Cyberspace and Learning

Computers provide a capacious medium, promising the availability of an enormous quantity of resources at our fingertips. As a result, human memory has been extended with digital media from a basic unit of portable dissemination of 100,000 words (an average book), to a 5.3-gigabyte digital videodisc (equivalent to 5,300 books) (Murray, 1997).

Entering today’s workforce or an institute of higher learning requires fluency with both software and computer hardware. Word processors, spreadsheets, databases, search engines and computer-aided design programs are the tools of contemporary workplaces, soon to become ubiquitous. Learning to use these aids demands a new kind of craftsmanship and artistry. In the context of craftsmanship they promote enhanced productivity and efficiency. More importantly, when artfully used, they enable users to discover new solutions to old problems and to explore problems that were never previously envisaged (Turkle, 1997). .

To fully engage the artful potential of this relatively new technological artefact will require all of us to see it as more than a tool. A computing system is always more than a set of tools (Weizenbaum, 1976) as normally defined, because it is being constructed with a particular social content (e.g., permitting only certain kinds of data, or responding to certain kinds of questions). “Artefact” is used throughout this paper to put forward explicitly what has also been argued elsewhere: “the computer cannot be envisioned as a neutral instrument. There is something in the system itself, in the formal logic of programs and data, which recreates the world. Therefore, while the artefact is not comparable to human agency, it is a projection of a part of ourselves: that portion devoted to logic, order, rule, and clarity. We call the microprocessor the ‘brain’; we say the machine has ‘memory’. We create it, and its applications, in our own image” (Thompson 2001).

The purpose herein is to go beyond the issues of “soft” and “hardware” requirements to consider the necessity of placing the computer within the social context of teaching/learning. The following introduces the social context of computer-mediated-learning and delineates three social issues exploring the relevance of cyberspace to teaching/learning. These issues include:

It is concluded that the interaction of teachers/learners with the computer, as a socially constructed artefact, is particularly seductive and must be approached with caution; but that it also provides a completely new and exciting elevation of the existing possibilities for the production of knowledge.

When we turn on our computers and click the “mouse”, we enter an environment we have come to call cyberspace. Behind the screen, we connect with an imaginary somewhere, out there, engaging the computer screen as a gateway to another place. Conceptually, we are emotionally and physically envisioning a virtual or non-physical space existing somewhere between ourselves and out there that we enter through computer-based technology (Barbatsis and Fegan 1999).

But where are we, and where are those with whom we speak? If we are not there, and they are not here, where do these conversations take place? We experience a sense of ‘being there’, which we also conceptualise in emotional or spatial terms. With what seems an unproblematic reference, we call this non-physical place ‘cyberspace,’ and almost matter-of-factly, began to engage the “consensual hallucination” (Gibson 1984: 51).

Definitions of cyberspace combine technological, experiential, informational, compositional and sensorial characteristics. Taking the liberty of paraphrasing, the synthesised definition would see cyberspace as a globally networked, computer-accessed and generated, multidimensional, artificial or abstracted “virtual” reality in a territory of digital information which provides for sensory, experiential, aesthetic and compositional capabilities. (Barbatsis, 1999; Barnes 1996: 194; Benedikt 1991: 122; Cotton and Oliver, 1992; Lippert 1996: x; Moulthrop, 1996; Rhinegold, 1993; Shapiro and McDonald, 1995; Steuer, 1995; Wooley, 1992). Linking is predominant and boundaries are ambiguous. Information is continually recontextualised in the process of connecting one ‘information node’ to another.

But as Rudy Rucker (1991), the cyberpunk writer portrays for us in his fiction showing the beauty and elegance of computer-mediation with the brain stem, even the most sincere intentions can go awry, with the banal and mundane in supersedure. With this caveat, for purposes of exploring the relevance of cyberspace to teaching/learning, three social issues are delineated and then examined:

The effects of new educational technologies, with particular reference to the past decade, have profoundly altered the experience of higher education. Students are now having to learn how “to manage their own learning processes to an unprecedented degree…to swim in a sea of information, to use the rich resources of a supportive learning environment, and to self-pace and self structure their own programmes of learning” (MacFarlane, 1995). Yet, while much has changed in higher education, in many ways the craft of lecturing has stayed still, with university lecturers often demonstrating in excess many of the worst teaching practices. Educators still give lectures that are almost entirely spoken, last too long, show little understanding of how we learn, take place in inappropriate environments, and are rarely differentiated or targeted to a particular group of learners. Producing knowledge is not a matter of stuffing one’s head with information. It is complex and subtle, with a variety of characteristics including imagination, hypothesis testing, discrimination, estimation, purpose, and reflection. None of these is a separate stage or skill that can be taught in isolation (Smith 1988: 99). All must be involved in even the simplest gathering of facts; otherwise information acquisition is pointless as well as difficult. It is therefore essential for the teacher to shift from feeding and distributing information, towards assisting learners in the reconstruction of information into knowledge (Rogoff, 1994). Critical thinking is to jointly engage in reflective scepticism, having little to do with simply acquiring more information (Smith 1988: 57-58).

