A cautionary note of Web-based collaborative learning: The experience of Edupark
Chi-Chung Lam, Fong-Lok Lee, Lily Dai
The Chinese University of Hong Kong Email address: firstname.lastname@example.org This paper reports the experience of administering a cross-territories Web-based collaborative project based learning to Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Although positive learning effects could be observed among the students, some unfavourable results were also reported. The participants were interviewed and the technical and motivation problems of the project were then discussed to explore the reasons behind the research findings. Key-words: WWW, collaborative learning, cross-territories, geography
The recent rapid expansion of applying the Internet in education has aroused an enthusiastic discussion of
Web-based learning. Some educators (for example, ) argue that Web-based learning would eventually lead to a paradigm shift of learning style, from teacher-centred to student-centred. The traditional role of teachers as knowledge providers will be changed to that of learning facilitators, since students can learn from the wide repertoire of information enabled by the Internet. Researchers and policy makers (see for example, ) suggest that teachers should play the role of helping students develop high-order abilities such as problem-solving and creativity rather than just delivering factual knowledge like what it used to be. Students are expected to learn through communicating, either in a real environment requiring personal contact or on the Web, and then construct and reorganize their own knowledge. As suggested by Parker , “The result of interactive learning can be new knowledge, reorganized knowledge, or simplify the awareness of a need for additional understanding.” The result of such interacting learning process will “lead to internalized, long-term understanding” .
1.1 Paradigm Shift
As mentioned in the above paragraph, education is now facing an urge for a paradigm shift from a teacher-centred approach to a student-centred one. The once passive learner must now be engaged actively in creating personal knowledge . This new approach, often referred to as the constructivist learning by most researchers, tries to help “each learner set personal goals and pursue them, learning how to learn, and promoting the development of planning, independent thinking, choice-making, and evaluation skills” . The constructivist paradigm has been regarded as more helpful to students and may ultimately offer the most fertile ground for the application of information technology to education .
The constructivist learning paradigm includes two principles of learning: active learning and group 1
learning . Active learning refers to the self-directed learning process given rise by the requirement of developing knowledge from substantial, authentic tasks presented in a realistic context  . The essence of group learning is to enable frequent interaction and collaboration among students towards a common goal . The term “collaborative learning” refers to an instruction method in which students at various performance levels work together in small groups towards a common goal . During a collaborative learning process, students are responsible for one another’s learning as well as their own, and the success of a group therefore requires mutual tutoring or passing of knowledge  among the group members which will then lead to better learning effect. Several studies  have shown that collaborative learning strategies result in more student involvement with the learning activities and more engagement during the learning process. Besides, there is persuasive evidence that cooperative (collaborative) teams achieve at higher levels of thought and retain information longer than students who work quietly as individuals . The shared learning gives students an opportunity to engage in discussion, take responsibility for their own learning, and thus become critical thinkers .
1.3 Active Learning
Project-based learning has been considered as a means to promote active learning, particularly when students from different regions are involved. Students, in the process of doing a collaborative project, will have chances to gather data, analyse, synthesize, and evaluate . They will learn how to solve problems, and have the opportunity to learn from learners coming from other regions who may have different perspectives in looking at a common problem. In a project-based learning process, the teacher’s role will no longer be imparting knowledge to students, but rather designing and maintaining the environment for students to collaboratively acquiring and constructing the knowledge. Project-based learning environment is therefore a means for changing the traditional teacher-centred teaching method to a student-centred learning mode which can release students from rote-memorization to a more creative way of learning.
1.4 Effects of Project-based Collaborative Learning
Despite so many positive claims for the advantages of project-based learning, its effect on students’ learning, particularly to Asian students, has actually not been undergone careful inspection and vigorous study. The Asian education curricula are mostly examination-oriented. For many years, students were required and trained to achieve high scores in examinations rather than to learn high-order abilities like problem-solving or creativity. It is really not sure whether they can switch from the examination orientation to this new way of learning where guidance is kept to the minimal. The present study is therefore aimed to initially study the possibilities of administering project-based learning in two Asian cities, Hong Kong and Shenzhen. The reason why we chose two cities instead of one is that participating students would be forced to communicate through the Internet. Besides, as Hong Kong and Shenzhen are neighbouring cities in southern China, it would be easier for the development team and teachers from the two places to meet each other in addition to meeting in the Cyber space when required.
Edupark is a test bed of Web-based projects started in 1999 at the Faculty of Education, The Chinese 2
University of Hong Kong, and sponsored by two Internet firms. The current study is one of the first two modules implemented in Edupark with the topic “Air pollution in Hong Kong and Shenzhen/Guangzhou.”
