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Issues of interface design to support teacher authorship of computer based learning environments

Kathryn Crawford
The University of Sydney

This paper discusses work in progress in an ongoing project which investigates the patterns of interpersonal and person/machine interaction that occur as novice programmers (both teachers and students) design, maintain and interact with exploratory environments in Boxer. Boxer is a powerful computational medium developed by Hal Abelson (at MIT) and Andrea diSessa (at UC Berkeley). In our work we have focussed on the process of initial access to and exploration of the Boxer environment. We have taken a phenomenographic approach (Marton, 1988) and we have focussed our attention on the growing awareness of the people learning to use Boxer in educational contexts. We have tried to avoid bounding our consideration of that awareness as it has become evident from earlier research (Crawford, 1988; Crawford and Kay, 1991, 1992; Bornholt, Crawford and Summers, 1993) that people's approaches to tasks involving computer programming are influenced by their perceptions of the task and their goals in relation to it, as well as the technology. These perceptions are clearly influenced by all sorts of prior experiences that might at first appear to be unrelated. The focus of the discussion below is on the perspective of teachers - exploring the possibilities of Boxer as a medium for facilitation of students' learning.

The research is complementary to that presently being carried out at RMIT, UC Berkeley and London University (eg. Noss & Hoyles, 1992). Most educational research in relation to Boxer has investigated learning in Mathematics and Science. Other research on the educational applications of Boxer has focussed attention on learning behaviour of students after a substantial period (usually one year) of experience with Boxer and considerable input from experts. The researchers, mentioned above have paid less attention to initial teacher/machine interaction as Boxer is used as a tool to construct effective learning environments. This is a focus of the current project.

Key issues

The incorporation of the computer as a central tool in schools has been problematic. Long after information technologies have dramatically changed the nature of human activity in most fields, they are still marginal in the process of schooling. Crawford, Groundwater-Smith and Milan (1989) found that although computing studies courses were taught in all schools in the sample studied there was little attempt to use computers in mainstream curricula. Paper and pencil are still the central technologies of schooling. The reluctance on the part of teachers and educational administrators to incorporate computer based learning experiences into the mainstream curriculum has a complex basis.

First, changing classroom practice in schools has always been difficult. Many school systems are run by centralised bureaucracies more noted for their stability than for change. Even in cases where there has been curriculum development and a recognition of the need for change teaching practice has remained the same. For example, there has been curriculum change and pressure for changes in mathematics teaching since the 1970s. Despite this, Speedy (1989) concluded that in many schools teaching has changed little in the last twenty years. Student teachers often choose their careers on the basis of their observations of teachers in schools. They are taught about recent theories of learning, which suggest the need for a more active and autonomous role for learners, and espouse such theories at an intellectual level. However, once they gain teaching qualifications, they generally they teach as they were taught. Within the social organisation of schooling, many teachers are nervous that allowing more student autonomy will lead to discipline problems.

Also, computers have only relatively recently become widely available. Many teachers in schools are fearful of the this new and complex technology - fearful that computers will usurp the role of the teacher or make schooling a less human process. Many feel disempowered by the new technology.

Information technologies present a more fundamental challenge to traditional educational practice than merely new tools to be learned about (Crawford, in press). For the first time since the invention of the printing press, the relationship between people and knowledge has again been fundamentally changed. Traditionally, knowledge has rested in the mind of the knower and expertise has been an attribute of humans. Now, through the use of information technology, knowledge is converted into objective organisation. In particular, many of the set routines and procedures, that are central to most school curricula, are now largely carried out by electronic machines on the wider community. Also, whereas information has traditionally been memorised and reproduced in examinations at school and university, now databases - not people - are a growing source of regularly updated and rapidly changing information.

Students in societies where most activities involve information technologies need a new kind of education. They need new forms of knowledge and new kinds of learning experiences. Achieving such a change will necessitate a redefinition by teachers of their role and of the range of learning and teaching practices that occur in schools. Also, wide computer use in schools will only occur when teachers are able to actively and confidently use the new technologies for their own purposes in educational settings.

