Viewpoint

Innovating Teaching and Learning with Sakai

Excerpted from Sakai Courseware Management: The Official Guide

Hitting a student upon the head with a textbook generally does not result in improved student learning yet this same instructional tool, when used by a knowledgeable teacher, is often considered the cornerstone of the educational process. Why? Clearly, the value of an instructional tool, whether it be a textbook or technology, is entirely dependent on how it is used.

With hundreds of institutions, thousands of instructors and millions of students having now used Sakai, we have an endless number of examples of how this collaborative learning environment is being deployed in education today. Although few instructors are likely using Sakai to inflict physical pain on their students, the instructional approaches taken vary enormously; from traditional (e.g. posting lecture slides online) to extremely inventive (e.g. real world simulations). Looking across this continuum of instructional applications, it is evident that those on the “inventive” end exhibit the potential Sakai holds to transform the traditional educational experience into something more engaging, rich and meaningful for the learner.

It was from a desire among the Sakai Teaching and Learning interest group to highlight and share these more inventive applications that the Teaching with Sakai Innovation Award Program, initially sponsored by IBM and the Sakai Foundation, was born. The program is not aimed at identifying technically complex uses of Sakai but rather to find those uses of the technology, even very simple ones, which are driving true innovation in how instructors are teaching and students are learning. The following is a discussion of the award process itself and highlights the winners of the 2008 Teaching with Sakai Innovation Award as a means to provide concrete examples of how Sakai is facilitating truly inventive instruction.

1st Place Winner: Biomedical Engineering (University of Michigan, USA)

Course Description: This interactive graduate-level course, which spans two semesters, encourages innovative design in biomedical engineering by stimulating students to explore their own solutions to biomedical challenges. Students experience the entire spectrum of design, from concept inception to prototyping, thus allowing them to explore the entire innovation value chain in the context of biomedical engineering. Aileen Huang-Saad, University of Michigan comments, “The Sakai platform was critical to the success of my class, and I am grateful to have had such a diverse platform readily available. In particular, the wiki tool was crucial for developing class-based concept design documents, challenging students to evolve their ideas in and outside of class.”

Teaching Innovation: Although this biomedical engineering course deployed many Sakai tools effectively, there were several that facilitated a transformation from what could have been a traditional capstone design course into one that embraced and leveraged a culture of participatory learning that was student-centered and active in nature…

These transformative applications of Sakai can be categorized by how they facilitated new and meaningful “instructional interactions”:

 - Interactions with Subject Matter Experts. Bringing in clinicians to brainstorm with the students allowed for rich exchanges between expert and novice. By using Wikis, E-mail and Discussion Forums, the instructor extended these interactions well outside the confines of the classroom walls. Huang-Saad notes, “Sakai maintained communication outside of the classroom, enabling constant momentum in idea generation.”

 - Interactions with the Instructor and Curriculum. Through regular student surveys and communication, the instructor was able to create a real-time curricular feedback loop that gave students real and meaningful control over how the course was run… [and allowed] the instructor to customize the educational experience to the learning styles of the students.

 - Interactions with Content. In a more traditional course the instructor may have opted to provide students with well defined design case studies. Such constrained and contrived approaches to teaching problem solving often leave students without the expert-level reasoning skills necessary to solve novel problems. By using the Wiki tool to facilitate a process in which students collaboratively worked on and refined concept design documents, they were compelled to actively engage in the problem solving process rather than simply reading about it…

 - Interactions with Peers. Shifting from traditional teacher-centered instruction to a student-centered model is challenging in part because of the importance in engaging in team-based collaborative activities. In this course, a range of Sakai tools including the Wiki, Forums and Project Sites, were used to facilitate team formation, small and large group interactions and peer-to-peer and group knowledge generation, much of which took place outside of the physical classroom. As one BiomedE 599 Student says, “We engaged our peers, physicians and instructor in meaningful discussions both in and out of the classroom, as well as in an online Wiki where we continued to brainstorm and filter ideas. I often found myself continuing these discussions with people not associated with the class.”

2nd Place Winner: International Law (University of Cape Town, South Africa)

Course Description: This course is animated by the tension between the classical, state-centered model of the international legal system and concepts such as international human rights, individual criminal responsibility and the common heritage of humanity which are challenging and reshaping the international legal landscape…

The course is accompanied by an innovative tutorial simulation, supported by Sakai, known as Inkundla yeHlabathi (a phrase in isiXhosa, the predominant African language in the Western Cape, which translates as “World Forum”) in which students learn to apply the rules and methods of international law by simulating the work of legal advisers to ten African States. Each week, a one-hour doctrinal lecture aims to develop frameworks and critical approaches to the law. In the second hour, students, who are seated by State as part of the Inkundla yeHlabathi (World Forum), learn to apply legal rules to complex facts to arrive at a State position which may be negotiated with other States, and present views to the plenary. These real-world legal power struggles between “States” continue online in the Sakai-based Inkundla yeHlabathi (World Forum) simulation.

