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Examining Online Pedagogies for e-Learning

Mpine Qakisa Makoe is the first presenter of the post-lunch session. She presents on the ecology of South African distance learners. Usually e-learning studies focus on how it affects learners, but this offers only a limited perspective. Distance learning is especially important in South Africa as this enables universities to deal with a significant backlog of learners especially also in remote locations, who previously did not have access to formal education - and therefore it is also a priority area for government policy. Universities now have to deal with a three- or fourfold increase in students, and many white educators in universities are still coming from the apartheid era, so there are considerable pressures on the sector.

Mpine's study focussed especially on female students from rural areas - these are amongst the most disadvantaged students in South Africa. How they cope with issues in education has been underresearched to date. According to Bronfenbrenner, people's experiences are a set of nested structures, each inside the next - this means that people cannot be separated from their environment, and that it is instead important to focus on individuals within their ecological framework. There are a number of levels to this: the micro-system within which learners operate (family, friends, the community), the meso-system (the educational institution overall), the exo-system (contextual influences beyond the immediate setting), and the macro-system (which provides patterns and blueprints for overall social and cultural interaction).

At the micro-level, there is very limited support for the learners studied here - families have little understanding of the requirements of university study, meaning that there is little allowance for the time required to attend to school work; the community continues to take precedence over study. At the meso-level, learners feel somewhat forgotten by the institution - there are cultural barriers between students and lecturers and a lack of communication. In the exo-system, there similarly is a lack of support from the government, while at the macro-system traditional tendencies in black South African culture to develop group structures do provide some support for learners.

Right now, too, print-based courses are generally simply repackaged for e-learning, and there is a lack of understanding of the pedagogies of e-learning. Access to the Internet remains at a low level, and partly as a result, e-learning is viewed by institutions as an add-on which remains marginalised. While it is important to invest in the infrastructure, then, it is equally important to understand the people who will be using the technology, and their ecological environment.

Gender and Power in e-Learning

Deneka MacDonald is up next, exploring gender and power issues in technology-enabled learning cultures. Power and trust relationships, if established with care, can empower learners - yet cultural views of ICTs remain rooted in early science fiction ideas which posited computers as an 'other', as unemotional artificial intelligence machines, at once less than and better than humans. This means that e-learning faces particular challenges, especially as such environments place learners in particularly vulnerable contexts.

The data for this presentation emerged from a course on gender and technology in fantasy, science fiction, and horror, which was taken predominantly by males; it focussed on films that represented as well as blurred the boundaries. Can changes in cultural attitudes towards technology be mapped through studying these films and their relation to specific decades? In the course, students were encouraged to test boundaries and negotiate their respective online spaces. They were not necessarily asked to reflect on their comfort, gender, or issues of power, but these topics did emerge at the heart of many of their interactions as they worked.

To begin with, students were asked to choose a character for themselves, and explain their choice as well as the character's background (links to films, its gender, etc.). Interesting discussions of gender relations emerged from this fairly quickly, and some of these were also used to test the boundaries of common gender stereotypes - for example, there was a critical exchange about the use of the gendered term 'mankind' as opposed to 'humankind', which could be described as a 'flexing' of student voices. This played out purely online within a community that had never met face-to-face, and was therefore somewhat fragile. The nature of this exchange in part between a student and a tutor also introduces power relation issues, of course - participants gave one another 'permission to think' in their interactions.

This shows that it is possible to generate e-learning environments that transgress transmissive, passive pedagogies and enable a more active deconstruction of traditional patterns of understanding. But there is also a need to use such technological environments more effectively as an empowering and liberating space for critical engagement.

Theory and Practice of Online Class Culture

Next up is Anne Hewling, presenting on the difficult move from theory to practice in online class culture. Prevailing views are that cultural attitudes are relatively fixed within individual social strata, but this may not present the full picture. Cultures do not talk to one another - individuals do, and their attitudes are more mobile than those of culture overall. Culture, then, is in fact a signifying process - the active construction of meaning (according to Street), and there are many elements involved in any cultural context, including students, tutors, course materials, delivery platforms, etc. These involve enactive work (students establishing their position) and recognition work (others engaging with these positions); such positions are not necessarily fixed, either (contrary perhaps to individuals' roles).

Anne studied students in Masters-level coursework classes at an Australian university, and from these some crucial themes emerged - time, technology, authority, and control. But how can these themes, which emerged in hindsight, be operationalised in future teaching work? This is connected to expectations and assumptions emerging from areas of learning and teaching, professions, knowledge, the institution, and interaction, and these are crucial: if they collide head-on, problems will emerge, but if there is a way to manage these in balance, such problems can be avoided.

Cross-Cultural Schemata amongst e-Learners

David Lefevre is the last speaker here, focussing on the impact of cultural schemata on students' engagement with e-learning content. This is part of a larger study of adaptive e-learning environments which respond to cultural and linguistic barriers to learning. There are two current trends in higher education: an increase in the use of learning technologies, and an internationalisation of the student body (to 13% of higher education students in 2003/4 in the UK overall, and 64% of higher degree students). This means that e-learning content needs to be designed in a way which reduces disadvantages that bias the learning environment against non-native learners.

This online learning environment sits as an interface between learners, experts, and learning content, and David notes a number of studies which have investigated the various influences which can lead to bias in this environment, as well as outlining the potential for it - and the impact of cultural factors on learning content must also be investigated, of course. There may be a lack of attention to the cultural inflections of learning content, in fact, whether this content exists in the form of narrative, interactive, adaptive, communicative, or productive media, as Laurillard categorises them. Of these, the first three may be most crucially culturally inflected, as students have less of an influence on their contents (and of course, culture needs to be further defined as well).

Further, then, educational psychology offers a number of key theories to be utilised here: socio-cultural theory, which sees knowledge as socially mediated (following Vygotsky), and schema theory, where what is remembered is seen largely as a function of what was understood to begin with (following Driscoll). A schema is a data structure for representing the generic concepts stored in memory, and humans interpret the world around them through their existing schemata. Cultural schemata are tools through which people identify one another as members of a shared culture, and this can be further extended to educational cultural schemata which assume specific prior knowledge or pedagogical experiences in the course of the educational process.

And additionally, there is the concept of a contrastive rhetoric, which describes different expectations as to the structure of texts across different cultural groups. This creates problems for learners especially in the production of texts - and the same may apply also in e-learning contexts which deal with media forms other than text. So far for the theoretical foundations, then - the further work of David's study will build on these.

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