Bridging the Communication Gap

Authors

Introduction

The discipline of Geography is currently in a state of flux that many within the subject see as having a negative impact on its perceptions by society (Harman, 2003, Murphy, 2006, Johnston, 2003). It is noted that this situation is causing problems of identity and of public perception of the role geography has to play in current debates such as climate change. This crisis in identity is causing far-reaching ripples throughout the subject with OFSTED reporting in 2004 that Geography was one of the worst taught subjects in the school timetable (Taylor, 2004). But, if the discipline does not know what it researches, how can it hope to develop a fulfilling curriculum?

One factor contributing to the public’s lack of understanding of Geography and its role in our daily lives (e.g., Government policy making) has been the way in which the discipline has communicated its research outside the field. As with most academic disciplines the major avenue of research dissemination is through specific disciplinary journals read only by those within the sector having access to large subscribing libraries. The major way in which the public becomes aware of the science is through media ‘sound bites’, which by their very nature distil the scientific content to such a degree that the full picture of the research may be masked, mistaken or even distorted, with the process being managed by non-scientists (Weigold, 2001, McInerney et al., 2004). The public is either left no better informed of the issues being discussed, or with a skewed or completely misguided view. For both the researcher, who wants to communicate and educate and for the public, who want to understand, the ideal scenario would be to establish a direct link between the two parties, so that any misunderstanding can quickly be rectified. In today’s technologically rich environment it would seem that this scenario could be easily facilitated.

The eLearning bridge

Research institutions have used the Internet as an important conduit for disseminating people with science. Internally, within Geography Departments, the role of the Internet in engaging students has also become an increasingly important learning environment and one that is well discussed in the literature (Dibiase, 2000, Mendler et al., 2002, Lemke and Ritter, 2000, Ritter and Lemke, 2000, Solem et al., 2003, Solem, 2001) However, several pedagogical issues exist with the first generation of Web sites created by research institutions:

  • The information is controlled centrally
  • Engagement with the media tends to be passive
  • The information tends to be static
  • There is no facility to measure understanding of information presented (Walton, 2001)

These limitations of the first-generation Web sites have led to the development of a second generation of Web sites, which allow a dialogue to develop between the web host and the user. Two popular instances of these Web sites include weblogs (blogs) and wikis. Both allow for the dynamic exchange of information, setting up dialogues not only with the Web site’s author but also with the community that decides to engage with that area. Immediately, all participants have parity of access to the information, changing content as they develop their understanding, which allows the original ‘author’ to identify if they have understood the original research (in the context of science). The author is then able to address any misunderstandings and if necessary reword the original ideas so that others can fully understand and engage. There is also a possibility that the community can inform the scientific process by highlighting aspects not previously considered by the researcher. This social construction of knowledge has pedagogical implications within undergraduate degree programmes as well as within the wider scientific community. It is these concepts that are currently being investigated within the Geography Department at Oxford Brookes University. Can these second-generation Web sites facilitate a greater understanding of geographical science, in particular, the science of global climate change?

The project

Within the Geography Department there has always been a strong commitment to learning and teaching and in particular the development of elearning. In the past this has included the development of reusable learning objects and virtual fieldwork projects. Building on this strong tradition, it seemed a natural progression to identify new areas of technology that could be exploited by non-technical, busy lecturers to facilitate active learner engagement leading to deep understanding.

Pedagogical Considerations

The stage 2 undergraduate module, ‘Environmental Processes and Change’ was identified as providing an ideal context in which to test the ability of the second-generation Web sites to support the social construction of geographical knowledge. The module did not employ any elearning elements beyond the use of Powerpoint in the lectures and certain resources being placed in the departmental resources area on the Brookes intranet. The elearning elements to be employed within the module had to meet several criteria:

  • Easy to set up
  • Easy to maintain
  • Allow flexibility
  • Little tuition needed for the students in its use
  • Reflect the lecturers’ pedagogical principles of student-centred learning
  • Can be easily blended rather than ‘bolted on’ to the existing module programme

Both wikis and blogs were investigated as possible elearning environments, however, it was felt that wikis would better reflect the pedagogical principles of the lecturers rather than blogs. Although blogs do allow a community to engage in a dialogue leading to understanding, the initiative would potentially have to come from the lecturer whereas it was intended that the students could control their learning. Also, the entries within a blog are linear in structure, which it was felt would encourage the students’ thinking throughout the module to be linear rather than viewing the science as being interconnected, requiring the students to reflect on the different facets of the debate. The process of reflection was a key aspect identified by the lecturers in helping the students develop a deep understanding of the science and as a result it was encouraged both through ongoing assessment and the Personal Development Planning (PDP) initiative.

The original intention was to deliver the modules’ elearning content through the wiki; however, the lecturers considered it important that student and university integrity be maintained, which the wiki could not ensure as it is open to the general public. To facilitate this degree of security it was decided to use Brookes Virtual as a portal for the module. Discussions about the module, assessment, and lecture details (information pertaining to the University and individual students) could be placed on the discussion board and course material placed in the contents area, with a link to the wiki placed on the homepage allowing ease of navigation.