Teaching Innovation: Through the creation of the Inkundla yeHlabathi (World Forum) a traditional lecture-based course has been transformed into an authentic learning environment in which students were no longer passive receivers of information but instead actively constructing their own knowledge based on real-world experiences. As a result, students were more engaged in the learning process as they better understood the implications of what they were learning for their careers as well as for the nation and continent on which they live…

To understand all of these innovations in more detail, it helps to view them through the lens of “learning interactions”:

 - Interactions Subject-Matter Experts. Traditional lecture-based classes tend to support “one way” interactions between students and subject-matter experts (i.e. instructor, guest speakers, etc.) in which the expert transmits information for the student to passively absorb. The introduction of the Sakai-based Inkundla yeHlabathi (World Forum) simulation altered this traditional method by replacing the “one way” approach with a more active learning experience… Rather than telling the students what they needed to learn through a series of lectures, the instructor directed the simulation (e.g. developing scenarios, creating challenges, etc.) as a means to guide the students through an educational journey.

 - Interactions with Peers. The shift facilitated by the simulation towards a more student-centered learning experience also resulted in a significant increase in peer-to-peer interactions over what would normally take place in a traditional lecture course. Students were no longer simply reading and hearing about international treaties but actively engaged in negotiations over them with other member states of the Inkundla yeHlabathi (World Forum). Even more significantly, student-based State teams were allowed to rewrite treaties, based on negotiations with other States in class and in Sakai, giving students the chance to construct new international law based on what they are learning in the course… Salim A Nakhjavani, University of Cape Town, points out, “Inkundla yeHlabathi / World Forum offers students the opportunity to examine firsthand the current and emerging legal challenges facing the continent and the world. In a legal system that recognises scholarship as a source of law, students grasp the potential to become an active part of shaping the law rather than passive observers of the law.”

 - Interactions with Content. Clearly, the use of digital content [over costly print materials] had a major impact on the ability of socio-economically disadvantaged students to enroll in the course. Beyond this, the use of electronic course content provided students with the opportunity to learn how to work with digital materials, something that is increasingly prevalent at most major law firms and international legal agencies…

Lessons Learned

Although the work of the Teaching with Sakai Innovation Award Program does not represent rigorous research, several important and powerful conclusions can be drawn from observations of the work of the two award winners. As one looks at both courses and their uses of Sakai, one overarching truth seems evident: These are not traditional classes based on time-honored lecture-style instructional practices. Instead, both instructors have used technology to create dynamic educational environments in which their students are active participants engaged in authentic learning activities. Rather than passively absorbing information and regurgitating it back to the instructor, students apply their new knowledge to real-world problems and situations, making it feel more like the workplace than the classroom…

Reflecting on the two award winners’ works, it is clear that they both used Sakai in ways that facilitated a shift from passive to active learning and from a teacher- to student-centered educational environment. For example, Dr. Huang-Saad used the wiki tool to support her students in actively constructing Class Design documents rather than taking a more passive approach such as providing the students with pre-determined case studies. Similarly, Mr. Nakhjavani used Sakai to create a real world simulation that replaced time that had been spent on traditional lectures, shifting from a passive teacher-centered to an active student-centered model of instruction…

Traditional approaches to teaching and learning, such as lecturing, may be effective for meeting certain types of learning objectives but are seriously lacking when attempting to develop skills such as problem solving and critical thinking. Given the importance placed on these types of high order thinking skills in today’s workplace, it seems imperative that institutions of education seek out new instructional methods aimed at developing them. This posses a significant challenge as moving from a more traditional form of teaching to more innovative models requires a fundamental paradigm shift on the part of instructor and student. Technologies, such as Sakai, cannot drive this transformation in and of themselves but they can provide a new pallet of teaching tools that can help facilitate the change process. If deployed wisely, these new tools can support a shift towards more student-centered active learning, moving our educational practices from the traditional status quo to something new and innovative.

[Note: The above article was excertped from Chapter 15 of Berg, A. & Korcuska M. (2009). Sakai Courseware Management: The Official Guide. Birmingham, UK: Packt Publishing Ltd.]

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