Doctorial Research


Learning Environments Online: A Case Study of Actual Practice
Univesity of Sydney, Sydney, Australia June 1997

Nothing is ever as simple as it seems.
- Common Knowledge

This research is about learning environments. Through the observation of one educational program, previous experience in the field, and a review of the literature, theory was developed suggesting attributes and characteristics necessary to develop environments promoting innovative practice and knowledge-building (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994). It recognises that the environment in which learners work has a direct impact on their learning.

Included in this research is a review of literature (Chapter Two) which situates this specific case study within the academic experience of prior research. Chapter Two is broken into three sections, each addressing specific questions which arose as the research progressed.

1. What is knowledge-building?
2. What are the characteristics of an environment that supports knowledge-building?
3. Can schools become environments promoting innovative practice and knowledge-building?
4. Do existing organisations within educational systems support knowledge-building?
5. Can online environments support knowledge-building?
6. Can those environments promote innovative practice and support knowledge-building?

Section A addresses questions one and two, recognising that in the real world, people learn continuously, whether it be golf tips from friends or gardening suggestions from magazines. This learning takes place in a variety of settings with assistance from a range of individuals and artefacts (tools, information, etc.); however, it is noticeable that the learning process appears to change in the formal environment of traditional schools. The distinction between school learning and learning situated in actual practice is central to the work of Lave and Wenger (1991), Rogoff (1990, 1994), and others.

The commonly expressed observation, if children learned to walk or talk in schools, a few might never learn, the majority would take years to master it, and some would have to be enrolled in special programs, suggests the problems inherent in school learning are publicly known. Researchers (Brown, 1994; Perkins, 1992; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994) note that the problems do not lie in a lack of knowledge about learning, but rather in a gap between research and the actual practice of teaching.

All suggest the necessity of major educational reform, developing intentional learning environments (Brown, 1994) in which learners are given opportunities to take charge of their own learning. Intentional learning allows learners to find relevance in learning, situating it in their specific needs. It develops a relationship between the learning and the learner (Cazden, 1988), recognising that learners must be active participants in the learning process or the process will not be valued.

Activity theory (Crawford, 1995a & b; Leontíev, 1981; Vygotsky, 1978, 1981, 1986), informs intentional learning, suggesting that a learnerís needs must determine activities. These activities are subordinate to learnerís goals and, therefore, do not control the goals or the needs but support them. This is quite different from most western approaches to education where activities or events fill the curriculum, and goals are pre-determined as part of a national political and social agenda (Perkins, 1992; Welch, 1996; Wertsch, Minick, & Arns, 1984).

Vygotsky (1978, 1981, 1986) recognises the impact environment has on learning, suggesting institutions (conditions) and social interactions (socio-cultural influences) directly affect a learnerís needs and goals. This impact is often overlooked in schools where the actual term activity is synonymous with work sheets or other school based tasks which support the institutionís goals for learning.

Activity theory and intentional learning (Brown, 1994; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994) suggest that basing activity on learner needs and goals is critical to a learnerís ability to internalised information and build knowledge with it. The external conditions in which learners gain information and begin to make personal sense of it affects a learnerís ability to internalise it and engage in innovative practice. Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) suggest internalising learning is a knowledge spiral; a concept similar to Newman, Griffith, and Coleís (1989) cognitive construction zone or Scardamalia and Bereiterís (1994) knowledge-building community. In the context of this research, knowledge-building is the discovery, construction, and interpretation of information. It requires active engagement in personally, relevant innovative practice.

Common to all these notions of external knowledge acquisition and internal knowledge-building is the need to recognise individual learner needs and goals and a respect of learner diversity. This is reflected in Vygotskyís (1978) concept, zone of proximal development (ZPD), suggesting that learners be given assistance (scaffolding) from an expert or more experienced peer in order to accomplish tasks that are progressively more difficult than ones they are capable of accomplishing independently.