  1. Linguistic: People with this kind of intelligence enjoy writing, reading, telling stories or doing crossword puzzles. Micro-processing and accessing libraries and datasets come easy for this group.
  2. Logical-Mathematical: People with primary logical intelligence are interested in patterns, categories and relationships. They are drawn to arithmetic problems, strategy games and experiments. The computer provides accessibility to simulation and problem solving techniques not possible otherwise.
  3. Bodily-kinaesthetic: These people process knowledge through bodily sensations. They are often athletic, dancers or good at crafts such as gardening, metalworking or woodworking, computer programming and the creation of micro-worlds.
  4. Spatial: These individuals construct ideas in images and pictures. They may be fascinated with mazes or jigsaw puzzles, or spend free time drawing, painting, building, or daydreaming. Their ability to expand the multi-media content of papers, theses and textual assignments is immense.
  5. Musical: The musically inclined are extremely sound, melodic and rhythmic oriented; usually picking up sounds others may miss. This often provides for discriminating listeners. Here too sound is important in uploading more dynamic assignments to web pages.
  6. Interpersonal: Individuals who are leaders among their peers, who are good at communicating and who seem to understand the feelings and motives of others. This is where the collaborative discussion forum is important, as they are extremely competent at collaboration, teamwork and social interaction.
  7. Intrapersonal: While they may appear shy or withdrawn, they are very conscious of their own feelings, and are self-motivated. Their abilities are largely independent with a preference to participate without confronting face-to-face environments. The Internet’s ability to provide the required anonymity that allows this group to develop capacities without fear is significant.
  8. Naturalist: This group is very adept at discovering patterns in nature’s immense diversity, making connections, synthesising and envisualising the “large picture”, setting up expectations and raising questions. Darwin’s evolutionary theory, Mendeleev’s periodic table, Fibonacci numbers, and the familiar nighttime constellations all provide examples of this ability.

    The point at issue is that a basic understanding of multiple intelligence theory should modify lecturer behaviour and utilisation of computer-mediation. Time spent appealing to, or at least considering, at least two intelligences not associated with normally perceived intelligence quotients in every presentation given may dramatically improve the necessary connection with learners, whether face-to-face or virtually. This understanding includes the awareness that time spent during a session endeavouring to make sure that learners are in a receptive state is important. Sitting down for a long time is bad news for the brain. For most of us the brain switches off after about 20 minutes of concentrated listening. Standing up, moving around, even a moment of physical movement sends more blood and more oxygen to starved synapses. Other messages from Gardner’s research show that the brain likes, and searches out, patterns and context. If the brain can assimilate how something fits in, then it will be more likely to accept new data. As well, it normally has its own biorhythms, preferring new information in the morning and tasks that call for integration of existing information in the afternoon.

    So always giving the big picture, drawing the cognitive maps, and locating the patterns of development, ideally with as much advanced warning as possible, is essential for creating a community of learning, virtual or otherwise. Start each session of synchronous or asynchronous web-based teaching/learning with an overview and a clear indication of the sequence of steps you intend to follow. Limit any presentation to 20 minutes, or less, of user time, or if locked into a specific time frame, build topics around twenty-minute blocks, and think very carefully about the timing of sessions.

    Memory involves both retention and recall. The brain remembers beginnings and ends of episodes. Unusual things stick. Positive emotional involvement increases the likelihood of retention. Learners tend to remember activities that have involved many of its systems, as is often the case with experiential learning. Get students to help by giving them the opportunity to introduce sessions. Always try to give a context, share strategies for recalling data, as well as for retaining it. Be prepared with mnemonics, acronyms, jokes and odd facts. We know that learners tend to be more motivated when they have ownership of the learning and greater control over the choice of task and learning styles. So get learners to set their own goals wherever possible.

