Application of Inquisitivism to Nethowto

Carroll (1990) stated that taking checklists seriously is perhaps the most typical and debilitating design fallacy. Despite this strong statement, Carroll provided a rubric of minimalist principles. Similarly, inquisitivism has evolved into an approach with a rubric of principles. An early version of the following ten principles was applied to the Nethowto course during a significant re-design of the course in the fall of 1998. It must also be noted that the course is still running and both course and the ten principles have continued to evolve.

Fear Removal

Dealing with the paralyzing fear that many adult learners experience must precede the stimulation of one’s natural inquisitiveness. Demonstrating that the computer or any other piece of technology is not fragile, providing explanations, examples and solutions for common errors and problems, and the application of data backup will help quell the adult learner’s fear.

In an asynchronous education and web-based environment, an instructor is not able to interact directly in person with an entire class (i.e., some students may be working in a different time zone) and to re-assure the group as a whole. Nor can an instructor gauge body language or tone and inflection of voice to detect that fear may be an issue. Furthermore, both email web-based conferencing interactions, which are essential to web-based learning, are not direct forms of interaction but are considered mediated transactions (Harasim, 1993; Lapadat, 2002). Because of these dynamics, fear or anxiety removal is perhaps one of the most challenging components to effectively facilitate, primarily because the F2F cues are missing and students cannot be led through their anxieties. Using video or audio files to present what would be presented in a traditional F2F setting was, until recently, not a feasible option. While it is possible to use compressed video or audio to communicate with students now, there still is the issue of getting students over the initial fear or anxiety that they may have to operate this type of software for the very first time.

Because of these limitations, the asynchronous nature of the course, and the need to keep pages small to load quickly, the actual design and layout of the course main Webpage had to be a primary factor in calming the fearful student. The main page (and the entire site for that matter), by design, is very simple and uncluttered. Students are not overwhelmed by choices on the main page, and a large “Getting Started” heading was strategically placed to be one of the first items noticed on the page.

The actual Getting Started instructions (referred to as First Steps) were broken down into 4 simple steps. The items in the four steps were designed to lead a student through the initial familiarization with the course. Students were not required to actually complete any assignments but were still required to familiarize themselves with the course navigation and layout, to fill out a consent form (data was also used to create student profiles in the course administration system), to join the course conferencing system and, finally, review the introduction module.

The intention of the Getting Started page was that by following the four steps, fearful students would gain enough experience and success with the course to help them overcome or, at minimum, deal with their fear. While these four steps appear to be linear SI type system super-imposed on a minimalist structure, students can do the steps out of sequence or ignore them all together and still proceed through the course, so the sequencing aspect of Systematic Instruction (SI) is not a factor in student progression. At some point, and in some order, students will have to fill out the consent form, join the conferences and begin work on the introduction module. These instructions are simply presented in their most logical order. Throughout the steps, students were encouraged to contact the instructor directly if help was needed. Students had (and currently still do have) access to the course instructor via email, the web-based conferencing system called the WebBoard (WebBoard Collaboration Server, 2005) and by phone.

Stimulation of Inquisitiveness

With the fear abated, the adult learner’s intrinsic (but often suppressed) inquisitive nature can be stimulated and encouraged to flourish. Nethowto students are actually encouraged to read the “HHHMMM??? What does this button do?” approach article that is linked on the main page. The article details the ten inquisitivist principles and makes an argument for this approach as the basis for Web-based instruction.

The design of the course forces the students to make many more decisions and to extensively investigate and use computer programs more than they are often used to. For example, in the first formal assignment, students are asked to submit an email attachment, but they are not required to use a specific email client or word processor. Students are directed to resources that they can use to learn about email, email clients and the sending of attachments. In addition, students are required to investigate one aspect of attaching documents that most people take for granted, the encoding format. The only way that students can be sure that they submit an attachment in the required MIME encoding format is to explore the online Help within their email clients or on the Web. This starts the whole inquisitivist process. Students quickly learn that a small amount of investigation within the programs they are currently using will reveal the results that they need. The immediate success students experience is a crucial aspect of inquisitivist design that will be further expounded in the getting started fast category below.

Using the System to Learn the System

All training must take place on the actual system that is being learned.

Every aspect of Nethowto is conducted online. Students are actually using the Internet while learning about all forms of Internet communication and accessing and sharing of information. In addition to the students conducting all aspects of the course online, the instructor of the course (the author) does not maintain an office at the University of Alberta campus but conducts all aspect of design, development and delivery of the courses completely online. In essence, the instructor uses the system to teach the system.

Getting Started Fast

Adult learners often have other interests than learning a new system. The learning they undertake is normally done to complement their existing work. The “welcome to the system” prefaces and other non-essential layers in an introduction are often ineffective uses of the learner’s valuable time.

The Getting Started/First Steps sections of the course are designed to give students confidence in their initial experience with the course. The simple procedures that students are asked to follow, like joining the course conferencing system and using an online form to submit their student information, contribute positively to their learning experience. Similarly, all the information that students are required to review in the Getting Started section of the course is intended to contribute immediately and positively to their learning experience and ultimately give the learner confidence in the system.

