Another Node On the interNet
Iowa State University
John C. Butler
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204
I have known Doug for several years and am impressed with how he is creating learning environments at Iowa State. I have asked him to provide this month’s guest editorial.
For my first 25 years as a university faculty member things changed little as far as how one taught. My classes were fairly small (15-25) and every class involved a lecture. My course evaluations were reasonably good so there was no incentive to do anything different. Then in 1992 I inherited the large introductory meteorology class. There were 350-400 students (on test days) meeting three times a week in a large auditorium. I visited the class to see what I would be getting into and went into a panic. The students read the newspaper, chatted, came and went as they wished and generally were from a different planet than students I was familiar with.
The instructor was popular and received a teaching award for this course. He used a large collection of excellent slides, had a good sense of humor and wrote a set of course notes to assist the students in learning and for preparing for the standard multiple choice exams. He generously provided me with his entire set of slides but he couldn’t pass on his 20 years of experience teaching this class. My first goal was to make the slides available to the students since I reasoned they really couldn’t take notes on a slide. So I spent many hours digitizing each slide and making them available to students from a server. When I visited the Computer Supported Learning Group in the Computation Center to discuss some other ideas I learned I had reinvented a wheel that proved to be relatively ineffective in helping students learn. It was at this stage that progress began in addressing better ways to enhance student learning.
The first suggestion to me from the experts in the Computer Supported Learning Group was to have the students do what professionals in the field do. Actually the discussion went like this, “What do you want your students to do?” And I responded, “I want them to know this and that and the other thing”. So they repeated, “But what do you want them to DO?” How could they DO things in this type of course? They kept coming back to having students do things real meteorologists would do. This meant that I needed to have the students in the Introduction to Meteorology course do things like forecasting. But how to manage that for 350 students? It was clearly a task that needed computer support. Fortunately for me few (no?) faculty were knocking on the door of this group for help in those days so they turned their attention to helping solve my problem. This meant creating a tool to manage a forecast activity. The bottom line is that a much more general course manager was eventually designed and was called ClassNet (vanGorp and Boysen 1997). An expanded Java version, Ecademy, is to be released soon. This product has had wide use at Iowa State University and elsewhere.
The forecast activity has evolved into a robust tool that has been the common thread for the course for over five years now (Yarger et al. 2000). To see an example of this activity go to http://www.pals.iastate.edu/mteor/sample/forecast.html. Students are required to begin forecasting from the first days of the course. Frustration and apprehension is high but motivation to learn and apply concepts is also high. The students are graded on their best 25 forecasts although they may do over 100. By the end of the term they have pride in their ability to forecast and have an understanding of concepts have been tested repeatedly in real applications.
Another motivation for designing this activity resulted from discussions I had with pre-service teachers enrolled in the class. They were highly motivated to do well in the course but had weak science backgrounds and often did very poor on the standard multiple-choice examinations. They appeared to know far more than they were able to demonstrate on this type of assessment instrument. The forecast activity allows students to demonstrate to me and themselves that they understand weather processes. Because their forecast scores represent about half their course grade, the standard examinations are much less significant in terms of a final course grade.
The next step was to address the difficult course concepts. Each term I poll the students to determine which concepts are most difficult to understand. I use their feedback to select the topics that could serve as the basis for constructing active learning environments. With the help of the Computer Supported Learning Group several Java-based simulations were built (http://www.pals.iastate.edu/simulations/index.html). These have been designed to be pre-lecture activities. For example, students are instructed to do something in the simulation environment such as make a cloud form between 1 and 1.2 km. The physical processes involved in the formation of clouds are then addressed in the class period. In this way, concepts such as adiabatic processes, relative humidity and saturation vapor pressure have a context for understanding that is familiar and personal for each student.
For me the most difficult aspect of designing the web-based learning tools involves the pedagogy. The learning model we have used is a constructivist one. Shank et al. (1995) use the term natural learning to mean the same thing and point out that learning is:
(1) Goal-directed “People are both willing and able to learn while they are pursuing a goal of interest to them.”
(2) Failure-driven “Mistakes are the triggers that people naturally use to recognize that knowledge is lacking and that learning needs to occur.”
(3) Case-based “When confronted with a problem, people naturally think back to similar situations they have encountered that might help them solve the problem.”
(4) Tied to doing “Learning-by-doing helps ensure that people will be able to use what they learn.”
They stress that multimedia technology can enhance education and training software only in the context of interactive learning environments. Thus we have struggled with the transition from a class period designed to dispense information to one where we encourage student interaction. We emphasize that making mistakes is an essential aspect of learning. We also seek to create conditions where students use course concepts in realistic environments. This has not been an easy process and does not mean we no longer lecture. It does mean that we are doing things much different than before.
Schank, R. C., M. Korcuska, and M. Jona, 1995: Multimedia applications for education and training: revolution or red herring?, ACM Computing Surveys, 27(4), 633-635.
Van Gorp, M., and P. Boysen, 1997: ClassNet: Managing the virtual classroom. Inter. Jour. of Ed. Telecommunications, (3/2), 279-292.
Yarger,D.N., W. Gallus Jr., M. Taber, J. P. Boysen, and P. Castleberry, 2000: a forecasting activity for a large introductory meteorology course, BAMS, 81(1), 31-39.