A virtual Classroom study: To establish Collaboration between different Branches and Cultures

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A Virtual Classroom study: To establish Collaboration between different Branches and Cultures
Ulf Hedestig

Umeå University

Department of Informatics

1 Introduction
Over the past few years, many schools and universities have been trying to establish virtual classrooms or virtual environments. The virtual classroom is a teaching and learning environment constructed in software which support collaborative learning (Hiltz, 1995). Most of the experiments and pilot tests have been conducted within a school or between schools with similar interest.
The main focus of the virtual classroom is the use of modern information technology. Today there exist several types of models concerning adaption of technology to different kind of classrooms. (Appendix B). Usually the choise of technology depends on the classroom situation.
Sweden have had a long tradition in distance learning and uses the virtual classroom approach to cover geographically large areas. Many experiments have been done but they have been conducted within well defined topics and areas (Dahllöf et al, 1994, Utbult, 1993).
In many cases the main technology in virtual classrooms in Sweden and Europe has been videoconference systems. The experiments in this field have been focused on a special target group (students) and only concentrated on technological aspects of communication (Meistad 1990, Greenberg 1996, Dallat et al 1992, Abbot et al 1993)
This paper concern with cultural aspects when different kinds of participants meets and collaborate in a virtual environment. The case in this paper involves four countries ; Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Norway and in each country have two categories of participants; businessmen and teachers. They have all different backgrounds and speaks different languages. This group have to join a course on a special topic "How can schools and business establish closer collaboration". The course will be conducted by use of videoconference and by teachers from the four countries.
The different approach in this experiment is to create collaboration between different branches and cultures. Instead of focusing on individual learning this course will try to establish learning according to the field of Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL). In CSCL they see learning as an collaborative acitivity (Bannon, 1995) and they consider both the social context and the social processes as an integral part of the learning activity. (Lave & Wenger, 1991) In the research area they use both Piaget and Vygotsky and provide interesting insight into the role of social interaction and cognitive growth. There has been some projects within CSCL (for instance Christiansen and Dirckinck-Holmfeld 1995,) but they have emphasized only on collaboration within a target group not in between different cultures.
Before we enter the case I want to introduce the research area of CSCL
2 CSCL - Computer Supported Collaborative Learning
CSCL, or Computer Supported Collaborative Learning is a rather new research area arised from both the area of CSCW and eduacational areas using computers such as
• CBT - computer based training

• CAI - computer aided (assisted) instruction

• CAL - computer aided learning

• CML - computer mediated learning

• CMC- computer mediated communication
The first time I read about CSCL was from a paper from Davies (1989) who talked about learning should be more active and cooperative. In his paper he writes both partly to acknowledge its genesis to CSCW but also to establish its claim to distinct needs such as "support the components of communication and coordination in group learning".
In 1995, the first conference in CSCL was held in Indiana University. Most of the papers presented to the conference came from the Eduational field (about 50%), 25% came from Computer Science/Informatics and the rest from fields such as Cognitive Science and Humanities. (CSCL,1995)
Much of the theoretical foundations in their papers focus on collaborative learning. This means that researchers focus on theories like
• Vygotsky´s sociocultural theory

• Sociocultural perspective (Pea)

• Situated learning/practice (Lave & Wagner)

• Piaget

• Constructivism

• Psychological constructivism (Kaput)

• Argyrus and Schön

• Hermeneutic analysis (Gadamer)

In the CSCL´95 conference they use the same software as in CSCW, but the focus are groupware supporting only collaboration and communication, not on coordination. Examples of software used are computer conference tools, collaborative writing tools, brainstorming tools, and teleconferencing tools.
The problems or research areas CSCL´95 focus on is connected to following
• individual versus collaborative learning