The first assignment, submitting an email attachment, is relatively simple to complete and is strategically placed and used to give students immediate success. Students usually make the email submission immediately after moving through the Getting Started section and a consistent effort is made to insure that students receive an immediate reply and have rapid confirmation of their success. Students who have difficulty with the assignment are quickly directed to the resources that they need to use to have success in the assignment. The goal of the instructor is to reply to students within three to four hours of their first assignment submission (if the assignment is submitted during regular business hours the reply is often processed in a matter of minutes).

Discovery Learning

There is no single correct method or procedure prescribed in the course. Allowing for self directed reasoning and improvising through the learning experience requires the adult learner to take full responsibility for their learning.

Throughout all course modules and course work students are given specific assignment requirements that specify what should be submitted or included in the portfolio. Nethowto students are also given the freedom to choose the programs they use to complete the assignments. Unlike many technology related courses that provide step-by-step instructions on conducting a specific procedure with or within an application, students are pointed to web-based resources that deal more with the general concept than with the specifics of a particular application. This is not to say that step-by-step instructions are not necessary. There is a section of each module that points to links for the more common applications used in the course (FTP, Telnet, Text or HTML editors etc.) that do provide the step-by-steps instructions for those who are most comfortable with this form of instruction, or are not comfortable with learning by doing, experimenting or exploring.

All module coursework culminates in the course portfolio in which students have to display all they have learned in a Web site (part of the learning process is learning HTML). Students are told what is to be included in the portfolio but are not explicitly instructed on how it should be created or formatted. Instead of a rigid recipe or formula, students are given the freedom to construct their portfolio in any way they choose. Links to instructional sites on HTML, Web design, graphics utilization and usability are provided but students still required to learn how to apply the technical aspects of creating a web site to their portfolios and projects. Marking guides (details on what markers will be looking for) and examples of previous student work are provided to offer students additional guidance on what is ultimately expected. Although many students simply copy the format of previous student work, some students embrace this freedom and come up with innovative ways to display their portfolios. These innovative portfolios are often included in the examples, but unfortunately most students choose the safety of copying the simple or tried and true designs.

Modules can be Completed in any Order

Materials are designed to be read or completed in any order. Students impose their own hierarchy of knowledge, which is often born of necessity and bolstered by their previous experience. This helps to eliminate the common problems that arise from material read or completed out of sequence.

Providing a structure for openness requires a great deal of planning and structure. The course is modular and each module, except for the portfolio, which is a compilation of all other modules, can be completed in any order. The module naming conventions do not include numbers or alphabets to prevent any suggestion of a specific order. Despite the effort to not prescribe an order and even though the modules can be completed in any order, most students follow the sequential listing of assignments in the course navigation structure. This, too, is part of the design. This order has been established for those students who lack confidence or experience with technology. By following the sequence of modules, students who lack technology confidence and experience can gain enough confidence and experience from the modules to successfully complete the portfolio and final project. While this sequential ordering of the modules may appear to be a linear SI type system super-imposed on a minimalist structure, students can still do the modules out of order so the sequential ordering of the modules is not as significant as it would be in a true SI system. Due to the very divergent capabilities of students in the course, the structure of the course has to serve both students with little experience and those who may be very experienced. Students who need the order and structure can use the implied order from the navigational listing and students who have the confidence to work on course modules in their own order have the freedom and opportunity to do so as well.

It must be acknowledged that even though there is no required order for completing the modules, the portfolio does require that the other minor assignment modules be completed first. A hierarchy of knowledge for the course is imposed by the two main course assignments. In order to complete the portfolio, students must learn HTML (hypertext mark up language) and complete the other assignments. In order to complete the final projects and earn a satisfactory grade, gaining experience in HTML development (either with a text or HTML editor) through building the portfolio is the most logical path for students to follow.

Supporting Error Recognition and Recovery

Errors must be accepted as a natural part of the learning process. Since there is such a pervasiveness of errors in most learning, it is unrealistic to imagine that errors can be ignored. Error recognition and recovery strategies need to be implemented to enable learners to learn from their mistakes instead of being trapped by them. The use of FAQ’s, Help Forums and other help strategies should be implemented to deal with the errors and problems that arise.

Once again the asynchronous nature of Nethowto necessitates that the course itself provide support for error recovery. The Help link is strategically placed 1/3 of the way down the page and in the center (which is the area of the screen where a users eyes will first fall). The web-based conferencing system and the Help conferences are also readily available. An online FAQ and multiple admonitions to ask for help are placed strategically throughout the course.

In addition to the actual design, layout and structure of the course, the students are given immediate feedback (usually within minutes or, at most, hours) on their first assignments and also receive detailed feedback (complete with written explanations) as to what mistakes were made on their portfolios. Students are encouraged to learn from their mistakes in the portfolios and apply what they have learned to the final project. Students are given the option of submitting their portfolios three weeks prior to the end of term to receive an evaluation that will help prevent them from making the same errors on their final project that they made on the portfolios and to give them a better of understanding of is expected in the creation of a web site.

