Collaborative learning in a blended-reality environment

[This post draws from a recent paper published in the British Journal of Educational Technology:
Bower, M., Lee, M. J. W., & Dalgarno, B. (2017). Collaborative learning across physical and virtual worlds: Factors supporting and constraining learners in a blended reality environment. British Journal of Educational Technology, 48(2), 407-430. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12435 ]

Offering students flexible and convenient access is a key driver for the use of technology in learning, with online technologies enabling students to continue their work out of the classroom, anytime and anywhere, and to do so collaboratively (Beetham & Sharpe, 2013; Oblinger, 2012; OECD, 2012, 2016). Using rich-media synchronous technologies such as video-conferencing, web-conferencing and virtual worlds, learners can interact with one another and their teachers in real-time to ask questions, discuss issues, and undertake group work activities (Bower, Kenney, Dalgarno, Lee, & Kennedy, 2014). Of these technologies, virtual worlds offer unique educational opportunities in terms of the 3-D representation possibilities and types of learner interactions that they afford (Dalgarno & Lee, 2010). However, there are very few documented instances of using virtual worlds to enable remote and face-to-face (F2F) students to participate in the same classes together, let alone reports of how the design of tasks and of the environment impact upon learning.

In a recently published BJET article, Bower, Lee and Dalgarno (2017) report on a study, conducted as part of the Blended Synchronous Learning project (see http://blendsync.org), that investigated the factors supporting and constraining students’ ability to learn collaboratively in two offerings of a ‘blended-reality’ tutorial class. Video and sound recording equipment captured activity in a F2F classroom, which was streamed live into a virtual world so that remote participants could see and hear an instructor and F2F peers. In-world activity was also simultaneously displayed on a projector screen, with the audio broadcast via speakers, for the benefit of the F2F participants. In this way, the participants in both modes could see and hear one another in order to complete a series of class activities (see Figure 1).

Students in the face-to-face classroom interacting with students in the virtual world

Figure 1. F2F and virtual world students jointly participating in a blended-reality lesson

Survey and interview feedback from students indicated that the majority experienced a sense of co-presence with their peers participating both F2F and via the virtual world. As well, irrespective of participation mode, they generally felt that they were able to effectively create and share resources with one another. However, they tended to find it easier to communicate with others attending in the same mode as them. While the teacher noted the challenge of catering to both remote and F2F learners at the same time as managing the technical aspects of the lesson, students cited a number of benefits of the blended-reality approach, including enhanced access to learning opportunities, enabling the exchange of ideas and promoting higher levels of engagement than traditional approaches. Remote students additionally cited a stronger sense of being in the F2F classroom, increased willingness of shy people to participate, and transcending of physical constraints such as cost and space.

A variety of pedagogical, technological and logistical factors impacted upon learning. From a pedagogical perspective, tasks that encouraged peer interaction and provided direction about ways to interact were found to be helpful and enabling, whereas repetition of instructions between cohorts and not knowing how to engage in activities detracted from the learner experience. Students observed that the multiple communication channels offered via the virtual world supported their learning, but technical issues such as erratic audio and video streaming interfered with it. Logistically speaking, making learning more accessible and having extra learning spaces to work with were seen as distinct advantages of the approach, yet the inability to communicate one-on-one with students participating through the other mode was perceived as a disadvantage.

In the future, advances in haptic interfaces, real-time 3-D rendering, holographic telepresence, wearable technologies and immersive virtual reality may mean that blended-reality learning becomes a part of mainstream teaching. These advances notwithstanding, the way in which educators manage the pedagogical, technological and logistical issues, as detailed in Bower et al. (2017), will have a critical impact upon the quality of the student learning experience.

References

Beetham, H., & Sharpe, R. (2013). An introduction to rethinking pedagogy. In H. Beetham & R. Sharpe (Eds.), Rethinking pedagogy for a digital age: Designing for 21st century learning (2nd ed., pp. 1–15). New York: Routledge.

Bower, M., Kenney, J., Dalgarno, B., Lee, M. J. W., & Kennedy, G. E. (2014). Patterns and principles for blended synchronous learning: Engaging remote and face-to-face learners in rich-media real-time collaborative activities. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 30(3), 261–272. http://dx.doi.org/10.14742/ajet.1697

Bower, M., Lee, M. J. W., & Dalgarno, B. (2017). Collaborative learning across physical and virtual worlds: Factors supporting and constraining learners in a blended reality environment. British Journal of Educational Technology, 48(2), 407-430. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12435

Dalgarno, B., & Lee, M. J. W. (2010). What are the learning affordances of 3-D virtual environments? British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(6), 10–32. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2009.01038.x

Oblinger, D. G. (2012, May/June). IT as a game changer. EDUCAUSE Review, 11–24. Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERM1230.pdf

OECD. (2012). Connected minds: Technology and today’s learners. Paris: Author. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264111011-en

OECD. (2016). Skills for a digital world: 2016 Ministerial Meeting on the Digital Economy Background Report. Paris: Author. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5jlwz83z3wnw-en

About matthewbower

Associate Professor at Macquarie University.
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