|[ Teaching and Learning Forum 2001 ] [ Proceedings Contents ]|
Late in 2000, the World Wide Web had its 10th birthday, unheralded for the most part except by web insiders who competed gently with one another to find the oldest extant web page and to tell the stories of the "early days," when Tim Berners-Lee and a very few others began to use the new hypertext protocols that allowed one server to talk to another through cyber space. Now, it seems inconceivable that there was a time, so few years ago, when there was no web, now that we take email and electronic information searches for granted, now that the Google search engine claims to index more than a billion web pages, now that I can sit in a small inland town in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa marking essays online for subjects I taught on campus at Curtin.
Words like "revolutionary" and "paradigm shift" have been much used to describe the web's first decade. We have learnt a new language, which speaks of "killer apps", uploads and logons, domain names and server hives, and we have internalised complex processes of banking and shopping and seeking information from home or work or even in the field or on the road which we would not have dreamt possible ten years ago. Absorbed by the processes of change, our reflexivity about the extent to which this has affected our lives and, in particular, the extent to which it has affected our teaching and learning practice, is perhaps diminished by our closeness to the changes. It is genuinely difficult to remember an earlier time, before we could put subjects online, before we could include in the those subjects clickable links to a huge range of web pages, encompassing scholarly work of the highest order, and primary source collections, enthusiasts' pages, polemics or stunning visual displays. A time before we could, in some universities at least, give clickable links directly to scholarly articles, available electronically, immediately, avoiding the student queues in Closed Reserve, or the search across town in other university libraries or the month long wait for a photocopied version to come from the Eastern States.
All this is revolutionary indeed, in both its processes and its effects, opening up new worlds of information and laying some of the foundation stones for innovative and creative thought and production by our students. But, here I want to play the devil's advocate and to ask whether we have been genuinely revolutionary in our uses of the web in other, deeper and more central, sectors of our teaching/learning practice. As a recent study has emphasised:
With any form of information or knowledge, providing students with access to meaningful content does not guarantee learning, a factor frequently overlooked by developers of WWW based learning materials. What is also important to learning are the levels of learner engagement... (Oliver, Omari and Herrington, 1998)In this context I want to raise some questions about how, in this new and different environment of the web, we have thought about the strategies by which we engage our students in the teaching/learning process, about whether we have looked at our desired outcomes and the processes by which we can reach them, about how both the students and ourselves, as parts of flexible learning communities, can learn to use and take advantage of the potentials the web has to offer us, and about whether our teaching/learning practices have not been taken over - at least in part - by technologies used in limiting and restricting ways, when they might well have gone in quite different directions. I suggest that we can take the potential of the web and its technologies much further than most of us have done so far. The teaching/learning methods (whether on or off line) that we choose, or in which we are participant, inevitably play a significant, if not dominant, role in the ways that students learn and in what they take away from a course: few of us (and here I speak of the humanities) teach units or courses in exactly the same ways (even if we use much of the same materials) as our counterparts in other countries, in other states or even in other universities in our own city. The individual, context specific perspective, the use of different emphases and positions, all this gives a course or a unit a particular value, both locally and more widely, and an important component of this is the recognition that so too is there considerable value in the ways in which methods and strategies of teaching and learning vary from institution to institution, from country to country, from time to time.
With some notable exceptions, and amongst those I would include some of the work done on Curtin campus in areas such as biomedical sciences, I would suggest that online teaching and learning has as yet not broken away from the tyranny of the standard course structures and frameworks: that it has done little more than to replicate the existing real world patterns of lectures, tutorials/ seminars, workshops, even laboratories, online, continuing to frame discussions and knowledge itself in the traditional boxes of 45-50 minutes or 100-110 minutes, conceptualising learning tasks and assessment in much the same ways as always - the only real change being that the material is online and the quiz or the essay is marked by email or online. We can postulate a variety of explanations for this: that most of us are so busy that we have no time to radically rethink the structures and processes that we have inherited and developed; that our students are conservative in what they want and are prepared to accept; that much of the software that has been available has been conceptualised, designed and programmed by people with computing backgrounds rather than long term involvement either as university teachers or as education specialists; that the web is such a radically different space that we have not as yet developed a systematic pedagogy in order to begin to exploit its potential.
