Spanner Back Home

Full Paper

Back to List of papers

Heuristic Contextual Action Works Best

Tony Koppi and Marcel Chaloupka

NeTTL, Centre for Teaching and Learning

University of Sydney



Learning in real life (a non-academic context) essentially involves a process of experimental trial, consequent error and learning from that error. Evidence of learning by this process may be that the number of errors decline in new related situations. In this sense, the learning of a child and research worker is essentially the same and involves the cycle of observation, reflection, experimental action and observation, as indicated by Kolb's (1984) model of experiential learning. Experimental action is the basis of discovery, ie, learning for oneself as opposed to prescriptive learning which typifies many academic environments.

Allowing students to learn for themselves by trial and error (the heuristic process) is often impossible in a conventional academic environment because of a combination of one or more constraints of time, space, location, finance and safety. Instead, students learn descriptions of the real world from their teachers without necessarily having any experience of it (Laurillard, 1997). Furthermore, the teachers' experience may also be vicarious. It is therefore not surprising that graduate "knowledge" may appear to be inert until some experience has been acquired.

The advent of computer simulations of real life situations has given teachers the means of providing students with learning environments that require thought and action as in the real world. In these situations the heuristic exploration provides the learning experience rather than the learning of descriptions which the student may or may not relate to the real world in due course. As an example of a heuristic learning environment, the Soil Investigation Kit (SIK) will be demonstrated.

The SIK provides an immersive environment where the soil behaves like soil (using real data) and the apparatus used in the field and laboratory functions as in these situations. In this immersive environment, the student has a problem to solve or task to perform (set by the teacher) that requires the activities of soil sampling and the manipulative determination of soil properties. We have also provided a means of the student being given experience of what hand manipulation of the soil feels like. The student may consult reference materials which might otherwise be the subject of lectures. The reference material in the SIK serves as information and support to the higher learning carried out by the activities. With the reference materials as a guide, students engage in heuristic activities which allow learning by the observations of the consequences of experimental actions. As in real life learning, inappropriate actions do not produce the right outcome.


Over the last few years there has been a change in the development of IT-based teaching and learning materials from the production of so-called interactive CDs to web-based materials. (Here, a CD refers to a mechanism for delivery.) We suspect that there are two motives behind the use of IT in teaching and learning: a fascination with the technology and the desire to make the whole business more personally interesting. Pedagogical justification seems to follow. If pedagogy was the driving principle, the use of IT in teaching and learning would not follow the technological fashions so closely, rather there should be a more apparent strategy. These comments are in no way intended to suggest that technology does not improve the learning experience, for there are plenty of evaluations that show it does.

Figure 1 indicates that different types of technological implementation in teaching and learning can each draw upon some pedagogical principles to justify their development., eg, T1 (Technology 1) might arbitrarily represent the use of TV and video to replace lectures and might be justified on the pedagogical grounds of providing equal access and quality of instructional material and T2 might represent a CD-type programme that is justified by the incorporation of multimedia, self-pacing and interactivity (the meaning of which is important in this paper). The technologies are not necessarily separate as indicated, for example, video might be part of several different waves of development. Figure I does imply that a comprehensive and integrated way of incorporating technology into all facets of teaching and learning practices (including course design, management and assessment) does not yet exist. That issue is discussed in another paper (Chaloupka & Koppi, ASCILITE 97).

Figure 1. The large circle represents the field of pedagogy and the smaller circles (T) each represent a technological implementation that has been justified by some pedagogical principles.

The success of some technological implementations may have nothing to do with pedagogical quality, rather that the technology provides something the learner desires. An example is the web publication of word-for-word lectures - students love it because they know that the printed down-load contains all they need and they didn't have to go through the agony of attending the lecture and writing it all down. Pedagogically it is hard to justify a didactic lecture and equally hard to justify the web posting of a transcript of it, yet under the paradigm (incidentally, all credible papers these days must contain this word at least once) accepted by both teachers and learners, web posting of lecture notes is a successful use of technology.

The shift from developing interactive CD learning programmes to content delivery on the web is a change that has been so readily embraced, partly because it's the current wave but also, we suspect, because the web affords an extension of conventional practices. Material intended for study and learning can be posted on the web and claimed to benefit the learner because the learner can access it anytime, any place at their convenience. This convenience can even be claimed to be learner-centred. But essentially this approach is pedagogically little different to giving out lecture notes and reading lists. Using the technology can be fun for the teacher (and I'm sure a happy teacher is a better teacher) who can claim to be engaged in developing resource-based teaching. Utilisation of the web for information-posting purposes does not embrace the elements of an academic learning environment, ie., an environment that is discursive, adaptive, interactive and reflective (Laurillard, 1993).

What Happened to Interactivity?

