The sociality and spatiality of online pedagogy and collaborative learning in an educational media and technologies course
Cushla Kapitzke, PhD
Higher Education in the Information Age
Teaching and learning in higher education contexts occur differently today from how they did as recently as a decade ago. Widespread social, economic and technological change is transforming the student populations, the curricula and the learning cultures of university classrooms (Dennis & LaMay, 1993; Kershaw & Safford, 1998; Privateer, 1999). Employment and productivity in the present Information Age are based not so much on the ownership of natural resources and the harnessing of energy in heavy industry, but on the informational “flows” of organisations within global networks (Castells, 1999). In the postindustrial economies of most western nation-states, the primary forms of productive labour and of maintaining a competitive edge in the market are information processing and the generation of knowledge.
Digital technologies have played a major role in these societal changes and in the transformation of higher education. Technological convergence and global media networks offer educators a range of online services and products that are well suited to classroom use (McCann, 1998). Some of these online services include:
Technologies alter perceptions of time, place and space, and thereby change what is understood and lived as human embodiment (Franklin, 1990; Idhe, 1990). The shift from oracy to literacy some 3000 years ago, for instance, revolutionised forms of agency and sociality by allowing people to communicate across distances of place and time. In a similar way, the current semiotic shift to electronic visuality and virtuality is generating new forms of communication and community, including those that occur in classrooms. Lanham (1993) claims that electronic text creates a new “writing space” and, hence, an entirely different “educational space” with reconfigured physical, administrative and disciplinary structures. Industrial models of learning and teaching that use Taylorist organisational structures and epistemological models are no longer adequate for the educational needs of the diverse clientele that now seeks pre-vocational or continuing professional development. The policies, pedagogies and practices of education programs today need to be learner-directed, collaborative and customised (Tinkler, Lepani and Mitchell, 1996).
This paper describes an online course taught in a pre-service teacher education course where the curriculum and pedagogy converge to model the principles of teacher with technology, student with teacher, and student with student that are taught in its content. I begin here with an outline of the course, describing the interdisciplinary critical literacy activities that the students undertake mostly in small groups. I then use visual analyses of the classroom and cameo quotes from the students’ reflective logs to show that the approach generated a learning environment that was conducive to productive independent and interdependent learning relationships.
Research Aims and Method
The purpose of the study was to investigate the enabling potential of online teaching for collaborative learning that occurred around, with and through the Internet, the curriculum, and the students’ engagement with the course’s requirements. The research took place within the Graduate School of Education at the University of Queensland. The University is one of only three Australian members of Universitas 21, a global alliance of 20 research-intensive universities committed to quality enhancement of research and teaching through benchmarking against international best practice. With the goal of improving the flexibility and marketability of its courses, the UQ Teaching and Learning Enhancement Plan 2000-2002 requires its teaching staff to integrate some technology component into the content and/or delivery of courses.
Research Method and Design
The study was a qualitative, instrumental case study in which I used one case as a site for investigating the forms and outcomes of collaborative learning through online technologies (Merriam, 1998). I was not a member of the teaching team but collected data from the course, Media and Technologies in Education, for two reasons. First, the course displayed a high level of application and integration of the new information technologies, and second, it foregrounded the notion of cyber technologies as contexts for cooperative sociocultural practices rather than as neutral instruments for the retrieval and exchange of information.
I attended and wrote field notes for the lectures, tutorials and Open Access sessions, and conducted informal interviews with twenty students, and the teaching and tutorial staff. Data sources included the course profile and a range of student texts such as assignments, webpages and seventy randomly selected reflective logs. Students who did not want their work used for research signed a Permission Not Granted form. Student consent was gained for the material published in this article. A questionnaire was administered to a cohort of 246 students in the first week of lectures, but this data is not used here. Forty-five hours of tutorial sessions were videotaped, ten hours of which are used in the following analysis.
The course, Media and Technologies in Education, is a 13-week one-semester component of a Bachelor of Education degree. The focus of Media and Technologies in Education is the social, cultural and educational issues that relate to mass media, popular culture and the new information technologies. Media studies help students understand how the mass media construct social realities, values and identities through the creation of meaning and desire in text. The curricular focus of media and cultural studies courses are those texts and images that are relevant to an increasingly diverse and media-saturated student population (Luke, 1997). On completion of the course, students are expected to demonstrate an understanding of critical literacy concepts associated with mass media and information technology education, and to have developed skills of media text analysis and hypertext production.
