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Through the looking glass: Roles, relationships and reflective practice to improve the use of educational technology

Les Hardy and Robyn Benson
Monash University
The effective use of educational technology in higher education is rarely an individual endeavour. The skills involved in design, production, teaching, evaluation and student support draw on a complex network of roles and relationships which can have considerable impact on the central relationships in the learning environment: those involving the students, the teacher, and the learning resources. For improving student learning and the range of factors that contribute to it in a technology-enriched learning environment, the concept of reflective practice has much to offer.

Using as an example an introductory Accounting subject offered on multiple campuses in Australia and overseas, this paper holds a mirror up to one set of relationships involved in its design and implementation, that between the teaching academic (subject specialist) and educational designer. Reflection on the roles and relationships involved in this partnership thus extends the notion of reflective practice beyond the student-teacher relationship. Just as the shift in focus made possible by considering the multiple narratives of teacher and students can be seen as a rich resource for reflective practice and for improving learning so, too, do additional perspectives add further dimensions to understanding and improving the learning environment.


The team-based nature of designing and developing flexible learning resources has been widely recognised. The use of course teams, as a means of creating quality teaching materials, was a central feature of the British Open University (UKOU) from its beginning in 1970. As electronic teaching resources have moved to the foreground, the importance of a multidisciplinary, team-based approach has continued to be highlighted (for example, Laurillard, 1993; Phillips, 1997). Bates (1997) has regularly referred to the deficiencies of the Lone Ranger and Tonto approach where 'the professor with their trusty computer skilled graduate student' work together on innovations, which often 'end up as a costly supplement to conventional teaching' and 'usually lack quality in the final product.' A recent analysis of the roles needed to implement and manage distance education programs in higher education identified thirteen roles, though noting that roles are not equivalent to positions or titles, and that one position may include many roles (Williams, 2000).

While the number of roles and positions will vary according to circumstances, Laurillard & Margetson (1997, p.18), note the importance of establishing a pattern of subject team membership

... that includes representation of all the skills relevant to the development of flexible learning - subject expertise, educational design, library resources, editorial, presentational design, evaluation, production, project management.
Clearly, to carry a project forward, good relationships between team members are vital. Amongst early discussion on the problems of UKOU course teams, was the following comment by Martin (1979, p.8):
Far from being earnest collectives, most course teams are erratic, anarchic groupings, learning by trial and error in an area where educational technology usually has precious little to say, working by mutual adjustment rather than unitary consensus, bending and battering the system until it more or less fits.
In Australia, Crick (1980, p.128) commented:
Course teams can be likened to families. Happy families do exist, but others fall apart when rebellious children leave home or when parents separate; most survive, but not without varying elements of antagonism and resentment.
This paper focuses on one set of relationships in the design and development team, that of subject specialist and educational designer, and on the importance of reflection, which at one level provides a means of promoting healthy relationships in the team, but in itself can be seen as playing an essential role in design and development. This is illustrated by reference to the ongoing development of an undergraduate Accounting subject, which is offered in Australia to on-campus students, distance education students (including Victorian Year 13 school students), as well as to overseas students in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Schön's concept of reflective practice is used because of its links with both education and the professions.

Education, the professions and reflective practice

The intellectual processes of reflection, analysis and interpretation undertaken by teachers to improve their teaching, in many ways reflect the learning processes expected of students, when these are seen as involving construction of meaning (Jonassen, 1999), influenced by factors such as experience, cognition and context (Grabinger, 1996). Although perspectives from critical theory (Mezirow, 1981) and action research (Carr & Kemmis, 1986) provide useful insights into this reflective activity, the development of this subject has drawn particularly on the concept of reflective practice (Schön, 1983;1987) because of the links that it makes between reflection and professions that require a high degree of formal rationality, and the suggestion that reflection is both required by such professionals and those engaged in educating these professionals.

While the use of Schön's term 'reflection in action' has specific reference in this paper to the professional educator, these ideas were developed in the interest of professions such as engineering and medicine where a high level of formal rationality that eventually results in instrumental practice shapes technical expertise. Schön argues that the most important areas of professional practice lie beyond the instrumental boundaries based on technical expertise and go into the more indeterminate areas of practice that deal with uncertainty, uniqueness and value conflict. Schön's ideas have been linked to professional accounting at a theoretical level by Velayutham & Perera (1993).

