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A Unified Online Concept Development Environment


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Prepared by

M. W. Whitelaw and K. K. Cho (School of Information Studies, Charles Sturt University)


Background

Problem

Requirements

A Use Case

Design Approach

Comment

References


Background

There have been a number of attempts to link together people who are developing ideas on-line. One example is the review provisions of word processors that allow for reviewers to comment on a document in development, but the linkage is done outside the word processor. Another example is the linkage provided by group-ware products. However, they are limited in the types of product that they easily support. One difference between these two examples is that of the relative power of the participants. In the case of the word-processed document, the primary power lies in the originator of the document, whereas power is usually egalitarian in group-ware products.

Training is not well supported by these examples. When a person is training, the pre-existing concepts of the group are all-important. Education, on the other hand, frequently starts with training, but seeks to move the student to a point closer to equality. Our interest in the problem of providing more flexible concept development environments started with the difficulties that current options have for distant education.

The provision of education and training services at a distance has long been recognized as a means of broadening access to knowledge and enabling study by those for whom it might otherwise be denied (eg. persons engaged in full-time employment or living in remote rural communities) – and hence the terms like `continuing education' and `distance education'. Such education can, and does, use learning products based in the individual learner's machines and use such products as e-mail, list servers, forums, and groupware to communicate over the Internet.

Problem

However, the use of computer-based learning tools that primarily exist in isolation and are supplemented by online communication tools is not a `silver bullet' for providing efficient and effective learning environment, and has its own share of shortcomings. In particular, there is a noticeable gap between the both the philosophy and the presentation of the individual learning environment and the group learning environment. Students are forced to switch tools in order to shift between individual (ie. computer-based learning tools which are tailored for a single student – e.g. intelligent tutors) and group learning activity (i.e. online communication tools which are used for interactions among teachers and students – e.g. online discussion groups).

For instance, a student, who is facing difficulties while working on a particular problem offered by the intelligent tutor, would be forced to find and activate a communication tool if the student wishes to consult with the lecturer and/or other fellow students. The situation become further complicated if the student wishes to show the problem – together with his/her partial solution, if any – to the lecturers and students. They have to copy the work in progress from the intelligent tutor into the communication tool, sometimes having to overcome significant incompatibilities.

In order to bridge the gap between the two learning environments, a new `unified' learning environment is proposed. The environment will support topics that have computer-based learning tools by unifying individual and group learning environments so allowing students to learn more effectively and efficiently. This unification of two learning environments will be achieved by unifying the computer-based learning tools for individuals and online communication tools for groups. When single-user tools and group tools are integrated into a unified environment, students would be freed from the additional workload of shifting between tools and learning how to use different tools.

Requirements

Bridging the gap between individual and group learning environment will be achieved by unifying the learning environment philosophies. The selected philosophy is the ‘constructivist' theory. This theory asserts that a student forms new concepts by reorganizing old concepts to match incoming perceptual data when that data is sufficiently discordant with the old concepts as to require significant conceptual load. The same processes apply to group learning. That is to say, the mechanisms in a group's learning are also abstraction and aggregation, cross-linking of concepts (lateral thinking), and differentiation and division.

When an individual is learning by abstraction, aggregation, or lateral thinking, considerable cognitive work is done in selecting the concepts to be abstracted, aggregated or linked. The advantage of learning in a group is that the individual can save this work by accepting the group's linkage. What would have been cognitively expensive operations at the individual's levels become differentiation or division at the group levels. This effect is enhanced if the group can actually work on the same artifact, e.g. a program, rather than just talk about it. So a uniformity of learning tools is required in a learning environment that supports uniform learning method.

Such a concept-development uniform environment is best implemented as a framework. A framework would allow software developers to provide customized solutions and better manage those solutions. Simply put, the rationale for the development of a framework is that the resultant framework will offer a well-designed and thought-out infrastructure so that when new pieces are created, they can be substituted with minimal impact on the other pieces in the framework. Software developers would find the framework approach an advantage if the unified learning environment was sufficiently flexible to support a wide range of computer-based topics using a wide range of pedagogical strategies.

