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.


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 :

Friday, 15 February 2008

A twist of the Tower of Babel

This entry has been on the drawing board for at least a week but thesis writing has had priority. I am grabbing some time tonight away from the thesis in order to relax so thought I would try and pen my thoughts.

The Tower of Babel story is in Genesis 11:1-9. Basically, humankind was at a point where they thought they were better than God and decided to build a tower. God confused their language so that they had difficulty communicating. This led to humanity being scattered and the tower not being completed.

I often wonder what could be achieved if we were more united in our approach to things. Confusion of language is only one of the difficulties. We also have confusion in understanding.

Ference Martin (2000) when talking about the philosophical basis for phenomenographic research said “From a non-dualistic ontological perspective there are not two worlds: a real, objective world on the one hand, and a subjective world of mental representations on the other. There is only one world, a really existing world, which is expressed and understood in different ways by human beings. It is simultaneously objective and subjective. An experience is a relationship between object and subject, encompassing both. The experience is as much an aspect of the object as it is of the subject.”

The basic principle is that our understanding of the real world is always through our observations of that world. We never have any way of knowing whether our description is accurate or inaccurate. There are always a number of different ways in which people experience any given part of our world. As a result, there are different understandings and expectations. It doesn’t take much looking around to realise that this is happening both on the local scene and international scene. How often have you seen people discussing a subject and they are really talking not talking to each other? Neither really understands what the other person is saying because they are working from different assumptions about the subject.

What would happen if instead of forcing the other person to accept our point of view, we took the time to try and understand what the other person’s perspective of the situation is. Would the international terrorism be present if the Western world leaders took the time to try and understand the grievances of those who they call terrorists? Would people be recruited for terrorist organisations if attempts were made to address the issues that made these people feel outcasts from western society?

Let’s face it capitalism is a man created system. It isn’t some objective system forced on us by the way this world operates. Most of the problem is because of our personal ambitions to have more and in particular to have more than others. Why not examine your own assumptions about the financial systems and the way that you make purchasing decisions. Maybe you will realise that you don’t need some of those things that you thought you did.

Maybe even the desire for promotion has little to do with ability and more to do with having more status than someone else.

I am very conscious that my views on promotion systems were quite different to the way that the university operated. I simply wanted to do a better job of teaching and research. If the university wanted to recognise my efforts with a promotion then that would be nice but I wasn’t looking for it. In contrast the university runs promotion rounds each year. In these promotion rounds, you put forward a portfolio of your work including the numbers of papers published and if you can the number of times that your work has been cited. In theory, this all shows that you are doing quality work. This to me is simply a game of self promotion that can be manipulated by those who want to play the game.

For me, in the university context, I found that my head of department never really understood me because he assumed that if I was in the university system then I believed in and wanted to play this university game. I simply saw it as slowly destroying the quality of research and the quality of teaching leading to the current decline and redundancies.

When it comes down to it the “Tower of Babel” is alive and well each day as people fail to see the different perceptions that can exist around any given phenomenon or activity. Instead of coming together to encourage and support one another, we are being blown apart by misunderstandings simply caused by the different assumption and conceptions we have of what is happening.

The question is do we want to continue the plight of the “Tower of Babel” or do we want to work toward building harmony?


Marton, F. (2000). The structure of awareness. In J. A. Bowden & E. Walsh (Eds.), Phenomenography (pp. 102-116). Melbourne, Australia: RMIT University Press.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

History repeats

From 1987 to the end of 1992, Marilyn and I edited and produced a newsletter in support of Christian ministry groups using computers. A friend in Canada asked me whether I had copies of these newsletters and I have been scanning them so I can send a CD containing them to him.

Now scanning isn’t exactly a challenging job so I distract myself by reading some of the articles. As I scanned issue 13 (January/February 1990, I noticed that I had placed an item in the newsletter saying that I was looking for work. In the article, I said “The computer industry in New Zealand appears to have slumped. The result is that many companies are having difficulties and are more than willing to shed staff” (p 8). As I recall later that year, I left my position with a computing company in Auckland and we departed for a month’s holiday in Japan during which we attended a friend wedding.

On return, the industry had indeed slumped and I found myself not being able to find work. At the time, the employment agencies were saying that because my experience was in mainframe computer programming, I was not a suitable candidate for the new microcomputer programming market. Despite trying to show them evidence that in the twelve months before I left for Japan, I had learnt a new midrange system and was programming that and could easily do the same with microcomputers (I was already programming them to run a bulletin board system), they declined to put me forward for any jobs. As a result, I was unemployed for approximately six months before taking up a position teaching programming using Pascal on microcomputers.

Now, I find myself again unemployed and again partly by choice but also partly because the institution that I was at did not value my research efforts. Although I am applying for positions, I am not going to employment agencies. This is in part because I have my thesis to write and I don’t want to take up a new position and find I can’t finish it according to the schedule. However, I do see parallels between the two stories. My university told me that I didn’t have the credentials for a research position but I could have a tutoring position and do a little research on the side. Like the employment agencies telling me that I could not possibly programming microcomputers, I feel the university is mistaken. Do I have any evidence? I feel the acknowledgement of my research by the computing education research community at the Australasian Computing Education conference and the positive support and encouragement that I have received from my supervisors over the last week.

My thesis will not be a Computer Science PhD as my supervisor is in the College of Education and the key research is about education of a computer science topic. The question that I ask is “does that make me no longer a computer scientist?” As we reflect on who would be appropriate examiners for the thesis, we realise that an educationalist without a computer science background would struggle with being able to interpret my results. On the other hand a computer scientist who understands object-oriented programming but has had nothing to do with educational research methods may struggle with understanding the method and may actually want to reject the method even though it is an established method for educational research. Many of those who have the appropriate blend in Australasia are disqualified because I have worked with them on the BRACELet project or because I have interviewed them as part of the research.

Coming back to the question “does that make me no longer a computer scientist?” I would argue that it does not. My primary results are about the understanding or perceptions that people have of object-oriented programming. In order to be able to write on that theme, I do need to have a reasonable understanding. During the interviews for the research, my knowledge of object-oriented programming was both a help and a hindrance. It was a help in the sense that I knew I was being given good data by the interviewees and I could recognise key words that related to the topic. But it was a hindrance because it was too easy for me to assume that the interviewee was using those words in the way that I understood them.

So yes, I regard myself as a computer scientist although I may lack the current mathematical background used by some to validate their theories in the field. More importantly, I regard myself as a computer science educationalist with an increasingly strong educational background. This is a rare commodity in this field and is reflected in the nature of the papers presented at conferences.

I may not do theoretical computer science research but there is a lot of uncovered ground that needs to be explored that relates to computer science education and I look forward to continued participation in this field. And yes, like the 1990 change, this is another slight change in direction.