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Introducing a studio-based learning environment into Information Technology

Angela Carbone
Kathy Lynch
David Arnott

School of Information Management and Systems, Monash University
Peter Jamieson
Center for Higher Education Development, Monash University
The implementation of a studio-based approach to teaching in the Bachelor of Information Management and Systems (BIMS) at Monash University has instituted a new teaching model. A model in which the traditional lecture theatre and tutorial room/laboratory environment is replaced by a model based on the development of collaborative learning communities, and professional practice. This model encourages students to learn and practice the skills and techniques required in the discipline, whilst working in an environment which encourages learning by doing, and which simulates the working environments they will encounter subsequently in their professional careers.

It is anticipated that the teaching of a traditional IT degree within the non-traditional studio-based environment as detailed in this paper, will produce graduates that have more than academic knowledge and skills, but 'hidden' employable skills such as communication, cooperation, and collaboration and self-direction, that industry is demanding. The staff in the School of Information Management and Systems (SIMS) perceive that educating students using a studio-based approach also develops a transparent transition between university and professional practice, and thus produces graduates ready to join the professional IT workforce.


Studios have been central to education in creative arts such as painting and creative professions such as architecture. Systems analysts are IT professionals whose work practice has much in common with architects. Systems analysts are tasked with clarifying information problems, defining client requirements, and designing information systems to satisfy those requirements. The physical construction of an information system is usually left to other professionals, however, like architects they need to know a great deal about the technology they are designing for. Systems analysts often work in teams and the ability to effectively communicate with clients is an essential skill. The School of Information Management and Systems (SIMS) at Monash University is piloting the studio in its Bachelor of Information Management and Systems in 2000.

This paper describes a framework for the development of studio-based teaching and learning environment for IT-related courses, and discusses the results of the first phase of its implementation. The introduction of the studio has required a radical re-thinking of all elements of the teaching program including:

This paper briefly reviews the theoretical basis for a studio-based learning environment in IT, and explains its pedagogical justification. The effects of its implementation on student learning and on teaching staff are described, and lessons for its future development and enhancement are discussed.


The Bachelor of Information Management and Systems (BIMS) is a three-year IT degree. It aims to prepare students for careers in the development and management of information systems. The focus of the degree is the study of information flow, information management, computer-based management systems, and systems analysis and design. Students study two subjects of programming, in the first year of the course. These are the only core (compulsory) programming subjects in the course and were included to provide students with background concepts and skills necessary to effectively manage an information technology project. There are six elective subjects in the course and students may choose to study a stream in more detail, such as programming. Prior to integrating the curriculum for studio based teaching and learning, the core subjects in the first year of the BIMS were very much stand alone. The BIMS is a vocationally oriented course with a strong practical focus. Throughout the course it is expected that students will develop real systems, products and services in studios specially designed for learning by doing. The new BIMS course has been designed to simulate a professional environment in both its content and teaching spaces. The School of Information Management and Systems (SIMS) have renovated an old teaching area specially for this course.

Studio-based teaching

The physical teaching space

The studio is a place in which the students' learning activities may simulate the work setting that they will encounter subsequently in their professional careers. The studio is also the place which will gear students to constantly interact with a group and studio director in a manner that will foster a collaborative culture in which fear is minimized and respect is maximized. The space has been designed to reflect the nature of SIMS: a young school with innovative teaching and research programs. The metaphor used in the studio area is industrial - the studios are about developing information technology products and systems in a socio-technical environment that stresses design and production. The use of cheap industrial materials, strong colour, and the existing timber floors created a strong statement. This statement alludes to the physical space as a learning environment that is challenging, creative, supportive, social, and fun.

There are currently two studio spaces, conveniently named Studio 1 and Studio 2. Both studios have a modern but industrial feel about them, and they are equipped with powerful computer systems. Studio 1 was conceived as the space where IT literacy and didactic teaching would occur. It is the foundation space where basic critical skills could be acquired and developed. A photograph of the Studio 1 is displayed in Figure 1.

Studio 2 was designed as a space where more intense teamwork and development work would be conducted. The large conference-type table in the centre of the room can be used for discussions of 25 students, where the smaller 'D' shaped tables on the rooms perimeter can be used for groups of five students. A photograph of the Studio 2 is displayed in Figure 2.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Studio 1

Figure 2

Figure 2: Studio 2

The formal difference between these two physical approaches to studio based teaching will be a key focus of the evaluation of the new BIMS course.