Creating the perfect blend

It was important that the eLearning element was not seen to be driving the learning and teaching but rather supporting and enhancing it. To this end it was necessary to ensure that any resources were blended into the module rather than ‘bolted on’.

The structure of the module was geared around 12 weeks of face-to-face lectures. Following each of the lectures, the students were provided with a reading list from which they had to select one paper and write a critique of it. These weekly critiques formed part of the assessment process along with a poster presentation at the end of the module. The fundamental aim of the paper critiques was to encourage and empower students to read into the subjects being discussed and to think critically about them. Although the students were completing the weekly task, the degree to which they were engaging with the science was not the level lecturers desired. It was this element of the module that eLearning could support to the greatest degree.

Within Brookes Virtual, the students had the advantage of out-of-hours support from their lecturers and peers through the discussion board. However, the discussion board was used in a more dynamic way as each student was allocated a private discussion posting area, which only they themselves and the lecturers could view. The students were able to post their reviews each week into their space on the discussion board. The lecturers could then review the critiques and post comments back to the students. In order to encourage the students to spend more time reflecting on the science, the weekly ‘critiques’ were restructured into four sections, which required the students to distil their thoughts down to three or four key ideas. The four sections the students had to consider for each paper were:

  • The key points of the paper
  • Relevance of the paper to the lecture
  • Relevance of the paper to the module aims
  • Actions on the wiki

The role of the wiki

The concept of the wiki was developed by Ward Cunningham in 1995, the name coming from the Hawaiian word for ‘quick’. It is a Web site where the users have the opportunity to develop the content through the addition, deletion and editing of material. This creates a dynamic environment where the control of information is not held by an individual. Potentially, this form of environment is open to abuse as was the case with wikipedia.org when in 2005 a US journalist had his biography amended to say that he was part of the Kennedy assassinations. This does call into question the reliability of information on such sites; however, the role that the wiki serves within the module keeps this from being an issue. What this does highlight though is that anyone who wants to be malicious and deliberately erase other people’s entries could do so, particularly as the students would be using the site as anonymous users. Fortunately this did not happen within the module.

The wiki was structured so that each lecture had its own page. When the students opened each page they were initially presented with a title and a graphic so they had something to ‘greet them’ but then they had freedom to restructure the pages and the content that was placed on it. The content on the wiki reflected the students’ understanding of the climate science debate formed from information gained from the lectures and the weekly readings but it was also formed within the context of the individual understanding of their peers.

Reflecting on the reflections

The aim of the module was to allow the student to construct their own understanding and position within the climate change debate through individual and group reflections facilitated through two eLearning resources. Initial data analysis shows that the students demonstrated a deeper understanding of the science through the social learning environments rather than the personal ones. Individual learning styles have been recorded but not analysed as to the extent they impacted on students’ engagement with the different learning environments. When surveyed, the students also felt that the wider employment of eLearning within the module was beneficial, providing greater opportunities for time management and access to their peers and lecturers.

Ways forward

The final part of the project will commence with the 2006 cohort of students in September. The same module content and structure including assessment will be used, as will the eLearning elements. The wiki will have all structure removed to encourage the students to apply their understanding of the science rather than create an ‘encyclopaedia’ of climate change science as the 2005 cohort did. It is hoped that this broadening out of the learning environment will create another platform on which they construct personally and socially a deeper understanding of climate change science.

Author Details

Pete Walton qualified as a teacher at Goldsmiths College, London and began his teaching career teaching geography at a secondary school in South London. He moved to teach geography in a Residential Field Studies Centre in Oxford , becoming its Head,  and whilst in Oxford completed a Masters Degree at Oxford Brookes University. His dissertation was on Virtual Fieldwork. He became Head of a City Learning Centre in Birmingham before leaving to undertake his current PhD research.

As a Teaching Associate in the School of Social Sciences and Law, Pete has made an active contribution to Geography and Physical Geography undergraduate courses. He has also run workshops and seminars within the University on the use of wikis in learning and teaching.

Acknowledgements

The project was planned and developed in conjunction with Dr Simon Carr, Geography Department, Queen Mary College, London. Grateful thanks are also offered to Simon and Dr Helen Walkington, Department of Anthropology and Geography, Oxford Brookes, for their comments and support in the writing of the PhD thesis which this paper comes from. The author would also like to thank Dr Adrian Parker, Department of Anthropology and Geography, Oxford Brookes and Chris Coleman who, having taught the modules provided valuable feedback on the project’s development. Finally, thanks to the 2004 and 2005 cohorts of Geography students who have participated in the modules.

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This paper has been subject to a double blind peer review by at least two reviewers. For more information about our double blind review process please visit: http://bejlt.brookes.ac.uk/about/double-blind-review/

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