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Teaching and Learning Forum 2005 [ Refereed papers ]
Inknowvative communication-in-organisations learning: A hybrid PBL and action research approach

Carolyn Dickie
School of Management
Curtin University of Technology

Growing pressure for restructuring and reforming tertiary education is encouraging inknowvative practices by lecturers and students to promote and develop 'employable' skills. The hybrid approach was developed to stimulate lecturers to operate as reflective practitioners in amplifying pedagogic knowledge through action research and students to maximise their learning of content and skills as adult learners by means of problem-based learning strategies. The current report outlines methods by which lecturers can build continuous improvement into a unit's curriculum design and processes, and illustrates the value of student empowerment, communication and leadership in formal and informal learning groups.


Introduction

Communication-in-organisations is designed as an introductory unit for mature age entry post-graduate students in the Curtin Business School; it has the major joint aims of developing understanding of the roles of communication in business and involving students in learning about opportunities to develop learning skills that will be relevant throughout their tertiary studies. Consequently, an inknowvative learning experience was planned to promote learning about communication in organisations and, because of the students' maturity and prior/existing employment in organisations and sundry study experiences, the development of a high standard of adult learning strategies. The term 'inknowvative' was adopted to indicate an ensemble of concepts related to the Curtin University of Technology's twin emphases on 'innovation' in teaching and learning and the development of 'knowledge' by students.

Intended to stimulate students to become reflective practitioners to undertake action research through exercising decisions in a Problem-Based Learning (PBL) format, the initial part of the inknowvative experience was designed for students to establish an understanding of what constitutes relevant knowledge for their identified purposes. PBL was used to enable the adult learners to exercise their current interests and/or abilities to accept an involvement in determining their learning needs. The action research process encouraged both lecturer and students to seek constant feedback and renewal in the learning process and as a means of demonstrating continuous improvement.

The action research model is more widely understood and accepted in business education classes as a teaching tool whereas PBL and hybrids such as Maastrict 7-jump are largely considered to be learning strategies. Consequently, these two concepts were combined to encourage promotion of the reflective practitioner aspects to enable the lecturer to build continuous improvement into the design and processes of the curriculum. The cyclical nature of action research ensures that improvement to both teaching and learning is ongoing throughout the process.

The learning tasks were quite complex and demanding, so the major assignment was allocated 60% of the overall unit marks, with the remaining 40% for individual work of which half required a reflective journal related to the major project.

Action research

Cycle 1 of the action research became the first part of the project whereby each student was required to identify an area of interest related to the use of communication in organisations. The selected topic of interest was written on a 5 cm by 3 cm 3M Post-it note and the collection of topics placed on a whiteboard. Following student discussion of the topics, by mixing and matching the Post-it notes, students were able to manoeuvre into appropriate work groups according to their preferred study area. Each group was required, then, to undertake a team research activity. Having decided on a name for their team to assist with team identity and cohesion, the initial task for members was to investigate the concept of knowledge and what was meant by saying that one is able to 'know'. The second task was to affirm the communication topic that the team would investigate; the essential aspects involved identifying what the team members already knew about the topic and could generate into team knowledge, and listing aspects of the topic that the team considered still needed to be learned. The group also was responsible for determining what types of resources could be used to establish the sought-after knowledge.

Although called Cycle 1, this stage of the project required students to use the action research activities (look, think and act) on a number of occasions as they interacted with the material and among the members of the team. Students were directed to use the Stringer (1996) ideas, as follows:

Look - gather relevant information/data
- build a picture
- describe the situation
Think- explore/analyse (hypothesise)
- interpret
- explain
Act- plan (report)
- implement
- evaluate

The look aspect of Cycle 1 occurred in setting up ten groups ranging from two to five members with similar study interests and the clear articulation of the communication topics to be investigated; namely,

Effective meeting communicationCommunication technology
Empowerment through communicationCommunication in recruitment
Communication among bosses and subordinatesCultural effects in communication
Leadership and gender differencesTeam focus on problem solving
Non-verbal communication in networksResolving conflict in service industries

