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In this paper, a new approach to school excursions is described in the development of a School Excursion Education Program at Sydney Olympic Park. Best known as the location of the Olympic Games in 2000, the Park has a wealth of opportunities for the examination of a range of issues other than sport, such as natural environments, endangered species, pollution and toxic waste disposal, Aboriginal significance, sustainable housing, and design and technology in the built environment. This paper describes the design and development to date of an excursion program for schools based on constructivist philosophy, situated learning theory and the use of technology to create a meaningful and effective learning environment for the sustained examination of significant issues. Essentially, the paper is a case study of how place and technology can be connected within a specific learning context, and how onsite technology 'pods' and other web engagements are designed to support complex learner challenges.
The Parklands at Sydney Olympic Park, while probably best known in recent times as the location of the Olympic Games in 2000, has a rich and diverse history. The site covers over 400 hectares and consist of a unique mix of natural and made environments including: pristine woodlands, salt marshes and mangroves that play host to a diversity of flora and fauna in close proximity to reclaimed industrial sites, a modern sorting complex and housing and industrial estates. The Parklands are also a place of Aboriginal significance and historic importance. The Sydney Olympic Park Authority (SOPA) is responsible for promoting the historic, scientific, cultural, and educational value of the Parklands. In promoting the educational value of the Parklands, SOPA has embarked upon the development of an innovative School Excursion Education Project (SEEP) creating a unique and imaginative program that has the potential to set new standards in the use of information and communication technologies in learning. The Project implements the vision of Parklands 2020 through a partnership between SOPA, the New South Wales (NSW) Department of Education and Training, the Sydney metropolitan Catholic Education Offices, the University of Wollongong, and Sun Microsystems. Through this partnership, the program aims to create a range of educational experiences that embrace technology supported learning and teaching. It is proposed that the program will continue to evolve and develop new approaches through applied research on education, technology and Sydney Olympic Park.
The new excursion program adopts a more radical approach, underpinned by recent learning theory and research. It actively draws on principles of situated and authentic learning to embed investigation of the natural and built environment at the park into realistic problem solving tasks that specifically address curriculum outcomes. Rather than see the excursion as a one off, isolated event, the new approach is to situate the on site events within the context of a comprehensive pre- and post-visit program. It establishes links between classroom based and non-classroom based learning and information and communications technologies. All subject areas can exploit the uniqueness of the Parklands across years K-12.
Throughout the site, computer terminals are being installed at a range of locations (named pods) that focus on specific features of the overall site. Students, with computer access through an individually issued smart card, are able to integrate direct observation and experience in this unique physical world with resources held electronically in responding to their learning challenge. This combination of place and technology provides the potential for Sydney Olympic Park to become an important cross curriculum learning resource, allowing users of all ages to experience unique environments supported by technologies with recent learning theory driving the design of the learning experiences.
A generic problem solving approach is used to focus students' efforts on complex problems that will take several weeks to complete. Students participating in the excursion program will explore and interrogate targeted databases of learning activities that will support a range of syllabus requirements. In groups, the students will work on a single complex and sustained challenge through related activities in the class, at home, and through a critically timed visit to Sydney Olympic Park. They will engage in work on the web, in class, in the field and in technology pods with an emphasis on student centred, task driven activities that will require them to explore data and information, construct and test hypotheses where appropriate, and present conclusions and solutions in the form of a range of artefacts.
Teacher support is also an important part of the program. Teachers will be able to source innovative learning material and use technology to construct learning experiences relevant to syllabus requirements. They will have the flexibility to construct lessons to meet individual student needs, while having the necessary support to meet the demands of developing learning experiences for many students. They will be supported through professional development programs and educational resources.
Figure 1: Process and time phases of the School Excursion Education Project (SEEP)
In keeping with this approach, a complex and realistic task is the central focus of both the excursion and other pre- and post-excursion activities. A generic problem solving approach - based on models proposed by Bransford and Stein (1992) and Jonassen (1997) - is used to focus students' efforts on the challenge and the development of a possible solution(s). Figure 2 below shows general stages in the problem solving process and how it relates to the excursion timeline.
Figure 2: Problem solving stages attempted at each stage of the excursion
The design guidelines and technologies used are customised for different purposes in each stage, as described below.
