Virtual School
in a Networking Learning Environment
Tella, Seppo (1995)

Department of Teacher Education
University of Helsinki
OLE Publications 1


The OLE Publications of the Helsinki University Department of Teacher Education was launched in late 1995 in order to give a forum for teachers and researchers to publish articles in English, French or German on themes and topics connected to the OLE Project.

-- The present paper describes factors that have facilitated the transformation of industrial societies to information and network societies; the possibilities of virtual school as a future-oriented school form; the tools of the new information and communication technology; and global networking as a framework for the learning environment.


Keywords: Virtual School; Information; Knowledge; Network; Information and Communication Technologies


1 Society's Waves of Change

Societal changes can be described in many ways. In the following, I apply Toffler's (1981) suggestion of three waves: agricultural society as the first wave, industrial society as the second, and information society as the third. The fourth wave can be seen as the birth of a new kind of network culture or network society, resulting from global networking. Network society is clearly based on information society. In Finland, the industrial breakthrough took place in the 1920s, although more heavily towards the late 1940s, and in many European states and the United States as early as the 19th century (see e.g. Malaska 1994).

In this paper, I will not attempt to make a clear distinction between an information society and a network society. Both can be described by many terms, such as interaction societies, postindustrial or late industrial societies, or postmodern societies. There is no consensus on how we should define the changeover to information society. One common way has been to estimate when the number of professions producing and transmitting information has reached 50 % of all professions. According to this estimate, the United States would have turned into an information society in the 1980s (some say even in the 1970s), whereas Finland, for example, is in the process of changing over, or has just passed the line.

It is usually characteristic of these changes that the new wave does not completely take over its predecessor, but partially merges into it, constituting, in turn, a base for the next wave. In fact, we can now refer to a multilayered society structure, with the agricultural society as the lowest, or basic level, the industrial society in the middle, and on top, the growing proportion of information and network society (see e.g. Toffler & Toffler 1993).

The industrial society was characterised by mass ("big is beautiful"); centralisation ("it's effective to centralise power and responsibilities"); the encouragement of standardisation, i.e. uniformity ("don't be different"); and the powerful position of the mass media (the ritual TV news at 8.30 in the 1970s and 1980s). Industrial society created factories, assembly lines, huge orchestras synchronised by one man, the conductor, and huge hospital and school complexes. The traditional classroom with its rows of desks and with the teacher (the synchroniser of the action) speaking at the front of the room is a typical example of industrial society.

The central theses of information and network society are, however, small-scale solutions ("less is more"), decentralisation, individualism, and independence of time and space (nomadisation, "vagrancy").

Instead of large industrial, hospital or school complexes, we have grown to appreciate small-scale solutions. Huge multinational companies are facing great difficulties, and we are progressing towards small or middle-sized enterprises-we can speak of the deconstruction of large companies. In the United States, for instance, already half of all export is carried out by enterprises with a maximum of 19 employees, and the same applies to Germany (Naisbitt 1994, 13).

Decentralisation, delegation, and the subsidiarity principle can clearly be seen in Finland in the way the right of decision and execution have been moved from the central administration (such as central offices and ministries) to municipalities, schools, and teachers, i.e. to those levels in the administration apparatus which are nearest to the activity itself. The foundations of the national curricula of 1985 (LOPS 1985; POPS 1985) were already complemented by municipal curricula, although it was not until 1994 that the foundations of the curricula were intentionally based on municipal curricula.

In the same way, the regulations on teaching practice have been loosened and the right of decision has been moved from the Ministry of Education down to universities and departments of teacher education. The emphasis on individualism can be said to be a megatrend characterising the expansion and development of the information society.

In the domain of communications, the changeover from an industrial society to an information society means a switch from the hegemony of the mass media (monologic communication) to small group and target communication. Typical forms of communication in information and network society are, to mention but a few, local radio and tv stations, electronic mail (e-mail), computer conferences, and satellite channels followed at home.

2 Global Networking

In this paper, the society's fourth wave of change will be referred to by the following terms: global networking, network culture, and network society. Network culture is central to the National Strategy for Education (Committee Report 1993, 36). Global networking extends global communication, and virtual school, to most people, but at the same time, it presents new challenges to the development of flexible multiform and distance teaching. The infrastructures supporting communications and transport are the same in many countries: road, telephone, and electric networks. The newest infrastructure is based on millions of interlinked computers and the networks they create, thus making the virtual school described in this paper possible. The most prominent and largest international information and communications network is the Internet (see e.g. Hintikka 1992; Ahonen & Kolari 1994; Hintikka 1994). We also speak of the information highway, by which we refer to an information system that is quick and effective for the user and provides telematic services far more comprehensive than the present ones. Global networking is likely to make worldwide communication commonplace and available to everyone, at least in the industrial countries. It is also in the teachers' common interest to keep up with this change because it enables them to develop the school and education applications of the technology.

The emergence of global networking is connected to the development that has taken place in information and communication technologies, particularly in telecommunications. Naisbitt (1994, 56), for instance, argues that in the networking international economy of the next century, information and communication technology will bring about changes at least as critical as manufacturing did in industrial society. According to him, the economies of certain countries will simply collapse, if they are not supported by the telecommunications infrastructure (Naisbitt 1994, 79).

3 The Net Metaphor

When we discuss the networking learning environment, the metaphor of the net itself and the network is central (Tella 1994a). Its opposite can be seen to be the traditional tree of knowledge, whose trunk is thick and tall, branches dense and reaching towards the crown. The traditional view of knowledge and its development has been analogous to the process of climbing a tree. Everyone has to climb the same trunk, but then professional or disciplinary interest leads people to twigs more slender and farther apart. The tree model illustrates the acquisition of a wide general knowledge that takes years to achieve. The traditional school system is largely representative of this kind of approach to studying.

