Internet Learning Initiatives:How Well Do Turkish Virtual Classrooms Work?

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Futurists predict increasing demand for higher education in the next century. At the same time, resources for education threaten to become more scarce. To address this issue, many learning institutions are looking to distance education as a means of sharing resources and reaching students. Meanwhile, the rapid development and decreasing costs of communication technologies, including microcomputers, the Internet and the Web, are affecting the delivery of distance education and expanding its potential audience (Wurster 1997). The distance education literature reflects the increasing interest in the potential of current technologies to alter traditional teacher-student relationships. The impact of this trend is also described by John Noon when he states, "Distance learning courses are offering students new flexibility in course and even campus selection, causing many institutions to begin redefining themselves"(Noon 1996). Fiber optic technologies bring both new opportunities and new concerns to the classroom.

 

The Perspective

During the past decade, information systems have undergone a metamorphosis. Emerging hypermedia information systems, such as the Web, have engendered a myriad of applications. The attributes and resources of the Web provide a meaningful learning environment where learning is fostered and supported (Khan 1997). Virtual classrooms on the Web have the potential to offer a superior learning experience through increased immersion, fidelity and learner participation in the community of educational practice (Mirabito 1996). From this point of view, John Hedberg and Shirley Alexander from Australia summarized the following number of generic capabilities that can be examined as possible aspects of a learning context which might call for research into the efficacy of the technology in improving learning outcomes (Hedberg and Alexander 1996).

  • Observation, coaching, practice, modeling and fading are the models identified by the experts to articulate students' knowledge, reasoning or problem-solving processes on the Web.
  • Learning within communities of educational practice is supported by conversations, stories and multiple viewpoints on the Web.
  • Virtual classrooms combine information from different forms of representation such as visual, temporal or aural for learner needs.
  • Motivational factors of the Web content and the virtual classroom context require limiting the cognitive load of the learning task.
  • Learners' explorations on the Net are: independent of size of the world being explored (microscopic or interplanetary); of physical and improbable phenomena, related to the creation of micro-worlds; and of time.

 

The above points could be considered to improve virtual learning outcomes and to support the use of virtual classrooms (VC) in the current information age. The relationships between the defining attributes of VC will be important in determining the necessary degree of sensory immersion required, enabling effective community participation. Undoubtedly, schools must prepare students to live and work in a computer literate society. As we build our curriculum to equip our students for the world that awaits them, Internet access becomes an increasingly important part of the learning experience. It is incumbent upon administrators, teachers and parents to introduce students to the Internet in a productive and educationally sound fashion. It is also important to monitor their learning and behavior, because the task at hand is to prepare the future citizens of the networked world.

 

The Case

Internet sites give teachers and students access to a global database of current and up-to-date information and provide the situating context to scaffold a variety of problem solving and collaborative activities in the world. Students' learning outcomes related to improved process skills, increased domain knowledge and cultural diversity are evident across a number of Internet resources. Also, students' effective responses are quite high as well, with increased motivation, student pride and intellectual curiosity by the way of popular Web sites.

For the 1998 European Conference on Educational Research (ECER 98), Associate Professor Dr. Ulku Uzuncarsili from the Marmara University in Istanbul and I conducted a study entitled "Virtual Classrooms on the Web: Problems and Solutions in Turkey" (Bayram and Uzuncarsili 1998). As a further step of this study, a field survey on the Internet was concluded in the same year. The survey asked three main questions to the Turkish educational Internet users: 1) What are your popular educational Internet sites on the Web?; 2) Which Turkish sites can be realized as an example of virtual classrooms?; and 3) What is your main problem during the use of Turkish virtual classrooms? In this study, 356 users participated in the survey, and their data is summarized below.

1. The Popular Internet Sites

  1. CourseInfo (Cornell University): http://www.courseinfo.com
  2. LearnLinc (Interactive International Corporation): http://www.ilinc.com
  3. TERC Projects: http://www.terc.edu/ projects/projects.html
  4. NASA K-12 Internet Initiative: http://quest.arc.nasa.gov/interactive/index/html
  5. ClassNet (Iowa State University): http://classnet.cc.iastate.edu/
  6. Virtual-U (Simon Fraser University, British Columbia): http://virtual-u.cs.sfu.ca/ vuweb/
  7. Global Schoolnet Foundation: http://www.gsn.org/indexhi.html
  8. Science Learning Network's Teacher and Student Projects: http://www.sln.org/schools/
  9. Think Global Projects: http://www.thinkglobal.org/index.html
  10. Keypals, Links for All Educators: http://www.keypals.com/
  11. Intercultural E-mail Classroom Connections: http://www.stolaf.edu/network/iecc/
  12. TopClass (WBT Systems): http://www. websystems.com/demo/index.html
  13. Web Course In A Box (Virginia Commonwealth University): http://www.madduck.com/
  14. WebMentor (Avilar Technologies, Inc.): http://avilar.adasoft.com/

2. Virtual Classroom Examples

The examples of Turkish virtual classrooms on the Web are pointed by the users. Based on the data, the following list provides popular Web-based Turkish VC examples on the Net.