• workplace learning versus learning in school

• standardization of hardware/software

• teaching versus learning

• asynchronous versus synchronous

• microworlds, or computer simulations of restricted environments

• gender perspectives

• cultural differences

• mismatch of goals and expectations of group members

2.1 Collaborative learning
The key feature of CSCL is the deliberate support for group learning processes. CSCL software mediates between group members and provides tools that either force or can be used to facilitate desired group learning processes such as creative brain storming, critical discussions or drawing together ideas into an agreed report.
Collaborative learning is defined as a learning process that emphasizes group or cooperative efforts among students. It stresses active participation and interaction on the part of both students and instructors/teachers. Knowledge is viewed as social construct, and therefore the educational process is facilitated by social interaction in an environment that facilitates peer interaction, evalu-ation and cooperation (Bruffee,1986; Johnson, 1981; Johnson & Johnson 1975)
As mentioned above learning is a process which occurs in social interaction. (Tharp, 1989; Putnam, Lampert, Peterson 1990; Resnick 1991). Knowlege is not an independent phenomena, but situated in the activity, context and culture in which it is develped. This means that we have to recognize the importance of the learners earlier experience and that learning should start in realistic situations (Kansselaar, 1996).
This means that theories like Vygotsky´s become interesting. Especially his idea about the zone of proximal development (ZDP) could be applied in a virtual learning environment. The ZDP is the zone or range between what we are able to do independetly and what we can do with support form knowledgable people around us. (Vygotsky, 1978). IT-applications based on these ideas have been introduced in som cases in America (Ryder, Meyer 1995; Sherry & Meyers, 1996). In the most cases there are Internet and WWW which have been used in the design of sopportive learning environments.
Other features on the Internet such as Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) have been discussed as a tool for helping the process of collaborative problem solving (Ryder, 1994). Theories connected to ideas of FAQ have been Gordon Pask which have had similar view on learning as Vygotsky. Pask argues that learning is a social phenomenon in which new knowledge is constructed out of the interaction of people engaged in dialog (Pask, 1975)
In the field CSCL you may find both Cooperative learning and Collabo-rative learning. These words have sometimes different interpretation. Cooperation depends on a supportive community of actors who agree to help one another in acitivities aimed at attaining the goals of each person involved. Collaboration, on the other hand, depends on the establishment of a common meaning and language in the task which leads to the community setting a common goal.
One important issue is that collaborative learning does not work for all learners. Pea (1994) reflects that "not all learning feels or probably is collaborative; it is sometimes competetive or coercive in nature" (p 286). Others have also found same problems; " social interaction do not always create new learning peer; peer interactions vary enormously; only some teaching environ-ments actually create ideal learning experience" ( Brown & Palinscar, 1989 p 397)
2.2 Computer support
Computer supported tools can be of different forms. Resnick (1992) have formulated collaborative learning tools as
• Collaboration at a computer. Students working together at single computer.