The shift in attention from interactive CD-type programmes to web delivery has included a change in the justification, for example the word "interactive", so important in justifying CD-type developments, is now not used to justify web delivery. The web obviously provides the means of tele-collaboration and that is now used as a strong justification. eg Repman et al (1995) point out the possibilities of increased communication between teachers and students and between students at one or more sites. It is possible to justify the use of the web in constructivist terms, eg Agostinho et al., (1997) note that the web can be used to allow learners in different geographical locations to interact with each other in synchronous or asynchronous mode to aid in the construction of knowledge as learners build on their own ideas through the response from others. All this knowledge construction is now focused on collaboration with others rather than on interacting with a learning programme. Making the computer behave in an interactive manner has never been easy, yet programmed interactivity offers the possibilities of providing simulations of real-world experiences that no amount of talking (on or off-line) can replace.

Because academics have moved with the technological fashion, it may be concluded that academics are amazingly adaptive and versatile and can change from one type of technology to another and maintain a consistent pedagogical stand or adopt a new one more relevant to the current technology.

Interactivity has always been a contentious issue and is not a common term applied to the use of the web for educational purposes, yet interactivity is still an important consideration in learning environments that include learning materials in electronic format. Interactivity consists of a number of attributes (but not necessarily all) including immediacy of response, non-sequential access of information, adaptability, feedback, options, two-way communication and the ability for the user to interrupt a process (Borsook & Higginbotham-Wheat, 1991). These attributes cannot readily be applied to a traditional lecture situation or to a series of static web pages which also deliver information as a one-way process. Apart from the increase in collaboration and easier communication, it is possible to conclude from the evidence of typical web delivery strategies that web adoption generally includes a different set of educational aims, at least as far as interactivity is concerned.

Experiential Learning and Active Knowledge

Experiential learning involves the cycle of observation, reflection, experimental action and observation, as indicated by Kolb's (1984) model. Experimental action is the basis of discovery, ie, learning for oneself as opposed to prescriptive learning which typifies many academic environments. Learning by trial and error (a heuristic process) is the natural (ie., by experience) way of getting to know something, and is quite distinct from learning information. The learning of information may be acceptable when a memory test is judged to be appropriate and of value but when understanding is sought in the test, normal examinations are a poor assessment tool. For example, Boud (1990) and Ehrmann (1995) note that it is possible for students to perform well in examinations without understanding the concepts that are being examined. Thus learned information and knowledge (which has understanding as a key component) can be quite distinct from each other.

In deference to the academic examination assessment process, it might be best to make a distinction between active and inert knowledge (Koppi et al, 1997). The term "active knowledge" is concerned with the integration of information, knowledge, skills and values leading to understanding and the ability to take appropriate action on the basis of integration. Evidence of active knowledge is that the learner can act appropriately and independently in the application of that knowledge . A requirement of the appropriate independent application of knowledge is that the learner has constructed schema that are sufficiently detailed and robust to cope with various situations. Knowledge may be considered as such yet be "inert" when there is evidence of learning (eg high examination score) and an inability to act appropriately in a real-life situation. To convert inert knowledge into active knowledge appears to require some process whereby the knowledge is realised.

A powerful way of developing active knowledge acquisition is by the learner's cycle of experience, conceptualisation and experimentation (Kolb, 1984). In the conventional classroom, this way of learning may not be possible because it requires too many resources and is too time-consuming. In the conventional classroom, experience may often be vicarious. Students learn descriptions of the real world from their teachers without necessarily having any experience of it (Laurillard, 1997). Furthermore, the teachers' experience may also be vicarious. It is therefore not surprising that graduate "knowledge" may appear to be inert until some experience has been acquired. Thus the acquisition of active knowledge which requires hands-on experience may be beyond the scope of some conventional classrooms. Curricula that provide real-life experiences should be valued more than curricula that merely provide descriptions of the experiences. The real-life experiences may in fact be just that, such as placements in industry or non-recipe laboratory experiments, and do not necessarily involve computers. However when those experiences cannot be provided, a well-crafted interactive computer simulation may be the next best option. Grabinger et al. (1997) note that: "By engaging in authentic activities that reflect the work environment for which they are being prepared, students have an opportunity to practise applying knowledge and skills to new problems, improving their ability to transfer their knowledge and skills to future challenges."

Heuristic Activities and the Soil Investigation Kit

In response to a problem, activities that permit the learner to formulate a hypothesis, test it, observe the result, formulate a refined hypothesis and test it again, are considered to be heuristic activities. A computer programme that permits such activities is interactive because it must of necessity contain some or all of the attributes that characterise interactivity noted by Borsook & Higginbotham-Wheat (1991) and Laurel (1991). Student activities that are motivated by the student's desire to solve problems is a learner-centred approach to teaching (Koschmann et al, 1994; Grabinger et al. 1997) and when combined with the freedom to experiment (albeit within the contextual confines of the programme), an environment exists for aiding with the development of active knowledge.

