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Getting It To Really Work

Marcel Chaloupka & Tony Koppi

NeTTL, Center for Teaching and Learning

University of Sydney, NSW 2006



Universities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on ad hoc educational multimedia development. But how successful are these applications in the delivery of an integrated approach to learning materials in an enterprise wide learning strategy? How much content replication occurs in the development of learning materials? And how much do these applications integrate with other resource and content facilities such as the libraries and other public domain archives into the learning environment?

Learning applications tend to be sealed micro-worlds with little integration into the real world. Learning applications tend to follow a similar pattern of design for a tutorial/narrative with questions of comprehension placed either during or at the end of each section. These learning programs can have in-built notebooks, reference materials, calculators and final tests. The primary learning activity tends to be the consumption of the content for the purpose of regurgitation during the final test.

Several questions can be raised about the design of these learning applications. How do these applications integrate into an enterprise-wide learning environment? Can the content be changed after the program has been finished? How can the learning applications be transparent to the way the subject material is taught across faculties/allied disciplines and universities? Also, why is it important to want to change the content of a finished application? Or what is so different about the way each teacher teaches subjects in similar disciplines? These issues face all developers of learning applications.

Why is it that most teachers prefer paper and books to educational multimedia? Perhaps it is the ubiquitous nature of books and paper. Through the use of these media and unlike many Computer Based Learning applications, books don't have to be read from cover to cover. The teacher can easily highlight the relevant chapters, reading lists and scripts to the students. The teacher has control over the sequencing and relevance of the learning material to the learning activities. It can be a teacher controlled learner focused process.

Thus the purpose of this paper is to look at current strategies in the nature and culture of teaching and learning and see how these existing strategies might be of significance in a processes by which Computer Based Learning could be used as an-enterprise wide learning environment.


Convergence of disparate technologies has become the catch-cry of governments, computing and business sectors in the nineties; but how has the convergence been implemented in the educational sector?

One evident area of convergence in education has been the use of the Internet. But according to research funded by DEETYA (Gosper et al, 1996) the most likely strategies for implementation is to use the Internet as a repository of reference, lecture materials and the presentation of the lectures via the Internet. This could imply that the full potential of distributed learning through convergence might never be achieved.

How can we implement good learning strategies following sound educational methodologies today whilst not producing legacy systems or piece-meal content that could constrain future developments? In making it possible for distributed learning to occur, there are best-practice considerations (elements) applicable to most educational environments.

What is Distributed Learning?

Radio broadcasting, as in the School of Air, television as in PAGE and Open Learning as well as mail outs of documentation and educational software of many flavours have been the main delivery mechanisms that have driven the methodologies for Distance Learning. The Internet is fast becoming a seductive delivery medium. But is Distance learning or learning for that matter, about the ability to rapidly deliver learning material to a client? The methodologies that have been implemented in Distance learning imply a one way flow of information to the client given that the client may phone, email or mail assignments to the course facilitator. This one way flow of educational material does not seem to take advantage of the telecommunications revolution that has been brought about by convergent technologies. Often educational practice, educational methodologies are incongruent with notional educational theory such as Collaboration, peer-to-peer learning, mentoring, apprenticeship or heuristic models of learning.

If what Kveto , Vesela 1996 say has any relevance "Teachers will become advisors, managers and facilitators of learning rather than providers of information" then we need to look at a different way of dealing with Distance Education.

Distributed learning addresses the issues of the teachers being advisors, managers and facilitators and thus being a means by which an educational or training facility can implement a full two way educational experience in a divergent market where the location and distribution of the teaching resources and participants (students, teachers etc.) is irrelevant.

The model for Distributed learning takes influences from traditional methodologies of teaching and learning but before discussion of the model we need to look at the reasons that have lead to the model.

Hypermedia, So Why Not a Book Metaphor?

Hypertext/Hypermedia environments have also been touted as environments the elicit learner control Chung and Reigeluth 1992 "in terms of the dynamic, systematic relationships between the learner and the learning environment" Locatis, Letourneau and Banvard 1989; Wilson and Johnson 1989).

Shin et al. (1994) state "In a Hypertext environment, use of learner control is inevitable because hypermedia creates non-sequential, dynamic, and multiple structures of information that allow the learners with different interests to navigate multiple pathways through the information". But how can a collection of static pages on a computer, with predefined pathways and schema, automatically and inevitably allow learner control, when the learner is actually involved in the consumption of predefined content through a structure that is no more dynamic or interactive than turning pages in a book? Hypertext is by its nature passive: the learner may fail to engage with the materials in ways which result in effective learning (McKnight et al. 1993).

Hypertext/Hypermedia only allows the user to follow predefined paths. Laurillard (1993) states: "Hypertext, accessing a text database, is not interactive, because there is no change as a consequence of the user's actions: the information in the system does not change as a consequence of the user's actions on it: it only changes if they change the system itself, by changing the information of the links directly. So it (hypertext/hypermedia) is no more interactive than writing in the margins of a book, or editing the book yourself, or annotating it with your own references to another point in the book... as an educational medium, enabling students to develop their academic understanding, it has little to offer".

