Teaching at a Distance : Building a Virtual Learning Environment – Greening ICT

Swameeka Medhi Institute of Distnace and Open Learning, Gauhati University Guwahati-14 [smedhi.pa@rediffmail.com, sweet.swameeka@gmail.com]

Abstract
Distance Education has resulted in major changes to the organization of educational provision. Furthermore, as technology changes, so does the need to reorganize institutions to lever the benefits of new technologies. The rapid development of information technology has made available a plethora of new tools for further and higher education. Increased digital capacity and the rise of the internet continues to bring about new categories of computing devices, new types of softwares and new network architectures. Education in the 21st century is best positioned to utilize the opportunities offered by ICT to lift a higher percentage of the global population out of illiteracy and poverty. The internet allows rapid transmission of digital multimedia information to any user in any time. Specifically, through internet the international boundaries have shrunk and the movement and transfer of ideas across nations by industries, academia and individuals sky- rocked. Developing a virtual environment- a virtual classroom which will deliver tutorials, curriculum, assessment, dynamic mapping, animated teaching, and multimedia will make it more easier for students all over to interact and gain knowledge without the usage of print and paper. This paper aims at developing a model for a Virtual Environment for Distance Teaching and Learning (VEDTL) that offers a comprehensive metaphor to be used both for human-computer interface and instructional design purposes. This paper will also focus mobilizing remote student engagement. The proposed model will also introduce a new concept named Green ICT. Thus the VEDTL aims to enhance and extend the facilities of the conventional universities and making their activities more flexible technologically enriched. Keywords : Vitrual Reality, Virtual Classrooms, Green ICT

Introduction
Distance Education has resulted in major changes to the organization of educational provision. Furthermore, as technology changes, so does the need to reorganize institutions to lever the benefits of new technologies. The rapid development of information technology has made available a plethora of new tools for further and higher education. Increased digital capacity and the rise of the internet continues to bring about new categories of computing devices, new types of softwares and new network architectures. Education in the 21st century is best positioned to utilize the opportunities offered by ICT to lift a higher percentage of the global population out of illiteracy and poverty. The internet allows rapid transmission of 1

digital multimedia information to any user in any time. Specifically, through internet the international boundaries have shrunk and the movement and transfer of ideas across nations by industries, academia and individuals sky- rocked. Developing a virtual environment- a virtual classroom which will deliver tutorials, curriculum, assessment, dynamic mapping, animated teaching, and multimedia will make it more easier for students all over to interact and gain knowledge without the usage of print and paper. This paper aims at developing a model for a Virtual Environment for Distance Teaching and Learning (VEDTL) that offers a comprehensive metaphor to be used both for human-computer interface and instructional design purposes. This paper will also focus mobilizing remote student engagement. The proposed model will also introduce a new concept named Green ICT. Thus the VEDTL aims to enhance and extend the facilities of the conventional universities and making their activities more flexible technologically enriched. This paper has been developed in the frames of “A Virtual Environment for Distance Education and Training” model. Some basic pedagogical methods in a Virtual classroom such as behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism and collaborative learning are studied, focusing mainly on the efficient preparation, approach and presentation of the contents, specific designing rules (hypermedia, virtual and educational nature) are also discussed. Virtual Classroom has its own merits and demerits which are highlighted in this paper. Finally the VEDTL metaphor and Green ICT is discussed.

2. What is a Virtual Classroom (VC)/Virtual Environment (VE)?
This is a ‘classroom’ on the internet or a web-based learning environment where instructors and students interact via computers. It is a new paradigm for distance and open learning where teaching and learning is constrained by neither time nor distance. The key component in the virtual learning process is interactivity. The use of virtual reality enables the visualization of the educational content. We should consider the following main forms:
• • •

on-line access to resources, programmes and services of a real university or college; integrated distance education on-line services realized in partnership of university, colleges, and business organizations; entirely virtual establishments with academic departments, curriculum, administration.