    Seymour Papert (Papert 1993; 1996) believed that computers are partners in thinking and can be used to create user “micro-worlds”, where inquisitive students learn through a process of exploration and discovery. By giving us greater control over different kinds of information, and media content, computers invite teachers/learners to tackle more complex tasks and to ask new and different kinds of questions collaboratively (Murray, 1997). But more than that, once we couple technologies with the abilities of teachers/learners, the emphasis, of necessity, shifts to examining the performance of the total social system at hand, not the lone individual (Pea, 1987). This is not to imply a form of technological determinism (Jones 1997). There is nothing about computer-mediated technology that inevitably gives rise to multi-logical learning, new, splendid forms of community, or other goodies, hawked by the evangelists. Rather, the virtual cultures of cybersystemic learning (Thompson 2001) are the fruits of an interweaving of socially constructed technologies in the making and showing of the symptoms of all kinds of socio-technological contradictions, as well as multi-dimensional individual and collective desires.

    Access to the Internet, like access to computers, is not in itself enough to create substantial change in the teaching/learning process. While some people see the Internet as a new way to deliver information, others look at the Net as a huge database for students to explore. A third and very different vision is to see it as a medium for collaborative development – a new opportunity for learners to discuss, share, and collaborate. The first vision sees education as formal instruction, but the second and third are clearly more “learner centred”, based on an understanding that people actively construct knowledge from their experiences and explorations. The third vision also puts special emphasis on learning activities, based on the understanding that people assemble knowledge with particular effectiveness when they are actively engaged, via multiple intelligences, in constructing meaningful artefacts (Resnick and Rusk 1996).

    Forms of Computer-Mediated-Communication

    For broad-spectrum coverage in this paper, the concept of “cyberspace” is used as an overall identifier of the “consensual hallucination” within which a variety of differentiated communication forms can occur. This is not to suggest that all possible forms of communication within this sphere can be conflated in style, function or purpose. Rather, it encapsulates the fact that the variegation and flexibility of communication, within cyberspace, enables the teacher/learner to select the most useful, contextual form of knowledge production and utilisation.

    The most well-recognised forms of computer-mediated-communication include email, discussion forums, bulletin boards, chat rooms, Internet relay chat, the World Wide Web, real audio and video, and the alternative voices created by hyperlinking. Furthermore, each of these forms can be used either synchronously or asynchronously, thereby providing the wherewithal to combine both “on-campus” and “distance” learners within a single collaborative community. The most valuable activity in a classroom of any kind is the opportunity for students to work and interact together and to build and become part of a community of scholars and practitioners. The possibility of incorporating distance education into a computer-based discussion group asynchronously negates space and time as intervening variables in the education process (Selfe and Eiloal 1988; Seaton 1993; Nalley 1995).

    Email allows for the asynchronous contact and communication between teachers and learners without the necessity of initiating agreed-upon meeting times. Most cursory administrative and informative data can be handled in this manner without appointments being made or office hours being wasted. Bulletin boards and chat rooms are normally seen to be areas of synchronous or asynchronous areas of informal sharing. A chat room for instance, is quite useful as an informal domain separate from the more scholarly or formal knowledge production arena. Teachers/learners can use a chat room in the same fashion they use “coffee breaks” or the “commons”. Internet relay chat (IRC) is quite popular with those for which telecommunications means connectivity, rather than information (Odlyzko 2001). The literature indicates that IRC brings communicators a step closer, like the telephone, to the phatic explications of face-to-face communication. Bulletin boards, while not as ubiquitous as they were in the 1980s, are still quite enjoyable areas for those with like-minds, or skills, to share experiences and ideas.

    Discussion forums and the World Wide Web are extremely important for internal, and distance teacher/learners, to provide and share information, ideas, critique and experiences. The aim of an electronic forum is to provide a more egalitarian, learner-centred process in which reflection and feedback become important for the learner community (Brown and Thompson 1997: 76-77). The utilisation of the WWW to provide for real audio and video is one of the more visible breakthroughs for distance education. Voice and the phatic potential of video bring communicators that little bit closer together. Hypertext and linking via the WWW is a powerful communicative tool providing for alternate or multi-voicing on the particular issue at hand. Having access to information, and then collaborating in the reformulation of information sources, interpreting the connections, sharing new discoveries with others, and building further insights through feedback from tutor and peers, becomes the core of the production of knowledge online. For a comprehensive example of a teacher/learner collaborative project see the E-Book produced online by Carassco and his students (Carassco 1998). Hypertext allows learners to choose their own pathways with structured guidance as to potentialities (Burbules and Callister 1996: 25). The lecturer’s voice becomes only one of many possible (either positive or negative) voices in the exploration of a topic.

