Sunday, 17 February 2008

Web learning

In applying for jobs at universities, you are frequently asked for a statement of why you think you would fit in to a particular organisation and how your research interests might align with those of the department. For a recent application, I was asked to write a thousand word statement about the issues that might occur in shifting from text-based teaching resources to Internet-based teaching resources.

My first reaction is that there should be a focus on learning and not teaching. To me, teaching carries that connotation that the teacher is going to provide the knowledge and the learners will learn it. It has a focus on delivering content. A focus on learning means that I will look for ways to help the learner’s learn what is needed and what they are interested in. Learning goes beyond the curriculum constraints and will help the learner change in whatever ways are necessary.

To make effective use of Internet-based teaching / learning requires changes both in the way that learning opportunities are presented and in the way that teachers think about teaching. Internet-based technologies enable increased levels of interaction with both learning resources and with other students and teachers.

Simply transferring text-based materials to static web pages or downloadable files may reduce the cost of distribution of materials, however this adds nothing to the learning environment. The question should be “how we can enhance learning with an Internet-based learning environment?”. The technology is not being used effectively if it is not enhancing the level of learning of the students.

One of the missing ingredients in text-based distance learning and often in lecture-based classroom teaching is the use of the Socratic questioning technique. Utilising discussion forums, blogs, or wikis can reinstate this form of interaction within a distance-learning environment. For effective use of these technologies, lecturers need to develop a philosophy of being a learning facilitator rather than the simply seeing themselves as distributors of knowledge. Responding with appropriate questioning strategies encourages deeper levels of cognitive involvement from the students and encourages the student to see what they already know. There is nothing more satisfying for a teacher than having a student say, “I’ve finally worked out that you want us to think.”

Learning resources should move toward interactive materials possibly utilising interactive visualisations. One such system taught photography by allowing the students to work with a virtual camera to obtain the realism of working with apertures and shutter speeds. A possibility in programming would be to use 3D visualisation to enable the student to explore the objects and their relationships within an object-oriented program.

My personal preference is to use scenario-based or game-based learning approaches to provide realistic learning opportunities for students (Thompson 2004). These are not easy to create but have the potential of placing the learner within the context of a realistic environment that utilises the skills that they are learning. As a bonus, they get to learn some of the interaction skills of having to work with others. The scripting of these requires thinking about the flow of interaction and the inclusion of alternative paths based upon the learning content, and learner progress and choices.

Regardless of the approach taken for Internet-based resources, there is a need to be able to validate that strategies are improving learning outcomes. This is what led me into my current PhD research. We need to understand what we mean by quality learning and to be able to assess whether the desired depth of learning is occurring. This involves becoming more familiar with educational theory and research.

References:

Thompson, E. (2004). Design issues for a scenario-based learning environment (Technical Report No. 4/2004). Palmerston North: Department of Information Systems, Massey University. Avaialble from : http://www.teach.thompsonz.net/img/Thompson2004TR9.pdf

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