Lost In Space? Reinventing Ourselves as Learners on the New Frontier

Dianne L. Conrad

University of Alberta

Cet article explore, de façon théorique, les dimensions de frontières et d'identité dans l'espace d'apprentissage virtuel. Il servira de tremplin pour la recherche continue dans ce domaine et fournira un schème d'étude des perceptions de l'identité par les apprenants dans cet environnement d'apprentissage.

This paper explores, theoretically, the dimensions of boundary and identity that address the new frontier of virtual learning space. It is intended to serve as a springboard to continuing research in this area and to provide a framework in which to study learners' perceptions of their identity issues in such learning environments.


If you build it, they will come. Since the Internet was "built," learners have indeed come, and in various ways ­ synchronously, asynchronously, eagerly, frightened-to-death ­ to learn, not at its feet, in the traditional ways associated with gurus and structures and the holding of knowledge, like a torch, to be passed on with reverence amid hierarchy and hoops, but in new ways that beg for apt similes: like flies to flypaper? Like ships passing in the night? Like moths to flames?

As astronauts who are learning to live and travel in space experience a vast frontier that requires the re-establishing of boundaries and the re-learning of old skills, so too do virtual learning pioneers confront questions of identity and self, the touchstones of which, in the teaching-learning enterprise, once described by entities such as teacher, classroom, colleagues, institution, books, coffee break, are now strangely dissolved. Their new fluidity manifests itself in further issues of power and control and responsibility.

This paper will explore theoretically the dimensions of boundary and identity that address the new frontier of virtual learning space. My intention is to serve as a springboard to continuing research in this area and to framework a study of learners' perceptions of their identity issues in such learning environments. I recognize and build on the paradox that underscores perhaps a "fourth-generation" of distributed, technologically-enhanced learning where tensions exist between independence and collaboration, freedom and constraint, familiarity and alienation.

Is the emperor indeed clothed?

Perhaps the starting place for this discussion should be the establishment of a hypothesis around whether or not the current state of on-line learning via the Internet constitutes a discernible difference in type ­ quality or quantity ­ from previous generations of distance learning ventures. My premise is that it does. Historically, distance education is as old as the hills: the historical lyceums in the colonial United States encouraged learning by correspondence, as did the later Chautauquas that moved, circus-like, into Canada as recently as during the Depression years (Axford, 1980). "Second-generation" distance learning permitted two-way interaction among learners and instructor, either orally, in the case of audioconferencing, or visually as well, as in satellite broadcasting or videoconferencing. "Third-generation" distance education, computer-mediated communication, enabled users to transmit and store information synchronously and asynchronously, creating an enormously powerful medium that was heralded years ago as offering a "qualitatively" different type of communications media (Kaufman, in Garrison, 1989).

How has the Internet changed the nature of computer communication? Ironically, by permitting the realization of a condition that was articulated by Knowles (1980) when he envisioned "the unity of education, work and life, based on the notion that learning is most effective when it is related to and integrated with working and living" (p. 40). But, according to Turkle (1995), a distinctly new reality-phenomenon has developed since our use of the computer has evolved from giving commands to a machine to entering into a dialogue with another world made accessible by that machine.

New windows, new vistas

"RL is just one more window, and it's usually not my best one" (Turkle, p 13). Here, RL refers to real life, and the college student quoted in Turkle's Life on the Screen (1995) illustrates her focus on the use of MUDs (multi-user domains) and interaction with Internet technology to discuss the issue of user identity in a capacity previously unknown to us. To a generation of computer users such as the student quoted above, "the integration of living and learning . . . dependent upon the reduction of time and location barriers" (Garrison, p. 107) has been achieved, in fact achieved to such a degree so as to blur the edges of a previously tidier reality.

Turkle's articulation of the postmodern sensibility that underpins this phenomenon provides a new lens through which to consider the creation of learner identity. Reflecting on the ability of a user to be many things, none of them necessarily the 'real' thing, leads Turkle to observe the fragmented condition of our modern lives and find postmodern resonance in the lack of contiguity that in fact seems to provide much of the inspiration for MUD participants. The suspension of visible or traceable realities, identities, and forms also creates forums for the existence of "multiplicitous beings" where the self is able to "spin off into many directions" (p. 258), and Turkle fastens this sense of identity to acts as mundane as our creation of homepages ­ multi-disciplinary amalgams of all sorts of things: past and present, image and sound, real and fictitious, text and graphic, a potpourri of sensations made even larger by its ability to link endlessly to other sites.