    Co-Operation and Collaboration

    On one hand, teachers/learners can now use computers to communicate electronically and access a wide range of information resources. On the other hand, they may be overloaded with hundreds of messages a day or have trouble deciding upon which of the millions of Internet servers to look for a particular piece of information. The very richness of these resources imposes not only logistical, but also special cognitive, demands on users (Jacobson & Levin, 1996).

    Thinking originates and develops in collaborative dialogues (Bahktin, 1981). Therefore, to be relevant, computer-mediated-communication requires open-forum, dialogic interaction. To use the Internet as simply another way to ‘push’ information at passive learners is to engage in an anachronistic waste of this powerful tool (Crook, 1997). Given the generousness of the Internet, the learner is capable of gathering more information than most teachers will ever know or learn. Therefore, in order to remain relevant, teachers must begin to reconstruct their pedagogical models, taking on the role of a facilitator and collaborator, encouraging active and interactive learning (Thompson 2001).

    Numerous case studies provide evidence that students develop new, and powerful, habits of critical evaluation through discussion, irrespective of the medium (McCutcheon, 1981; Miller, 1999). As learners become aware of the multiple perspectives that are given ‘voice’ in a discussion forum, this awareness dramatises the need to consider conflicting possibilities, and in this context, learners gain the means of “choosing one’s orientation among them” (Bahktin, 1981; Bruner, 1986). To facilitate a discussion forum, one must encourage responses, guide attention to key points in the discussion, scaffold strategies for questioning, monitoring and elaborating, all aimed at getting learners to think in increasingly complex ways about alternative interpretations. Even without face-to-face interaction (Miller 1999), students can learn collaboratively, via computer mediation, to extend and question initial responses for themselves in ways that become socially valued in the class. They can be requested to connect text and personal experience; question the text and each other; evaluate possible interpretations; identify difficult passages and generate plausible explanations; move back and forth from the landscape of actions to speculation about human intentions and consciousness; and create imagery, metaphor and dramatization to engender understanding.

    Collaborative relationships are particularly important for high-order, critical thinking skills. It requires the teacher/learner to move beyond the passive search for, and memorisation of, facts towards a more “constructivist” engagement in which students comprehend, assess, and apply information in ways that lead to new insights and understanding. Students need a software environment that lets them do more than just process data. They need a way to work together on problems and to produce, as a group, some kind of cohesive deliverable result, which might be, for example, in the form of a group plan, research project, report, or case study. Skills and meaning are socially constructed by formulating ideas and receiving feedback and evaluation from peers (Harasim, et al., 1995). Simultaneously, in mainstream terms, computer-mediated interaction develops written communication skills, enhances in-depth processing and recall of course material, and prepares students for examinations demanding written responses (Kaye, 1992).

    Discovering the Objective Correlative

    Over the duration of the past fifty years the computer has developed into a versatile artefact for modelling systems that reflect our ideas about how the world is organised. T.S. Eliot used the term objective correlative to describe the way in which clusters of events in literary works can capture emotional experience.

    “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion, such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given the emotion is immediately evoked.” (Eliot 1920)

    There is an emotion in the mind of the teacher, which the teacher then seeks to reproduce in the mind of the learner by means of an “objective correlative” – an external thing known to addresser and addressee – that produces the same emotion in both minds. Implicit in this definition is the idea that learning is more successful as a communicative act when it conveys the teacher’s intention – the “particular emotion.” This can be achieved only by connecting to the knowledge base of the learner (Goldfarb 1997: 257). The computer now allows us to create objective correlatives for thinking about the many systems in which we participate, observe, and imagine. In psychological terms, computers are liminal objects, located on the threshold between external reality and our own minds, which we can use to evoke emotion in others (Murray, 1997; and see Conway, 1970). Other examples, and the power of this idea, are germinated in an article by Charles Taylor (1998), who vividly describes the utilisation of computer images (e.g., Van Gogh’s The Red Vineyard) while lecturing in the dark. He posits: “We were there in that classroom together in a way we had not been previously. One indication of the gathering of meaning that happened that day is that a student wrote a poem afterwards (that subsequently won the annual poetry contest on campus) reflecting the intensity of the class, carefully examining what one sees in (the computer-generated image of) Van Gogh’s painting.”

    That learning would take place through the senses of sight and hearing comes as no surprise. Given that the brain is a parallel processor it simultaneously processes many different types of information, including thoughts, emotions, and cultural knowledge. Learning engages the entire physiology. To assist therefore, effective teaching must employ a variety of learning strategies. And yet, as Taylor (1998) notes, in this complete familiarity with sight and hearing there may still be lurking some astounding things we do not understand. There is a significance of colour and sound that goes far beyond the familiarity of our everyday relations to colour and sound. We may approach this unusual significance of colour and sound in the same manner in which Proust uses the “Overture” to Remembrance of Things Past, struggling to remember his childhood days spent at an aunt’s house in the “country.” While able to retrieve many details of those visits he is never able to retrieve anything more than a bare framework until years later when he dips a madeleine into lime-flower tisane (the same event took place at his aunt’s house) and in smelling it the whole world of his youth opens before him again.

