Redesigning Learning Environments for Design Postgraduates

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Cal Swann*, Bob Fox, Allan Herrmann, Jacqueline Shaw*, Ray Berry*, Bassam Aoun, Camilla Maltas*

*School of Design,Teaching Learning Group

Curtin University of Technology




Professional designers have embraced the computer oriented environment which now dominates the ideation of designs for domestic products, furniture, interiors and communication media in the commercial world. As a logical extension, the School of Design at Curtin has developed a computer mediated environment to support and enhance the Masters in Design (by coursework). The coursework units are also available to students engaged in research degrees. A significant number of potential students for these programs need to continue their professional work while studying and, as many of these students are located across Australia and overseas, the project team was keen to develop an electronic learning environment that would provide all students, whether enrolled on- or off-campus, the opportunity to take part in an electronic 'community of scholars'.

This paper outlines the rationale behind incorporating the web component, the development process and an analysis of how the first group of students and staff taking part in trialing the course used the new learning environment. The analysis includes reflection in-action and reflection on-action statements from the project team members as well as some students' perceptions regarding the usefulness, effectiveness and the potential value of having the web component integrated into their course.


In June 1996, approval was given for a 'New Initiatives' (TLG) project for the School of Design to develop the Master of Design (by coursework) program for delivery in flexible study mode incorporating on- and off-campus through external study types of material including print and importantly, to exploit emerging technologies in computer mediated communication in order to enhance interactivity in a new learning environment.

In this environment, issues in design could be discussed among students and between tutors and students and potentially include invited visiting experts in various specialist fields to contribute to the debates. As Harasim stated:

... on-line education is more than a new delivery mode. It is a new learning domain which enables us as learners to engage in learning interactions more easily, more often and perhaps more effectively, but also develop qualitatively new and different forms of educational interactions (Harasim, 1989, page 62).

In agreement with Harasim's statement but mindful of the pitfalls of considering the new medium as a technological panacea, the project team developed a web component of the masters course to integrate with 'old media' components, including print based study guides and readers. The Master of Design (MDes) site is located within Curtin Learning Link, a web-based computer mediated communication system for the University's distance education and open learning students. The MDes site includes an outline of the course and units, contact details of staff, links to databases, library facilities, University services, on-line design resources, a discussion page and relevant Design School sites. The universal resource locator (URL) is:

The Problem

The main requirements for this project were to develop an appropriate website with protocols for:

a) on-line asynchronous interaction between students and staff – and students with students – to discuss issues, react to comments and engage in peer group reviews and assessment,

b) the website to be provided within Curtin Learning Link (the distance education site) home page for the unit information and assignment details, assessment criteria and dates.

In commencing the project, it was recognised that a number of electronic features currently exist on the Curtin Learning Link in other disciplines (and in other features in other institutions), and the particular requirements for this design interactivity were defined as a number of practical/technical facilities culled from these sources, plus some still unclear requirements that would support the learning goals of the School's advanced course in design research.

In general, we wanted practical facilities within the website for all students to access:

·                map of plan/guide to study

·                instructions for using electronic functions

·                links to study aids, assignment text guides, on-line library, etc

·                electronic discussion groups in a 'Chat line'

·                on-line assessment

·                allowance for staff input and monitoring of discussion/assessment by staff

·                links to other websites of design interest


The approach to this project has been based on an Action Learning/Action Research as an appropriate methodology for a design project where few of the project team had any prior experience in this area and where the final outcome could not be clearly defined.

The cyclical nature of the methodology involving group discussion, trialing of ideas, reflection, evaluation and action in a repetitive, evolutionary design process has been – and still is – a mode of working which the team members have generally found to be  comfortable.

Action research is an iterative process of Plan–Act–Observe–Reflect, and entails reflection in-action as a description of how one dealt with the act of doing things 'on-the-fly', followed by the reflection on-action as a more considered 'hindsight' view (Schön, 1987). Importantly, this hindsight view as an analysis of the previous cycle, contains the seed of the revision for action in the next cycle. This process parallels the conventional design approach, enhanced by the conscious structuring to make the process visible to both the team members and outsiders. 

Conventional action research is also described as Practical–Participative–Emancipatory–Interpretative, and this involves the team reflecting on the process as a collaborative and emancipatory exercise.

The project was structured to make the design/reflection process visible and generally adhere to the following:

·                data gathering by the participants

·                participation and power-sharing in decision-making

·                collaboration as a critical community

·                self-reflection, self-evaluation and self management

·                learning progressively by doing and making (mistakes) in a 'self-reflective cycle'

·                reflection and communication to the broader community

(Adapted from Zuber-Skerritt, 1992)

The process of self-reflection and evaluation has been enlarged with the incorporation of student perceptions (where available at this stage) and group discussion within the project team. Interpretative rather than quantitative analysis has been employed throughout the development of this website. This report is part of an on-going evaluation, the sharing of information and a communication exercise that sets out the main objectives, describes what has been achieved, and concludes with brief reflections on relevant aspects of the project.