• Collaboration over a network. Students working together on a simulated world

• Collaboration in cyberspace. Students playing roles within a simulated worlds, i.e MUD´s (MultiUser Dungeons)
Most of the software used in CSCL are so called groupwares. You find the same applications in CSCW but there is one important difference regarding the users. In CSCW groupware support the user by doing tasks but this is not enough for a learner. For a learner the primary goal is learning and the software also must support learning - by- doing. Other aspects with the software both from the view of CSCW and CSCL concern the different learning style that all learners have. Developmental, cultural and gender differences play an important role and have to be concidered in the choise of groupware or software design. (Soloway, Jackson et al 1995).
As a conclusion of above the collaborative software should provide updated visible information not only about the common work/project or task, but also about the participants identity, their ongoing task and the social group dynamics at work and learning through cooperation and collaboration (Linard, 1994).
Many Computer Scientists have taken for granted the interface design of learning applications (Newman, 1996). Designers of educational groupware have also been too much concentrated on evaluating how well computers from a technological point of view communicate with each other. Key issues in these settings have been compatibility, reability and performance. Therefore have requirement analysis and evaluation gained larger interest in groupware design (Thomas, 1996). This problem have also been recognized by Grudin (1994).
To conclude this chapter I want to stress the work of designing a supportive learning environment. In a learning environment there has to be considerable interaction between members of groups. Learners must encourage and facilitate each others efforts and this might involve them helping each other, providing feedback, challenging each other and so on. Each member has to feel that they will be supported by others. This aspect follow some problems; the first one concern the safety. How can we create an environment which is a "safe place", stimulating, challenging and exciting learning opportunities? The other question is about group size. If a group of collaborative learners is too large the possiblility for frequent interaction between all members will be low. But on the other hand, too small groups will perhaps frighten learners to interact. 1
3 The Case: Ed3v@c, a Leonardo- project between four countries
The course is a part of a larger project called Ed3v@c which is a Leondardo da Vinci-project2 between Sweden, Norway, Scotland and Portugal. The title Ed3v@c stands for "European Devise, Design and Development within Vocational training by means of @dvance Communication technology".
An overall objective of the project is to stimulate increased cooperation between school an local trade and industry and at the same time devise, develop and test the optimal and potential use of new technology and methods in vocational training by means of open distance learning. The qualitiative and innovative aspects shall be found by linking more closely different elements of vocational training policy. Teachers and tutors, vocational guidance counsellors and SME´s or micro enterprises from handicraft industry are allowed to meet and interact within a strategic framework customised to local practices and needs.
The project has its focus upon the area where school/institution and local enterprises meet and interact. The activities will give particular attention to the methodology and use of open and distance learning. The creation, adaptation and implementation of an open distance learning course designed to develop high qualified human resourses, with particular regard to emerging techno-logies and its impacts in rural areas. The core activities will involve locally based training actors who normally meet in the intersection between school and enterprise. The design of training modules in open distance learning will develop a new role for teachers, tutors, guidance counsellors and in-company trainers within vocational training. The involvment of a multi-player partner-ship in the activities, from planning to development, implementation, evaluation and dessimination will ensure the bottom-up approach and thereby function as an organised training action for local and regional development agents.
The partners in the Leonardo project is
• TecMinho Associaçâo Universidade, Portugal

• Escola Secundaria Martins Sarmento, Portugal

• Escola Secundaria de Joane, Portugal

• Escola Secundaria Camilo Castela Branco, Portugal

• Dumfries and Galloway College, Scotland

• Barony College, Scotland

• Vestlandsforskning, Norway

• Eid Vidaregående skole, Norway

• Plyke Media AB, Sweden

• Tönnerviks Auktoriserade revisorer, Sweden

• Umeå University, Sweden

• SOS-partnership (six municipalities), Sweden (also the contractor and coordinator)

3.1 The course design
The planning of the course was a joint venture between responsible partners from the four countries. We had several face-to-face meetings but also communication by email, fax and telephone. The group met and discussed the course and did field trips in the regions.
In the course design the group started with the technological issue. The course had to follow the guiding outlines from the EU, that is using advanced multimedia. A starting point was to discuss what type of collaborative tools they should use. Today there exist hundreds of softwares covering different kinds of collaboration. One taxonomy they used in their discussion was the one Jessup and Valchich had listed. It covered 6 types of systems and is listed below (Jessup &Valcich, 1993)

1) Sychronous videosystems
Example: • Large screen TV, relationship 1 - Many

• Videoconference, 1 - Many, M - M (7 studios)

ideal 10-12 people/studio

• Picturephones 1 - 1, 1 - M

• Desktop-video, 1 - 1, 1 - M
Remarks: • Catch non-verbal cues but perhaps not for 100%. It depends on the choise of technology. Compare for instance CUSee Me and videoconference

• It´s expensive. Investment cost is high and transmission cost is also high if you use high speed transmission (384 kbit/sec and higher)

• You have to consider other aspects such as acoustics, colours, lights, furnuture

• The simple solutions can effect the quality of audio and video negatively. Experiments have shown that the quality of audio is very important. The reciever can accept bad video quality but not bad sound quality (Meistad 1990, Abbot 1993).

