Exploring New Literacies in Online Peer-Learning Environments

Cynthia C. Choi
Hsiang-ju Ho

What is your image of an effective learning environment? Typically we think of a prominent brick-and-mortar building where students interact face to face with their teachers and peers. However, this new century has rushed in new learning environments, no longer bounded by physical space, that offer opportunities for new literacies.

Propelled by changes in information and communication technologies, instructional technology is now defined as “a complex, integrated process involving people, procedures, ideas, devices, and organization for analyzing problems, and devising, implementing, evaluating, and managing solutions to these problems, in institutions in which learning is purposive and controlled” (Association for Educational Communications and Technology, 1996, p. 4). As instructional technology continues to reinvent itself, such transformation demands “a bridge among ideas, disciplines, people, texts, processes...contexts, educational purposes and outcomes, theory and praxis” (Semali & Pailliotet, 1999, p. 4). Many traditional teaching and learning strategies that are found effective need to be re-examined within this new context.

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With such re-examination in mind, this articles explores peer learning in an online environment. We first discuss the underlying assumptions and theories of peer learning and its application in online environments. Then we share an example, a “virtual classroom” activity that forms a component of a stand-alone educational technology course in a teacher preparation program, and offer reflections about its future application.

Peer Learning | Meaning Making | The Online Environment | Theory Into Practice | Closing Thoughts | References

Peer Learning

Peer learning, in which students learn with and from one another without the immediate intervention of a teacher, is a process for aiding students in achieving particular learning outcomes. In this context, each student acts as both the teacher and the learner. Thus, peer learning fosters certain types of lifelong learning skills:

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Literacy Learning as Meaning Making

Instructional strategies based on a constructivist perspective take a learner-centered approach, in which meaning and knowledge are constructed by the learner through a process of relating new information to prior knowledge and experience. Under the framework of constructivist epistemology, the main goal of literacy learning is meaning making, deriving understanding from daily activities and experiences. Knowledge emerges from the learner’s interactions with the world through articulation of and reflection on what is experienced and learned. The principles by which learning environments are created are built on four general system attributes: context, construction, collaboration, and conversation. Further, learners negotiate in their minds, reflectively and metacognitively, and socially with others, within the context of a community of learners (Jonassen et al., 1995).

Through dynamic, integrated relationships and collaborative interactions, learners are actively engaged in a social dialogical process, constructing personally relevant knowledge. Collaboration among learners occurs throughout the learning process (Saltiel & Sgroi, 1996). Unlike many traditional learning strategies that are teacher directed, peer-learning relationships acknowledge the expertise of the learners and expand their role to co-creators of knowledge. By articulating their learning processes and strategies, learners are able to build new and modify existing knowledge structures.

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The Online Environment and Peer Learning

Collaboration among learners helps them achieve a deeper level of knowledge generation while moving from independence to interdependence. The development of collaborative skills requires a means and environment for study that lets a group of students formulate a shared goal for their learning process; allows the use of personally motivating problems, interests, and experiences as springboards; and uses dialogue as the fundamental means of inquiry (Collison, Elbaum, Haavind, & Tinker, 2000).

A common claim in the literature is that online environments can facilitate a shift from the predominate model in which the teacher is the source of knowledge to learner-centered models in which peer support, interaction, and collaboration are emphasized (Harasim, 1990; Jonassen et al., 1995; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Lebow, 1993; Seaton, 1993). In such environments, online communication among learners provides them with mutual support and leads to the sharing of ideas and information, risk taking by individuals and groups, reflection on learning by individuals and groups, and cooperative learning (Anderson & Lee, 1995).

Within the growing collection of literature on the social phenomena of online communities, research shows that interactions in online spaces share many of the characteristics of face-to-face interactions (Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire, 1994; Rapaport, 1991; Rheingold, 1993). While interaction within a virtual community is peculiar in many ways, this does not mean that very familiar kinds of social interaction do not take place. Rather, it is the way that common and familiar forms of interaction are transplanted into and transformed by online spaces that is of a particular interest.

The online content (typed text of individual thoughts and responses to particular assigned discussions) is a representation of interactivity, which occurs via conversation and negotiation with other learners as well as reflectively within participants’ own minds (Jonassen et al., 1995). Electronic interactions among learners stimulate productive thinking, reflection, and articulation of ideas and opinions. Thus, the constructivist notion of negotiation may well thrive in this kind of environment. As one of the findings of an earlier study of a distance-learning education certificate program indicated (Choi 2001), the interaction within online communication appears as if students just think aloud from multiple perspectives. Students’ interactions in that study contained evidence of

These types of interaction capture student thinking and hold great possibilities for many educational situations. If a goal of an instructional experience is to increase and improve thinking, then online communication not only effectively stimulates participant learning, but also preserves it for outsider evaluation and scrutiny.

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Theory into Practice: A Virtual Classroom in Teacher Preparation

The online “virtual classroom” activity puts the assertions made above into practice. Preservice and inservice teachers enrolled in an educational technology course of a teacher preparation program are the participants in this online small group discussion. The Internet tool Blackboard 5, designed for education institutions that wish to provide flexible course management tools and to foster online learning communities, is employed to facilitate interaction. This software allows students to navigate to different areas, such as announcements, course information, assignments, communication, a discussion board, and groups (see Figure 1).

