LETA Conference
(Adelaide, September, 2000)
....some thoughts........

The future has already arrived. It just isn't equally distributed yet." (William Gibson, Science Fiction author)

Education has traditionally taken place inside buildings. The nature of those buildings and the rooms within them have an enormous effect on the types of activity that can occur within them. When I first heard of the LETA (Learning Environment and Technology) conference I assumed that it would be about learning with the new technologies. And while much of the conference was focused new learning technologies I didn't expect that much of the conference would be concerned with the architecture of the built learning environment. Bruce Jilk from Minnesota has designed schools in 30 countries. His presentation featured a magnificent collection of sketches and photographs of his work around the world, and was accompanied by discussion of how to blend learning environments with community to encourage new learning methodologies.

Those designing learning environments for the online classroom should perhaps follow his lead. Creating a sense of community is central to successful online teaching. Jilk's point though is to not create new artificial communities (called schools and colleges in the built environment); rather we should be looking at integrating existing communities into educational endeavour. Schools he says should be used all year round by all members of the community; activities for seniors should occur at the same time as normal classes - perhaps in the same shared spaces; schools should have shop fronts and be located in areas of retail activity. The Internet makes this kind of merging of communities possible because all spheres of human activity are accessible from the desktop. He suggests that we don't view the school as a community but rather the community as a school. In the online medium then, think of the Net as the school or college. And this Jilk calls Terra Incognita (Land Unknown). Our task as educators is to assist students gain the skills necessary to navigate this unknown land. And these skills will be constructivist in nature.

And what exactly does this much used term 'constructivist' mean? Let me quote Ruth Geer:

"Students learn best by interacting with others, rather than working in isolation. Wittrocks’ generative learning theory, now popularly termed constructivism, also attempts to add support by explaining that people learn best when working together (Susman 1998) . Through this collaboration students are motivated and encouraged to remain focused on the task. The resultant interactivity leads to knowledge-building which requires "articulation, expression or representation of what is learned" [Jonassen, 1999 #115]. Such thinking is aligned with current conceptions of constructivist learning.

Constructivism, which is derived from branches of cognitive science, emphasises the importance of learners creating, developing and constructing their ideas. It provides a relatively new approach to the educational experience. Out of the notion of discovery and exploration has emerged research on interactive and collaborative learning around meaningful activities. Duffy & Cunningham (1996) refer to learning in terms of a social-dialogical process. This social dialogue should take place in knowledge-building communities (Scardamalia & Bereiter 1996) where technology provides the medium for communication and the formation of ideas. Through such collaborative efforts learners are able to reflect and elaborate on their ideas as well those of their peers. They also learn that there are multiple solutions to most problems, and through the Internet, that there are multiple ways of viewing the world. Jonassen, Peck & Wilson (1999) identify the following attributes as indicators of meaningful learning: active, constructive, intentional, authentic and cooperative. These characteristics are further depicted as being interrelated, interdependent and interactive. Of particular interest is the interactivity that leads to collaboration."

(from Social Interdependence in Collaborative Interactivity in an Internet Based Learning Environment; paper presented at conference: Distance education: an open question?; September, 2000)

(abstract of Bruce Jilk's presentation available here)

In his keynote address (Information and Computer Technologies - the Promise and Reality), Ron Oliver from Edith Cowan University claims that online education has seen only marginal gains in student performance. He attributes this not to any inherent weakness of online as a medium, but to the fact that few online courses are using the medium properly. He contrasts previous and new (web based methodology) thus:






















Teacher as expert

Individual effort

Fragmented assessment

Teacher as coach

Collaborative effort

Integrated assessment

For a good online course to provide opportunity for effective learning it should incorporate:

  • Knowledge construction
  • Multiple perspectives
  • Relevant contexts
  • Student ownership of content
  • A social component (see Ruth Geer's paper)
  • Multiple modes of representation
  • Self-awareness of knowledge construction process

Further, effective online courses should include:

Research into existing online courses reveals that 93% of educational use of the Web is individual - what Ron Oliver called 'low level use', and which does not exploit the full potential of the medium.

Use of the Web in education to date falls into 3 categories:

  1. Electronic conversion of existing materials
  2. Supplementary or complementary activities
  3. Re-engineering the course (the best and most effective method)

(abstract of Ron Oliver's presentation available here)

A brief but illuminating presentation by TAFE SA's Online Education manager, Neil Strong, revealed some interesting data about the current state of online training. Fifty percent of all current online training involves the teaching of IT skills, and the growth area in online training is in the service to enterprise area, not in servicing the needs of the individual or academic institutions. This is reflected locally in the fact that TAFE SA (as an early adopter of Web based education) is in constant demand to provide expertise and training for other organisations just entering the field. This demand shows no sign of abating and it is tempting to allocate more resources to this lucrative and satisfying endeavour. Such a transfer of resources may mean a shift away from what we have traditionally seen as our core business - teaching students - but in a world where we are all constantly urged to generate income for our programs, this may be an opportunity that we can't ignore.

- Michael Coghlan (26/9/00)