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Learning beyond the familiar zone

Hilary Yerbury and Ross J. Todd
University of Technology, Sydney
This paper elucidates the principles and processes that have underpinned the design and construction of an interactive multimedia learning package "What IS information?" for undergraduate students enrolled in professional education for information practice. It shows how a constructivist epistemology, built around a spectrum of views of what is information, and the development of intellectuals skills, are integrated into a virtual and dynamic laboratory to enable students to move beyond the familiar zone of content, skills, and learning environment, and to construct and test their own understandings that can sit side by side with a range of expert views.


The challenge in designing multimedia applications for an educational setting lies in fostering learning by reflection as well as learning by doing. This paper explores the incorporation of a constructivist epistemology into a multimedia learning package designed for undergraduate students enrolled in professional education for information practice. The package, entitled "What IS information?" is intended to enhance student learning of the central concepts of information and knowledge, to develop intellectual skills in comparison, analysis, synthesis and evaluation and to enable students to interact with a range of expert understandings as a means of constructing and testing their own understanding.

A key feature of the package's constructivist approach is the conceptualisation and manifestation of the links among and between the content or Resource Base, the intellectual operations, the learning activities and the student's output. The outcome for students is that they can acknowledge the ambiguity of the text - that there are many meanings of the concept of information - but that the reading for each student is unambiguous and that they can articulate this reading, apply it in practice, and compare it with others.

The familiar zone

The context for this project is the field of information science. Information science is defined as the theoretical knowledge base that underpins the practice of information provision. Central to the study of information science are key concepts such as information, information needs, information seeking, information organisation, information retrieval, information design, and information consolidation. As a multidisciplinary field, it is rapidly increasing in complexity, and its study is moving away from a practice base towards a conceptual base. At the University of Technology, Sydney, students undertake professional education for information practice through the Bachelor of Applied Science in Information Studies, and the program of study is built around a sequence of information science subjects. These subjects place considerable emphasis on the development of conceptual understanding and intellectual skills and the ability of students to apply these concepts to practice.

According to Ausubel (1978), meaningful learning takes place when learners are able to establish links between what is already known - the familiar - and what is new - the unfamiliar. The purpose of university education is to move learners from everyday knowings to the specialist or technical knowledge of a discipline or field of study (Laurillard, 1993). In the development of any learning experience, the notion of the familiar zone must be conceptualised at three levels: firstly, there is the familiar zone of the content; secondly the familiar zone of the learning skills; and thirdly, the familiar zone which the teacher or educational developer brings to the presentation of learning experiences.


In the knowings of everyday life, ambiguity is easily tolerated, and meaning is often conferred by the context. However, in specialist fields, ambiguity can lead to confusions and conflict between ideology and professional practice. In fields of study which use the same vocabulary as everyday life, the problems are even greater. Terms such as Information and Knowledge are common terms in the English language. However, in the discipline of Information Science they are technical terms for no single agreed concept, and to complicate matters further each concept may have more than one definition. Nitecki (1985) suggests that some 500 definitions exist in the scholarly literature. Belkin (1978) in a seminal paper on the concept of information for information science similarly reviewed and categorised an extensive range of influential concepts.

Students find such diversity confusing in the extreme, and are often slow to master what to a layperson may appear to be "nit picking" differences among and between concepts. The diagram below presents the range of answers to a seemingly simple question "What is Information?" An inability to understand the differences in these answers and to use an appropriate concept in any given practical setting makes it difficult for students to be effective either as learners in information science or as information professionals.

Figure 1

Figure 1: The ambiguity of answers

Students therefore are confronted by ambiguity. Our role as teacher is to enable students to recognise the ambiguity in answers to questions such as What IS information? and at the same time, to develop their own unambiguous answer (cf Lewis 1995).

Learning skills

Students have preferred learning styles and established ways of solving intellectual problems (Laurillard, 1993). However, they are not necessarily equipped with the intellectual skills necessary for dealing with the level of ambiguity in the content of information science. In order to come to terms with problems of conceptual ambiguity, students need to be able to work with the abstract rather than the concrete. In our experience, first year students in the Bachelor of Applied Science in Information Studies have found it difficult to develop an appropriate level of understanding of concepts such as information and knowledge. In 1994, for example, about 24% of students in their first semester were asked to resubmit their first piece of work in information science because it did not show sufficient evidence of conceptual understanding and analytical skills. While students showed evidence of being comfortable with skills of description and extrapolation (Bloom et al, 1956), they seemed unable to use the skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation essential to understanding and building conceptual knowledge in university study.