Students have the opportunity to investigate a range of online tasks prior to their on site excursion to the Park. These tasks support the first steps in a research action plan, such as: exploring the scope of the problem, generating research questions, deciding on the data that will be required to answer the questions, and identifying data collection strategies. In completing these tasks, students have access to a variety of resources that present diverse viewpoints and interests, as well as expert opinion and comment. The students work collaboratively in groups with support from both their own teacher and with in-built scaffolding and prompts on the website. The processes that students typically utilise in this stage are brainstorming, problem definition and general background research, together with decision making on the data that are required and how they will be collected.
Figure 3: The learner challenge, presented as a realistic and authentic activity
Technology and tools that are appropriate for this stage include access to the Sydney Olympic Park excursion website (documents, photographs, maps, video and audio resources, and GIS mapping technology), brainstorming tools such as concept map software/templates, and research tools such as web browsers and library resources. Products from this pre-visit stage include the definition of the problem and research parameters, and the required data.
Tools used for data collection include navigation aids such as maps and compasses, observation and measurement tools such as magnifying glasses, measuring tapes and thermometers, and recording tools such as data sheets, video and digital cameras. The activities at the site are designed for learners to explore their challenge further in the site setting, collect data in the field and analysing that data at the Pods located at the site. The pods consist of small technology labs on the Sydney Olympic Park site making use of Sun Microsystems SunRay technology. In the pods, information is location specific and easy to read, as time is limited and data must be entered quickly and efficiently. Students are able to enter their own data and compare their findings to other groups on the same day, as well as to historical data (see Figure 4 for an example of the data entry interface in the pod). Learners enter data, in this case in the form of counts of mosquito larvae and wrigglers. They then explore and analyse the data and reflect on their understanding of their data in relation to the learner challenge. In this analysis, they are given two levels of scaffolding which they can choose to use. At the first level, students are given a space to explore their understanding of their data (and how it relates to the data of other groups at the park and to historical data) under three broad headings: Analysis/comment, Theme focus, and Summary. At the next level, questions are provided to prompt their thinking, such as: 'One solution for reducing mosquitos in the Narawang Wetlands is to use chemical sprays. How do you think different interest groups would see this approach?' If they so choose, students can access further prompt questions such as 'How do you think local residents would react? Do you think they would be pleased that something was being done or do you think they might object to spraying potentially dangerous chemicals near their homes and schools? What about regular visitors to the park? What about ecologists and environmentalists?'
Figure 4: The data entry and analysis interface in a technology pod at the Sydney Olympic Park site
The product from this stage is data in a form that is retrievable from the Sydney Olympic Park website from the home school location. The data entered at the technology pods is saved to a server, and is then available to students on return to school to continue with the completion of their research plan and report.
Table 1: Summary of design principles, processes and products of SEEP
|Theory||Authentic/ situated learning/ constructivist||Excursion/ field trip Kiosk/ display/ museum||Authentic/ situated learning/ constructivist|
Data collection decisions
|Collecting data (facts, figures, measurements, images, etc)
Storing data in retrievable form
|Conducting further in depth research|
Using data to solve problems
Creating products/ presentations
||Data collection tools:
|Kiosks/computers in onsite pods
Location specific information (ie. not a lot of detailed info, more about finding what and where)
(same as Pre-excursion)
Allows more in depth reflective research
|Product||Definition of problem and research parameters
Definition of required data
|Data in retrievable form||Problem solution|
Polished product presentation
This project has the potential to model best practice in use of digital technologies in supporting this development through student engagement in rich tasks or learner challenges-tasks that are long term, ill structured and require learners to investigate solutions to problems in a planned way so as to go beyond the 'comfort zone' of established routines and familiar backgrounds.
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|Please cite as: Brickell, G. & Herrington, J. (2004). Learner challenges and situated learning: Engaging students at Sydney Olympic Park. In R. Atkinson, C. McBeath, D. Jonas-Dwyer & R. Phillips (Eds), Beyond the comfort zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference (pp. 150-158). Perth, 5-8 December. http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/perth04/procs/brickell.html|
© 2004 Gwyn Brickell & Jan Herrington
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