There are two other spaces within the studio precinct have been designed for students use throughout their course, these are a meeting room and an Internet café. The meeting room has been designed as a professional space with high quality furniture and facilities. It will be used for lecturer/tutor briefing, studio group meetings, student meetings, presentations, and ad hoc purposes.

The café is the informal meeting place and social center of the SIMS studio precinct and its design and location reflect this. The café is a result of input from the Monash Center of Higher Education and Development and it is hypothesized that student performance will improve with the presence of this facility (Jamieson et al, 2000). As students and staff will use the area seven days a week and at all hours, a facility for drink making, heating food, and informal relaxed discussions is provided. This will also keep food and drink away from expensive equipment in the studios. The café will also provide a space that people can go for relief from the intensive studio activity.

The teaching approach

Studio-based teaching is well-established in creative disciplines such as architecture and the arts. One of the most famous examples of integrating studios in a formal curriculum is the Bauhaus design school (Whitford 1984). The wider use of the studio model for teaching originally proposed by Schšn (1983) has been discussed extensively in academic circles. In establishing the studio in the IT field we need to take a fresh look at what we mean by teaching. It is not just a matter of finding better techniques than lecturing. There is no single, all-purpose best method of teaching. Teaching is an individual process and we need to adjust our decisions to suit our subject matter, available resourcing, our students and our own individual strengths and weaknesses as a teacher. The introduction of the studio has required a radical re-thinking of the teaching method, consideration of student learning, the nature of an integrated curriculum.

The key to studio teaching can be summarised by a quote taken from Tom Shuell:

If students are to learn desired outcomes in a reasonably effective manner, then the teacher's fundamental task is to get students to engage in learning activities that are likely to result in their achieving those outcomes... It is helpful to remember that what the student does is actually more important in determining what is learned than what the teacher does. (Shuell, 1986)
The idea that university teachers think about, and consequently conduct, their teaching in different ways, and that some ways are better than others, has evolved from phenomenographic studies of teaching in higher education (Dall'Alba, 1992). A student-centred approach to teaching which aims to actively involve students in order to change their understandings of the content, is seen as more sophisticated than one which is teacher-centred and intent on information delivery. For this project with its focus on changing the 'context' of teaching and learning, an important idea to emerge from this body of research is that the 'context' of teaching is a fundamental element of the approach adopted by the teacher (Trigwell, Prosser and Taylor, 1994).

The primary challenge for the studio teaching team is to adopt a cohesive approach to engaging students in the learning process. Research confirms that a teacher's approach to teaching is linked to students' approaches to learning. It is envisaged that studio teaching in IT would involve collaborative and shared teaching. This may involve equal participation by the teachers in every class, or allocation of different teaching responsibilities throughout a program according to individual expertise or availability. Regardless, the most important thing is to provide students with a clearly defined learning environment to avoid the confusion which could easily result from multiple teaching inputs into the program.

One of the features of the studio based environment in the BIMS course is to integrate the curriculum for all the core subjects at each level in the degree. With 25% of the course being devoted to teaching in the studio space, the effective educational use of the studio time is critical. The advantages of integrating curriculum have been highlighted by Shoemarker's research. that is organized in such a way that it cuts across subject-matter lines, bringing together various aspects of the curriculum into meaningful association to focus upon broad areas of study. It views learning and teaching in a holistic way and reflects the real world, which is interactive. (pp. 5 Shoemaker, 1989)


It is expected that students will undertake core studio work in collaborative groups, and also work towards a student nominated area of expertise. Much of the work reflects on realistic work problems and real situations. A portfolio will be developed in each year's studio. This will be assessed on several occasions, with an initial semester's evaluation of 40%, but with a final presentation of the entire portfolio to a panel comprising staff, members of the profession, and colleagues from other academic environments. This final assessment, worth 40%, will enable a re-evaluation of the initial portfolio along with the remainder of the year's work. A group oral presentation is also part of the assessment, and it is worth 20%.

