Educational Research in Virtual Learning Environments: Possibilities for a New Ethnography

Educational Research in Virtual Learning Environments: Possibilities for a New Ethnography

Marcus Vinicius Santos Kucharski (Universidade Tuiuti do Paraná & Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Paraná, Brazil) and Patricia Lupion Torres (Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Paraná, Brazil)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-762-3.ch005
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The continuous growth of distance education (DE) programs in all levels, powered by the development of new information and communication technologies (ICT), brings new challenges: how can educational research be made in non-presential, asynchronous settings? How can we scientifically approach student bodies formed by people who rarely even share the same hometown and only meet online in virtual learning environments (VLE)? How can we “observe” such groups’ interpersonal, pedagogical relations and their impact on learning? In countries like Brazil, where DE programs have grown vertiginously in few years, many researchers have made significant efforts to answer these questions coherently, efforts that demanded that some principles of traditional educational research be rethought with the help of local and international researches. Interesting methodological approaches to DE groups have resulted from these efforts, and we present and discuss one that has been constantly growing: the virtual ethnographic.
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Though not novelties in their own rights, information and communication technologies (ICT) applied to Education have provided plenty of research material and questions as we try to seize and keep up with all innovative possibilities their combinations bring to our classrooms – either traditional or virtual.

In Education, ICT have broadened the reach and availability of information and of the ways one can process, transform and share knowledge in various forms. More than anything else, ICT have been responsible for the recent boost in the development of important, ambitious and not rarely successful distance education (DE) programs for all levels (from basic education in home schooling, to graduate or continuous, on-the-job formation programs). With all technology we have at reach nowadays, it is not a sacrilegious thing to say it is possible for someone to grow from a 7-year-old into a certified teacher, for example, without leaving the comforts of his own home much over the years.

All this potentially positive innovation, though, has not historically been broadly welcomed into formal education settings, let alone the suspicious looks that a significant part of the academia frequently directs at it. Disdain at first and sheer prejudice, as it more frequently surfaces, have been keynotes of the way many scholars behold and discuss the potentials of DE projects, regardless of how solid, well-laid-out they might be. This is surprisingly true in countries like Brazil, that harbors such paradoxes as having access to top-notch ICT applicable to Education, a recent (yet far from incipient) history of research on the field and a previously unheard of growth of enrollments in distance undergraduate programs, from a little over 1,000 students in 2001 to over 760,000 in 2008 while the mainstream scholar discourse about such programs is openly contrary to all that has been and can still be achieved with them – despite the fact that they know this opposition points an awkwardly contradictory finger against all positive student performance assessments in DE programs we have had.

Responding all opposition with positive results, modern, technologically-enhanced DE programs have become an attractive, important and yet underexplored field of research in Education in Brazil.

The quantitative approach is not new to educational research, and numerous such works have been conducted and published, most of which have recently focused on comparing student performances as mentioned before – an important task, since their results have proved good DE programs owe nothing to traditional, in-school ones in terms of learning results.

Qualitative research, on the other hand, has also been valuable to better understand subjective information regarding the feelings of participants of DE programs while playing their specific roles, more especially those involved in programs whose pedagogical interventions are mostly done in virtual learning environments (VLE), given that the number of students who participate asynchronously from different locations is growing rapidly.

Most of these studies, however, are circumscribed to the traditional possibilities of Content Analysis (Bardin, 1995) which, though enlightening, still face the obstacle of approaching unidimensionally the information as plain text. Considering the speedy expansion of DE programs throughout vast territorial extensions, the unidimensional approach will soon become less informative than it could be, for it will methodologically ignore the fact that the cultures or subcultures of the researched students may significantly vary from the one of the certifying institution, and among each of the participants of the process.

Where does that leave us when we wish to design research projects aimed at deepening our understanding of behavioral, attitudinal or social aspects of the DE experience if we keep attached to traditional anthropological or sociological research rules? How can we propose that DE can be developed collaboratively, with coherent co-authoring of valid scientific papers in the area of Human Sciences, for example, if the involved participants come from – and frequently still live in – varied cultural backgrounds? How could they find a zone comfortable enough to allow shared assertiveness? Can we say that this varied group of students in a DE program, though not territorially bound, shares a common cultural environment?

Key Terms in this Chapter

Societal formations: discursively-bounded groups of cultural practice whose participants play different, interchangeable roles (speaker/writer, listener/reader, moderator/participant etc.) within the principles of a common discursive logic. So, a societal formation could be metaphorically described as a continuously edited text whose authors share common values and goals.

Virtual Ethnography: a qualitative research methodology that adapts principles of traditional ethnographic research to study cultural manifestations of online groups, such as the participants of DE programs.

ICT: acronym for Information and Communications Technologies, fundamental tools for the development of efficient distance education programs. The most commonly used in educational programs are the Internet and all its possibilities, VoIP (Voice over IP) synchronous communications, videoconferencing softwares etc.

Research informants: also simply called “informants” in this article, are all people who contribute with the scientific investigation in the role of information/data-producers, those who are being observed in the course of an investigation. When we refer to these people simply to indicate their belonging to any given virtual group, we call them “participants”.

Metacognitive processes: mental processes triggered by a learning situation, the strategies one’s mind needs to put to work in order for one to learn/understand a given concept or situation. Being aware of our own metacognitive processes is an advantage, for it makes learning and easier process. These are the most important processes currently investigated by Kucharski and Torres (2010 AU47: The in-text citation "Kucharski and Torres (2010" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. ) in the research that is to become the first’s doctoral dissertation.

CMC: acronym for Computer-Mediated Communications, any kind of communication that needs to be computer-mediated in order to happen. E.g.: e-mail, VoIP calls etc.

VLE: acronym for Virtual Learning Environments, softwares designed for teaching/learning in cyberspace, usually consisting of a suite of tools for synchronous and asynchronous communication among the participants of an online course. They can be as simple as to rely on written communication only or as refined as to allow synchronous videoconferencing, for example.

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