Figure 2

Figure 2: The ambiguity of respondents

A significant number of students in the program have difficulty with building conceptual knowledge because they do not have English as their first language and need to build new concepts in their own first language before transferring them into English. Their lessened ability to grasp the fine semantic distinctions inherent in the context tends to hide the extent and importance of the differences in the concepts from them. However, this is not a problem confined to those students who do not have English as their first language.

Learning environment

The familiar zone of the teacher is often constructed around notions of stable classroom interactions and unchanging content. Yet it is probably unrealistic for teachers to think that they are in control of either the content or the classroom interaction. Recent changes in the demographic characteristics of the students and the increase in the number of students in each class have led to unpredictable classroom interactions and have underlined the need to make more effective use of both staff and student time. In consequence, teaching staff have been unable to address a student's individual learning needs adequately and consistently.

Rapid changes in the information industry and the dynamic and emerging knowledge base that underpins professional practice in the information industry means that there is no one accepted body of content to be taught (Saracevic, 1992). It is therefore no longer possible to have one answer to the question of what is information. Complete and preplanned learning experiences thus are no longer as effective learning tools in this changing field because they assume unchanging content and stable classroom interactions. The teacher has to find ways to construct clarity of meaning which are in keeping with the ambiguity of the field of study and which acknowledge the need to develop the intellectual skills of students.

Moving beyond the familiar zone

As teachers, we had analysed the learning environment and identified the following features: content with considerable ambiguity, students with weakly developed intellectual skills, and a classroom situation which gave insufficient opportunities for articulating and testing understanding. As teachers, we acknowledge that learning is a process of moving beyond the familiar zone. We and our students were already beyond the familiar zone, but not in an environment that made learning easy. We considered that developing a multimedia learning module could provide the mechanism for both our students and ourselves to be able to move more effectively into learning.

As learners, we analysed the literature, which chronicled the many attempts to use interactive multimedia modules to solve problems of learning and teaching (CAUT 1994). At a broad level, we noted that writers tend to concentrate on one of three dimensions. Some writers emphasise student learning. Ambrose (1991) and Hammond (1993) for example highlight the importance of exploring learner characteristics that are significant in determining the success of hypermedia instruction. Similarly, Kazlauskas (1994) suggests that an understanding of learning needs and learning characteristics should form the framework for making judgements of instructional design in an interactive multimedia environment.

Some writers give particular attention to how to present the knowledge base or content to be learned. Reeves (1992) and Reeves and Harmon (1993) for example identify range of characteristics important to the presentation of the knowledge base. These include characteristics such as knowledge space complexity, information presentation, navigation, and mapping. Of particular concern to some writers is the underpinning epistemology of the content. Laurillard (1993) in positing academic teaching as allowing students to acquire knowledge of someone else's way of experiencing the world essentially advocates an objectivist epistemology. An objectivist epistemology is concerned that the content is accurate with respect to ultimate truth and that learning is seen as acquiring truth, and presenting the established laws of the discipline. In this context, students' conceptions of content are brought in line with teachers' conceptions, that is, in relation to an 'expert' model of knowledge to be learned. While such an approach might be appropriate for many scientific disciplines, other writers argue for a constructivist epistemology that is built around a spectrum of views of the content and where the learning module provides a range of options from which learners can construct their own understandings that can sit side by side a range of expert views. A constructivist epistemology acknowledges the ambiguity of viewpoints; learning that embeds a constructivist epistemology seeks to enable learners to recognise the worth of their own view in comparison with others, and to understand the implications of their view for doing.

Other writers are concerned with a multimedia application as a communication tool. Romiszowski (1993) gives particular attention to design issues that focus on the teacher's intent. He explores the variable potential of multimedia in response to the different intents of teachers, such as to entertain, to motivate, to inform, to teach, to present quick reference factual information, to visualise abstract concepts, to provide loosely structured information banks, and to provide highly structured, specific applications. Each intent creates its own specific design issues, such as linear versus hyperlinked sequencing, learner control and engagement, content structure, role of feedback and practice, and integration of multiple viewpoints.

