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Writing in Context: Situated Learning on the Web

Russ Pennell, Marsha Durham, Conrad Ozog, Alison Spark

University of Western Sydney Nepean



The Virtual Records simulation built as part of a CAUT project at UWS Nepean in 1996-7 is intended to provide a context for learning about writing in organisations. The Web-based project conforms to earlier descriptions of situated learning environments. Students serve as interns in a computer-based organisation and are exposed to situational elements as they create written documents appropriate to the organisation and evaluate the organisational culture that influences communication choices. Attention to technical detail in the design and rich characterisation create relevant authenticity to maintain student engagement. Student evaluations confirm the success of the environment.

The Professional Writing Problem

The desirability of industrial experience for Professional Writing students in part arises from the need to sensitise students regarding the contextual nature of professional communication, assisting them to become aware of the nuances involved in making appropriate writing choices in a professional context. It is difficult to include "real life" experiences about writing choices as part of the academic curriculum and to develop productive ways of exploring the less overt issues surrounding workplace practices and standards. The three common methods - case studies, industry experience, and related experiences - have drawbacks.

Case studies, because they are necessarily simplistic, can give students the impression that there are easy-to-find and universally correct responses.

Industry experience offers authentic engagement in the workplace but it is difficult to monitor and may be feasible for only a minority of students. Students find it hard to apply writing theories as they struggle with a new environment with which they will have only brief contact. They need to become attuned to the situational elements within an organisational culture, as evidenced by semantics, style and structure, and are often unaware of the depths of these until gaining experience of several different organisations. Nepean students, 70 km west of the Sydney CBD, are particularly isolated from such experience.

Academics' stories of their own experiences as professional communicators can serve as a valuable starting point for learning but relegate students to a passive role, rather than being 'experiencers' in their own right. Guest lecturers can be used, but integration with the normal course is difficult and their contact with students is short due to the need for the guest to be absent from their normal worksite

This project (supported by an Australian Government National Teaching Development Grant) aimed to solve these problems by combining resource-based learning in a simulated industry context with support for students from both tutors and industry mentors throughout the process. The project consists of three modules, to be used in sequence.

The Virtual Organisation

Students serve as interns in a Web-based organisation and experience the complexity of a realistic professional placement while being exposed to specific writing issues through scripted interviews. Industry mentors reinforce the situated nature of the learning experience.

A Research Paper

Using a bibliographic database prepared to clarify specific issues, students incorporate relevant research literature as they complete a report based on their virtual experience.

A Scenario

Students work in a project team applying writing theories and research to a professional writing scenario.

The Virtual Organisation


The student as a new staff member is assigned an investigative task by their superior, the Internal Communication Manager: reporting on the practicality and value of starting a staff newsletter.

Figure 1 Entry to Virtual Records

Long briefings with this manager (on the first day of each week) place the student in the writing community of the organisation and establish the manager as an expert advisor. Over the two-week virtual placement, students are required to prepare two reports and a draft memorandum for their manager.

Figure 2 Office with email window overlaid

The student's onscreen office is central to their operations. The student can email their superior or their mentor from their virtual office to provide interim reports and to resolve questions concerning their understanding of the issues raised. They can phone to arrange interviews and check their written instructions. (Face to face meetings with mentors can also occur.)

Figure 3 Interview with External Communication Manager

Photos, superimposed drawings and audio accompany a series of scripted interviews as the student questions various staff members about their duties and attitude to written communication. Interview transcripts are made available retrospectively. Additional resources are available in Virtual's Library.

Figure 4 Library link page to writing resources

Students are provided with an Appointments Diary to assist in organising and recording their experiences. There is no provision for onscreen note-taking during interviews; students are expected to hand-record their notes during these, as they would in the actual situation. In a similar way, when they are required to contact staff by telephone, the office directory cannot be onscreen at the same time as the dialler, forcing student to record numbers and thus practice the habit of recording business contacts.

The intention throughout is to assist students to learn how to function and write in a professional organisation, rather than solve a navigation problem or beat the computer. The situation was designed deliberately not to place time pressure on the student, other than the pressure of writing to a deadline.

Situated Learning

The nature and history of Situated Learning (or Situated Cognition) as a theory of learning were detailed at the ASCILITE95 conference by Herrington and Oliver (1995). The theory first brought to prominence by Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) and by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991) has continued to generate wide interest and activity. Lave and Wenger argued that learning is fundamentally situated, the result of increasing participation in communities of practice; that learning involves the construction of identities, and, in Herrington and Oliver's words, "Legitimate peripheral participation enables the learner to progressively piece together the culture of the group and what it means to be a member."

Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) explained that "Activity, concept, and culture are interdependent", that "Authentic activity ... is important for learners because it is the only way they gain access to the standpoint that enables practitioners to act meaningfully and purposefully."

One question we must answer then, as educational technologists, is whether, or how usefully, computer-based environments can represent a culture and enable authentic activity. We must also be aware that 'teaching that interposes current communication technology between the learner and the teacher risks engaging the student with the wrong "community of practice"', Pennell (1996), with a culture of technology rather than the learning culture we seek to simulate.

The March 1993 issue of the journal Educational Technology was consumed by nine articles espousing the theory of Situated Learning, followed by a critique by Stephen Tripp. In the October 1994 issue, the authors responded extensively to Tripp's critique.

The area has continued to provoke stimulated debate as cognitivists challenge the claims of the proponents of situated learning. Anderson, Reder and Simon (1996) in Educational Researcher reviewed the central claims of situated learning, concluding they were "overstated" and their implications "misguided". This article led to a response by James Greeno (1997) in the January/February 1997 issue, arguing that the situative and cognitive views of learning are different paradigms, not to be settled by reference to empirical evidence. Anderson, Reder and Simon's (1997) rejoinder in the same issue refers to the concrete results achievable through cognitive design and refuses to allow the disagreement to be reduced to one of viewpoint. Clearly this is an area of ongoing rich discourse.

Learning Environments

Computer-based learning environments have been called simulations, microworlds and scenario software. For the purposes of designing such learning environments, Herrington and Oliver (1995) summarised the critical characteristics of situated learning and suggested that the environment should provide or support authentic context, authentic activities, expert performance, multiple roles and perspectives, collaboration, reflection, articulation, coaching and scaffolding and integrated assessment. The current project conforms well to the majority of these criteria.

Authentic context, reflecting the way the knowledge will be used in real life, providing the purpose and motivation for the use of the program. Knowledge of the virtual organisation's personalities and their attitudes to writing and to their relative roles guides the writing decisions the student must make.

Authentic activities, ill defined; students find as well as solve the problems. Arranging interviews, listening, note-taking, understanding personalities; within the rigidities of pre-recorded questions and responses, these are the activities expected in a placement.

Expert performance and the modelling of processes. Currently a weakness; the manager (tutor) and mentors provide feedback on submitted reports. The library provides guidance but still lacks the showing, the detailed critiquing of written work that focuses the student's attention on specific practices.

Multiple roles and perspectives. Not available except by proxy through the personalities of the characters.

Collaboration. Students in the trial worked side by side in a computer lab and discussed the project during meetings. Students in the current subject chose to use the materials concurrently rather than alone and have engaged in continuing discussions.

Reflection promoted to enable abstractions to be formed. Student comments (see below) make clear that this is occurring.

Articulation. Students use the language of the writing society in their reports and in the discussions that occur with tutors, mentors and other users.

Coaching and scaffolding are performed by the teacher and mentor.

Integrated assessment. The assessable products are the reports generated for and sent to the manager (lecturer).

A Successful Learning Environment?

A three-week (24 hour) trial was conducted during May 1997 (using 5 paid students, without mentors) and evaluated by the project's researcher and a third party. During the trial, comment/feedback sheets were completed and submitted daily by each student. These were used to inform daily debriefing discussions with the researcher, who also monitored and recorded events. At the end of the trial the students participated in a focus group mediated by a third party.

The learning environment was effective in stimulating small-group discussion and supporting spontaneous peer learning. The students became engrossed in their interactions with the virtual organisation, speaking of the characters as real people. Students were uniformly positive in their assessment of the program.

They learned:

"having to take personal initiative with the tasks we had to do"

"catering for vastly differing opinions and views"

"Writing in organisations is also based around issues of productivity as much as communication"

"the ability to write sensitively is essential in achieving your objective and purpose in writing"

Anderson et al (1996) in their critical review of situated learning noted that "Representation and degree of practice are critical for determining the transfer from one task to another" and "The amount of transfer depends on where attention is directed during learning" echoing Gibson's (1979) focus on the "education of attention".

We believe that the critical representations inherent in this structure are

  1. the relationship to the manager, who frames the environment for the student, gives the student identity and status in the organisation and evaluates the student's writing;
  2. the low cognitive load of the environment which allows easy access to relevant resources while maintaining a strong sense of place;
  3. the use of believable recorded interviews, assisting the suspension of disbelief necessary in any theatrical experience while requiring the students to attend to non-textual expression.