In Hypertext/Hypermedia, navigation as an explicit action of the interface, is the primacy of locus of control. Pressing the forward button delivers another page of information thus leaving the student to do what ever a person does with the information. The content primacy learning experience and locus of control are of the content supplier. This approach disallows the learner to construct their own schema but to subsume the content supplier's. Therefore Hypertext/Hypermedia, as the primacy of the learning experience shows that no thought has been given to the cognitive aspects of interactivity (Laurillard 1993) leaving the student to become a passive agent to a narrative (Alessi and Trollip 1991; Laurel 1991).

Learning is not something that is external to the learner it is not a practice of grafting knowledge and understanding onto a learner but a function of understanding, thinking actively about materials, their structure and relationships. Thus allowing the learner develop, their own interpretations of information through interactivity and hence construct their own meaning.

In Hypermedia, the learner perspective is an observer of a narrative, not an active participant in the first person, an equal in the learning process, a partner in cognition. The outcome of an observer perspective is the memorisation and the rote learning of information for the purpose of reproduction.

It is also not enough to think that "navigation" itself will give learner control and that this will automatically translate into intrinsic motivation and empowerment. Learners need to be encouraged to engage in learning activities with the intention of understanding or seeking meaning, and not memorisation as the focus or objective of a learning activity.

Research has shown (Entwistle and Ramsden 1983; Watkins 1983) that the learning approach reflects learning outcomes. Memorisation, learning information that can be reproduced, is associated with poor learning outcomes whereas students that are engaged with the intention of understanding or seeking meaning are associated with higher quality learning outcomes.

So by simply transferring a book or Learning material in it's current form into Hypertext/Hypermedia has no use as the primacy of the learning experiance, as it only allows the user to follow predefined pathways and does not take full advantage of the technological platform; it merely is repackaging, (Diller, 1995). Borsook & Higginbotham-Wheat (1991) say "Software that permits only simple forward and backward movement resides at the at the definitional-physical interdependence level", it talks or communicates at, not with the learner in a co-responsive manner.

Students need to do more than access or look for information as the primacy of their learning experience, but to be enabled to examine, perceive, interpret and experience information. Interactive media only provides opportunities when users can learn to visualise and understand complex relationships in ways that are not possible in other media.

Another aspect of the content driven Hypertext/Hypermedia idiom, is the vast amounts of text, which is contrary to the point that computer screens are notoriously difficult from which to read large amounts of text; a book is far more effective medium for this form of presentation.

Monolithic CBL

The development of CBL has historically been the development of monolithic learning applications. These applications are designed to be self-contained and self-standing.

Classically, many CBL applications have been based on a tutorial methodology of content delivery. These CBL applications also tend to include features such as notepads, calculators and reference material to support the reference material and perhaps some activities. In addition many of the issues noted above about hypermedia also apply to monolithic CBL applications.

The notion of learner control via the navigational interface is an explicit action of the interface. Thus the primacy of locus of control, is that of the interface. The student has to learn the interface before starting to learn the information held within the learning application. Learning and understanding the interface should be a process of interacting directly with the information in a first-person heuristic so as to have an experience with the information.

Other limitations to the development of monolithic CBL are: the costs associated with the development; time constraints of academics to contribute to the project; change after its been completed; and issues of interdisciplinary replication within disparate developments.

Can I Change the Content after the Application has been Compiled?

Content as information will always need to be changed, appended, edited, culled etc. Also the value of content is arguably different in the view of other subject or content matter experts. Information, it would seem is evolutional and sometimes capricious, so in thinking about CBL as content delivery places the CBL in a domain that it perhaps doesn't belong.

Perhaps it would help if we could change the primacy of the learning experience to heuristic activities (Koppi & Chaloupka 1997) that trigger and encourage the student to seek meaning by accessing various disparate media and informational resources. The outcome of this could be for the student to have an experience with information (Laurel, 1991) juxtaposed the student being presented with information and then doing what ever they do with that information.

Heuristic activities don't need to be changed because of their content transparency but should be contextually truthful to a first principle concept or process. In this scenario, content, information and the dynamics of information can be thought of in term of libraries i.e., a collection of catalogued reference and resource materials.

Approaching content as reference material, which can be accessed physically or electronically, from centralised locations can enable the information to be changed and contributed to by academics and students as well as for ongoing professional development.

We Don't Teach it That Way

So in what way is it taught? It is unlikely that the content within a CBL is not appropriate for the course, as one would expect that the content is an abstraction of the content/subject matter expert. Perhaps it is that the content is not accessible in a way in which the subject is taught? Let's explore this issue.

Academics and course facilitators on a macro-level construct courses by what can be seen as disparate or discrete informational sources and activities for example, reading lists, photocopies of articles and chapters from books, dry labs, fieldwork, assignments, discussions, tutorials etc. A course is constructed from parts of many sources and experiences.

Academics choose resources because, in their opinion and experience, they will deliver the range of treatments and experiences deemed as being appropriate, so as to be empowered. An academic's range of experiences and resources will inherently be different from another but there will also be core similarities.