2) Asynchronous videosystems
Example: Videotape productions, relationship 1 - many
Remarks: • Long time between composition, transmission and recieving.

Even longer if there has to be feedback from reciever to sender

3) Interactive teleconference systems
Example: • Telephone conferences with loudspeakers

Relationship: 1-1, M-M

Remarks: • Lack of picture, difficult to catch non-verbal cues

• Need to have careful planning and combination with

other media such as faxmachines is necessary.

• It's demaning to follow a discussion which contain both telephone voice and written text

4) Voice messaging
Example: • Voice recorder on a telephone
Remarks: • How handle messages on a voice recorder?

• How document a course which contain both text document and recorded messages

• See also item 3 above
5) Synchronous Computer conferencing
Example: • Chat box, whiteboard, audiographic

Relationship: 1-1, M-M

Remarks: • Loosing the characteristic of video and audio.

• Other approach is necessary when only written langugage is


• It creates on other kind of culture. Appearance of the words like Netiquette, Flaming become crusial

6) Asynchronous Computer conferencing
Example:Electronic mail, bulletin boards

Relationship: 1-1, M-M

Remarks: • See item 5

3.1.1 The technical infrastructure
The planning group decided in an early stage that they should use video-conference system . Most of the participants had no or little knowledge in computer literacy and the group were afraid of loosing to much time on learning the participants handle the computers. Therefore they didn´t chose the combination of desktopvideo, groupware application and email. Videoconferencing was from a technical point of view an easy medium. The participants just had to watch and listen.
Another aspect of the discussion was the lack of access to Internet. It was only a few persons who had access. It was only
• The module leader and local tutor in Portugal

• The module leader and local tutor in Sweden. Also the project coordinator had access but he never used it.

• None in Scotland

• The local tutor and module leader in Norway.

The rest of the participants, especially the enterprises, had no access to Internet. Also access to computers outside the schools were a problem especially in Scotland and Portugal.
Communication technology - ISDN
One uncertain issue concerned the communication technology. When using videoconference you have to transmit over ISDN. In Europe there exists different kinds of ISDN-standards. The Swedish coordinator was afraid that Portugal had different standard than the rest of the participating countries. The peculiar in this issue was that Norway, Portugal and Scotland followed a standard called Euro-ISDN, but not the Swedes. A discussion was held towards the Swedish Telecompany, Telia, and in march 1996 the north part of Sweden could update there equipment to Euro-ISDN.
Computers and software
As I mentioned earlier the main technology was videoconference. But most of the communication between the module leaders and local tutors have been done by using email and fax machines.
At every site there have been a computer lab including multimedia computers. The software have been different kinds of application on CD-ROM´s, groupware software, communication systems like First class, Eudora, and Web-crawlers. The main objective of the computer lab has been showing the participants what you can do with computers and some implications of using them in different situations.
The videoconference system
The four countries involved in the project have had different prerequisite concerning equipments, preperations, experience. This has led to different kinds of classroom design
Dumfries, Scotland
In Dumfries they invested in a videoconference system in early spring 1996. Before that, they had no experience of using videoconference systems. The system includes three cameras, one document camera, two monitors (one for arriving picture and one for outgoing picture), headspeakers, and video recorder. Usually this kind of systems are portable and therefore called rollabouts.
Their design was a direct copy of a traditional classroom. The videoconference system was placed like a teacher in front of the class. The students were spread out at three rows. They had to use all three cameras for covering the whole classroom. Camera one was covering the left side of the room, camera two middle, and camera three right side.
Sogndal, Norway
Sogndal used a videoconferencing system similar to the Scottish site. They had used it for a long time (since 1990) and hade experience of both using it and configurate the classroom. Their classroom design are "classic" among videoconference users. Experience in this field have shown that it is most appropriate to design the classroom as a "horseshoe". In such setting you can have one camera covering all the participants in the room. Every participant in the room can see each other and the viewers from the other sites can see every participant in Norway.
Guimares, Portugal
In Guimares they used a desktopvideo system which was implemented at Tec Minho University in beginning of June 1996. The system, a PictureTel system, works on a simple PC, includes a camera, document camera, monitors, and a telephone with microphone and headspeakers.
They had no experience of using desktop video and their design was more or less "ad hoc". They had put the equipment in a conference room and had not done any changes in the configuration of tables and chairs.
They had only one camera and it was impossible to covering all the participants. They had also only one microphone (the telephone) which was placed on the teachers desk. When some of the participants wanted to say something the person had to sit beside the teachers desk.
Storuman, Sweden
In Storuman they used a videoconference system which was purchased in 1990. Storuman was one of the first municipalities in Sweden using videoconferen-cing. Together with Alta in the north part of Norway they started a joint experiement of using videoconference systems. In Alta they had experience of using videoconference since late 80´s. (Meistad, 1990)
The equipment is much like the videoconference sites in Norway and Scotland. It´s a rollabout with three cameras, four microphones, two monitors, one document camera, video recorder and headspeakers. They configurate the classroom as a "horse shoe" which give each participant the opportunity to see each other.
They have also considered other aspects about the classroom. such as the problems of light and acoustic and done special arrangement to reach optimal quality in the performance. For instance, they have put up blue and yellow curtains which will give a better quality of the picture
Figure 1. Videoconference studios in each country
3.1.2 The course planning
In spring 1996 the people responsible at every site met in both Portugal and Scotland and discussed the pedagogical approach and course content. The aim of the course was to bring schools and business closer together by using modern information technology.
The meetings resulted in a course structure in which each country was responsible for one topic. The structure was
Module A. Introduction to multimedia (including Internet and WWW)

