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Emerging learning environments: enhancing the online community.


Interactive activities are imperative aspects within distributed learning environments. Electronic learning communities evolve and thrive through the appropriate and successful integration of interactive activities, wherein the learner's conceptual framework of understanding is enhanced through the online community. Topics addressed are: emerging learning environments; control, self-regulation and success; motivation; learner anxiety levels; and interactive activities.


Distributed learning environments are enhanced through the appropriate and successful integration of interactive activities, through which the online learner's motivational levels mature and prosper. Vygotsky underscored the importance of social interaction as an important component in the progression of the learner's understanding of social interaction (Vygotsky, 1935; Vygotsky, 1962; Vygotsky, 1978; Vygotsky, 1981; Wells, 1995; Wells, 1996; Wells & Chang-Wells, 1992; Wertsch, 1985). The zone of proximal development, the realm during which learners are most apt to be ready and willing to learn about a topic, and an understanding of cognitive development emphasize the influences of the content, interface, instructor, community, collegial learners and the learner as self. As such, the atmosphere is an integral aspect within the learning environment; specifically, interactive activities are integral aspects within distributed learning environments.

Emerging Learning Environments

Education is in a constant state of fluctuation, with emerging learning environments establishing original conceptions and innovations. From Vygotsky's seminal work in social interaction and the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1935; Vygotsky, 1962; Vygotsky, 1978; Vygotsky, 1981) through out the twentieth century to the focus upon distributed learning environments of today, education is in a constant state of renewal. Distributed learning environments, also referred to as distance education, have been a part of the educational landscape for well over a century. As stated by Saba (2003), "The practice of distance education in the United States traces back to the late 1800s, but the first scholarly journal on the subject did not appear until 1987" (p. 3). Literature related to distributed learning environments has increased with the advent of electronic learning environments (eLearning) gaining the focus of considerable attention. Gibson (2003) stated, "Parallel to adult education, distance education serves three potential clients: individuals, groups, and communities" (p. 148). Each of these imperative and significant clients must be fully addressed. As such, focusing the learners' attention upon aspects of importance within the course, may be considered a complex, yet delicate instructional design challenge. Enhancing the learners' opportunity for control, self-regulation and probability for success may be an expectation within the eLearning environment.

Control, Self-Regulation and Success

As the learner desires opportunities to define and control his/her learning environments, the opportunity for the learner to maintain the central role, meaning the focus within a learner-centered environment, within the distributed learning environment is preferred. The learner must be supported so as to enhance opportunities towards self-regulatory activities and these self-regulatory opportunities offer the learner a sense of control and subsequent success. As such, the learner creates a structured, controlled learning environment with clearly articulated expectations through self-regulated forms of activities. Learner-focused teaching is supported by Holmberg when he stated, "A basic general assumption is that real learning is primarily an individual activity and is attained only through an internalizing process" (1995, p. 47). The instructor's as a component within this learning environment further elicited possibilities of learner's anxieties through expectations and acting within the role of evaluator within the novel learning environment; however, the introduction of the instructor into the learning environment also offers opportunities to enhance the appropriate mental modeling of the learner's conceptual framework. Further, the instructor can assist the learner through the integration of self-regulation activities so as to support the learner towards success within the distributed learning environment. Although the learner may already have integrated aspects of self-regulatory activity into the learning process, the instructor can further assist the learner through integrated self regulatory activities.

The realm of self-regulation continues to be ill-defined even though there is a considerable wealth of information available regarding self regulation and its theoretical reality (Como & Mandinach, 1983; Zimmerman 1989 & 1994; Bandura, 1991; Schunk, 1994). Several researchers suggest that self-regulation is the point at which motivation and cognition merge (Pintrich, 1989; Schunk, 1989; Pintrich and De Groot, 1990; Zimmerman, 1990; Garcia, 1995), wherein the learner's ability to monitor her/his appropriate progress through out the units of instruction, as well as the learner's appropriate and successful development of her/his conceptual framework of understanding, takes place. McManus defines self-regulation most straightforwardly when he stated, "Given the broadest definition, self-regulated learning (SRL) is an amalgam of numerous cognitive, metacognitive, motivational, and social factors which effect how a learner approaches learning" (McManus, 1995, paragraph 3). In summary, the learner must be supported so as to enhance opportunities towards self-regulatory activities and these self-regulatory opportunities offer the learner a sense of control and subsequent success. The learner creates a structured, controlled learning environment with clearly articulated expectations through self-regulated forms of activities.


Motivation has significant impact on the success of distributed learning environments. One definition of motivation is "the choices people make concerning experiences they will approach or avoid and the degree of effort they will exert in that respect" (Keller & Burkman, 1983, as quoted by Perdue, 2003). With consideration towards the quickening pace of everyday life and the desire of 21st century citizens to maintain their journey into the ever-expanding lifelong learning realm of the Information Age, wherein motivation becomes an integral component towards choices, experiences and lifelong learning. Further, Becker (1995) established that "learners intending to use distance education felt they would have more interaction with their classmates, need to be on campus less, receive more prompt instructor feedback, have more flexible schedules, and find media-oriented learning more engaging" (as stated by Perdue, 2003). Introducing a novel, innovative learning environment into a learner's realm, referred to as the zone of proximal development, may in fact disrupt the developing conceptual framework of understanding and must integrate motivational elements so as to support the learner. Garrison (2003) states pointedly:

Both control and responsibility are essential for the third component of SDL: motivation. Without some sense of control, it is very difficult for students to assume responsibility for their learning and to achieve deep and meaningful outcomes. Motivation in the form of commitment to a learning goal and the tendency to persist is most essential for self-directed learning. Control and choice strengthen motivation, which in turn builds a sense of responsibility. (Garrison, 2003, p. 165) Achieving this sense of motivation, within which control and choice enhance an awareness of responsibility, may also create levels of anxiety within the learner. This anxiety may be due, in part, to a focus upon success within a novel learning environment.