Regular meetings were held to share research information and decisions as to the next stage in a cyclical process of evaluation and revision. Records were made and the project is being fully documented, monitored and evaluated, and will be communicated to colleagues at intervals and to the wider community on completion.


We knew we wanted an emphasis on group working to provide opportunities for students to construct knowledge collectively, and for staff response to these and to student private requests/tutorials and assignments, plus individual supervision through direct email contact. In particular, we wanted peer group assessment on-line as peer assessment had been shown to be valued highly by students in the attendance mode as formative in the development of their personal constructs.

The discussion forum (Chat) was included as a central device to encourage interactivity between students and student groups in a way that has not previously been possible in distance education. The web discussion forum created the ability to present a collection of threaded messages on the same topic together and enabled students to embed live URLs into their messages, allowing them to share key bookmarks relevant to their course. The use of email was also encouraged, providing students with the option of communicating one-to-one on issues suitable for that format.

Key to the success of this project must reside in the ease and transparency of the electronic communication system. A number of design-orientated webpages were evaluated as potential models. First and foremost an educational model needs to be functional. The design of the webpages and the programming of interactivities have been designed to be visually attractive for a design clientele and to be clear to use for search purposes, and most importantly for group interactions. Designs for simple instructions of screen-based interactivity have been developed and tested within the project group. Further evaluation is being carried out in actual use.

In general, academic disciplines based on lecture/readings have been relatively easy to convert from internal delivery systems to external and flexible learning packages as conventional print material. A part of that (written) language based learning tradition is the tendency towards a reliance on reading as the most respectable medium through which to learn (Halliday, 1985; Lanham, 1993). This convention embodies a number of assumptions that may limit the learning activity.

The potential of the electronic medium to transform the communication situation (Ihde, 1982) is being explored throughout this project as a two-edged development of the verbally oriented group-based learning aspect and the anticipated change in the way people are likely to speak and write differently in the electronic medium (Ulmer, 1989). In design, the language is often more verbal than written, more visual than literal. The language of study through this medium will be assessed as the system emerges from three perspectives – as written/academic discourse of traditional university learning processes, as the visual discourse of the design domain and as the electronic discourse of the discussion groups.

Team-based learning is less obviously transferred into distance delivery styles and has hardly been possible in the conventional print mode. Furthermore, group dynamics are seldom made explicit during university and design teaching. In this case, guidance for working in groups has been incorporated as a special webpage in one of the first units (Research methods) and includes the way in which ideas can be generated, the way in which ideas can be shared, the way in which ideas can be 'tried out' and the way in which ideas can be responded to by others.

Opportunities for the participants to take responsibility for their own learning can be enhanced in this study mode. The student groups are encouraged to make self assessment and take part in assessing each other. The concept of 'critical friendship' is central to the group working and assessment. The model which has been developed is an adaptation of the electronic journal facility where students submit an essay/article for all to view and where other students may add comments between paragraphs. These commentaries are displayed in a different colour to the original text, and automatically tracked to show the commentator's name and date. Amidst this critical friendship, two students are delegated to assess another's work before self-assessment takes place, moderated by the tutor.

Reflections of Team Members: Some Perspectives on the Project

Teaching and Learning

As is the case for all technological applications in teaching and learning there are those who thrive working within and interacting with activities in the web environment and others who are not only cautious but perhaps fearful of the web and see it as having only peripheral (or no) value in their learning. We also share with Bowers (1988) and Idhe (1982) a belief in the non-neutrality of the educational use of technology and that the web privileges certain senses, certain ways of doing and knowing and excludes others. Our starting point, therefore was a concern with managing and meeting student expectations as well as providing appropriate entry points and involvement for academic staff within the School of Design.

The team composition provided us with an opportunity to embrace a range of inputs, including student voices in both the development and trialing stages. A key member of the project team, for example was a member of staff who was also studying the masters course. In addition, students who were already enrolled in the masters course were actively involved in reviewing and commenting on the design and content and stating their preferred use of the site.

The web can enhance the quality of teaching and learning through informed use. The web environment can provide new pedagogical opportunities or new manifestations of current pedagogies. We found electronic communications between those involved in the course and those involved in developing the course was an iterative process. We share with Vygotsky (1978) a belief that learning is supported best in appropriate social settings and that language and discourse impact on the level and kind of learning that takes place and that on-line conferencing both 'shape the production of the information to-be-transmitted and the processes required for its adequate reception' (Schwan, 1997, page 11). And further that the student and staff involvement in public on-line discussions needs to be nurtured and carefully moderated to allow threads of relevant debate to continue, while issues less important, or that could cause unnecessary distraction may be appropriately managed (for example, Berge and Collins' Moderators page

Students have different levels of access to the web site and the level of access inevitably impacts on the use, the regularity of use and possibly the kind of use. Reading from computer screens for some is difficult and slow (Schriver, 1997; Oliver & Herrington, 1995) and that typing can take between 10-20 times longer than speaking (Chapanis, 1975) and topics that require 2-3 hours face-to-face classroom contact take from 3-6 days via email. (Quinn, 1983).

How did the team work as a group?

