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Benefit of the WWW-based seminar as a part of knowledge work course

Pekka Makkonen

University of Jyväskylä Information systems science P. O. Box 35 (Agora) Fin-40350 Jyväskylä FINLAND +358-50-3761203 (cellular phone) +358-50-2603011 (fax) e-mail

Benefit of the WWW-based seminar as a part of knowledge work course

Pekka Makkonen

University of Jyväskylä Information systems science P. O. Box 35 (Agora) Fin-40350 Jyväskylä FINLAND +358-50-3761203 (cellular phone) +358-50-2603011 (fax) e-mail

Abstract. The Internet should be seen more than a new medium. It can then be used to solve some pedagogical problems. To give an example, seminars for crowded courses exceeding a hundred participants would not be possible without web-based arrangements. In the academic year 2000-2001 we organized a web-based coursework and seminar during the Knowledge Work and its Tools course for some students (experimental group). Simultaneously, we ran the same course including a conventional coursework and seminar for other students (control group). During the coursework and while in the seminar the students were expected to work in small groups of two to five students. In the web-based seminar each group had their own workspace in the Web CT environment for publishing and presenting coursework. At the final phase of the course the students were expected to familiarize themselves with the presentations of other groups. In this paper we analyze the benefits of the features of our WWW-based seminar based on pre- and post-questionnaires. These features include (1) the coursework generally, (2) authoring the coursework, (3) familiarizing with the coursework of other groups, and (4) using a Web CT tool and its presentations feature. Additionally, we analyze how motivated the students were in the coursework. Generally, our study found that a web-based coursework and seminar is as beneficial as a conventional coursework and seminar. However, while the older students were more motivated by the WWW-based coursework and seminar, the students of the faculty of information technology were more motivated by the conventional coursework and seminar.

  1. 1 Introduction

Today, students are more interested in the learning of information systems science. At the same time, countries like Finland have increased the amount of relevant education at universities. At the everyday level this means crowded courses and impossibility to organize seminars where students can discuss each other's work. It seems that this leads to lower motivation and inferior learning. One solution to this problem may be web-based seminar work. In a web-based seminar, students can place their seminar assignments and presentations in their own web-based workspaces. Other students can visit these workspaces and comment on the work. This solution is beneficial at least in three ways. First, it is possible to increase the intake of students in a seminar-based course. Second, a seminar can take place at any time. Third, a seminar can take place anywhere.

In a traditional classroom, learning occurs in the behaviorist manner (behaviorism). The traditional classroom puts a learner in the position of an object of assessment: an instructor initiates, a learner responds, and the instructor then closes the sequence by either accepting or rejecting the learners’ turn (Sinclair & Coulthard, 1975). The constructivist learning approach (constructivism) contrasts to the behaviorist approach. From the perspective of these learning approaches, the last decade has been the time of constructivism even at the university level.

Traditional lecture-based teaching is problematic in many ways (Isaacs, 1994 & Rosenthal, 1995). Problems associated with this type of teaching include ineffectiveness, passiveness, and alienation of students. In the context of technology and related sciences, some revisions have been suggested to improve lecturing as a teaching method by activating students using, for example, co-operative learning in small groups and essay-writing assignments about technical topics (Isaacs, 1994). From this perspective lecturing is not without potential if the previously mentioned problems can be corrected, but other learning methods must also be considered. For example, in information systems science a seminar utilizing information technology and its new possibilities may be a good and natural alternative to conventional ways of education. A web-based seminar can bring real constructivist learning to education whereupon learning is an active process of knowledge constructing rather than knowledge acquisition (Duffy and Cunningham, 1996).

One of the goals of the Knowledge Work and its Tools course is teaching the basic ideas of groupware. Using Web CT and its presentation feature it is possible to demonstrate the meaning of shared workspaces in practice. During the process of seminar work students can familiarize themselves with shared workspaces. This occurs by publishing and presenting seminar work; by reserving three different other seminar works for commenting; by commenting on seminar works created by other students (or groups); and by reading comments expressed by other students.

This paper introduces our approach to carry out a web-based coursework and seminar. Additionally, it provides the preliminary analysis of it focusing on the successfulness of our coursework and seminar. Our analysis has many goals. We want to know

  • how the students experienced the coursework,

  • how motivated the students were after the coursework,

  • how the students experienced authoring the coursework,

  • how the students experienced reading other’s coursework and the closing seminar, and

  • how the students experienced the Web CT tool.

Before discussing the study itself, we first provide an overview of constructivism and the WWW in learning from the perspective of our study.

  1. 2 Constructivism

Widely known and discussed views associated with (computer-supported) learning include behaviorism and its opposite, constructivism. Behaviorism is interested in a student’s behavior (reactions) in relation to teaching (stimulus) while constructivism is interested in the mental processes which affect the behavior of a student (Risku, 1996). A traditional lecture is mainly based on the behaviorist approach while coursework and projects are typical constructivist learning.

