Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Using online journals to stimulate reflective thinking

Eilean Fairholme
School of Information Systems, Curtin Business School
Martin Dougiamas
Centre for Educational Advancement
and
Heinz Dreher
School of Information Systems, Curtin Business School
Curtin University of Technology
    Information Systems or Electronic Commerce students can take HTX212 in their bachelor's program, or HTX512 in their graduate diploma and master's programs. These are combined into one face to face unit, supported by the use of WebCT, and consolidated by a three person team project, where students attempt to incorporate the features of client-side and server-side Web programming and database management which they have been taught. Other aims of the unit are to consolidate core skills learnt in other units; particularly project management, and to develop the use of reflective thinking for process improvement.

    This paper describes a partially successful attempt to stimulate private communication from students with their lecturers through the use of structured questions in a WebCT journal. Having discussed the techniques used, and examined the student responses to the questions posed, the paper concludes by suggesting improvements for the future. The weekly journal requirement from each student to audit their and their team's performance allowed each individual to share concerns with their lecturers, analyse where processes were not working, suggest and monitor the effect of improvements. The quality of student response improved throughout the semester, with some deep discussion of issues, although many students struggled with the concept initially. Discussions were promoted on the bulletin board.

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Introduction

HTX212 is chronologically the middle one of three hypertext units (HTX211, HTX212 and HTX312), which comprise the electronic documentation stream offered to IS majors in the Curtin Business School. Postgraduate versions of these units are taught in the same classes, with higher expectations of the postgraduates.

With the objectives of integrating multimedia objects and interactive functionality into hypertext documents, undergraduate/postgraduate students are required to develop an interactive Web site suitable for use by customers of a small business enterprise. Students are expected to make a significant contribution to the team based product by consolidating client-side and server-side programming and database management concepts taught previously in this unit. They are also asked to bring to bear their reflective thinking skills discovered during this unit.

Students are marked on their:

The unit (HTX212/512) combines face to face teaching with project work and independent journal contributions. WebCT is used to host the teaching resources, bulletin board, chat room and project work. The journals are also submitted through WebCT, but in this case, access is restricted to the individual student and their lecturer(s).

The unit has captured some characteristics of distance education, in the sense that WebCT has added value by providing additional communication channels with students and lecturers. The use of the Bulletin Board has been quite extensive: students share problems. Email also features as a one to one and one to many problem solving mechanism. However, the focus of this paper is to be on the use of the WebCT journals to stimulate reflective thinking leading to process improvement.

Background/historical development of the unit

The hypertext units (of which there are now three: HTX211, HTX212 and HTX312) comprise the electronic documentation stream offered to IS majors in the Curtin Business School. The initial unit HTX211 is also available as a University wide elective and is a prerequisite for HTX212.

The objective of HTX211 is to provide students with an opportunity to discover hypertext as an alternative to linear paper based documents. In deconstructing a text based document in order to a constructing hypertexts from it, students learn how to evaluate hypertexts for usability and functionality.

Based on this, HTX212 provides students with an opportunity to incorporate multimedia objects and interactivity into a web site suitable for use by customers of a small business enterprise. To achieve this, the students are required to develop some familiarity with scripts, forms and database back end processing.

The third unit (HTX312) considers electronic publishing systems and libraries.

HTX211 and 511were designed by Heinz Dreher in the early 1990s. As hypertext was such a new idea to most of the staff In the School of Information Systems there was considerable resistance to the introduction of the hypertext units. To ameliorate this, since a large part of making a hypertext is 'processing' text from its linear structure into heterarchies, the pseudonym of "text processing" was used initially.

Student numbers at first were quite modest, but it did not take long for the word to spread that there were some exciting and useful opportunities for students knowledgeable in hypertext. From mid-1994, with the arrival of the WWW on our campus, numerous other units were introduced relating to the Web and the Internet. The hypertext units began to use HTML as the hypertext language, whereas a variety of other languages and systems had been employed in the early years. Word of mouth and brochure distribution contributed to the popularity of the units during the late 1990s.

