Science and Technology Education Center

Tel-Aviv University - School of Education

Knowledge Technology Laboratory







Avigail Oren, Rafi Nachmias, David Mioduser & Orly Lahav


Tel-Aviv University

School of Education

Ramat-Aviv, Tel-Aviv, 69978



Research Report # 52





Submited for Publication in

International Journal Educational Telecommunications

[For internal teaching and research use at Tel-Aviv University]

[© by the journals or books publishers]



Computer mediated communication (CMC), a central feature of cyberspace, is also a key resource for the creation of innovative technology-based educational environments. However, the real significance of these environments for education is still unclear. Our aim in this paper is to propose a particular educational configuration based on CMC technology, the Learnet, based on the combination of three components: a virtual community (social dimension), hosted by an appropriate virtual environment (technological dimension), and embodying advanced pedagogical ideas (educational dimension). The dimensions and variables of the Learnet model are presented, and applied in the analysis of four examples of Virtual Learning Environments in the Web.ÝWe conclude suggesting that environments encompassing the features of the Learnets model may promote learning processes based on membersípersonal interests, willingness to participate, and motivation to interact with peers, teachers and other knowledge sources within a dynamic learning community.


Computer mediated communication (CMC), a central feature of cyberspace, is also a key resource for the creation of innovative technology-based educational environments (Bonk, Appleman & Hay, 1996). However, the real significance of these environments for education is still unclear. Due to novelty, there is a lack of consensus about terms, definitions and conceptual approaches regarding networked educational environments. Our aim in this paper is to propose a particular educational configuration based on CMC technology: the Learnet. We argue that a Learnet is a novel educational system based on the combination of three components: a virtual community (social dimension), hosted by an appropriateÝvirtual environment (technological dimension), and embodying advanced pedagogical ideas (educational dimension).

The distinction between the social aspect (the members of the community) and the technological aspect (the infrastructure) of virtual communities was already proposed by Jones (1997). Here we further elaborate this distinction, and propose the inclusion of additional pedagogical layers, in correspondence with the particular needs and goals of virtual communities aimed to serve educational purposes.

We hope that our analysis will help in designing a taxonomy of Learnets and help in developing new educational systems on the Net.


The social dimension

Community - Definitions

Jones (1997) reviews a variety of definitions of the term community. The Dictionary of Sociology claims that the term is too vague to have a specific meaning, but to begin with we shall refer to the entry on ìcommunityîin the Random House Dictionary for the English Language:

These definitions suggest a distinction between two types of communities: a place-bound community and a interest-bound community. In a place-bound community members do things together in the same place and at the same time. We might think about religious congregations whichÝuse specific places (a synagogue, a church) for meeting and engaging in common activities. Interest-bound members share values and beliefs and develop relationships not in reference to a place but through communication (e.g., a professional association whose members have common interests, act according to common rules) via phone, mail and meetings that may take place in different locations. Though these are different types of communities we may observe that the role of membership in both cases is based on membersísense of affiliation, their use of a common terminology and their involvement in varied types of interaction.

Support for this dual meaning can be found in Farenback and Thompsonís (1995) survey. In discussing the different interpretations given to the term community they point to the evolution and change in its perception and definition. Their argument is based on an historical approach suggested by Sennet (1977), who argues that in the past a community was associated with a particular territory, while in the modern meaning a community means a gathering of ìlike-minded individualsî.

Virtual Communities

If a community is either place-bound or interest-bound, could virtual communities too, be classed in these terms? First we should consider the meaning of virtual as an adjective describing the nature of the community. Heim (1993) defines virtual as real in effect but not in fact. By that definition a virtual community can not be restricted to a certain physical/spatial place. The question is wether common interests and shared ideas could be a sufficient condition for establishing a virtual community. Or should it be associated to a new kind of place? And if so, how do we define this place?

