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Two representations of the learning object

In document 1.1 The Focus of this Research (Page 155-162)

5.2 Case Study One Findings

5.2.2 Making Sense of the Learning Object

5.2.2.1 Two representations of the learning object

This discussion considers the emergence of two versions of the object and the influence of historical factors on the resolution of this tension. As the teacher engaged in the e-tivity discussion, the data suggest that she projected two representations of the learning object as both a dialogue and a monologue.

The representation of the object as a dialogue was advanced by the teacher in a number of ways as she engaged in the learning activity. First, the functionality of the online discussion forum afforded dialogic interaction in that students could start new discussion threads to create web-type interactive structures, reply to other postings, and respond multiple times. Second, the teacher‘s instructions on the webpage

alluded to dialogue through the use of terms and phrases such as ―participate,‖

―discussion,‖ ―discuss this statement with your group,‖ and ―feel free to reply to anyone‟s postings as interaction is important here‖ (Online Observation 12).

Moreover, in the face-to-face tutorials, the teacher encouraged the students to ―argue, bring up new ideas, encourage others to have new ideas‖ (Classroom Observation 2) and ―enjoy the tooing and froing [sic]‖ (Classroom Observation 6). Finally, the task was represented as dialogic in the marking criteria (albeit minimally) with the terms

―multiple messages accepted,‖ ―300-500 words each entry,‖ and ―respectful dialogue.‖

However, while some of the data suggest that the teacher represented the learning object as a dialogue, other examples suggest that another, more dominant representation was present. Under this representation, the learning object was defined as a type of responsive monologue whereby the students posted a lengthy text which connected to their classmates‘ work in a minimal way and functioned predominantly as an individual display of understanding. The teacher used three key pedagogical tools – the website instructions, the marking criteria, and the course outline – to represent this version of the learning object to the students.

In relation to the website instructions, the teacher did not clearly differentiate between the previous learning object (the response to reading text which was an essay to the teacher undertaken in the previous week) and the e-tivity discussion learning object.

She used the term discussion to refer to both text types even though they were clearly different forms of discourse. Also, in the marking criteria for the online discussion, formal conventions of writing were emphasised. For example, the criteria stated that the discussion text would have few grammatical errors; a referencing system would be used; and the text would be ―polished‖ with a ―consistently professional approach.‖ The marking criteria hinted at multiple dialogic postings by stating

―300-500 words each entry‖ but then followed this with ―one entry required.‖ As a key pedagogical tool, the marking criteria communicated valued aspects of the task from teacher to student, and in this case, it appears that a single text which used formal academic writing conventions was valued and rewarded with marks. Spontaneity, multiple postings, or collaboration with others, were not identified as being valued aspects of the task. Finally, in relation to another pedagogical tool – the course outline – the learning outcomes of the activity were primarily individual rather than collective. For example, a stated outcome such as ―identify the characteristics of effective clinical decision makers‖ focused upon individual understanding and did not explicitly recognise that group collaboration and knowledge construction were desired or valued outcomes. Thus, through the use of various pedagogical tools, the teacher represented the learning object as an individual, rather than a collective endeavour.

From an activity theory perspective, the presence of two representations created an internal contradiction in the learning object. While this situation could be problematic in this activity system, in practice, this was not the case. Interestingly, as the subjects transformed the learning object, the tension between the two learning objects was relieved as one subsumed the other. The teacher revealed the actual learning object in the following excerpt:

The only hassle, the only drawback with that is that we‟re only marking their first entry because that‟s not the main thing that we want. If we were wanting the interaction, we would mark it accordingly, but we are just wanting them to put their thoughts out into the public which will be their group members. (Teacher 1/Interview 2)

Thus, the teacher‘s actual objective was to require the students to display their understanding rather than engage in any substantive way with their peers. She noted

―the interaction is there for those who wish to engage, the brighter students, but even they know that they‟re not going to get anything more from it so quite wisely they save their time‖ (Teacher 1/Interview 2). Although a dialogic discussion between

students was advanced by the teacher, it was optional and not specifically rewarded with marks. In practice, the real objective of the activity was to generate a text which displayed individual understanding for teacher assessment and conformed to conventions associated with written academic text forms. By projecting a dialogic veneer which is, in practice, not expected or required, the teacher created a quasi-object.