When the students contact the instructor for help, they are first directed to the location in the course pages where the answer may lie. If the students report that they had reviewed the support material and were still not able to find a solution to their problems, they are then directed to additional support material where the answer could be found. If the additional support materials were not adequate, the students are then directed to even more information to help them determine the answer on their own. It is extremely important for the instructor to judge the level of frustration students may be experiencing and, if necessary, give them a direct answer sooner than later.

To insure that students Help needs are met, all students are regularly queried about the course Website and asked for suggestions on making changes to the course that would save them from having to contact the instructor, or use the Help forums for assistance.

Forum for Discussions and Exploiting Prior Knowledge

Adult education dealing with technology is often conducted through alternative delivery methods. Distance education, web-based instruction and other alternative delivery methods can isolate students. Providing a conferencing system for the replacement of F2F interaction is a crucial component of any alternative delivery program. Most adult learners of technology are experts in other areas or domains. Understanding the learner’s prior knowledge and motivation and finding ways to utilize it is one of the keys to effective adult training. In addition, adult learners can share their expertise or assist each other and should be encouraged to use the conferencing system to facilitate social interaction.

The WebBoard™ conferencing system is an effective forum for enabling students to provide each other with assistance. To encourage students to assist each other (not an easy thing to do in a competitive academic environment where students strive to be at the top of departmental or faculty mandated marks distributions) students are assessed a Help participation mark based on the quantity and quality of their participation-this mark is worth 10% of their final grade. One of the most common responses to the Help forums is how useful and helpful it is. It is not uncommon for a number of students in each session to state: “I could not have made it through the course without the Help forums.” In addition to help related issues, students are required to start a topic discussion on an area that they are particularly interested in. This topic discussion is also required and contributes toward the student’s Issues participation mark.

The WebBoard™ forums are an example of what Vygotsky coined as social learning. In his theory he stresses that social interaction is a critical component of situated learning because learners become involved in a “community of practice” and adopt the beliefs and behaviors of that community. Experts (experienced individuals) within the community often share the beliefs and behaviors of the community unintentionally or model the proper conduct through their behavior. Newcomers interact with the experts and then they themselves move into the community to become experts. This process can be referred to as legitimate peripheral participation and occurs unintentionally (Lave & Wenger, 1990).

Some students who admit (in the WebBoard™ forums) to being normally reserved or who might not even participate in a F2F setting are encouraged by the equality they find in the WebBoard™ environment and embrace this component of the course. It is not uncommon for these students to log on daily and to participate in most (if not all) discussions. Students who may be near completion of the course often provide encouragement to students who have joined the course late or have simply started late. This exchange of information and knowledge, and sense of community is one of the most positive aspects of this course. It is not uncommon for some students to go out of their way while traveling to find a computer to log on and continue to participate in their special virtual community.

Despite never meeting the students F2F, it was possible for me to get familiar with the students through monitoring their email and web-based conferencing communications. In one sense, it may be easier to get a better understanding of a student’s personality and needs than in a F2F setting because of monitoring all their web-based communications. This advantage over the F2F setting is off set by the disadvantage of not being able to read students’ non-verbal expression, body language, and general reactions.

Real World Assignments

“Make-work” (purposeless) projects are often not an effective use of a student’s valuable time. All assignments must have a real world application.

All Nethowto assignments are genuine “real world” tasks that almost any information professional that uses the Internet as a tool would do on a daily basis. The Internet offers much more than the just the Web or email, and students are required to use a variety of the Internet tools (Listserv, Usenet, Telnet, FTP, IM, HTML and Search engines) to complete their assignments which focus on the information that can be gathered, shared or moved using the assortment of Internet tools rather than focusing on the tool themselves. The goal of the course is to give students experience in communicating, accessing, and providing information on the Internet. The emphasis is on the information and not the tools used to access or provide the information. Technology is put in its place and is relegated to its rightful role as an information access tool.

Optimal Training Designs

Feedback facilities like online surveys or email should be used to allow learners to immediately provide feedback on any aspect of a program. Problems with instructions, assignments, wording or other problems should be immediately addressed and corrected. Instructional models are not deductive or prescriptive theories-they are descriptive processes. The design process should involve the actual learner through empirical analysis so that adjustment can be made to suit the learner’s needs. “Develop the best pedagogy that you can. See how well you can do. Then analyze the nature of what you did that worked” (Bruner, 1960, p.89).

The Nethowto course has evolved to its present state because of the students who have worked through the course and provided feedback. Student feedback is immediately acknowledged, and if a particular portion of an assignment instruction (or any portion of the course for that matter) requires modification to bring clarity, this is done immediately. If the same questions are asked repeatedly, the subject of those questions is addressed and that aspect of the course is modified to provide less confusion and to improve clarity. When significant changes are made as a result of student’s feedback, announcements are made on the course News and Announcements page to insure that all students are made aware of the change. Designing and developing an effective learning environment is a dynamic process that requires immediate responses to problems that arise. Students are encouraged to fill out detailed online evaluation forms that provide additional information for continued improvements.

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