In contrast to the space-related approach other researchers emphasize the social aspect of virtual communities. Rheingold (1993) defines a virtual community as a social aggregation which emerges from the Net when enough people carry on public discussion long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form aÝweb of personal relationships in cyberspace. Bruckman (1996) uses the term ìoff line worldsîwhere social organization exists. Jones (1995) suggests that as sharing communication is the main bond, the focus shifts from sharing a ìspaceîto sharing feelings. Common interests are designated by Toffler and Dyson in the Magna Carta for Knowledge Age, as the knot which ties together participants in cyberspace. Moreover, Dyson emphasizes the presence of give-and-take interactions as a crucialÝcondition for the evolvement of a community. Members should feel that they have invested in the community and therefore are part of it. The social dimension of the community is supported by a psychological condition. The elimination of physical features in cyberspace determines the social relations in the virtual community. Suller (1996) stresses the fantasy aspect (like acting in a dream) which eliminates the need to occupy concrete physical places and be recognized through a particular physical appearance. For example, virtual communities develop a certain social atmosphere that is based on social relations among characters that users create as their virtual representatives (avatars). The relations are formed between representations of real people, between minds and forms of thought as conveyed by avatars. Turkle phrases it: ìWe reconstruct our identities on the other side of the looking glassî (1995).

The technological dimension

New form of space

The new electronic space, cyberspace, is a new spatial form which exists on the Internet. Early references to this electronic space were made by MacLuhan (1964) in his work on the characteristics of the emerging ìglobal villageî. He pointed out that new social structures come into being as a result of communication technologies that foster the creation of electronic communities which abrogate space and time. Twenty years later Gibson (1984) coined the term Cyberspace to denote a ìplaceîwere new forms of virtual communities evolve as information entities. As NegroponteÝ(1996) states it, bits take the place of atoms and molecules. This space derives its novelty from its ability to create the notion of a certain space though being ìanyspaceî(Harasim, 1995). The new space might be considered as third place, in addition to work or school, and to home. Real-life this third places are characterized most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people's more serious involvement in other spheres Oldenburg (1991). These features of real ìthird placesîmight be compared to CMC based environments, where people regularly spend a great portion of their free time in a variety of communication-based activities (Reinghold, 1993).

The infrastructure of cyberspace

Jones (1995) uses the termÝsettlements, and Turkle (1996) the term neighborhoods to denote places hosting virtual communities. The spatial component appears essential for the perception of a community as a social entity. Regarding virtual communities, their spatial infrastructure and constituents might be defined in terms of the technological features of digital networks.

Because of the essential link between the social aspect (the community) and the technological aspect (CMC technology) there is a tendency to mix up these two dimensions in the description of the virtual community. For example, when discussing the nature of virtual communities some refer to Usenet (Baym, 1995; Mclaughlin, Osborne, & Smith, 1995; Reingold, 1993), to e-mail and BBS (Harasim, 1995), or to discussionÝgroups (Khan, 1998), which are all basically technological resources. All CMC tools the literature mentions when describing virtual communities are actually the infrastructure needed for its existence, but as such they should not be treated as virtual communities. Jones (1997) proposes to distinguishing clearly between the virtual community and its cyberplace, namely, the set of resources and tools comprising the digital environment of the community.

The educational dimension

Learning environments in the Internet come under various names in the literature, e.g., learning environments, virtual learning environments, learning communities, or virtual learning communities. For our further discussion on pedagogical features of Learnets, we shall look beyond all these terms, and clarify what the main educational characteristics of existing learning sites are.

Virtual Learning Environments

The general use of the expression ìvirtual learning environmentîrefers to any educational site on the Internet that includes information, and/or learning activities and/or educational assignments or projects. Most of these sites do not pursue the creation of a learning community. The term virtual is used in a general mode, e.g., the possibility to access the site from any place at any time, thus eliminating some of the physical constraints of the real world. These Websites offer a varied range of instructional modes: from the retrieval of curricular resources to be integrated in the regular classroom activities, to complete educational units existing only in the Web and serving online distance learning. Today, sophisticated versions of educational Websites comprising information resources, didactic solutions, and technological tools, are offered as complete learning environments. And because the term ìvirtualîhas become a buzzword in cyberspace, these Websites are commonly termed virtual learning environments.

