By Mia Kuartei
Technology is no longer a tool to simply enhance or supplement learning in a traditional or physical classroom setting. Classrooms have evolved from the teachers as the primary user of a technology tool, to groups of students using various tools to demonstrate mastery and learning, and now to individual student use of digital tools and personalized tracking of progress. Today we are in a period of virtual learning environments, some of which have replaced the physical and traditional classroom setting. My review of the literature shows that virtual learning environments can foster meaningful student learning and interactions through a variety of theoretical frameworks that support students to construct and interact with others.
Virtual learning environments help students to understand how they (and others) learn, how they contribute to a learning community of their peers, and how they perceive themselves. There is no assertion or assumption that virtual learning environments can (nor should they) replace traditional or physical learning environments, but they can be designed to meet specific learning objectives in complex ways that go beyond a classroom. Because the purpose and design of each learning environment meets different objectives, different learning theories can inform teachers how to foster meaningful student learning and interactions. “The philosophy behind the software matters, as does the context of its usage” (Bers, 2001). There are two contrasting approaches to how students construct and interact within virtual learning environments. The first is that students have voice and choice in how they participate in the virtual learning environment as far as making decisions about how to spend their time, what to construct, and how to interact within the community. The second approach is that the teacher guides student learning and behavior by scaffolding tasks until the students gain independence and can accomplish increasingly complex tasks.
There are several strategies used in studies where students have ownership over their learning choices (within the learning objectives) that demonstrate how they construct and interact with others in a virtual learning environment. A “microcommunity” (Bers, 2001) can be a safe space for students to explore choices and direct their learning with peers who interact within a virtual environment. However, the students should also have “face time” outside of the virtual microcommunity to discuss and reflect on their process and progress, not necessarily as individuals reflecting, but meta-cognitive group discussions and interactions. Each student is then able to construct their own experiences and products but within the context of the microcommunity as well as alongside their peers. When students have the power and flexibility to choose what products to create, they learn from their own process and choices as well as establish their identity and place within the community through these choices. A virtual microcommunity also provides an opportunity for students to explore and experiment in a safe and supportive environment. Virtual environments also allow students to try new things, ideas, and strategies that cannot be replicated in a classroom (due to time, space, and resources). This virtual microcommunity becomes a construction in and of itself by its members. The visual and cultural landscape of the community changes and evolves as its members construct new knowledge, products, and experiences (Silseth, 2012). If the students return to the community with a new lesson or topic, even the new constructs would build on existing or previous knowledge, products, and experiences with a new context. The possibility of more complex problem solving and critical thinking (and reflection or metacognitive skills) will increase because students have more confidence in building on their previous experiences.
An important factor in the virtual learning environment is the identity construction of each student – how they look (character or avatar), their username, what they do, how they interact or communicate with others and with the content. There is a unique quality of a virtual learning microcommunity for teachers and students to make connections between dialogue and interactions. Dialogue takes places in various forms (chat, products, game mechanics, discussions, etc.) and influences the interactions that students have with each other, their teacher, and with the content. Student behaviors are just as important as the products and dialogue in demonstrating learning and knowledge construction (Silseth, 2012).
The construction of products or objects is often seen as the obvious learning objective in a virtual learning environment. The student’s objective is usually to demonstrate learning through an observable and measureable product (a structure, a town, a book, navigate a maze and solve a puzzle, etc.). However, objects in virtual learning microcommunities can also be constructed to represent ideas, concepts, values, identity, or anything else that can be interpreted with a visual product (Bers, 2001). A product created outside of the virtual environment, can demonstrate context and application of knowledge construction, but should not replace the assessment of what is created within the virtual microcommunity. Otherwise, the learning experience did not take advantage of the three-dimensional experience and could possibly be replicated by watching a video, visually examining an object, or looking up information online. While the average teacher is not going to examine the meta-data from the virtual learning environment, there are other ways to capture and reflect on the learning within the virtual microcommunity (observations, interviews, screencasting, chat transcripts, time-lapse screenshots, etc.).
While there are effective strategies for this approach, there are gaps and questions to consider. There is very little discussion or studies about behavior management in virtual learning communities; no learning environment is conflict-free and with the various learning styles, needs and interests (differentiation) of students, this approach can be problematic for a teacher to keep up with the students within the virtual learning environment. The classroom culture will carry over into a virtual learning environment, but is made more complex because the teacher does not have a line of sight with all of the students in the various ways that they can move and interact within the game. Another problematic area is the amount of data generated and collected from students in this approach; even if a teacher is targeting specific objectives for assessment, the many formative assessments that can be used are varied and deserve attention but can create a virtual mountain of evidence for a teacher to sift through. A third important question in this approach is the technological infrastructure and expertise needed to implement this virtual learning environment. Most teachers need to spend significant time learning new technology tools and ensuring that they are used appropriately and effectively to assist or enhance student learning. Many technology tools used in education already have game design and mechanics that make them easier to use or allow the teacher to have a relatively simpler role in managing or utilizing the tool. It makes sense that a virtual learning environment that enables more complex learning experiences for students, will also involve more effort from the teacher to initially learn and manage the environment. The research is based on technology tools that are designed for specific content and learning objectives; while this might make it easier to implement, it doesn’t justify a teacher spending a lot of effort to learn one tool if it cannot be used to study other content. On the other hand, this might actually support future research for MinecraftEdu because the game lends itself to any content that a teacher wants to use; learning the technology tools and related strategies will still happen initially as with any other tool, but the teacher can improve skills and use in other content areas with minimal effort after an initial implementation.
