Different media tell their tales in different ways. Interactive educational sites on the World Wide Web combine some of the linearity of text with the dialogical nature of a conversation. In such an unfamiliar context, metaphors and narratives tend to be used by both the students and tutors in the unit to make sense of their learning experiences. Such narratives are to some extent imposed by the constraints and potentials of the medium, and to some extent by the values and choices of the web developer, but they are also co-constructed throughout the unit by the interactions and negotiations of the tutors and students. I wish to explore, using several different metaphors, my own narrative intentions as the unit developer, and the intersections and renegotiations of that narrative with those co-constructed with my co-tutor and with the students. I will suggest that the most useful unit of analysis and evaluation for such a project is not the learning of the individual, nor even a dyadic relationship (although these are an important part of the unit), but the story - recognising always that stories are constructed rather than found.
It is interesting to reflect upon my attitude to the reading I did at the beginning of this semester. I thought it all seemed too abstract and theoretical to be of any practical use to an experienced teacher, however looking back, I now see this was a way of setting the scene for the whole unit. It opened up my mind to the idea that the metaphors we use to help us understand curriculum colour the way we think and consequently influence our approach and attitude to curriculum development. This was a new and very powerful idea for me, one of several that I will take with me from this unit and attempt to apply to my work as a teacher. (Comment from a student assignment in SMEC 612)
I have chosen to begin this brief discussion of the interwoven narratives of experience (Geelan, 1998) that surrounded and comprised a web-based distance education unit with this quote from Annette's (all student names used in this paper are pseudonyms) final, summatively reflective assignment in the unit because she has captured so succinctly the 'narrative arc' that I intended students to follow in the unit. But if this paper is to have a recognisable narrative arc, I need to give you some background on the unit.
SMEC 612: Curricula in Science, Mathematics and Technology Education is part of the Master of Science (Science Education) degree offered by Curtin's Science and Mathematics Education Centre. It is offered in both on-campus and distance-education modes, and is a compulsory unit in the Masters degree program. Students in the course are generally practising teachers of science, mathematics or technology, and their teaching contexts range from universities and tertiary colleges, through public and private secondary schools to primary school classrooms.
I tutored distance education students in the unit in 1996, then extensively re-wrote the 'paper and mail' distance education materials in 1997. As part of that process - almost a byproduct of my emerging interest in web site development and HTML - I took a couple of hours and some templates I'd produced for another on-line unit and put a version of SMEC 612 on the World Wide Web. That electronic version of the unit was successfully offered to students in second semester 1997, but the kinds of rich, educationally communicative interactions we had envisaged for the Discussion Room just never really got off the ground. I spent a lot of time talking about this challenge to Peter Taylor, with whom I had also been involved in teaching the unit SMEC 501 on the Web (with similar results), and together we developed an approach for heavily revising the unit in the interest of promoting more high level discussion between students. The revised unit was taught in Semester Two 1998.
I must admit that, as someone who enrolled in this course to improve myself as an educator, I am feeling some frustration at having to discuss the semantics of images of curriculum and at the same time wondering how this will improve my teaching. I can see some value in this process but it does seem to be a long path that we're being led down and I guess I'd like to see some drinking water at the end of it. Am I getting thirsty too soon?
The comment from Annette with which I began this paper was enormously reassuring to read at the end of the semester, and was mirrored with varying degrees of strength by most other students. A survey which was conducted at the end of the semester similarly showed high rankings from most students for the professional relevance of the unit: something I strongly suspect would not have occurred earlier in the semester. This is a case were the tutor could see the 'big picture' that made the various activities meaningful, but that perspective only became available to the students at the end - a little like the refiguring of all that has gone before that occurs at the denouement of a good suspense novel.
One student told, lived, created an entirely unofficial story, and rejected the official story almost completely - but I'll leave her tale for my co-conspirators to tell...
I have used that metaphor of the 'narrative arc' of the unit to explore the 'official story' that Peter and I intended to share in our roles as authors and teachers in the unit, and also to look at some of the 'unofficial stories' told and lived by the students and tutors during the course of the semester. Now I want to subvert that metaphor for a moment, by considering some other possible ways of imagining the unit.
In the initial development of the web sites for our on-line units we very much had the metaphor of a physical school in our minds. We even went so far as to draw a diagram on the whiteboard during a meeting, which explored the metaphorical links between the on-line and on-campus classrooms. We saw the Activities as the actual classroom, the Discussion Room as a sort of cafe/meeting place for discussion of school and home, and the Notice Board as... well, a notice board! That physical metaphor for the site seems to have gone by the board in our thinking about the unit - we now seem to address the web site pretty much on its own terms, since we've become more familiar with it.
It's intriguing to think about - and one day we'll explore more formally - the similar and different metaphors or images our students might use in thinking about both the electronic/physical artifact of the web site and the more ephemeral but no less real pattern of their own learning in the unit. Certainly there remain multiple representations of the unit within the unit itself: on the Unit Outline page it variously appears as a web-like site map and as a linear list of topics (the 'narrative arc' discussed above). In research team meetings I have also used the metaphor of the various official and unofficial stories woven by the students and tutors entwining themselves together to form a braid - one which hopefully lies in the general direction intended by the hairdresser, but is prone to blow about in the wind, and swing toward the side with the heavier hair!
Andrew Stapleton's paper discusses the vexed question of 'units of analysis': when attempting to conduct disciplined inquiry into something as complex and multi-faceted as SMEC 612, an analytic 'way in' must be chosen. Andrew thoughtfully explores a number of alternatives - analysis through looking at the learning of individual students, dyadic tutor-student, student-students and tutor-tutor relationships, the interactions of study groups or the evolution of themes and concepts through 'threads' in the Discussion Room. That process was upset by the actions of one student, who shattered all the neat categories with her comet-like (Armageddon-asteroid like?!) passage through the unit. I'd like to suggest that the power and beauty of braids and webs and arcs - and the richness and complexity of human lives and learning - require the most powerful and flexible unit of analysis we have: the narrative. Narratives are fictional or 'factual' selections from events which have been humanly constructed for human purposes - in this instance for thoughtful inquiry into the lived experiences (Van Manen, 1990) of the teacher/learners and learner/teachers in this unit. By telling stories to one another - and now to you - we share not just the events and intentions that comprise the surface of the unit but, more importantly, the meanings we make of them, and the understandings we are in the process of constructing together.
Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Van Manen, M. (1991). The tact of teaching: The meaning of pedagogical thoughtfulness. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Van Manen, M. (1990). Researching lived experience: Human science for an action-sensitive pedagogy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
|Please cite as: Geelan, D.R., Taylor, P.C.S., Fox, R., Herrmann, A., Stapleton, A. and Dawson, V. M. (1999). Arcs, braids and webs: Exploring constructed narratives in a web-based distance education unit. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 138-142. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/geelan.html|