Some key questions for policy makers, educational administrators and teacher educators are as follows:

Theoretical perspectives on learning and teaching

Vygotskian (1978) views of human activity stress the subjective nature of peoples view of the demands of any collective activity and the role of their past experience as well as present needs and goals in determining the ways in which people think feel and act. Activity theorists (eg, Davidov & Markova, 1983; Engestrom, 1988) have provided a systemic view of the ways in which people engage in consciously reasoned activity. They define Activity as any situation in which people are actively engaged in creatively achieving a purpose. Their analysis allows an analysis of who is doing what in any group situation. Thus, in a collective class exercise the teacher becomes one element in the group. One can ask questions about what the teacher does intellectually to ensure that the task is completed by all. How does the teacher shape the task, support student actions where necessary, plan and respond to individual needs? How do the students perceive and act upon their needs and goals? How are the teacher's actions shaped by conceptions about learning and teaching? How do these actions shape the experience and the quality of learning for students?

In practice many aspects of interpersonal interaction are intuitive and covert. However, when a teacher begins to plan a computer mediated learning experience, his/her conceptions about how students learn, the subject matter to be learned and how a learning experience should be managed are necessarily made overt and transformed into the objective organisation of the computer based context. Pratt (1992) notes that constructing a computer based microworld is a powerful learning experience for both students and teachers. For teachers, the activity of constructing a computer based learning environment involves making explicit their conceptions of:

Thus, in addition to learning about programming of one kind or another, the process of creating an externalised computer based learning environment provides a rich opportunity to reflect upon and reconceptualise both the subject matter and also how students learn. The addition of a computer as a mediator in the usual teacher/student interaction also invites a redefinition of the role of teacher.

The case study presented below describes the learning process for one teacher who was asked to use Boxer as the basis of an exploratory environment that would lead students to learn about the notion of a variable. This represents part of an ongoing study in which the relationships between teachers' conceptions of how children learn and their approaches to constructing computer based learning environments are the focus of research.

Initial results

The process of learning to teach in a new medium is complex. However, as a powerful reconstructible and inspectible medium Boxer potentially enables teachers to create and adapt computer based learning environments. It should be remembered that paper and pencil literacy is only achieved after many years of schooling. Thus, when novice programmers (both teachers and students) begin with Boxer the medium becomes an emerging environment in which everyone gradually learns to express themselves and that mediates teacher/student interaction. The research project investigated the process by which both teachers and their students acted and reacted within the medium.

Data collection, in the wider study, was carried out by means of field notes, a Boxer database (which provided a record of teacher and student conceptions and intentions), videotapes of student/machine and teacher/student interaction and screen dumps. The account below is based on one teacher's diary, Boxer files and some video taped data.

Bill (name supplied) spent some time exploring the potential of Boxer and learning some commands before he felt able to consider creating a learning environment for students. During this time he tinkered, experimented, tested ideas and sometimes felt very frustrated as he learned to move about in a new interface and to express himself through programming. His diary records his initial goals as follows:

  1. developing a MM [mental model] of the keyboard aspects of the interface,

  2. organising the visual work space, ie. fitting related things on the screen at the same time so that I could see their relationships,

  3. understanding 'between box' relationships (particularly with variables),

  4. scoping within hierarchically structured programs,

  5. using dynamic variables (italics added).
Once he felt comfortable with basic commands and the interface he considered how he might use Boxer to create a setting for learning about the notion of a variable. This creative problem presented challenges of three kinds.

First, his experience of algebraic variables at school was in the form of equations using "x" and "y" and some graphic representation. Most of his mathematical learning experience had involved activity aimed at reproducing paper and pencil representations of mathematics. Boxes filled with algebraic equations seemed very uninviting and little advance on a good text book. Programming interesting and attractive graphic representations of equations was beyond his programming capability as a beginner and also offered few advantages on a good calculator. Rethinking the mathematical idea so it could be presented in the Boxer medium required a serious review of his own conceptions of a variable.