WebCT opportunity

Online components of the course consisted of journals, presentation feedback and open discussion. The online journals were implemented within a WebCT environment at Curtin University of Technology, using the standard quiz tools it provides. Each week, a quiz containing only two or three questions was made available to students. Using the access restriction features of WebCT quizzes, these could only be used in the assigned week from one lecture to the next, which encouraged students do a little work each week. The questions consisted of one or two long answer questions for the journal itself, as well as one multiple choice question. The long answers were guided by open ended questions that the lecturers composed each week to stimulate particular directions of thought. A multiple choice question was used to take quick polls, or survey student progress in different ways.

Additional custom software was developed (within the WebCT server) to manage the more complicated feedback during the five weeks of group presentations. Students were identified by their WebCT username and so this software could function in a customised way for each student. For this application, web based CGI programs collected feedback (comments and grades) from all students for each group presentation. The feedback was saved in a MySQL database. CGI programs were added to facilitate the use of the database as follows:

Lastly, online discussion was supported using standard modules of WebCT, including the bulletin board and mail modules.

Course structure

The journals were only analysed for the first 7 weeks as their purpose changed thereafter, as shown below.

Week No.In class activitiesOnline activity
1-7Lectures, Project workOnline Journals
8-12Work in progress presentations, Project workOnline Critiques of Work in progress presentations
13-14Project workBulletin Board Critiques of Projects, online Feedback on the course

Theoretical background

Some publications on meta-cognition and reflective learning have been very helpful in the design of this unit, from a reflective thinking perspective. Laurillard (1993) describes reflective learning as requiring meta-level monitoring by the subject. She uses the word 'mathemagenic' which, coined by Rothkopf (1970), describes activities which give birth to learning; and reminds us that an insight into what constitutes the learning process can suggest the basis for a teaching strategy:
"the teacher must support the process in which students link the feedback on their actions to the topic goal for every level of description within the topic structure"
Laurillard (1993) also recommends invoking the phenomenographic method, which sets out to describe
"not what is known about x, ... but how the idea of x can be experienced"
Marton, Hounsell & Entwistle (1984), proponents of Phenomenonography, are concerned with collecting data directly from learners through self reports and interviews on their experience of learning. The teacher is seeking to understand the phenomenon of learning by asking the student questions designed to promote the student's meta-cognitive awareness. Their replies are analysed from a teacher's perspective in order to identify how teaching and assessment affect quality of learning.

The difficulty of selecting meaningful open ended questions is addressed by Brockbank & McGill (1998) who suggest that teachers begin by self reflection with questions such as:

Having experienced, modified and fine tuned this approach, a model of the process by which reflective dialogue can be facilitated to encourage critical reflective learning is then offered to their students.

Biggs & Moore (1993) point out that learners who are aware of their meta-cognitive processes carry out complex activities by

Houssman (1991) (cited in Gordon (1996)), found that students who were aware of their own meta-cognitive processes and monitored their own learning processes became more proficient learners in a computer class, compared to those who did not. This is particularly applicable to group project activities. The Newell & Simon (1972) General Problem Solver (GPS) provided a problem solving process based upon a meta-cognitive approach and using a means-end analysis as follows:

A model for using reflective thinking for process improvement

Figure 1 outlines a model for using reflective thinking for process improvement, based upon the Newell & Simon (1972) GPS, which was introduced early in a teaching situation.

Figure 1

Figure 1: A model for reflective thinking for process improvement.

Our philosophy in structuring the online activities was that students should benefit from their own experiences. We aimed to choose a metacognitive approach when setting the journal questions, so that students could construct and express their own understandings of the process they were experiencing. While it was intended that there be some use of the bulletin board as a mechanism for solving specific technical problems, we wanted students to discuss and reflect on process issues in project management with us. We also wanted an iterative procedure for providing our feedback to them on their reflections.

Allocation of marks

Each week 4 marks were available for journal entries. Some questions did not attract any marks (eg. Week 4 Question 1, and Week 6 Question 2). The marks were allocated in response to a description of process rather than a list of content.