Additionally, the sheer length of time spent immersed in the virtual environment permits incubation of concepts and repeated rehearsal of the role of professional writer.

Technical Issues

The simulation is written in HTML, the language of World Wide Web documents. The Web environment provides an easy method of hypertext publishing but currently lacks many of the facilities long incorporated into authoring tools for computer-based learning. The decision to base a learning tool on the Web thus imposes many restrictions on media and interface elements. Close attention to design and programming detail is required to create a seamless consistent environment which facilitates use while retaining sufficient relevant authenticity to maintain student engagement.

Audio Decisions Related to Pre-recorded Interviews with Organisation Staff

A variety of mechanisms were evaluated in seeking an appropriate means for delivering the pre-recorded interviews. The quality of reproduction was important, as was the capability of the initial delivery machines (non-FPU Macintosh , LC68040 CPU, 20 Mb RAM, 8-bit audio) and the need for specific server-side resources. Shockwave, Real Audio, Speech, conventional AIFF and ToolVox were rejected on various grounds; only Quicktime audio was suitable. This could be delivered as a stream, allowing the start of an interview to begin playback while further sound was being transmitted. Originally IMA compression was used to reduce the size of files to be transmitted but this was only usable for files up to about 1 Mb. An additional advantage of Quicktime is the pause and rewind facility of the controller, the integration of the small controller within the browser window rather than in a separate window, and the ability to hide the controller or autostart the sound when appropriate.

Using Javascript to Control the Screen Appearance

Entering the Virtual organisation creates a browser window where JavaScript has been used to specify the window size (almost filling a normal computer screen) and to remove the button bars, the location panel and the status bar. This window thus has the maximum area dedicated to the learning environment and lacks tempting but unnecessary navigation facilities. A future version of the project will also script the font size and face to further reduce the variability inherent in Web projects.

Creating Overlaid Child Windows to Retain the Context from which they were Called

The use of hypertext or hypermedia jumps can confuse readers and is more likely to do so if the destination screen is conceptually or visually discontinuous with the departure screen. Such a change of visual environment implies a change of context and requires the reader to spend some time and cognitive energy on re-establishing their conceptual location within the environment. This effect can be reduced by the use of familiar structures which provide cues to ease the change or, in the office in the current case, by the use of overlaid movable windows which arise from the original context and do not entirely obscure it.

Javascript is used to specify the dimensions and scrollability of overlaid windows, and to bring them to the front when required. The JavaScript function, focus(), used to achieve this in Netscape Navigator 3, is not present in Microsoft Explorer 3.

The activities performable in the office are shown as large labelled buttons bearing likenesses of the overlaid window content. The activities in these windows are therefore conceptually located within the office environment, to which the student can easily return without disorientation.

The Balance to be Struck Between Window Proliferation and Window Rigidities

A proliferation of overlaid windows can be confusing to novice users, but locating subsidiary activities in such windows has conceptual benefits as described above. With up to 6 activities to be served in this way, the principle established was to locate them in the same named JavaScript window, so that only one overlaid window was current at any time.

The Creation of Persistent Windows that allow Student Note-taking and Reporting

The creation of a persistent email window required an inelegant mechanism. The requirement arises because students while composing the end-of-week report for their manager may wish to refer to an interview or other facility of the environment. A subsequent press on the email button to locate the email window originally created a new blank message, destroying the half-written report. A solution was to not require that email share the same window as other functions. Using another function pushes the email window to the back, without overwriting the window, but a push on the email button would still overwrite the report. While various solutions were possible that made use of other writing facilities (notepad, etc) we preferred a solution which maintained the integrity of the environment.

The difficulty however is that no mechanism exists in HTML or JavaScript to determine whether a specific window is already open. Giving focus to a window which is not open in fact generates an error, so this was used to achieve the end. If the window is open when the button is pushed, the handler brings the email window to the front, without overwriting the partly-composed email. If the window is not open, the error generated is trapped and the window is opened.

Connection to the Normal email System from within the Simulation

To maintain congruence with the office environment and to reduce cognitive load, we sought to allow email messaging without requiring students to conceptually leave Virtual Records and step out to the perhaps unfamiliar facilities of the University email system. This purpose was referred to by Keegan (1996) as avoiding "breaking the bubble" of the simulation. This was achieved through Flexmail, a program run on the Web server which translates data from a Web form to email and resends it via the normal email system to an addressee specified through a hidden field on the Web form.