Learning communities and virtual learning communities

Schools are by definition learning communities. They exists in a certain place in which the communityís activities are performed, they develop systems of rules and symbols which help members to identify with the place. As learning communities schools are place- and time-depended. They also usually decide the way students should learn, with whom and at what pace.

What characterizes Web-based (or virtual) learning communities? A Canadian survey (1998) defines two types of virtual learning communities: Geographically- bounded learning communities and interest-bounded learning communities. The first are based on existing communities (like schools), and they use the capability of the on-line technology in order to support these communities (1998). In 1996, 300 such learning communities were functioning (Schuler, 1996). The educational advantages of the network relates to the support and enrichment it provides to the real communities.

Interest-bounded learning communities were established through CMC and use the network as the meeting ìplaceî. These communities are totally dependent on the virtual environment in which they exist, and act like distance learning courses.


In this article we would like to develop a different model of networked learning environment on the basis of the previously described kinds of educational sites. We suggest to develop Learnets as a combination of:

Jones (1995) proposes four conditions that a virtual settlement (environment) should fulfill: (a) the capacity to manage interactive communication; (b) people who communicate; (c) a place for public interactions; and (d) a membership. While the first and the third conditions are technology oriented, we claim that the second and the forth are descriptors of the community and not of the hosting environment. We argue that a clear distinction must be made between community descriptors and between environment descriptors. In the following passages we will further elaborate on this distinction between social and technological features, as well as on the additional educational layer of Learnets.

Features of the Learnetís community (social dimension)

A community relies primarily on people. What features contribute to their socialization and consolidation as a community? We will focus on the following attributes: sense of belonging, extent of presence and status definition.

Sense of belonging is the basic attitude upon which the linkage among individuals develops, thus leading to the foundation and maintenance of the community. Individuals who feel committed to the community develop varied forms of interaction with others who feel alike, and contribute to the communityís functioning.

Extent of presence is a quantitative description of the frequency, duration and periodicity of membersíparticipation in community activities. This description is based on data regarding the membersínumber of visits, duration of each visit, and time elapsed between visits to the community environment.

Status definitions are organizational procedures that regulate the social systemís structure and functioning. Sets of rules define different roles for the members (e.g., full members, guests, administrators, wizards) and the levels of activity, services and authority related to each status. Like in the real world, order is needed and institutionsÝthat manage the place are important for its existence. A member status is the result of the interplay between community regulations (e.g., conventions, rules) and individualsídecision to register as members and define their level of participation and commitment.

Features of the LearnetsíEnvironment (technological dimension)

Technology-based attributes crucial to the evolvement of a virtual community are: immersivity, multi-user options, variety of communicational means, meta-level design.

Immersivity. If a virtual environment is to be an alternative to physical places where people meet, then the visitor should feel as if she/he were ìgoing insideîor ìbeing thereî. This feeling must be so strong that it temporarily eliminates the sense of being physically in another place, or the awareness of looking at the computerís screen. The question of how we might induce this feeling is still open. One possibility isÝby simulating reality, as is done in many virtual reality games. Another option is to create a new (virtual) reality, a cyberspace, without walls, without time zones, for which digital-world rules are created governing the behavior and functioning of the environment components. Either way, the use of multiple representational means of varied levels of sophistication is crucial. 3D graphics, live video, sound, or virtual reality devices all offer great opportunities for the creation of highly immersive environments.