Carrying the notion of "multiplicitous beings" over into educational realms raises questions that impinge on previously understood models of independence, responsibility and control through which educators have conceptualized the dynamic of distance learning (Garrison, 1989). New program delivery models that integrate networks of technologies begin to shift the locus of control from instructor/learner to learner/learner and even to learner/content, supporting constructivist views that see knowledge and meaning as mutually generated. Such models also assume that new levels of learner responsibility inform successful learning transactions (Anderson & Garrison, 1998).

If Turkle has opened windows on the computer's abilities to provide new horizons against which to view learning and the creation of identity, Wenger's concept of communities of practice, located inside the construction of his social learning theory, provides an encompassing framework for the consideration of learner identity. Looking at the totality of learning ­ learning as entity ­ Wenger presents four components which, taken together, describe "social participation as a process of learning and of knowing" (pp. 4-5). In so doing, he points out that the four components he identifies ­ meaning (learning as experience), practice (learning as doing), community (learning as belonging) and identity (learning as becoming) ­ are so interconnected that any one of them could be interchanged with the central notion of "learning" and the concept still would hold. Starting to talk about communities of practice, as he does in his recent book of the same name, simply provides an entry point into this extremely thickly interwoven dynamic. The interest of this paper, therefore ­ identity ­ while not able to be cleanly nor rationally separated from meaning, practice, and community, can be proclaimed "centre stage," while its colleagues are assigned lesser-but-still-important supporting roles in the discussion that follows.

Wenger's learning theory speaks well to the notion of distance learning generally and perhaps especially well to the "fourth-generation" phenomenon of on-line learning which distinguishes itself from our initial foray into computer-mediated communications, labelled "third-generation" and described in technological terms as "audio/video/ alphanumeric" (Garrison, 1989).1 Today's postmodern, constructivist on-line sensibility

1The differences are both qualitative and quantitative. Simply put, there are more opportunities to interact at a distance with greater numbers of people. The number of ways that we can be on-line either in learning scenarios or in commercial ventures or in personal exchanges lessens our reticence in undertaking such efforts. The nature of interactions differs as well. Visually, on-line interfaces are more attractive than were the media that hosted more primitive computer-mediated communications. We engage faster, easier, with choices of fonts and colours and the ability to include or exchange graphics. As we more frequently engage in these types of communications, we accept the increased levels of expectation that familiarity brings. We publish in on-line journals, participate in on-line conferences, and purchase goods using electronic commerce. We date and find partners; we are our own Internet travel agents; we peruse libraries and university calendars on-line, register for courses, reserve books, buy movie tickets.

is as obvious as the differences between the passivity of early television viewers and the passion of interactive MUDders (Nostbakken, 1980; Turkle, 1995).

The existence of the Internet's global communication capacity and its instant linkage to whatever on-line capability we access, be it educational or otherwise, qualitatively alters our sense of place in the communication model. CMC once offered us only a threaded connection to a single person or to a group, but we know now that our space is unlimited and unconfined, that we can leap backwards and forwards through time via websites, that our discourses with others are captured and held for indeterminate amounts of time, that we can export our discussions outwards to numerous other groups, and that we can import information, graphics, or live conversation from any number of sources.

The integration of life and work and personhood, once envisioned by Knowles, is now alive and well and at work in on-line learning environments. It is aptly supported by Wenger's model of communities of practice. His understanding of learning "as an integral part of our everyday lives" (p. 8) includes our personal lives, the lives of our families, our professional lives, our community lives, our experiential lives. For Turkle, learning also looks through the various windows of our "real lives," however we may construe them. The formulation, therefore, of learners' sense of identity in the vastness of virtual learning spaces invites us to consider new networks of complexity that reframe the relationship of here to there, of me to you, indeed, of me to me.


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Prepared August 3, 1999 by the ACÉÉA/CASAE Internet Working Group