Incorporating the concept of ZPD into school practice will require a major restructuring of curriculum and assessment (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993; Brown, 1994). Progressive problem-solving (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994), similar to Vygotskyís (1978) ZPD, cannot be done on mass with a pre-determined time line. The scaffolding required for each learner will be different, and the time required to internalise the learning will vary.

Therefore, the incorporation of activity theory into the current educational environment will require a dramatic restructuring of schools. Teaching strategies will need to be revised, noting that a shift from distributing knowledge to guiding and modeling learning will require a shift in the current power relationship inherent in the direct instruction approach used in most schools.

All members (administrators, teachers, students) must be seen as learners; individuals engaged in the continuous process of learning, and schools must become organisations focused on learning.

Section B focuses on the issue of educational reform (Perkins, 1992; Welch, 1996; and others). Brown (1994) eloquently states that contemporary educational practice has not changed to reflect the understanding of knowledge-building produced by this centuryís research. Formal education in schools is delivered much the same way it was at the turn of the century, ignoring the advances of research and the introduction of powerful tools such as computers, video, and television. It is a theory of this research that computer technology can be used as a powerful tool for the transition from traditional practice to a reformed, innovative restructuring of educational organisations.

Viewing schools as organisations is a shift in some contemporary thinking. Scardamalia and Bereiterís (1994) work on schools as knowledge-building communities suggests a strong link with the research on learning organisations (Chawkla and Renesch, 1995; Kofman and Senge, 1993; Senge, 1990) and organisational learning (Argyris, 1992, 1993; Argyris & Schon, 1978). These connections allow for the development of a theoretical organisation for learning, suggesting characteristics that support innovative practice and knowledge-building (Section B).

This research explores those characteristics, determining attributes necessary for learning. Attributes include (1) personal mastery, (2) collaboration and social interaction, and (3) systems thinking, supporting a holistic understanding. A factor that appears to link these attributes into a continuous learning cycle is dialogue. Dialogue with peers and experts is supported by Vygotsky (1978, 1981, 1986) and Cazden (1988) and researchers advocating cognitive apprenticeship and a community of learners (Brown, 1994; Rogoff, 1990, 1994; and others).

The characteristics of this learning environment are consistent with the research in intentional learning (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1993, 1989; Brown, 1994; Dewey, 1929; and others), cognitive apprenticeship (Brown, 1992; Rogoff, 1990), and activity theory (Crawford, 1995a & b ; Leontíev, 1981; Vygotsky, 1978, 1981, 1986).

An organisation for learning is also consistent with the potential promised for computer supported learning environments, suggesting that organisations for learning could be situated online in computer conferences.

In constructing the theory of organisations for learning, this research referred to the contemporary literature on organisational learning to determine the critical factors in organisational structure and group interactions. Literature in this area informed this research in the strategies of double-loop learning (Argyris & Schon, 1978), systems thinking (Senge, 1990), and personal empowerment (Mink, Owens, & Mink, 1993).

Argyris and Schon (1978) identify double-loop learning as detecting and correcting errors in such as a deep manner that the underlying norms and values of the organisation are modified. This differs from single-loop learning which is a more surface reaction to error. Argyris and Schon state that most schools are limited learning organisations. Schools are microcosms of society reflecting the fragmentation, competitiveness, and reactiveness found all too often are found in daily life (Kofman & Senge, 1993). Schools often do not engage in double loop learning strategies to address and solve problems, but instead utilise single loop responses to problems, often resulting in new problems arising from previous solutions (Argyris, 1993; Fullan, 1991). Argyris and Schon (1978) characterise limited learning organisations as those which do not learn from their members and therefore, limit their membersí ability to learn as well. Encouraging all members of an organisation to become learners is at the heart of Scardamalia and Bereiterís (1994) knowledge-building community. It recognises that in todayís information rich society, individuals must learn where to find information and view themselves as life long learners. Therefore, organisations must develop environments in which continuous learning is promoted. Teachers, administrators, students, and school board members must be encouraged to be active learners who engage in innovative practice.