We saw the examples from literature as offering only partial solutions to our learning and teaching problems. We wanted to aim for a more complete and challenging solution, and in the module "What IS information?" we have tried to bring partial solutions together. From the literature, we found examples where multimedia applications had shown the potential to enable students to articulate their understandings, analyse these, challenge and develop their understandings through access to a virtual laboratory of multiple perspectives, experiences, practice applications, exemplars of specific concepts, explanatory materials, literature resources, authentic activities, and feedback and guidance at critical stages of the learning process. In the application we set out to develop, we wanted to achieve all of this and more besides. We have tried to facilitate for the students a level of dialogue tailored to individual needs that large classrooms have been unable to do satisfactorily. We have focussed on an intensive and relevant engagement with the content, explore the varied and individual initial understandings of concepts and skills in a more deliberate way, providing and integrating a range of expert conceptions using a variety of integrated media to enable students to interact with these in individual, self paced ways, and help them construct their own views through a greater range of learning activities. However, above and beyond this. we have included the development of intellectual skills.

In essence, we wanted to go beyond the familiar zone of multimedia applications to provide a virtual laboratory of opportunities for students to develop intellectual skills, articulate and test their understanding in a context of interactivity, individualisation, learner control, feedback and monitoring. We aimed to provide a supportive, yet constrained, environment with both content which identifying the ambiguity inherent in the field of study and learning experiences which reduce individual uncertainty.

Learning beyond the familiar zone

One of the features of the Bachelor of Applied Science in Information Studies course is its emphasis on the development of independent learners (Candy, Crebert & O'Leary, 1994). Equally important is its emphasis on the building of a knowledge base for professional practice within each student (Yerbury and Kirk, 1990). The purpose, then, of any learning experience in the course is to take the learner beyond the familiar context of the lay person. Without such a move, there is no real learning and no development either as an information professional nor as an independent learner. Our intention was to facilitate such a move for the students and at the same time make a similar move ourselves.

The learning problem as we saw it was that students were confronted by many, relatively similar definitions of information and knowledge that they took a lay person's approach and accepted them all as equally valid without considering the impact of the differences for information provision and for information science. Later in the course, when they are required to make judgements for the provision of information services, they often make an inappropriate decision because they have not fully understood the implications of a particular concept or view of information. We identified two key characteristics of our first year students, which affect their learning in general and which have particular significance in dealing with questions such as What IS information? These are the inability to distinguish between phenomena and concepts and difficulties in moving beyond description to analysis, even at the level of comparison. Simply put, the multimedia package brings together a range of answers to the question What IS information? and gives students opportunities to understand them and develop an answer of their own through the use of various intellectual skills and techniques. The kind of move we expected for our students can be seen in the diagram on the next page [Figure 3 below].

Figure 3

Figure 3: Moving beyond the familiar zone

The multimedia learning package we developed uses a constructivist epistemology. It is not one where students perform stated activities on given content to achieve pre-determined outcomes. The learning objectives were concerned with the development of conceptual understanding. We wanted to give students the impression that they had freedom of choice in their learning, while at the same time constraining their capacity to compound their own misconceptions and ambiguities.

The package creates a spatial landscape as a conceptual framework for the relationships in the content and between the content and the students intellectual development and output. We sought to create an open structure in the package. This is reminiscent of the structure of the Microcosm project (Hall, 1993; Davis, 1993). Conceptually, the package contains a Resource Base which holds original materials, in text, pictures and sound and a student notebook. In our context, this means texts of articles, interviews with individuals, photographs and video, all of which aims to answer the question What IS information? in some way. The Resource Base also holds information on the various intellectual skills and techniques which the students will need to master if they are to reduce the ambiguity in the original. This includes readings and exercises. Finally, the Resource Base holds the activities which we as the teachers have devised for students to work and some feedback. The hyperlinks, therefore, are of three types - those which enable the linear sequence to proceed, those which allow the freedom of choice of starting point within each learning activity and those which permit the student to find and use relevant material from the Resource Base, independently of the materials selected by us as teachers.

