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Academics' educational conceptions and the design and impact of computer software in higher education

John Bain
Faculty of Education, Griffith University
Carmel McNaught
Academic Development Unit, La Trobe University


One impetus for this work is the rapidly growing uptake of CBL in higher education (Cochrane, Ellis & Johnston, 1993). For example, many technology based projects have been funded in Australian Universities by the Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching (CAUT). In 1993, 49 of 88 CAUT funded projects were technology based; in 1994 the comparable ratio was 75 of 136 and in 1995, 74 out of 117. There is clearly a need to understand the influence of such technology on student learning (Laurillard, 1993; Wills & McNaught, in press). One approach to developing this understanding is to compare CBL with traditional methods in the expectation that CBL will be superior. However, aside from the fact that this expectation generally has not been confirmed, a major shortcoming of this approach is that it ignores the complex relationships that exist between technology and the educational context in which it is used (Elton, 1988; Reeves, 1993; Wills & McNaught, in press). The influence of many CBL systems may be subtle, yet important, relative to the learning that is encouraged by those other factors.

The approach taken by Wills & McNaught (in press) has been to examine six broad categories or focuses for evaluation, chosen on experiential rather than theoretical grounds. These categories were:

They describe several evaluation studies which have focussed on one or more of these categories. Focussed studies have provided valuable information about the design and use of CBL material. However, a collection of individual studies is unlikely to lead to a coherent theoretical educational framework for judging whether a proposed technology is likely to meet its educational objectives and whether those objectives are appropriate. This approach to evaluation does not focus on how academics think about technology, why they choose to use to use computers in their teaching and how they decide on the design of the CBL material they use.

The need to focus on academics' conceptions of teaching and learning

An important contention of our present work is that the influence of CBL on student learning cannot be fully understood without reference to the epistemological and educational assumptions and practices of the academic teacher who designs and uses CBL (Laurillard, 1993). There is evidence from the literature in primary and secondary education which establishes that teachers' beliefs have a strong influence on the teaching and learning that occurs in their classrooms (eg., Brickhouse, 1990; Pajares, 1992; Wilson & Wineberg, 1988). Research has begun to explore analogous relationships at tertiary level (Pratt, 1992; Sarnuelowicz & Bain, 1992; Trigwell, Prosser & Taylor, 1994), though these studies do not focus on contexts where computer technology is central.

Expository vs transformative conceptions of teaching and learning

One contrast to emerge with some consistency is between academics who think of learning as reproducing knowledge (and of teaching as organising and presenting the knowledge to be reproduced), and others who think of learning as a process in which understanding is constructed by the student with the assistance of the teacher (eg., Trigwell, Prosser & Taylor, 1994). Available evidence (of which there is relatively little) suggests that these two different conceptions of the education enterprise result in different learning experiences and outcomes for students (Ramsden, 1992). One, the reproducing/ transmitting/ expository conception, tends to encourage surface or reproductive learning in which understanding is limited in scope and is not integrated into students' ways of seeing the world (Bain, 1994; Entwistle & Entwistle, 1992). The other conception favours deep or transformative learning through which understanding is refined and assimilated.

There are obvious parallels between these two conceptions and some standard forms of CBL (knowledge recitation and procedural drill versus simulations and microworlds, for example), but there have been few systematic empirical analyses of these parallels (Laurillard, 1993). Moreover, the relationships are likely to be complex. The design and function of CBL in a university subject may depend upon disciplinary and personal beliefs about the way knowledge should be organised into a curriculum (Schrag, 1992; Stark et al., 1988), as well as upon beliefs about how students learn, what academic teachers' roles should be, and how learning should be assessed.

One issue of some importance to transformative learning is whether and how academics base their teaching upon students' understandings of key ideas in their field (Laurillard, 1993; Marten, 1989; Marton & Ramsden, 1988; Ramsden, 1992). There is now a substantial body of evidence, much collected at the pre-tertiary level, indicating that students interpret academic concepts in "naive" ways which are often resistant to formal instruction (Confrey, 1990; Marton, 1989). Although the literature differs on the most appropriate method for addressing this problem (eg., Smith, diSessa & Roschelle, 1993), the common assumption is that students' conceptions have to be incorporated into the teaching agenda.

Pre-emptive conceptions of teaching and learning

Typically, students' conceptions are taken into account in one of two ways, one pre-emptive, the other collaborative. A pre-emptive approach draws upon past students' difficulties to "transform" discipline concepts into forms (such as analogies, metaphors and computer animations) that are more likely to be correctly understood (Shulman, 1987). The assumption of this approach is that knowledge presented in a ',student friendly" way will prevent or replace students' naive conceptions. Evidence suggests that this assumption is incomplete, at best (Stones, 1992). A conversational (Laurillard, 1993; Pask, 1976) or collaborative (Roschelle, 1992) approach, on the other hand, assumes understanding has to be negotiated through discussion which gradually converges on more appropriate interpretations than those initially held by the students.

