This is a report on the first year of a three-year project concerned with the development and assessment of new types of software capabilities designed to support university level courses. A "virtual classroom" or "university without walls" is being created within a computerized conferencing system. During the first year of the project, students in twelve courses at three universities completed part or all of their coursework online. Pre and post-course questionnaires and automatic monitoring of their computer-mediated communications are the main sources of data. Independent variables include the expectations and attributes of the individual students; characteristics of the particular hardware and software which they use; and variations among classes in the nature of the assignments and activities required or facilitated by the instructor. Intervening variables include the amount and type of use of the system by the students, and the extent to which "group learning" takes place. Dependent variables are course outcomes and judgments by the students about the relative value of traditional and "virtual" classrooms.
There is considerable variance in outcomes, particularly in student assessments of whether the virtual classroom is a "better learning experience" and whether they "learned more" or learned less. There was also extreme variation in measures of activity levels by students. For instance, the mean number of student sessions online was 41, but the standard deviation was 61; and the mean number of "comments" (contributions per student to the class discussion) was six, while the standard deviation was eight. Variations in measures of online activity and outcomes were significantly related to course, pre-use expectations of the students, sex, and system access variables including workstation hardware and response time. However, the strongest relationships are for measures of process vs. outcome. Those students who actively participated (by making comments rather than just reading the comments of others, and by engaging in private communication online with a number of other students as well as the professor) and those students who experienced "group learning" (learning from peer-group activity rather than one-way transmission of "knowledge" from professor to student) reported the most positive outcomes.
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Computerized Conferencing & Communications Center and Hiltz, Starr Roxanne, "The virtual classroom: building the foundations" (1986). Computerized Conferencing and Communications Center Reports. 24.