The Psychology Electronic Warehouse: Introducing a More Integrated Learning Tool
John Hinchy and Glenn McNolty
Deakin Centre for Academic Development
Psychology units at Deakin University, as at many Australian universities, have large student numbers and a diversity in students' prior experiences, skills, and aims. At Deakin these characteristics combine with geographical dispersion and multicampus offerings, to present administrative difficulties. At the same time, the educational challenge is to introduce students to the discipline's knowledge base while also inducting them into the scientific research methodology that underpins the knowledge base. All of this is faced at a time of contracting budgets.
The Electronic Warehouse (EW) project was conceived to address both the administrative difficulties and the educational challenge. The project resisted simply 'adding on' technology to an existing activity. Instead, it began by questioning what students can and do learn in introductory psychology. Then a set of integrated technologies (Computer Assisted Learning (CAL), Computer Mediated Learning (CML), and Computer Mediated Communication (CMC)) were deployed using their strengths to match what was understood about studentsí learning. The size and complexity of the EW project is reflected in the range of those involved (School of Psychology, I.T. service department, instructional design area, all coordinated by Deakin's Centre for Academic Development).
The paper examines the experiences of students and staff over the first implementation year. Strengths and weaknesses of this integrated approach are explored and the lessons learnt from the project to date are discussed.
The Psychology Electronic Warehouse (EW) project was conceived to address two problems that confronted the teaching of first year psychology at Deakin University. Size and other features of the course presented significant administrative difficulties. At the same time, teaching of the unit had furcated into theory and practice components, with evidence that most students failed to appreciate their interdependencies. Neither of these problems is unique to Deakin University. Instead, many Australian universities experience these kinds of problems with similar courses.
An effect of increased budgetary pressures on undergraduate offerings has been a broadly based move to mass education. This is particularly obvious for first year offerings for which large student numbers have become common. Rationalisation of offerings, often across amalgamated, multicampus institutions, have accompanied and partly underpinned the shift to large numbers. These changes severely challenge traditional modes of delivery. Large student numbers entail a scaling up of course administrative. That scaling up is oftentimes geometric; doubling of student numbers can mean more than a two-fold increase in demand for resources.
Added to these changes, there are more subtle impacts of administrative difficulties. Lectures and tutorials repeats combined with a need to ensure comparability of learning experience can lead to a ëcommon denominatorí approach that, in the absence of sufficient resources, becomes a lowest common denominator approach. The approach also limits flexibility when responding to studentsí varying needs when, due to rationalisation of offerings, there is more need. Standardisation can also vitiate the teaching experience; opportunities to explore ideas in response to studentsí interests or staffís perceptions are curtailed. Thus, the pragmatic needs of running a large course can negatively affect the experiences of teaching and learning.
First year psychology attempts to both introduce students to the disciplineís fundamental knowledge base, and induct them into the scientific research methodology (RM) that warrants and structures that knowledge base. Ideally, students should come to appreciate the linkages between theory and RM. The ideal often fails to be matched by reality. Traditionally, lectures tend to focus on theoretical content, while laboratory classes involve students in research practice. However, students generally fail to appreciate the relationships between these two sets of material; it seems that students believe the laboratory class is an adjunct to the theory material presented in lectures with RM as a secondary addition.
The resourcing issues discussed above make more difficult the pedagogical challenge of developing a broad appreciation of psychology as a discipline ñ both its knowledge base and its methodologies. A first target for cuts is the laboratory class. Simultaneously, discussion of RM often reduces to a few concrete elements, typically statistics, and report writing. Presented thus, out of context, understanding of RM is limited and the possibility of understanding the links between the knowledge base and RM is all but lost.
These problems would be less serious if first year, psychology students proceeded on into later years. However, this is not usually the case. Students decide that psychology is not for them, or the home course of study requires only an introduction to psychology. Consequently, students often leave psychology with a bowdlerised impression in which theory and fact are not distinguished, and in which the critical thinking skills that underlie the discipline have not been learnt. Given the important role that psychologising - good and bad - plays in the workplace and broader community, relying upon further study to complete an understanding of the discipline entails a serious failure.
Description of the Electronic Warehouse project
Development of the EW concept
These administrative difficulties and pedagogical challenges motivated the seeking of a solution. The first attempt involved presenting a lecture series on scientific RM. Overall, studentsí assessed performance indicated that the lectures had failed to convey the principles of RM. One reason for the failure, ascertained at the time was the abstractness of the material. Reflection suggested that RM is better learnt in the context of doing - akin to learning to ride a bicycle by lecture. On the other hand, experience with laboratory classes suggested that there was insufficient (opportunity for) reflection on the principles of RM or their implications for an understanding of Psychologyís knowledge base.
