Thoughts On Education

Random thoughts on education from philosophical, pedagogic, technical and practical perspectives (John Doyle)

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Here are some interesting thoughts on education from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D.

It has turned out that mass education is more difficult to achieve than we had anticipated. To close the gap between the rather dismal reality and earlier expectations, researchers and practitioners have placed their faith in teaching methods modeled on computers and other rational means for conveying information - which in turn were modeled on industrial production techniques and on military human systems design. The implicit hope has been that if we discover more and more rational ways of selecting, organizing, and distributing knowledge, children will learn more effectively.

Yet it seems increasingly clear that the chief impediments to learning are not cognitive in nature. It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to. Computers do not suffer from motivational problems, whereas human beings do. We have not found ways to program children so that they will learn the information we present to them as computers do. Unfortunately, cognitive science has not taken adequate notice of this fact, and hence the current cognitive emphasis on teaching is missing out on an essential component of what learning is about.

Of the two main forms of motivation -- extrinsic and intrinsic -- I focus primarily on the second kind. Although both are needed to induce people to invest energy in learning, intrinsic motivation, which is operative when we learn something primarily because we find the task enjoyable and not because it is useful, is a more effective and more satisfying way to learn.

The claim is that if educators invested a fraction of the energy on stimulating the students' enjoyment of learning that they now spend in trying to transmit information we could achieve much better results. Literacy, numeracy, or indeed any other subject matter will be mastered more readily and more thoroughly when the student becomes able to derive intrinsic rewards from learning. At present, however, lamentably few students would recognize the idea that learning can be enjoyable.

When people enjoy whatever they are doing, they report some characteristic experiential states that distinguish the enjoyable moment from the rest of life. The same dimensions are reported in the context of enjoying chess, climbing mountains, playing with babies, reading a book, or writing a poem. They are the same for young and old, male and female, American or Japanese, rich or poor. In other words, the phenomenology of enjoyment seems to be a panhuman constant. When all the characteristics are present, we call this state of consciousness a flow experience, because many of the respondents reported that when what they were doing was especially enjoyable it felt like being carried away by a current, like being in a flow.

A teacher who understands the conditions that make people want to learn -- want to read, to write, and do sums -- is in a position to turn these activities into flow experiences. When the experience becomes intrinsically rewarding, students' motivation is engaged, and they are on their way to a lifetime of self-propelled acquisition of knowledge.

Fortunately, many teachers intuitively know that the best way to achieve their goals is to enlist students' interest on their side. They do this by being sensitive to students' goals and desires, and they are thus able to articulate the pedagogical goals as meaningful challenges. They empower students to take control of their learning; they provide clear feedback to the students' efforts without threatening their egos and without making them self-conscious. They help students concentrate and get immersed in the symbolic world of the subject matter. As a result, good teachers still turn out children who enjoy learning, and who will continue to face the world with curiosity and interest.

It is to be hoped that with time the realization that children are not miniature computing machines will take root in educational circles, and more attention will be paid to motivational issues. Unless this comes to pass, the current problems we are having with education are not likely to go away.

There are two main ways that children's motivation to learn can be enhanced. The first is by a realistic reassessment of the extrinsic rewards attendant to education. This would involve a much clearer communication of the advantages and disadvantages one might expect as a result of being able to read, write, and do sums. Of course, these consequences must be real, and not just a matter of educational propaganda. Hypocrisy is easy to detect, and nothing turns motivation off more effectively than the realization that one has been had.

The second way to enhance motivation is to make children aware of how much fun learning can be. This strategy is preferable on many counts. In the first place, it is something teachers can do something about. Second, it should be easier to implement-it does not require expensive technology, although it does require sensitivity and intelligence, which might be harder to come by than the fruits of technology. Third, it is a more efficient and permanent way to empower children with the tools of knowledge. And finally, this strategy is preferable because it adds immensely to the enjoyment learners will take in the use of their abilities, and hence it improves the quality of their lives.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

The Importance of Interactive Learning in Medical Education

The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (RCPSC) has long taken an active role in the post-certification education of Canadian specialists through their Maintenance of Certification (MOC) program and its forerunners. Although they use the term “Continuing Professional Development” (CPD) in referring to this process, it is, in essence, simply another term for Continuing Medical Education (CME).