The studio teaching team needed to make important decisions regarding the following portfolio requirements and assessment:

This meant that assessment was to be radically modified, as within IT courses students are most often required to submit specific solutions to a question and are rarely asked to self select what they submit for assessment. This self selection of items can be seen, by students, to be a difficult task. When students are given their creative free reign, portfolios may be full of complex and divergent surprises that are simply not anticipated by the teacher. In the explanations for their selection of items, students explain how the evidence they have in their portfolio addresses their own or the official unit aims.

Web-based and multimedia teaching tools

Our vision is premised on the assumption that the most appropriate teaching environment for future professionals in IT-related careers is one which blends the use of technology with traditional teaching approaches and with studio-based teaching. The types of technology considered included: To make the Web tools available to students a Technology Standards Sub-Committee was formed. This committee discussed the studio network design, the evaluation and recommendation of software to support subjects, and standards for the use of the Citrix Metaframe environment.

The selection of using a metaframe (or thin client) environment was decided upon for a number of reasons. The most important was to make available to remotely connected students (via the Web). All the application software that they have available to them in the physical studio, and to reduce the specifications required for their off-campus computer system. This is an important equity issue. In addition to this, a metaframe environment allowed the studio computers when working as non-metaframe computers to operate using a number of operating systems.

Preliminary evaluation of studio-based teaching

It was originally thought that the 2000 academic year for BIMS students would commence in the newly purpose built studio space. This was not to happen. By week 10 of semester 1 the area was completed, but not ready for occupation due to the compliance problems. The students were kept informed of the progress through photographs, progress reports, and where given promises of its readiness for semester 2. As the physical studios were not ready for occupation when this first round of data was collected, much of the preliminary evaluation can not be considered conclusive. The data collected during the first phase of evaluation has been used to inform the studio team on many issues which have already been addressed, or will be addressed for semester 2.

Research method

This study investigated two aspects of teaching and learning in a new environment; the student experiences and the teaching reflections. A characteristic of award winning university teachers is their willingness to collect student feedback on their teaching, inorder to see where their teaching might be improved (Dunkin and Percians 1992). It was decided to use a survey to gauge the students' reactions to this new style of teaching, and the learning environment. The questionnaires were tailored so that students could recommend adjustments to maximise the benefit of the studio to all student's learning. The questionnaires also contained questions to establish the perceived usefulness of the studio. At the end of the questionnaire provision was made for students to add additional comments about what they liked and disliked about the studio.

The students were surveyed during week 7 of semester 1. At this stage, although the physical space was not completed, students had been exposed to the studio teaching methodology. Students had completed or were near completion of their studio portfolio work. All the students who attended classes in the studio during this week were given a questionnaire to complete. Participation in the survey was voluntary. Of the 107 students enrolled, 59 completed the questionnaire.

A team of lecturers participated in the planning workshops and attended weekly meetings to reflect on the activities in the studio. Minutes of the meetings were recorded to examine the process of the studio. Some of lecturers also kept reflective diaries of their teaching and the students progression in the studio.


Data has been collected form several sources, and in a number of formats. Taking a discursive approach to the survey results, and taking into consideration that the studio environment was not ready for occupation when the surveys were conducted, we have found a number of underlying themes. The main one is that the students feel that having a number of lecturers has been beneficial. The reasons underlying this have been, the expertise of the various lecturers, and the relief of the possible monotony of having one lecturer throughout the semester. The students thought that this kept them interested in the content and developed their tolerance for different teaching styles.

The opportunity to chat with peers in a flexible and collaborative way, and make friends in the degree were also high on the list of responses. The survey showed that this informal interaction was important and gave them opportunity to develop their communication skills, and analytical skills.

On a negative note, some students found that having a number of lectures, a little confusing and made it difficult to develop a rapport with any one of them. In addition, the students felt that they often didn't know who to ask for assistance. The most overwhelming negative theme was related to the students' perception of the disjointedness of the subject. Many of the students found it difficult to draw threads or links between not only the weekly seminars, but between the workshop activities and the laboratory exercises as well.

The following table summarises the best aspects of the studio environment.

