CREATING PLACES FOR TEACHING AND LEARNING

Sirkku Männikkö*

Eva R Fåhræus**

List of keywords: cmc, teacher education, distance education, collaborative learning, Internet

BACKGROUND - DISAPPEARANCE OF TEMPORAL AND SPATIAL CONSTRAINTS

The use of technical media for communication is altering the spatial and temporal dimensions of social life so that boundaries characteristic of face-to-face interaction can be ignored. The use of technical media enables individuals to reorder the spatial and temporal features of social organisation, and to use these reordered features as a means of pursuing their objectives.

The emergence of the new communication technology has resulted in the uncoupling of space and time: spatial distanciation no longer requires temporal distanciation. We can now communicate in spite of great distances without significant temporal delays.

Another important development following from the uncoupling of space and time is the despatialized simultaneity. Earlier, "the same time" presupposed "the same place". The development of the new communication media allows us to experience events as simultaneous despite the fact that they occur in places that are spatially remote.

Implications of this development in the area of teaching and learning are discussed in this paper through an example of a distance course designed for teachers in the use of Internet in senior high school education.

OBJECTIVE - A CONSTRUCTIVIST TEACHING AND LEARNING SITE

This study is a part of a larger combined research and teaching project which is to develop and evaluate new pedagogical methods for using Internet in education. A distance course about Internet was provided via Internet for senior high school teachers. The project is running from May 1996 to October 1997 and the distance course started at the end of October 1996 and ended in mid April 1997. The project is sponsored by the Swedish Department of Education.

We facilitated a teaching and learning environment that allowed teachers from great geographical distances to participate in a course which aimed to give the participants an opportunity to learn about Internet and how this technology could be used for pedagogical purposes in high schools.

*Affiliation: Dept of Computer and Systems Sciences, Univ. of Stockholm/Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Electrum 230, S-164 40 Kista, Sweden, sirkku@dsv.su.se.

** Affiliation: Dept of Computer and Systems Sciences, Univ. of Stockholm/Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Electrum 230, S-164 40 Kista, Sweden, evafaahr@dsv.su.se.

The 50 participants came from all over Sweden, representing about 30 senior high schools. Teachers took the course on their free time parallel with their ordinary work. Most theoretical school subjects were represented.

The experience of computing and particularly educational use of computer technology varied a great deal among the participants. However, our course requirements implied that the participants should possess the basic knowledge of computing and of e-mail.

Our approach to teaching and learning is constructivist. We want to see the technologies being used as knowledge-building tools and we demonstrate how new communication technologies can support collaborative teaching and learning in powerful ways.

Problem-based learning is embedded in constructivism. Knowledge is to be constructed by the mutual efforts of teachers and learners. According to Finkle and Torp (1995) problem-based learning is a curriculum development and instructional system that simultaneously develops both problem solving strategies and disciplinary knowledge bases and skills by placing students in the active role of problem-solvers confronted with an ill-structured problem that mirrors real-world problems. The goal is engaging and motivating students to explore and understand issues in depth.

Through hands-on activities, group discussions, and collaborative learning partnerships, we wish to emphasise the teacher/learner perspective as participants develop a repertoire of new teaching, learning, and communication strategies applicable in the Internet.

METHODS - DIARIES AND EVERYDAY LIFE

A course evaluation is being conducted primarily by qualitative means. Video recordings, participant observation, and interviews are the main methods, complemented by questionnaires and electronic document analysis.

By choosing qualitative methods we want to emphasise the disappearance of the division between the observers and the observed. As researchers we are as much participants as observers. The interpretations we present aim to represent the perspectives of those we study as we let their voices speak for themselves in diary notes, in everyday interaction in the electronic media, and in unstructured interviews.

DESCRIPTION - OUR CLASSROOM/S

Our teaching and learning environment consisted of the computer-mediated communication technologies in the form of electronic mail and a computer conferencing system (FirstClass). We also facilitated the possibility of using MUDs (Multi-User Dimensions).

In order to enhance the sense of connectedness between the participants we inaugurated the course with a two-and-a-half-day face-to-face meeting. Most of the time was dedicated to socialising and the small group activities were initiated.

Using the classification described by Harasim et.al. (1995), our course can be characterised as a "Structured Group Activity", in combination with "Ask-An Expert" and "Access to Network Resources". The participants worked in groups of two to nine around a theme they had chosen. Each group communicated in a conference of its own, discussing the theme and formulating assignments.

There also were common places in the conferencing system for spontaneous discussions and mutual help between peers. The participants could raise questions to four experts who addressed their answers directly to the person who asked or to a public sphere in case the answer was of common interest.

We encouraged the participants to search for information and support from the World Wide Web and other sources on the Internet.

FINDINGS - CREATING PLACES

In the analysis of the teaching and learning situation, we have come to recognise two types of strategies: the use of the given, permanent, asynchronous places for teaching and learning and the creation and use of new, temporary, synchronous ones.

We find the notion of place as described by Harrison and Dourish (1996) applicable in our context. Places carry social meanings; they are rooted in the practices and understandings of communities. Different groups have different understandings of similar places and similar concepts, and these will change over time. Places have to be created, through practice and appropriation, to fit into the culture of the group.

Those confident with the technology soon found ways of creative uses of the system while others less experienced first had to take themselves over the thresholds of insecurity and confusion caused by the new, asynchronous and text-based form of communication, as well as they were to solve the mysteries of technicalities as they were entering the new environment, space or possibility as Harrison and Dourish (1996) call it. In this critical phase of transition, the support of the teachers and the peers is of utmost importance. If the participant should fail in making the connection (technical as well as social), the danger of dropping-out lays near.

On the other hand, as soon as the initial difficulties are overcome,

participants start to interact in new ways. They are creating the places for their teaching and learning. The creation is taking place through negotiations and definitions of common goals and practices. As Harrison and Dourish (1996) have pointed out, these goals and practices can vary from group to group and change even over time. What is important, however, is that flexible strategies for collaborative learning are enhanced by the conferencing system.

REFERENCES

Finkle, S.L. and Torp, L.L. (1995). Introductory Documents 1995:1 (Available from the Center for Problem-Based Learning, Illinois Math and Science Academy, 1500 West Sullivan Road, Aurora, IL 60506-1000).

Harasim L. et.al. (1995). Learning Networks. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Harrison, S. and Dourish, P.(1996). Re-Place-ing Space: The Roles of Place and Space in Collaborative Systems. Proceedings of ACM Conference on CSCW, Boston, USA November 1996: 67-76.