We also sought to create an openness to the student learning processes. The learning activities follow a linear sequence, much as a student might expect in a class room situation on a week by week basis. However, the way the student approaches the learning activity can be determined by the individual student. For example, each learning activity is presented on a screen giving the student a choice among four starting points - aim, prerequisites, advice and the activity itself. While the interface provides opportunity for students to make choices, the overall, cumulative effect of the package enables learners to build coherent and logical ideas and to develop intellectual skills. This overall effect, though, accommodates individual differences in terms of aptitude, prior knowledge and experience, motivation, learning styles and so on and is achieved through what might be seen as a deliberative cognitive scaffolding to support learning. This scaffolding is constructed through statements of prerequisite knowledge, advice and feedback and through practice with skills such as concept mapping.

The program of study in which the students are enrolled emphasises the necessary links between learning through reflection and learning by doing (Yerbury and Kirk, 1990). This ability to create links and relationships between theory and practice is an essential part of the development of effective professionals. In this package it has led us to the integration of content and process. This can be seen in the following diagram.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Learning processes

Whilst in the linear sequence of the learning activities we have indicated places where students should ensure that they are familiar with a given intellectual skill, through the Resource Base students can work at the intellectual skills they wish to improve. The issue of navigation, that is the perceived ability to move through content in an intentional manner, is considered a crucial element in instructional design using multimedia applications. Hammond (1993) argues for more directed mechanisms for information access, for learner guidance and control, claiming that multiplicity of choice and minimum of guidance may not be ideal for helping learners ask themselves the right questions. Reeves and Harmon (1993) also support the integration of mechanisms for learners to know the scope of the program and to have clear indications of the parts of the program they have interacted with. We have approached the issue of navigation in three ways. Firstly, the multimedia application is only part of the students' learning experiences. Classroom interaction and discussions with other students will help individual students to keep track of where they are. Secondly, the electronic notebook will enable students to record any observations they choose, including the point at which they stopped working on the package. Thirdly, the Resource Base itself provides an index to the content of the package and allows students to gain an overview of it.

The package seeks to provide opportunities for situated learning. Learning activities are not remote in terms of real world experience. They integrate the real world experience of the lay person with the real world experience of influential practitioners. However, we have been able to go further than this because in incorporating the conceptual literature we have been able to obtain something of the real world experience of scholars. We have achieved this through email and other correspondence with key people who have been able to explain the genesis and evolution of their thoughts. This, too, has been integrated into the Resource Base of the package.

Through this approach to integration, we have not only enabled the students to move from the use of language as lay people to the use of the same words as technical specialists, we have enabled them to move beyond the phenomena to the concepts (Grover and Glazier, 1986). This is particularly difficult in a field where the phenomena or objects of study are themselves often intangible.

The package also requires that students move away from description to the higher intellectual activities of analysis and synthesis (Bloom et al, 1956). This process is more easily written about than put into practice. Description is often taken as the ability to report on the details of a given situation. In the details there may be no pattern or meaning. Yet, the description which students create of one influential person's point of view has to be comparable with the description of another person's point of view. In other words, the description which students produce has to be a constrained rather than an idiosyncratic description. Activities and games based on Novak and Gowan's concept mapping (1984) and Soltis's analysis of educational concepts (1978) enable this to happen.

We have created for the students a new comparison group. No longer do they only have the opportunity to compare their ideas and thoughts with those of their peers - other students and with us through our evaluation of their assigned work. We have created a virtual reference group of influential people, both practitioners and scholars, whose views and opinions provide students with opportunities to test and validate their ideas. At a first year level, the validation may be superficial and may not go far beyond a brief comparison, but even at this level, Bloom's evaluation (1956) using both internal and external criteria is taking place. Within their first semester, students can be moved well beyond the familiar, to a point where they see their learning as worthy of comparison with some of the noted scholars of their field.

