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Deconstructing 'the classroom': Situating learning with the help of the World Wide Web

Jim Alexiades, Simon Gipson
St Michael's Grammar School

Graham Morey-Nase


In August 1998, the Headmaster of St Michael's Grammar School had a 'bright idea'. Responding to the report of a group of his senior staff on the concepts of Flexible Learning and The Virtual School, he conceived an idea whereby a group of students would be placed in a remote location to undertake a course of study unique to that location whilst at the same time continuing their 'normal' schoolwork by means of daily synchronous and asynchronous connectivity with the school through the Internet. Somewhat randomly, he chose the Great Barrier Reef as the context for his proposal with the completion of a full Unit of VCE Biology on Ecosystems as the specific focus.

To give his bright idea 'legs' and credibility, however, two things were required:

  1. The creation of a joint venture, including a major academic partner; and

  2. An assessment of the integrity and viability of the proposal from the point of view of teaching and learning theory and academic outcomes - in other words 'a teaching and learning impact study'.

Joint venture

In 1998, the school developed a collaborative and commercial relationship with James Cook University in Townsville, the result of which was use of JCU's Marine Biology Research Station on Orpheus Island; the involvement of JCU staff and postgraduate students in the course; and the development of a four day workshop and a lecture series which focussed on marine archaeology and local indigenous history and issues.

Teaching and learning impact study

The learning effectiveness of physically situating learners in unfamiliar environments with online communication to their familiar environment is supported by recent research into the effectiveness of Constructivist learning environments founded on the principle of Situated Learning (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989; Lave and Wenger, 1991), with its associated elements of Authentic Activities, Enculturation, Cognitive Apprenticeship and Collaborative Learning.

Constructivism and situated learning

Extending the constructivist principle that, in the absence of a real world context for learning information, that information is less meaningful, Brown, Collins and Duguid first expounded their theory of Situated Learning in 1989. They argued that meaningful learning only occurs if it is embedded in the social and physical context within which it is used. This context is too often missing from current learning environments, in which learners are required to acquire facts and rules that have no direct relevance or meaning to them, because they are not related to anything the learner is interested in or needs to know. For them "activity and situations are integral to cognition and learning".

Enculturation and authentic activities

Brown et al contend that learning 'how to use a tool' is not possible "without understanding the community or culture in which it is used." Thus, they conclude that learning is a process of enculturation, and it is this process that determines which activities are 'authentic' and which are not. Enculturation applies equally to physical tools and 'conceptual tools', the use of which is "a function of the culture and the activities in which the concept has been developed." They conclude: "Activity, concept, and culture are interdependent. No one can be totally understood without the other two. Learning must involve all three."

Cognitive apprenticeship

Enculturation in order to achieve authenticity is thus the core of Brown et al's view. The means by which students can achieve this is simply stated: "they can enculturate through apprenticeship". In applying the traditional model of craft apprenticeship to concept learning, they propose a model which they term 'Cognitive Apprenticeship'. In the same way as craft apprenticeships enable apprentices "to acquire and develop the tools and skills of their craft through authentic work at and membership in their trade", so Cognitive Apprenticeship "supports learning in a domain by enabling students to acquire, develop, and use cognitive tools in authentic domain activity."

Central to this notion of apprenticeship in a 'community of practice' are the roles of 'master and apprentice' and the importance of activity or 'doing'. The 'master' sequentially engages in modelling, coaching, scaffolding and fading - moving the apprentice from observation to exploration to independence through the provision of expertise, hints and reminders, feedback, and support before finally 'fading' as control of the learning process is handed over to the apprentice. The apprentice begins by observing from the boundary, but, as learning and involvement in the culture increase, she moves from the role of observer to fully functioning agent.

Collaborative learning

Also crucial in this process of learning through enculturation is collaboration and social interaction. As Brown et al point out:
Within a culture, ideas are exchanged and modified and belief systems developed and appropriated through conversation and narratives... So learning environments must allow narratives to circulate and 'war stories' to be added to the collective wisdom of the community. ...Learning, both outside and inside school, advances through collaborative social interaction and the social construction of knowledge.

To what extent can the characteristics of situated learning environments be created in computer based 'classroom' environments?

A number of practitioners and researchers argue that they can and they point to the ability of interactive multimedia programs to provide 'an authentic context that reflects the way the knowledge will be used in real life' and to provide authentic activities (Herrington & Oliver, 1995; Herrington, Sparrow & Oliver, 1997; Herrington and Oliver, 1997; Pennell et al., 1997). As a generalisation, most computer based programs that claim to deliver situated learning rely on two inter-connected features: (1) the simulation or replication of real world contexts; and (2) the use of a case based and/or problem solving approach to create 'authentic activities'.

Other researchers, however, have not been as positive in their response. McMahon (1997) doubts the capacity of technology to provide real world or 'authentic' tasks. He suggests that, although the Web can "present a variety of information sources", this does not necessarily translate into 'case based authentic learning' and he concludes that the assertion that web based instruction can provide authentic tasks for learners "is yet to be demonstrated with research and existing examples on the Web".

Furthermore, other researchers have suggested that, since situated learning requires that learners be exposed to 'masters' or experts in the practice of their trade, it cannot be, by its very definition, transferred to the classroom (Tripp, 1993; Wineburg, 1989). Referring specifically to computer based materials, Hummel (1993) maintains that "instructional designers who apply situated learning theory by implementation in electronic media should realise that they take an important step away from this theory ... courseware becomes the learning environment and not the authentic situation" (Quoted in Herrington & Oliver, 1995:2). Pennell (1997) is conscious of this danger when he warns that "teaching that interposes current communication technology between the learner and the teacher risks engaging the student... with a culture of technology rather than the learning culture we seek to simulate".

