New learning environment
08 December 2004 I Riina Vuorikari
Results from the OASIS pilot
Can new pedagogical models really be introduced in European schools? Yes, if you are to believe the final report from the OASIS project where 25 schools across Europe validated the pedagogical approaches rooted in problem based learning, constructivist learning theory, and Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL).Context for the conclusions:
The participating 25 schools in the pilot were recruited through European Schoolnet's school networks, which can indicate that the level of pedagogical ICT use is much higher than in any average school and the “pioneering spirit” of teachers is predominant. Also, all of them reported personal motivation as a drive to use ICTs in their teaching. The precondition for teachers and schools to participate was that they already are using ICTs in their teaching, that they already have a decent technical infrastructure in their school, and that they are willing to implement the new pedagogical model in their teaching.
The whole deliverable is available for downloding at:
Introduction for the conclusions from the OASIS pilot with 25 European teachers
There are many expectations for the use of ICT both by practitioners and policy makers, around the belief that it brings along a pedagogical shift to a more learner centered learning paradigm and that it enables better communication and connection between school and its outside communities. However, when in the European Schoolnet's study (Vuorikari 2003) on the use of virtual learning platforms, 500 schools were asked about the ways they use Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) in their teaching and learning, it was clearly seen that the practices for which VLEs were used do not necessarily support the learner-centred view.
The results of that study showed that the tasks that teachers perform through VLEs and web-based tools seemed to be more focused on the communication between participants (email and community mail), as well as features like assigning tasks to students, file share, file upload area, link lists and lists of students homepages. Thus, it can be estimated that if teachers do not feel any urge or pressure to change their practices, they will, more or less, feel comfortable continuing their everyday practices by using the new medium. The study on the current practices concluded that the use VLEs resemble a digital distribution place of tasks and school assignments, rather than support learners’ knowledge building and acquisition of new cognitive skills.
To answer the question, ‘why ICTs are used in such a traditional way?’ two possible answers could be given; firstly teachers are only slowly learning how to use VLEs with students in a more constructive way. The other possible answer is that VLEs in their current form hardly support the desired change in the learning and teaching paradigm in school. As currently it stands, many of the VLEs used in schools are in the first place designed for course delivery in higher education, one could argue that since tools for new ways of collaborative exercises that support learner-centred pedagogy do not exist, it is easier for a teacher to practice “traditional” teaching.
On the other hand, in the OASIS project, where the focus was on the pedagogical approach and how the ICT can support the pedagogy, the evaluation results suggest that the shift was in favour of the pedagogy. Evaluators suggest that the intensive 2-day training in the use of the given pedagogical model (Progressive Inquiry Model and Jigsaw-model) gave a solid starting point for teachers to begin experimenting with a new pedagogical practice. To ensure the continuity of the implementation of the given pedagogical approach, the on-going pedagogical support that was given in a form of asynchronous chat through the pilot period, was an important factor. It helped to keep teachers focused on the pedagogy and helped them to stabilise the shift towards the new practice. The personal motivation among the OASIS pilot teachers was very high, which supposedly contributed to the more favourable outcome.
Furthermore, when implementing new pedagogical approaches time invested in training plays an important role; the new methods need time to mature as well as take personal forms and ways. As the researchers Hakkarainen, Lonka and Lipponen (2004) observe in their latest book, the Progressive Inquiry Model could be understood as a pedagogical way of perceiving learning rather than as a strict model to follow by step-by-step. In addition, they emphasise that it is important to understand the underlying philosophy which can lead to a new way of learning. This also seemed to be the case within the pilot participants; the learning process is long and the learning curve fairly steep, the pilot was in many cases perceived as a starting point for a new personal learning experience. Thus, the on-going pedagogical support and network fostering can be deemed as important for the long-term adoption of pedagogical practices.