It is a virtual traditional classroom on the web and educates students separated by physical distance and instructors. The entire virtual classroom consists of several virtual worlds, wherein a user-student or teacher can navigate in order to gain new knowledge. Merits
• • •

Virtual Classrooms (VC) are not limited by distance, allowing students across national and continental boundaries to access knowledge VCs offers the platforms to harness the brightest minds to teach a larger spectrum of students globally At the long run, the benefits of VCs supersede the cost of implementation

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The courseware and labware could be reused over time towards saving cost in the long term. VCs have the ability to store materials and disseminate them. • To the developing nations, it provides a framework through which they can tap the pool of experts in diaspora which increasingly prefer to live in the developed nations. Demerits
• • • •

• •

The main drawback, though video conferencing is eliminating it, is the impersonal delivery method which could be challenging to some students. Another is the investment required from poor nations to fund high speed communication system for the virtual classrooms. Electricity: many developing economies still suffer sporadic electricity supply thereby making it extremely challenging to deploy the right technology to support VCs Telephone facilities: though many developing economies are deploying better telecommunication infrastructure, the telephony is still unreliable. This has a potential to derail VCs Broadband telecommunications: the advent of broadband telecommunication has to be pervasive in the universities across these nations to enable seamless integration of VCs. Computer systems: though efforts have been made in many schools to acquire computing systems, the ratio of computers to students remains very poor. VC Accessories: VC accessories or tools like video systems, cameras, speakers etc are expensive and not many schools and universities in poor nations can afford them with the low operational budgets. Lack of adequate manpower: the human capital is a fundamental challenge in the design and deployment of VC. While trained experts are readily available in the cities, they remain in low numbers in some remote areas where some of the schools are situated.

Examples : For instance the Globewide Network Academy (GNA, 1993), a virtual educational consortium, is a typical case of a revolutionary model for distance education. The GNA aims at establishing a fully accredited online university with target audience all individuals in the world who have access to Internet. They designed the virtual environment so as to have multiple levels of access, e.g. students who only have e-mail access, can receive a text based instructional material and take part in asynchronous discussions. Those learners who have WWW could receive all advantages of networked multimedia systems. The GNA got the award of the best campus wide information system although its campus is entirely virtual.

Similar model of educational re-conceptualisation is the Virtual Educational Environment (VEE) created by Athena-Virtual Online University (VOU) and the GENII Project whose

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mission was to establish a Virtual Faculty of networked educators for K-12 teachers (Ducket, et al, 1995). Although the interpersonal interaction is textual, based on a Multi-user, Object-Oriented (MOO) environment, the VEE demonstrates the potential of Internet to foster collaboration and conceptual change between people who have never met face-to-face. It also shows a conceptual and virtual integration of higher and school education.

The following figure shows a Virtual Classroom network

Fig 1: VC Network

3. The Pedagogical Approaches while building the Virtual Environment
Web-based virtual learning environments play a multilateral educational role providing not only a platform for the presentation of educational material, but also a communication means

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among the members of a learning community. These capabilities allow the creation of a virtual classroom, i.e. a virtual learning environment in which educators and learners are able to perform classroom-like tasks. The virtual environment should be attractive, efficient and pleasant to students. To ensure the educational effectiveness of the learning environment, appropriate pedagogical methods should be considered, especially in the designing phase of the system. The mostly applied pedagogical methods used for this purpose are outlined below. A. Behaviourism Behaviourism theory considers the human mind as a black box and considers that a response to a stimulus can be quantitatively observed, ignoring totally the effect of thought processes occurring in mind. In essence, the behaviourism school focuses on measurable and observable facts excluding ideas, emotions and processes performed in mind. Atkins has studied the effect of behaviourism theory on web-based distance education defining basic rules regarding the structure of educational content. Specifically, course designer should divide learning content into small conceptual units and instructional steps, define sequences of instructions using either conditional or unconditional branches and enhance learning providing repetition loops in critical points so as to route students back in certain sections depending on their performance on diagnostic tests. In general, a designing approach with respect to behaviourism theory considers a student as a passive recipient and thus a wellstructured learning material is required to facilitate the acquisition of a new behaviour through rehearsal and correction. B. Cognitivism In contrast with behaviourism, cognitivism theory focuses on human mind processes, such as thought, memory etc. The primary objective of cognitivism is to discover, identify and model the mental process performed in student’s mind during the learning process. Hence, in a cognitive approach, student’s mind is not considered as a passive black box, but as a complex device, which receives information from the environment, processes this information and stores the outcome to a short-term or a long-term memory. A permanent storage requires careful organization of data and correlation of new information with existing knowledge so that information to be shifted from short-term to long-term memory. The designer of an online learning environment should focus on the stimulation of students’ senses. This can be achieved by following a designing approach, which engage students’ attention on important information and encourage searching of knowledge. Designers should also organize information in such a way that students are able to connect new information with existing conceptual models in some meaningful way. Hence, information should be connected with experiences from real life so that students can easily understand and assimilate the provided knowledge. In any case, however, flood of information should be avoided, since it inevitably leads to a conceptual saturation, which implies that information is not stored into the longterm memory. The effectiveness of cognitivism theory in online learning process is widely recognized. A cognitive design of a web-based virtual learning environment should be based on the