Nowadays the tree model has been largely replaced by the metaphor of the net and the network. The network adapts to the needs of the user as a flexible texture, which is a counterpart image to the constructivist view of learning. There are no clear starting or ending points in a network. Everyone can start in their own net node and progress in whatever direction, as far as they please. In the infinite nodes of the net surface the information potential they contain is multiplied. The form of the net, its nodes, are not, however, as important as the content that net users offer to each other. The individual, the human being, the learner is more often than not in a situation where he is part of many social nets, which give him, a user of telematics , a possibility to make more and more connections to support his learning and studies.

Thus, we have to perceive networking as an activity that is realised on many levels. First of all, it is facilitated by the existence of and access to the physical, telematic net (Internet, for example). In Internet, the message is transmitted in a couple of minutes to any single net user, even on the other side of the world. International connections will be available to everyone with access to a computer, telephone connection, and a modem at school or home, and who has a user account to a system using the Internet, such as Freenet Finland.

What is more important to the activity itself and to pedagogical networking is the social net, which provides the individuals involved with a feeling of community and makes them act for their own and each other's benefit. The net enables us to communicate with literally millions of people all around the world (social networking). However, the information and communications networks can be said to become learning environments only when the communication and activity via them become a unity, which supports and guides meaningful learning (Kauppi 1994, 251).

A learning environment employing telematics, such as virtual school, can be analysed as multiple levels of activity. First, teachers and pupils together form a social net employing a physical net (e.g. Internet). In addition to their phenomenological-experiential level, we can analyse the point of view of developing school and classroom activity (structural level of analysis), such as the school structures and attendance. The most comprehensive point of study is the level of global networking. Different levels are integrated, although from the point of view of an individual pupil some feature on the structural level may appear as phenomenologically and experientially problematic, and then it is the duty of the teacher or supervisor to help the learner see the integration of different levels.

Employing the new media supports the networking learning environment. The isolation of the learning environment (non vitae sed scholae discimus) is often presented as the opposite; in that, societal change and its demands on institutions and studying are not satisfactorily met. The development of information and communication technology is likely to lead to a qualitative change in the learning environment, where there is more intense networking instead of isolation.

Many prognoses of the future are already reflected in the networking learning environment (e.g. Spitzer 1987; Stonier 1988; Naisbitt & Aburdene 1990; Sullivan et al. 1993), such as the growth of individualism; revaluation of the division of work between home, school, and society; and some degree of nomadisation induced by portable means of communication, for instance. Global networking also has an influence on the way work communities operate and organise themselves (e.g. Cerf 1991; Dertouzos 1991; Kay 1991; Negroponte 1991; Sproull & Kiesler 1991), and its projections into education and life-long training in general are only starting.

A learning environment employing telematics is characterised by expanding means of influence and communication, shared resources, albeit decentralised in time and space (such as the knowledge accumulating into a shared computer conference), shared possibilities of exchanging ideas and negotiation, etc. Networking also facilitates high communication proximity (see Rogers & Kincaid 1981), where the use of many means of communication ensures mutual communication, leading even into a utopia of universal acquaintance (Balle 1991, 95). Some researchers (e.g. Eraut 1991, 4) even speak of an intellectualisation process, in which the huge information potential can be creatively utilised to the benefit of individuals and their work community.

4 Criticism Against School

For this paper, it is particularly interesting to discuss how education systems, now representing second wave schools, are turning into third wave schools, i.e. information society ones, and fourth wave schools, i.e. network culture ones. It is most crucial to recognise that society's structure and stage of development have always had a major influence on school and different education systems.

School has always been a subject of criticism and possible reforms are forever being discussed. One of the most common arguments has been that school and its activities are removed from real life, and the rest of society (see e.g. Elmore 1990; Kari 1991). Toffler (1981) was one of the first to warn that schools will not remain intact under the pressure of information society. In the 1980s, several futurologists (e.g. Spitzer 1987; Stonier 1988; see also Peltonen 1987, 64) predicted that the position of school will change so that instead of school, part of the studying will take place at home with the aid of interactive video recordings, computer systems and multilateral information nets.

Compared to other factors, the significance of school in children's education has been estimated to have decreased and being now even under 20 %. Before, the share of school was assessed to be 25 %, that of home 25 %, and that of other environmental factors 50 %. One of the factors leading into the decline of the importance of school is the rise of individualism, i.e. the changeover from heteronomy to autonomy (e.g. Naisbitt & Aburdene 1990; Kari 1991, 114; O'Reilly 1991). Many regard individualisation as responsible for circumscribing the activities of traditional organisations (school, organisations, and parties) in general. There is a strong undertone of existentialism in individualisation: the claim that a person only obtains his raison d'être by creating himself on his own. Personal development and growth are part of individualisation, and likewise this is a multilevel and multidimensional way of life, and not sequential, which applied to those generations who conducted their studies in industrial society. The principle is not simply to study full time; it is to study, live, work, and travel simultaneously and multidimensionally. This multidimensional way of life accentuating individualisation takes over younger and younger students and pupils, changing their attitudes towards school, university, and studying. The synchronised studying and becoming part of the labour market, idealised by the industrial society, is no longer a corresponding goal or norm as it was for the previous generations. All this intricately changes the basic principles of school activity.

At the moment, our society is in a stage of development where the school relics engendered by industrial society are breaking down.

The general attitudes in society are, in fact, already accepting the fact that the school structures of industrial society must be demolished in order to give way to new kind of development. In industrial society, schools and universities were simply regarded as buildings, as were factories, hospitals, and concert halls. The information society is tearing down the walls of schools and universities; the school is no longer a mere building, it is a learning centre intricately connected with the surrounding society thanks to the various tools of the information society. As a consequence of global networking, schools become part of network culture, one of the examples of network learning and knowhow. The tools of information and communication technology, and particularly those of teletechnology, are an integral part of this process of change.

