[This is part of a draft of the chapter I’m writing for the International Handbook of Virtual Learning Environments, forthcoming from Springer.]
In early 2004, Elizabeth Lane Lawley toured Japan and China with her son, and he brought his fourth-grade class along virtually through his weblog. He described visiting the dai-butsu in Kamakura, and a night of kabuki, while his class commented and asked questions. These kinds of virtual field trips have a bit of a history, and a number of initiatives aim to make virtual field trips more easily accomplished (see, for example, the Remote Accessible Field Trips project). Having a student or group of students act as the agent of a larger class provides a unique translation of the world to the classroom. Students exposed to these kinds of hybrid field trips have a special advantage of being able to interact with their environment in a very social way, and likely took much more from their experience because of it.
Naturally, one of the reasons to remove the walls of the classroom is because it provides the opportunity for students to experience the world more directly. That experience can mean a number of things. As Rousseau noted in Emile (1979), we learn from nature, from other people, and from things, and only when these three masters are in harmony do we gain understanding. Experiential education is most often seen as somehow distinct from more academic kinds of classes and confined within service learning experiences, internships, practica, and outdoor adventures or museum trips. The ways people learn outside of classes is different from the ways they learn within traditional classrooms, and instead “tend to emphasize wider goals better captured by terms like enculturation, development, attitude, and socialization” (Schauble et al, 1996).
The bridging of public and private engendered by collaborative web publishing provides a unique opportunity for students and teachers to actively engage global, networked communities while remaining on school grounds. As much of our work continues to involve the manipulation of text and symbols, and as our everyday social lives become entangled less within local physical communities and more within global networks, the kinds of interactive experiences to be had online constitute a valuable and expansive space for learning.
While writing in a personal journal represents an exercise of a particular skill, it does not reflect the experience of using that skill; studying French conversation is not the same as having a conversation in French. Some have suggested that what is vital about a “real world” experience is that it has consequences, often in terms of connections or relations to those outside of the classroom (e.g., Bell, 1995). Others take the view, originating in part from Vygotsky (1980), that all knowledge is an internalization of interactions with others, and that a broad exposure to such interactions is thus beneficial to learning. Those who take a more psychological than social approach to cognitive constructivism might favor experiential learning because it connects education with physical involvement. For Vygotsky, a pioneer of social constructivism, using language as a tool is the defining characteristic that makes us human, and through the exercise of conversation we learn about our world.
Interacting with people in places other than the classroom, people who live in different circumstances and different cultures, provides an opportunity for students to engage in expansive social networks, and by doing so become more self-aware and self-reliant. While it may be counterintuitive, it is through these interactions that students become more self-directed and seek out autonomy. As Robert McLintock (2000) notes, today’s youth live within a globally interconnected network, where the urban connections of the past are brought together in the new form of networked communications:
As the oldest of the new media, the city is the place where people form and exercise their powers of choice. “Stadt Luft macht frei.” Youth, coming of age within the city, has this task of forming distinctive powers of choice, building chosen skills and preferences, making a place within the great melange of human achievement. The city concentrates together human possibilities. The young must choose and master, exercise their elective affinities. In this process, they strive to achieve a persona, a recognizable presence accorded to them by a community of peers. In the city, people shed ascribed characteristics, striving instead to take on acquired, achieved ones.
To place them within an institution that artificially keeps them cloistered for many of their waking hours does them an extraordinary disservice. While there is certainly a need for formal instruction in certain areas, the balance that Rousseau speaks of is lacking in education at all levels. The interactive nature of collaborative web publishing provides the opportunity to engage the global community, and to learn by becoming a member of that community rather than by learning about that community.
Bell, M. (1995). What constitutes experience? In R. J. Kraft and J. Kielsmeier (Eds.), Rethinking theoretical assumptions in experiential learning in schools and higher education. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
McClintock, R. (2000). Cities, youth and technology: Toward a pedagogy of autonomy. Contribution to The International Symposium Zukunft der Jugend, Vienna.
Schauble, L., Beane, D.B., Coates, G.D., Martin, L.M.W., & Sterling, P.V. (1996). Outside the classroom walls: Learning in informal environments. In L. Schauble & R. Glaser (Eds.), Innovations in learning: New environments for education. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Vygotsky, L.V. (1980). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.