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International perspectives on the design of technology-supported learning environments

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  • Journal of Computing in Higher Education Fall 1996, Vol. 8(1), 140-143.




    Edited by Stella Vosniadou, Erik De Corte, Robert Glaser, and Heinz Mandl 1996, 396 pp.

    Reviewed by Carol B. MacKnight

    LTHOUGH UTILIZING TECHNOLOGY to improve teach- ing and learning has been advocated for more than 30 years, the attention paid it on most college campuses has been a fairly

    recent phenomenon. It took success with word-processing and the widespread use of e-mail to convince the many campus die-hards that the computer is an important tool.

    While many were in different stages of conversion, businesses satu- rated the Interact with information-based marketing. Their success, in advertising products and communicating directly with their customers and employees globally, has had a strong impact on higher education admin- istration. Hardly a college or university, for example, is without an Intemet site describing their uniqueness and specialities.

    Increasing access to all types of information heralds the next step, namely, an expanded vision of applications~from a marketing tool to instructional applications and changes in ideas about where students are taught, when, and how. Today, students have access to a wide range of distance-learning courses intemationaUy which are in direct competition with those being offered in their home state.

    In addition to increasing competition, there are many other reasons for using information technologies to support teaching. However, the most important one may be its potential to address the diversity of students entering higher education, many of whom are not as well prepared as were their parents. We have the technology and the know-how. What



    is missing from the recipe is the will to do something about it. We need to acknowledge that American education is in a crisis situation and completely overhaul the system, beginning with new models of instruc- tion, production, and delivery.

    The current design of instructional systems, aimed at meeting the challenge of diversity and changing needs, remains insufficient. Many more empirical studies are needed that examine the psychological and educational principles on which technology-supported learning environ- ments are based before we can form new practices and theories that promote learning.

    International Perspectives on the Design of Technology-Supported Learning Environments introduces the reader to some of the key inter- national developers who are designing instructional settings to improve education and add to our knowledge of instructional-learning theory. We see how they address the design issues through a variety of applications in different contexts together with the psychological and educational prin- ciples underlying each project. Chapters are grouped according to three major topics: representation, social interaction, and meaningful contexts and multiple perspectives. The final two chapters on principles of system design, although a very important subject, appear to be somewhat of an after thought tacked onto the book.


    The learning environments described in this section on representa- tion attempt to promote learning using different kinds of representations that are first internalized and later externalized to increase student aware- ness of them. In this way, students are working in the manner of an experienced-scientist or mathematician. For example, the Tools for Exploratory Learning Program, directed by the London Mental Models Group and described by Joan Bliss, contains computer tools that allow students either to represent aspects of their own ideas about a domain or to explore and interact with models based on the ideas of others.



    Students reason in real-world topics such as traffic congestion, the pro- cess of keeping fit, and business operations.


    Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in Vygotsky's theo- ries on social interaction and cooperative learning. According to Glaser, Ferguson, and Vosniadou, Vygotsky believes that symbolic expression originates in "social interaction and then become intrapersonal (1996, p. 5)." In this section on social interaction, instructional theorists have focused on technological applications that promote social interaction and cooperative learning. As an example, Judith Tomey-Purta describes a learning environment, the International Communications and Negotiations Project (ICONS), that employs networked computers to enhance indi- vidual student's learning in the social sciences, and describes the nature of peer-group collaboration in this environment.

    In ICONS, students pretend to be diplomats from various countries. They must deal with the world situation with respect to international political and economic issues. They hear lectures and then begin nego- tiations in conferences around issues such as human rights, international debt, and the global environment. Team members communicate face- to-face before communicating between teams linked by modems to the system. Most messages are sent during on-line conferences with stu- dents communicating simultaneously with teams representing different countries. Students fiercely debate the wording and its precise meaning before sending a message over the network.

    Field notes and video tapes were used to document the participation structure of the groups and "the way in which the processes of thinking, revising, explaining, and mutual construction took place in this discourse community (Tomey-Purta, 1996, p. 207-208)." The author concedes that it was difficult to select an appropriate unit of analysis for measuring such a technology-rich setting that also included extensive peer-group interaction.




    Throughout the book, and certainly in this section, the focus is on creating technology-enhanced learning environments that emphasize meaningful tasks and on stimulating the student to view complex prob- lems from multiple perspectives. Both are thought to improve problem- solving skills and their transfer to new situations, which is what success- ful teaching is about.

    An example of such an effort is the Jasper Series developed by the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbuilt. This video-based series is designed to promote complex problem-solving, reasoning, effective communication, and to recognize the usefulness of mathematical proce- dures in solving important everyday problems. After viewing a short Jasper adventure, students must generate subgoals, identify relevant information embedded in the story, cooperate with others to plan and solve the particular problem, discuss the advantages and disadvantage of possible solutions, and compare perspectives by pointing out and explaining in- teresting events (Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbuilt, p. 289).

    The data collected indicates that students had difficulty in trans- ferring their problem-solving skills to similar problems. Further, the project developers determined that "students [in addition to group work] need to learn to solve complex problems individually and needed in- dividualized practice with similar projects (p. 296)." To address this issue and strengthen their problem-solving strategies, a computer-based tutor is being designed to provide students with additional practice in solving 'what if problems where a variable in the original scenario is altered.

    Through the many applications presented in the 18 chapters, the reader can appreciate the bidirectional effect of research on new developments in both practice and theory. If you are interested in developing applications and making informed improvements to edu- cation, this book is full of new approaches to learning and instruction and is an important addition to your personal library.

    Lawrence Erlabum Associates Inc., Publishers 10 Industrial Avenue Mahwah, New Jersey 07430



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