The Usefulness of Button Effects

The highlighting of buttons on rollover is an aid which reduces the user's need to concentrate on the fine detail of mouse pointer location, but is also a characteristic peculiar to the computer environment; normal buttons don't behave that way. A more useful behaviour is the latching of a button to indicate it has been selected. This is used to good purpose in the interviews and in the library. The interview questions are inscribed on the buttons, as well as being repeated at the head of the interview text panel. The text panel is scrolled as the question is answered. Rather than create a fixed frame to hold the current question above the reply, the latched button indicates which question is being answered.

Navigation Cues and Landmarks

Navigation controls are consistently located on a blue panel at the left of the screen; the right of the screen is white and holds content. A strong sense of geographic location is maintained throughout the simulation. Location in time and space are clearly shown through text and signs, and movements between virtual locations are cued by the office geography. Entry to each day includes passage through an identifiable vestibule where the student is greeted by the receptionist. Movement to other offices for interviews is through a corridor lined with named office doors.

Flexible Delivery

The use of HTML, Javascript and cookies, and the avoidance of the use of server-side processing, have implications for future flexible delivery.

The relatively large audio files currently make the project difficult to use for students at home who are relying on conventional modem access to the Internet. However, all other major aspects of the environment are deliverable within a browser environment which does not require Internet access. Because no Web server is necessary (except for the email facility) the entire simulation can be easily transferred to CD-ROM or other removable medium.

If this is done, the audio file sizes cease to be a restriction on the project's wider use. The audio files could alternatively be transferred to audio CD so that projects such as this could be used by students whose computers lacked CD-ROM, as long as they had an adjacent audio CD player.

Future Development

Additional JavaScript will be incorporated as the capability of the language expands to allow interactions that were formerly impossible or quite difficult. An early addition will be the use of font face and size tags to reduce the variability these elements create in the user's browser. Capability will not be allowed to rule design. The relatively seamless navigation and the avoidance of student frustration must be maintained. The program should be made more adaptive to individual student needs. Additional decisions may be required of the students, but these should be consistent with the professional writing situation rather than introducing gaming elements; eg greater rigidity in the making and keeping of appointments.

The tools and structures developed in this project can easily be applied to many other subjects that make use of case-based teaching methods (such as Systems Analysis and Design) without the development costs of this project, but a certain minimum funding must be maintained. The use of less skilful script-writers, artists and actors may threaten the credibility of the situation and reduce the engagement of student users.


By gaining a sense of the different 'voices' and standards that professional communicators face students can become more attuned to the influence of organisational culture on communication. In creating a compelling context for learning this project does work and works well, as evidenced by evaluation of a student trial and subsequent implementation, but it is not a standalone tool for learning or teaching writing. It cannot teach anyone to write clearly, correct their bad habits or comment on their strengths. It depends upon the feedback and correction given to students by their virtual supervisor, their tutor or by industry-based mentors whom the student can contact from within the simulation. The project does succeed in motivating students to improve their writing, to discuss their understandings with their peers and teachers, and to engage with the writing culture of the organisation in which they are placed.

The interface elements and decisions described above aid this success by creating a simple environment while maintaining sufficient realism to keep students emotionally and intellectually engaged with the virtual organisation.


Anderson, J. Reder, L. and Simon, H. (1996). Situated Learning and Education. Educational Researcher, 25 (4), 5-11

Anderson, J. Reder, L. and Simon, H. (1997). Situative Versus Cognitive Perspectives: Form versus Substance. Educational Researcher, 26 (1), 18-21

Brown, J.S. Collins, A. and Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18 (1), 32-42.

Educational Technology, 33 (3), 5-77

Educational Technology, 34 (8), 7-32

Gibson, J.J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Greeno, J. (1997). On Claims That Answer the Wrong Questions. Educational Researcher, 26 (1), 5-17

Herrington, J. Oliver, R. Critical Characteristics of Situated Learning: Implications for the Instructional Design of Multimedia. in Pearce, J. Ellis A. (ed) ASCILITE95 Conference Proceedings (253-262). Melbourne: University of Melbourne

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Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated learning. Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pennell, R. (1996), Managing Online Learning in Debreceny, R. and Ellis, A. (eds) Proceedings of AusWeb96, 315-322. Lismore: Southern Cross University Press


(c) Russ Pennell, Marsha Durham, Conrad Ozog, Alison Spark


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.

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