As an illustration of heuristic activities, the Soil Investigation Kit (SIK) will be considered. The SIK provides a number of tools and an environment in which the student can engage in activities and hypothesis testing to try and solve problems posed by the teacher or by the student. There are four sites each of which has a soil type that has numerous properties which are derived from real data; the soil behaves like soil and the investigation tools behave like they would in the field or laboratory. The investigation of the soil (in response to the problem) begins in the field (as in real life) with a pit dug to reveal the soil layers (horizons). After the routine recognition of horizons the student may start sampling the soil and performing the assessment of its properties. The student can proceed by heuristic actions and discover how to perform the determinations. Information is provided on how to do something if the student requests it. Results obtained are entered into a notebook which provides feedback on the entries in either accepting the values or indicating that they are incorrect. Because the quantitative values derived are based on real soil, they are either right or wrong. Feedback on a quantitative value is absolute but learning how to obtain the result is not prescribed and each student can choose their own learning path ranging from complete trial and error (without the manual) to reading about it first.

It is problematic how long to permit a student to make errors which can accumulate and compound before giving remedial feedback. Learning by mistakes (which is part of the heuristic process) is positive but it is also negative in that misconceptions may accumulate and be reinforced by the lack of remediation. Those misconceptions may then prove difficult to change. In SIK, we opted for immediate feedback of two kinds: one that indicates the action is impossible and implies that something else should be attempted, and the other kind that points out immediately that the data acquired is erroneous but that in itself does not impede progress if the user so chooses. This approach allows the user to accumulate as many mistakes as they wish and to be aware of it.

The SIK is interactive in that it exemplifies many of the attributes of interactivity, such as non-sequential access of information, adaptability, feedback and bi-directional communication. The SIK also works over the Internet and therefore has all the relevant pedagogical qualities associated with that form of access.


The desire to deliver courses on the web has shifted the pedagogical justification away from programmes with in-built interactivity to a more person-to-person collaboration. This has merit in that it is more in keeping with traditional academic practices where students and teacher engage in discussions about descriptions of the real world. Programmes that are interactive and permit experiences of real-world simulations have a different value. These alternatives should not be seen as historically exclusive but complementary in that the web can be the medium for communication, delivery, collaboration and experiential learning.


Agostinho, S., Lefoe G. & Hedberg, J. (1997) Online Collaboration for Learning: A Case Study of a Post Graduate University Course .AusWeb 97

Borsook, T.K. & Higginbotham-Wheat, N. (1991) Interactivity: what is it and what can it do for computer-based instruction? Educational Technology, October 1991, 11-17.

Boud, D. (1990) Assessment and the promotion of academic values. Studies in Higher Education, 15 (11), 101-111.

Chaloupka & Koppi, (1997) Getting it to really work. ASCILITE 97

Ehrmann, S.C. (1995) Asking the right question: what does research tell us about technology and higher learning?

Grabinger, S., Dunlap, J.C. and Duffield, J.A. (1997) Rich environments for active learning in action: problem-based learning. Association for Learning Technology Journal, 5(2), 5-17.

Koschmann, T.D., Myers, A.C., Feltovich, P.J. & Barrows, H.S. (1994) Using technology to assist in realising effective learning and instruction: a principled approach to the use of computers in collaborative learning. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3(3), 227-264.

Kolb, D.A. (1984) Experiential learning. Experience as the source of learning and development. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.

Koppi, A.J., Lublin, J.R. & Chaloupka, M.J. (1997) Effective teaching and learning in a high-tech. environment. Innovations in Education and Training International, 34 (4) (in press).

Laurel, B. (1991) Computers as theatre. Addison Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts.

Laurillard, D. (1993) Rethinking university teaching: a framework for the effective use of educational technology. Routledge, London

Laurillard, D. (1997) Learning formal representations through multimedia. In: Marton, F., Hounsell, D., Entwistle, N. (eds) The experience of learning: implications for teaching and studying in higher education. 2nd edition, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh.

Repman, J., Price, R. V. & Logan, S. (1995) From Sage on the Stage to Guide on Side: Strategies for Promoting Active Learning in the Distance Education Classroom. ED-MEDIA95, pp. 556-561.



(c) Tony Koppi and Marcel Chaloupka


The author(s) assign to ASCILITE and educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author(s) also grant a non-exclusive licence to ASCILITE to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the ASCILITE 97 conference papers, and for the documents to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.


Back to List of papers

This page maintained by Rod Kevill. (Last updated: Friday, 21 November 1997)
NOTE: The page was created by an automated process from the emailed paper and may vary slightly in formatting and layout from the author's original.