Content is delivered through a combination of face-to-face and online contact. The teaching staff gives weekly lectures that are published on a website. This webpage comprising ten hypertext links or nodes is the online location for information on and communication within the course. The site’s hotlinks provide information on the teaching team, the names of the Learning Coordinators and the Open Access personnel, the Course Profile, access to the virtual tutorials, course notices, a list of helpful websites, the Lecture Notes, and the University’s Internet Code of Practice.
Tutorials are also delivered in a combination of face-to-face and electronic modes. Students meet once a week in the technology studios to participate in the e-tutorial discussions, and to work on their assignments and webpages. Attendance at tutorials is compulsory, but students come and go at will. The tutorial groups are also assigned to an electronic email list that forms a virtual tutorial or online discussion group. E-tutorials provide an electronic forum for discussion of the course readings, the lectures and assignments.
In the tutorial groups, the students work in self-selected teams of four. Each week, one of these groups prepares discussion questions from the lecture and posts them on the email discussion for the larger tutorial group. Students with computers at home are able to contribute to the discussion at their leisure. Issues of equity in relation to access are paramount in technology-based courses, and so blocks of Open Access hours in one of the studios are booked for the students’ use. This provision complements existing access to public terminals in the University’s Information Technology Services Centre and the libraries.
Formative and summative assessment is based on a portfolio of completed assignments. Activities undertaken in the preparation of these assignments discursively reflect the epistemological design of the course by providing a context for self-directed, collaborative learning. The assignments are a School Webpage Review, a Media Analysis Unit, a Curriculum Resource Unit, a Reflective Log, and the construction of an Individual and a Group Webpage. Students are required to submit the assignments at specified stages during the semester, and to publish them at the end of the semester on the webpage they create.
The School Webpage Review entails the selection and evaluation of the websites of two schools in the state. This review aims to develop the students’ evaluative skills by familiarising them with the kinds of informational strategies used by schools to represent themselves in cyberspace. The Media Analysis Unit requires the semiotic and narrative analysis of one media-oriented print advertisement. By Week 13, the students should have published this assignment and a scanned copy of the analysed image onto their individual webpages.
The Curriculum Resource Unit involves the evaluation and comparison of two search engines and two websites relevant to a particular curriculum area. Students are required to document the “search journey” in a Search Log. Similar to the School Webpage Review assignment, two analytic concepts--functional design and knowledge design--and their respective criteria are provided to assist the students.
The Email Threads and Reflective Log assignment gives the students opportunity to reflect on their experience with “cyber education.” It entails the selection of one prominent issue taken from the e-tutorial discussions (e.g., “virtual arguments”), and the pulling together of 8 to 10 student contributions, or “threads,” from the archive of e-tutorial messages. The students must include some of their own messages in the discussion of the selected threads, the purpose of which is to demonstrate their participation in the e-tutorials during the semester.
The Webpage assignment requires each group of four students to design and develop an individual and a group webpage. The minimal components of the student’s individual sites are a site name, a map of contents, hypertext links to their four assignments, a personal profile and a task reflection. The group webpage incorporates a curricular theme for the webpage, hotlinks to the webpage of each group member, the names and email addresses of the members, at least one image, the date of the last webpage update, and a Task Profile indicating each member’s contribution to the construction of the site.
The Social and Spatial Practice of Cyber Pedagogy
At the macro level, many features of the Media and Technologies classroom were different from conventional university teaching settings. For example, with the exception of the lectures, the students’ work took place not in a classroom but in a computer laboratory, at any of the library’s terminals, or at the students’ homes.
Microanalyses of the social and physical space in which group activities occur explicate the relations of the interactions taking place. The ideological function of spatiality is fundamental in teaching and learning environments where discursive practices and social relations intersect directly with the axes of knowledge and power. Foucault (1979) showed how the institutional and disciplinary domination of the human body occurs through its position in and relation to specific kinds of spaces. According to Foucault, power is neither a property nor a privilege that is possessed. Rather, it operates in and through a spatial network of relations that combine with knowledge to dominate and develop the body by subjecting it to “dispositions, manoeuvres, tactics, techniques, functionings” (Foucault, 1977. p. 26).