As education in industrial society used to mean qualifying for a clear-cut profession or job in a synchronic period of time, in information and networking society education is more of an attitude of self-development. The need for life-long education is accepted as a fact. This naturally moves the focus from pedagogics, children's education, towards andragogics, adult education. Some of the problems schools are now facing may result from the fact that it has been clinging to its former authority in the eyes of pupils, without acknowledging or yielding to societal change, unable to become an information and networking society school.

5 The Rise of Telelogic Communication

At the moment, we can refer to three forms of communications, which partly correspond to different communications channels: dialogic communication, monologic communication, and telelogic communication. (Ball-Rokeach & Reardon 1988; Tella 1994b, 45-48).

Dialogic communication is often represented by face-to-face interaction without technical devices. It can also mean communication by traditional means, in particular telephone communication. Dialogic communication is also present to some extent in the other two other forms of communication, namely monologic and telelogic communication.

Monologic communication has been used to refer to unilateral (from one to many) communication, sometimes accompanied with delayed feedback. In the course of technological development monologic communication has also been supported by real time feedback forms, such as a phone-in service during a radio programme, or an audience poll carried out electronically during a television programme. To a large extent, however, monologism implies that recipients have been unable to influence what the mass media broadcast in the first place; the role of the recipients has been limited to reacting to what they have received. The mass media are very closely connected to the context of society (e.g. Scheel & Branch 1993, 11).

In recent years, the role and status of the mass media have changed immensely. They have largely been replaced by computer-mediated communication services made possible by the new technology, as well as electronic and telematic small group and target communication, such as local papers, radio and TV stations and e-mail, computer conferences, electronic bulletin boards, and communications net services.

Thus, monologic, or public, communication has widely been replaced by new applications and services of the new technology, which give their users much more influence and freedom of decision over what is being communicated, when, and how. This newest form of communication is called telelogic communication. Balle (1991, 80) speaks of a selective, interactive form of telecommunication, which is now expanding faster than unilateral monologic communication (such as television), partly because it offers its user more freedom of choice and less forced feeding.

Thus telelogic communication liberates the user, as he can independently decide when, how, and how much he wishes to communicate. Balle (1991) emphasises the undeniable double emancipation in the development of communication technologies, in which one is not only freed of the limitations of both time and space, but also of the limits of face-to-face communication. However, the development will not take place without constant resistance by the mass media as the Fourth Estate (cf. Mäkelä 1994, 230). Moreover, we have to recognise that television and computer technologies are integrating, which means that users will employ the same device for public tv broadcasts and communication in small groups, and the difference between them narrows or vanishes altogether.

One form of telelogic communication is to combine telefax and e-mail communication in order to find the specific advantages of both. For instance, an e-mail message is more viable in a project where a text, such as a curriculum for an individual school, is being jointly processed. A telefax is better when the original document already exists as a paper print, and the receiver has no need to process the text. We can already send and receive messages directly to and from a computer with a fax modem without printing them at some point. Modern e-mail systems enable us to send fully formatted files or figures, as well as video images, music, and graphics (e.g. Olson & Atkins 1990; Rice & Shook 1990). The vast potential of telelogic communication will in fact open up beyond the e-mail systems, when we use the telematic supertools, such as Telnet, FTP, Archie, Gopher, and World Wide Web.

Flexible communication makes use of all three forms of communication. Part of interpersonal communication, for instance, will change ordinary mail and telephone to e-mail because of its independence of time and place (see e.g. Henri 1992). The separation of time and place with the focus of activity crossing the borders of immediate surroundings is, according to Giddens (1990), for example, one of the characteristics of the late stage of modern society (information and networking society).

The constant availability of communicative tools inherently expands the quantity of communication and the so-called nomadisation of people (Attali 1990). The telephone, for instance, has shrunk into a pocket-size communication device that can be used to communicate from virtually anywhere to anywhere, without either participant knowing the current location of the other. In the domain of information and communication technologies we can speak of digital nomads, as one can wander in the communication networks as they please, independent of time and place. It has already been argued that they may become an ersatz of genuine human relationships for some users of communication networks. Although all excesses have their own disadvantages, it is now evident that the advantages of the internationalising telelogic communication by far exceed the disadvantages, especially if the education system is capable of and willing to integrate its potentials into teaching and studying.

Worldwide communication has been argued to create a utopia of universal acquaintance (Balle 1991), enabling everyone to communicate with everyone else. The development of technology also serves the principle of equifinalism (aiming at the same goal but with different means). For instance, as the equipment for finding information becomes more varied, the information used in the teaching-learning process can be looked for through different media ever more easily.

6 Virtual School-the School of the Future?

Next, I will discuss the virtual school itself, its characteristics, and its possibilities of serving as one of the school forms in an information and networking society. The birth of virtual school has been facilitated on the one hand by the vigorously advanced information and communication technology, especially telematics, on the other by the more general change towards telelogic communication.

By the new technology and new means of communication we have realised that the traditional view of school as a central place of learning has lost some of its validity. The increased utilisation of international communications networks, the Internet in particular, at home, work and school, has created a situation where part of teaching and especially studying has moved outside the physical school. This development has been accelerated by the expansion of multiform, or distance plus traditional, teaching in Finland and many other countries. This activity facilitated in particular by the new technology is described by many different terms, of which I will use the concept of virtual school.

In English, virtual generally means something that does exist, although not actually, especially something that is factual. The term is not as ambiguous as virtuaalinen ("expected", "possible") in Finnish. If we think about virtual school as a concept, the content of the term becomes even more appropriate, as it implicitly covers the facets of telematics and computer-mediation.