Prior to becoming involved in researching their interest area, group members were required to think about how they could investigate, and what they would accept as legitimate knowledge of, their topic. They sought to answer questions such as what is knowledge, how do we know what we know and how do we acquire knowledge? Answers were collected from a number of reference sources. Typically, they began with simple definitions from a dictionary, but many of these used the word 'know' in the definition and were discarded. Further investigation of text-books, journal articles and World Wide Web material provided ample variety of definitions. Eventually, the simplest, broadly accepted view was that the word 'knowledge' meant 'understanding'. One group identified that the ancient Greeks classified knowledge into doxa for knowledge believed to be true, and episteme for knowledge that is known to be true; consequently, students argued as to how this differentiation was possible.

Several groups identified one or more of the following types of knowledge;

One group, directed by a former humanities student who had studied philosophy, assisted the business-oriented students to accept that knowledge claims were better accepted if they stand the test of time. The concept was related to the argument by Habermas (1987) of the 'force of the better argument'. Eventually, the class decided that knowledge was the agreed (generally) best understanding that has been produced at a particular point in time.

The act aspect of Cycle 1 occurred as each group planned its own timetable of investigations, individual work loads and meetings to collate their findings.

Cycle 2 required students to investigate the PBL multi-faceted concept of learning strategies. The recent burgeoning of publications about problem-based learning (for example, Margetson, 1998; Fenwick and Parsons, 1998) provided ample testimony to the dynamic nature of professional practice as a process for framing and solving ill-structured problems as described by Schon (1983). The look, think, act sequence of examining the pros and cons of PBL increased the awareness and understanding of students as to the advantages and disadvantages of experiential learning processes which support behaviours that characterise life-long learners and 'deep' learning. Once each group had undertaken some action research on PBL, a whole-class activity was used to develop a relatively simple, yet versatile, three-dimensional framework from which group members could determine the philosophical premises of PBL, determine how to construct a set of specific PBL practices which would meet the needs of particular learners, and enable PBL practitioners to conduct evaluations of their own initiatives and programs. The basic criterion for the development of an overview of PBL was to establish a model that would inform students on how to develop their communication learning in a semi-structured fashion that would lead to the group establishing a range of techniques that could be used for learning about their topic.

Problem based learning

PBL is a teaching methodology that develops knowledge, abilities and skills through participation, collaborative investigation and the resolution of authentic problems through the use of problem definition, teamwork, communication, data collection, decision-making, planning and goal-setting, performance and reflective analysis (Clarke & Hubball, 2001; Gallagher, 1997; Stepien & Pike, 1997). The pedagogical roots of PBL lie in constructivism and context-based learning (Cobb & Bowers, 1999; Hansman, 2001). Typically, PBL organises the curriculum around a series of situations profiling dilemmas of knowledge and practice within which students are required to identify, diagnose and explore strategies for solving the problem (Bovee & Gran, 2004; Lipman, 1991). Barrows (1994) reminded practitioners that it is important to ensure that the problem satisfies the curricular goals of the course and not to view problem-based learning as a panacea for all educational ills.

Often, PBL is characterised as 'active' and 'self-directed' (Bernstein et al., 1995) and 'student-centred' (Mann and Kaufmann, 1995). It is usual for the problem-solving to be undertaken by groups of students using co-operative learning (Herreid, 1999). Boud (1985) suggested that the idea behind PBL was that the starting point for learning should be a problem that the learner wishes to solve. The concept was expanded by Ross (1991) to have students themselves search for, and identify, the knowledge needed in order to approach the problem. The decision to encourage students in the Communication in Organisations class identify their own preferred area of research was based on this premise.

The thoughtful facilitator of learning can use PBL to establish a repertoire of pedagogical techniques such as case study, thematic learning, project learning, service learning and performance learning so as to synchronise them with multi-dimensional strategies and tools which operationalise Gardner's (1983) theory of multiple intelligences as elaborated by Fogarty (1997). By contrast, the traditional teacher-directed, lecture-based curriculum allows little opportunity for reflective, self-initiated or integrated practical learning (Bovee & Gran, 2004).

