Sakai-based learning environment for collaborative and dialogic pedagogies

/Grant proposal/

Eugene Matusov, University of Delaware (ematusov_AT_udel_DOT_edu)
Mark Smith, University of Delaware
Ana Marjanovic-Shane, Chestnut Hill College
Katherine von Duyke, School of Education, University of Delaware

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The purpose of this grant is to develop additional Sakai tools that can promote an open-structure Sakai-based learning environment for collaborative and dialogic pedagogies.


Web-support re-conceptualization: From the web-based course management to the web-based learning environments

Traditionally, class web sites have been conceptualized as web-based course management (or as “courseware management”) that involve a set of powerful technological web tools (like chat, forums, blogs, wikis, and so on) to facilitate teaching, assignments, exams, course bookkeeping, and grading. These software applications often have been developed and considered outside of the class pedagogy itself.  Of course, for many instructors who systematically use class webs, these web applications do not just became tools for more efficiency and time saving, but often they become an organic part of their pedagogical practice with time. In the latter case, pedagogy itself becomes shaped by the class web. In turn, students’ participation and experiences with the class are shaped not only by the pedagogical practice but also by the class web. In this proposal, we call for a diverse view on class webs: some class webs have their primary goal of serving non-web-based pedagogies to make them more efficient and time saving (i.e., course management); other class webs might have their primary goal to be an organic part of web-based pedagogies; and some are hybrids.

Here we want to push forward the concept of a class web as an organic aspect of pedagogies. In this case, a class web is aimed at the emergence of a certain desired learning environment. Technological web-based tools can promote, afford, and support the emergence of certain pedagogy and learning. For example, in our experimentation with asynchronous, threaded, discussion forums, we found that when we organize the forums from old (on the top of the forum page) to new (on the bottom of the forum page) threads and reply postings, this organization generates long and deeper discussions among our students then when the forum is organized in the opposite way (i.e., new threads are no the top). We speculate the reason is that in the former case, our students, probably, have to scroll the page down to see the newest postings and go through old threads with new postings that might attract their attention. Serendipity promoted by a web technological design can become an important feature for one’s pedagogy and students’ learning environment.

Diverse pedagogical chronotopes

Different pedagogical practices, especially those that include web-based activities can be described using the concept of chronotope. Russian philosopher of dialogue Bakhtin introduced this very useful concept. He defined chronotope as the unity of the time, the space, and the value system in which events occur. The values system in a chronotope dictates the ways that practices are organized and their rationales. For instance, in traditional pedagogy, events usually occur around class assignments unilaterally designed by the teacher: whether the assignments are submitted by the students on time, whether they are accomplished by the students according to the teacher’s expectations, whether the students did the assignments by themselves and did not cheat, and so on. In traditional pedagogy, instructors often attempt to eliminate the possibility for students’ discursive learning initiatives that are frequently seen by these instructors as disrupting the unilateral order of their assignments. Based on that value system, the traditional teachers often demand that their class webs highly limit or eliminate all together opportunities for students’ such mutually interactive initiatives. Course management software designed with this philosophical orientation helps to achieve these goals by incorporating modules that promote individual activities mandated for the students by the teacher: surveys, questionnaires, tests and individually based assignments, etc.

In contrast, educational chronotopes of collaborative dialogic pedagogies promote and involve students’ initiatives, inquiries, self-assignments, and learning journeys. The teacher-initiated assignments can serve as jump-starts for the students’ learning activism. The web design for this pedagogical chronotope has to provide complexity both for students’ collaboration and for students’ autonomy. In addition, the web design has to enable the teacher, or the community of teachers to collaborate by sharing libraries of academic texts, media, internet links and bookmarks, class templates and reflections on one and another’s practices.

Web-based collaborative dialogic learning environment

 A class web can promote diverse types and levels of collaboration among many participants, both in and outside of the classroom. Some of these types and levels of collaboration are difficult and often impossible to achieve without a class web. For example, class webs can promote students-initiated asynchronous discussions and learning, where students and the teacher can recursively address the points being raised in the past and where the class web discussion becomes materialized collective memory. These educational innovative activities are difficult if not totally impossible to achieve without the class web at the same scope and depth.