Out of this first experience, a model of RM was retained. The model, first proposed by Hyman (1964) and subsequently used by Graziano and Raulins (1993), presents a seven-stage description of scientific RM. The description begins with curiosity about a phenomenon, moves through the development of an appropriate research question and design, its implementation, the analysis and interpretation of the results, and finishes with communication of findings. The model was retained because it was one part of the lecture series that was well learned. Apparently it offered students a way of organising basic facts of RM.
Responding to the difficulties of learning about RM, the material was re-framed as activities that focused on ëhowí. Those activities engaged students in using scientific RM as a means of investigating seminal theoretical problems. Thus, students would use RM as a means exploring the theoretical issues, and thereby become familiar with the methodology, both in itself, and in its relationships with theory. Shifting from an abstracted discussion about a topic area to a personal engagement with the topic area in which the learner constructs knowledge has been previously discussed (eg. Watson, 1993). However, the EW explicitly focuses upon both the topic area in which the methodology is deployed, and the methodology itself.
A computer-based approach was used to implement this strategy. Although in principle a traditional lab-based curriculum might have been developed, experience suggested little reason for faith that this approach could be maintained. Even if this were possible, such an approach would not have been practicable given limited teaching resources. The computer-based approach also offered the possibility of addressing some of the administrative difficulties described above. The computer made practicable tailoring presentations of the same point to different students. Students could choose from among parallel streams of material, each making the same point. The flexibility afforded would not be gained at the expense of comparability; the opportunity to prepare once and present many times meant that staff could spend more time in preparation, ensuring equivalence of each streamís quality. Finally, it was early decided that the project would involve a networking component. The main purpose of the network component would be to allow for the asynchronous collection and collation of activity results. However, networking could also be used to track the performance both of students and of the activities themselves, thereby automating some administrative tasks.
The current model
The current model of the Electronic Warehouse (EW) was largely developed by the beginning of 1997. It consists of a student client application, staff client application, and a central, database server application.
The student client application is composed of a number of independent modules, known as workshops. Each workshop addresses one theoretical issue. That issue is posed as a problem to be solved. Students go about the solving of the problem guided by the software in the use of scientific RM.
For example, one workshop poses the problem of investigating for the existence of a very transient (less than 0.5 seconds) kind of human memory store. A student undertaking the workshop begins by placing the question of this kind of memory into a broader context of research into human memory, or its practical implications, or a historical context. Thus, the broader significance of the issue is set initially. Students then refine the question, referring to the literature and to their own experience, resulting in a restatement of the question that is empirically investigable. Design of the details of the investigation then ensues, with that process culminating in the student actually observing their own behaviour as a subject of the research. Results of the study are transmitted to the central database, which collates the results with those of all other students in the course and immediately communicates back summary statistics. The analysis of the results is then explored with the software taking the student through the process. Following analysis, the results are interpreted in relation first to the restated question arrived at earlier, and then in the broader contexts set at the beginning of the workshop. Finally, communication of the findings as a laboratory report is described. Students prepare an actual laboratory report, which contributes to their assessment.
An essential feature of the EW student software is that the 7-stage model of RM serves as an organising principle. The material through which students work, is developed around the model. The software interface also incorporates as a fundamental feature, functional components such as navigation tools and visual analogues of each of the stages. Thus, the 7-stage model acts as a learning context for all of the material with which students engage.
Communication with the central database is characterised by extreme economy. From the inception of the software, a basic specification was that students should be able to use it from any site, whether as part of the Universityís intranet, or through remote access. Each workshop requires only two to three discrete data transmissions, each of which involves, at most, several kilobytes of information. Thus, the student software combines elements of Holzl and McCarthyís (1993) offline and online models, with the freedom of working offline and the dynamism of an online application. The transport mechanism for communication is the Internet. The Internet provides a robust communication mechanism that also makes transparent differences between intranet and remote access communication.
The suite of workshops addressing specific topics is supported by a central RM workshop. The workshop presents students with an on-line reference, in which specific RM issues are explored further using a more didactic presentation. The RM workshop shares the same 7-stage structure in its presentation and organisation as used with the topic specific workshops. A substantial, interactive glossary is also available as part of the software. Completing the student suite is a ëfront entranceí to the EW, which limits access to registered users, and provides an e-mail-like facility combining broadcast and pointcast (messages directed to individual students) functionality.
The student software works with the central database server. The server records experimental results of each study, as well as maintaining the student record list, the message list, and a number of other kinds of course administrative information. The database was constructed using active server page technology.