A major outcome from Cycle 2 was the creation of a strategy with associated techniques that could be used in choosing the means for presenting the group findings to the class, thereby sharing the learning in a cooperative fashion.

PBL: Principles

The Cycle 2 processes began with students setting out to look at three aspects of PBL. The first was to gather relevant information related to the 'principles of PBL. Most groups identified that PBL draws on a wide range of learning strategies including critical thinking, interpersonal communications, reflective analysis goal setting, cooperative learning, learning by doing and problem-solving (Cobb & Bowers, 1999; Stepien & Pike, 1997). The method also relies on utilising diverse abilities from individual group members (Ram, 1999). One group located the article wherein Davis and Harden (1999) refer to the acronym PROBLEM in Walton and Matthews (1989) that identifies aspects of the nature of learning that occurs in PBL. Another popular finding was that from Charlin et al. (1998) which defined seven core principles of PBL learning; The student learning must involve: These principles clearly outline the benefits of learning from experience and collaboration. Dewey (1916, p.26) argued that when students "participate or share in a social learning environment, the environment serves to reinforce the purpose of the activity. In addition, people acquire needed skills and they are saturated with its emotional spirit".

PBL: Teacher-learner interaction

The second aspect of PBL to be examined was the variety of ways in which teacher/learner interaction could occur. The teaching/learning processes become a priority when, as Kendler & Grove (2004) asserted, in PBL classrooms the instructor's role is to serve only as a facilitator, providing guidance, but not to provide the solution. This idea has been expanded by several researchers who have identified taxonomies that describe a problem based learning continuum (Harden, 1998; Jones et al., 1997) with differences occurring as choices are made among discipline based learning activities, holistic learning and the desired level of student participation. This is achieved by activating students' prior knowledge to help them understand new information, enabling students to discuss and add to new knowledge, aid their recall and provide a context for the new learning (Morrison, 2004).

PBL: Learning skills

The third aspect of a PBL cube can be used to describe factors related to the development of learning skills in students. Velde & Lust (2004) suggested that a rich and rigorous learning environment that includes active student participation can make a profound difference in a student's learning by fostering a sense of community and a sense of success. Typical of the findings of students were skills related to their performance on a range of team-oriented behaviours (Blue and Stratton, 1998; Mathew & Smith, 1996), students' methods of digesting subject matter (Hommes, 1998), skills accreditation guidelines issued by professional associations such as the Australian Society of CPAs (CBS, 1999) and lists of graduates' skills designed to meet the needs of employers (Cummings et al., 1997).

Having located appropriate information about the three aspects of the PBL cube, students were required to think about how specific aspects of the cube were relevant to their particular study, come to a group consensus on which strategies to use and act collaboratively to plan the learning processes to be undertaken.

Cycle 3 was the operational cycle in the learning project. Student groups were required to focus on the appropriate strategies selected from the PBL cube and use them to investigate and develop their knowledge of the communication topic to the satisfaction of the team as a whole. Once the team had generated a set of knowledge and artefacts related to their topic, the task was to develop an appropriate way of presenting that knowledge to the other groups in the class. Again, the look, think, act process was an important part of the feedback process to ensure selection of a high standard of relevant knowledge and to ensure continuous improvement in the development of the group findings and learning. The highly idiosyncratic activities and findings of groups were indicative of the values associated with group work, the PBL learning strategies and the reflective nature of the action research. The variety of content outcomes was accompanied with high levels of motivation and justified the early emphasis on the expectation that groups be inknowvative in their approach to the selected study topic.

PBL: Assessment

Assessment of the students' work by means of formative evaluation takes place through the use of periodic checks of artefacts collected as a learning portfolio. A learning diary is a concomitant part of the portfolio that is designed to sample student thinking and learning at different stages and to check on the skill development evident in information gathering, analysis and evaluation. Thus, with training and appropriate skills, PBL becomes not simply a way to learn problem solving, but a way to learn content and skills as well (Stepien & Gallagher, 1993). Writing a weekly journal entry was integrated into the program to give students the opportunity to reflect on their learning and also as a way of the lecturer obtaining meaningful feedback.