Jonassen (1994) summarizes what he refers to as "the implications of constructivism for instructional design". The following principles illustrate how knowledge construction can be facilitated by:

  • providing multiple representations of reality,

  • representing the natural complexity of the real world,

  • focusing on knowledge construction, not reproduction,

  • presenting authentic tasks (contextualizing rather than abstracting instruction),

  • providing real-world, case-based learning environments, rather than pre-determined instructional sequences,

  • fostering reflective practice,

  • enabling context-and content dependent knowledge construction, and

  • supporting collaborative construction of knowledge through social negotiation.

According to Brandt (1997), constructivism asserts that learners construct knowledge by making sense of experiences in terms of what is already known. In constructivist learning the concept of a mental model is essential. Learning is comprehended as the development of a learner’s mental models (or a student’s knowledge structures). Brandt (1997) emphasizes that constructivism is an essential basis when applying the WWW for teaching and learning. While the goal of constructivism is to recognize and help to facilitate a learner’s ability to construct knowledge when applied to teaching information retrieval on the Internet, it also provides the teacher with a structure for teaching. By focusing on concepts and connecting them to mental models, instructors and teachers can gain both confidence and control over the amount of material they cover in the small blocks of time usually allotted to teaching and training. Integrated with experiences that learners use to alter and strengthen mental models, the constructivist approach to teaching information retrieval also gives users the structure needed to get the most out of the Internet.

Despite the promise of constructivism several researchers emphasize the importance of guidance. For example, Silverman (1995) points out that by providing the right amount of traditional instruction, students seem to favor constructivist environments. Additionally, he suggests different tools (e.g. a multimedia authoring environment, better communication media, and easily integrated microworld simulators) to support lessons based on the constructivist approach.

  1. 3 The WWW in learning in our context

Vast information resources are available to teachers and students via the WWW. However, the problems inherent in any information system such as disorientation, navigation inefficiency and cognitive overload are multiplied on the Internet (Brandt, 1997). On the other hand, these problems can be overcome using a suitable pedagogical approach and/or appropriate tools.

In the case of coursework one approach may be by seeing Internet tools as cognitive tools, in other words, tools for knowledge construction. A cognitive tool is a term introduced by Jonassen in his discussion of hypermedia tools (Jonassen, 1992). He claims that cognitive tools actively engage learners in the creation of knowledge that reflects their comprehension and conception of the information rather than focusing on the presentation of objective knowledge. These tools are learner controlled, not teacher or technology driven. The use of a cognitive tool changes the role of the student into that of an active learner. Figure 1 shows cognitive tools in the general three-dimensional framework for computer-based learning. (Jonassen, 1992). These dimensions are generativity, control, and engagement.
Figure 1. Cognitive tools in the general framework of computer-based learning.
In the same way, web-based tools, like Web CT, can be seen in an active context. The students can use Web CT and its presentation feature for introducing their ideas, receiving feedback, and managing coursework. This leads to learning by constructing knowledge based on both a student’s own ideas and other students’ ideas.

In the context of the first courses in informatics it is important, additionally, to discuss education from the perspective of situated action theory and cognitive flexibility theory. These theories can bring forth some important views related to education if we have courses with heterogeneous students. Chen and Rada (1996) stress the term "situated action" which emphasizes the interrelationship between an action and its context of performance. Additionally, according to Bruckman et al. (1997) and Koschmann (1996), the success of a computer- supported learning environment depends not just on the software, but on the context in which that software is used. Situated action theory emphasizes a person's responsiveness to the environment and focuses on the improvisory nature of human activity (Nardi, 1996) and the local management of activity as mediated by relevant environmental cues (Agre & Chapman, 1987; Suchman, 1987). The implications for learning are that appropriate actions are generated from recognition of appropriate opportunities given by the context. In addition to situated action theory, Jacobson et al. (1996) also emphasize the meaning of cognitive flexibility theory affecting hypertext-based learning. This theory was initially formulated to address factors contributing to failures to learn complex knowledge at advanced instructional levels. It proposes that complex knowledge may be better learned for flexible application in new contexts by employing case-based learning environments that include features such as: (a) the use of multiple knowledge representations, (b) linking abstract concepts in cases to depict knowledge-in-use, (c) demonstrating the conceptual interconnectedness or web-like nature of complex knowledge, (d) emphasizing knowledge assembly rather than reproductive memory, (e) introducing both conceptual complexity and domain complexity early, and (f) promoting active student learning.

In the case of a web-based seminar it is useful to discuss the use of the WWW from the perspective of media research. Haythornthwaite (2001) stresses the interpersonal ties that affect the character of web-based communication. According to her, strong ties between students improve web-based communication: based on this we claim that traditional teaching and learning are needed as a part of a course. The traditional parts of a course develop these ties in the way that is not possible in a totally virtual training setting. In this way we can create contexts in which effective WWW-based learning is possible and the use of web-based educational software in the spirit of situated action theory is possible.

Based on the above, it is important to appreciate these views of learning while outlining courses and to understand the use of the WWW in learning. We stress the following three issues. First, we must discuss what the right amount of traditional (behaviorist) teaching should be. Second, we must analyze what is the right way to use the WWW. Active learning must be promoted and situations conducive for successful web-based learning must be created. Third, scaffolding support is needed to support constructivist learning based on the WWW. We claim that after the introductory course level many courses of information systems science can be built on the constructivist approach of learning. This occurs based on coursework that works as the core of the course.

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