A postgraduate unit offered by Curtin's Science and Mathematics Education Centre (SMEC), designed for the professional development of practising teachers, was developed in accordance with the referent of social constructivism. Two years ago, web-based modes of communication, including email and an online discussion room, were introduced to supplement existing 'paper and mail' distance education materials in order to facilitate richer student-tutor and student-student social interactions.
Those involved in this program have developed new understandings of working in and with online learning environments through critical reflection of their own work and their experiences. With reference to interview transcripts, notes from meetings, email correspondence, commentary in professional journals and other print-based and online documents, this presentation describes the development of an online learning environment mapping critical issues that mark new (co)constructed and at times competing levels of understanding, especially in the context of mutual inquiry, grounded in personal experiences of using online technology as an environment and as a context for teaching and learning.
The solution took the form of a 'virtual learning community' developed by Peter and David (then a full time PhD student and tutor in the unit). Within this virtual learning community the students and tutors could engage in public and private reflective discussions via the Internet. Students were given opportunities to: take part in public discussions with fellow students; send and receive private email communications between the tutor and students and from student to student; access study materials as well as links to computer-based services, including the library information and retrieval service and world-wide educational databases. This gave the students an opportunity to receive different points of view and time to digest and respond to the differing opinions on a more considered basis, and this improved the quality of ideas and opinions shared. The Web, and in particular, the discussion, resource and module sections, have become core components. Peter feels this shift in unit development and delivery has the potential to empower students participating in the unit and to position their 'knowledge at the heart of the learning process'.
This is a very distinct and fertile environment. ... it requires a different way of working as a teacher and a different way of studying for students. ... We started not knowing how we would go about doing what we wanted- to get students involved in a rich discourse.. we weren't sure how best we could facilitate appropriate discussion ... not quite understanding the quality of that discussion or what it would require to keep it going. It's been very much a learning process for all involved - for the tutors and the students. Our experiences in particular incidents of discourse have provided us with new understandings and insights. Last year the richness of the discourse was limited in part this was due to the way we as tutors lead the discussions rather than stimulating and facilitating the discussions, I think we lead too strongly. ... this year we've done things differently and students have taken far more responsibility for the interactions online. ... students have a strong commitment and desire to participate in the discussions.The sheer volume of interactions in second semester this year is worth noting - over 500 separate inputs with the majority of interactions occurring between students (Stapleton et al, 1999). As David, one of the tutors pointed out 'this compares very favourably to the 30 interactions in the entire unit in the earlier offering in 1997. This semester 60-80 interactions often followed any single discussion activity' and this was between seven students and two tutors.
David felt the main reasons for this disparity were firstly, that students were required to post and interact online: this compulsory requirement constituted 25% of the total semester mark for the unit. Secondly, the set activities during the semester, required student responses. Thirdly, the various 'hot button' issues, topics that everyone wanted to comment on stimulated interaction. For example, one student raised the issue of whether classes should be streamed by ability and with students as practising teachers, all had a view to express. Posting past students' assignment papers online for present students critically, to comment on also stimulated considerable debate.
Another member of the team is more sceptical about the possibilities and wonders whether students can embrace multiple epistemologies .. and whether it is desirable in the first place, or ethical, since shifting how individuals think and learn 'can be very uncomfortable and destabilising,' especially working in this 'sensory deprived environment, disconnected from the real world. ... There's something very disturbing about being so fundamentally challenged. ... The very basis of one's understanding of the world is questioned. ... It's like pulling the rug from under people's feet'.
Is this as one researcher pointed out 'the worst medium for communicating' complex and sophisticated discourse? Is trying to shift student's epistemological underpinnings just too big a task, especially at a distance using this very new, mostly unknown and very different way of communicating? Does the combination of new online learning environments and the aim to enrich students' ways of knowing just too radical and does it put students under too much pressure? In addition, to trying to work effectively in this environment '... the new function of the teacher resembles that of a midwife, one who "assists in the emergence of consciousness" and who focuses not on his or her knowledge but on the knowledge of the students' (Schroeder, 1996, p. 5 quoted in Dawson, 1998).
Dawson, V., Taylor, P., Geelan, D., Fox, R., Herrmann, A. and Parker, L. (1999). The development of epistemological pluralism through a web-based postgraduate curriculum course. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 99-102. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/dawson.html
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Stapleton, A., Taylor, P., Dawson, V., Geelan, D., Fox, R., Herrmann, A. and Parker, L. (1999). Analysing hypertextual discussion for connected knowing: Units of analysis. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 391-400. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/stapleton.html
Taylor, P., Dawson, V., Geelan, D., Stapleton, A., Fox, R., Herrmann, A. and Parker, L. (1999). Virtual teaching or virtually teaching? Does Internet-based teaching require multiple metaphors of mind? In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 429-432. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/taylor-p.html
Taylor, P. & Geelan, D. (1997). Words for the Boys: Gender and Connected Knowing in Web-based Distance Education. Australasian Joint Regional Conference of GAST and IOSTE. Gender And Science And Technology Association and the International Organisation For Science And Technology Education. Curtin University, 5-8 December 1997.
Taylor, P., Geelan, D., Fox, R., & Herrman, A. (1997). Perspectives and Possibilities: Electronic Interactivity and Social Constructivist Teaching in a Science, Mathematics and Technology Teacher Education Program. In What works and why? Proceedings of the Australian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (ASCILITE) Conference, Curtin University.
|Please cite as: Herrmann, A., Fox, R., Taylor, P., Geelan, D., Dawson, V., Stapleton, A. and Parker, L. (1999). Co-constructing new understandings of online learning environments through critical reflection. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 153-157. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/herrmann.html|