Virtual school is based on the concept of the networking learning environment and the technical possibilities offered by new information and communication technology. The most important difference from traditional work methods is that virtual school intentionally utilises new communication tools and computer-mediated human communication. Virtual school is an information system based on new information and communication technologies, which is able to deal with all the tasks of school without the need for a physical school building. Virtual school, thus, does not exist according to an ontological analysis as a concrete building with classrooms, office rooms, teachers, other staff, or pupils. It can be regarded as a real school, however, as it can support the basic activities of an ordinary physical school. Virtual school is a logical extension of the use of computers in teaching. (Paulsen 1987, 72; Blystone 1989; Paulsen & Rekkedal 1990, 59; Tella 1992b; Warner & Mattila 1993; Tella 1994b, 55-61; Tella 1995b; Tella 1996; Tiffin & Rajasingham 1995)

We can thus regard virtual school defined narrowly as by definition approaching the ideas of Illich (1972) about a school without a building but still connected to society. Similar ideas have been presented by Dalin (1989) when imagining the school of the year 2020, and wondering whether the classroom of the future can be limited by four walls, or does the classroom mean the nearby industry, home, the media world, or world reality.

Independence of time and place and historical neutrality is central to the concept of virtual school. In this paper, virtual school is also extended to cover different alternatives of symbiosis with physical school, not only optimal, ideal virtual school. As I will suggest later, virtual school can work as a virtual extension of ordinary school or classroom activity. The concept does not thus exclusively emphasise geographic or temporal distance, even though it has to be seen as an implicit potential. The concept of virtual school does not emphasise teaching, it focuses on individualism and the independent initiative to study.

Generally speaking, we can interpret virtual school as a first step towards virtual reality. Features of virtual reality are not attached to virtual school as such, but it is likely that virtual school will employ virtual reality devices, such as a data helmet, etc. (For virtual reality, see e.g. Dede 1992; Helsel 1992; Pantelidis 1993; Resnick et al. 1993)

7 The Symbiosis of Virtual and Physical School

Ordinary physical school and virtual school may also complement each other, i.e. exist in a symbiosis. If we regard virtual school as a symbiotic extension of ordinary school, part of the activities of physical school may be moved to virtual school and carried out there with the aid of information and communication technologies. Conceptually, active utilisation of the new means of communication provided by the new technology approaches the functional core of virtual school. Even though virtual school may exist without a physical school building, based exclusively on communications networks, e-mail, and computer conferences, at this stage it may be wise to consider the school of the future particularly as a symbiosis of virtual and physical school.

8 Virtual, Distance, Tele, or Network School?

In addition to virtual school, we also refer to the same kind of learning environment employing telematics by the terms `electronic education', `electronic classroom (ECR)', `electronic college', `electronic campus', `on-line education', `computer-assisted teleconferencing (CAT)' (cf. e.g. Harasim 1987, 118; Henri 1992; Hernes & Haugen 1993). `Virtual Classroom' is a trademark of New Jersey Institute of Technology (Harasim 1990, xiii). Sawyer (1992) speaks of a `virtual computer'. Paquette, Bergeron & Bourdeau (1993, 642) apply the concept of virtual classroom more widely, extending it to cover tools for facilitating co-operative working, distance use of multimedia documents, and a knowledge-based information system aimed at pupils. We may also speak of a `digital city', when we wish to emphasise a body of services accessible by telematics.

By a preliminary concept analysis, virtual school, distance education, and multiform teaching can be analysed as follows. Distance education is sometimes treated as a generic term or umbrella concept for the domain of multiform teaching (e.g. Paakkola 1991). Distance education is the oldest of these concepts and it has some negative attributes attached to traditional correspondence education. It usually emphasises the distance between teacher and student, instead of the means or channels of communication. Distance education has also been employed and is still being employed without telematic connections. The definitions of flexible or multiform teaching, however, highlight the properties that are combined into a unity of distance and traditional teaching and self-education, possibly utilising information and communication technologies and telematic services, and supported by limited interaction (e.g. Paakkola 1991). More and more frequently, flexible or multiform teaching is interpreted as a generic term covering, for instance, distance education, traditional teaching, and various media-based education forms. The concept `multiform education' (or flexible education, monimuoto-opetus) is widely applied in Finland, but more unusual in other countries. Distance school places the emphasis on distance, which may, but need not be a prerequisite for virtual school. On the contrary, some virtual school activities may physically take place within rather short distances. All the school alternatives mentioned in the heading, virtual school in particular, stress an independence of time and place. The concept of virtual school does not stress teaching either, it focuses on learning and its individualism and independence. Generally speaking, virtual school is a form of school which conforms to the constructivist concept of learning. Moreover, at its most typical, it is an open learning environment.

Virtual school has also been referred to as 'teleschool', but this term has not become common usage, partly because the prefix mainly leads us think of the distance, or teletechnology, and may suggest television school. Mäkelä (1994, 230) discusses network school, which is where the people are. From the point of view of institutions, he sees that traditional school turns into a producer of teaching, while learning proper takes place at work, home, or various free time locations. Network school accents the mass media, interactivity, and accessibility of small target groups. Even though the term network school is associated with network society, its disadvantage is the ambiguity of the concept of network and the fact that the term has not been established.

9 Advantages of the Virtual School

Virtual school has many advantages (e.g. Blystone 1989; Tella 1992b). In terms of organising school work, it helps to avoid many logistic-structuralistic difficulties, such as problems with schedules and free periods, as it can operate round the clock and in all seasons. According to Rekkedal & Paulsen (1989), virtual school will probably be able to fulfil the professional, educational, administrational and social functions of the school organisation, although some of the tasks of the traditional school system are omitted (school catering, health services, etc.).

Virtual school facilitates co-operative and collaborative study, which, according to some scholars (e.g. Bednar et al. 1992, 20), is closely connected to the constructivist conceptual field. It also brings different stages of education (lower and upper level comprehensive school, senior secondary school, adult education; general vs. vocational education) closer together. In addition, virtual school can operate as the central communication forum for life-long education and learning.

Virtual school also helps schools integrate into the society which surrounds them. Experts from various fields, from the students' parents to researchers, even to politicians, can take part telematically in the activities of the school, which creates a competent discussion and innovation forum to satisfy the needs of the students and their teachers. The symbiotic relationship between physical and virtual school also may benefit those students who are away from physical school due to illness, for example. Furthermore, virtual school also provides an opportunity for exchange students abroad to participate in school activities at home, which, in turn, raises the question about the concepts of school and community or society surrounding it, and to what extent those concepts should be redefined (cf. for example Carr & Reigeluth 1993).

