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.

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