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previous knowledge of learner, while the acquisition of new knowledge requires an active mental process from the part of the learner. C. Constructivism Constructivism theory moves one step further than cognitivism considering that knowledge is constructed by learners themselves based on their personal experiences. Thus, learners acquire an active role within the learning process, since they not only absorb information, but also connect it with previously assimilated knowledge, constructing so their own interpretation. Therefore, in constructivism learners are not just passive recipients of external stimulus, but they are also able to search, choose, adapt and finally interpret information according to their conceptual background. To this end, the designing of an online learning environment according to constructivist school focuses on the active participation of students in learning process. Prerequisite for the fulfillment of this objective is the interaction of learners with the educational material in order to discover or create new knowledge. Webbased simulations constitute a typical case of such interactive learning applications, in which each action of learner within virtual environment is interpreted in new knowledge. On the other hand, the communication among members of a learning process is of great importance in constructivism, since it allows the exchange of experiences and ideas resulting in a better interpretation of the available information. One of the main benefits of constructivism theory is that it considers learners as the centre of learning process. Consequently, the constructivist approach implies that learners will learn more with a teacher than from a teacher and that they will learn more with a virtual learning environment than from a virtual learning environment. D. Collaborative Learning Collaboration between learners and teachers is a common request of various pedagogical methods (e.g. constructivism). In online education, the concept of collaborative learning is considered essential for the performance of classroom-like tasks and a prerequisite for the creation of a virtual classroom. The term collaborative learning refers to an instruction method, in which students at various performance levels work together in small groups towards a common educational goal. In contrast with previous pedagogical approaches, in which learners are considered to be isolated, collaborative learning introduces the concept of ‘group’. In groups, learners are able to cooperate, exchange ideas and share experiences in order to acquire knowledge on specific thematic areas. Current Web technologies are considered suitable for the development of collaborative learning environments due to their interactive functionalities. Collaboration can be achieved in two ways, either synchronously or asynchronously. Synchronous communication involves the participation of both students and teacher at the same time e.g. teleconference, while in asynchronous communication, which is more common, there is complete time flexibility. That is, teachers and students do not need to participate in learning process at the same time (e-mail is the most common type of asynchronous communication). The key benefit of collaborative learning is that increases interest among learners and promotes critical thinking. Its role in distance education on the Web is essential allowing students to work together in groups searching for solutions in

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common problems. Its application in web-based virtual environments opens up new possibilities in distance education, creating conditions, which

3.1 Designing Requirements
A web- based virtual learning environment is not just a typical website containing 3D graphics and containing educational content. It is a combination of virtual reality and web technologies. The main purpose however is to fulfill the educational needs. Based on the triple nature of Virtual Learning Environment the designing rules are classified as follows:

A. Hypermedia Requirements Web constitutes both a presentation platform for a learning content and a communication means among the members of a virtual classroom. Therefore, the hypermedia nature of a learning environment should be considered, first and foremost, by the designer of the application. • Webpage loading speed: The loading speed is considered as one of the most critical usability factors of a web application and it heavily depends on the network and the total size of a webpage. • Local search engines: Search engines are considered necessary in websites containing a large number of web pages. • Navigation support: A web application should be designed in such a way, so that users have a complete view of the overall structure of the application i.e. users should always know their accurate location in the site as well as their possible transition options. Site maps should be provided for the students to navigate. • Simple User Interface: The user interface should be simple emphasizing on the educational material rather than containing features aiming to impress users. • Small size of pages: All significant information and possible options are preferable to be visible in just one screen. • Simple address and title: The website address and title should be simple, brief, comprehensive and fully represents the educational content. • Uniform designing: A uniform design should be followed in all pages of a hypermedia application. • Content update: The maintenance of a hypermedia application is of great importance for the fulfillment of its educational objectives. Thus, the educational content should be

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periodically updated by the administrator of the application according to the requirements of the educational process. • Appropriate terminology: The instructional designer should use appropriate terminology, which is familiar and fully understandable by the learners.