Fifty-four students from two schools in Hong Kong and one school in Shenzhen took part in this learning project on a voluntary basis. These students were 12-15 years old and studied at junior secondary levels. The three participating schools were considered as having students of above average standard in academic attainment. While the medium of instruction of the two Hong Kong schools was English, the Shenzhen school also placed strong emphasis on the teaching and learning of English in its curriculum. The major events of the learning project are shown in Table 1. Table 1: Major events of the learning projects Time June 1999 Mid-July 1999 Mid-July 1999 Major events Schools were invited to take part in the project. The students were divided into ten groups. Most of the groups had five members. The website was opened for access and contained materials from textbooks, government departments and newspapers. Briefing session (half-day) was organized for participants in Hong Kong and Shenzhen separately to introduce the purposes and procedures of this learning project. Basic techniques of using the website was taught. Participants started the project. Follow-up session was organized for participants in Hong Kong and Shenzhen separately. The main purpose was to keep in contact and monitor their progress. Students submitted their projects. Prize presentation was held in Hong Kong. Shenzhen students visited Hong Kong for a day. Hong Kong students who were awarded a prize visited Shenzhen for a day.
Mid-July 1999 Mid-Aug 1999 End of Aug. 1999 Nov. 1999 Nov. 1999
The design of this project has the following characteristics: 1. Avoid unhealthy competition: Although three groups would be ranked as “winners” at the end of the learning project, measures have been taken to avoid unhealthy competition. Firstly, teachers were informed of the spirit of this learning project and were requested not to see the project as a competition. Secondly, participants from different schools were divided into groups. Members of each group consisted of students from the three schools to avoid competition among schools. 2. Collaborative learning: Participants were encouraged to share the materials they collected with every participant by posting them in the website. The sharing of materials was noted as one of the criteria in assessing their performance. 3. Cross-territories learning: The participants from the two places would not meet during the learning process until the prize-giving ceremony. The briefing and training sessions were held in Hong Kong and Shenzhen separately. The participants were just given their group members’ e-mail addresses and telephone numbers. They were told to communicate via the Internet as inter-city phone call was fairly expensive. 4. Supports: Each participant was given a free e-mail account. The Hong Kong students were also provided free access to the Internet and could use the computer facilities of The Chinese University if they requested. The 3
Shenzhen school opened its computer room to its students during the summer vacation. Moreover, students could contact a full-time research assistant via mobile phone and email. 5. Independent study: Students were encouraged to collect materials from various sources, digest the ideas, share with members, draft and present their reports with high level of independence from their teachers. The ideal scenario of this learning project would be like this: Students, after attending the briefing session and understanding the spirit of collaborative, Web-based project learning, would start discussing with their group members. The materials posted in the reference section of the Edupark website would provide the necessary background for them to conceptualize the problem and further their search for more information. As the materials were from different sources including textbooks, newspapers, CD-ROMs and government websites, they set good examples for students in the process of their search. The students would upload useful materials they found. They would also exchange views and discuss with their group members through e-mail. Exchange of information and ideas among all the participants could also be done in the discussion forum. In case of technical and content problems, they could seek help from the development team at The Chinese University through e-mail or voice phone. After they finished their project, they could upload their work to the website for sharing with all the participants.
An evaluation study was conducted at the end of the project to review the process and the problems encountered. The development team interviewed a total of 22 students, 16 of which were from Hong Kong and the other six from Shenzhen. They were chosen according to their different involvement levels in the project and the various qualities of their work so as to reflect the whole spectrum of views.
From the interviews and the work the participants had done in the course of the project, it could be concluded that the ideal scenario described in the above section did not fully materialize. Among the ten groups, only nine of them managed to complete and upload their work to the website. The quality of their work varied sharply. In terms of the frequency of communication and sharing, it was below the expectation of the development team. About 50 pieces of information had been posted by the students. A questionnaire survey was conducted to the participants in one of the two Hong Kong schools. The result showed that although group members from the same school had frequent communication with each other, the amount of cross-territories communication was, in contrast, very infrequent (see Table 2).
Table 2: Frequency of communication indicated by students of a participating school in Hong Kong Communication method and object Meeting with group members - from the same school - from different schools Communication through telephone with group members 4 > 10 times 1 0 5 - 10 times 2 0 2-5 times 8 9 Once None
from the same school from different schools
Communication through e-mail/ICQ/Web with group members - from the same school - from different schools
This less-than-desirable pattern does not mean that the project was a complete failure. There were three groups in which cooperation and interaction among members from different schools were fairly good. Group 9 was a case in point: students from the Hong Kong and Shenzhen schools had basically kept in touch with each other throughout the whole activity and had frequent exchanges on how to proceed with the project. They discussed their ideas and shared the information on the Web. Their final report was a product of cooperation from all members.