Multi-user options. To achieve a community, it is not enough to enroll many communicators. It is the technology which enables the communicators to collaborate, that counts: they must be able to talk to each other, to act, create and produce together, to share knowledge, etc. A Mud exemplifies a technological solution that supports social functioning. Likewise, environments such as The Palace, Virtual Places, or Active Worlds are technological systems that enable collaborative work among members ofÝthe hosted virtual communities.

Variety of communication means. Communication is quintessential to networked environments. It is through the use of varied and efficient communication means, allowing both synchronous and asynchronous interactions, that the communityís social atmosphere evolves. For instance, communication conventions basedÝon characters available on the keyboard were developed by Internet users (e.g., using bold or capitals represents a tendency to force yourself on the group; ìnetiquetteîrules). Different communication options will support different modes of activity forÝdifferent types of members.

A meta-level approach. While developing a virtual environment a meta-level overview is needed. A global design of the environment is vital for creating the notion of a place which has open spaces rich in social opportunities, on one hand, and specific private corners for individual activity, on the other. The feeling of being in a spacious place, which includes different ìattractionsîis important for promoting frequent visits and social interaction. The existence of private places makes the place suitable for different visitors with different needs and interests. We also argue that a place which has different sections but also maintains a unity creates a sense of stability and helps the visitor to feel easy and comfortableÆ

Features of the pedagogical framework (educational dimension)

The educational implementation of any novel technology seems to follow an interesting pattern regarding pedagogical solutions. In the first stages prevailing pedagogical models, which were created by means of previous technologies, are adapted for use with the new technology. Then gradually new didactic forms evolve, taking advantage of the unique characteristics of the new technology for the realization of pedagogical claims. For example,Ýthe programmed instruction model was first adopted for the development of the first computer-based tutoring systems (Venezky, & Osin, 1991). But gradually features such as the possibility to construct sophisticated branching algorithms, to supply immediate relevant feedback, or to generate interaction templates other than structured question-answering tasks, resulted in the development of complex pedagogical solutions in the form of CAI tutoring and training systems. Later on computers were introduced asÝcognitive partners (Pea, 1987; Salomon, 1988; Turkle, 1984), as partners in the social learning supporting the ZPD theory (Vygotsky, 1978) and computer-based construction was introduced as an alternative to instruction (Papert, 1980).

The same evolvement pattern can be expected to occur regarding network technology. So far most educational Websites seem to be built upon pre-Web pedagogical models, taking little advantage of the powerful traits of the new technology (Mioduser, Nachmias, Oren, & Lahav, in press). For instance, in most sites the prevalent representational structure still resembles the linear sequence of content units typical of the print technology; communication activities (e.g., interactions among peers or with experts) are rarely included; and student interactions with the content are mostly limited toÝbrowsing and the occasional answering of structured questions.

Looking for didactic models which capitalize on the unique features of the Web technology, we suggest to focus on content, instructional and learning aspects of Learnets.

Content-representation aspects

The web structure (i.e., non-sequential, highly interlinked clusters of information units) demands a different approach for representing curricular content than does the textbook approach. The conception and design process of Web-based learning materials should produce innovative models regarding curricular issues such as organization, sequencing, indexing of raw materials for recurrent use in different configurations according to different learning goals, or qualification of links to allow different browsing paths for different students.

A second key issue regarding content-representation relates to representational means. We suggest that for the learning system to realize as fully as possible the characteristics of virtual environments, the use of representational means that support immersion, involvement, and interactivity (e.g., 3D graphics, virtual reality devices, sophisticated feedback devices) should be stressed.

To refer to the extent to which the pedagogical model of a site is constituted upon representational structures and means characteristic of the Web technology, the variable hyper-curriculum was included in the Learnets model.

Instructional aspects.