B. Virtual Reality Requirements Virtual reality technology has been recently introduced in the field of education and thus there are no explicit rules for the designing of a learning environment containing 3D computer graphics. Nevertheless, some basic rules should be followed for effectiveness. • Navigation: Navigation is one of the most important usability factors of a virtual environment. The designing of the navigation system should be user-friendly so that non-familiar users to be able to manipulate it easily. • Interaction: A virtual learning environment should support a natural way of interaction, which mimics as close as possible the real world, contributing so to the easy and fast familiarization and adaptation of users to the virtual environment. Finally, the interactive points should be clear and supported by suitable signs inciting users to interact with the virtual environment. • Presence: The third factor, concerning the concept of presence in a virtual world, deals in essence with the realism level. The realism can be enhanced by the use of textures, sounds, lights and complex models providing users with a feeling of presence in a virtual world

C. Educational Requirements It is to be noted that educational software is not an electronic book aiming to substitute the teaching in a real classroom, but a complementary educational tool whose goal is to help and enrich the real learning process. A series of specifications should be considered by the designer of the application based on educational requirement: • The educational application should be usable both as a complementary tool in a school/university classroom and as a stand-alone distance learning application. • It should also encourage the active participation of students in the learning process. • Emphasis should be given to the exploratory nature of the proposed educational activities. • The learning environment should engage student’s attention and promote a deep study of the learning content. • The educational material should be as diachronic as possible.

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• The application should focus on issues relating to learning disabilities.

• Apart from the acquisition of knowledge, the learning environment should allow the development of specific skills. • Processing, modeling and simulation are major features of an educational system. • The application should combine instructive goals from different disciplines. • Taking advantage of the recent advances in computer technologies, the system should promote the communication among learners. • The designer should ensure the extendibility and reusability of the application. This will facilitate the update of the application and reduce the cost of a future extension Thus we see that building a virtual environment is a challenging task which requires the use of various technologies (web, virtual reality, multimedia etc.) solely focusing on educational needs fulfillment.

4. The VEDTL Model
The prototype VEDTL model includes
• • • • • • • • • •

A Virtual University (VU) A Virtual Help Desk Virtual Classrooms Virtual Labs (for IT programmes) Virtual Language Learning Center Virtual Café (for students to interact) Virtual Library Virtual Student Assessment cum Attendance Center Virtual Curriculum Delivery Center Virtual Post Office

The kernel of the VEDTL is the Virtual University which will consists of all the above mentioned centers. 4.1 The Virtual University The VU will consist all of the above mentioned sections as well as the

The administrative section for admission and registration purposes. Students can discuss with the VU staff here in this section.

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• • •

Virtual Seminar hall where lecturers can deliver lectures or seminar to a certain virtual community. Virtual Reading Room contains all resource materials, and has open gateway to the Virtual Library, Virtual Classroom. Virtual Workshop rooms where collaborative work/learning takes place.

4.2 The Virtual Help Desk This is the first page a student will enter before entering the VU. The Help Desk page will contain all information on the VU like in a traditional university. 4.3 The Virtual Classroom Students have direct access to the educational material ( images and text) through their interaction with a virtual board. The Virtual classroom as a whole plays a significant part on imparting proper education. 4.4. The Virtual Lab The Lab will be used for developing or exchanging softwares/open source code , coding programmes and all IT related matter. 4.5 The Virtual Language Learning Center As we can all sense that students from various nations across the globe can attend the same VU and enter a same virtual community, a virtual language learning center will be present where students can learn new languages or translate their languages into some other languages. 4.6. The Virtual Café This is in realism with a real world café where students can interact, select communities, discussion forums etc.

4.7 The Virtual Library The Virtual Library provides connections with external data sources contrary to the Virtual Reading Room which consists of local resources only. Students are able to navigate within the virtual world of the library searching for knowledge and interact with virtual objects which connect to external e-books and e-libraries on the web.