The clearest advantages of virtual school are the numerous options for the storing, transferring and multiplying of information. A great amount of information can be conveyed quickly and inexpensively. The electronic transmission of text is calculated to be noticeably cheaper than sending the equivalent information on paper prints. In addition, the databanks maintained by virtual school provide students with the opportunity to process information in various ways when dealing with different problems. We are offered a learning environment abundant with information and the chance to restore bodies of communication and information for later use. The further processing of communication and information is very easy either directly, with the aid of sophisticated multimedia e-mail systems, or by using scanners for processing images and text.

One of the greatest advantages of computers as tools in both teaching and data management is their ability to restore and transmit information quickly and accurately regardless of location or time (Blystone 1989). Getting ready for the introduction of virtual school and flexible or multiform teaching is important as the various developments of technology free both students and teachers of the restrictions of time and space. According to Negroponte (1991), its independence of time and space is the single most valuable service and product which information technologies can provide for humankind. In virtual school this independence is clearly connected with educational goals.

10 Tools in Virtual School

Various telematic media and programs are used in virtual school. Its basis is formed by the e-mail connections between teachers and students of the virtual school, which also enables their personal telelogic communication. Due to international data and communications networks communication becomes global, which does not mean that connections to the neighbouring school would become more complicated.

E-mail connections can be supplemented with mailing lists or list servers, which can be used to send group messages and replies to them to all the `customers' of the lists or list servers included in their ordinary e-mail communication.

The essential tool of the virtual school is, however, the computer conference, which is usually a part of a larger conference or message transmitting system (e.g. the PortaCom system at the University of Helsinki). The computer conference is not a ready-made package of teaching material, rather a program tool which facilitates communication (McNeil 1992). The advantage of the computer conference over mailing lists is that discussion included in the conference can be analysed into different threads, which then makes it easier to follow how the discussion develops. If needed, all the previous messages can be stored in the conference without them filling the personal mailbox of the e-mail user. Earlier messages can also be stored for a longer time so that they are available to new conference members. The computer conference can be used not only as a communication forum but also as message archives.

The computer conference can be open to anybody or have a restricted access. Its members can be given the right both to read and write messages, or only to read them. For example, the conferences of Freenet Finland are open to everyone, which means that all Freenet users can log in to the conferences in the system, read messages and write their own comments or send their own messages to the conference. An open computer conference is thus roughly equivalent to a noticeboard on a school corridor where anyone can leave a message to be read freely by others-or left unread.

A restricted conference admits free entrance only to those users accepted by the conference manager. In a virtual school conference it is desirable to grant all members the right to both read and write. If the purpose of the conference is merely to transmit information to its members, they can only be granted the right to read messages.

One of the basic characteristics of e-mail and ordinary computer conference is asynchronicity; the sender and the recipient do not have to log in to the computer system simultaneously. Nowadays these tools are in operation in most of the industrialised world, which means that they allow us to save time and cover great distances.

Due to advanced information and communication technologies virtual school can also utilise other recent developments, such as various newsgroups and hypertext-based programs, for example World Wide Web (WWW). WWW can be used both on a textual basis (e.g. with the Lynx program) and on an image basis (e.g. Netscape). The majority of computer conferences to date have been based on communication in text form, but it is presumable that in the near future conferences utilising images, sound and graphics will be in use.

Information technical skills of computer-mediated communication which are required in virtual school are shown in steps or as knowhow accumulating according to levels of usage in Figure 1-for detailed analysis, see Tella 1994b, 61-69). The different levels of usage make up a whole which can be defined as computer-mediated communication, forming in itself the telematic proficiency of the virtual school.

The use of e-mail demands sufficient command of computer hardware as well as data communications software. E-mail communications become remarkably easier and more effective when the user has a good command of the co-use of a data communications program and a word processior, i.e. when he is capable of uploading texts written by a word processor into e-mail messages or as parts of them, and equally knows how to download a message into his word processor for further editing.

E-mail is in itself only one, although a major way of using communications networks. The importance of personal communication is evident in e-mail, but this tool can also be used to communicate from one to many or many to many with the aid of different mailing lists or list servers. New e-mail applications are constantly being invented. The teacher can, for example, change files between his home computer and the computers at school, send a test drawn up at home to his mailbox and then print it with the school laser printer.

Figure 1. Levels of usage in computer-mediated communication and telematics management (based on Tella 1994b, 62, slightly modified).

Nowadays we can also use e-mail to transmit-depending on the software available-both ready-processed or formatted files and charts and files consisting of images and sound. Likewise, a good command of sending e-mail is the first step towards proficiency in making use of computer conferences. The more widespread its use becomes, the attitudes concerning e-mail seem to change into a more positive direction (e.g. Hansen et al. 1991, 37). According to some futurologists (e.g. Stonier 1988), language teaching, for instance, will soon benefit from the fact that many students correspond with their foreign friends via e-mail.

The use of computer conferences, electronic bulletin boards, national and international newsgroups and databases plus expert systems is largely built on skills discussed earlier in this paper. The power tools of telematics (Telnet, FTP, Archie, Gopher, IRC, WAIS, WWW, and hypertext browsers such as Netscape and Mosaic) are already available for all users.

In general, we can say that Figure 1 showing the five different levels of usage in computer-mediated communication and telematics management includes the present potentials available; it does not yet predict what kind of new possibilities and tools computer-mediated human communication, especially in a virtual school environment, can offer for its user when this technology will find a more wide-spread use in teaching, studying, communication, and as a general tool in information management.