Both the Progressive Inquiry Model and Jigsaw methods are fundamental elements of project based learning and Computer Supported Collaborative Learning. However, these pedagogical practices do not seem to be a major part of secondary school mainstream pedagogical examination subjects in some of the countries represented in the project, and many of the teachers struggled to get sufficient time with their students to adequately apply the techniques within the school curriculum. In those schools where senior management supported the project or national curriculum required some collaborative projects, it was infinitely easier as adequate time was allowed to the teachers to develop their work. It seems rather clear that when teachers are encouraged by their management and, in some counties’ cases, national curriculum required the implementation of new pedagogical practices, the conditions for success were better than in the opposite case. However, some of the pilot projects were very successful without external support by superiors, in these cases they relied on the pioneering spirit of the individual teacher.
Furthermore, in the case of the pilot, the short induction workshop (2 days) and some language barriers may account in some way for the low level of involvement or drop out of some small amount of the participants. Thus, it could be recommended that training of teachers on the use of learner centred pedagogical models supported by the use of ICT should be part of the initial teacher training programmes, as well as part of on-going in-service training for teachers already in practice.
Face-to-face training and the on-going virtual support
The two points, face-to-face training and the on-going virtual support seemed to be of key importance for the success of introducing a new pedagogical practice and having it “rooted” in the teaching culture (of course in the pilot of only about five months it is hard to evaluate the real long term results). Although 75% of the participants estimated afterwards that they got enough pedagogical training, it may be concluded that a longer introduction and induction to the chosen collaborative platform (in this case, the FLE3, and the EUN community platform) and their different underlying pedagogical approaches is needed in order to build absolute confidence in the users as to their implementation. It would also be beneficial to separate the training of the pedagogical approach and a software application of it, as doing both simultaneously, in some cases, was more confusing than beneficial to some of the participants. The same could also be recommended for pupils.
The importance of the teachers' community is emphasised when it comes to the supportive actions and scaffolding of teachers when they doubt their professional skills and identity. This often happens when a new pedagogical practice is undertaken, and when some “teething” problems appear. The fact that the participants of this pilot were able to form a group, a loose community to identify themselves as OASIS teachers, contributed enormously to the success of the wanted pedagogical shift. This community feeling combined with the bi-monthly reflective chatting allowed them to ask questions related to difficulties that they experienced and, most importantly, to read about the similar experiences that the other participants had. Teachers reported this sharing of experiences that took place during about two months period, was an important and valuable experience for them.
The use of reflective chat within the context of this pilot has provided us with many fascinating comments from the teachers involved in the process. We have observed that they have used the platform to variously describe, share, mentor, organise, muse and reflect on their approaches to teaching and on their own development as teachers.
Later in focus interviews, it became clear that all the participants (both active and passive ones) who took part in the chat sessions regularly or occasionally found it helpful and somewhat relieving to read about other experiences that were similar to ones that they were going through. Also, some stated that in the course of the pilot, they thought that only they were having these difficulties, and they became doubtful about their skills and commitment to the pilot. But when reading about other people having the same feelings, it became easier to bear and also, some of the suggestions given to a specific problem of some else's were found useful to many. Thus, the community support of other teachers is of an enormous importance in building up pedagogical professional skills and, in larger terms, to become a self-reflective professional. Also instruments, such as writing personal reflective notes throughout the pilot period, can be recommended to support the professional growth.
The importance of group support and dynamics was recognised in the pilot, although not enough time was allocated to study it in more details and depth. In many studies it is recognised that the community of teachers can have a very positive impact, but building it up is very difficult. In the case of OASIS pilot, only less than half of the teachers were contributing to the reflective chat, whereas clearly more than half were passive followers of the chat and read many of the contributions. Also, many teachers reported difficulties in involving their colleagues in this type of work and questions rose on how to motivate pupils after the initial enthusiasm had faded, when they are already familiar with the approaches and it is time to carry out the labour intensive part of their study.
As the demand for learning to become more learner centred, it should be important to mention that a great motivator for OASIS teachers was what they saw happening in their pupils and students. Most of them reported very positive reactions in the way students behaved during the lessons were new pedagogical approaches were used, they were highly motivated to work once they had become familiar with the new way proposed by the teacher. It is clear that the involvement of the active members of the group has been a positive and enriching, if sometimes also a frustrating experience for them.
Start for some new teaching practices
What is noteworthy in this pilot is that some participating teachers expressed that although the first implementation of the pedagogical approach was not that successful; they recognise that it is a start of the learning experience for them, too, to master the given pedagogical practice better.