The research supporting an approach where the teacher is a guide for students examines strategies from sociocultural and cognitivist learning theory frameworks. Scaffolding is an overarching theme in these studies and strategies used include fading, collaborative learning and peer tutoring, cognitive apprenticeship, and reward mechanisms based on internal and external motivations. With scaffolding and fading, students are supported with specific tools and methods that allow them to practice and gain confidence and proficiency to eventually take ownership of their own learning. With this approach, it is important that technology tools are easy to use if the goal not necessarily to learn the tools, but instead as the means to accomplish tasks. The tools can actually be a scaffolding technique to guiding the students and could possibly be taken away or changed to let the student move on to more complex tasks.
A distinction is also made in the use of scaffolding; “blanket scaffolding” (Obikwelu, Read, & Sim, 2013) is the typical method of guiding a group of students through a uniform process of scaffolding tools. So while the tools can help students appropriately build to more complex tasks, they do not acknowledge the individual levels of skills, knowledge, and experiences of students. Instead, the scaffolding is implemented in a way that is easier but not necessarily appropriate to the individual learners. Collaborative learning and peer tutoring are other strategies with a scaffolding approach (Obikwelu, et al, 2013). The distinction made here in comparison with the constructivist approach is that there are distinct roles for students to guide how they interact and construct knowledge in the virtual learning environment. Similar to a group project in the physical classroom or a peer tutoring group, there are individual roles for students that help them understand what is expected of them and how they should contribute to the learning of others. A cognitive apprenticeship model is also used frequently to illustrate scaffolding between an expert (teacher) and a novice (student). This can also be applied to the peer tutoring strategy where an expert peer helps a notice peer to gain or improve skills where the novice student can improve their skills, knowledge, or proficiency, and the expert student can improve their skills for modeling, synthesizing, and mentoring. In the cognitive apprenticeship between the teacher and student, the teacher scaffolds learning for the student with clear benchmarks or learning objectives that demonstrate mastery or proficiency (Ramdass, 2012). As the student progresses, the teacher fades in the scaffolding role, until eventually, the student becomes a peer to the teacher in the learning process. The student should be able to contribute “equally” in the learning process with the teacher and can take over the role of directing their own learning.
And finally, scaffolding is also used through rewards that reflect intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. In this model, gamification is used to engage learners in a process of learning based on earning badges and rewards for proficiency or completion of assigned tasks (Vassileva, 2012). Gamification as its own method has much research to support its use in training programs, business marketing strategies, and consumer related technologies. The same principles of appealing to a social context for earning badges and rewards also apply in virtual learning environments. Motivations are also impacted by an individual’s connections with their own social circles at school, home, and in their communities.
There are also several important questions and gaps in a scaffolding approach in supporting student learning and interactions in virtual learning environments. As with the constructivist approach, how do teachers manage the scaffolding across different learning styles, needs, and interests? How is student learning supported within a virtual learning environment with such different levels of scaffolding? Does scaffolding address differentiation or is it an individualized approach to supporting students. The question of technology and game design expertise of the teacher is also an important factor in whether this approach is practical and can be implemented after an initial training period. The final question that should be noted with scaffolding in virtual learning environments is to evaluate whether the technology used is appropriate for the learning objectives if it requires too much individualization or technology expertise from the teacher.
The constructivism approach to virtual learning communities supports students to construct knowledge, identity, meta-cognitive skills, personal and meaningful products of learning, experiments, new experiences, and a context or foundation for continuing to build through learning. Interactions in this approach support construction by allowing students to determine how they want to explore the content, impact the learning or behavior of others, establish their identity within their peer learning community, reflect on their learning, and demonstrate learning needs and interests to their teacher. A socio-cultural and cognitivism approach can be applied using scaffolding through fading, peer tutoring, cognitive apprenticeship, gamification, and use of reward mechanisms. Students are motivated intrinsically based on their own perceptions of self, gamer type, learning style, and personality; external motivations can be peer recognition and reputation, identity and standing within the learning environment, grades, etc. My research will focus on teacher tools and strategies within the MinecraftEdu virtual learning environment through the Givercraft project. Teachers will learn the teacher tools to manage the student environment and will decide which strategies to implement with their students. I will observe and document the teacher’s role in managing the game environment and supporting meaningful and effective student interactions; my research will examine what strategies were effective and what conditions and factors contributed to meaningful and effective student interactions.
Bers, M. U. (2001). Identity Construction Environments: Developing Personal and Moral Values through the Design of a Virtual City. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, (4). 365. Retrieved from: http://egandb.uas.alaska.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsjsr&AN=edsjsr.1466738&site=eds-live
Obikwelu, C., Read, J., & Sim, G. (2013). Children’s Problem-Solving in Serious Games: The “Fine-Tuning System (FTS)” Elaborated. Electronic Journal Of E-Learning, 11(1), 49. Retrieved from: http://egandb.uas.alaska.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edb&AN=91531200&site=eds-live
Ramdass, D. d. (2012). The role of cognitive apprenticeship in learning science in a virtual world. Cultural Studies Of Science Education, 7(4), 985-992. Retrieved from: http://egandb.uas.alaska.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eft&AN=83879496&site=eds-live
Silseth, K. (2012). The Multivoicedness of Game Play: Exploring the Unfolding of a Student’s Learning Trajectory in a Gaming Context at School. International Journal Of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 7(1), 63-84. Retrieved from: http://egandb.uas.alaska.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eft&AN=72897353&site=eds-live
Vassileva, J. (2012). Motivating participation in social computing applications: a user modeling perspective. User Modeling & User-Adapted Interaction, 22(1/2), 177. doi:10.1007/s11257-011-9109-5. Retrieved from: http://egandb.uas.alaska.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=psyh&AN=2012-07498-008&site=eds-live