Certainly several of these points were on the agenda for one of the more cogent and searching examinations of the positives, negatives and potential strategies for online teaching and learning: the extensive series of seminars and workshops held by senior faculty of the University of Illinois in 1998-99, which has been reported in extenso in a significant online report. That report articulates a number of crucial positions and ideas which can assist us in finding new ways of thinking about the web, amongst them the notion that "The key concept in network teaching is to facilitate collaborative learning, not to deliver a course in a fixed and rigid, one way format," (U Illinois, 1999:32) It is this which underpins the projects that I am here reporting on, which began in the School of Social Sciences at Curtin a year ago (using DETYA and DOFL funding) and which has now been expanded to a Divisional project within the Division of Humanities, having attracted LEAP funding  as well as substantial New Initiatives in Teaching and Learning funding for a complementary project that remains within the School of Social Sciences . These projects build on the original Social Sciences project and on the two current LEAP projects within the Division, in which the School of Languages and Intercultural Education has been developing environments for collaborative language learning, while the Faculty of Education has been working through collaborative teacher planning teams to establish student centred outcomes based education. Through the initial Social Sciences pilot project we have been able to bring to proof of concept phase an innovative collaboration between a programmer who designs web content management systems and a group of academics and students, using a very flexible existing software system (Angazi) and tailoring aspects of it to provide the online spaces which will achieve the teaching/learning outcomes that we have been defining (through a series of meetings and seminars, and through intensive student feedback).
In the larger projects we are now undertaking, we aim, simply enough, to use intensive skill sharing and workshopping of ideas, methods and theories to facilitate and enable the re-conceptualisation of teaching/learning practice in the School and the Division, and to continue the process of optimising our uses of the new and very different teaching/learning spaces of the web. Much educational software is conceptualised, designed and programmed for subjects and courses which differ very substantially from social sciences and humanities subjects in their pedagogy and in their intended learning outcomes. For example, in looking at the dominant existing systems of educational software, a common feature emerges: they are designed using the principle of "top down instruction," in which the "instructor" determines "learning paths" (Allen, 1999), within a tightly structured program. Clearly there are many areas of vocational and intellectual endeavour where such heavily structured programs are useful and even necessary. In the social sciences, and the humanities more generally, however, we are often looking for strategies that lie at the other end of the determinist continuum. In the word based areas of the humanities for example, most subjects demand active and sustained engagement with innumerable diverse and complex ideas, situations and theoretical frameworks. Students are required to digest large bodies of evidence, to analyse it critically, and to produce coherent and sustained arguments in both written and oral form.
One clear simple answer to problems or issues is rarely possible (or even desirable). Social realities are invariably messy and complex, and not susceptible to easy or neat descriptions or solutions. Indeed, the processes of argument and disagreement, and of recognition and evaluation of numerous possibilities, are integral and essential to this type of teaching/learning. Some of this is best done individually, but much too is most effectively done through collaborative and participatory learning and teaching, which can assist students in deep cognitive processing, in full and active engagement with the learning process, and with problem based as well as knowledge based learning. (Boettcher and Rubin, 1999; Bonk and Cunningham, 1998; U Illinois, 1999) It is when students actively engage materials, deconstruct them, make connections, find meanings, and then find ways not simply to absorb the materials and ideas and connections themselves but to pass them on to their fellow students, that they are engaged in deep learning (Rubin and Hebert, 1998; Simkins, 1999). What we are looking for on the web, are ways to provide learning environments which provoke and stimulate, which enable and facilitate self directed learning, through structures which are open edged and leading, rather than structures which are predetermined and tightly defining. We are concerned, in particular, not to consider ourselves as "delivering" a bounded and limited quantity of information in any specific subject, but rather as engaging in a highly communicative and interactive exercise of content and "resource management" (Chizmar and Walbert, 1999)
In other areas of the humanities, areas of creative production such as in the visual arts, film making or creative writing, the need is just as great for spaces which respond to the context, processes and style of the teaching/learning strategies used in those areas - rather than relying on predetermined spaces and methods which impose an externally defined structure and meaning to a course. Schematically, in these areas as well as in word based areas, we define a series of steps, with the software designer/conceptualiser/s being involved in each phase:
Within the frameworks then of the increasingly substantial literature on web based learning environments, of the School's developing Teaching/Learning Plan, and of the University's Teaching and Learning Objectives, we have recognised a need to be proactive in the provision of learning environments and spaces which provide increased possibilities for both distance and on campus students to engage in self directed, learner centred, participatory and collaborative learning (Reid, 1999). We are re-conceptualising the learning spaces we use with students and developing a solid software platform which will support this different way of doing things. The parameters that we have defined (so far) for the software are that:
That fiction, dating back to a more leisured age, when a tutor could say to the three or four students he or she was supervising for the term that they should read the 548 pages of Maitland's Constitutional History of England and write a paper on it for next week's tutorial, survives as part of our image of ourselves as participants in a learning community that stretches back more than two and half thousand years and which extends across geographical and disciplinary borders just as much as it does chronological boundaries. The real paradox of this fiction though is that we are demanding the construction of sustained arguments, working at deep cognitive levels, while yet presenting our students with only half a system - a system in which we pretend they will have time to read and understand half a dozen thirty-page articles each week for a specific unit in order to produce a deep and sustained argument, while yet knowing that they will be able to do little more than dip in and out of those articles, and not providing them with alternative means to do so.