  1. Virtual Classroom (Sanal Dersane): http://www.sanaldersane.com.tr
  2. Internet Classroom (Internet Dersane): http://www.sanaldersane.com.tr/sanal_dersane.html
  3. Preparation for University (Universiteye Hazirlik): http://www.sanaldersane.com.tr/universite _hazirlik/universite_hazirlik.html
  4. Introduction to the Occupations (Meslekleri Taniyalim): http://www.sanaldersane.com.tr/ universite_hazirlik/meslekleri_taniyalim.html
  5. ClubNet-Virtual Internet Course (ClubNet Sanal Internet Kursu): http://www.gurcan.com/sanal/index.html
  6. Preparation for Lycée (Liseye Hazirlik): http://www.sanaldersane.com.tr/liseye_hazirlik/liseye _hazirlik.html
  7. Night Schools (Aksam Okullari): http://www.sanaldersane.com.tr/universite_hazirlik/ aksam_okullari.html
  8. Driving Licenses Courses (Surucu Kurslari): http://www.sanaldersane.com.tr/universite_hazirlik/ surucu_kurslari.html
  9. University Preparation Schools (Universiteye Hazirlik Dershaneleri) : http://www. sanaldersane.com.tr/universite_hazirlik/universite_ haz_der.html
  10. Guidance Services (Rehberlik Hizmetleri): http://www.sanaldersane.com.tr/universite_hazirlik/ rehberlik.html
  11. Ege University Odemis Health School (Ege Universitesi Odemis Saglik Yuksek Okulu): http://members.tripod.com/~nurcante

Table I. Turkish Virtual Classroom Problems

Type of Problem

Negative Points of the Problem

Hardware

17%

Navigation & Orientation

18%

Time & Practice

25%

Web Design & Textual Display

41%

Cost

14%

Total

109%*

*The 32 users out of the 356 participants pointed out more than one problem type.

3. Virtual Classroom Problems

The data of 356 participants showed that there are some significant drawbacks in the use of Turkish VC. The Internet survey findings concerning the problems of VC fall into five broad categories as seen in Table 1.

The survey showed that the main problems are related to current hardware and software and cost constraints. The other problems are more basic, relating to skills helpful in VC but not common in the general population. Some users pointed out more than one problem, and some of them explained that these problems have negative effects on the use of Turkish VC.

With the rapidly changing technology of both the Web and computer hardware, Web style is constantly evolving. Site layout and page layout is critical to creating effective Turkish Web sites. The viewer must be able to understand the interface he or she is using. Presenting an endless stream of text on a page will cause almost everyone to leave the Turkish sites. Based on Table 1 and the users' data, the four main problem areas on the Web can be summarized as below:

  1. Navigation and orientation: The first of these constraints has to do with movement through the virtual classroom learning environment. Navigation refers to being able to move from one place in the environment to another, and orientation to knowing what places in the environment can be accessed and knowing how to get there.
  2. Navigation requires practice: In order for most Turkish people to successfully learn particular content from a virtual classroom learning environment, they must first spend some time simply learning how to move around. Until learners master this skill they run the risk of spending inordinate amounts of time simply trying to get to the area of the system they are interested in studying. They may become frustrated with the system to the point where they abandon it and any subsequent attempts to master its content.
  3. Orientation may be difficult: Even if users have the ability to move from point A to point B, they may not know the location of point B, or even when they are at point A. In especially large or complex virtual reality learning environments, the same skills necessary to find one' s way across a city or country may be needed to find one' s way around the virtual environment. Disorientation is possible, and perhaps even likely, unless the environment is equipped with readily recognizable landmarks.
  4. Textual display is prohibited: Current technology is unable to display easily readable text. The obstacle to text display in a virtual classroom learning environment is screen resolution. Current head-mounted display technology d'es not have high enough resolution to display readable text, consequently, words and letters in the environment are fuzzy to make out for learners.

 

Concluding Remarks

With the development of the Internet, the complexion of higher education has changed in Turkey. The Internet offers opportunities not available before, and it has had a major impact by changing the scope of electronic communication and radically transforming the manner by which our educational coursework and resources can be delivered to the consumers. It offers us the ability to create complex virtual learning environments that are capable of being delivered from local educational markets. Based on the Internet search, observations and students' interviews, further exploration is needed in digital classroom climate, apprehension, interaction, feedback and learning styles. As a whole, the other common problems and possible solutions will be expressed for the development of distance education via the Internet in Turkey, and in the world as well. Student perceptions of the learning environment can be a starting point for the experts to examine the technical challenges of using methods such as cooperative learning and creating a classroom community.

The role of the teacher will be essential in fostering an environment that creates teaching and learning opportunities and uses the technology to its best advantage. As American National Education Association's technology director Barbara Yentzer said, "Distance learning is an example of an unknown that we have honest concerns about. There is good and bad about using technology in this manner. We have to figure out how to make this technology work in a positive way" (American National Education Association 1995). Robert Kozma suggests that "if there is no relationship between media and learning it may be because we have not yet made one" (Kozma 1994). Virtual classroom learning environments on the Web have the potential to further our understanding of the relationship between media and learning. It is up to us to make sure that we explore this potential. As a mission, listening to students' voices will help guide us.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.

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