In traditional classrooms, the distribution of students’ bodies in rows, the unobstructed gaze of the teacher, and the authority deployed by her/him creates knowledge. This, in turn, provides the means for the exercise of power. Power is exercised through “discipline,” which trains and corrects. Contrary to the Marxist position on power as a negative thing wielded from the top down and legitimated by false ideologies, Foucault views power in terms of social relations at the local or micro level. Because it constructs knowledgeable and socially useful individuals, power is positive and productive.
In order to analyse the social behaviours of this classroom, four three-minute blocks at twenty-minute intervals were randomly selected from ten of the 45 video-recorded tutorials. A visual analysis of the video frames was made every 30 seconds in each of the 3-minute blocks. This breakdown provided a sample of 240 observations that were analysed according to the following criteria:
The purpose of these questions was to develop criteria for establishing spatial categories for teacher and student roles, positions and behaviours around the computer terminals. My aim was to establish whether the pedagogical practice here was that of teaching as transmitting, as learning, or as a context for learning.
The promotion of collaborative learning was central to the design and organisation of Media and Technologies in Education. The data from Table 1 confirms that much of the course work entailed a multi-party, cooperative approach.
Table 1. Spatial Categories for Teacher / Student Roles
The analyses show that the students spent 91% of their tutorial time working in small groups, compared to 9% on individual work. Item 3 shows that the greater part of the student’s time (64+17 = 81%) was spent in communication with either another student or a tutor. The interactions were mostly between students (64%), compared to 17% with the tutors. The focus here is on the co-construction of tasks rather than on the presentation of information by tutor or student in a seminar-style format.
Item 4 similarly demonstrates the facilitative role of the tutors who stood mostly behind the students watching (66%), rather than in front of (19%) or beside (15%) them. The pedagogical matrix of this classroom was therefore not a teacher with print materials, but computer screens, the texts of the Web, and other students. Indeed, data from Item 5 shows that writing materials and books appeared in only 8% of the observations made.
The students began their group webpages at the start of the semester, thereby establishing from the outset a framework for cooperative planning and the shared allocation of tasks. As one student conceded, “The group webpage forced us to consult with each other from the start.” The following sample of representative reflective logs of the students whose groups worked well illustrate this point. The logs convey a sense of tangible gratitude to the other members of the group for their “patience” and “assistance.” One student stated, “My fellow members were a great support to me, particularly on the technical side of things, and I appreciated that never once was I made to feel a burden on the group.” Another claimed:
The claim that “no task was a chore or something we didn’t want to do” shows the level of teamwork generated within the teams. These comments also convey an candid sense of achievement and pride in the learning outcome: a website that is, in the eyes of its designer and author, “such a success.”
The self-directed nature of the tutorial activities, combined with the students’ low levels of technological competence, meant that organisational, informational and technical problems frequently challenged their cooperation, patience and resolve. The following excerpt from the talk of one group is typical of the consultative approach needed to trouble-shoot the many problems that arose, particularly with transferring their webpages to the University’s server.
This negotiation around a problem - an image failed to appear on a published webpage although it had been transferred to the webserver - requires the students to define and to articulate the glitch for the others to think about. This collective risk-taking, free from tutor interference and evaluation, minimises performance anxiety associated with individual public responses in the Question-Response-Evaluation sequence of traditional classroom pedagogies. As noted in the comments below, because of the large number of students for each tutor, the students relied heavily on each other.
The Task Reflection assignments also reflected a high level of group problem solving. One student used the terms “we found” or “I found” eleven times in his reconstruction of the task. Three of these phrases relate to searching the Internet and locating particular images or sites, but the other seven refer to discovering, realising, or understanding a technical detail through an action taken. The following example illustrates the Action / Problem / Attempt / Problem / Resolution sequence and structure of this kind of self-directed group activity:
The following statements illustrate the quantity of talking, listening, consulting, assessing, disputing, reviewing and reconsidering that went on at each phase of the organisation and delegation of the tasks. Each step toward the final objective required some form of oral communication, reading, writing, keyboarding and online information literacy skill.
The notion of interdependent teamwork was, nevertheless, a new and personally challenging experience to some. Many were conscious of their individuated learning styles, and openly self-critical of their roles and their contribution¾or lack of it¾to the task.
Opportunity for reflection and meta-analyses of their own practice helped the students to understand and confront differences between their team’s attitudes and approaches, and their own. As one student put it: “Within our group, we are quiet [sic] different, but we always agreed with each other and have taken each other’s work and life into account.”