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4.8 The Virtual Student Assessment cum Attendance Center The role of a professor in a real learning process as well as the teaching of courses through lectures at the university can not be substituted by notes. Advices or experiences transferred from professors to students are considered a critical part of a learning process. Virtual reality and multimedia technologies can reproduce a real lecture transferring students to a virtual classroom, where videos are projected on virtual screens. This technology can also be used for the reproduction of documentaries, conference talks, lectures from other universities and so on .The assessment cum attendance center will deliver the student assessment, conduct periodic test and also the attendance. 4.9 Virtual Curriculum Delivery Center Apart from the reading room and library, the students of a particular course will be delivered the course curriculum through this virtual center. 4.10 The Virtual Post Office (VPO) The Virtual Post Office contains the physical contact addresses and numbers of the students as well as the virtual IDs and virtual address (www or e-mail) that are generated to each and every student. The VPO delivers texts, documents etc when necessary to the students. The proposed model is a collection of HTML pages which constitute the base of the application. Some popular e-learning platforms are · WiZiQ (www.wiziq.com): This is a free platform which provides complete freedom of learning. It is equipped with live audio-video communication, chat, content sharing, and session recording capabilities. No download is required since it works with any web browser and operating system. When combined with Moodle, it is ready for real-time online collaboration and interaction. · Second Life (secondlife.com): This platform offers 3D visualization and has become a virtual classroom for major colleges and universities around the world, including Princeton, Rice University, University of Derby (UK), Vassar, the Open University (UK). · WebEx (webex.com) is increasingly used as an online learning platform and classroom for a diverse set of education providers. It is a Cisco Web Meetings and Collaboration Solution which has become popular because of its real time collaboration using an interactive whiteboard, chat, and VOIP technology that allows audio and video sharing. Combined with the legendry security of Cisco technology, this offers a good platform, though it is not free as WiZiQ or Moodle.

5. Green ICT
With the advent of the internet, and communication technologies, we are driven to the idea of the maximum use of ICT, building virtual environments for the ODL systems etc. However

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we should keep in mind that ICT is also responsible for carbon emissions. ICT can facilitate more collaborative and less carbon intensive ways of working, but if mobile, remote, home and flexible working is to be implemented effectively, cultural change is as important as the technology. A key way to reduce carbon emissions is to minimize work-related journeys. For example, UK based Salford and Bradford have both introduced full time home based working for Benefits service staff. With the right electronic document and records management (EDRM) and workflow monitoring systems and administrative processes in place, both Councils have reported significant increases in staff productivity, retention and well being, as well as rapid payback on investment. Reducing the energy use of ICT equipment can be part of a wider organizational strategy to reduce the carbon footprint of the estate. Significant energy and financial savings can be made by choosing the right ICT equipment and configuring and using it in energy efficient ways. UK CEED has created priceXtra <www.pricextra.co.uk/> which allows purchasers to compare the environmental impact of certain products including computers. Its calculations show that, for example, a low energy LCD monitor can be up to 75% more energy efficient than a CRT monitor. An organization with 3000 desktops working 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for 42 weeks of the year can save up to £46,000 p.a. Many public sector organizations already have a corporate green procurement policy. Belfast City Council, for example, has adopted an Environmental Purchasing Policy which actively encourages suppliers to supply environmentally friendly products and processes and which uses environmental criteria in the selection of suppliers and award of contracts.The government plans to introduce a quality mark in late 2007 to help ICT buyers choose suppliers with genuine carbon offsetting schemes Just as important is to challenge any assumptions about regularly replacing equipment. The manufacture of a PC may generate up to four times the carbon footprint of its lifetime use. While it’s possible to reduce the latter by using power saving options (both electronic and human), the former is not directly controllable. The safest policy is probably not to buy new PCs until you really have to, and to consider replacing most of them with thin clients. It is important for us to Focus on the development of a longer term green ICT strategy.

6. Conclusions
In this paper, I provided a prototype of a model which can be used in Indian ODL systems in future. The mostly applied pedagogical methods such as behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism and collaborative learning were studied and some specific designing requirements were analysed. Finally I focused on Green ICT and ways to save energy and carbon emission.

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References : International Journal of Social Sciences 2;1 (www.waset.org Winter 2007) Kosmas Dimitropoulos, Athanasios Manitsaris and Ioannis mavridis: Bulding Virtual Reality Environments for Distance Education on the Web M. Grigoriadou and K.A. Papanikolaou, “Learning environments on the Web: The pedagogical role of the educational material”, Themes in Education, 2000

F. Modritscher, “eLearning theories in practice: A comparison of three methods”, Journal of Universal Science and Technology of Learning, 2006

Roumen Nikolov & Iliana Nikolova: A Virtual Environment for Distance Education and Training

Ndubuisi Ekekwe: Internet Virtual Classrooms in Developing Nations : Challenges and Oppurtunities towards Mass Literacy Felipa Lopes dos Reis, António Eduardo Martins : E-Learning Methodology: The Debate Forums www.socitm.gov.uk/consulting : Greening ICT-Taking the strategic approach

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