learning landscapes in southern africa


Survivors on a cyber island

Linda van Ryneveld, Tshwane University of Technology and Johannes Cronje, Irma Eloff, Debbie Adendorff and Salome Meyer, University of Pretoria
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Online learning has a number of problems. Students find it lonely to learn from home. The Web is not interactive. Retention rates are usually rather low. One way of increasing interactivity in Web-based courses is by creating co-operative learning teams. Two problems arise: firstly some learners do not like to cooperate, secondly it may be difficult to find issues on which students could cooperate. A possible solution to this is using a game metaphor, where learners engage in team games, and asking learners to vote off those of their peers whom they perceive to be freeloaders. This paper reports on an experiment whereby online students were exposed to a learning experience modeled on the US television series "Survivor". Students were put into "tribes" and allowed to vote one another off the island at the end of each week. Students who were voted out of their tribes, were still on the course, but could no longer rely on the support of their peers. The course had a very high dropout rate, and students reported that the experience was highly stressful. Yet there were quite a number of students who completed the whole course. The question is WHY?

This article identifies and discusses three aspects that contributed to the success of those who completed: The game metaphor allowed motivation through challenge, curiosity and fantasy. Students preferred intangible and insignificant emailed rewards that were attainable to the weekend away, which seemed unattainable and even discouraging. The downside of the metaphor was the perceived discrepancy between the goals of the games, and the learning goals. The main cause of conflict was the lack of availability of team members, lack of commitment and active participation, as well as contrasting personalities and strong individual wills. For visibility the online facilitator fulfilled five roles. As administrator, she conducted timely course administration. She maintained social and emotional support. As instructor she facilitated the learning process, but failed in providing explicit logistical guidelines. This was overcome by a database of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ). As guide, she encouraged interactivity to foster the building of new knowledge. She did not risk losing students by abandoning them in cyberspace. As mediator, she ensured fair play. If problems occurred, she intervened to resolve them. Filtering these competencies through a Job profiling system produced five people competencies, five thinking competencies and three energy competencies.

Regarding affective considerations and peer support three aspects were identified. These were Curative Factors including altruism versus individualism, communication, and internal drive or value system. Three phases, namely an initial phase of responding to requirements, a second phase of valuing, commitment and organizing, and a third phase of internalization were identified in a process of affective development. Nine inhibiting factors were identified, including the fear of dropping out, lack of preparation, lack of technical support and knowledge, group dynamics, work overload, financial concerns and connectivity problems. Students dropped off mainly because they could not work with the technology. Students stayed mainly because they enjoyed the game, felt looked after by the facilitator, and supported one another.