While simple to say, it may be difficult for school boards and administrators to shift their hiring practices from collecting experts in a subject to finding experts in learning strategies. Educators will have to shift from attempting to know all there is to know of a subject to being a guides or role models in the process of discovery and learning. Learners and community members (parents, etc.) will also have to shift their expectations of educators as experts to guides or facilitators of learning.
Implicit in all this reform and change is the revision of curriculum and teaching methods. Enormous staff development within the existing teaching population, as well among the professors at the university teacher training programs, will have to be undertaken in order to move past entrenched beliefs and reform educational practice (Brown, 1994; Caladine, 1993; Weir, 1992).

Furthermore, the diffusion of innovated, reformed practice will be complex. This research referred heavily to literature on the process change, organisational learning, and the diffusion of invention (Argyris, 1993; Argyris & Schon; Chawkla & Renesch, 1995; Fullan, 1991; Kofman and Senge, 1993; Rogers, 1983; Senge, 1990).

It appears that an individualís willingness to adopt change is related to their sense of personal power within the organisation and their understanding of the reason for the change. Other contributing factors are presented in Chapter Two (Section B); however, the basic ability of an individual to change appears directly linked to activity theory. If an individualís needs are not met, Argyris (1992, 1993) and Fullan (1991) suggest they will engage in counterproductive activities that can stop the process, or default to traditional practices which they understand. This default effectively stalls the diffusion of innovation.

Chapter Two (Section C) suggests that reformed educational practice could be situated in computer supported learning environments. The characteristics of learning environments capable of promoting innovative practice and supporting knowledge-building are consistent with advantages promised in the literature for computer environments. However, unless the educational practices are reformed, there is a fear that teachers will simply re-creating the status quo online, adapting shop worn activities (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994; Spender, 1995; Stoll, 1995) for electronic delivery.

Along with the promises are problems surrounding the online environment. Researchers (Caladine, 1993; Trevino & Lengel, 1987; Walther & Burgoon, 1992) note concerns with virtual group work and the effect that the lack of social context clues have on communications. They identify the online environment as being lean, suggesting that some activities need a much richer environment to convey complex concepts or establish social interaction.

An area of educational practice that appears most compatible with computer supported communications is distance education. As the traditional practice in distance education is already quite socially impoverished (social contact usually limited to a course marker and communications via FAX or telephone), the possibilities of computer conferencing and social interaction with virtual classmates presents an exciting option for expanded interaction.

Therefore, the case study for this research was a distance education program, New Directions in Distance Learning (NDDL), which exists primarily in cyberspace. The design for the research is presented in Chapter Three. Background to the case study is provided by the following (1) a description of the setting for the research (phenomenology concerning the social, historical, and physical constraints of the program - Chapter Four); (2) a description of the researcher's entry and relationship to the field (Chapter Three - Researcherís Role); and (3) a description of the research design, development of the research frame (Goffman, 1974), methods used, and ethical concerns associated with the research (Chapter Three).

The case study (Chapters Four and Five) is presented in ethnographic description, informed by action research (Argyris, 1992; Crawford, 1995b; Greenfield, 1984; Lomax, 1989). It includes a description of the social processes in the study, organised around frames and codes (Goffman, 1974) which developed throughout the research process. The information from the case study was analysed thematically, initially based on content analysis categories developed from the literature. Some of the information is presented in the first person voice (Thompkins, 1993), recognising the role the researcher played in the program both as a participant and as a participant observer. Spellings of computer terms (eg. e-mail) are based on the ILC Glossary of Internet Terms (1997). No editing has been done to participantsí online messages included in this research; they appear just as they did, offering a flavour of conference communications.

This research set out to observe a community of learners which was expected to form within an online learning environment. It was assumed that the community of learners would develop and negotiate tasks which would enhance knowledge-building as defined in Figure 9. However, when that assumption was found to be incorrect; the research was refocussed to determine the causes of why a community had not formed, exploring the learning environment and the organisational structure of the program.

Findings from the research are presented in Chapters Four and Five. A discussion section concludes the research (Chapter Six).


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