There is a significant amount of data which suggest that four historical factors played key roles in relieving the internal contradiction in the learning object and enabled the monologue text to become the dominant representation by subsuming the quasi-object. These factors are the teacher‘s lack of knowledge of eLearning pedagogy, the teacher‘s negative experiences as an eLearning student, the students‘ previous experiences as participants in an online discussion, and the teacher‘s beliefs about learner abilities.

First, the teacher‘s lack of knowledge concerning eLearning pedagogy, particularly in relation to online discussions, was a key factor. When asked about the learning philosophy which supported the e-tivity discussion, the teacher appeared flustered and then advanced a view that resembled a constructivist approach. What is interesting here is that she did not articulate a familiarity with social theories of learning.

Researcher: Could you give me your thoughts about the learning philosophy that sort of underpins the discussion?

Teacher one: That‟s a good question!

(Teacher one laughs and then sighs)

Teacher one: And I‟m actually quite flummoxed by it really, I hadn‟t thought that through, I can only talk from a personal perspective…I like to introduce students to new ideas. I‟m a little influenced by Piaget‟s ideas where you introduce ideas to students or to people and then their thinking becomes more complex as time goes by when they keep revisiting that um initial idea…and I, I like to think that this paper has got my students thinking more about from that same perspective in that if we hadn‟t kept talking about decision making over and over again, they

would had never had realised they were doing it. And that therefore has made their thinking itself more and more complex. (Teacher 1/Interview 3)

She appeared unsure about how to practically assess dialogue in a discussion:

The logistics of how we actually organise the marking if we do that [require dialogues between students], what constitutes a good mark, is it the amount of times you respond, what about the quality of the response, etc, etc, so maybe all that‟s in the too-hard-basket that could be one of the reasons why I‟m not very keen on that idea. (Teacher 1/Interview 2)

Her lack of pedagogical knowledge was further compounded by confusion about the learning outcomes of the course.

The fact that we didn‟t fully understand what we were doing three years ago has made our pathway to understanding what we really want from the students, it‟s been a bit fraught, and we‟re just getting to the stage now where we think we know what we want from the students. (Teacher 1/Interview 1)

Moreover, while she had performed in the role of online tutor in the past, the transition to lead teacher was a major one, demanding new understandings of eLearning pedagogy which she lacked.

We have to um learn more about online work for starters. I think that is the problem, um, we haven‟t got enough experience ourselves to actually move this on. It‟s not a Moodle thing, it‟s how to conduct online courses, um, yeah, if I‟m still in that paper next year, that can be one of our professional development aims I think, and even for my own second semester this year, I think I might see if I can find anything that‟s going on that talks about how to actually construct online courses over and above the actual Moodle courses. (Teacher 1/Interview 2)

Based on these historical factors, it is perhaps unsurprising that the teacher generated an internal contradiction in the learning object. By moving into the role of lead teacher, she had inherited an interactive discussion activity without a deeper understanding of social theories of learning in relation to curriculum design. This situation was further aggravated by the presence of historical confusion around the objectives of the course.

The second historical factor pertains to the teacher‘s previous experiences as a student participating in an online discussion. From her remarks, it was clear that this experience deeply affected the teacher, instilling a reluctance to use dialogue in her pedagogical approach and a fear that online discussions might degenerate into superficial exchanges between students. When recounting her experience, she recalled students ―who just pontificated on and on and on, so that the amount of reading was hopeless.‖ She added that:

You just did the minimum to actually pass the course. You had to put your two responses in yourself, well I think it was the day that um, the chap who worked in the Boeing factory was just about crying into his computer because it had been one of his planes that had hit the towers…so I sent a nice sympathetic thing to her, that to him, that counted as one of my responses (laughter). So really from an educational point of view it was a bit hopeless. (Teacher 1/Interview 1)

It is interesting to note that the teacher did not reflect upon the pedagogical design of this online discussion. There was no critique of, for example, the way the student interaction was structured or modes of assessment. Rather than unpick the mediation of the pedagogy, the teacher condemned the use of online discussions out of hand.

