Vicarious Learning

Vicarious Learning

John R. Lee (University of Edinburgh, UK)
Copyright: © 2009 |Pages: 7
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-198-8.ch334
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Abstract

In computer-based learning, we often find ourselves addressing our technology to an unexpectedly complex Web of issues in learning and instruction. Understanding what is going on may require us to take a step back and look at some more fundamental theoretical issues. This is the position we find ourselves in with the application of “vicarious learning”. On the face of it, this is the simple concept of accumulating a collection of records of learning experiences, which other learners can also use to learn from. Such a concept is apparently similar to observational learning, or to various notions of re-usable learning knowledge-bases. However, the specific suggestion we address here is that vicarious learning is a distinct idea that may have its own implications, particularly for distance learners and others whose access to normal learning dialogue is limited. In this article, then, we begin with a discussion of the general concept of vicarious learning, and its close relationship to the role of dialogue in learning. We use this understanding to motivate the application of vicarious learning in computer-based learning systems, and argue, against specific objections, that these systems show benefits that will be especially relevant for the groups mentioned above.
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Introduction

In computer-based learning, we often find ourselves addressing our technology to an unexpectedly complex Web of issues in learning and instruction. Understanding what is going on may require us to take a step back and look at some more fundamental theoretical issues. This is the position we find ourselves in with the application of “vicarious learning”. On the face of it, this is the simple concept of accumulating a collection of records of learning experiences, which other learners can also use to learn from. Such a concept is apparently similar to observational learning, or to various notions of re-usable learning knowledge-bases. However, the specific suggestion we address here is that vicarious learning is a distinct idea that may have its own implications, particularly for distance learners and others whose access to normal learning dialogue is limited. In this article, then, we begin with a discussion of the general concept of vicarious learning, and its close relationship to the role of dialogue in learning. We use this understanding to motivate the application of vicarious learning in computer-based learning systems, and argue, against specific objections, that these systems show benefits that will be especially relevant for the groups mentioned above.

Vicarious learning: origins and scope of the concept

The idea of learning vicariously—through the experiences of others—was originally discussed by Albert Bandura (1965, 1971, 1986). Bandura was interested especially in the way that behaviours may be learned from the observation of other individuals, for example, in the case of aggression being possibly learned from watching aggressive behaviour on television. There is some process whereby people will model observed behaviour. Bandura noted that modeling behaviour is enhanced if the observer sees that behaviour being reinforced by some kind of reward. More specifically, the observer needs to perceive the behaviour as having attracted a reward: If the connection is not perceived, then modeling is not enhanced. On the other hand, modeling can be reinforced where behaviour is thought to have been rewarded even though in fact it was not. Vicarious learning accordingly arises in situations where a learning experience is witnessed and reacted to as a learning experience by another learner. Vicarious learning is thus to be distinguished from the observational learning of some behaviour merely by exposure to the performance of that behaviour, especially expert performance (as found, e.g., in Beishuizen, Booij, & de Visser, 1997). The principle itself is general enough to apply also to nonhuman learning agents (Crabbe & Dyer, 1999) and organisational learning (MacIntosh-Murray, 2001).

Bandura was concerned mainly with fairly general issues of social learning, especially affective learning. However, a similar modeling phenomenon arises in many other learning situations. Tulley and Lucas (1991) describe a museum context in which people’s ability to reassemble a dismantled lock mechanism was more influenced by their having observed others doing it than by any other discernible factor. Consider also a typical tutorial setting: a shy student in a medium-sized tutorial group. The student does not like asking questions, and it is very easy for him or her to keep quiet without anyone noticing. But there are some more voluble members of the group, and every so often one of them raises a question that relates directly to a problem this student has been puzzling over. As the question is discussed, the shy student follows the argument closely, gradually comes to recognise that he or she has misunderstood one of the main points from an earlier lecture, and now realises how to solve his or her own related problem. Though not participating in the discussion, the shy student has directly benefited from simply observing another student’s learning experience and is able to relate it to his or her own situation. This is a clear example of vicarious learning where the focus of the learning episode is some cognitive skill or understanding.

In many areas of education, vicarious learning is almost institutionalised through notions like the master class. In music and design, well-known teachers work with individual students in front of an audience of others to the benefit of all. Less obviously, perhaps, a related process can be mediated by technology. The Answer Garden (Ackerman & Malone, 1990) and Answer Web (Slater, 1993) are computer-based learning systems based on networks of questions that have been asked by learners and answered by experts, allowing future learners simply to access these exchanges and thus to learn vicariously.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Domain Learning: As used here, learning about some specific subject domain, e.g. in an academic discipline. This contrasts with more general learning of discussion strategies, metacognition, “learning to learn”, etc. Vicarious learning has thus far been more effectively shown to work in the latter type of area than in domain learning, but this may be quite sensitive to the choice of domain.

Task-Directed Discussion (TDD): A type of dialogue game based on techniques used in second-language teaching, designed to encourage discussion of a topic. Suggested as a means to elicit learning dialogues that may be useful as material for vicarious learning.

Learning Dialogue: A dialogue that includes a learning episode; discussion of a problem with a tutor or peer student, in which e.g. an impasse is resolved, a concept clarified or a solution explained.

Tertiary Courseware: A type of courseware based on accumulating discussions of problems and learning impasses. The idea is derived from a three-stage cyclical theory of learning in which the first stage (conceptualisation) gives rise to “primary courseware” that is essentially expository, and the second stage (construction) to “secondary courseware” that provides activities such as problem solving. The third stage (dialogue) may often occur in relation to issues and impasses that arise at the second stage and find resolution through discussion. Capturing such discussion gives rise to tertiary courseware.

Vicarious Learning: Learning via exposure to the learning experiences of others. The claim is that processes such as reinforcement, explanation, correction, etc. can be effective for the observer as well as for the original participant. These processes are especially evident in learning dialogues, hence dialogue becomes a focus in studying vicarious learning.

Overhearer: In a theoretical position developed by Herbert Clark, following among others Erving Goffman, as well as the direct participants in a dialogue situation there may be various kinds of “side participants”. Overhearers are technically side participants whose existence is not known to the direct participants. Vicarious learners are often overhearers, though in other cases their involvement may be known to the participants. Theories such as Clark’s are important in developing a clearer view of how, when and why vicarious learning works.

Modelling: In the sense used by e.g., Bandura, the way in which a person’s behaviour will tend to be modelled or patterned on behaviour that they observe. This may take a relatively individualised form, but is often seen and studied in social behaviour, where in particular vicarious learning processes may play a role in modelling.

Constructivism: A very prominent learning theory, which postulates that learning is a process essentially involving activity and involvement through which learners construct their own knowledge and skills. This naturally seems to imply that overhearers cannot learn from a learning dialogue. The theory of vicarious learning does not reject constructivism, but suggests that activity and involvement can arise cognitively through phenomena of empathy, and hence that “vicarious participation” in dialogue can also foster constructive processes.

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