Weekly journals

The number of questions and format varied, sometimes leading in with a Biggs & Moore (1993) multiple choice question (see Week 4 Question 1) intended as scaffolding to prompt the student. The reflective question was formulated in the Brockbank & McGill (1998) style (see earlier). Sometimes a final feedback question was appended to give the student a chance to comment on other issues, eg. Any questions you want to ask, or issues you want to raise? (Week & Question 2).

Sample questions

Week 2:
It's now been over a week since you started the course. By now you should have at least some idea what your project will be. Below, Has your group met yet? Working in groups isn't always easy, and developing your interpersonal skills is part of this unit. Share any problems you've had forming, defining roles and dividing workload.

Week 3:
How is your project going? What is it like working with the other members in your team? Have you met with them yet? Are there any problems appearing? What new ideas have you come up with this week? What ideas have you rejected this week? If you are having problems, what are you doing to solve them?

Week 4:

  1. Which of the following things have your group worked on so far?

    tickbox graphic1. Functional requirements
    tickbox graphic2. Operational design
    tickbox graphic3. Scope
    tickbox graphic4. Site structure
    tickbox graphic5. Task identification, resource allocation, and time estimates
    tickbox graphic6. Web content (text, graphics etc)
    tickbox graphic7. Web design (HTML, Javascript, CGI programs etc)
    tickbox graphic8. Preparing for work in progress presentation

  2. Thinking about the sections outlined in question 1, write your observations about how your group went about developing them. If you are having problems, what are you doing to solve them?
Week 5:
It's week 5, and the semester is slipping away quickly. Is your group becoming focused on the tasks you need to do? Do you think you'll have time to finish the project as you'd intended? If so, what are you working on? If not, what can you do?

Week 6:

The results of which were analysed as follows.

Results from Week 6 - mini-checkpoint

Week 7:
How is the group working together at this point, from your perspective (issues/problems/successes)? How are you personally feeling about the project at the moment? Is anything blocking your progress? If so, how will you try to overcome it?

Lecturer roles

This unit was team-taught. One lecturer specialised in pedagogical process (project management, presentation skills, group interactions). The other lecturer brought very high quality technical skills and knowledge of using technology in technology education.

Statistics of use

DemographicsWeek 2 to Week 7
Number of students 444852525252
Number contributing each week 424748504348

Use of collected data

All collected feedback and corresponding marks were stored in online databases. Programs (in WebCT or custom written) were used by the lecturers as follows:
  1. To produce statistics and matrix displays to identify problematic journal questions, or trends in individual students. For example, a student whose marks were steadily decreasing was contacted to find out what was going wrong.

  2. Feedback on student presentations could be collated and given back to the presenters, so that they could reflect on the reflections of their peers.

  3. To answer ad-hoc questions that occurred to lecturers throughout the course. For example, "How are the postgraduate students performing in relation to the undergraduate students in the same course? "

Journal entries

Issues for both students and lecturers were identifed in the following categories:
The following sections illustrate various types of student-lecturer interactions through edited extracts from journal contributions. Names of students and project references have been altered to preserve anonymity.

Journal use

Team interaction

Project management

Problem solving

Learning experiences

Improvements to be made

It would be interesting to ask the students to suggest questions to prompt reflective thinking in their journals.

It would also be useful to provide an additional opportunity to reflect on the unit objectives for relevance, at the end of the semester, since the responses to Week 6 Question 2 indicated that more practical teaching would benefit this unit. (The students wanted to improve their skills in programming, data base connectivity and web design, directed towards the evolving electronic commerce requirements of marketing, management and business in general.)

Summary

The journal participation rate was high, to be expected, since there were marks for the journal entries.

The quality of student response improved throughout the semester, as did their spelling, punctuation and grammar.

The lecturers' optimism was justified that some learning experiences had been assisted by the use of journals.

