The Future of Learning May Lie in Virtual Learning SystemsPublished: November 21, 2001 in Knowledge@Emory
When Elizabeth Crocker wanted to pursue her master’s degree in management she knew accomplishing it the old-fashioned way in a traditional classroom setting was out of the question. As a Chapter 11 bankruptcy consultant with Logan & Co. in Montclair, New Jersey, Crocker travels constantly. Dedicated to furthering her education, Crocker chose instead to enroll in Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, New Jersey, a school that specializes in distance education, much of which is done over the Internet. "Nearly all the coursework is completed through e-mail with classmates and teachers in a virtual classroom setting," explains Crocker. "It’s challenging, but effective." After two years, Crocker earned her master’s degree in October 2000.
Crocker’s virtual education experience is becoming increasingly popular. Whether it be to pursue a degree or simply continue education in a particular profession, many adults are opting for technology-based training programs like those offered through Thomas Edison State College.
In research circles, distance education falls under the heading of Virtual Learning Systems, defined as information-technology environments, in which the learner’s interactions with learning materials, instructors and/or peers are mediated through technology. In their paper "Virtual Learning Systems," Maryam Alavi, a professor of decision and information analysis at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School and Dorothy Leidner of Texas Christian University, speak to the increased use of virtual learning systems in higher education and adult training and development, and how best to make this approach to learning effective. "The trend is there," points out Alavi. "Different industry predictions say the virtual learning systems market will grow very rapidly. The traditional classroom learning model is increasingly less practical. It’s hard for people to take the time off work to attend classes. The rate of learning has increased so much that it makes sense to give them other ways."
Much of the demand for virtual learning systems (VLS) is driven by the new knowledge-based economy, in which business, scientific, high-tech and professional fields are faced with what Alavi and Leidner refer to as "an explosion of knowledge." Knowledge is developing so rapidly that a student graduating from college with an engineering degree, for example, may already need on-the-job training to upgrade his skills by the time he reaches the workplace.
What’s more, demand for secondary education is driving the growth in VLS. Alavi and Leidner cite U.S. Department of Education statistics that indicate the percentage of high school graduates who enroll in post-secondary education has increased from 49% in 1980 to 65% in 1995. A Merrill Lynch report published in 1999 says the education industry overall is faced with the so-called babyboom echo, an estimated 72 million children of the 76 million babyboomers born between 1946 and 1964. Information and communication technologies, the lifeblood of VLS, are also advancing quickly.
Alavi, who has done what she calls "a stream of research" on the topic of VLS, says alternative approaches to learning and development can be even more effective than the traditional face-to-face method. "VLS puts learners in control of the learning process," she notes. Efficacy, however, relates directly to design. The rapid growth of the market requires the availability of high-quality virtual learning content, something that doesn’t always exist right now, Alavi adds. "Explicit choices in the design of the virtual environment must be made, choices that have likely consequences on learning and student satisfaction," write Alavi and Leidner.
"Virtual Learning Systems" details prior research on VLS, much of which has focused on learning outcomes obtainable in virtual environments. The most commonly used measures of learning focus on final task performance, write Alavi and Leidner, or on student perception of learning. The missing link, the authors contend, is "an understanding of how the attributes of virtual learning systems affect, or fail to affect, the underlying cognitive processing that occurs when individuals learn."
In order to improve the efficacy of the virtual learning approach, Alavi and Leidner believe designers need to get into the heads of learners. "We have to start looking at how the technology environment interacts with what goes on in peoples’ heads as they learn the material to come up with a good design," suggests Alavi. "Once we know how technology interacts with cognitive processes we can try to support those processes better with various technological features." Alavi and Leidner present a framework that identifies the input, process and output variables associated with learning and their inter-relationships. They contend that this framework facilitates "exploring the potential role of information technology in learning and provides a foundation for the design of virtual learning systems." Those designs, they argue, are fundamental because they may be affecting the underlying cognitive processes that occur during learning.
While colleges and corporations are embracing the concept of virtual learning, they need also to support research into improving the underlying systems, urges Alavi. She and her co-author assert that, in most cases, VLS have been developed without explicit consideration of the underlying learning process and contextual factors. As a result, they emphasize, it is important to continue the inquiry and investigation into the design of effective virtual learning systems—especially as more and more students like Elizabeth Crocker welcome the virtual learning alternative.