In addition to e-mail, computer conferences, telephone and telefax, the media used in virtual school will probably include various video and audio conference systems, such as videophones (CU-SeeMe; PictureTel) and satellite communications. At present, many schools already make use of CD-ROM software, which are also becoming increasingly common in home computers. Also CD-I software, which connects entertainment electronics with education software, may become more wide-spread and form in itself new kind of edutainment.

11 Some Examples of Virtual School Experiments

In the following, I will discuss some examples of experiments with virtual school both abroad and in Finland. Various virtual school activities are well suited for both basic and higher education. By virtual school experiments I am here referring to various kinds of experiments where schools have made use of telematic connections and services with elements from distance and flexible or multiform teaching. These experiments are thus examples of the symbiosis between ordinary school and virtual school systems.

Virtual school experiments have been carried out in many different countries, if also distance teaching systems based on the use of television or cassettes are included. The most famous experiment is England's Open University system which has operated for over 20 years. Only during recent years, however, has this system placed special emphasis on foreign language teaching and telematics (see Hocking 1991).

There are several reports of experiments in the United States and Canada, where the basic model for the experiments has consisted of a computer conference (e.g. Harasim 1987; Sails & Alcott 1989; Hansen et al. 1991). In this model all communicators can read all the messages sent by other conference members, and the teacher can moderate the whole with his own comments and exercises.

According to students in the research carried out by Harasim (1987, 124) at OISE (Ontario Institute of Studies in Education), the advantages of the conference included interaction of better quality and quantity, easy access to the conference and the support provided by other conference members, democratic environment, round-the-clock opening hours of the conference, better personal control of their learning interaction, motivational factors and text-based communication. The list of difficulties in the computer conference included, for instance, an abundance of information, asynchronicity (delay in replies), inconvenience caused, surprisingly enough, by the increased possibilities in using the computer system, the difficulty in following the occasionally digressing discussion in the conference, the lack of visual stimuli and health hazards (Harasim 1987, 129). Some of the inconvenience was, however, caused by the students' lack of experience in working in a new environment and their insufficient knowledge of the conference commands. Health hazards included eyestrain and tension in the neck from long-term computer work. These hazards have apparently been a question of ergonomic defects, such as placing the screens higher than our normal viewing area and not paying enough attention to the adjustment of desktops and chairs.

Hansen et al. (1991) carried out an extensive virtual school experiment at Indiana University, where several combinations of computer conferences were tested, for example, by connecting e-mail with traditional classroom teaching. In large classes and schools, as well as at the university level this experiment evidently increased the feeling of solidarity and provided users with better chances of influencing the ongoing discussion.

Another application was an extended classroom discussion, where the discussion topics dealt with in classroom teaching were electronically further analysed. Advantages thus gained included, according to Hansen et al. (1991), teachers having acquired a new kind of insight into the students' way of thinking (they were able to "see into the students' soul instead of just their brains") and an increased feeling of social togetherness. However, students did complain about limited access to computers and extra trips to campus to use the university computers. In addition, students acknowledged some anxiety about by the flow of information in instances where they logged in to the computer conference only once a week.

Virtual school was also used to prepare students for their exams. After each lecture the lecturer made a list of questions for the conference to review the main points of the lecture, which then were answered by students in turns via e-mail. The objective of such revision was to further explore and expand the material discussed in the lectures and to relieve the traditional pre-exam anxiety (Hansen et al. 1991).

One of the most successful virtual school working methods so far has been to continue activities started at the physical school virtually in a computer conference meant for all teachers and students. Similarly, the teacher can ask his students to send their reports to his mailbox or send exercises or directions directly to the students' own mailboxes.

An example of virtual school experiments in the Nordic countries is the EKKO-project (en virtuell skole) carried out in a Norwegian distance teaching institution (NKI College of Computer Science), where an electronic distance teaching system was created with conferences, electronic bulletin boards, e-mail and user records (Rekkedal & Paulsen 1989; Paulsen & Rekkedal 1990; Paakkola 1991).

12 Examples of Finnish Virtual School Experiments

In Finland virtual school has been tested especially at the university level (e.g. Manninen 1990; Konttinen 1993; Marttunen 1993), and by using national and international communications networks. According to Konttinen (1993, 21-22), making use of information technologies and computers in teaching has proceeded in three phases: from taking care of separate tasks (1st phase) to a larger instrumental use (2nd phase) and most recently, introduced by electronic campus (virtual school), from instrumental into strategic and from executive into ideological tool (3rd phase), among which Konttinen also includes the transition into electronic campus.

The Department of Education at the University of Helsinki carried out a teaching experiment with the university PortaCom system (Manninen 1990). On the basis of the experiment the conference system PortaCom was a successful tool in discussion-type studying/teaching (Manninen 1990).

In his licentiate thesis, Marttunen (1993) studied the connection between university students' argumentation skills and the use of computer conference (terminal studies) and came to the conclusion that terminal studies is a good alternative to the traditional way of studying books and taking examinations. According to Marttunen, computer studies are especially suitable for the kind of informal and self-tutored interaction where the students themselves assume chief responsibility for making progress in their studies.

In the distance teaching centre, which was established at Helsinki University's Lahti Research and Training Centre in 1989, among other things, distance teaching has been practised by using various forms of media; they have published a large amount of teaching material; and during recent years, there has been active participation in several EU projects (e.g. DELTA, JANUS) (e.g. Immonen 1994).

During the last few years typical virtual school work methods have also been tried out and tested in comprehensive and senior secondary schools. The headline in a Helsingin Sanomat article (October 7, 1991) reporting a virtual school experiment ran as follows: "Distance school experiment in Keuruu: Students left the teachers at school and went home to their computers and fax machines". The experiment was carried out by the provincial administrative board of Central Finland and a communications establishment; its purpose was to assess various teaching methods, the suitability of different school subjects and students for distance studies, the operation of the special equipment and the costs.