The students also made use of journals to share concerns with their lecturers, and to a limited extent to analyse where processes were not working and to suggest improvements. However there was little or no monitoring of the effect of suggested improvements. Perhaps this should be reinforced in tutorials, or on the bulletin board?

We were left with the following unanswered questions:

References

Biggs, J.B. & Moore, P.J. (1993). The Process of Learning. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Brockbank, A. & McGill, I. (1998). Facilitating Reflective Learning in Higher Education. Bucks. UK: SRHE & Open University Press.

Gordon, J. (1996). Tracks for learning: Metacognition and learning technologies. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 12(1), 46-55. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/gen/aset/ajet/ajet12/wi96p46.html

Houssman, J. (1991). Self-monitoring and Learning Proficiency. In Computer Classroom. Hofstra University, EDD.

Laurillard, D. (1993). Rethinking University Teaching. London, Routledge.

Newell, A. & Simon, H. (1972). Human Problem Solving. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Marton, F., Hounsell, D. & Entwistle, N. (1984). The Experience of Learning. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

Rothkopf, E. (1970). The concept of mathemagenic behaviour. Review of Educational Research, 40, 325-336.

Appendix 1 - Suggestions for improvement

Appendix 2 - Week 2 responses

What aspects do you think will be most difficult?

One answer covered all bases:

Most answers identified individual experience or known weakness: What aspects do you think will be easiest?

Most people picked out their own strengths:

Some were just optimistic: Share any problems you've had forming, defining roles and dividing workload

Some answers were predictive

Some experiential A few, clearly concerned Then there were the stars The over confident And those flying trouble flags

Appendix 3 - Week 3 responses

Reflect on your experiences of the past week. How is your project going? What is it like working with the other members in your team? Have you met with them yet? Are there any problems appearing? What new ideas have you come up with this week? What ideas have you rejected this week? If you are having problems, what are you doing to solve them? (Remember, these journals are confidential between you and the lecturers)

Group dynamics.

Complaints department.

Appendix 4 - Week 4 responses

The purpose of the first question was to remind the groups of the project management methodology, i.e. provide some scaffolding. It was repeated each week from this point on, adding further project stages chronologically.
  1. Which of the following things have your group worked on so far?

    tickbox graphic1. Functional requirements
    tickbox graphic2. Operational design
    tickbox graphic3. Scope
    tickbox graphic4. Site structure
    tickbox graphic5. Task identification, resource allocation, and time estimates
    tickbox graphic6. Web content (text, graphics etc)
    tickbox graphic7. Web design (HTML, Javascript, CGI programs etc)
    tickbox graphic8. Preparing for work in progress presentation

  2. Thinking about the sections outlined in question 1, write your observations about how your group went about developing them. If you are having problems, what are you doing to solve them?
Some answers sounded a bit theoretical. Whereas some had made a determined start. Some offered practical suggestions. Some outlined problems which the lecturers needed to be aware of. Some agonised, but managed to offer remedial strategies. Some didn't offer much except motherhood statements. Finally, unclassifiable, but irresistible.

Appendix 5 - Week 5 responses

It's week 5, and the semester is slipping away quickly. Is your group becoming focussed on the tasks you need to do? Do you think you'll have time to finish the project as you'd intended? If so, what are you working on? If not, what can you do?

Now the realisation that time is getting short.

Contingency plans. Positive progress. Not such a good idea.

Appendix 6- Week 6 responses

Week 6 - mini-checkpoint/revue (be your own auditor). How is the group working together at this point, from your perspective (issues/problems/successes)? What are you personally working on at the moment? Is anything blocking your progress? If so, how will you try to overcome it?

Appendix 7- Week 7 responses

How is the group working together at this point, from your perspective (issues/problems/successes)? How are you personally feeling about the project at the moment? Is anything blocking your progress? If so, how will you try to overcome it?

Positive responses.

Negative responses. The project is late ... Motherhood statements. About the journal.
Please cite as: Fairholme, E., Dougiamas, M. and Dreher, H. (2000). Using online journals to stimulate reflective thinking. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/fairholme.html


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