Some groups nevertheless did not function effectively. These groups used a range of strategies to manage the refusal of their team members to “pull their weight.” The most common was the sending of email messages to each other and to the tutors to complain about a recalcitrant student. The tutors advised the students to email the guilty party, attaching an open copy to the tutor. This provided the uncooperative students opportunity to change their attitude and behaviour by letting them know indirectly that the tutor was aware of the issue.
A logistical complication with working collaboratively to construct webpages in educational settings is that the students’ contributing files are saved to a floppy disk. Group members then coordinate meeting times to work together. The main difficulty was to balance the limited and inflexible hours of the Open Access sessions with university timetables and other responsibilities such as the work and personal commitments of four people with different lifestyles doing different courses. The following representative statement shows that the issue of accessibility to computers, the Internet and tutorial support was problematic for many.
Another aspect to the issue of access with computer-mediated, group work was the logistical challenge of having four people working at a single computer terminal.
The issue of differential levels of technological competence was, surprisingly, not deemed problematic by the students. Many viewed their discrepant abilities as a positive factor in the working relations that developed within the groups. Though difficult and often frustrating, the work was, at least, hands-on, applied, and undertaken in a supportive context.
These comments show that the organisational principle of this classroom was cooperation rather than competition. This sociality extended to off-campus contact, where students met in colleges and flats to work together to meet assignment deadlines. In a study of online personal networks in a distance education program, Haythornthwaite (2000) similarly established the importance of informal contact and communication. In the classes she investigated, frequent and multiplex social ties of either face-to-face or virtual proximity were central to student motivation, class participation, and “anytime, anyplace work and social bonds.”
The specificities of institutional context, curricular resources and pedagogical practices in technology-mediated learning environments militate against the formulation of generic outcomes or lessons that are globally transferable. Nevertheless, the provision of information on the insights gained by this group of teachers through the changes they made to their course may ease the design and implement process for others. A recent technical development, for example, is the adoption of the bulletin board software application, Web CT, for e-tutorials. The teaching staff anticipates that this will alleviate difficulties associated with the tediousness of the less flexible, asynchronous method used previously. A recent upgrade of computer laboratory equipment also should enable the students to focus their collaborative energies on task related intellectual issues rather than on technical problems. In turn, this should reduce student anxiety levels induced by negative encounters with technology, many of which previously were a product of inadequacies in university infrastructure. Finally, a reduction in time spent talking “at” students with the reallocation of one of the two hours of lecture time to tutorial activity will maximise opportunity for hands-on collaborative activity.
The purpose of this paper was to explore the nature of the collaborative learning that occurred with and around online technologies in one course of a teacher education program. Teachers create learning conditions in which understanding is possible, and students are obligated to capitalise on those conditions. The pedagogical conditions in this class comprised hybrid social practices combining traditional methods (e.g., face-to-face lecturing) with new theory (e.g., constructivism), relevant content (e.g., media and cultural studies) and new information technologies (e.g., email and World Wide Web). Hence, the convergence of instructional design and online pedagogies of Media and Technologies in Education modeled the kinds of learning and teaching that course content about the technologies promoted.
The digital technologies used here enabled a diminution of teacher-student contact and an increase in student independence and interdependence. Whilst the teaching staff imparted information and knowledge to students via conventional didactic means, the tutors used a facilitative pedagogical approach rather than a transmission method. The data indicated that more generative learning occurred through self-directed group work in the tutorials and Open Access sessions than from listening and note-taking in lectures. As the students realized the benefits of working with others in the laboratory class, they cooperated to achieve their tasks and overcome the problems that arose in the achievement of that goal. The inevitability of interdependence led some of them to be critical of their personal, individualistic work styles.
Learning in this class occurred not so much through a body of content to be mastered but in and through the process of achieving a complex, technology-mediated group task. Student course evaluations, assignments and assessment showed that the course design and delivery provided most of the students an understanding of the concepts and practices of media studies and multiliteracies. As each complication arose, students cooperated to identify and resolve the issue within the context of that particular literate or technological domain. Opportunity to collectively verbalise difficulties (e.g., how to wrap text around an image) and to reflect on the progress of their understanding of that difficulty, provided students with reasoned, collective and coherent insight to the problem space. The skills, techniques and knowledges acquired arose out of the demands of the context, whether that was solving a problem in relation to their homepage, or posing questions to the e-tutorial discussion group. This instance of authentic, engaged sociality and democratic spatiality generated the kinds of independent and interdependent attitudes to learning that are essential in the networked and communications-oriented classrooms and communities of the current Information Age.