On a micro-level each of these resources and experiences could be heuristic and learner centric in nature. So the primacy of the learning experience is not the presenting or the giving of access to resources but an authentic activity as the primacy of the learning experience which drives the need to seek understanding.

It would seem that CBL tends to offer a prescriptive approach to the teaching processes and does not offer a range of teaching heuristics that is usable from an individual academic's teaching needs or perspectives. Developers of CBL concentrate on the notion of learner-centric CBL but at the same time tend to be didactic towards teaching; it's a kind of all or nothing approach. I would seem as if the two notions of student and teacher centric approaches are incompatible.


A solution to the "we don't teach it that way" issue, could be to use a vignette approach to CBL development. Vignette CBL is essentially changing the perspective of the learning experience from content delivery to a first person heuristic, where the learner is engaged in hypothesis testing to trigger the learner to seek the meaning of the activity by accessing resource materials.

Vignettes are small first-principle, first person, heuristic activities that courses can be constructed from. Vignettes are transparent to content but are supported by reference materials that are accessed electronically form a centralised location. The supportive resource material can be added to, edited and contributed to on an on going basis.

Vignettes can also be shared across disciplines because they are single-issue activities. For instance pH is taught in many disciplines medicine, biology, agriculture and chemistry to name a few. A pH vignette could be developed that could be used across the above disciplines by adopting an object-orientated approach to the programming of the application. In doing so, the vignette object would contain all the contextual information that is appropriate to the allied disciplines. The pH object would be externally manipulated through its associated properties sheet. This would enable the course facilitator to manipulate the object's behavior to that of the discipline's perspective. Disparate objects can be associated to form larger activities or learning activities of greater complexity.

Monolithic CBL applications don't reflect the teaching and management needs of academics. They are sealed macrocosms which are inflexible in their teaching and facilitation style. To access pieces of content within a monolithic application the students or teachers need to wade through the application to the desired location before being able to engage in a piece of relevant material.

A vignette approach to CBL development might allow greater penetration and uptake of CBL by being inclusive to the machinations of academics, where the CBT allows the academic to access and use the courseware content in a way that reflects the needs of the academic to facilitate and manage their course.

For the vignette object to engage the student in a first person activity it is important to consider what is meant by a heuristic activity.


Volk (1996) says, "games themselves, are stills based on one or more interactive experiences of exploration, resource allocation, action and strategy. Creative authors take advantage of increased technological power primarily to heighten the emotional impact of their creations. In nearly 20 years, most of the evolution has been in interface design. Which brings us to the central point: technology is the palette that interactive designers use to create experiences for other people. Technology is not a goal. The goal is to create a title that delivers the interactive experience the designer wants".

Presenting information in dramatic from, as an active first person encounter, provides a means for comprehending and therefor is a learning activity to encounter information itself (Laurel, 1991). So it would seem that activities are important for engaging the student in a learning activity where the action and activity evoke thought. This contrasts with following a Hypertext/Hypermedia format where little consideration has been given to what it means to be interactive and the notion of locus of control.

Mimetic worlds provide a realistic context for exploration and heuristic activities, which enable the learner to interact and model an environment in the first person. The interactivity provided in these environments can enable learners to construct schemas and test hypotheses against the environment and see the results of their actions, thus gaining experience, in relatively short time periods. Such environments or work areas reflect the processes or schema where the behavior of the objects or environment behaves as expected. As well as giving learner-centric locus of control, a key factor in the sustained stimulation and motivation of the learner (Alessi and Trollip, 1991). They must be credible to allow a catharsis to occur whilst permitting a sustained engagement of the imagination (Laurel, 1991) and decision making process. The challenge in developing this type of learning environment is to facilitate imaginative immersion that enables experiences, learner control and reflective reasoning (Leyland, 1996).


Learning materials can not be functionally isolated from an over all teaching and learning strategy. Learning materials themselves cannot be the sole teaching and learning strategy. Each is a small piece in the overall strategy of deliverable learning activities, reference, support, and assessment in an enterprisewide solution. It is also important to acknowledge that teacher's teaching locus of control is as important as learner heuristics in the design, development and deployment of CBL.

It is also important to see the learning activities as vignettes where the interaction is not cognitively separate to the learning activity. The main reason for this is so that the learning approach of discovery and self-motivation enables the learner to seek understanding and to be able to construct new knowledge based on prior knowledge.

To enable curiosity, motivation and self-empowerment, a shift in paradigm is required. The qualities of a heuristic learning environment are: the capacity of the program to be used as a reflective thinking tool; frequency of interaction; range of choices; and significance, i.e., how much the choices really affect the outcomes (Laurel 1986a and b).

The purpose is to making learning activities an experience with information where content delivery is not the primacy of the learning experience but the manipulation of an environment so as to have an experience with the information or concepts. Curiosity, empowerment and self-direction are interdependent and should not be seen as extraneous to the learning environment as a laminate or facade bonded onto content.


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(c) Marcel Chaloupka & Tony Koppi


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