Rethinking The Virtual Classroom

The Virtual Classroom:
Rethinking the Role of Teaching and Learning.
Professor Nicholas Burbules
Professor of Educational Policy
University of Illinois at Urbana Champagne

Public Lecture
Thursday 27th July

Last Thursday I attended a free public lecture by visiting American professor Nicholas Burbules, from the University of Illinois.

Burbules argues as educators, we are misunderstanding technology as a tool. We should think less of technology as a delivery system (of online lesson content) in education and more as a place for our students to learn; a social classroom where relationships are built and nurtured.

He also challenges our traditional notion of a ‘virtual classroom’. Of course, ‘virtual’ , means ‘being something in effect, even if not in reality’ and we tend to associate the virtual classroom with Internet technologies. But Burbules argues the virtual is NOT dependant on the technology and being in a virtual classroom does NOT always mean being online.

Burbules says the ‘virtual’ IS real (not almost real) if the circumstances are right. He offers the example of online gamers who often play multi-user games on the Internet deep into the night with hundreds of players from across the globe. To some of these participants who play many hours each day, their ‘virtual’ gaming world is real. It is a world that is most important and means something to them. Their virtual experiences online are real experiences.

Therefore, what is important about the technology is being immersed in the experience as if it were real. In the (recent) past, I have been an avid PlayStation 2 gamer. Over the years, there have been many times after several hours of playing in a virtual world, the experience seems so real it is scary and often it takes some time to ‘adjust’ back to your ‘actual’ world because the gaming experience was so ‘real’.

Burbules illustrates examples of virtual experiences that are not connected to technology. For instance, the image in our head of a character’s face when reading a novel or the audience at a film that leans to the left to follow the onscreen character peering over another’s shoulder. It reminds me of a night at the theatre some years ago. At a Melbourne Theatre Company production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House there was a scene where Nora’s footsteps are heard by the onstage characters, as she dances the Tarantella upstairs.

Well, ‘upstairs’ didn’t exist of course. It was a virtual place. But to an audience completely immersed in the drama, ‘upstairs’ was very real. I glanced sideways in the darkness of the theatre only to see many in the audience tilt their head skyward to ‘see’ Nora dancing ‘upstairs’ as the onstage characters were making references to her being there. These people were actually looking at a row of lighting bars and stage lanterns, but to them, the experience of seeing Nora was real. They were engaged.

So what makes virtual experiences virtual?

  • interest
  • involvement
  • imagination
  • interaction

In summary, the experience has to be interesting for us, involve us in some way, allow us to use our imagination and offer us an opportunity to interact with it, and others around us as well.

Surely these four factors (the 4 I’s) are the underlying ingredients behind the continuing success of the computer gaming industry. For the sceptics out there who think computer games have no place in our society, the people think otherwise. There is now enough statisitical data to prove the worldwide computer gaming industry is bigger than the film industry, in terms of annual revenue.

And so, Burbules argues that interest, involvement, imagination and interaction should also be our design principles in education. As teachers, we should be asking ourselves ‘how can I make this learning experience meet these needs for my students?’. We should be exploiting these principles for the purposes of education.

No arguments here. The first thing I say to all my student teachers on their first day with me is that if they can’t engage the students in the classroom, then they may as well pack their bags and go home now. Students are engaged through making the learning experience interesting, being allowed to use their imagination and interacting with the learning matter itself and others in the classroom.

Burbules says we should find a learning model in our classrooms where immersion takes place and uses exploration, problem solving and choice more often. He went back to the web for examples. Ever put a simple search query into Google and 45 minutes later found yourself on the dark side of the web, completely lost? The web is called the web for a reason! The web, Burbules reminds us, is a complex environment. When navigating the web, we follow links, move around, make connections and go on a journey. When all goes well, we are making patterns of meaningful connections. But the first few times you navigated the web, it was a little scary, yes?

And so it is with education. Our students often find navigating their way around complex learning environments, daunting. They need a road map to assist them. But not any old road map. They need the RIGHT road map. Unfortunately, too often the teacher thinks this road map is the their road map. Wrong! Burbules argues we need to consider that the best road map for our students is often the student’s road map, not the teacher’s.

Our teaching design of a virtual place in the standard classroom should carefully consider

  • mobility
  • social interation
  • public vs private
  • intrusion vs exclusion

As a metaphor for our educational design, Burbules offered examples of public buildings and spaces, often very formal and rigid. Alternatively, there is the design of your lounge room furniture at home; no doubt more private and informal than the furniture in a city museum complex.

Burbules says we must intentionally create a learning environment where movement can take place; an environment that caters for mobility and choice amongst our students. Where possible, as educators we should anticipate how our participants will use that space. But at the same time, we should also leave open the element of surprise and be flexible enough to allow our students to sometimes navigate their own way through this learning environment. While this may be very different to the path the teacher may take, the student ‘road map’ is at least a method of navigation that is engaging for the students, because they are the ones creating it.

Burbules says this notion of mobility is at the very heart of learning. Our students need to find their way around complex subject matter and be able to do things in education that are important to them. It is here that Burbules indicates the importance of social learning and the concept that our students must be a part of a social network.

Being a high school Drama teacher, I could safely say I am well versed in the advantages of students belonging to a social framework in the classroom. As one of the most ‘social’ subjects on any school curriculum, Drama encourages and reinforces the benefits in education of collaborative problem solving and teamwork in both simple and complex learning spaces. This social dimension is crucial in creating interaction and engagement amongst our students.

Out of the standard classroom and into the traditional virtual classroom, I have always encouraged a social, collaborative nature in my ‘room’ when wor
king with Drama students using Internet technologies. E-learning platforms such as Moodle cater for this wonderfully. But everyday forums and blogs also encourage collegiality and interaction that actively immerse and engage students in the learning process.

As teachers, Burbules says we must rethink the ‘virtual’ as an educational concept, and whether online or in the regular classroom, design a learning model that caters for student interest, involvement, imagination and interaction. Only then will our students have the best possible opportunity of being fully engaged in their learning.


2 Responses

  1. Rod says:

    Hi Justin
    I also attended this lecture and think your synopsis is great. Thank you for the time and effort in putting it together so others can share the experience.
    Well done!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Sounds like a fascinating lecture. As a teacher often struggling to engage my students I am interested to know more

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