between incidental and intentional or formal learning. Secondly, incidental and intentional learning were considered by participants to play important roles in their overall experiences in the virtual learning community. Though students’ experiences were based on a handful of different virtual learning communities, it is not known whether the instructional design of a particular learning environment might have something to do with these results. In other words, some program design might be intentionally engineered to foster a great deal of incidental learning, while another might emphasize intentional learning to the exclusion of everything else.

Summary and Future Research Directions Formal and informal features of learning are indistinguishable in most learning situations. The degree to which each feature is emphasized depends on a number of factors including the nature of the learning environment, the instructor and the domain. In other words the boundaries between informal and formal features of learning in virtual learning communities, and subsequently the variation in how instructional requirements are specified and monitored are not well researched. Ultimately these results provide us with only gross level insights and clearly point to the need to investigate more deeply to understand the influence of each category on learning outcomes and to conduct factor analysis with goal of discriminating those variables that have more influence in the learning experiences of students. The results also provided us with a categorical analysis of the process of learning in virtual learning community to test by conducting a factor analysis and by using paired comparison techniques to determine whether the processes are distinct, and how processes compare with each other. We wish to know more about which processes are distinctively associated with intentional or incidental learning, and which might serve both purposes. The study of virtual communities is based on three fundamental tenets of social learning theory (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996; Wenger, 1998) that are articulated around a central concept, participation in a community life, which provides the basis for learning and identity construction processes (Henri & Pudelko, 2003). Social learning theory posits that people learn from interaction, engagement, negotiation and reciprocal relationships and by observing other people. Most of learning activities and goals in formal virtual learning communities can be both intentional and incidental. With the increasing interest in virtual learning communities and the introduction of technology-mediated learning and blended learning environments in higher education, it’s important to understand the type of learners we are trying to support and the methods of learning that can be harnessed in these environments. The intentional and incidental learning processes identified in this paper helps educators to think about different indicators they can use to help them support effective learning under distributed circumstances. We suggest that knowledge drawn from this understanding can help learners in two ways. One way will be guiding learners to meet the formal course requirements. The other is to provide learners with the necessary support to informally engage each other beyond course content. Furthermore, depending on the intentions of the instructor, if the goal is to nurture and promote community and collaborative learning, then it becomes important to examine incidental variables since they seem relevant in sustaining learners’ engagement in online settings. If a high degree of sustained interaction is desired, then incidental learning variables provide useful clues for designing instruction. By contrast, if the learning environment is highly prescribed and focused, then the instructor can choose to emphasize intentional variables to streamline time spent on discourse. But in general, we suspect that incidental learning is desirable and that most instructors are more likely to encourage as much incidental engagement as possible in virtual learning environments because: • Incidental learning is a form of informal learning that arises from the activities and interests of individuals and groups. • In virtual learning communities incidental learning includes novel learning that extends course/program requirements. • In virtual learning communities, learners connect with other communities or consult with individuals outside the immediate class community, thereby extending the influence of the course or program beyond institutional boundaries. When designed properly designed, intentional learning will achieve high learning outcomes that can be assessed and evaluated. However, intentional learning may impede learning outcomes that are not planned. Why do participants consider incidental learning to be less important than intentional learning? We suspect that it is because incidental learning has to do with all of the other learning activities that are not formally assessed. The intentional learning variables are important because the instructor will normally specify the requirements and because they are somehow tied more directly to success in the course. Further, intentional learning variables are mired in the formality of learning in institutions, and so it may also have a lot to do with authority. The instructor has the authority to specify what is important in a formal learning environment, and learners are compelled to agree to requirements in order to succeed. In other words, even if acknowledged as some of the variables suggest, learners may consider incidental learning as unimportant because it does not contribute directly to the activities or assessments leading to their assessed success in the formal course. However, it is still important to fully understand how to support incidental learning variables, especially if we are considering nurturing communities online. Our future research will involve standardizing the survey instrument, measuring reliability and conducting more control studies to understand the interactions of intentional and incidental variables and to assess these variables

against other factors that can contribute to an effective learning environment. For example, future work will look at students’ performance as a result of instituting incidental or intentional learning variables, students’ sense of community, and the role of incidental learning in promoting a sense of community. References Daniel, B.K., Schwier, R.A., and Ross, H. (2005). Intentional and incidental discourse variables in a virtual learning community. The proceedings of E-Learn 2005--World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education to be held in Vancouver, Canada, October 24-28, 2005. Dixon, J.S. Crooks, H. & Henry, K. (2006). Breaking the ice: Supporting collaboration and the development of community online. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology. Retrieved May 15, 2008 from http://www.cjlt.ca/content/vol32.2/dixon.html. Duffy, T. M., & Cunningham, D. J. (1996). Constructivism: Implications for the design and delivery of instruction. In Jonassen, D.H. (Ed.), Educational communications and technology (pp. 170-199). New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan. Garrison, D. R., & Anderson, T. (2003). E–Learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice. London: Routledge/Falmer. Henri, F., & Pudelko, B. (2003). Understanding and analyzing activity and learning in virtual communities. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 19 (4), 474–487. Kerka, S. (2000). Lifelong learning: Myths and realities. Retrieved May 15, 2008, from http://ericacve.org/. Marsick, V.J., &Watkins, K.E. (2001). Informal and incidental learning. Journal of New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. Retrieved May 15, 2008 from http://www.fsu.edu/~elps/ae/download/ade5385/Marsick.pdf. Martinez, M., & Bunderson, C. V. (2000). Building interactive web learning environments to match and support individual learning differences. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 11(2). Retrieved May 15, 2008 from http://www.aace.org/dl/files/JILR/jilr-11-02-163.pdf. Murphy, E., & Loveless, J. (2005). Students' self analysis of contributions to online asynchronous discussions. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 21(2), 155-172. Murphy, E., & Manzanares, M.A.R (2006).Profiling individual discussants’ behaviours in online asynchronous discussions. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology. Retrieved May 15, 2008 from http://www.cjlt.ca/content/vol32.2/murphy.html. Schwier, R.A., Daniel, B.K., & Ross, H. (2005). The nature of manifest learning in two virtual learning communities. Paper presented to the annual convention of the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, Orlando, Florida, October 20, 2005. Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. New York: Cambridge University Press. This research is supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

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