During a later interview, the teacher expressed similar sentiments when she offered a fairly bleak picture of the efficacy of student-to-student interactive learning activities:

Now I run lots of tutorials as well face to face, and I can put people into groups and do all sorts to get them to talk to each other but the quality of what they do is sometimes pitiful right through the whole 15 weeks anyhow. So, to compare online interaction with face to face interaction, you‟ve got to be very honest. It sounds good that you can put people in a circle and make them talk to each other.

In practice they really don‟t. They are just forced to say some words but for me that‟s not proper interaction. Um, all you can hope for is over 15 weeks that you gradually get those very very quiet ones to actually speak up and say one or two sentences to the whole group because of different personalities that you‟ve got, and the powerful ones will overpower the quiet ones anyhow. (Teacher 1/Interview 3)

In this passage, expressions of helplessness and resignation infuse the teacher‘s comments. Once again, she fails to deconstruct these experiences by identifying specific problems and suggesting an alteration in pedagogy such as changing

assessment practice which may stimulate communication between the students. As observed earlier, a lack of pedagogical knowledge is implicated here.

The third historical factor that contributed to the dominance of the monologue text pertained to the students‘ past experiences in an online discussion (in another nursing course) which were drawn upon as powerful frames of reference to inform their understanding of the learning object. During interviews, the students expressed the belief that the term discussion meant a linear progression of predominantly encapsulated monologues, limited interactivity between students, and the use of formal stylistic features. Additionally, three of the four EAL students articulated an individualistic conception of the discussion; for example, Student Three believed the purpose of the discussion was to ―have your own learnings from the discussion‖

(Student 3/Interview 1). In the face of internal contradictions in the learning object, these previous experiences functioned as powerful mediators to assist the process of meaning-making or determining what ―doing‖ the learning object entailed for the students. It is hardly surprising that the reproduction of past behaviours which had previously been successful was the learning strategy of choice

The fourth historical factor which supported the dominant representation of the learning object stemmed from the teacher‘s belief that pedagogy was constrained by pragmatic considerations. She was sympathetic towards the EAL students, believing that they were ―working horrendously hard‖ (Teacher 1/Interview 2), and ―juggling their priorities‖ (Teacher 1/Account 4). She noted:

You‟ve got to be pragmatic about this. This paper is assessed throughout the fifteen weeks. Ok, they are not interacting with each other as well as the educational theorists would want, but they have a job to do, they have very busy life as students and they will adopt student behaviour which is „do what you have to do to get through and still have a laugh,‟ and I„ve got some sympathy with that idea even though I‟m the one who‟s pushing them at this end. (Teacher 1/Interview 3)

In the passage above, the teacher lowered her expectations of the quality of online interaction, arguing that learning is a compromise between optimal pedagogy and practical real-life conditions. Thus, while dialogue may be the ideal, it was invariably constrained by day-to-day concerns as the students focused on the practicalities of negotiating their various home, school, and work commitments. As the teacher related to the learning object, she drew upon this powerful belief about the students to make sense of the object.

In summary, this section has considered the data in relation to an internal contradiction which existed in the learning object and the influence of historical factors (previous beliefs and understandings) in shaping the way the teacher and students related to the object. The findings show that tensions existing between the two representations of the learning object disintegrated as the quasi-object (representing the co-construction of knowledge amongst the students) was subsumed by the belief that the learning object was predominantly an individual assignment displayed for assessment in order to further the individual‘s progress as a nursing student.

In document 1.1 The Focus of this Research (Page 155-162)