Jonassen et al (1993) suggest that the use of technology reduces the opportunity for active interaction with other learners, for, while the Web now permits instant discourse with people almost anywhere in the world through email, Newsgroups, bulletin boards, and Ichat, these connections have their limitations, particularly when the communication is 'cold' or the communicants are unfamiliar - either personally or culturally - with each other. The inability to physically verify vital elements of the communication and to attain the in depth and spontaneous interaction of face to face communication that develops mutual understanding and common ground is generally absent even if cost and time considerations are favourable. This suggests that 'we gain knowledge of the world by being in the world' (Engestrom, 1994).

Physical location in unfamiliar environments...

It is hard to resist the conclusion that situated learning is best implemented by physically locating students in 'unfamiliar' cultures/communities of practice. The benefits of 'physical presence' were espoused some years ago by Robert McClintock (1971) when he advocated what he termed 'Apprentice Schools', which would provide "opportunities to study 'academic' subjects in situations where the practical, worldly uses of those subjects could be directly experienced by curious students." He went on:
... the apprentice school should be a roving school that offers its students the opportunity to experience the inner workings of all different kinds of adult activity as well as the opportunity to study the basic cultural skills and ideas that pertain to the world he is experiencing.
In McClintock's recent work (for example, McClintock, 1999), however, this idea has found no place. Rather it has been replaced by the notion of technology bringing the world to the student. In our enthusiasm to embrace the potential of the new learning technologies, have we perhaps lost sight of alternative learning environments, which may be more effective for learning, especially if they are supported by technology?

...enhanced by the World Wide Web

While Web technology can bring the 'unfamiliar world' to the classroom in a limited way, it also permits 'the classroom' being physically taken to the 'unfamiliar world' in a way that not only does not disrupt other 'normal' learning programs, but can positively enhance them. Whereas the major function of the Web for students in the 'familiar' classroom is as an importer of content and information about the 'unfamiliar' world, its major function for students physically located in 'unfamiliar' settings is as a communication vehicle linking them to teachers and students back in their 'familiar' institutional environment, enabling them to maintain their learning in their subjects and disciplines that are both represented and not represented in their situated experience.

The Model: 'Web enabled situated learning in an unfamiliar environment'

Building on the above propositions, we have developed a model of situated learning which enables students to be taken to where the learning is. Thus, classroom follows learning. It is a model that physically situates learners with laptop computers in unfamiliar 'communities of practice', environments and cultures in such a way as to permit learners to engage in authentic activities and to fulfil the characteristics of cognitive apprenticeship. Along with the students goes the information and communications technology infrastructure which further enhances educational opportunities by ensuring that all other learning imperatives and curricula are not neglected. Whilst content can be taken to the 'unfamiliar' environment on CD or in hard copy, the crucial interaction and collaborative aspects of learning can be pursued through WWW applications which use networked communication - email, Internet Relay Chat and so on. With the advent of mobile satellite dishes and satellite phones, this form of learning can literally be done anywhere in the world, thereby endorsing the principles of educational globalisation.

It is this communicative function of the Web that McMahon (1997) believes needs to become a much more important focus of web based programs: "It could be argued that the use of the Web is best suited to that of a communications medium for collaborative approaches to learning rather than as a '24 hour a day glorified whiteboard' (Archee & Duin, 1995)". McMahon argues that the Web has strong potential for social interactivity and collaborative learning, creating 'virtual communities' of learners on the Internet. We would add that this potential is most able to be realised when these connected 'communities' are culturally homogeneous and familiar, and when there is a clearly articulated structure and a shared understanding of the purpose and nature of the social interaction.


Whilst we would like to think that educational institutions might seriously consider adopting this approach to learning in the digital age, we recognise that there are a number of inhibiting factors.

Cost and equity issues

Clearly there are significant costs associated with the implementation of our model. To be effective, however, projects based on our model do not need to be so spectacular or ambitious as the Barrier Reef example. Situating students for significant periods of time among communities of artists, indigenous communities, World Heritage areas or extended vocational internships need not involve expensive travel and accommodation. In addition, the costs associated with locating students in off shore environments can be contained through joint ventures, reciprocal relationships and sponsorship arrangements. Implementation of the model, however, does require creativity, entrepreneurial flair and detailed time consuming planning.

Inter-sector collaboration

Implementation of our model would provide an opportunity for the development of mutually beneficial partnerships between the school and tertiary sectors that could involve the sharing of facilities, the cross fertilisation of staff, the enhancement of income earning and joint project development. There is also a further significant benefit for schools. The academic and theoretical focus in the tertiary sector on the ways in which technology is both changing and enhancing teaching and learning is largely absent within schools, where the drive for adopting technology remains largely 'product driven'. Increased collaboration between the sectors could help remedy this deficiency to the benefit of Australian education.


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Authors: Jim Alexiades, Head of Senior School.
Simon Gipson, Head of the School
St Michael's Grammar School. http://www.stmichaels.vic.edu.au/
Graham Morey-Nase, General Manager, QUESTech. http://www.questech.com.au/

Please cite as: Alexiades, J., Gipson, S. and Morey-Nase, G. (2001). Deconstructing 'the classroom': Situating learning with the help of the World Wide Web. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2001/alexiades.html

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