The National Board of General Education started a project called `Telephones in schools' in the autumn of 1991; its objective was to increase the use of modern telecommunications and its applications in Finnish schools. This project also made use of some of the functional ideas offered by virtual school. The projects known as IMTEC and School Year 2020 have largely concentrated on the development of a virtual school working environment (experiment school reports can be read on the bulletin boards of Freenet Finland, for instance).

In the teacher education programmes organised at the University of Helsinki Department of Teacher Education there have been several experiments with various distance teaching methods during 1991-1995, of which the Kilpisjärvi project has particularly stressed on the development of distance teaching inside the classroom by using for example the video conference system (see Husu et al. 1994).

In their joint project Utopia (1992-1994), the National Board of Education, the Finnish IT Centre for Schools, and the University of Helsinki Department of Teacher Education concentrated on improving various virtual school work methods for the needs of both comprehensive and senior secondary schools. (For detailed analysis, see Tella 1994b; Tella 1994c). The additional co-project called 'Professional Utopia' also studied suitable virtual school work methods for vocational institutions.

In the following, I will introduce some of the work methods tested in the Utopia project.

One or more classes of the school can be transformed into "virtual classes", consisting mainly of students particularly interested in information and communication technologies. Some of the exercises given at school are made at home and the students send their answers to a common computer conference or to the teacher's mailbox. They can also make use of fax machines and mobile phones. This way communication is no longer limited to strict school periods of 45 minutes. Virtual class experiences also benefit to the teaching of normal school classes. It is advisable for virtual classes to have more than one teacher familiar with information and communication technologies to facilitate effective co-operation among the teachers.

Students are usually given preliminary preparation for virtual homework during ordinary lessons, but they can also consist of project work which is done individually, in pairs or in small groups. It is especially important to emphasise study and working situations where modern information and communication technologies are used. These situations must be manipulated to simulate as closely as possible real-life learning tasks according to constructivist ideas of learning. Similarly, both students and teachers become accustomed to the idea of their home as an information technological communication and study environment.

Today telecommunications in most schools are taken care of with only a few or just one telephone line and modem, which definitely is as such only an unsatisfactory temporary solution in the process of developing the virtual school system.

The communications network should be connected with as many of the school computers as possible. In order to improve the operation of schools, they should connect to those networks via different local networks and by using a fixed telephone lines. Thus the control and restriction of communications become unnecessary as the cost of communications can be precisely estimated in advance. This in turn enables schools to fully concentrate on improving the quality of communications.

One observation in the Utopia project was that teachers and students equally benefit from receiving a user account (an e-mail address or "e-dress") for one or more international communications networks, and especially for Internet via, for example, Freenet Finland. By participating in several computer conferences teachers and students not only acquire good skills in using the tools of telematics but also gain experience and information from various discussions. This way the network learning environment can be developed on various levels.

The information provided through the Internet or some other information service system (e.g. TeleSampo, Infotel, Edu.fi) is directly applicable to studying, teaching and supporting the teachers' and students' individual intellectual growth. With the aid of software using communications networks (e.g. WWW, gophers), a teacher and his students can gather useful information from many different fields, compare their data and thus become initiated in the process towards a critical approach in epistemology. The basic requirements for teaching and study material have always included topicality, the ability to raise the students' interest and authenticity. The acquisition of authentic material via communications networks can easily replace or supplement some of the printed study material.

Personal e-mail messaging is, however, only the first step towards team or project work which provide a good opportunity to combine the use of information and communications technologies with the handling of larger topics. This combination underlines the multiple nature of communications in dealing with various school subjects and work methods (special emphasis on, for example, the co-operative, self-tutoring, problem-oriented and autonomous methods of working). Virtual school is an effective tool in the integration of various school subjects and levels of education. From the perspective of the psychology of learning, the resulting advantages are a higher tolerance of ambiguous information and the ability to interact on several levels and directions, and to comprehend change and growth.

Virtual school is a perfect place for putting into action many of the work methods introduced by the constructivist concept of learning, such as a co-operative special subject week when both teachers and students, and perhaps also parents and other instances closely linked to school activities, intensively change electronic messages for a certain period of time. In the Utopia project the exchange of student envoys was also tried out. Every school involved in the venture sent several students to visit the other schools in the project and to observe local conditions, to provide information about their own school. After the visit the students conveyed their experiences to the joint computer conference or prepared a video report.

A network learning environment where various tools of telematics are used necessarily also changes the role of the learner, because only through active and self-tutored ways of operation can the opportunities offered by telematics and domestic and foreign information services be used successfully. Spontaneous acquisition of information and an increasing amount of independent, telematics-aided communication are taking over traditional receptive learning. In a network learning environment (e.g. different computer conferences) students are able to adopt more unconventional roles than in a normal learning environment, which, in turn, lays special emphasis on certain skills, such as writing by using different roles. Writing is envigorated by the various roles it allows the author to play (cf. Lanham 1993, 220).

Faster communications made possible by telematics is equivalent to the changes presently taking place in the life environment of many students, which include living and experiencing things in several dimensions simultaneously. However, these communications can also lead to fragmented and superficial express communication, unless we consciously provide learning tasks and situations which give rise to study the problem presently dealt with in depth and from more than one angle. In case it is not given sufficient attention, the higher level of freedom brought forth by the recent development of information technologies can become a dilemma regarding the quality and quantity of communication.

In a telematic learning environment the teacher has to consider more carefully than before what kind of communication serves the teaching-learning process best both from his own and the student's or a student group's standpoint. For foreign language teaching, the use of international communications networks (e.g. WWW and gophers) provides relevant new teaching material from various themes. When considering the pedagogical essence of different school subjects, however, the usefulness of international communications networks may vary a great deal. The thing which is no doubt useful for all subjects is that, in addition to the communicational aspect, all tools of telematics are connected with the command of information and communications technologies, and include activities linked with retrieving, presenting, processing, transmitting, and storing information.

