Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

Visualizing the Complex Process for Deep Learning with an Authentic Programming Project

Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

Visualizing the Complex Process for Deep Learning with an Authentic Programming Project

Article excerpt


The learning of computer programming has received increased attention with the rapid growth of industry demand for programmers and student interest in programming. However, computer programming is a hard subject for many learners (Govender & Grayson, 2008; Lahtinen, Ala-Mutka, & Jarvinen, 2005). A programmer must master both programming knowledge (e.g., concepts, syntax, and semantics) and programming skills and strategies (Robins, Rountree, & Rountree, 2003). The latter refers to the general and specific skills and strategies for integrating abstract programming knowledge into programming tasks by planning, designing, and implementing solutions. Different from programming knowledge, programming skills and strategies are more implicit and harder to capture, yet are critical for programming performance (Soloway, 1986).

Traditional programming education has focused on elaborating abstract knowledge rather than on linking knowledge to specific contexts, which can be labeled as "knowledge driven" or "teacher-centered" education (Robins, Rountree, & Rountree, 2003). As a result, many students demonstrate fragile knowledge (i.e., missing, inert, and misplaced knowledge) and unsatisfactory programming skills and strategies despite passing their programming courses with decent grades. To address the gap, project-based learning (PjBL) has been increasingly promoted by encouraging learners to work with authentic programming tasks and develop artifacts, such as computer programs or design plans, that are realistic products closer to professional reality (Blumenfeld, Soloway, Marx, Krajcik, Guzdial, & Palincsar, 2011).

PjBL contributes to the meaningful learning of abstract knowledge, the improvement of student motivation and confidence, and to the development of communication and problem-solving skills (Kay et al., 2000; Thomas, 2000). Nevertheless, the implementation of PjBL in programming courses, mainly in advanced courses, remains a struggle for many educators (Perrenet, Bouhuijs, & Smits, 2000). PjBL involves a wide range of complex problem-solving activities and extensive hands-on practice, which challenge teachers' ability to design PjBL curricula and support students throughout their projects. A major concern is that programming tasks involve complex cognitive processes that are inaccessible to learners and instructors. Such complexity can overwhelm learners, making them unable to engage in deeper learning experiences and achieve desired learning outcomes (Helle, Tynjala, & Olkinuora, 2006; Pucher & Lehner, 2011; Thomas, 2000). Moreover, these complex processes are not always made evident to instructors due to the inherent difficulty of tracking and capturing them, thereby limiting instructors' capacity to facilitate and improve student performance. Additionally, the resource consuming nature of PjBL makes it difficult to implement without sufficient time, manpower, and resources (Pucher & Lehner, 2011; Thomas, 2000).

This study attempts to address this challenge by designing a visualization-based learning environment that makes the complex process of carrying out an authentic project accessible, trackable, and attainable throughout the learning process. It uses a web-based learning environment to support PjBL learning with more flexibility in the delivery of learning activities and provision of feedback and support to learners without time and space constraints. This learning environment also has the potential to save costs by reusing learning resources and saving manpower. The study uses ASP.NET as the learning subject, as it is a popular programming course and a mainstream language in the software industry. This study aims to explore the feasibility and effects of the proposed approach in supporting computer programming PjBL. The research questions (RQs) of the study are stated below.

RQ1: How can a visualization-based learning environment be designed to make the complex process of carrying out an authentic project accessible to learners in a programming course? …

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