Second, Bill found that he needed to represent his actions as a teacher in the new medium. Although he was recognised as a very good teacher, much of his knowledge about how teachers facilitated learning was tacit. In order to design a computer based setting for learning he needed to articulate his knowledge of the processes involved clearly as a basis for decision making about the design. He needed to ask questions such as:

The process of designing a setting raised his awareness of the teaching/learning process. Also he felt as though he had not paid enough attention to the students' point of view during teaching. Often he simply couldn't anticipate a student response at all. Finally, although he was well versed in recent theories of learning including constructivism, he found that his practical knowledge of how to teach mathematics was more in keeping with a transmission model. This was clearly unsuitable for developing an exploratory environment and personally confronting.

Boxer is a powerful "Lisp like" programming language that offers both text editing and Logo like graphics in an integrated medium. The box metaphor offers powerful support for scoping rules and for locating objects in the environment. Figure 1 below illustrates the interface.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Boxer interface

Bill's instincts as a teacher were exemplified in his initial diary entry about the support that would be needed for students beginning to program in Boxer. He wrote the following points:

  1. simple direction commands (eg: fd 20),
  2. using 'rested' boxes,
  3. using variables,
  4. using dynamic variables,
  5. using box names to form inter box links.
And in his first attempt constructed a series of nested boxes with instructions for students. Even though the exploratory process whereby he had gained his knowledge was very recent, his conscious knowledge about Boxer was in the form of a series of useful strategies and commands. His first instinct was to "tell" the students (through written text in carefully sequenced boxes) how to do things.

When the first student trials began, Bill was an expert about his own setting and committed to its success. The process of creating a setting for learning had been a powerful learning experience for him. However, although the computing medium was attractive to students their interactions with the new learning context were less than completely successful. The process of using the environment he had created was not always as powerful a learning experience for the students as it had been for the creator. In particular, the carefully structured introductory tasks did not invite exploration. One student opened the boxes he had prepared so carefully, had a quick look at the contents and then closed them again. Information about command use needed to be repeated again and again. After more than half an hour, one student was still seeking help to open and close boxes.

A key aspect of Boxer is the ease with which programs can be inspected and reconstructed. Thus, modification of the learning environment for students proceeded in response to their needs. A help function was added in which dynamic working models of commands were provided when elicited via a natural language question. The help function was organised so that requests for help also resulted in an evolving personal command library for users. Choice of activities was added and they were restructured to be more open ended. These changes were accompanied by improved student commitment and more autonomous learning behaviour.

However, there still remained a large gap between the rate of learning and engagement of the designer and that of the students.

In the final set of student trials in Boxer, small groups of students were set a more creative task. They were asked to create a game for a friend. Suddenly the task provided an appropriate and engaging reason for exploration, risk taking and experimentation. Students quickly became expert at "pirating" working pieces of program and incorporating them (slightly modified) into their own constructions. Their rate and extent of learning of Boxer improved markedly. Since variables are unavoidable in the environment their grasp of this notion, as it is represented in the medium, also improved.

The importance of authoring experiences for teachers

The process of creating computer based learning environments offers several solutions existing problems in teacher development and in attitudes to computer use in schools. Key aspects of Boxer make the medium particularly appropriate as a basis for such activity. Boxer, has the potential to blur the distinction between programmer and user - to make it possible for the process of constructing software to be part of the educational process both for teachers and their students. As diSessa (1993) states:
within the context of a fully functional computational medium, each application may need add only a few specific capabilities to be useful... teachers and students may get into the development act - and new pieces of software are not only very easy to appropriate, but are likely to be much better adapted to circumstances
The information revolution has presented a major challenge to educators. Now that machines reproduce set routines and procedures faster and more cheaply than people, a new kind of knowledge is needed. This implies the need for teachers and their students to make a switch from the old focus on reproducing knowledge carefully and accurately to activities which involve posing questions, defining problems, selecting strategies and evaluating the resolutions or solutions. All of these activities are a part of creative activity and design.

The process of creating computer based learning contexts offers the following benefits to teachers:


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Author: Kathryn Crawford, Faculty of Education, University of Sydney, NSW 2006. Email:

Please cite as: Crawford, K. (1994). Issues of interface design to support teacher authorship of computer based learning environments. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 33-37. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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