The MOC program requires that members complete 400 credit hours of acceptable CPD in a five-year period to maintain specialist certification. Among the most popular means of collecting credit is through “Section 1” educational activities (attending lectures, seminars, scientific meetings, journal clubs, etc.). Other acceptable activities involve “practice audits”, “personal learning projects” and education via medical simulation.

The RCPSC feels strongly that Section 1 activities are of increased educational value where there is an opportunity for interaction between the "expert" speaker and the participants. This is often in the form of a question and discussion period that serves to further engage the listener as well as to clarify some of the issues that may remain unanswered at the end of the formal part of the presentation.

The MOC program requires that "at least 25 per cent of the time of a CPD event should be allocated for interactive learning." Otherwise, the program coordinators believe, the event takes place at the expense of audience involvement, a key ingredient in learning. This view is supported by a landmark meta-analysis of the effectiveness of formal CME by Davis et al. (1999) who showed that traditional didactic methods do not generally lead to a change of clinical practice, or to an improvement in patients' health outcomes, whereas interactive techniques are more likely to.

Davis D., O'Brien M.A., Freemantle N., Wolf F.M., Mazmanian P. & Taylor-Vaisey A. Impact of formal continuing medical education: do conferences, workshops, rounds, and other traditional continuing education activities change physician behaviour or health outcomes? Journal of the American Medical Association 1999; 282: 867-74.

Peer-Review of Educational Resources

I would like to make the case that the future of Instructional Ssystems Design appears to be very promising, at least in part because of the ease offered by the World Wide Web in distributing quality resources based on sound ISD methods, as well as in allowing for easy editorial communication. In particular, the Web is facilitating an important development in the world of educational resources: peer-review.

The peer-review process in scientific publishing is as old as scientific publishing itself. Typically, materials submitted for publication are reviewed by two or more expert referees who are particularly knowledgeable in the subject matter being discussed. Their comments and opinions form the basis upon which an editor will decide whether or not to publish the submitted material, and with what changes, if any.

By contrast, in the case of educational resources, formal peer-review remains uncommon. Historically, this was likely because until recently, publishing educational resources like books was usually always done in conjunction with a publishing house with its own internal quality control system. With the rise of the Internet, the landscape has changed, and publishing no longer requires enormous expense and the cooperation of a publishing house.

The idea of establishing a peer-review process for educational resources is not new. For example, the Medical College of Wisconsin, in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has launched of a Web site at designed to be a central repository for peer-reviewed end-of-life educational resources for physician educators.

An even bigger initiative is Project Merlot, located at, which seeks to provide high-quality teaching materials in a number of disciplines of higher education. Here is a description of Project Merlot taken from the Web site:

"MERLOT conducts structured peer review of online teaching-learning materials. The primary purpose of the reviews is to allow faculty from any institution of higher education to decide if the online teaching-learning materials they are examining will work in their courses. The emphasis on the user's perspective is the reason why the peer reviews are performed by peer users of instructional technology, and not necessarily peer authors of instructional technology. The MERLOT peer review process for evaluating teaching-learning materials follows the model of peer review of scholarship. Each review is conducted by at least two higher education faculty members who, from their individual reviews, compose a "composite review" that is posed to the MERLOT website. Currently peer review is being conducted in twelve discipline-based communities."

"Peer Reviews are informed by standard evaluation criteria that divide the review into three dimensions: Quality of Content, Potential Effectiveness as a Teaching Tool, and Ease of Use. Each of these dimensions is evaluated separately. Generally, in addition to written findings by the reviewers, there is also a rating for each of these dimensions (1-5 stars, 5 being the highest). A review must average three stars (or textual equivalent) in order to be posted to the site."

On Interactivity

One concept that distinguishes some advanced technology instructional products from print-based products is “interactivity”. Although this term appears to be frequently overused and often poorly understood, the notion of interactivity remains an important and useful pedagogical concept, and is especially topical to Web-based education given the introduction of new technologies (such as JavaScript Web programming) designed specifically to support advanced user interactivity.

