Research and Advances
Computing Applications

Improving Education and Training with It

Findings from the review of previous empirical studies set the foundation for a conceptual model demonstrating how IT supports learning and group communications.
  1. Introduction
  2. Time and Place Dispersion
  3. Integration Model
  4. IT Applications in the Objectivist Matrix
  5. IT Applications in the Constructivist Matrix
  6. Empirical Research
  7. Conclusion
  8. References
  9. Author
  10. Footnotes
  11. Figures
  12. Sidebar: Case Discussions Through GSS
  13. Sidebar: ALN for Case Discussions

The use of IT in education and training is receiving increased attention in the academic literature and in professional publications. In contrast, there has been a noticeable gap in the development of systematic models to guide successful applications of IT in educational settings. IT can be integrated into education and corporate training in two different but overlapping ways: By transmitting content (to deliver instruction), and by supporting communication between professors and students, or among students.

As a content-transmission tool, IT can mediate the lecturing process by complementing or replacing the traditional role of printed materials and instructors. As a communication support tool, IT can extend faculty availability beyond class times and office hours, establish links to other classmates, and accomplish administrative activities such as the distribution of materials, reminders, and notifications.

Transmission of content generally occurs in lectures where professors present the materials and students try to understand and assimilate concepts—the objectivist model of knowledge transmission. IT can assist faculty in the delivery of content through the use of presentation software packages or it can completely replace instructors by delivering content directly to the students in the form of computerized tutorials or hypertext lectures.

However, IT can do much more than just transmit course-related material. IT can maintain online learning communities that exist beyond the scheduled lectures or training sessions. These online communities support an alternative learning model known as constructivism, where knowledge emerges from peer interaction, evaluation, and cooperation. Collaborative or group learning activities are one of the most common implementations of the constructivist approach. In these activities, knowledge is constructed by formulating ideas into words, and building upon these ideas through discussions, reactions, and responses of others [1, 11].

Effective educational applications of IT match the pedagogical assumptions and the disciplinary nature of the course. Pedagogical assumptions are embodied in the teaching/learning model driving the course, whether it adopts an objectivist philosophy, a constructivist approach, or a combination of both. In fact, many disciplines are characterized by two broad categories of knowledge: conceptual and pragmatic. Conceptual knowledge, which is based on the fundamental concepts or methods, is consistent with traditional classroom lectures (objectivist model), whereas pragmatic knowledge represents the processes that transform concepts into practical solutions. The latter is acquired by discussing and solving business problems and thus is consistent with the constructivist perspective.

New information and communication technologies introduce powerful environments that enhance social and intellectual connectivities [5]. In these environments, the technology structures information exchange, supports peer-interaction and faculty-student interaction, and overcomes time and space barriers.

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Time and Place Dispersion

Communication technologies can provide place-independent communication and time-independent communication. By lifting the geographical constraints, these systems allow members of different areas to be part of the same course or group. Students have expanded access to other peers, experts, or sources of information, regardless of their geographical location. By overcoming time constraints, these systems facilitate self-pacing and self-directed learning, and improve in-depth reflection, formulation of comments, and development of topics [5].

Figure 1 presents the typology of dispersion proposed by Johansen [8], which shows different modes of interaction along the time and place dimensions. Interaction can occur at the same time (synchronous) or at different times (asynchronous). Members can be located in the same place (proximate) or in different places (dispersed).

Same time/same place refers to groups that meet in the same room or labs in which each student has access to a personal computer.

Same time/different place situations occur when participants are located in (at least two) different places, and communicate via computers using chat rooms or desktop videoconferences in real time.

Different time/same place typically refers to people who work in shifts but share a common meeting room (project room) where they leave messages for each other and share materials. This category can be expanded to include the notion of dedicated virtual workplaces for use by a specific class or group of students. A course home page on the Web intended as a shared virtual space to store class materials can be placed in this cell.

Different time/different place refers to dispersed teams that rarely meet face-to-face and carry all their work through computer-mediated communication systems that provide a combination of database, email, and conferencing capabilities. A communication system tailored to mediate learning processes and to support anytime/anywhere interaction is an Asynchronous Learning Network (ALN) [7].

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Integration Model

Different pedagogical approaches and learning strategies suggest different ways to implement IT in education and training. Pedagogy emphasizing the one-way transmission of concepts (objectivist approach) suggests the use of a system that improves the efficiency of this transfer in the lecturing process. In contrast, pedagogy based on constructivism and collaborative learning will require a technological platform to support communication among students in class and beyond the scheduled lectures. Mixed pedagogical approaches would benefit from a combination of applications. Hence, educational applications of IT can be classified in three dimensions: pedagogy, location, and mode. Pedagogy refers to the learning model that drives the course. Location refers to the physical location of course participants. It could be proximate in the same place or distributed in different places. Mode can be synchronous or asynchronous depending on whether the communication is carried out in real time or in delayed time.

The combination of the two categories in each of these three factors produces a 2x2x2 framework as shown in Figure 2.

This 3D conceptual model integrates the traditional pedagogical dichotomy (objectivist versus constructivist) along with the typology of dispersion. The cube can be thought of as the combination of two dispersion matrices, one for the objectivist approach and the other for the constructivist perspective.