Figure 1
A Personal Course-Management Homepage

screen shot of virtual classroom homepage

Many school districts in the metropolitan area in which our university is located are now adopting electronic management tools such as Blackboard 5. The motivation for creating the virtual classroom activity was based in part on the view that our pre- and inservice teachers need first-hand experience with such tools as part of their training. Participation as peer learners in the virtual classroom allows them to gain knowledge that can be applied later, in their own classrooms and schools. In addition, the teachers gain content knowledge and create a strong collaborative learning environment.

In the activity, students with varied teaching and computer expertise form their own small groups of five to seven to join three discussions during the semester. These discussions are content driven and stem from reading of assigned articles. Each group has the option to interact both asynchronously by using the “discussion board” feature and synchronously through live chat in the “group virtual classroom.”

Figure 2
Options for Interaction

screen shot of webpage links to interaction options

Planning time for the virtual classroom activity is provided during face-to-face meetings of the class. Participants are offered the following suggested process guidelines:

If a group selects the discussion board, participants are directed to a webpage where discussion forums are posted. Figure 3 shows how such forums are structured and presented. If the option for Group Virtual Classroom is chosen, group members are able to meet for a real-time discussion, as depicted in Figure 4.

Figure 3
One Group’s Discussion Board

screen shot of discussion board posts

Figure 4
Example of a Live Chat in Progress

screen shot of live chat posts

Archived interactions demonstrate the pre- and inservice teachers’ high levels of critical inquiry. The following excerpts from one group’s discussion provide an example of how three students related personal experiences and applications of the assigned reading.

Student 1:      [The article author] says children under the age of 7 don’t need to use computers. Do you agree? Thoughts?
Student 2:      I do agree with her for the most part.... While I agree that some of the games are good at building eye/hand coordination, I think there are many other activities that would achieve the same end result that do not involve sitting in front of a computer terminal. I think that children, under the age of 7 especially, have a great opportunity to use their imaginations. Therefore, using computer games as a form of entertainment at that age is unnecessary. If computer programs can be used effectively to teach spelling, reading, or math, then I would encourage its usage, but in a limited dose.
Student 3:      From my own personal experience I have found that many software programs that are beneficial for kids at a 7th grade level are fairly complicated. A number of the activities that I have done have involved the teacher guiding the students through most of the activity on the computer or require a tutorial for them to look at when they got stuck.... I don’t know how user-friendly programs are for younger kids but I would imagine this would cause a problem with younger kids. Are any of the group members elementary teachers that have a little more information on this?

Overall, student feedback and archived interactions show that small communities of learners are indeed established through the virtual classroom activity. The general tone of discussion is one of respect and encouragement. Students refer to one another by name and appear to feel comfortable enough to share personal struggles and perspectives openly. For example, when one group member expressed her frustration with a parent who believed that her first-grade child was not adequately prepared to be a “fluent computer user” and was hardly challenged by the current “archaic use of coloring and written work” in school, the rest of the group offered support by referring to their previous discussions on the readings that spoke to this very subject.

While this online peer learning effectively supports content learning, it is also extended to facilitate discussions of real-life concerns and applications. Successful peer learning groups share responsibility for achieving mutual goals of completing each virtual discussion and applying what participants learn in their own classroom settings. One student shared that “we had great feedback from almost all of the members. Throughout several of the comments you find encouragement and praise for how well it was going, and I found this to be motivational! I think I can speak for the group in saying we look forward to our next virtual class.”

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Closing Thoughts

The teaching and learning environment in which teachers and students currently live includes many types of literacy, such as critical literacy, media literacy, and Internet literacy. Students need “to develop critical understanding of how all texts (both print and nonprint) position them as readers and viewers within different social, cultural, and historical contexts” (Alvermann & Hagood, 2000, p. 193). Peer learning facilitates students’ literacy skills and develops critical thinking, communication skills, and content knowledge through community building, meaning making, and reflective practices. While much investigation of peer-learning relationships is directed toward face-to-face interactions, with the increasingly prevalent application of technology in learning environments, more attention should focus on examining this strategy in the online context.

Practitioners of online learning must, however, be sensitive to potential pitfalls regarding group management and to pedagogical challenges. For example, because of variety in learning styles, some students’ learning may not be maximized in a virtual environment. Of course, students’ comfort level with technology is also an issue of concern. Finally, even with appropriate training and an appropriate instructional tool, the necessity of being prepared for potential technical problems can not be overemphasized. As shared by one of our students, “The key to a successful virtual classroom is organization.”

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About the Authors

Cynthia Choi is an assistant professor at Le Moyne College (Syracuse, New York, USA), where she teaches educational technology courses in a teacher preparation program. Her research interests include learning communities, online learning, peer support, and cohort research. She can be reached by e-mail at choicc@lemoyne.edu.

Hsiang-ju Ho is an assistant professor at Le Moyne College, where she teaches developmental reading, literacy theories and practices, and early childhood education. Her research interests include technology and literacy instruction, use of multicultural literature, and curriculum integration. She can be reached by e-mail at hjho2001@hotmail.com.

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Citation: Choi, C.C., & Ho, H. (2002, July/August). Exploring new literacies in online peer-learning environments. Reading Online, 6(1). Available: http://www.readingonline.org/newliteracies/lit_index.asp?HREF=choi/index.html

Reading Online, www.readingonline.org
Posted July 2002
© 2002 International Reading Association, Inc.   ISSN 1096-1232