As a whole, the students in Shenzhen were more involved and were willing to invest more time into the project. In the interviews, all the Shenzhen students said that joining the project was worthwhile for the following reasons: 1. 2. 3. Their computer skills improved. They found student-centred, Web-based learning more challenging and interesting. They developed skills of collecting information, such as interviewing officials and searching the Web.
Table 3: Gains of Shenzhen students participating in the project Gain Improved their computer skills Found student-centred, Web-based learning more challenging and interesting Developed skills of collecting information Note: Six Shenzhen students were interviewed. No. of Shenzhen students mentioned the gain in the interview 6 4 4
The students reported that they had encountered a number of problems in the learning process. These problems could be classified into two groups.
2.51 Technical Problems
The first problem the students faced was the communication interface between the two cities. They found difficulty in communicating through e-mail because Hong Kong and Shenzhen uses different computing codes to process Chinese characters. In Shenzhen, GB code is used while the code commonly used in Hong Kong is Big5. Students needed to use some other software (e.g. Antaractic Star) to translate e-mail messages using the other code to the one their computers could read. What made the matter worse was that some students were far from skilful in using their computers. During the briefing session and the follow-up meeting with the students, they had already been given instruction on 5
some basic information technology skills such as setting up their e-mail accounts, sending and receiving e-mails, using scanners, browsing the net and searching for information through search engines. Despite these, it is discovered that students’ knowledge and hands-on techniques varied sharply. A few participants were very skilful and some who were not very skilful at first managed to pick up the skills as the project went on. However, many lagged behind. Without the necessary skills, many students were discouraged and felt lost in the process. It is interesting to find that many students, particularly those in Hong Kong, gave up easily when they encountered technical problems. Two possible explanations were found. The Shenzhen students could use the computer room in their school where a technician and a teacher could be reached. Timely support and advice could thus be provided. Moreover, students working in the computer room at the same time could seek help from each other. Two Shenzhen students who were assigned to different groups said that they helped and supported each other in the project. This experience suggests that some seemingly small technical problems might have strong deterrent effects on students’ learning. After all, what is more discouraging when you cannot do the things you want with a technology which promises to be very capable and convenient? The situation was complicated by the tight schedule and the unstable software provided by an Internet
firm which supported the various functions like uploading and downloading, and discussion forum. The most unfortunate thing was that the harddisk of the server was seriously damaged in August, only three weeks before the submission deadline. The server needed to be closed for maintenance and some materials in the harddisk could not be recovered.
Students who did not actively participate in the project commonly quoted technical problems as the major reasons for their lukewarm attitude and commitment to the project. Is this really the reason why a fairly high proportion of the Hong Kong students did not commit? Are there some other reasons? Before answering this question, it is worthwhile to look at the differences of attitudes between the Shenzhen and Hong Kong students. The development team discovered an interesting phenomenon during the project and in the interview that the students in Shenzhen were more involved in the project. Eight out of twelve Shenzhen students had done some information search and took the initiative to interact with their partners in Hong Kong. The Shenzhen students who were interviewed reported that they had interviewed officials in the Environment Protection Bureau, and some had also interviewed medical doctors. All of them had visited the city library to search for relevant information and surfed the net. A Hong Kong student also commended that her counterparts in Shenzhen were more involved and committed. The Shenzhen students were not having a better technical environment than their Hong Kong counterpart. Most of the Shenzhen students did not have access to the Internet at home. The speed of the server in the Shenzhen school was also fairly slow. The school’s computer room was installed with over 20 computers which were linked to the Internet by a cable line via the Shenzhen University. The speed was painfully slow and the computer facilities were very unstable during the period of study. Sometimes, the e-mail system might be down for a week. It is interesting to inquire why the general level of the students’ commitment was higher than that of their counterpart in Hong Kong even though they encountered more technical problems. A distinctive difference between the Shenzhen and Hong Kong schools was the teachers’ level of 6
involvement. The teachers of the two Hong Kong schools, as suggested by the development team, gave their students complete freedom to do the project after it started. The monitoring and support work was left to the development team. They did not push their students at all. The case of Shenzhen was a bit different. The teacher in charge of the project occasionally stationed in the school and monitored their students. They periodically reminded their students to work hard in the project. Though we are not sure whether this is the sole reason explaining the different level of commitment among students, it does suggest that teachers’ attitudes and constant monitoring did have effects on the students. Teachers can motivate their students to work on the project. Another possible source of motivation is students’ interest in the topic. The Hong Kong students who did not actually work hard in the project attributed their lukewarm attitude to the topic of the project. A student commented that the topic was too difficult. Another student said that it would be easier to do a project to introduce a place. Other two even suggested the development team to choose themes such as “ the most handsome teacher,” “the best student” and so on. This is, of course, not surprising. But it definitely raises our concern. Air pollution is one of the most serious and pressing environmental problems in Hong Kong. It is also a major global concern. If air pollution is a topic not of interest to the students, what are? This problem of students’ interest needs to be addressed. For this type of independent study, students’ interest is of prime importance. How we could attract students to study more academic themes is an area worth further study. Another source of motivation problem may be related to the composition of group members. As mentioned, each group was composed of students from different schools. However, the Hong Kong and Shenzhen students would not have the chance to meet until the end of the project. Even for the Hong Kong students themselves, they only met twice during the study, once at the beginning and the other in the middle of the project. It seems that they felt very uneasy to communicate with people they did not have deep understanding. Some Hong Kong students raised this problem when they were interviewed. They suggested the development team to organize a social function for them to get to know their group members prior to the start of the project. This indicates that acquaintance among group members is considered as a condition conducive to cooperation.
