Academic journal article Journal of Interactive Learning Research

Embodying Our Values in Our Teaching Practices: Building Open and Critical Discourse through Computer Mediated Communication

Academic journal article Journal of Interactive Learning Research

Embodying Our Values in Our Teaching Practices: Building Open and Critical Discourse through Computer Mediated Communication

Article excerpt

Computer mediated communication--including web pages, email and web-based bulletin boards--was used to support the development of a cooperative learning community among students in a web-based distance education unit for practicing science and mathematics educators. The students lived in several Australian states and a number of Pacific Rim countries. They reported increased satisfaction with their studies, decreased feelings of isolation, and better support for their learning processes. This article describes the iterative processes of research and design involved in developing and refining the unit, which was based in a social constructivist/constructionist conception of teaching and learning, between 1997 and 1999. Issues and implications for others planning to develop web-based teaching units, including the time and energy commitment involved, and the challenges of credibly assessing online participation, are also considered.

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We were attracted to using computer mediated communication (CMC) in a distance education (DE) professional development unit we taught for practising educators because it seemed to have the potential to support, in the DE context, some of the things we valued about the face to face teaching of similar courses. The more traditional, "paper and mail" distance education mode that had previously been the norm in this unit--students submitted three written assignments, after reading a structured set of papers, and the assignments were marked and returned to them--had led students to feel isolated and under-supported, and had failed to draw on the rich knowledge and experience of students to support one another's learning. Further, because we were coming to understand our teaching using the dual referents of social constructivism and constructionism (Solomon, 1987; Tobin, 1990, 1993; Gergen, 1995; Steier, 1995), and because this perspective also formed part of the units we were teaching, the very individualistic nat ure of the students' learning experiences seemed to be mismatched with both what we were teaching and how we were increasingly coming to believe we should be teaching.

The unit that is the focus of this article (we have taught one other unit in this web-based mode, as well as a large number in "paper and mail" distance education mode and face to face) is offered by the Science and Mathematics Education Centre (SMEC) at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Western Australia. It forms part of the Master of Science (Science Education) and Master of Science (Mathematics Education) degrees at the university, and the unit itself is entitled "Curricula in Science, Mathematics and Technology Education." Its unit number, and the shorthand name that is often used when talking about it, is "SMEC 612." The students are practising classroom educators in Australia, New Zealand, South East Asia, and North America, studying in distance mode toward Masters degrees while continuing to teach. They come from all sectors of the educational community--public, private, and religious--and from the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels. This diverse student group has led us to try to develop the unit with a strong emphasis on students' reflections on their own practices in their own context, and on developing new understandings in ways that are relevant to their classroom teaching.

The things we value about our face to face, on campus teaching--which we had begun to reflect on and attempt to improve in an organised way (Geelan, Taylor, & Day, 1996; Geelan, in press)--include rich interactions between students, openness to others' ideas, a critical awareness of taken-for-granted beliefs and assumptions, and the willingness to suspend disbelief in new perspectives long enough to meaningfully engage with them. We use the notions of "open and critical discourse" as a way of understanding these values and explaining them to our students:

The kind of discussion that we value is open, empathic and interested. …

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