Social Interactions in Virtual Communication Environments: Using Sakai to Teach Forensic Science

Social Interactions in Virtual Communication Environments: Using Sakai to Teach Forensic Science

Andrea Crampton (Charles Sturt University, Australia) and Angela T. Ragusa (Charles Sturt University, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-874-1.ch017
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Forensic science students must not only learn disciplinary-specific subject content, but also need to acquire the interpersonal and communication skills crucial for successful careers in policing and biotechnology. Utilizing various Web 2.0 computer-mediated communication (CMC) technologies, asynchronous and synchronous communication, including chat rooms, podcasts, resource sharing and wikis, enabled the creation of virtual active-learning environments. A virtual crime scene was produced to permit distance and face-to-face university students to conduct a virtual forensics investigation. The virtual model allowed students to gain and become aware of the practical communication skills consistent with ‘real-life’ forensic crime scene analysis. Specifically, the use of virtual role-play reproduced patterns of dialogue routine among police officers, crime scene officers and lab technicians. CMC technologies not only facilitated these social interactions, but gave distance education students a simulated forensic workplace experience not possible due to cost, location and time. This narrowed preconceived gaps between distance and internal education. Finally, the authors’ chapter argues that with careful planning, the use of role playing and scripting can be an effective tool for encouraging pedagogically effective social interactions utilizing new CMC technologies
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The introduction of Web 2.0 has radically changed the capacity of virtual environments, transforming passive dialogue into interactive communicative events facilitated by a range of new digital technologies. The key difference between traditional Web technology and Web 2.0 technology is the inclusion of tools that facilitate social interaction, which explains why Web 2.0 has been labelled the ‘social web’ (Boulos & Wheelert, 2007). Web 2.0 applications have changed the function and role of users from passive receptors to active, multi-dimensional content contributors. Previously, users passively took in static data. Today, users not only receive information, but they also act as information developers and producers, leading to widespread growth in the popularity of user-modifiable sites, such as Myspace and Facebook (Alexander, 2006).

In the higher education sector, the changing role of users, who include students, teachers, administrators and technicians, has been facilitated by the interactive capacity of Web 2.0 technology. Web 2.0 technology has essentially changed the art of learning and teaching in rural Australia, as well as globally. Online learning environments, and particularly the use of asynchronous communication technologies, have fundamentally altered the nature and scope of social interactions available to higher education stakeholders (Topçu, 2008).

In this chapter, we examine some practical concerns about how the Web 2.0 environment was used and perceived by both the lecturer and students from an introductory forensic science course. Previously, researchers (Lee, 2007; Timmers, Valcke, DeMil & Baeyens, 2008) in both natural and social sciences explored benefits and applications of case-based approaches using computer-supported collaborative learning environments (CSCL). Here, we present a case study of how Web 2.0 technology was used to teach police and biotechnology students the skills needed to communicate with each other in a manner consistent with ‘real-life’ crime scene situations. In forensic science, dialogue is required between police officers, crime scene officers and lab technicians. To simulate real-world social interactions, a simulated ‘forensic investigation’ was created in a virtual active learning environment. By manipulating educational design, Sakai, an open source course management software (CMS), enabled a pedagogical shift. Pedagogically, the learning/teaching experience shifted from passive (Palloff & Pratt, 2001), as expressed by the normative stereotypes associated with face-to-face ‘traditional’ classrooms, to active and student-centred.

Sakai is an online, ‘open source’ collaboration and learning environment built by the Sakai community. Officially launched in 2003, its development was derived from a decision made by four American universities (the University of Michigan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Indiana University, and Stanford University), to move away from commercially-available platforms. These four universities pooled their financial and human resources and collaboratively developed a system that suited their needs instead of working independently on institute-specific systems (Wheeler, 2008). Hence, Sakai was developed by educators, for educators, in contrast with smartly-packaged systems produced by non-educators. By 2007, the Sakai community included universities from South Africa, UK, Japan, Canada, Sweden, Spain, Egypt, China, Pakistan, Norway, USA, Italy, Mexico, Colombia, New Zealand and Australia. New tools continue to be developed by the community and are made available early in the development phase to ensure the final product has been tested by a wide range of end-users (students and educators), as well as fellow developers, to meet community needs, abilities and limitations (Sakai n.d.).

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