In his book Understanding Interactivity, Crawford discusses the notion of interactivity in terms of a conversation: “a cyclic process in which two actors alternately listen, think, and speak” and notes that the “quality of the interaction depends on the quality of each of the subtasks (listening, thinking, and speaking)”. This model of interactivity avoids some of the pitfalls associated with some definitions offered in the past. Notes Crawford:

… consider this definition of interactivity offered in a popular book: "By definition, the things people do on computers have always been interactive." Not very illuminating, is it? Or here's another definition offered on a website: "Interactivity ... concerns itself with the various means by which human beings implement actions." Rather mushy, eh? So let's start with a humbling realization: we really don't have a clear idea of what interactivity is all about. Plenty of people have slapped it onto their work and tried to sell "The Same Old Same Old Stuff" as "New Interactive Technology!" and we have to admit that, with all the hype, we've lost track of the true meaning of the word.

Educators, especially those focusing on distance education, place considerable importance on the notion of interactivity. Well-designed interactivity in educational systems can (at least in principle) help capture the learner’s interest, has the potential to speed the learning process, and even allows for continuous assessment of the degree to which the material is mastered. Technology (at least theoretically) can allow for high-quality interactivity by providing for frequent and relevant user feedback, by recognizing when students misunderstand a concept, and by providing learning aids such as animations or graphs that vary depending on user input.

Why is interactivity important in education? One reason is that interactivity is particularly compatible with established psychological models of learning and the central tenets of adult learning theory. In particular, constructivist principles help account for the importance of interactivity in distance education. (Constructivism is the view that knowledge is "constructed" by the learner by testing ideas, concepts and approaches based on existing knowledge and one’s actively acquired experiences, and that knowledge is not merely acquired passively. Constructivist theory holds that students learn best when students actively participate in problem-solving and critical thinking while involved in an appropriately formulated learning activity, and that this learning involves the integration of newly acquired knowledge with pre-existing intellectual constructs.)

Experts in adult learning also argue that traditional didactic teaching merely encourages passive learning, instead of the development of higher order cognitive skills needed for true education. They point out that active involvement is essential for effective learning, and adults learn best, they argue, when one can draw on previous experience, using techniques such as group discussion, simulation exercises, and problem solving. That is, going beyond mere looking and listening motivates people to learn on their own, gives students the motivation to try out new ideas, and encourages them to critically examine issues that were once simple accepted passively.

Kinds of Interactivity in Educational Systems

Interaction Between Student and the Instructor

Interactivity in the traditional classroom is primarily between the student and the instructor, and technology usually plays a secondary role. As a rule, students can ask questions and get immediate replies. Outside the classroom, or before the class starts, students can and often do interact among themselves by verbal means (“Did you understand how he solved problem 6?”) and may later interact by telephone, instant messaging and e-mail, three means of interactivity also available to distance education students.

Students in some distance education programs view videotapes of the regular on-campus classes, which include interactions between the on-campus students and the instructor (usually in the form of questions), but obviously videotape viewers cannot have any synchronous interaction with the instructor at the time of the lesson, although they are still able to exchange words with both the instructor (and, possibly, an academic advisor) via telephone, fax, instant messaging and e-mail.

In may cases distance education learners have no direct interaction with the course instructor, and instead deal only with an on-site coordinator or tutor. Still, provided these individuals are knowledgeable in the materials being taught and have well-developed communication skills, this should not be a problem. Such individuals are especially helpful in settings where there is a high ratio of students to instructor and direct access to the instructor is not practical.

In contrast to the setting where students have no direct interaction with the course instructor, Element K ( is an online resource focusing on computer technology education that offers a number of online instructor-led courses in which students can log into a message board for discussions with both the instructor and fellow students. Some courses even offer the unique opportunity to participate in live (online) chats with industry executives.

Interaction Between Student and Content

Many educational theorists would say that interaction between the student and the content is the heart of education, whether in the classroom or in the distance education setting (or, indeed, in the setting of self-education). In order to learn effectively, the content must be presented appropriately, in a way that will motivate the student and inspire thought. Most often, the material is presented as text with some graphics, and a good writing style with good organization of the material are the key elements to producing a useful document. The technology used for the document (printed paper, PDF, HTML etc.) is less important than the quality of the writing, although poor formatting makes even good writing hard to read.

Interaction Between Students

Students have always been able to communicate with one another in traditional classrooms, sometimes by passing notes, but more often than not by meeting informally before and after class. Such social interactions are important to making new friends and getting exposed to new ideas. These interactions also help in carrying out collaborative projects requiring team building.