Schön has recently indicated that as part of his own 'reflection in action' he has become interested in design, how it works in practice, and the role that it has in professional capability (O'Reilly, 1999). A curriculum based upon Schön's principles must involve interactivity between the teacher and learner in a continuing narrative that, although initially promoted by the teacher, has within its structure the possibility of collaboratively engaging students in higher order thinking. This is being achieved by challenging the assumptions of traditional accounting pedagogy with its focus on a single narrative of instrumental and technical skills, to suggest that there are numerous narratives that can be explored. The notion of multiple narratives provides a means of conceptualising the need for professionals to cope with ambiguity, uncertainty and value conflict, something that cannot be achieved by a curriculum that only offers one narrative and does not encourage multiple stories.

While the accounting literature calls for more student-centred and innovative teaching strategies (Adler et. al., 2000; Boyce et. al., 2001), for a variety of reasons these are not often introduced. Within accounting, these strategies require the developer/teacher and the student to engage with each other outside of the pedagogical norm, reflecting on both the educational experience and also its contribution to the professional life of the accountant, a double but seamless loop between educational and professional life. This paper extends the notions of 'reflection in action' and 'knowing in action' to the partnership of the accounting educator and educational designer in the ongoing design and development of a subject. It was the need to understand and explore student learning in such a context that led to their first contact, resulting in the introduction of computer mediated communication (CMC) in the subject. This relationship then became part of the learning loop with joint 'reflection on action' being essential if a non-traditional curriculum was to achieve its goals. It has become apparent, as the use of CMC and other web-based strategies evolve within the subject, that the narrative emerging between the subject specialist and educational designer based on their 'reflection in action' plays a key continuing role, informing both the design of the subject and their professional input.

Educational design and reflective practice: the subject specialist's view

Accounting academics have a number of reasons to be concerned with the role of design in professional practice. These include their role as accountants and educators and the resultant relationship that forms between the university and the accounting profession. This complex relationship has been recognised within the accounting education literature (Adler et. al., 2000; Boyce et. al., 2001). The profession has indicated a need for accounting graduates to be more broadly educated and to develop skills in exercising judgement based on analysis of conceptual issues (CPA & CA, 1999). Five cognitive and behavioural skill areas are required to be developed in accounting graduates. These must be shown to exist if university courses are to meet their accreditation criteria.

The tension for accounting educators in encouraging the development of soft generic skills alongside hard rational knowledge is all too clear (Adler et. al., 2000; Boyce et al, 2001). Accounting education seeks to be more student-centred by focusing on case studies and problem solving activities, although there is a wide recognition that most approaches remain procedurally based (Boyce et. al., 2001; Hughes & Berry, 2000; Milne & McConnell, 2001). The use of educational technology opens up the possibility of developing innovative approaches to student-centred learning in accounting along with the justifiable fear that it is inspired by financial constraints and will reinforce the current widespread procedural approach (Crawford et. al., 2001; McCourt Larres & Radcliffe, 2000).

Adler et. al. (2000) have argued that if accounting education is to become more learner-centred, the relationship between accounting educators, universities and the profession needs to be rethought. Part of that rethinking can be undertaken by considering design and reflection on design as a critical component of accounting educators' professional practice. A relationship with an educational designer can be a valuable catalyst in facilitating this at a subject level. Adler et. al. (2000) argue that non-reflective educational practices are a major impediment to a learner-centred approach in accounting education. It would appear that a contribution to student-centred learning can be achieved if the critical role of design and reflection on that design is seen as an integral part of being a professional. Reflective practice and iterative communication resulting from the relationship between an accounting educator and educational designer as they explore the effective use of educational technology, would suggest a professional enhancement and deeper understanding of both roles, articulating a process which often remains private and inaccessible (Schön, 1983; O'Reilly, 1999) but which as Adler et. al. (2000) indicate, is essential if accounting educators are to adopt and develop the skills that the profession requires. The view through the looking glass should thus not be seen as a self-indulgent and dilettante activity but rather as an essential and rigorous process contributing to ongoing educational improvement and innovation.

Educational design and reflective practice: the educational designer's view

The educational designer provides a different but complementary perspective through the looking glass. The view of educational design used here focuses on student construction of meaning, compared to a prescriptive, objectivist and teacher-centred approach to the design of instruction (see Phillips 1997). (For this reason, the title 'educational designer' rather than 'instructional designer' is used.) Dialogue is the vehicle for the evolution of shared understandings:
... humans in communication are engaged actively in the making and exchange of meanings, it is not merely about the transmission of messages (Evans & Nation, 1989, p.37).
Although educational designers, between and within institutions, work in a variety of ways, the central element common to most educational (and instructional) designers is their relationship with the subject specialist in the design and development team. Educational designers bring a focus on process rather than content, asking questions such as:

Are the learning objectives clear? Does the material result in the desired learning outcomes? Does it have the appropriate mix of media to achieve the learning outcomes in the most efficient manner? What is the quality of the interaction between student and learning materials? What is the role of the tutor/instructor relative to the technology-based learning? Is it well structured? Can the students easily find all the material they need and move around the teaching materials easily? (Bates, 1997).

