Virtual Learning Environments Revealing Preconditions for Trustful Collaboration and Reflection

Anne Gerdes


It is generally acknowledged that trust plays an important role for the flourishing of collaborative relations in real life as well as in cyberspace. This paper analyses preconditions for trust in virtual learning environments. The concept of trust is discussed with reference to cases reporting trust in cyberspace (Jarvenpee & Leidner, 1999, Petitt, 2004, de Laat, 2005) and through a philosophical clarification holding that trust in the form of self-surrender is a common characteristic of all human co-existence (Løgstrup, 1997). This analysis of trust serves as a framework for explaining obstacles and possibilities in connection with building trust in virtual learning environments.

Despite didactic considerations and the best of intentions (Sherry, 2000, Sorensen, 2002, Salmon 2005), learners often find that online learning activities to a certain degree subject their surroundings to standardisation, self-monitoring and surveillance (Land & Bayne, 2005). When technology affords moves towards self and group- surveillance, identity moves towards being a question of how you are able to represent yourself in the learning system. Here, what you might call deliberated self-surrender could be a suitable way to respond to a design that offers you an opportunity to communicate and present yourself after always having reflected upon how to stage your communication. Such mechanisms of communication are well known from face-to-face situations as well (Goffman, 1959). However, here learners often participate in the negotiation of meaning through communication that is not reified, whereas online communication is often subject to reification, and accessible in logs. In the ideal sense, logs give rise to meta-reflections regarding learning processes (Fontaine, 2002), but at the same time, logs afford surveillance both between learners as well as between learners and teacher. Furthermore, the teacher traditionally possesses a role which reflects an asymmetric relation of power between being a facilitator of communication and at the same time representing a formal authority with a duty to evaluate students’ performance. This paradox is further reinforced in a virtual setting, since in most learning environments there are sophisticated surveillance tools available for tracking student activity (Land & Bayne 2005). This might gradually push the role of teaching towards one of learning management instead of one of facilitating communication. These circumstances might promote a competitive setting on behalf of a collaborative setting, and thereby negatively, influence the ethos of teaching.

Although concerned with the potential problem of surveillance, researchers and teachers as well as students often cherish logs in discussion boards as facilitating tools for scaffolding reflection and ongoing discussions during a semester. Nevertheless, it becomes relevant to raise the issue, whether there is a built-in tension between espoused theories that a didactic design is based on and theories-in-use in connection with e-tivities? How can we be sure that participation in such e-tivities constitutes evidence of reflection rather than of impression management? There might be a risk that learning environments actually strengthen and endorse the kind of communication in which learners are eager to perform rather than to be involved in engaged collaboration. To obtain the kind of unconditional commitment necessary for learning, one might benefit from the insights from open source communities, in which self-articulation of goals and volunteerism promote productivity (Benkler & Nissenbaum, 2006). Balancing free will in connection with study initiatives with inquiry teaching methods might encourage a practice, which favours mastery-oriented learning strategies and the seeking of knowledge for its own sake.


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