It is interesting to note that interaction between students is a somewhat new phenomenon in distance education, having started in a big way only since the development of the World Wide Web made computer-conferencing practical. Until relatively recently, distance education students had limited interaction with other students, their interactions being primarily with the instructor, the content, and the technology. However, the recent advent of Web-based computer conferencing and e-mail services has changed all that. As a result of this fact and the development of groupware systems such as Lotus Notes, distance education is moving from highly individualized forms of instruction as in the correspondence education approach popular several decades ago, to formats that encourage students to explore topics as a group and to undertake collaborative learning. This approach is also asynchronous, which gives learners the freedom to control their learning activities in terms of time, location and choice of collaborating partners. Other technologies, like instant messaging or two-way video conferencing, also allow for communication among students, but are primarily synchronous in nature. By contrast, computer conferencing provides for asynchronous interaction, which fits much better into the hectic lives of many adult learners.

Still, the nature of student-student interaction in distance education is fundamentally different than in conventional educational settings. Some students feel that the distance education format is often weak in the area of establishing “bonding” between classmates, who are not able to easily get to know one another as effortlessly as in the classroom setting. Students usually have no idea what their classmates look like, or what their voices sound like, thereby delaying the development of any “mental image” about the people in the class until much later, once many postings have been made and students get to know one another by means of written communications. This is a matter that has not seen significant academic research.

Interaction Between Student and Technology

Until recent years, educational technology was not especially capable of maintaining a high degree of interactivity with a learner, in contrast, say, to the very high level of possible interaction between a teacher and a student discussing a philosophical matter, where a series of verbal exchanges may occur that involves a cognitive effort much more advanced than mere memorization or rote repetition.

This matter will likely change favourably, at least to a moderate degree, as software technology continues to become more sophisticated and as computer hardware inextricably advances in speed and power. In particular, advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI), educational authoring systems and Internet scripting languages such as JavaScript will likely have a direct impact on the evolution of computer-based interactivity in distance education. Still, computer-based learning is much more complex than working through a textbook, and many students who are uncomfortable with computers see no reason to deviate from a curriculum based on a well-written textbook, particularly well-polished classics that are current and are accompanied by study guides and solutions manuals.

Many advocates of computer-mediated distance education draw attention to the helpful aspects offered by computer-based methods and understate the kinds of communicative and technical difficulties learners may experience. When students use complicated equipment in their learning environment, it is important to ensure the technologies used help rather than hinder the learning experience. Students using unfamiliar technologies may experience frustration, anxiety and confusion and students involved in distance education using computer technologies may face numerous stumbling blocks unrelated to the material to be learned. These include computer hardware problems, software problems at the level of the operating system or the various software applications, as well as difficulties with Internet access. Files may mysteriously “disappear”. Attachments sent by e-mail may be “lost” in transit. Random “disconnects” from the Internet may frustrate the user. Unless students are moderately familiar with computers, substantial effort may be expended on technology-related issues rather than learning the intended materials.

Thus technologies that are awkward, unintuitive or present the learner with a steep learning curve may hinder interaction and even impede learning. Various means by which technology can impede interactivity include: haphazard, unintuitive or disorganized user interfaces; poor screen layout; poor use of fonts and icons; systems that respond too slowly to user inputs; or systems that crash frequently.

Developing Instructional Materials

"Suppose you were involved in a project to develop instructional materials to be delivered at a distance, and had limited resources for the analysis phase of the project. Of the types of analysis discussed in this unit, which type(s) would you be sure to conduct? Which type(s) could you omit or allocate fewer resources toward? Give a rationale for your selection."

In considering this question, I would emphasize two streams of analysis. First, consideration must be given to the educational content, and secondly, consideration must be given to the means of delivering that content. With respect to the former, curricular goals and objectives must be developed, while in the case of the latter, the considerations tend to be more technical, especially if instructional materials are to be delivered at a distance via the Web or via video links.