In the dialogue that ensues as a result of asking these questions, and in the spaces between question and answer, lies the potential for reflection. In this subject the accounting educator also brought wide educational experience at the primary, secondary and tertiary level, informed by theories that could be traced back to Bruner and tempered by pragmatic experience. It was not informed by theories of adult learning or the constructivist/instructivist debate related to educational design, or by the accounting education literature. However, the combined experiences supported incremental and iterative subject development, opening the window to the process of reflective practice in the context of their own professional application and development.

Roles, relationships and reflective practice in action

Prior to the introduction of CMC, the accounting subject was offered either face-to-face or via print-based distance education materials. While the issues-based aspect was in part dealt with on-campus by presentations and resultant discussion, other students were denied this opportunity. The relationship with an educational designer which began with a review of printed subject material, led to exploring the possibility of using CMC for distance education students, primarily to increase their engagement with the curriculum issues that underpin the subject. This raised a host of questions in terms of both the curriculum and the available technology. As the traditional feedback mechanisms of the on-campus class were unavailable, the accounting educator approached the educational designer for further advice and the evaluative role of educational design emerged. This resulted in a relationship that developed over two evaluation cycles. It also resulted in a range of other accounting educators reflecting on their practice, as the impact on the development of an individual subject flowed into all subjects in the department.

The incremental and iterative development of the electronic learning resources can clearly be linked to the reflective process involved in interaction between the accounting educator and educational designer. This is evident in the reports of both evaluations, the reflection that occurred based on those reports, and the implementation of change based on that reflection:

While WebCT became the platform for electronic delivery, the accounting educator's reflection at the time of its introduction demonstrated both fear and hope in regard to its potential. The following reflection was shared with the educational designer:
Robyn, I can see lots of advantages in going onto WebCT, however there are costs involved including a sharp learning curve for me. What does concern me is that although WebCT I think has some of the answers..., (eg: ease of access, more attractive and can sub-divide the subject more effectively), the issue of participation goes beyond the instrument of delivery. It goes to the heart of the subject, the motivation of people to get involved etc. In many ways these are intangible qualities but represent the real challenge at a tertiary level and with a subject like Accounting. If WebCT makes my subject more attractive but I cannot get at the hearts of my students by having them participate hopefully in a voluntary manner then I probably have only made a pretty picture book that is easier to find.
The relationship established in conducting the first evaluation provided a basis for the second, which examined the use of WebCT. This was a more ambitious evaluation involving on-campus students, Australian distance education students, students from Singapore and Malaysia, and the mentors of the Year 13 students. It showed that many of the technical issues initially raised had been overcome. The accounting educator was able to note in his reflection on the Australian students:

In the last two semesters since the introduction of WebCT no student has made a complaint in regard to lack of access to the material.

On reflection, the evaluation highlighted a conflict between the use of WebCT for procedural and instrumental purposes and its use for learning that was more student-centred. While the accounting educator's motivation for being involved in CMC was to strengthen the role of issues in the curriculum, a number of students tended to focus only on the resources that were being provided along with the opportunities for interaction. This instrumental use of WebCT by students was illustrated in the following reflection, which the accounting educator shared with the educational designer:

... the underlying philosophy of both the subject and the engagement of students with that philosophy as represented by the content of the subject is not as widely understood, as I would hope. ... this is both a matter of curriculum design but also relates to a view that student-centred learning is a desirable activity and should be reflected in the way in which technology such as WebCT is used in the learning process. In particular student-centred learning should allow students' views to be reflexively incorporated back into the ongoing development of the subject. This is difficult when a major tool of the subject is not being used to allow that reflexivity to be fed back into the subject.
The second evaluation identified an overwhelmingly positive response to the use of WebCT, with the major criticism (particularly from the Malaysian students) relating to not providing even more instrumental and procedural information. The word, 'lurker' was introduced to the lexicon of the accounting educator, appropriately describing the majority of students who were using WebCT (many regularly) but not contributing to discussion. The multi-campus model also began to highlight the role of staff on other campuses and for a variety of reasons their failure to become involved.