We, too, have been learning beyond the familiar zone. The decision to develop a multimedia learning package has brought us to a point well beyond the comfortable areas of teaching a subject one has taught before. The issues have not only been ones related to how students learn and how to develop personal transferable skills (Levy, 1992). More fundamentally, we have had to confront the way in which the knowledge base for an area of professional practice is formed. One of us (Yerbury, 1992) had written about this, incorporating the model proposed by Friedson. Friedson (1983) indicated that there were three levels of professional knowledge. The theoretical knowledge was constructed by the profession's teachers and researchers. It was transmitted through a process of professional education, lifelong learning and practical experience to 'administrators' in organisations, who turned it into a set of policies and guidelines which are implemented as 'the one best way' of understanding and putting ideas into practice. The knowledge of the practitioner - the individual in professional practice - was created through professional education and through confrontation with the guidelines of the workplace.

Thus, the theoretical knowledge and the guidelines are applied idiosyncratically and inconsistently. Through this project, it is clear that student learning does become part of the knowledge base of an area of professional practice. However, this does not happen as Friedson proposes, for the learner does not passively receive ideas from an expert; rather the student becomes a knowledge provider, able to set forward a point of view alongside that of the expert.

This has led us to re-evaluate our role as 'teachers'. It would be trite to say that we have recognised our role to be that of facilitator or resource, in line with a philosophy of self directed learning (Knowles, 1975). Rather, we have struggled to separate out the content relating to the concepts of information science and the processes which enable them to be understood from the structure of a learning experience. In so doing, we have come to understand more clearly notions of expertise and from the point of view of our discipline of information science, we have focussed on the ways knowledge is constructed. This level of conceptualisation has required us to set down our own mental schema on the topic - that is, not just what we know, but how our domain knowledge is structured. We have had to accept that we have glossed over parts of the schema which were incomplete or only loosely related to other parts. We cannot validly present ourselves as 'content experts' whose views must be shared by others; we have to present our understandings as one among a series of imperfect understandings.

Our role can perhaps be likened to that of the early mariners. Navigation is a word used frequently in the development of multimedia packages; usually it refers to the ability of the application to let the users know where they are at any given point. We would not claim such certainty. Rather, our view of being beyond the familiar zone is that of the creators of the ancient portolan charts. We may not know exactly where we have been, but we have authority because we have tried to go beyond the familiar before and have developed some skills in describing where we have been and what we saw. This led us to one of the key technical challenges - how to ensure that the students could create for themselves a record of learning - a portolan chart - which was attached specifically to their electronically based learning. This is fundamental to the process of elucidation and crucial to the spirit of debate on which the package is premised. The notion of the electronic notebook was relatively simple. Its conceptual relationship to the Resource Base is more problematic. It is the placement of the electronic notebook which has taken the program beyond the familiar zone, from the notion of a closed system to an open system. This is particularly challenging, because the technology used is that of the traditional closed hypermedia applications. The index to the Resource Base cannot be conceptualised as the 'Main Menu' to the package. The package has no 'menu'. It has conceptual content and activities. It also has a mechanism for students to record their responses. However, the electronic notebook is parallel to the conceptual content not part of it.

There remains one aspect of the project where we have moved beyond the familiar zone, but not to the extent that there is any conceptual or practical outcome. We would like to encourage students to share the thoughts and ideas which are recorded in their electronic notebooks. On the surface, it could be argued that this is an essential ingredient of interactivity. However, for us, this ability to share thoughts and ideas is akin to the workings of an 'invisible college' and the process of peer review through which formal is created. The conceptual discussion remains inconclusive and the technical discussion has not been held.


We have incorporated a constructivist epistemology into a learning package. We have preliminary evidence from the testing we have done that the package meets the learning objective. Thus, we can assert that it will enable students to move beyond the familiar zone. In the process of developing it, we have been involved in many discussions and explanations about the role of multimedia and we have learned much about intellectual relationships and the construction of knowledge. We, too, have moved beyond the familiar zone.


We would like to acknowledge the expertise of Joanna Berzowski, the programmer /designer who is turning our rapid prototype into a multimedia application. We would also like to acknowledge the importance of a meeting with Hugh Davis, University of Southampton, in 1993, in clarifying the role of hyperlinks in a learning package.


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Authors: Associate Professor Hilary Yerbury and Ross J. Todd
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
University of Technology, Sydney
H.Yerbury@uts.edu.au, Ross.Todd@uts.edu.au

Please cite as: Yerbury, H. and Todd, R. J. (1996). Learning beyond the familiar zone. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Third International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 431-438. Perth, Western Australia, 21-25 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1996/ry/yerbury.html

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