Social Learning for Engineering

By Kalyan Chatterjea, first published: March 2004 The world-wide-web is being explored by the Singapore Maritime Academy of Singapore Polytechnic with the aim of improving the learning platform for varied groups of learners. A Blackboard-based case study was recently conducted at the Singapore Maritime Academy, where the viewpoints of the learners were given the central stage and these learner inputs were further processed by the learners themselves through individual as well as group projects to build up individual domain knowledge through constructivist approaches. The study emphasized the social dimension of learning (Vygotsky, 1978) through the asynchronous e-learning channel, which was considered essential for validating the learner’s own knowledge domain. The study was done for “Shipboard Training & Assessment”, which was an Advanced Diploma module in Marine Engineering for practicing marine engineers. The module was originally taught as a classroom-based module. To switch to an online mode the participants needed extensive support. The majority of the students in the module were foreign students having minimal exposure to computers and most of them had to be literally coaxed to use the computers to communicate.

Reflective Practice
The domain knowledge was made available to the students via Blackboard. The students were then asked to go through these resources in Blackboard and put some reflective entries on any of the related issues on the Blackboard Discussion Forum. To create a non-threatening environment and to entice the students initially, they were assured that all of them would get 10% marks if they provided a single input on any of the relevant issues, which would not even be qualitatively graded. These 10% marks were originally attributed to ’student attendance’ in the normal classroom-based module. A further 10% marks were attributed to a short input on the Blackboard Discussion Board for their entry on critical reflections on some specific topics. Again they were assured of these marks without any


qualitative grading. Originally, these marks were attributed to the tutorials submission for the module. The temptations of 20% easy marks proved to be too attractive and about 80% of students gave these initial inputs. What followed was interesting, as some of the issues raised by students triggered further discussion and a flood of inputs poured in. It appeared that as the discussion topics became of interest to the learners, they got motivated themselves and no further extrinsic intervention was necessary on the part of the facilitator. As the number of inputs exceeded expectations, the discussion forum became difficult to track individual learner inputs as the ‘forum’ was only structured to track the various ‘threads’ of discussion. To tackle this problem, 47 individual forums were created for all 47 participants, and these became their online portfolios. The next step was to encourage learners to delve into the knowledge domain of their peers. An individual project was planned, where the participants were asked to go through the submissions by their classmates and prepare a reflective summary of these inputs. The students had the benefit of going through the different student perspectives of the issues discussed and constructing their own meanings in the summary. The summaries were also posted on the individual student forums and became a part of their portfolio. These summaries were graded.

Group Project
The final assignment for the module was the Group Project. The groups were asked to work on ‘Specific Training Procedures’, which were earlier worked on by the individuals as their individual project. The group had to critically look through these earlier submissions and suggest improvements. The findings were finally presented as web-based slide shows.

Communication and Collaboration
With this emphasis on communicative processes, the focus of the module shifted from content-based approach, where the instructor plays a key role in disbursing the content resources to one of communication-rich, collaborative scenario, where the group members were depending on each other for their knowledge source. Although the module started on a shaky note, the establishment of the viable learning community was probably possible due to following reasons:

It was ensured that the group members had adequate knowledge or support to handle technology related issues. There was adequate extrinsic motivation, when 2

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20% of the module marks could be obtained by participating in the asynchronous discussion forum. The novelty of this method made the learners curious to join in this new activity of learning through Internet. The individual WebPages made the learners conscious of their own image in the public domain and made and effort to improve the quality of their inputs. An effort was made on part of the instructor to reduce the stress level in the course and this led to some enjoyment in participating in this new learning environment.

This negotiation of knowledge though computer-mediation, among peers in the class, was very new to students. This gave credibility to their interactions as the consensus among all in the class validated their directions in discussions.

Multiple Perspectives
As we experiment with the online environment, some of its potential benefits become more apparent in these situations. For example, the online asynchronous forums or discussion boards create a medium of knowledge capture, particularly when dealing with mature students with diverse experience. This was evident in the case study where multiple perspectives of the content knowledge was generated and shared by the learners. It became clear that such interactions could lead to development of learning communities with potential for growth of both the community and a resulting knowledgebase, which gets automatically updated during these processes.

Learning Communities
To capitalise from these findings, it appears that the institutes of higher learning could do well to create such learning communities in various disciplines and perhaps in conjunction with the industry to make these resulting knowledge-bases useful for both academia for pursuing research and teaching while for the industry to tap these as knowledge repositories for their day-to-day problem solving.

Vygotsky, L. S. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Original work published 1934).



Kalyan Chatterjea Kalyan Chatterjea is Course Manager at the Singapore Maritime Academy, Singapore Polytechnic


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