|Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]
Assessing the efficacy of online teaching with the Constructivist On-Line Learning Environment SurveyPeter Taylor and Dorit Maor
Science and Mathematics Education Centre
Curtin University of Technology
Our discussion culminates in an illustration of how the COLLES can be used to monitor the quality of innovative online teaching and learning. The context is the first author's online Masters unit: 'SMEC625: Multimedia in Science and Mathematics education'.
Given the rising popularity of social constructivism as a referent for science, mathematics and technology teachers' own classroom teaching, we believe that it is very important for these teachers (i.e., our own students) to experience firsthand what it means to become reflective and collaborative learners in a social constructivist learning environment (see also Brown, 1997, Salomon, 1996).
The significance of Web based university distance teaching and learning from a social constructivist perspective is discussed in extant research literature (Blanton, Moorman & Trathern, 1998; Jonassen & Reeves, 1996; Owston, 1997).
In electronic text based communities of learners, our geographically and socially isolated students have the opportunity to establish communicative relationships with each other and to reflectively co-construct their knowledge by engaging in open and critical discourse (Maor, 1998, 1999; Taylor et al., 1999). In science, mathematics and technology teacher education, the Web has begun to be utilised in this way but, as yet, very little research has been published (Gilmer, in press, Tobin, in press) on the efficacy of the Web for promoting epistemological growth amongst teachers of science, mathematics and technology. Hence, our project is situated within a newly developing international research program which is investigating the development of epistemologies of practice for Web based teaching.
Our project aims to provide a means for other teacher educators to participate in this research program which, to date, has been driven by the laborious and time consuming process of interpretive research. Of particular relevance to our project is the recent call for a survey instrument for evaluating the quality of Web based learning environments (Chiew & Tobin, in press), specifically an instrument, such as the COLLES, for generating a profile of students' perceptions of the extent to which the virtual classroom environment is fostering their learning (Burge, 1994).
The COLLES comprises scales new to learning environment research. The scales were developed from the theory of social constructivism (including social constructionism, critical constructivism, co-participation, and socially situated cognition) which is guiding leading edge research on the role of students' predispositons in shaping the quality of their discourse in Web based teaching and learning. The scales are concerned with students' perceptions of the existence of a virtual classroom environment that supports them to reconstruct themselves as both reflective and collaborative learners. We designed the COLLES to measure students' (and tutors') perceptions of:
Figure 1: MSc students' perceptions of their preferred and actual online learning environments (N=10)
In the following preliminary analysis we describe (visual) patterns evident in the graphical display of the data, and we illustrate how challenging questions can be generated to guide subsequent interpretive inquiry and educational decision making.
Again these results are reassuring, in the sense that students seem to be satisfied. But are we as unit designers also satisfied? Might we want to include learning activities that are more challenging of students' extant epistemologies, activities that might not be perceived as being directly relevant to what goes on in teachers' daily lives but which, in fact, might further enrich their professional lives? How far can we take our students beyond their zones of comfort and familiarity?
These results are interesting inasmuch as they point out that more is not necessarily better. In a student centred learning environment we would not want the teacher to maintain a constant active presence, but to move judiciously in and out of sight, at times offering guidance and suggestions and at other times leaving space for students to seize the learning agenda and control the pace and content of their own learning. Do we want, therefore, to lower students' expectations on this scale, rather than provide more cognitive support?
Of course, these quantitative data alone cannot shed further light on these results, so we must turn to other data sources in order to make sense of this apparent anomaly. At this early stage in the research we have not completed this interpretive inquiry which will include interviews with students, analysis of the record of online discourse, and analysis of students' final written assignments. However, we can reveal that anecdotal observations by the tutor (the second author) suggest that the online interactivity amongst students was underpinned more by a monological rather than dialogical rationality. In other words, students tended to post in the Activity Room 'mini speeches' aimed largely at informing others of their standpoint, opinion or point of view. If this assertion proves to be substantiated by our ongoing analysis, then we shall be faced with the pedagogical challenge of how to engage students in more a dialogical form of online discourse that involves (amongst other things) a willingness to learn from others, a commitment to active listening, and a style of writing that inquires into others' ideas.
Research tools such as the COLLES can help us to investigate the quality of online learning environments, but they do not come with gold standard norms. Higher expectations are not necessarily better. Results must be interpreted in relation to other data, and in relation to sound educational criteria. It is early days for online distance learning, and comparative analyses with more traditional forms of individualised distance learning are needed before we can be satisfied with our expectations. The COLLES is likely to be a very useful tool in this process. Please contact the authors if you would like to participate in our trials during 2000.
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|Please cite as: Taylor, P. and Maor, D. (2000). Assessing the efficacy of online teaching with the Constructivist On-Line Learning Environment Survey. 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/taylor.html|