Dimensions of Technology-Based Learning

J.J. Winn

Conputer Based Education Department

Queensland University of Technology

Brisbane, QLD, 4000


G.R. Joughin

Faculty of Law

Queensland University of Technology

Brisbane, QLD, 4000


J.J. Winn

Conputer Based Education Department

Queensland University of Technology

Brisbane, Australia


G.R. Joughin

Faculty of Law

Queensland University of Technology

Brisbane, Australia


A recurring theme in the development of technology-based learning is the need to integrate pedagogical and technological dimensions of learning. We have adapted a framework used by Graham Gibbs (1992) to help identify the nature of these dimensions and the way in which they are related to each other. These dimensions have the potential to both describe and inform:

The object of a major project being undertaken by the QUT Law Faculty and the Computer Based Education Department is to address the issues and needs, as aforementioned, by developing a set of technology-based materials to assist student learning in a range of first year units.

This paper addresses the complex issues involved in any technological development and suggests a simple framework for dealing with part of this complexity by describing two core dimensions of learning, identifying the kinds of expertise associated with these dimensions and reviewing the factors involved in developing a template project for the Faculty of Law at Queensland University of Technology.

Computer-based learning projects are always complex. Biggs (1993, p. 74) has described education as a set of interacting ecosystems, thereby drawing attention to the range of issues that need to be taken into account in any educational innovation. The complexity of computer-based projects arises form the number of ecosystems involved and the multiplicity of interactions within and between those ecosystems. This paper suggests a simple framework for dealing with one part of this complexity by describing two core dimensions of learning, identifying the kinds of expertise associated with each dimension, and considering how these dimensions and areas of expertise have informed a template project in the discipline of law.

1 Dimensions of learning

Our starting point is a simple depiction by Graham Gibbs of two dimensions of learning as expressed in his diagram in figure 1.

We have modified Gibbs's diagram to highlight what we consider to be two primary dimensions of computer-based learning (Joughin & Winn 1996). These are illustrated in figure 2.

The horizontal axis of figure 2 focuses on content or information. It deals with the type and structure of content and is concerned with how information is stored and retrieved. At one extreme, resources are essentially didactic with minimum student control, while at the other, a rich array of resources are provided, using a variety of media, for students to explore and even co-construct.

Two kinds of expertise are associated with the horizontal dimension:

  1. a knowledge of the discipline area, how that knowledge is structured, and the existing resources through which that knowledge is expressed; and
  2. the expertise required to develop educational 'product', including graphic design, interface design, authoring, and network delivery.

The vertical axis of figure 2 deals with how students go about using the information represented by the horizontal axis. In other words, it represents the approach they take to learning in relation to the resources at their disposal. This relation has been characterised a either a 'surface approach to learning' where students tend to memorise for assessment and focus on discrete pieces of unrelated information, or a 'deep approach to learning' in which students seek to understand, relate what they are learning to existing knowledge, structure content into a coherent whole, and focus on the underlying meaning of words and concepts. (Ramsden 1992; Laurillard 1993).

The vertical dimension requires expertise in learning theory and the design of educational experiences that encourage deep approaches to learning. It also requires a knowledge of how students learn within a particular discipline.

The dimensions of learning noted above therefore allow us to identify three kinds of expertise required to bring about effective computer-based learning:

These different types of expertise are typically focused in different categories of staff, usually located in different functional areas of a university:

As figure 4 suggests, occasionally a single person will have developed expertise in more than one area. Usually, however, the organisational structure, and culture, will need to be such that the forms of expertise can be brought together in the service of developing new programs.

2 An environment for exploring multi-levelled problems in Law

The Faculty of Law at QUT has been involved in using technology to improve student learning for many years. Projects such as 'The Crimson Parrot' which won the IT&T Award for Excellence in Education and Training in 1995 have been used with particular success.

The project described in this paper is developing a template for computer-based teaching and learning in law. The template's working title, 'An Environment for Exploring Multi-levelled Problems in Law', suggests that we are: (1) generating contexts in which learning can occur; (2) that this learning is based on exploration and the application of research methodologies; and (3) that the template can accommodate a range of problems at different levels of complexity and challenge.

The template consists of :

The project began with the development of a comprehensive blueprint that outlined all of the major elements of the project. Here we will comment only on those two aspects of the project directly related to the dimensions of learning and varieties of expertise discussed earlier by noting (1) how we have conceptualised the dimensions of learning in the project, and (2) how the various types of expertise have been brought together in the project.

3 Dimensions of learning in the project

The dimensions of learning in the project are represented by figure 5.

The information dimension is identical to the horizontal dimension of figure 2, and deals with kinds of content, forms of media, and issues of storage and retrieval of information.

The problems/questions/issues dimension is equated to the vertical dimension of figure 2. The problems, issues and questions that are presented to students will determine the approach they take in relation to the information dimension, and the design of these problems, issues and questions should be such as to encourage deep approaches to learning.

The tools dimension represents a sort of 'interface' between the other two dimensions and includes tools for research (guides or strategies for locating information) and tools for learning (feedback, hints, notebooks etc).

The project is proceeding by systematically developing each of these dimensions and the connections that exist between them.

4 Varieties of expertise in the project

The project has taken particular care to incorporate the three forms of expertise identified earlier in figures 3 and 4. It has done so in two interrelated ways - (1) through the project personnel structure, and (2) through each stage of the design process. These are discussed below.

The integration of expertise in the design structure is illustrated by the following:

The design process has sought to incorporate the various kinds of expertise at each stage:

As a result of the integrated approach being taken, the template that results from the project will have expertise from all three areas built into it.

5 Outstanding issues

The systematic incorporation of the two dimensions of learning into a computer-based learning project requires a concentrated approach to design that places educational issues to the forefront of the design process. While the conceptual issues involved are not complex, they do require a process of familiarisation, discussion and reflection on the part of all parties if a common understanding of the educational framework of such a project is to emerge.

The integration of areas of expertise, while considered by us as essential, is time-consuming and the logistics involved in simply arranging meetings of a number of disparate staff in a university should not be underestimated. We note, however, that unless staff with different perspectives spend time discussing these perspectives, a common understanding of a project, and a mutual respect for the different types of expertise required, can never develop to the stage where staff can work together effectively and harmoniously.

While the issues discussed in this paper have been considered in the context of a specific university project, they raise issues that in practice need to be addressed at a strategic level of a university if integrated approaches to technology for teaching and learning are to be applied on an institution-wide basis.

Diana Laurillard in her presentation at the ALT-C conference in Glasgow in 1996 presented a strategy for academic advantage at the institutional level for UK universities to make best use of the new technology. Her strategy addressed the following needs:

The many dimensions noted here are a useful list that senior managers should address in their planning. Often the big picture planning is left until too late and any projects under development cannot be fully utilised because the institution is not ready to implement them effectively.

This paper has drawn attention to the range of issues that need to be taken into account in any educational innovation. The framework presented can perhaps simplify the complexity of these issues by focusing on the core dimensions of learning.


Biggs, J.B. 1993, 'From theory to practice', Higher Education Research and Development, 12,1.

Joughin, G. & Winn, J. 1996, 'Dimensions of Learning, varieties of expertise and organisational structure in technology-based teaching and learning: a framework for integration ', Paper presented at ALT-C conference, Glasgow, 1996.

Laurillard, D. 1993, Rethinking University Teaching, London, Routledge.

Laurillard, D. 1996, 'How should UK Higher Education make best use of New Technology', Keynote address ALT-C, Glascow, 1996.

Ramsden, P. 1992, Learning to Teach in Higher Education, London, Routledge, 1992.