Sunday, 22 November 2009

A learning environment

While at the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, I was involved in developing a series of distance learning courses for a Bachelor of Information Technology degree. My writing style was to write a problem scenario that required the knowledge that the student needed to learn in order to solve the problem. We then presented a series of learning exercises with supporting reference materials so the students could learn the required knowledge and skills. Each learning task was designed to for the student to learn at a specific cognitive level within a taxonomy (Facione 1990). The theory behind this work became a chapter in a book (Thompson 2003). I continued to use this approach in developing worksheets for practical tutorials at Massey University and proposed the development of a scenario-based learning environment for learning programming (Thompson 2004). I was challenged by one of my future PhD supervisors as to how I would evaluate the success of my proposal and this led me into my research than became my PhD (Thompson 2008). Some things would now change with respect to my learning environment proposal although many of the core principles remain unchanged.

The learning environment proposal (Thompson 2004) was intended to be collaborative in nature. The learners would work on learning exercises together developing a solution to a proposed software development exercise. They would be encouraged to explore alternative solutions. The system integrated a discussion forum with a design and development environment that utilised version control and enabled comparison of alternative design proposals. The students would be encouraged to write critiques of the designs highlighting their strengths and weaknesses.

The unique feature of this environment was the integration of the different learning contexts and the ability for the students to link discussions to specific elements of the design. With the version control, it would be possible for students to go back in the design and take a different development path and then compare these two paths at a later point in the project. My concern in specifying the environment was that I wanted to ensure that the students were encouraged to think critically about their designs. Caspersen and Kölling (2006) proposed a strategy where students had to prepare two design solutions for a programming problem and evaluate them before implementing a solution. This style of thinking would work well with the learning environment proposal.

With my PhD research (Thompson 2008), my focus has shifted to thinking about the variations that need to be presented to open up a space of learning around a core concept. The goal is to foster conceptual change in the way that a learner thinks about the subject matter. The original learning environment would support this proposal. Further because the student solutions are open for comparison and discussion, it is possible for the lecturer to question the proposal in terms of the desired conceptual understanding and propose variations in solutions to foster the development of the desired understanding.

The difficulty with developing the desired learning environment isn't the technologies required but rather the planning required for teaching and ensuring that appropriate variations are presented to the learners. No learning environment does away with the need for the teacher to understand their topic and the core conceptual ideas that are required for the learner to operate within the field. It is easy to present technologies or single solutions but this doesn't generate the thought patterns in the learner that enable them to be able to tackle other problems within the domain.

As I look back at the original proposal, I would still like to see the learning environment developed but I recognise that it isn't the environment that will be evaluated other than in its abilities to present the desired teaching strategies. Ultimately, it is the teaching strategy and its ability to present the materials in a way that fosters the desired understanding that needs to be evaluated. The learning environment may help facilitate an interaction or the exchange of ideas but the learning that occurs will only be as good as the materials planned and utilised in that environment.

The strategy used at the Open Polytechnic wasn't really about the scenario-based environment, it was really about the combination of scenarios and the way that the opened up the space of learning around the concepts. As a learning environment, it succeeded or failed based on the planning and development of the teaching strategy. Such planning takes time.


Caspersen, M. E., & Kölling, M. (2006). A novice's process of object-oriented programming. Paper presented at the OOPSLA 2006 Educators' Symposium.

Facione, P. A. (1990). Critical thinking; A statement of expert consensus for purposes of educational assessment and instruction, research findings and recommendations (ERIC Reports ED 315.423). Fullerton.

Thompson, E. (2003). Giving a context to learning. In E. Errington (Ed.), Developing Scenario-based Learning: Practical insights for tertiary teachers (pp. 74-82). Palmerston North: Dunmore Press.

Thompson, E. (2004). Design issues for a scenario-based learning environment (Technical Report No. 4/2004). Palmerston North: Department of Information Systems, Massey University.

Thompson, E. (2008). How do they understand? Practitioner perceptions of an object-oriented program. Unpublished Dissertation, Massey University, Palmerston North.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Economics and people

It is my belief that our current economic system puts profit ahead of people. I admit that some of my thinking is influenced by my Christian faith and by my reading of Economic Democracy (Douglas 1974). Douglas talks of the society as being not consumerist but dominated by 'productionism' or 'employmentism.' which he defines as “the provision of work and the distribution of money” (Dobbs 1974, p 19). The system produces because it must in order to survive. It promotes products not based on satisfying needs but rather to stimulate want and waste. This is most noticeable in our current environment with items such as mobile phones, TVs, computers, games, and other electronic consumer items. Here in the UK, we have found that furniture is produced on a just-in-time system meaning there are delays in delivery. Despite this difference, I would still argue that the foundation of the system is still productionism. An emphasis on needing to produce and generate sales to keep the system operating.