Clear distinctions between various team members became blurred, due to the relaxed and friendly atmosphere of meetings. Individuals crossed role boundaries eg. programmer takes on certain design matters in a Design masters program and Design staff take on programming decisions while the instructional designers took on teaching roles, allowing them to talk to students and to teach parts of the course in both face-to-face workshop and via asynchronous environments.

Computational aspects

The MA Web site consists of approximately 250 Web files (html, graphics and CGIs) and is safely considered a larger web site for a web-based course. The initial process of Web site creation involved the development of web files as they were required, and each were located in a combined directory. As the project grew, and new requirements were sought, it became evident that each of the 6 units that comprise the MA Web site should be treated as independent 'sub-sites'. As such each of the units were sectioned off into their own subdirectories, with all associated web services such as the Web based discussion forums, located in the appropriate subdirectory for each unit. This separation of site content facilitated the setup of related Web software. For example, the Web password protection software identifies unit content (and hence which password to expect) by the particular subdirectory in which the file is located.

The Crit Room was developed to allow seamless collaboration by all members. Client-side state retention mechanisms (Netscape Cookies) have been employed to automatically identify each student and to store their passwords. Such mechanisms free the user from having to re-enter user name and password details for identification purposes at various instances during a single session.

The close collaboration between the members resulted in a constructive exchange of developmental ideas, to the extent that the HTML developer was made aware of technical/software related issues, and in turn the software developer was exposed to design issues in developing the Web based discussion rooms and Crit Room environment. This mix of disciplines proved useful, as development 'holes' that appear in the absence of one developer, may be at least be partly filled by the other.

Course goals, design and operation

The School's primary aim to provide a learning environment which encourages individual learning and the personal construction of knowledge was particularly important for the advanced programs in design, and the need to incorporate this aspect into the web environment was seen as essential and potentially a part of the characteristic independence of this mode of study. That is, learning by activating a computer response in conjunction with other participants could be fundamental in allowing the building of personal knowledge and concepts around design and allied research activities.

Students in graduate design courses usually arrive from professional and quite practical backgrounds. Many are still in practice throughout their study and the advantage of the flexible study time offered by this mode can be considerable, particularly as designers already work in a computer environment.

Many graduate students in design have discovered a high level of personal satisfaction from developing their design skills to a further level of sophistication through grounding their understanding in theoretical frameworks that link with other disciplines. If we could provide access to these frameworks in a non-prescriptive manner that could be discussed and moderated in a collective community, the disadvantage of the traditional distance mode where students work mostly in isolation, a new and looser learning environment might result, realising the potential envisaged by Harasim.

In trying to establish the components to provide these aspects on this website, it has been a process of discovery of what is technically possible - together with a heightened recognition of those 'personal construct' features (Kelly, 1970) and how important they are to the learning environment, whatever the study mode. Student input during informal discussions of the site development has re-inforced the formative quality of their collective dialogue and moved design staff to a more collegiate role, facilitating from a side-line rather than standing in as the central figure.

The compilation of appropriate readers and study guide in a traditional external study mode is still a fundamental starting point in establishing a theoretical basis for a subject area, but the potential of this communication channel has yet to be exploited in the powerful interlinking to other knowledge systems. In absorbing the concept of 'threaded messages' and recognising more clearly the implications in the Harasim vision, the opportunities for students to weave their own patterns of thinking are seen to be enormous. In this respect, involvement in this developmental work has been particularly exciting. The technology ceases to be marvelled at simply for its own sake, but more in its capacity to extend a kind of collective and empowering cognitive activity through hypertext (Dreher, 1997).

To balance this visionary aspect of a learning channel are the down-to-earth experiences of students, colleagues and researchers in the field. Whilst there is evidence that the virtual classroom encourages debate (Stacey, 1997), practical experience suggests that electronic discourse ebbs and flows more uncontrollably than one would wish. Getting discussion started can be difficult and once ebbed again, more difficult to regenerate. Many email discussion/task oriented groups have floundered and the Chat group within the Master of Design during the trial period started with gusto, to fizzle out to a dribble. There is enthusiasm for the new, but sustaining debate in this media might be somewhat illusionary.

Our trials have so far been with students undertaking the attendance mode, supplemented by a few off-shore enrolments, and asking them to be guinea pigs. It is understood that when students are properly enrolled as external students from disparate geographic locations, their need to fully engage with their peer group may overcome the initial difficulties that have been experienced to date, difficulties that have not been helped by the occasional non-functionality of our embryo facilities.

Working with the team has been an invigorating learning experience. Each member has brought their expertise into the problem identification, and everyone has contributed to solutions, generating new insights and resolutions in a progressive build-up toward the site as it stands. Placing one's expertise on the table for open scrutiny and debate has been a public and self-examination of beliefs and practices which in a paradoxical way has been also empowering. The 'critical friendship' that has been espoused in the course philosophy has been preached and practised in the project group evaluation sessions. There is still work to be done before the website is ready for the fee-paying participants in 1998, but the open manner of working will keep the additions and revisions flowing as an on-going activity while the operation of the site progresses.


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