Responsible for the module A was teachers from Portugal.

Length of module: 1 day in the virtual classroom, 1 week individual exercises
Module B. IT and cooperation (including CSCW, CSCL)

Responsible site: Sweden and Umeå University

Length of module: 1 day in the virtual classroom, 1 week individual exercises
Module C. Benefits and usability of IT

Responsible site: Vestlandsforskning in Sogndal, Norway

Length of module: 1 day in the virtual classroom, 1 week individual exercises
Module D. Pedagogical issues of using IT

Responsible site: Dumfries, Scotland and Sweden

Length of module: 3 days, 0.5 day in the virtual classroom and 2.5 day face-to-face, 1 week individual exercises
Module E. Examination and summary

Responsible site: Sweden

Length of module: 1 day.
Every module was designed with the emphasis on using audio/video in the transnational sessions. They wanted to use the strength of this kind of medium which is interaction and they decided that most of the videoconference sessions should contain discussions. The structure of the modules was almost the same and included following aspects

Figure 2: Structure of the modules
Each module started with an introduction by the module leader. Afterwards the leader started a presentation of a topic. This session was transnational and used videoconference technique. This was done synchronically which means that every site could interact with each other. After the introduction the leader gave each site some assignments. The assignments could be exercises such as creating a Web-site, test and evaluate some groupwares, discuss problems and issues concerning the use of IT in different environments. Every topic had questions which concerned the relationship between schools and small enterprises. This acitivities was performed locally, face-to-face in a computer-lab or a traditional classroom. Responsible for this exercises were the local tutors.
When each site had locally discussed some issues the result of the discussions were presented transnational in a videoconference session. Each site told the other sites what their results were and the leader sum up the discussion and point out any differencies or similarities. Each module leader had 2-4 topics so the above structure went on until every topic had been discussed. At the end the leader summed up the days events and gave each participant some home assignments.

Compared to traditional course planning, this course were very carefully planned. Almost all misstakes and missunderstandings was solved before the course start. Many of the course planners had own experiences in video-conference environments and it maked it easier to create good learning environments. This kind of virtual environments had to follow stricted time schedules and instructions and the module leaders wrote more or less step-by-step instructions to the local tutors.

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