The Cycle 4 emphasis on practical presentations to the whole class was designed to maximise the co-operative transfer of developed team knowledge so that all students were able to benefit from the group work both in terms of the investigation content and the learning processes undertaken.

The look, think, act cycle is not merely a process to enable groups to select a type of presentation which will best reflect the actual learning achieved, but replicates the earlier understanding of a three-part process resulting from knowing presentation principles, encouraging interaction between presenters and students, and the demonstration of specific skills. Consequently, each presentation is highly idiosyncratic according to the topic and the group members who have constructed the learning.

Student reflections

The inclusion of a weekly journal entry by students as a mandatory part of the project was a useful way to reinforce student learning through the use of reflection and to provide feedback for the lecturer. Typical of the early entries that addressed the 'innovative' aspect of the project were comments such as: As the program progressed and students began to investigate the meaning of knowledge, what knowledge they required to address their problem and how they would acquire that knowledge using the hybrid problem-based learning/action research principles, there were numerous comments such as: Some students found the reflective process difficult initially but found that writing the journal became easier and an important component of their learning. Comments about this aspect of the project included: Final reflections included comments such as: Students were aware that honesty was paramount in their writing and that the lecturer would be the only reader. The only negative comments included in the journals related to the timing of the unit - Friday nights. All the comments about the project were positive, even when students faced challenging situations such as having to negotiate agreement on the presentation format. The high level of group co-operation and collaboration reported within the journals was a pleasing aspect of the project.

Lecturer reflections

In respect to the lecturer's reflections on the hybrid PBL/action research approach trialed in this class it was evident that there was a much stronger link established between the teaching and learning components of the unit; this strengthened relationship was also mirrored in the level of interaction between the lecturer and students as is demonstrated in some of the student reflections included. A related outcome was the recognition that staff in business classes need to establish a better balance between the content of their units and the processes by which the students learn the material and develop learning tools as part of a life-long learning philosophy. Involving staff and students, and making them responsible for developing inknowvative approaches to their units, appears to be more acceptable and successful when varied research approaches can be applied. A third major reflection is that as the lecturer undertook the look, think and act process as an essential feature in the development of continuous learning for both the students and lecturer, students were encouraged to mirror that role and, as a result, became enthusiastic in developing their own learning, thereby extending their capacity as adult learners.

Conclusion

In effect, the research approach has demonstrated the point made by Dryden (Dryden and Vos, 1994, p. 35) that - It is possible for anyone to learn almost anything much faster - often anywhere from five to 20 times faster - and often ten times to 100 times more effectively, at any age. Those learning methods are simple, fun-filled, common sense - and they work. In this project, post-graduate students demonstrated their interest and excitement at being able to practice a learning strategy at the same time as they expanded their content knowledge. Problem-based learning proved to be a major part of the learning revolution that assists students to cope with the expanding technology, information and communications explosions of the twenty-first century. Although it suggests an inknowvative, future oriented curriculum, PBL merely requires a simply understood context that will assist educators to reshape their understandings and application of teaching and learning practices. Such a context can be adaptable to the needs of facilitators in a broad range of academic disciplines, and be cognisant of the needs of students and their potential employers.

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Author: Carolyn Dickie is currently enrolled in a PhD program at Curtin University of Technology and works as a sessional lecturer lecturing in postgraduate classes within the School of Management and with its partners in South East Asia.

Carolyn Dickie, School of Management, Curtin University of Technology
Postal address: 21 Murchison Drive, Jane Brook WA 6056
Phone: 08 9255 1580 Fax: 08 9255 1580 Email: dickielc@iinet.net.au

Please cite as: Dickie, C. (2005). Inknowvative communication-in-organisations learning: A hybrid PBL and action research approach. In The Reflective Practitioner. Proceedings of the 14th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 3-4 February 2005. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2005/refereed/dickie.html

Copyright 2005 Carolyn Dickie. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.


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