Also on-line computer communication can be utilised in virtual school by using applicable software (e.g. Internet Relay Chat, IRC). The globalness of the IRC channels makes it possible for all users from every part of the world to log in to on-line discussions simultaneously.

Virtual school also affects how existing physical school buildings are used and how buildings should be reorganised before renovation work. From the viewpoint of learning the school library or information service centre, theatre and sports facilities and various multipurpose facilities gain importance over traditional classrooms. A well-planned educational institution consists of different-sized rooms which can be easily modified and provides telematic services and multimedia work stations. It is obvious, however, that these institutions will become smaller in size as a considerable part of study is transferred into the students' homes-a typical developmental trait of the virtual school. These predictions correspond with many visions for the future (e.g. Stonier 1988; Blystone 1989; Naisbitt & Aburdene 1990; Kari 1991; O'Reilly 1991).

13 Electronic Leadership

When viewing virtual school and its nucleus, computer conference, certain factors connected with, among other things, power and leadership have to be taken into consideration.

To function properly, a computer conference requires from its participants the facility and willingness to meet new kind of challenges arising from the fields of power and leadership. A networked learning environment is usually quite similar in structure to a horizontal or low profile model of leadership. Power is decentralised to the whole network area without an actual recognisable `leadership centre' or `leader'. Every participant possesses the potential power to take the initiative and independently respond or not to respond to messages received.

If a computer conference is structured within the teaching-learning process in such a way that, for example, a discussion started at physical school is expanded in a virtual school environment, the issue that follows is the election of a leader for the conference. A potential leader is a teacher or a student who has been trained for the task by teachers or learnt the necessary skills himself. Electronic leadership is one of the most important, if not the single most significant factor for the successful operation of the conference.

Electronic leadership basically emphasises equality between participants in a non-authoritative manner. Warmth, encouragement of interaction among participants and a facilitative approach towards co-operation is needed, but otherwise a clear and firm leadership encourages active participation in the conference, and especially when participation is on a voluntary, not a compulsory basis. If needed, pedagogical and technical management can be separated from each other, which traditionally has resulted in pedagogical management being left for the teacher of the group. Issues connected with the distribution of power and the bearing the responsibilies are, however, not quite similar to that of a normal learning environment and traditional distance teaching, and in different learning situations varying models of problem-solving are probably necessary.

The lack of firm leadership seems to be the main reason for failure in computer conferences. It is necessary for the leader to spend a considerable time on working in the conference and analysing its operation. An electronic leader has to be technically competent and have enough expertise in the conference system in order to be able to assist other conference members. Operation of the conference is facilitated by technical assistance, which usually is easily available. (Beam 1993; Hiltz 1984, 188; Kerr 1985; Sternheim 1993; Waggoner 1992, 166-167). Computer conferences will not always work well, and similarly they will not necessarily become more common even at the university level, if common resistance or negligence to their operation is wide-spread enough (for negative experiences, see e.g. McNeil, analysis on the so-called academic technology lag, 1992).

14 The Future is Now

The examples mentioned above convey some facts about the present-day virtual school and the tools of telematics usually connected with it. It is, however, difficult to predict what kind of new tools the rapidly developing technology will offer for users of communications networks and virtual school in the near future. We already have a wide selection of tools available. Working in the virtual school environment evidently involves some technical difficulties which should be distinguished from pedagogical problems. Nevertheless, as the advantages resulting from the use of teaching technologies clearly surpass the disadvantages, it is advisable to expand our information technological competence and know-how in precisely these areas.

From the point of view of the learner, experiences from a meaningful learning environment are connected with comprehension (a principle of constructivism). The learner himself provides meaning for his experiences, thus having a sense of personal meaningfulness. When using telematics the learner can build his own meaningful learning environment, whereas traditional computer-assisted teaching programs often `define' the meaning for the program user, which then necessarily limits his personal choices for meaningful experiences.

All researchers agree at present with the fact that not nearly all the potential offered by a virtual environment have been realised nor put into use, although some research projects during recent years (Utopia, IMTEC, School Year 2020, etc.) have already done some preliminary testing. The most optimistic visions suggest studying environments which are also qualitatively new, surpassing the potential offered by earlier media. The introduction of new information and communications technologies is facilitated by the fact that virtual school can operate as part of the existing school system. Students are more and more able to attend virtual school from their homes (see Stonier 1988), but virtual school can also be used inside the walls of the actual school building or as an extension of the classroom, especially if the school system is developed towards the direction of an intelligent school or even intelligence school. Compulsory class attendance in the non-graded senior secondary school system may well become a thing of the past, at least for some of the students who are able to work on their individual projects by using the information systems at home, at school or at the local library. The above-mentioned high communication proximity (cf. Rogers & Kincaid 1981, 150) applies well for the virtual school because there are several communication channels between the sender and the recipient, which means that in case one of the channels, for example e-mail, fails because of a technical error, not all communications are lost. In addition to e-mail, computer conferences, telephone and telefax, schools in the near future will be using various video conference systems (see e.g. Husu et al. 1994), light desktop video cameras and corresponding software (like CU-SeeMe at the moment) and satellite connections, which at present are still relatively expensive.

In research, virtual school has great potential regarding school-based curricula, students, teachers' work profile and teaching methods. So far researchers have studied i.a. the basic nature of e-mail communication, the essential qualities needed to survive in a computer-mediated communications environment, and users' relation to technology (e.g. Tella 1991; Tella 1992a; Tella 1995a). A lot, however, remains to be done.

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This is a slightly updated translation of an article originally written in Finnish:
Tella, S. 1995. Virtuaalikoulu verkostuvassa oppimisympäristössä. (Virtual School in a Networking Learning Environment.) In Vaahtokari, A. & Vähäpassi, A. (eds.) Tutki, arvioi, vertaile - näkökulmia opetuksen suunnitteluun ja tutkimukseen. (Study, Assess, Compare-Aspects of Planning Teaching and Research.) University of Helsinki. Lahti Research and Training Centre, 146-176.


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