The first task in any such initiative is to perform a "needs assessment" - to ask whether there is a need for the proposed resource, and if so, ask what should be its scope and its format, and how should the resource be organized. For instance, before embarking on a hypothetical effort to put up a clinical pharmacology page on the Web aimed at medical students learning resuscitation, it would be wise to ask a number of students approaching the end of their medical school training about what, if anything, was flawed in their pharmacology learning experience and to seek their opinion on how the situation might be remedied. In my own case, for example, I learned from several medical students that in addition to materials available in HTML format, some would also like the material available in formats suitable for use with their hand-held computers (Palm Pilot, Pocket PC, Psion etc.).

The needs assessment stage is the appropriate starting point of any educational project. It addresses questions as to who the audience is, what their background is, what the learning objectives should be, what resources are to be supplied etc. The result of this stage is the foundation for all subsequent development effort.

What is the Fifth Discipline?

Several times I have come across the term "Fifth Discipline" and naturally I wondered about the other four. (On the same note - What is meant by "first world" and "second world" in the context of "third world"?)

In The Fifth Discipline by Peter M. Senge (1994, ISBN: 0385260954), the ability of an individual to approach things in terms of "Systems Thinking" is called the "Fifth Discipline". The other four disciplines are:

1) Personal Mastery

2) Team Learning

3) Mental models

4) Building a Shared Vision

Personal mastery is the process of focusing one's mental energy, of seeing reality objectively, without biases, of developing patience with others, and of becoming a better person overall.

Team learning starts with establishing a process of dialogue between team members, a process that requires that one suspend assumptions about individuals and institutions and enter into a process of "thinking together" based on improved dialogue and communication. This also involves learning how to recognize team processes that may undermine team learning.

Developing a shared vision involves seeing future possibilities and developing a committment to these possibilities.

Mental models are useful to develop introspection - learning to recognize and critique our internal pictures of the world.

Finally, systems thinking (the Fifth Discipline") takes the concept of "feedback" and develops it to show how actions in any system can reinforce (positive feedback) each other or counteract each other (negative feedback).

These five disciplines relate to education very briefly as follows. Individual learning and skill development prepares the individual for being a part of a team (personal mastery). Mental models are needed to discuss abstract concepts, like behaviourism. Shared values and a guiding purpose (shared vision) are needed to progress towards the future. For everyone to work together towards a shared vision, a process of team learning makes the necessary dialogue and communication possible. And finally, recognizing the various archetypical structures present in educational institutions (and their operational dynamics) allows one to use systems thinking to more easily see patterns that are potentially problematic to an organization.

Emergent Behaviour in Complex Systems

Many complex systems exhibit what is called "emergent behaviour". For example, "wetness" is an emergent property of a suitably large collection of water molecules. Here is a little information on this very interesting topic.

In some systems of sufficient complexity, interactions taking place between system components leads to the emergence of a collective or aggregate behaviour that would not be anticipated from the behaviour of components in isolation. Such emergent behaviour depends upon the character of the interactions as much as it does upon the character of individual components themselves. Of interest, such systems are almost always "non-linear" (output is not proportional to input) and may also exhibit "self-organization". These ideas span across many types of systems: biologic, economic, physical, chemical, etc.

One definition of emergence I have modified from the Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind ( is:"Properties of a complex physical system are emergent when they are neither (i) properties had by any parts of the system taken in isolation nor (ii) resultant of a mere summation of properties of parts of the system."

Here is a nice example of emergent behaviour that is easy to understand. Have you ever wondered why birds flock? Flocking apparently can be achieved by the individual birds following some very simple rules: [1] Follow the birds ahead of you, [2] Stay close to the birds near you, and [3] Do not bump into anyone. Flocking is an example of an “emergent behaviour” because it is the net result of the actions of individuals, yet the behaviour is not “coded” into any one individual. For those interested, a computer simulation of bird flocking (using simulated birds known as "boids") is available at

The rules used in this simulation are:
-Boids try to fly towards the centre of mass of neighbouring boids.
-Boids try to keep a small distance away from other objects (including other boids).
-Boids try to match velocity with near boids.

The stock market is another example of emergence. Although it regulates the prices of companies around the world, it has no leader - there is no one entity controlling the stock market. Through the interactions of individual investors (each with only limited information) the behaviour of the stock market as a whole emerges.

