Gurmak Singh,  Vincenza Priola,   University of Wolverhampton,  UK.

Over the last decade there has been a significant increase in the use of information communication technologies in higher education. The several advantages of computer-mediated learning over traditional approaches have been reported in the literature which emphasise the incorporation of individual learning strategies (e.g. Paterson and Rosbottom, 1995); the shift of the degree of control to learners (e.g. Naidu, Barrett and Olsen, 1995) and the encouragement of active learning, flexible delivery and a learner-centred approach (Harasim et al., 1995; Mason and Kaye 1989; Berge and Collins, 1995).

Compared with face-to-face interaction, online interaction is usually asynchronous and hence adds the benefit of being more reflective. While it lacks the uses of the face-to-face context, and the immediacy of feedback of synchronous communication, it creates a record of the interactions in a series of messages which can be re-read, analysed and even quoted (Mason, 1998). Research on learning has traditionally focused on the individual as isolated within his or her environment. However, more recently, attention has shift towards the learner’s social contexts and aspects such as collaboration and co-operation (Glaser, 1990; Kaye, 1992; Fowler 1999). While there is a growing recognition that much of the learning may occur outside the formal classroom environment (e.g. Fowler and Mayes, 1997), there are many views of situated learning. For example, Lave and Wenger (1991) emphasise a wider social context exploring relationships between the wider identifiable groups of people.

For situated learning the increased interactions amongst learners, groups of learners, instructors and tutors is provided by electronic communications supported by learning technologies. Such environments have been shown to enhance learning outcomes in many different ways, including improvement in the quantity and quality of the learning experience (Grabinger, 1995). Furthermore, such technological environments remove the logistical problems encountered by traditional approaches and may improve collaboration between learners. Whilst online technologies offer many benefits they will not in themselves improve or cause changes in learning. What improves learning is well-designed instruction (Paterson and Rosbottom, 1995), motivation to learn and ability to working independently.

Using Fowler and Maye’s (1999) framework, the paper investigates the socio-learning environment of learners studying an on-line program. Five exploratory group interviews were carried out with sixteen participants. The main aim was to develop an understanding of the meanings attached to learner experiences in an on-line environment. Respondents were asked to share their experiences, to describe whatever events seemed significant to them, and to provide their own definitions of their situations. Semi-structured interviews with twenty-one participants followed the first phase of data collection. These were designed to explore the causality of relationships among the concepts identified in the first interviews.

The key anchor themes were identified from the raw causal statements. The concepts mentioned frequently were grouped together into the framework identified by Fowler and Mayes (1999). Using the social network theory specifically addressing four levels of relationships. The first level relationships consider the learning relationships between the academic tutors and the learners. The second level relationships explore the interaction between the learners and other parts of the institutions, such as learning centre staff and pastoral care counsellors. The third level relationships are between the different learners and the fourth level relationships are between learners and the outer community, such as friends and family members.

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