The possibility to access the network from any place, at any time and stay as long as one wishes, supports the distributed character of the learning community. Tools like e-mail and discussion groups, as well as multi-user tools (e.g., IRC, chat, online conferencing, MUDs)enable members of the community to share accumulated experiences and knowledge (Collins, 1998). Didactic configurations promoting collaborative work and group learning are sustained by the CMC tools embedded in the environment. At the same time, the specific needs and interests of each individual are taken into account, so that both individualsíautonomy and democracy of learning are supported. In addition, multiple roles and functions (besides direct tutoring) may be performed by educators in the networked community (e.g., moderating discussion groups, scaffolding, coaching).

Regarding the relationship between the real classroom and the virtual environment, several parameters appear to be relevant: the time invested in learning; whether it was compulsory or chosen on the basis of individual or group interests (i.e. , a Web-based project done in school may be short-term and compulsory; a distance learning course is based on free choice, but usually it has structured assignments and is constrained to defined time tables; a variety of activities offered as enrichment or as an alternative to classroom activities such as research projects, communication with peers, moderators and experts, or edutainment activities, are chosen by the learners and may become long-term activities); whether it is a Web-only activity or complements the use of regular classroom resources.

Based on the previous considerations, three relevant variables concerning instructional aspects are considered in the Learnets model: support for collaborative learning™ virtual/classroom relationship; and the networked-educatorís function.

Learning aspects

As members of the learning community, students are expected to participate and contribute to its academic and social development and functioning. Learning in the community implies dense and multifaceted interactions: with the content, with peers, experts and educators.

In addition, a variety of parameters related to the character of the learning transactions may be controlled by the learner (Morrison, 1995), e.g., place (where to communicate from), time (when), mode (kind of activity), role (who/what am I) , pace (stages) or level of learning.

The degree and quality of Interactivity is the variable in the Learnet model that relates to these aspects of the learning process.

The Learnetís dimensions and variables

A summary of the different aspects of Learnets results in the scheme of dimensions and variables shown in Table 1. Each variable was assigned a scale of four values, from 0 to 3, according to its specific characteristics.

In the next section we will use this scheme for the analysis of a number of selected Websites.


Table 1: variables of the Learnet model







Sense of belonging


class registration

personal registration

developer/ contributor

Extent of presence 



within a course


Status definitions




full membersírights and duties




2D graphics

2 1/2 D graphics

virtual reality ­

3D graphics

Multi-user options




collaborative work

Communication means





Meta-level features








internal links

external links

web structure

Collaborative learning


collaborative work

in classroom

collaborative work

between schools

collaborative work

with peers


classroom relationship

mainly classroom activity



information retrieval projects

mainly virtual activities

Educatorís function

Classroom teacher


virtual tutors + classroom teacher

virtual tutors



activation and observation

question answering

tele-manipulation/ java/ vrml



Several models of Virtual Learning Communities are currently evolving within the World Wide Web. Some develop in Websites that complement existing educational institutions, either formal (e.g., schools, universities) or informal ones (e.g., museums, community centers). Other models develop in sites which were built entirely as virtual environments (e.g., virtual schools, distance learning sites). Some promote interaction among people sharing common professional interests (e.g._teachers, scholars) or assignments (e.g.( students enrolled in a course). Yet others evolve in a free and associative fashion in response to the community membersífluctuating interests and aims.

In this section we will apply the variables of the Learnet model to analyze four such virtual learning communities, aiming to asses the extent to which these actualize required features of Learnets. The results of the evaluation of the sites by the variables of the model are presented in table 2.


Table 2: Analysis of four examples of virtual learning environments


Willoway cyberschool



Sense of belonging (2) personal registering  (2) personal registering  (1) class registration (0) no registration
Extent of presence (2) within a course (3) daily (2) within a course (1) occasional
Status (2) guest (2) guest (0) undefined (2) guestís rights
Immersive (1) 2D graphics (2) 2-1/2 D graphics (1) 2D graphics (1) 2D graphics
Multi-user (0) no (3) yes (0) no (0) no
Communication means  (1) only e-mail (3) multiple (2) Asynchronous only (1) e-mail only
Meta-level (3) yes (3) yes (3) yes (3) yes
Hyper curriculum (3) internal/ external links (3) internal/ external links (3) internal/ external links (3) internal/ external links
Collaborative (0) individual learning (3) collaborative work (1) collaborative classwork (1) collaborative classwork
Virtual/classroom (3) retrieval projects (3) virtual activities (1) virtual/classroom (3) virtual activities
Educatorís function (3) virtual tutor (3) virtual tutor  (0) classroom teacher (0) classroom teacher
Interactivity  (2) activation  (2) question answering (3) interactive projects (2) question answering