    We are on the brink of a future in which teachers/learners may find themselves as tightly enveloped in digital environments as they are today in the physical, spatial kind (Dibbell 1998). It is not the technology alone affecting minds but the whole “cloud of correlated variables” – technology, activity, goal, setting, teacher’s role, peer groups, cultural content – exerting a combined effect. Consequently, to engineer a desirable effect either with, or of, an intelligent technology requires much more than just the introduction of a new program or artefact. In a world built wholly out of language and images, they are what manifest the teacher/learner and the architecture of ideas in the virtual world. How one uses words and images, consequently, tends to shape the learner’s perceptions in much the same way as physical architecture frames what the viewer senses, and therefore thinks (Salomon, 1991: 8). This is a process that is taken for granted, extremely complex, and may have serendipitous results. Wells (1986) counsels:

    “When I communicate with other people, whether it be to inform,

    request, or persuade, what I have in mind is an idea—an event, action, or outcome—that I intend they should understand. However, this idea arises from my mental model of the world, which is itself the product of my unique personal biography. Nobody else has exactly the same mental model of the world, since nobody else has had exactly the same experience. It follows therefore,

    that nobody can have exactly the same ideas I have.” (Wells 1986: 216-217)

    From the observation of extraordinary change in technology and the increased knowledge of biology and life forms, and with the help provided by this technology and knowledge, a deep transformation is taking place: that of categories by which we think through all learning processes socially, incorporating the artefact to mediate our collaboration. Human biological evolution, now best understood in cultural terms, must incorporate the consciousness that tools and machines are inseparable from evolving human nature (Castells 1996). The development of the Logo programming language by Seymour Papert is one example of expanding the communicative abilities of teacher and learner. Learners are able to gain knowledge of mathematical concepts by choreographing the actions of magic sprites that race across the screen (See Papert 1997). This clearly shows that the computer can offer an extension of human powers, in some instances better representing knowledge in digital formats than they have been represented in print (Murray 1997: 6).

    Digital environments are characterised by their power to represent navigable space. Although linear media such as books and films can portray space, either by verbal description or image, only digital environments can present ‘virtual’ spaces through which we move. One challenge for the future is to invent an increasingly graceful choreography of navigation to lure the learner through ever more expressive landscapes of knowledge.


    Computer-mediated teaching/learning is of a different type than face-to-face learning on its own with the potential of being more sophisticated, and having a greater prospect of promoting understanding and wisdom. It is not yet possible, and most unlikely, that fringe consciousness, complex pattern recognition, imagination and inspiration, all of which have notable parts to play in producing knowledge (Dreyfus 1993: 68, 103, 122), can be programmed into a computer, such as that typified by Hal in the film 2001 (Stork 1997). Nor is it possible that a human chess player will ever have the brute force to be able to make millions of calculations per second similar to “Deep Blue” [as pointed out by Stork in Hal’s Legacy]. But together, a new form of understanding and wisdom is possible by combining the brain and computer in symbiosis (See, for instance, Berge and Collins 1995; Crook 1997; Jacobson,; Postma,; Schutte 1998; Yakimovicz and Murphy 1995). The challenge for teachers/learners is how to combine the strengths of the computer (brute force of computational speed, multimedia combinatory potential, and storage recall) with the human brain (creativity, imagination and lateral complex consciousness) in a constructivist project for teaching/learning.

    An “absent structure of personality” is one way of describing the peculiar character of the computer that has been designated as a “second self.” Some see computer-mediation as a danger, possessing a sense of threat and loss of humanity. Others see it as seductive and enticing, with a sense of stimulation that comes both from within and without (Stone 1993: 108). We have much to learn from those, within the humanities, writing about the effects technological change on the teaching/learning process. One lesson that emerges from cyber cultural writing is the recognition that “the present is more important than the past as a tool for understanding the future” (Hamilton 1998: 181).

    To achieve the aspirations of knowledge by teachers and learners, one can find an enormous content of software and hardware. However, we must never forget that the endgame is not that whoever collects the most toys wins. Rather, working little by little to transform information into knowledge, we can continue to learn what we know we don’t know, but even more excitingly, to learn what we could not previously have envisaged!


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