The Virtual Classroom and Computer Mediated Instruction

Andrew Ward and Brian Prosser


In the twentieth century, the principal delivery system for post-secondary education was interpersonal in nature. Students would attend classes in which the professor, or someone designated by the professor, would provide instruction in the relevant discipline. This meant, amongst other things, that it was not uncommon for students to develop interpersonal relations with one another, and to feel that, in enrolling in and attending classes, they had become members of a community of learners. One need only look at the “student unions”, clubs, societies, lectures, and other organizations and events to see this characterization of post-secondary education confirmed.

In the last decade of the twentieth century the situation has begin to change. With the advent of computers networked through Internet Service Providers, and the downward spiral for the cost of such computers, the traditional topography of the University has begun to change. Where before there was a central location to which students were required to travel in order to receive instruction, this is no longer the case. Students can now take classes over the Internet without ever leaving the confines of their homes. More than this, students, using “laptop computers” and the ubiquitous Internet Service Providers, can now literally travel anywhere and still have access to instruction. Similarly, students no longer need physically attend public lectures and symposia in order to receive the benefits provided by both. With suitable foresight and a modicum of technological expertise on the part of the lecture and symposia sponsors, both can be broadcast out via the Internet to a geographically, albeit technologically linked, audience. As a result, the traditional notions of a classroom, lecture hall, and symposium venue (to name only three) have begun to undergo a radical reconceptualization. Instead of understanding such notions in spatio-geographic terms, we are now being asked to understand (and, so too, plan for) such notions in techno-topological terms. The classroom, with its desks, lights, chalkboards, and other educational tools, that students in the twentieth century are accustomed to is being replaced by the “virtual classroom” of the twenty-first century.

It is true that this shift to the virtual classroom has been welcomed by many. It promises the promulgation of education to many people who might not otherwise, for geographic, economic, or other physical reasons, have access to education. Prima facie, if one accepts a kind of educational egalitarianism with respect to the accessibility of instruction, this seems to be a welcome consequence of the advent of the virtual classroom. It is, though, all too easy to be swept up in the fervor attendant with the introduction of technological innovations, and to fail to reflect critically on the broader ramifications of such an introduction. The purpose of this paper to is to provide critical reflection on two aspects associated with the use of the virtual classroom. First, I will examine whether it is indeed the case that students are more closely linked together as a community of learners through the use of the virtual classroom. Contrary to the claims of many technological advocates who say that the use of the virtual classroom will enhance the development of “distributed communities” of learners and so link together people who would otherwise be (educationally, at least) isolated, I will suggest that the so-called communities that emerge with the use of the virtual classroom are isolating rather than connecting. This will require a re-examination of what exactly is the point of post-secondary education. Second, I will examine whether the use of the virtual classroom leads to the possibility of “many voices being heard” a kind of educational democratization or whether, instead, it leads to the progressive silencing of certain points of views. I will argue that there is reason to suppose that, contrary to its supporters, the virtual classroom, at this stage in its development, is educationally autocratic, not democratic. I will conclude with some suggestions for how these tendencies can be countered as computer mediated instruction moves into the twenty-first century.