A Use Case

Specifically, what is proposed here is the development of a distributed learning environment that will be spread over a network – presumably, over the Internet – and include the student's machine, the teacher's machines, and perhaps, a server machine. The typical use case for this `unified' learning environment would be as follows:

  1. Individual students will develop solutions to problems on their own machine. They will be supported by some form of tutorial assistance such as help files, a learning environment, or an ‘artificially-intelligent tutor'. As well, an ‘intelligent negotiator' program will continually scan the log which basically records all the learning activity by a single student.
  2. Intervention will occur if the student appears to have difficulties in a topic area. Some evidence of difficulties are a non-phrase structured log file, excessive time spent on a particular topic, or the occurrence of short unproductive computer sessions. In each case, the negotiator program will request a ‘tutor-group-organizer' program in the teacher's machine to organize a tutorial group with a tutor and other students.
  3. When a tutorial group is requested, the tutor-group-organizer program will consult with all the negotiator programs residing on other students' machines to determine students whose conceptual development is at a similar point (that is, students who have difficulties in the same topic area), set up the group with a tutor, and undertake such functions as the distribution of participants' current work to each other. It is anticipated that the size of tutorial groups remain small enough to allow for more effective learning experience – that is, 3 to 5 students in each tutorial group.
  4. During the tutorial group session, the environment will provide for displaying of individuals' contributions to the session, tutor-provided comments and explanations, various informal group interactions, and the final solution to the problem agreed by the group as a whole. At the end of the session, the environment will undertake the necessary house keeping.

Perhaps, an effective way of integrating the individual and group learning environment may well be using a ‘room metaphor', which has been generating considerable interests in the field of CSCW (Computer Supported Cooperative Work) research. Simply put, the idea of a room metaphor is creating a particular type of spatial model (that is, ‘virtual' rooms) whose features afford a natural way to provide people with good collaborative opportunities. The virtual rooms are analogous to physical rooms in that people can freely enter and leave rooms, bring things in and out of rooms, meet other people in the same room, and so forth.

Conceivably, in the context of the proposed learning environment, it appears that the adoption of a room metaphor would ease student's transition between individual and group learning by arranging rooms suitable for individual and/or group learning activity. This ease of transition is achievable because rooms created in the learning environment would make no technical distinction between individual and group tools ; as in real life, it would be the presence of individuals or groups that determine how the room is used, rather than the enabling tools. The learning environment with a map metaphor would work like this:

While a student will normally work on problems in his/her own virtual room which is fully customized for the occupant's taste, teachers will set up a meeting room with relevant teaching material and invite students to bring in their current work into the meeting room for a tutorial session. Then, during the tutorial, the students and tutor will discuss their current work and unsolved problems, and at the end of the session, the tutorial group will disband. Besides the tutorials in meeting rooms, a student will also be able to interact with other students by inviting other students to his/her room or visiting other student's room.

Design Approach

A framework is the realisation of a pattern that is made up from a number of constituent patterns. It is implemented in a number of base classes with the actual application implemented via inheritance. It is possible for a framework to specify part of a solution with the rules for interaction with other components carefully specified.

Reenskaug (1996) suggests that the steps to designing a framework are:

  1. identify a market
  2. perform a cost-benefit analysis
  3. perform reverse engineering of existing programs to identify all the issues
  4. identify the goals to be reached and the problems to be solved
  5. specify the new framework
  6. document the framework as a pattern
  7. provide supportive documentation for the design and implementation
  8. provide the necessary publicity, training, and support so that the consumer community will use it.
In this context, it is suggested that you

Comment

One objection to undertaking this exercise is that it is already done in such collaborative software as MOOs. While it is true that there are many such forms of collaborative software available, it is also true that most do not provide for a range of power relationships such as that which is inherent in the teaching situation. This suggests that a flexible strategy for pedagogical style is required.

The suggested learning environment provides support for learning where individual and group learning are integrated into a unified environment because individuals and groups employ the same learning processes such as abstraction and aggregation, lateral linking of concepts, and differentiation and division. (It also provides functionality that addresses the communication and coordination requirements of constituent elements – namely, artificially-intelligent tutors, negotiators, group-organizers, and so forth.) The uniformity suggests that the group/individual structure is a composite structure where switching between individual learning and group learning is transparent from a behavioural perspective.

It is not difficult to find many patterns that may be required in such a system. There is a prompt list.

References

The patterns were sourced from:

There are interesting chapters on designing frameworks in:


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