Learner Anxiety Levels: Frustration, Anxiety and Isolation

Anxiety levels within learning environments are a natural occurrence. Frustration and isolation are consequential occurrences of a learner's anxiety level. Introducing a new situation, such as a more focused eLearning environment, may enhance the learner's levels of anxiety. Aspects of an eLearning environment, which may cause a learner's levels of anxiety to heighten, are: sense of isolation; "anywhere" and "anytime" freedom; novel, unique needs of the eLearning environment; and, self-regulation support. As such, the learner's levels of anxiety must be carefully addressed so as to weight the learner's slight discomfort with the learner's level of motivation. Interactive activities offer the opportunity to address the learner's sense of isolation and provide self-regulation opportunities.

Interactive Activities

Interactivity is difficult to define. Wagner states a somewhat simplistic view of interactivity within a distributed learning environment as "reciprocal events that require at least two objects and two actions. Interactions occur when these objects and events mutually influence one another" (Wagner, 1994, p. 8); further enhancing Wagner's definition of interactivity, it may be suggested that interactivity "is reciprocity in actions and responses in an infinite variety of relationships" (Simpson and Galbo, 1986, p. 38). As such, interactive activities within the distributed learning environment offer reciprocal opportunities that emphasize the complexity of the influential relational activities, actions and responses. Finally, Wedemeyer supports a conceptually different role of both the instructor and the learner within a distributed learning environment, as stated, "... learning apart (physically separated) from a teacher by means of communications through print, mechanical, or electronic devices implies quite a different concept of learning from that acquired in school" (1981, p. 111). As such, Wedemeyer started the conceptual revolution wherein learners became the central focus of the instructional environment within a distance education realm. Although Wedemeyer did not establish the model of learner-centered learning environments, eLearning as an emerging learning environment was impacted by the conceptually different role of instructor and learning.

The complexity of interactive activities within the distributed learning environment has been a focus of discussion since the late 1980s. Moore (1989) suggested that learner-content, learner-instructor and learner-learner interaction are integral to success within the learning environment, with Hillman, Willis and Gunawardena (1994) adding learner-interface to the dialogue and Burnham and Walden (1997) including learner-community as another type of interaction. Most recently, Crawford (2000) integrated instructor-content, instructor-interface and instructor-self into the discussion. As such, the following integrated list of interactive activities within the distributed learning environments is appropriate to the discussion, and offers a well-rounded view of the complex interactive activities which occurs within the learning environment:

* learner-content (Moore, 1989)

* learner-interface (Hillman, Willis & Gunawardena, 1994)

* learner-instructor (Moore, 1989)

* learner-learner (Moore, 1989)

* learner-self

* learner-community (Burnham & Walden, 1997)

* instructor-community

* instructor-content (Crawford, 2000)

* instructor-interface (Crawford, 2000)

* instructor-self (Crawford, 2000)

From the learner's standpoint, the opportunity to interact with the units of instruction, learner-content and learner-interface is supported through the instructional design of a course. Instructional opportunities to support the learner's conceptual framework of understanding, as well as ease of navigability which lessens the learner's need to focus upon the instructional environment and strengthen the learner's focus upon the content so as to lead the learner through the instructional design of the learning environment. Interacting with other persons within the learning environment, the learner-instructor and learner-learner interactive activities, offers synchronous and asynchronous communications; beyond the realm of unit content, learners can engage with the instructor and learners on numerous levels, beyond the content-focused communications so as to engage on a humanistic level. This engagement supports the sense of community and belonging that is nurtured and developed within the face-to-face learning environment, by many times is not considered essential within a distributed learning environment. Learner-self is an opportunity for the learner to focus upon her/his own learning needs within the distributed learning environment, learner-self interaction provides opportunities towards self-regulation, the freedom to engage within the learning environment in an "anytime-anywhere" fashion, and the opportunity to bring prior knowledge into the units of instruction content so as to engage the learner and further support the conceptual framework of understanding. Lastly, the learner has the opportunity to engage with the community to bring community news, trends and influences into the learning environment. Each level of interaction further enhances the distributed learning environment.

From the instructor's position, interactions occur within at least four levels. Instructor-community delineates the instructor's opportunity to integrate and address news, trends and influences of community into the units of instruction so as to more fully support the learner's conceptual framework of understanding. Instructor-content and instructor-interface, relates to the instructional design and course navigation structure so as to more fully delineate and enhance the course for the learners. The instructional design of the course must allow for the ease of navigability within the learning environment, as well as allow for ease of customization and personalization within the course structure. Finally, the instructor-self component illustrates the instructor's desire to update the course content within the units of instruction, as well as ensure that the learners can easily engage with the course content so as to support the learners' conceptual frameworking.


Distributed learning environments are enhanced through interactive activities that motivate and support learners. The appropriate and successful integration of interactive activities develop a dynamic, enthusiastic learning environment that supports the learner. Interactive activities in the eLearning environment focus on community building in order to prevent isolation.


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Caroline M. Crawford, University of Houston-Clear Lake, TX

Crawford is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology. Her teaching-research agenda focuses upon emerging learning environments, advanced technologies, and instructional design.
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Author:Crawford, Caroline M.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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