The staff application provides access to the central database. This software also uses the Internet for its transport mechanism. Unlike the student software that was built with an authoring program (Authorware 4.0), the staff application works in a browser window. Staff can interrogate the database to gain information about the performance of individual students, such as identifying students who have missed deadlines, or summary, diagnostic information about the performance of either the student body or of workshops. The same application also provides staff the means to post messages for distribution using the broadcast and pointcast mechanisms.
Results so far
The current year has been a year of large-scale piloting. The EW has been distributed and used by every on-campus, first year Psychology student (about 1,500 people) at Deakin University. As part of that development, there has been an intensive effort at evaluation. The results of that evaluation have offered significant encouragement. Staff and student feedback has also led to some significant improvements.
Six separate workshops were piloted during 1997. Each workshop was trialed with a panel of non-psychology, first year students. The results of that panel trialing together with staff feedback was then used to revise the workshop before its release to students. The experience of students was evaluated through traditional and on-line questionnaires, telephone interviews, and focus group discussions. The experiences of psychology staff and computer centre staff were also sought during the year. Altogether, the evaluation process has produced a very large body of data.
Simply summarising and integrating all the results has been more than a full time job; digesting the full meaning will take much longer. However, a number of clear messages have been identified. First, despite some of the inevitable teething problems of introducing a new technology on a large scale, there has been general acceptance by students. That acceptance has been evident in evaluation results and in the performance of students on formal assessment tasks (studentsí assessed laboratory reports were based upon EW workshops). Evaluation results show that students appreciate the medium as a means of presenting this material, being particularly enthusiastic about the use of interactive multimedia as a way of demonstrating some concepts not so easily conveyed by traditional delivery modes.
One of the chief problems encountered, according to both student evaluations and the experience of those implementing the project, has been in providing an appropriate support infrastructure for the project. Although every attempt was made from early on to involve all players in planning and management, technical difficulties in rolling out some of the workshops were still encountered. Students found this frustrating. Some students have also expressed concern about the Universityís computer laboratories as a study environment for sometimes quite abstract material. Although the EW was integrated explicitly into the first year Psychology curriculum (mandatory assessed laboratory reports based upon the EW, reference to the EW in unit manuals), students often reported frustration when tutors could not provide sufficient support. At the same time, tutors experienced similar feelings when they could not adequately respond to studentsí inquiries concerning the EW.
Early workshops concentrated on the micro level of the content (details of interactions, text styles, and so on), leaving much of the work of the contentís overall organisation to the interfaceís visual construction. This only worked in part. There was evidence that students did not fully grasp the point of each element in terms of the 7-stage model. Later workshops built in an explicit set of objective and objective-testing tools that prompted students to reflect upon the point of each element of a workshop. These tools were designed to link the micro level of text and interactions with the macro level of the 7-stage model of RM.
Staff responses to the administrative tools have been very positive. Starting with only a small number of facilities, the possibilities inherent in the networked database have led to suggestions from staff. It has been possible to respond to those requests because of the technology (Active server page) in which the facilities have been built. In several cases, those responses have led to the development of applications that have taken on a life of their own outside of the EW project.
The EW is a large-scale project that brings together aspects of CAL, CML, and CMC. The use of interactive multimedia with web-based communication and databases offers not only the strengths of each of those technologies, but also synchronicities that extend beyond any one of them. The project has proved itself sufficiently for its continued implementation in the first year, psychology course. Over the next couple of years, the EW will be introduced into all topic areas covered by the first year course, resulting in the development of a planned 24 workshops.
There have also been a number of spin offs from the project, of use to other areas in the University. There is also the promise of opportunities for the extension of the project. At the level of the EW concept, its success means that it could be adopted in other large scale, introductory courses. The lessons learnt in the EW's development and implementation could be applied to other large-scale technology projects in similar settings.
Graziano, A. M. and M. Raulin, L. (1993). Research methods: a process of inquiry. New York, HarperCollins College Publishers.
Holzl, A. and M. McCarthy (1993). CBT and the electronic university. ASCILITE 93: Conference proceedings: Reaching out with I.T., Lismore, NSW, Australia, The Centre for computing and mathematics, The University of New England - Northern Rivers.
Hyman, R. (1964). The nature of psychological enquiry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall
Watson, K. K. (1993). Ways of knowing. ASCILITE 93: Conference proceedings: Reaching out with I.T., Lismore, NSW, Australia, The Centre for computing and mathematics, The University of New England - Northern Rivers.
(c) John Hinchy and Glenn McNolty
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