Some authorities believe that emergent behaviour is a possible answer to the well-known mind-body problem in philosophy and the neurosciences. Here, consciousness is taken to be an emergent system-level feature of complex neurophysiological processes. Thus, a person's "mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make them up and influence them" (Crick), and according to such an account, intelligence and consciousness emerges from the rich and varied connections between neurons. It is thus not necessary to propose a "soul" or "mind" to account for the fact that brains can be intelligent and self-aware, even though the individual neurons of which they are made clearly are not. Of course, explaining how our individual subjective experiences arise from mere neural firing patterns is likely to remain a matter of long-standing debate in both scientific and philosophical circles, but regardless, most contemporary theories attempt to approach the mystery of consciousness in terms of emergent behaviour.

Assessment versus Evaluation

Assessment and evaluation are often confused. They are not the same.

Assessment determines what an individual student knows or can do - what cognitive or technical skills they have acquired. Information from the assessment process is used to assign grades, allow promotion or advanced placement, and so on. Assessment is directed at a single student.

By contrast, evaluation is not directed at an individual student, but rather at a course or program. Evaluation techniques allow one to determine the merit or worth of a program or course, often for the purposes of considering adoption, revision or termination.


User Interface Design in Instructional Design: The Bare Essentials

The design of the User Interface in Instructional Design encompasses four components - usability, visualization, functionality and accessibility. Interface design is usually associated with the development of electronic resources like Web sites, software, and multimedia teaching packages, but it is also important in other areas, like in the design of medical equipment.

Usability refers to how readily or intuitively a "media item" is navigated and utilized, and includes items like download time requirements and the clarity of provided instructions. 

Visualization involved creating clear and visually appealing media items while avoiding confusing or redundant items that  take away from the clarity of the experience.

Functionality refers to how useful the features of your media item are for supporting a particular task, such as a simulation of a piece of equipment.

Accessibility is concerned with system usability for users with disabilities, such as blind or deaf users. More often than not, the focus is on Web site accessibility.


Thursday, July 08, 2004

Education Quote of the Week

I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.

--Mark Twain

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

“What is the Deal with On-Line Learning?”

Recent advances in computing technology have given educators the potential to provide advanced multimedia educational environments with a relatively modest delivery cost (although development costs are an entirely different matter). Such online learning environments offer the potential to enhance education for students, or provide on-the-job support for experts in need of readily accessible reference information. As a result, the use of online delivery methods for university and college courses has become increasingly popular in recent years, not only because of the enormous convenience they offer to students (especially distance education students working asynchronously), but also because, when properly designed, they are particularly compatible with existing notions of adult education and cognitive development.

However, in order to fully exploit the promise of such capabilities, we must take into account the nature of human learning and problem solving and develop an associated set of design principles for multimedia online educational systems environments. Thus, the effect of employing online delivery methods on the cognitive development of the institution's students will depend to a large degree on the specifics of how the online delivery is implemented. While it would certainly be possible to accomplish a simple model of online course delivery by merely putting all assignments and reading material online, and by providing e-mail communication capability between students and staff, such an approach suffers from the disadvantage that it is merely an electronic version of an existing course. I would suggest, however, that that application of the cognitive development theories might be helpful in promoting cognitive development in students. As noted, the key to success in this matter is that such systems be designed based on well-established educational principles and solid cognitive science.

It seems to me that sometimes the people making the key decisions about educational technology do so in isolation from other individuals and with limited input from the intended users of that technology. As a consequence, the educational technology may be judged to be unsuccessful, when, in fact, the technology choice was simply inappropriate to the needs of the target group. This appears to be particularly true for software purchases, where sometimes software never even gets installed because the intended end-users were never consulted in the selection process.

Individuals interested in educational technology must always be concerned that some educators will pursue a particular technology as an end in itself, without any consideration being given to the underlying basic educational theory and educational psychology involved. In this context educators sometimes make the mistake of failing to recognize that the role of technology should be adjunctive, not central, to education. I believe that decisions concerning educational technology should both reflect sound learning theory, and should fit in to the culture and traditions of the organization. The best way to ensure that that happens is to involve potential users early in the selection process.

The above notwithstanding, the process of employing multimedia and Web-based technologies to implement PBL is far from automatic, and there is now considerable interest in universities and colleges in exploring the various means for transforming existing curricular materials to incorporate educational multimedia.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Digital Learning Objects

Digital learning objects are a new way of thinking about the use of computers and digital entities in the development of computer-based instructional materials (for details start with

For the purposes of this discussion I would like to define a “digital learning object” as any digital entity with associated metadata that may be used for learning, education, and training. By “metadata” (literally "data about data") I simply mean descriptive information about a digital learning resource, such as learning object type, file size or the title of the resource (see for more information).