Dialogic pedagogy involves a demand for the teacher to consider oneself as an epistemological learner of the subject matter in addition to being a pedagogical learner of improvement of his/her own teaching. Dialogue implies equally serious inquiry and interest: 1) in the subject matter from both sides (i.e., the student and the teacher) and 2) in each other. In dialogic pedagogy, the teacher’s questions involve genuine, information searching questions from and with the students. This requires the web design of forums to become free from unilateral control of the teacher for the topic of the discussion. Such discussion forums promote both student-to-student and teacher-to-student/student-to-teacher discourse. With the ability to post original threads and to reply to other participants’ thought provoking discussions (continuing their threads), the forum conversations inevitably become complex, if not chaotically looking at times, rich multi-leveled and multi-branched webs of connected and inter-related topics.

In addition to student-student and teacher-student discourse- and project-based collaborations, we find it important that our class webs support other types of collaboration:

1)      Teacher’s longitudinal collaboration with oneself. By that we mean course and class planning, design, instructional resources, and reflection that exists as database outside of the particular class web but connected to the class web, possibility of flexibly using old class webs as templates for new class webs;

2)      Collaboration among instructors teaching the same course: they can share class web templates, lesson plans, reflections, class policies, assignments, and instructional resources;

3)      Collaboration among instructors teaching different courses: they can share class web templates, lesson plans, reflections, class policies, assignments, and instructional resources;

4)      Students’ collaboration with outside sources: academic literature, didactic materials and learning activities, media, professional web-based practices, and so on;

5)      Teachers’ collaboration across universities about their classes, academic literature, didactic materials, media, topic planning, etc;

6)      For K-12 school, collaboration among teachers, parents, and students about homework.

Essential features of the web-design that supports collaborative dialogic pedagogies

A class web that supports collaborative dialogic pedagogies needs to promote the value system of the dialogic chronotope:

  1. Education happens when students actively engage in dialogues with each other and with the teacher (Community of Learners principles).
  2. The dialogues can be provoked by the teacher and the students engaging with controversial multi-media sources: texts, visuals, movies, public statistics and other public information, scholarly articles, etc.
  3. The learning curriculum is emergent, flexible, and sensitive to the student’s questions, interests, initiatives, needs, and discussions. So is instruction.
  4. Teachers are actively and discursively learning with students and each other, too: both epistemologically (the subject matter) and pedagogically (how to teach better). They are involved in diverse communities of learners.
  5. All participants in the dialogic pedagogy have a dialogic reply to and appreciation of their contributions to learning.

Here is the list of essential features of the web-design for collaborative dialogic environment:

Essential web components and features:

Background experience

The first author has started designing and using web-based collaborative dialogic pedagogies for undergraduate and graduate university education since 1996 up to now. First, he used Microsoft FrontPage platform and then Microsoft SharePoint version 1.0 platform. The other authors have experienced these web-based pedagogies as students, used them as teachers, and participated in modifying them.  We also are familiar with WebCT and Blackboard course management and their limitations. This gives us a good way to compare and contrast the properties of a web based class environments suitable for dialogic pedagogy and class management software used in traditional pedagogical chronotopes.

Example of Dialogic Pedagogy Class Web Environment

We used Microsoft Sharepoint v.1 to build Dialogic Pedagogy Class Web Environment. Please see demo at It was designed for a class on cultural diversity for future teachers.

Required work for the project

We expect two main types of jobs for this project:

1)      Developing a pedagogical design of the web-based collaborative dialogic pedagogies that has open structure for further modifications;

2)      Programming support that can realize this pedagogical design in Sakai.

Relevant publication

Matusov, E., Hayes, R., & Pluta, M. J. (2005). Using a discussion web to develop an academic community of learners. Educational Technology & Society, 8(2), 16-39.

[1] In our experience, currently dominant web discussion forums do not easily promote cross-fertilization of ideas and discursive complexity. They appear to function well for a FAQ list but not for dialogic discussion. These newly designed web forums seem to promote thematic control of the discussion by the teacher, which would be important for traditional pedagogy but seems to limit and restrict dialogue among participants in our pedagogical practice.

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