Passivity is the curse of digital learning but researchers at the OU have developed a solution, Stephen Pritchard reports
Academics with reservations about computer-based learning often worry that students risk becoming passive consumers of information. Some multimedia projects justify these concerns: they present the student with little more interactivity than a video cassette. Certainly, many computer-based tools are a poor substitute for face-to-face learning.
Of all the academic institutions in the UK, the Open University has the most experience of creating alternatives to face-to-face contact between student and lecturer. The OU now devotes substantial resources to developing computer-based materials as well as its conventional printed course books and its broadcasts.
The Trunk, an interactive tool developed in the OU's department of education, won a European Academic Software Award last autumn. The software focuses on prompting students to think, in this case about the different methods and contexts of learning.
The Trunk was developed for an OU course, Learning Matters, by information technology specialist Peter Twining. The program is built around the contents of a suitcase belonging to fellow lecturer Bob McCormick. In the application, developed using Macromedia Director, the suitcase opens up to reveal documents which chronicle his development as a learner, from his school report and swimming certificate to his first appearance on TV.
Students use The Trunk and the facsimile documents to explore their ideas about the way we learn in the classroom and beyond. The program prompts students to categorise the items according to headings they choose themselves, and then look further at the reasons behind their choices. The first stage is carried out by students individually with the CD-Rom; the OU plans to add personal interaction with computer conferencing.
According to Dr Twining, The Trunk was developed in response to the practical and educational difficulties of delivering a document-based project to remote students. One option was to create copies of the McCormick artefacts and send them to each student. "We started off with a cardboard box with artefacts in it," says Dr Twining. "We thought about sending out an actual kit. For a variety of practical and educational reasons, we decided to use a disk."
The disk brings benefits apart from overcoming the logistics of creating facsimile items and sending them out to students. It allows the course authors to build in guidance and create at least some immediate feedback. The Trunk is structured around a series of tasks, the Challenge Menu, which have to be completed in order. As students work through the challenges, they move from thinking about the artefacts to thinking about their choices and categorisations. As the program points out, there are no wrong answers: the thinking process is all-important.
"We were keen to change the balance of student activity on the course," says Dr Twining. "Most of the content is delivered as text; by and large it is a fairly passive way of learning. We wanted the students to be much more involved. Also, students on the course had done a lot of learning themselves. We wanted a device to pull out or elicit that knowledge from them."
The Trunk comprises two applications: the Flick Through and the Sort. The Flick Through works as an introduction, including an initial movie, voiceover and help file; it also gives students the chance to become familiar with the artefacts, which include books, photographs and some video footage.
The Sort is the core of the project; it is the part that prompts students to consider the documents in more depth. The Sort is based around an element called the Elicitation Engine, which has been designed specifically to help students tap into their own subject knowledge, then reconsider their answers.
Dr Twining's team is currently working on a standalone version of the Elicitation Engine, which the OU plans to market, and a web-based version with support for multiple users. The Trunk has already prompted considerable interest from other academic institutions both in the UK and overseas. The existing format of The Trunk package lends itself most readily to teaching in the arts and humanities; the software owes its origins to an earlier OU teaching application, Art Explorer. However, Dr Twining believes that the Elicitation Engine can be adapted for teaching in other subjects, including the sciences; it could also play a role in assessment.
"We are working on a totally generic version," he says. "We are interested in how software can be reused across subjects in academia, and the Elicitation Engine is a prime candidate." Adapting the package for other disciplines, though, requires academics to consider their teaching methods as well as the content. "There are issues in porting the Elicitation Engine from education, where there are no wrong answers, to a subject like chemistry, where students can get it wrong," he says. "But scientists can use it to reveal misconceptions, and as a diagnostic tool. They would need to change the way the software is used in a course."