While various taxonomies of learning objects have been proposed (see, for instance,, I would like to propose a particular hierarchical taxonomy of learning objects which I believe to be particularly helpful at the level of discrete digital objects:

A learning object consists of at least one of the following types: (educational) module, section, paragraph, figure, table, response unit or hyperlinked entity.

A module consists of one or more sections.

A section consists of at least one of the following: paragraph, figure, table, response unit or hyperlinked entity.

A paragraph consists of one or more sentences.

A figure consists of a graphical element and an optional text element (figure legend)

A table consists of a grid element and an optional text element (table legend)

A response unit consists of a means to obtain one or more responses from the user, such as answers to multiple choice questions or free text narrative commentary.

A hyperlinked entity is any digital object (animation, applet, audio clip, video clip, PDF file etc.) which is accessed by reference rather than being directly part of a resource.


Learning Object Definitions

“...a learning object is defined as any entity, digital or non-digital, that may be used for learning, education, or training.”

From IEEE P1484.12.1/D6.4, “Draft Standard for Learning Object Metadata.”

Dalziel (2002) describes a learning object as “an aggregation of one or more digital assets, incorporating meta-data, which represents an educationally meaningful stand-alone unit.”

The JORUM+ project adopted the following definition: “A learning object is any resource that can be used to facilitate learning and teaching that has been described using metadata.”

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

A Constructivist Approach to Online Training for Online Teachers

This article is concerned with pedagogical issues in online education, especially, the transition from in-class to online instruction. The focus is "on the pedagogical training that an online instructor needs to become an effective teacher". The article discusses a two-week faculty development program based on a "constructivist instructional methodology" designed to help instructors to develop resources for an online educational environment.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

What is the Deal with Problem-Based Learning?

Traditional education involves the delivery of information to students by means of lectures and demonstrations, usually supported by tutorials and laboratory sessions. In this model the instructor provides students with the information that they need.

In Problem-based Learning (PBL) the students work in small groups under the guidance of an instructor or tutor to find for themselves the knowledge they need to solve real world problems. The tutors are usually not experts in the subject matter of the tutorial, but rather are facilitators who help the students find the answers for themselves. At the conclusion of a PBL session, the students should have encountered the information necessary to solve the problem and, in so doing, should have gained knowledge and skills that in a traditional medical curriculum would have been circulated by lecture. PBL emphasizes group problem-analysis and independent self-directed study over teacher- or examination-driven education. As a consequence, it is believed that PBL may encourage students to become thoughtful problem-solvers and life-long learners.

The introduction of a PBL-based medical curriculum began in 1969 at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. From the school’s outset, McMaster medical school structured the curriculum around actual clinical cases instead of teaching based on the traditional subjects of anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology and so on. The introduction of PBL was based on a concern that many medical schools put too much emphasis on memorization of facts and little weight on developing problem solving skills or the self-directed study skills necessary for the life-long practice of medicine.

Following its introduction at McMaster University, the PBL teaching model was later adopted by a significant number of other medical schools, as well as by schools teaching other professional disciplines such as business. PBL is now the instructional method of choice in an increasing number of medical schools around the globe.

Problem-based learning is a ground-breaking and demanding approach to medical education - ground-breaking because it involves a new way of using clinical material to help students learn, and demanding because it requires the instructor to play a facilitating and supporting role rather than a didactic one. For the student, problem-based learning emphasizes the application of knowledge and skills to the solution of problems (clinical cases) rather than the mere recall of facts.

Since the quantity of direct teaching is substantially reduced in a PBL curriculum, students are expected to assume greater responsibility for their own education, and the instructor's role becomes variously one of coach, group facilitator, subject matter expert, instructional resource guide, and group consultant, where the instructor is expected to promote and support student involvement, to provide guidance to help keep students on track, to help prevent anyone giving inappropriate negative criticism, and even to assume the role of fellow learner. This arrangement is intended to promote group acquisition of information rather than the mere imparting of information to passive students by faculty.