With the advent of the web, and with our increasing understanding of its potential, we are able, arguably for the first time since the tutorial was invented (in the early nineteenth century) to take the possibility of a new way of thinking about our teaching/learning strategies and to radically redefine our methods - and, in the process, to enable both our students and ourselves to work with (instead of against) our reading and researching methods and to extend and exploit them in ways that have been difficult or impossible with print media, to recall the title of this paper, to layer our learning.
There are numerous ways in which this is possible: here I will describe just two. In the first, I describe the experience of a recent Honours student who was working on aspects of misogyny in later medieval Europe. In order to understand some particular aspects of medieval misogyny, aspects that seemed to her theologically driven and ecclesiastically inspired, she needed to look back to the sources of those attitudes, in particular to the writings of earlier theologians and ecclesiastics, both medieval writers and also writers as far back as the early patristic period, more than a thousand years before the time she was herself investigating. This was not vital or essential, and in the context of a ten month Honours project it might well, in earlier times, have been thought to be a desired but ultimately unobtainable luxury, but it would provide another dimension to her thinking and to her capacity to understand what was being said and done in late medieval Europe.
The traditional method for doing this would have involved her locating printed editions of various patristic writers such as Augustine and Tertullian, perhaps in other libraries in Perth, but possibly too having to use inter-library loan facilities to request particular editions from libraries in the Eastern States (incurring both financial and time costs). She would then have searched their indices, book, chapter and section headings, and whatever glosses were available, looking for keywords that would enable her to locate pronouncements and definitions that were influential in the formation of early Christian attitudes towards women. This is always a prolonged process, particularly with more obscure theologians whose work has been printed with minimalist indices and glosses, and often a tortuous one too, since the printed versions not infrequently are spread over numbers of large (folio), heavy volumes, requiring physical as well as intellectual strength to access them.
The method available in 2000 though, is much easier to use. Enormous quantities of primary source material for history and theology, both printed and manuscript, has already been put up on the web, and more is made available almost every day. Libraries such as the Bibliotheque Nationale and the Bodleian are rapidly digitising and putting online vast collections of medieval and later manuscripts, cartularies, diaries, treatises, public records and private, the raw materials of history and anthropology, as much as cultural studies and politics. Further, teams of academics are scanning and uploading out of copyright works - such as editions of Augustine's various works. One of the first lessons learnt about such endeavours (beyond the need for very high standards of scanning accuracy) was that thorough search mechanisms were the sine qua non: that there was little point in having hundreds of columns of carefully scanned and unloaded text if the real electronic advantages of the web, accuracy and speed, could not be brought to bear on it.
So what my Honours student was able to do was to search the collected and complete works of numbers of Patristic and early medieval writers, variant texts and editions included, to locate numbers of passages of interest (which she could then contextualise by reading around them), and to do all this on the same day that she thought of doing it, from the comfort of her own study at home, with all her own notes and resources around her, without having to deal with large unwieldy volumes, without having to guess at what editions she might find most useful so as to order them on inter-library loan, and without having to wait weeks or even months for the volumes to arrive.
My second example involves the use of clickable links in course and unit development. The provision of relevant clickable links is of course a standard feature of much educational software, although it is a strategy that my own research (in exploring other people's courses online and also in talking on and off line with colleagues about this) tells me is not being used to its potential. At the most it is used as a means of pointing students to some (usually limited) further resources on a particular topic, in a relatively homogenous and sequential environment - in other words, a replacement for (or addition to) a fairly standard reading list.