Conclusions and Discussions
The learning project reported in this paper is the first one ever conducted in Hong Kong and Shenzhen.
The emphasis is on collaborative self-learning with the support of the Web and e-mail system among students from different cities. It is designed to fully utilize the potential of new information technology. It is discovered that strong and timely hardware and software support is essential. Young people can be easily discouraged by technical problems. Prior training of information technology skills is necessary. What they need is not only an introductory course, timely and efficient supporting and advisory system to help them shoot their problems is also essential if their interest is to be sustained. Providing an information technology environment is not enough for student-centred collaborative learning. We should not neglect the issue of motivation. Our experience suggests that teachers still have an important role to play as facilitators, morale-boosters and problem-shooters. Their presence and advice can smoothen and facilitate the learning process which in turn can sustain and stimulate students’ motivation. Another point worth discussing is whether students who do not know each other can learn collaboratively. The success of ICQ indicates that strangers can talk and communicate. But in the present study, students do 7
prefer working with people they know. Is it true that strangers cannot work together on more serious academic matters? This is an issue worth further study.
 Parker, A. (1997). A distance education how-to manual: Recommendations from the field. Educational Technology Review, 8, 7-10.  Hong Kong Education and Manpower Bureau (1998). Information technology for learning in a new era: Five-year strategy 1998-99 to 2002-03.  Parker, A. (1999). Interaction in distance education: The critical conversation. Educational Technology Review, 12, 13-17.  Kiesler, J., & McGuire, H. (1987). Aspects of computer-mediated communication. International Psychologist, 32(10), 45-67.  While, J. A., & Purdom, D. M. (1996). Viewing modern instructional technology through conceptions of curriculum. Educational Technology Review, 6 (Autumn), 5-9.  The President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology. (1997). Report to the President on the use of technology to strengthen K-12 education in the United States.  Lin, C. S. (1999). The approaches in integrating curriculum and Internet resource. : Using Internet in the classroom. http://netshow.ntntc.edu.tw/edtech99talk2.html  Edelson, D. C., Pea, R. D., & Gomez, L. (1995). Constructivism in the Collaboratory. In B. G. Wilson (Ed.), Constructivist Learning Environments: Case Studies in Instructional Design, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.  Lin, C. S. (1999). The Design and Practice of Integrated Distributed Learning Environments for Elementary School Students http://acbe.tku.edu.tw/iccai8/9/9.htm  Gokhale, A. A. (2000). Collaborative learning enhances critical thinking. http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/JTE/v7n1/gokhale.jte-v7n1.html. Gokhale, A. A. (2000). Collaborative learning enhances critical thinking. http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/JTE/v7n1/gokhale.jte-v7n1.html.  Lee, F. L., Liang, S., & Chan, T. W. (1999). An attempt to design synchronous collaborative learning environments for peer dyads on the World Wide Web. Journal of educational computing research, 21(2), 221-254.  Hiltz, S. R. (1998). Collaborative learning in asynchronous learning networks: Building learning communities. In Proceedings of WebNet 98: World Conference of the WWW, Internet & Intranet (pp. 433-439). Orlando, Florida; 7-12 November.  Johnson, R. T., & Johnson, D. W. (1986). Action research: Cooperative learning in the science classroom. Science and Children, 24, 31-32.  Totten, S., Sills, T., Digby, A., & Russ, P. (1991). Cooperative learning: A guide to research. New York: Garland.  McKenzie, J. (1997). Making the Net Work for Schools: Online Research Modules. From now on, 17(1).