The UIUC Virtual Spectrometer: A Java-Based Collaborative Learning Environment

Article excerpt


The development ofthe UIUC Virtual Spectrometer (UIUC-VS), an interactive, Java-based simulation and tutoring system, is discussed. The apprenticeship model of learning is utilized to create a learning environment for the study ofa one-dimensional proton nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) experiment, with the goal of linking theoretical knowledge with practical operational experience. Active, exploratory, apprentice-style learning is supported via modes of operation within the system. Students can flexibly choose to "observe the expert" perform and explain operational steps, or "act as an apprentice" and carry out the steps autonomously. Students can switch between modes at their discretion, giving them control ofthe level of system intervention. Students can also explore and reflect on an "information space" of objects, procedures, and related concepts. UIUC-VS extends a previous tutorial application, LEMRS,1 using Java-based, Web-capable technologies to provide a basis for a shared simulation environment teaching NMR. As a computer-supported collaborative learning environment, the system includes a method of asynchronous communication, where the student can post questions and comments to a "question board," with the ability to capture the current state of the system via annotations on a screen capture. Formative evaluations involving undergraduate chemistry students were crucial to system redesign.


In the physical and engineering sciences, students experience both classroom and laboratory instruction. Typically, classroom instruction focuses on theoretical principles, while laboratory instruction focuses on practical tasks such as running experiments using equipment. It is important that the links between theory and practice are strong and clearly articulated. Learning, furthermore, is a social process.2-4 Our interest is in using information technology to link theory and practice in the context of a collaborative, simulation-based learning environment. This paper describes the UIUC Virtual Spectrometer, a Web-based learning environment for nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. The UIUC Virtual Spectrometer teaches operational procedures in a safe, simulated environment that allows exploration of relevant theoretical concepts. Additionally, mechanisms for asynchronous (non-continuous) communication are provided to allow for collaborative interaction and peer tutoring. For a more detailed description, the reader is referred to the Technical Report associated with this project.2 The UIUC Viral Spectrometer (UIUC-VS) is based on an earlier stand-alone application, LEMRS (Learning Environment for Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy).1

The UIUC Virtual Spectrometer's learning methodology is based on the theories of cognitive apprenticeship' and legitimate peripheral participation.5 These theories emphasize learning-bydoing in the context of the activity where the novice learner interacts with an expert. The UIUC Virtual Spectrometer supports a simple form of apprenticeship learning where the student can choose the role of an observer as an "expert" runs the experiment, or can choose to "act as an apprentice" and perform the experiment with a variety of tutorial resources.


NMR spectroscopy is an operational procedure that rests on a great deal of theoretical knowledge of physics and quantum mechanics. It is possible to learn the procedures of operation, without knowing much of the theory underlying the experimental procedures. In our studies, we found that even after class exposure to NMR theory and application, an overwhelming majority of undergraduate students have only a rudimentary understanding of NMR. An interactive tutoring system that addresses the theory of NMR spectroscopy and the routine operating procedures associated with using a spectrometer provides individualized, stable, and consistent training6 that explicitly attempts to activate relevant theoretical knowledge in the context of practice with a simulated instrument. …