We are beginning to experiment with the use of multi-layered links, which both complement and supplement the printed materials that the students are being pointed towards. These come from two main sources: from the materials on the web site of the unit or course itself ("internal"), and externally from the resources of the entire web. The internal linking capitalises on the ease that the system provides, both technically, for the lecturer in adding a link and for the student in being able to click and go directly to it, and intellectually in that the technology is enabling both lecturer and student to amass collections of interlocking and looping materials and ideas. Even in print or verbal versions of units or courses, we are constantly referring back and forth to ideas or events, people or circumstances, whose connections may not be obvious at first glance but whose links should be pointed to for students to think about and make further connections for themselves. Whereas in a print version we are limited to standard referencing, which can look awkward and can take time to locate, with Angazi's system of link making, we can put in place an infinite number of links very easily, knowing that the students will be able to locate the material with ease. A technique we are experimenting with in several units this semester is to use the middle weeks/modules of the semester's work to insert the greatest number of these links, and then in the last third of the semester to ration them, but to have the students make their own connections at this point, as an exercise in analysis.
In multi-layering, we are taking advantage of the web's extraordinary capacity to provide not only sequential links (following a fairly standard logical sequence), but also lateral links, which function more intuitively, and lead perhaps to more holistic or unusual insights and perceptions about the issue or problem that the student (or teacher) is addressing. The research processes involved in finding, evaluating and recording those links are useful in themselves, given that a considerable part of what is done in the humanities concerns those processes, as part of the development of graduates who have the capacity to think and analyse critically for themselves.
In the Angazi software that we are using, the students have the capacity to work directly online (either individually or in groups), taking notes and writing assignments straight onto the web site (or writing in a word processing program and then copying and pasting onto the web site, without having to use html or other coding procedures) and also have a similarly easy capacity to add their own clickable links (and images) to their work.
In this way, students can multi-layer their own work, writing a paragraph for example, that has three or four conventional references to printed articles or books, and three or four clickable links to other web sites that provide useful material (primary or secondary, or images, such as maps or photographs or plans, definitions, pointers to further research or thinking), and to upload images of his or her own (such as a pertinent photograph or diagram), building up what might look, in its physical structure, more like a heavily glossed and annotated medieval manuscript than a traditional essay with its comparatively simple in text notes or footnotes. They are, through this process, learning to think laterally as well as sequentially, and learning to engage and work an issue in quite different ways than are feasible in a conventional printed form.
Beyond the almost physical meanings of layering learning that I have used above, the term, as we are using it in this project, has other, linked, meanings as well as those I have defined already: for example, in the types of online spaces, and their various uses; and in the types of educational relationships, that are potentiated and reanimated by the use of these spaces. In the first example, the types of online spaces that are being constructed, we are aiming to enable all users of the system, whether staff or students, to work across and through a range of types of spaces, determining (to a large extent) which are most useful for them at any particular time. Through the individual and personalised portal that every user of the system receives, a student might have access to:
Further, the multiple teaching/learning environments facilitate creative and lateral thinking about the issues and problems the students are asked to confront. Just as they can choose the proportions of on and off line work they will do, so too choice, guided by the lecturer/tutor, about the types of activities they will engage is integral to the system. Here, we are particularly concerned to rethink and reconstitute (where necessary), the three main types of educational dialogue: lecturer-student, student-student, and student-materials (Boettcher and Cartwright, 1997). Having engaged in a number of workshops, seminars and brainstorming sessions over the past 18 months, the further funding that we have received to extend the project is enabling us to enlarge the scope of these through two series of workshops (one based in the School of Social Sciences and one which is Divisionally based) in 2001. These workshops will be cross-disciplinary and will include both staff and students. Our experience so far has been that it is from cross-disciplinary brainstorming that we are best able to rethink our teaching/learning strategies, and to find new ways to understand the various educational relationships. It is clear, for example, that the online collaborative exercises conducted in small groups during semester 2, 2000, substantially changed the ways in which students were able to work together, providing encouragement for more of these types of teamwork exercises to be conducted, and for other aspects of the student-student dialogue to be explored. The response of students in the first test phase (2/2000) of the system to these exercises and to other aspects of the web site that had been developed to that time (such as their capacity to work directly online, to upload their own images, to access substantial subject information and content, etc) has been overwhelming, with word of mouth student comment persuading larger and larger numbers of students to come on to the system.
In conclusion, we are grounding ourselves within traditional theories of pedagogical practice, within those frameworks which recognise the importance of deep cognitive learning for the development of students' potential, while exploring the possibilities of the web, taking advantage of its own key characteristics, such as the capacity for users to layer their learning, and the equally useful capacity to make timely alterations to content, and taking particular advantage of the capacity on a project such as this for both students and teachers not only to make choices about which types of existing spaces on the system that they wish to use, but also to have the capability to influence the design and uses of the software in a timely manner.
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|Please cite as: Wardrop, J. (2001). Layering learning: Using the web to build flexible learning environments. 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/wardrop.html|