It was also observed that to successfully implement the pedagogies introduced in the project it was not indispensable to use ICT but that using ICT added a richness of possibility and expansion of principal that would not be possible without it.
“Although PIM can be achieved without the support of ICT it's for me very clear that ICT provides countless possibilities transforming one demanding task in a simple operation adding quality and clarity to the learning process.” ( teacher from Portugal). Another Portuguese teacher commented: “The most critical aspect to develop PIM is not Technical, but pedagogical. There was a wide range of available tools to use. Any communication platform would have done the job.”
Importance of national curriculum and school educational culture (management)
If one takes the comments classified under the Cultural/Social dimension of the POETC framework, together with some of the postings referring to the way in which national curriculum and school timetabling can really impose a barrier to the implementation of these pedagogical approaches and the adoption of ICT enhanced collaborative knowledge building to the daily practice of teachers, it may be argued that the culture of both the school and the national educational policy plays a significant role. For example national policy with regard to curriculum, assessment has a major impact on teacher’s perceptions of what they can do or not do within their teaching, as well as influencing the attitude of students, (and their parents) particularly in the latter stages of upper secondary education.
Since assessment methodology plays such an enormous role in the judging the success of the delivery of the educational service, it may be said that there is an urgent need to find new ways of assessing the development and achievement of students under the CSCL and project-based approach to pedagogy.
Indeed, some European countries have already perceived this and have integrated this thinking into the national strategic plans. For example Finland in their most recent National Plan ‘Education, Training and Research in the Information Society. A national Strategy for 2000-2004’ and now the new National Plan for 2004-2006, aim their strategy at ‘reshaping the role of learning within, and outside the school system.” A similar approach was taken in Sweden where the National Plan it is (2000) placed the emphasis on the social aspects of learning. It approached the development of ICT skills and practice by integrating the socio-cultural and constructivist views of learning into the school curricula. “Learning in groups is important. The knowledge acquired by different individuals becomes an asset to group work “.
Also, thought has to be given to time investment. Are the results worth the investment? If one balances the observed increase in student motivation in almost ever instance and the teacher belief that a more profound type of learning is taking place with skills other than traditional academic being developed, then the answer must be in the affirmative. But, new methods of assessment other than the traditional measures of academic performance have to be considered.
Among the active participants, the technical barriers were not the most significant ones but rather the challenges posed through none cooperative peers and systems, and cultural contextual issues. It seems that the participants accept that there will be problems with the technology, but find it much harder to accept the non-cooperation of their colleagues, or the rigid approaches of their educational systems.
In some parts of the Europe, however, technical infrastructure still remains a barrier either through poor server connections, slow Internet access, availability of non-fee-based software, problems with implementation, or just the use of old machines. However, the innovation of actions taken in many cases provided solutions for these schools. This makes a strong case for more development based on open source model and making the software available for schools under fair licensing terms. Also, the availability of software that is dedicated for educational purposes should be available for all schools in fair terms of licensing. Additionally, the educational application services (use of EUN community tool and FLE3 application) provided by European Schoolnet was much appreciated by the participants of the pilot. The similar kind of services should become more available for school on national and regional bases, as it would save the schools time and money from installing, maintaining and hosting application. Local services in this area would also provide some new employment possibilities by selling services for educational establishments.
The above mentioned technical “gap” also underpins the strength of the OASIS project in providing a series of seamless technical infrastructural solutions such as the Zone Management Server and the Schools interoperability framework. With such solutions as thin client machines (as provided by SUN Microsystems) and the endless creative possibilities offer by the use of multimedia tools (as in the Apple Multimedia tools) teachers would not have to struggle with the technology to enrich their pedagogic goals.
So it is that new ways of loosening up both the closed attitudes of some educationalists and some educational systems is to continue to search for new ways and means, a search which may be summed up in the classic words of Ivan Illich (1970):
The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education--and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries.
 Further information on the ICT educational policies of various European countries is available on the European Schoolnet at http: http://insight.eun.org/policy
Web Editor: Paul Gerhard
Last changed: Friday, 26 August 2005
Last changed: Friday, 26 August 2005