CyberSchool (

This is a site that offers accredited courses to schools in order to enable them to ìoffer students a broader, more flexible curriculumî. Students are required to have computer and communication skills, to be highly motivated and willing to invest a certain amountÝof time per semester in taking the courses.

The courses include a large amount of information and assignments to be done and delivered by means of online forms. The only communication means is the possibility to interact by e-mail with the teacher. To a small number of selected students project-based activities are offered. These projects are evaluated by peers and the students do not get credit for the activity. The project mode includes discussion-group and chat facilities.

Willoway cyberschool (

A virtual school which is completely administered through the web. Students may participate in the school activities every day from 8-15. The siteís design gives a sense of depth and perspective using 2-1/2D graphics. Video conferencing is included as main learning technology. Students are expected to participate daily interacting with teachers and peers through ICQ, e-mail, discussion groups and video conferencing. They are also expected to participate in collaborative projects.

Science Learning Network (

SLN is a consortium of museums that defines itself as an online community of educators, students, schools, science museums and other institutions, embodying a new model for inquiry science education.

The site has a corner that offers professional support to the community of science teachers. In this corner the teachers might present the variety of projects being done in their schools. Likewise, the site offers facilities for group discussion and chat for teachers who wish to exchange ideas and collaborate on topics related to their needs and interests.

Roosevelt Middle School (

Roosevelt Middle School is a magnet school that has a virtual classroom site which complements the real classes.

The information on a variety of curricular subjects is presented in the form of a dynamic textbook in an hypertext style, including links to other sites. Homework assignments are offered through the net and students may connect to their teachers via e-mail. The internet is also used as a place where studentsíproducts are published.

Table 3 shows the particular configurations of values of the Learnets variables for each example analyzed. The differences in configuration imply corresponding differences in the overall character of the Website: its goals, focus, main features and support for community-oriented learning.


Table 3: Variables values configuration for four examples of virtual learning environments
Sense of belonging
Extent of presence
Status definitions
Multi-user options
Communication means
Meta-level features
Collaborative learning
Virtual / Classroom
Educatorís function



Many sites on the internet define themselves as virtual learning environments, I the most general sense of the notion: a gateway to information and communication, any time and from any place. However, a more detailed analysis of such sites reveals that they do not possess all the features we defined in this article as essential for a virtual environment to support a virtual community aimed at learning. We will refer to these sites as quasi Learnets.

Quasi Learnets often have a defined pedagogical approach, but they lack features which are essential for creating a community. Most of them do not even present the building of a community as a goal. Many of them do not stand independently, but rather function as supplements of real institutions. Their environment is neither immersive nor multi-user, even if they use some communication means and their design reflects some meta-level conception of what its overall functioning should be.

If virtual learning communities are offered as a third place in addition to work or school, and to home (Oldenburg, 1991), they should be developed upon novel conceptions and offer unique tools and activity modes, which differentiates them from the other spaces. This environment should supplyÝall the communicational tools needed for developing social relations, tutor-student relations, and expert-novice relations. Likewise, management and moderating functions should be included to support social definitions (e.g., status, roles) and transactions. Thus environments encompassing the features of the Learnets model,Ýmay promote learning processes based on membersípersonal interests, willingness to participate, and motivation to interact with peers, teachers and other knowledge sources within a dynamic learning community.


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