ERCIM News No.33 - April 1998

The Vicarious Learner: Discussion as Learning Resource and Learning Task

by Jean McKendree, Finbar Dineen, Terry Mayes and John Lee

The Vicarious Learner project is investigating the role of dialogue in learning, both in face-to-face teaching interactions and in distance learning. We propose that dialogue is central to a learner's 'enculturation' into the patterns of language characteristic of particular disciplines, as well as encouraging deep reflection about a domain. We propose, further, that such learning can occur not only through direct participation in dialogue, but also by participating in dialogue vicariously, through observing others. We have developed ways of 1) creating better discussions through the use of task-directed discussions, 2) capturing the most interesting dialogues in many forms including text, video and annotated animations, and 3) using these resources as a new type of vicarious learning resource for campus and distance learners. The project is being conducted jointly between Glasgow Caledonian University and University of Edinburgh.

The predominant approach to educational technology is still the electronic publication, locally or at a distance, of information for expository teaching, currently through multimedia or the Web. This is often useful and effective, but cannot compensate for the loss of direct interaction between learners and tutors. There is another element involving discussion which students relying on technology may miss. We believe this could be a potentially vital element of the experience of real learning ­ the observation of peers as learners, the vicarious learning experience. The Vicarious Learner project is exploring how the power of the technology can bring these opportunities to students who have few chances for discussions.

The vicarious focus of this project is to capture dialogues among learners and tutors or peers and to make them reusable as a learning resource for the next group. One simple example of this is Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). But vicarious resources may be captured from many different kinds of dialogue, not necessarily involving the asking of direct questions. Using the computer to capture this material, it becomes possible to make accessible something which before has been only a fleeting experience for the small group participants.

We have taught several courses in which students have access on-line not only to expository materials and to tasks that utilise what they have learned, but also to resources built from previous terms' discussions and annotated examples of work as well as their own discussion forum. We have also run more controlled studies to look more closely at the learning taking place when viewing these resources. We have found, in general, not only positive learning outcomes but positive affective ones in terms of students' feeling that they are part of a larger community, and that reading the discussions of others gives them a wider perspective.

However, it became clear early in the project that one major problem is generating good discussions in the first place. Thus, a second focus of the project has been to develop methods for teaching students how to engage in effective discussions early in a course. To this end, we have developed a series of Task Directed Discussion games (TDDs) that gradually demand more and more deep thinking about the domain and 'ease students in' to discussions. All TDDs are based on the idea of eliciting discussions from students by providing them with a common focus; that is, a finite set of key concepts that students must structure in various ways. To date eleven task-directed discussion games have been developed.

We continue to refine the task-directed discussions for face-to-face and distance learning and to understand where this approach will and will not be useful. The courses we have taught generally have been:

Our objective is to provide a clearer basis for approaching the question of how systems issues bear on the support of educational dialogue, teasing apart the tangled issues of learning task, dialogue situation, and motivation, before we can describe more clearly how the design of any particular tool is contributing to the overall patterns of learning that results.

More information on the web at:

Please contact:

Terry Mayes - Centre for Learning and Teaching Innovation, Glasgow Caledonian University
Tel: +44 41 332 8214

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