Table 1: Best aspects of the course

Group discussions15
Group work/Team work14
Hands on experience5
Relaxed format - "Lack of real constraints on learning"5
Enjoyable atmosphere4
Social aspect4
Practical work1
Learn about co-operation1
Increase self-confidence1
Subject organisation1
Relates to reality1
Learning in different ways1

Expert teachers continually reflect on how they might teach even better. Actually reflection as a term is slightly misleading. A reflection in a mirror is an exact replica of what is in front of it. Reflection in professional practice, however, gives back not what is but what might be, an improvement on the original. Reflective practice can be formally encouraged and directed as 'action learning' (Elliott 1991; Kember and Kelly 1993)

Diaries were kept by a number of the academics teaching in the studio environment. The diaries were used to revisit the studio adventure and provide insights into studio based teaching and learning. The following are typical entries:

"Yesterday I took both IMS1000 and IMS2000 seminars. I think they went very well although both of them were really lectures because there was virtually no involvement from the students.

The studio sessions were another matter. I had IMS2000 on Monday and it went quite well - we didn't have a lot to do but the atmosphere was good and got better as the time progressed. I had sat in with Doug for part of the first hour and his was going just as well.

Today I had the middle IMS1000 group. They were a lot more enthusiastic than the second years and they took to the work enthusiastically after a slow start. They are still coming to terms with the studio concept. We started with a data gathering exercise which turned into a good discussion about attributes, identifiers, keys and efficiency. Then I hit them with some binary arithmetic (convert their name from text to ASCII decimal numbers to binary digits) and they seemed to manage it OK. I made an error and someone was confident enough to point it out. That was good."

Lecturer A

"One aspect that will not show in the surveys is that in second year the studio sessions are much better attended than the lectures. Last week there were less than forty students at the 'lecture' and more than 60 in the studios."

Lecturer B

"It is evident that the studio is critical to the smoother running and success of the program. I feel that I have just been keeping above water- a long way to go before I will feel happy and confident that all is well.

Two of the factors that are becoming more and more evident in the success of the program are;

  1. staff commitment to the program, giving it the time and effort equal to other subjects.
  2. informing the students of what is required, and the threads linking the content together. This needs to be timely."

Lecturer C

"When I had the initial glance over the surveys I took note of the following, and tried to fix them immediately.

  1. Portfolio. Students were very confused about the content and the requirements. ACTION; produced an assessment guideline indicating what is a portfolio and what is required for the oral exam. Produce a sample portfolio.
  2. Seminar, studio and labs not connected. ACTION. Link the studio activities and lab exercises directly to the content of the seminar."

    Lecturer C

Reflections and the future of studio-based teaching

Using a studio-based teaching approach to the teaching of IT in higher education is in its experimental stage. The university is strongly committed to the experiment and has spent more than one million dollars on the project to date. Over the following twelve months the studio team at SIMS will be actively seeking feedback from many corners, and we will act upon the data collected.

Even though the teaching approach and its affiliated physical space was not in place at the time of writing this paper, we feel that some of the issues have been addressed, and early intervention is making the concept achievable.

Moving into our own space could overcome many of the issues raised by the students and staff, especially the disconnectivity of the content, and the lack of computer equipment. The curriculum is also undergoing some refinement. This is a direct result of a staff workshop on integrated curriculum, integrated assessment and learning communities.

There are remaining issues that need to be addressed, some of these are no different to concerns of team based teaching in any situations, others are more specific in that we need to develop a learning environment that simulates professional practice. These issues include loosing track of what has gone on before - by both staff and students, requirement by students to have time to build a rapport with the lectures, requirement for students to draw the links between content and be independent learners, and the right mix of lecturers.

Over the next semester many of these problems will be addressed, some may be solved, and the learning outcomes and philosophy of the concept of studio-based teaching in IT, will be re-evaluated.


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Authors: Angela Carbone, Monash University
Tel (03) 9903 1911 Fax (03) 9903 1913 Email

Kathy Lynch, Monash University
Tel (03) 9903 2583 Fax (03) 9903 1913 Email

David Arnott, Monash University
Tel (03) 9903 2693 Fax (03) 9903 1913 Email

Peter Jamieson, Monash University
Tel (03) 9905 6818 Fax (03) 9905 6828 Email

Please cite as: Carbone, A., Lynch, K., Arnott, D. and Jamieson, P. (2001). Introducing a studio-based learning environment into Information Technology. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 106-114. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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