In reflection, the accounting educator wrote:

... a feature of student-centred learning is for students to have contact with one another and understand the benefits that this interactivity involves. It would appear that although this is a major raison de etre of Introductory Accounting B, students and staff involved in the subject need to be reminded of the virtues of such an approach and be encouraged incrementally to become engaged with the process. ... this should not be seen as just a student problem, it is both a curriculum problem for this subject and probably a failure to adequately transmit the philosophical base of the subject to the learning process.
Clearly, an emerging issue that had to be faced was the relationship of the WebCT model with the multi-campus delivery system. The accounting educator wrote: would be inappropriate to let the WebCT site for multi-campus delivery degenerate into the lowest common denominator and not continue to grapple with the educational issues that motivated my initial involvement with the technology, which was an educational not a technical or instrumental interest.
One positive aspect of the second evaluation was the role that the bulletin board was beginning to play in terms of some students' use of WebCT. The recommendation from the educational designer to explore its use in a more structured way, perhaps using the model suggested by Salmon (2000), has led to a whole range of other possibilities as a result of subsequent reflection. It is the potential use of the bulletin board that has convinced the accounting educator that forms of assessment do need to be linked to its use. This issue, raised in the relationship between the accounting education and educational designer, has caused a wider range of experiences to be sought, particularly on the creative use of bulletin boards for group work, research and presentations online. The circle of experience is being widened and shared: the reflective practice of the relationship has shown Schön's theory of professionalism and the link to design to be applicable in practice.

The relationship, in retrospect, has created a ripple effect across both the Accounting and Finance team, extending wider into the Faculty, as the experience has been shared with others at various forums and the principled eclecticism of the approach has contributed to their understanding of what can be achieved. The skill of the accounting educator has been recognised by his department in nominating him to lead an online enhancement project for first year Accounting, while the relationship between the accounting educator and educational designer has extended to the preparation of shared conference papers and the potential for further publications. There have also been difficulties to overcome: failures to gain funding for further development, limited resources to implement ideas, geographic separation from other campuses, and the politics of the labyrinthine university bureaucracy. However, the positive aspects of the experience suggest that developing reflective practice as a component of students' learning has been as much based upon the practices of the teacher and educational designer as on those of the students.

The notion of linking electronic interactivity to the multiple narratives of learners and learner-educators provides a rich and complex area to explore through a reflective process directed at the ongoing development of professionally oriented subjects. While it was the interactive potential to enhance learning that motivated the initial use of CMC, interactivity has been shown to be far more difficult to achieve than transmitting information electronically. Evaluation results have indicated that the technology, even at an instrumental level, is being taken up at different rates in different geographical locations and under different delivery models. The Malaysian students and the Year 13 school students have clearer links to local teachers who have not been closely involved in the development and implementation of CMC, and this appears to be related to its limited use by these students. In contrast, students in Singapore, who were more responsive in this mode, are more directly linked with the provider in Australia. If the development of the online component is to continue, all people involved in its development and teaching must collaborate in order to nurture the collaboration of students. As an issues-based subject is outside of the accounting pedagogical norm, there is a danger that students will not be convinced of the value of persevering with such an approach, despite the fact that it has the professional bodies' support and clearly has potential to promote interactivity in a way that more traditional approaches could not. If the value of these educational goals is not widely held and supported, an instrumental outcome could become a de facto bottom line in the use of CMC to support students.


The role of the professional as a designer has become a key focus of Schön, who considers that at the general level it allows the professional to make and consider actions under conditions of complexity and uncertainty (O'Reilly, 1999). It is also recognised that although design plays a critical role in professional practice there is no good theory of design, (O'Reilly, 1999) or a science of design (Schön, 1983). This paper explores the evolution of design as having a key link to the reflective practice of an accounting educator and educational designer in developing the effective use of technology in an introductory Accounting subject. 'Design in practice' Schön argues, has a role to play in developing the professional attributes of all professions (O'Reilly, 1999). Reflection on the action of design in practice, offering insight into what professions actually do, is a potentially rewarding activity, as this aspect of their art often remains private and inaccessible to others. Clearly a key role of the educational designer is to help tease out those private and inaccessible activities and help make those reflections public, particularly in regard to the value, virtue and necessity of working together. In linking design to reflection, a common view through the looking glass emerges for those engaged in educational technology from a variety of perspectives. This can only be achieved through effective roles and relationships implemented within a genuine team-based approach.


  1. The accounting educator is now of the view that for successful interaction online, assessment has to become part of the process. He is currently working towards a means of achieving that outcome.


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Please cite as: Hardy, L. and Benson, R. (2002). Through the looking glass: Roles, relationships and reflective practice to improve the use of educational technology. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July.

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