As long as there is demand and wastage from the system, it can survive. Employment will be generated and money distributed to people so they can buy. Any restriction in the ability to produce (i.e. a credit crunch) has far reaching impact on the system. Disposing of excess production becomes a major issue and the system falters.

However, the system has other ways of discarding people. People are seen as simply another resource in the system. When there is no longer a need for their services, they are made redundant and forced to seek help from reluctant governments. Being unemployed is seen as a failure of the person and not the system. Yet in events like the current recession, there are many highly skilled people who find themselves in the queue of the unemployable. Some of this is the selection practices of companies but these practices simply reinforce my view that people are resources rather than the focus of the system.

Caring for people can be engrained into the operation of a business. Some notable examples are Cadburys who built houses and established communities for his workers, Farmers (NZ) whose founder Robert Laidlaw believed in employing people for life, and IBM in the Watson era. Watson again employed people for life. These firms cared for their people and put the people ahead of the business. Decisions for employment involved not the current potential to return a profit but the longer term caring for the staff.

There are companies even in the current environment who make their staff partners in the company. For example John Lewis Partnership ( on their web site claim that all 69,000 staff are partners and boldly state that they put “the happiness of Partners at the centre of everything it does. It's the embodiment of an ideal, the outcome of nearly a century of endeavour to create a different sort of company, owned by Partners dedicated to serving customers with flair and fairness.” We have no practical experience of what this means but the web site paints a picture of putting staff (partners) ahead of profits. Another with this philosophy is Starbucks (Behar 2007). This means that in decisions of downsizing, they are forced to be more open and caring about the staff.

These examples are organisations that look after and care for their employees but I would contend that individual organisations operating in this manner isn't enough. The economic system has to put people first and be focused on caring for people. Any sign of people being left without resources has to be questioned.

Douglas argues that “we must build up from the individual, not down from the State” (p 30). Decisions about how to design an economic system has to be built from individuals and not from the top down. Companies that work on a partnership basis might argue that the decision making has to involve the individuals. If our structures have too many people in them then maybe we need to look at organising into smaller units to enable individual participation.

Douglas argues that “our premises require that it must be the co-operation of reasoned ascent, not regimentation in the interests of any system, however superficially attractive” (p 31). Competition seems to be attractive until we begin to see that it discards those who are not competitive. There is a need to foster excellence but through co-operation rather that competition. I would push further and argue that it is co-operation to lift the performance of the total system. We want to maximise the benefit for all not just for the elite that are at the top of the field.

I am involved in education. As I look at what happens, I want to argue that education isn't about indoctrination. Yes, we desire skills that the students can put into effect immediately on graduation but even more important is that they have skills to challenge existing structures and systems. Our students are the generator of the next generation of systems and solutions. Part of our role as educators is therefore to foster critical thinking and analysis that never assumes that the status quo is the way things have to be. Our graduates should be willing to challenge the status quo and propose alternative solutions. They should also be looking to co-operate with others in developing innovative solutions.

As I look at what we do in education, I am particular concerned about assessment practices. It is easy to assessment as a gatekeeper task. If the student passes then they are accepted. If they fail then they are discarded. It is easy to argue that we should discard current assessment practices but assessment has an important part to play in uncovering where students are at. What things have they learnt, what things are they struggling with, and what needs further reinforcement? From the perspective of the educator, the assessment helps define where the learning journey needs move next.

Education through its assessment and reward practices an generate competitive atmosphere. If we are really looking for excellence then we need to reward co-operation and achievement through co-operation. The educators as well as the students has a part to play to enable all individuals to reach their potential and to fully participate in society. Individual winners and losers has to be secondary to achieving a system that builds up all individuals and the development of the potential of the system as a whole.


Behar, H. (2007) It's not about the coffee: Lessons on putting people first from life at Starbucks. Portfolio, Penguin group.

Dobbs, G. (1974). Introduction. In C. H. Douglas (Ed.), Economic democracy. Epsom, Surrey: Bloomfield Publishers.

Douglas, C. H. (1974). Economic democracy. Epsom, Surrey: Bloomfield Publishers.