A point made in detail by Laurillard (1993), is that, although some forms of CBL offer students accessible ways to represent and manipulate knowledge, most programs do not provide an opportunity for conversational convergence of ideas between student and tutor (intelligent tutoring systems being partial exceptions). This suggests that, although academics who design CBL systems may be sensitive to past students' learning difficulties, some will have a pre-emptive (teacher centred) orientation to student learning, with the consequence that their students' conceptions may remain unaltered by CBL. On the other hand, as Laurillard (1993) and others (eg., Wills & McNaught, in press) have observed, CBL is only part of the teaching and learning context of a university subject. Academics with a student centred/ transformational conception of teaching and learning may incorporate pre-emptive CBL into a conversational process that assists with conceptual change (eg., White & Horwitz, 1988). In either case, the key to full understanding of the impact of CBL on student learning is the academic's educational beliefs and the resultant context in which CBL is implemented.

Links between conceptions of teaching and learning and the educational design of CBL

How, in practical terms, might expository, pre-emptive and transformational conceptions of teaching and learning impact on the educational design of CBL? The following sketches are based on our experience with several CAUT projects over the last few years. As stated earlier, the curriculum context in higher education is complex and these simple descriptions cannot be universally applied. In these sketches we are attempting to go further than the categories described in Wills & McNaught (in press) to see if our experience is congruent with a framework based on the relationship between expository, pre-emptive and transformational conceptions of teaching and learning, and the educational design of CBL. We have examined many of the final CAUT reports and have had extensive conversations with staff in about a dozen CAUT projects. This work is a pilot study for a more rigorous study which will take place in the three year period 1996-1998.

One group of academics are those who focus on one way transmission of knowledge. They are teacher centred and often work with the image of the student as a "clean slate" - our conversations elicit comments like:

"We don't assume any knowledge at the start of this unit."
"The onus is on the teacher to set the scene."
This description is consistent with the academics having expository conceptions of teaching and learning. The design of the CBL packages produced by these academics is often similar to a fancy book. There may be images, hypertext linkages and browsing mechanism, but students are basically expected to learn, remember and give back the information content of the CBL material. If there are quizzes, they are often as an addended collection of objective items with few linkages to the main body of the program.

Another group of academics are clearly cognisant of the need to progress from where the students are. They are aware of a range of alternative conceptions that students might have and are anxious for students to have correct and useful knowledge. To this extent they are student centred. However, they are likely to believe that their own ideas are correct and that all that students need in order to learn is a good explanation.

"If I get the explanations right by using appropriate animations and clearly focussed, interactive exercises, students will learn."
We have heard this many times from academics in this group. This description is consistent with the academics having pre-emptive views of teaching and learning. Instructional design focuses on good explanations coming from the teacher. Often the visual material is chosen and developed as a result of careful consideration of common student misconceptions. However, the educational design is still teacher centred with high information delivery. The learning outcomes of the CBL material are clearly specified and little divergence from these outcomes is sought or expected. Students are often asked to select the correct explanation or definition in the questions asked during the CBL module; these questions are juxtaposed with the explanatory material. Students have commented in evaluation interviews about these contexts that they understand the concepts better but still have difficulty solving the problems or applying the ideas to other related contexts.

Another group of academics design CBL material which guides students as they develop concepts and formulate solutions to problems. This sort of CBL encourages students to contemplate alternatives and to formulate their preferences by iteratively revisiting the data. This description is consistent with the academics having transformative conceptions of teaching and learning. They provide students with rich computer based data sources - both text and visual. The problems posed are ones which require students to access and work with a range of material but structure is provided by clearly thought out navigation options and by clear reasoning and learning goals. In a transformative environment, students may be asked to show their learning in a variety of ways. There may be quizzes about basic material but often there other forms of assessment and reporting are required, such as diagnostic reports, or reports or essays compiled from computer databases. In simulation programs, students will genuinely be able to explore with the intention of understanding a system, not just play a game within narrowly set parameters. There is a breadth of focus in these situations which may lead to various student learning outcomes.

It is clear that we need to work more on the relationships between the ways in which academics think about educational issues in their discipline area, the pedagogies they favour, and the learning outcomes that are likely to result. We expect that CBL will make a unique contribution to student learning when it is sensitive to students' initial conceptions while providing ways in which more appropriate interpretations can be constructed through interaction with the software. The work planned for the detailed study will provide information on the nature of, and the connections between, six key elements:


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Authors: Professor John Bain
Professor of Teaching and Learning
Faculty of Education
Griffith University, Nathan, Queensland Australia 4111
Phone: +617 3875 5801 Fax: +617 3875 5910
Email: J.Bain@edn.gu.edu.au

Dr Carmel McNaught
Senior Lecturer in Higher Education
Academic Development Unit
La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria 3083, Australia
Phone: +61 3 9479 1944 Fax: +61 3 9479 2996
Email: C.McNaught@latrobe.edu.au

Please cite as: Bain, J. and McNaught, C. (1996). Academics' educational conceptions and the design and impact of computer software in higher education. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Third International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 56-59. Perth, Western Australia, 21-25 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1996/ad/bain.html

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