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IT Applications in the Objectivist Matrix

IT can mediate traditional lectures to increase the efficiency of knowledge transmission. Applications in this context include presentation technology [11] and computerized tutorials. Lectures can also be prepared in hypertext format, where the information is structured as an associative network of nodes and interrelating links, and students are able to access information in the order most appropriate to their purposes, thus enhancing their ability to understand the material.

Another virtual extension of the lectures could be the use of a course Web page as a repository of lecture notes and class materials. Students can visit the home page to download or print class materials and assignments at anytime. The course Web page can be a comprehensive repository of course-related materials such as syllabus, assignments, readings, class notes, study guides, selected papers, and general announcements updated regularly [10].

The concept of the lecture can be detached from the traditional same time/same place notion. Lectures can be simultaneously delivered to groups of students located in two or more places using video and data links across locations. This allows participants in remote locations (students, professors, or guest speakers) to take part in the same lecture carried out in real time. In this setting, the use of chat rooms will enable participants to pose questions and carry out class discussions in real time [2].

Prerecorded lectures can be delivered to the students via streaming video. In this setting, an ALN will enable participants to establish communication channels with instructors and classmates, have class discussions, receive assignments, and submit papers [7].

Figure 3 classifies the different types of IT applications discussed here for objectivist learning. The synchronous/proximate category features presentation technology and computerized tutorials. The synchronous/dispersed cell corresponds to networked classrooms via video or data links, chat rooms, and desktop videoconferences. The asynchronous/proximate category refers to the use of a course Web site as a repository of class materials. Finally, the asynchronous/dispersed category contains different modes of anytime/anywhere lecture delivery.

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IT Applications in the Constructivist Matrix

In this context, IT applications range from using email to communicate with the professor or other students [10], to using computer-mediated communication systems to carry out collaborative assignments [1, 4]. The use of email between professors and students extends the concept of the traditional office hours by allowing students to ask questions anytime/anywhere and receive the answers without waiting for the next time they see the professor.

Different alternatives in this matrix are illustrated with different ways of implementing group discussion of case studies—a typical collaborative learning assignment in business schools. The case method of teaching seeks to enable students to process instructional inputs and assimilate course materials. Case studies present real or hypothetical situations that demand group discussion and the use of concepts to develop recommendations or achieve a preferred solution.

Electronic case study discussions can be carried out in synchronous and asynchronous modes. Synchronous discussions are conducted through a Group Support System (GSS, see box entitled “Case Discussions through GSS”), while asynchronous exchanges of ideas are supported by threaded discussions in a bulletin board or an ALN (see box entitled “ALN for Case Discussions.”).

In general, the availability of a communication system enhances the quality of the collaborative learning experience and reduces some of the problems that affect participation in a face-to-face environment. Students have more control over their own participation than in a typical class discussion. The disadvantages of computer-mediated communication for case discussions and other collaborative learning activities include information overload and other drawbacks dependent on the temporal dimension of the communication.

Figure 4 summarizes the different approaches for IT applications in the constructivist matrix. Synchronous/Proximate situations can benefit from the use of GSS in decision rooms to support constructive and collaborative learning activities. The Synchronous/Dispersed cell could use networked GSS, chat rooms, or desktop videoconferences to carry out collaborative assignments that would be very difficult to undertake in real time without these technologies. IT applications in the Asynchronous/Dispersed category range from email and bulletin boards to threaded discussions and ALNs to support constructive learning anytime/anywhere.

The Synchronous/Dispersed category features a novel application that combines the use of case studies with simulations. It involves the use of interactive Web-based cases based on hypertext environments. These Web cases are located in the same virtual place and can be visited by students at different times. For example, HyperCase is an interactive Web-based case in which students explore and discover problems in a fictional company—Maple Ridge Engineering.1 Students interview people, visit offices, and analyze documents, to play the role of a systems analyst [9] and to apply the concepts and methodologies of systems analysis and design.

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Empirical Research

Several empirical studies investigate the effects of IT in education. Some of them target specific learning activities in the context of a course, while others deal with complete courses delivered through different technological platforms. Activity-specific research or microstudies mainly analyze the discussion of case studies in the context of MIS courses and are typically classified by their technological support.

Alavi [1] compared GSS-supported versus face-to-face unsupported groups of MBA students discussing MIS cases in class. GSS groups expressed higher levels of perceived skill development, self-reported learning, and evaluation of classroom experience than non-supported groups due to the potential of the electronic medium to reduce group process losses and improve group process gains [12]. Although there were no significant differences in midterm scores, final test grades for students in GSS groups were significantly higher than for students in nonsupported groups.

Alavi and colleagues [2] conducted a longitudinal field study to compare the effectiveness of three collaborative learning environments: computer-mediated proximate groups, computer-mediated nonproximate groups (using desktop videoconferencing), and face-to-face unsupported groups. The study found the three environments were equally effective in students’ knowledge acquisition and satisfaction with process and outcomes. However, students who worked in nonproximate groups showed higher critical thinking skills and were more committed to their groups than students in the other two conditions.

Benbunan-Fich and Hiltz [4] conducted a field experiment to compare groups and individuals solving an ethical case study, with and without an ALN, to determine the separate and joint effects of communication medium and teamwork. Dependent variables included quality and length of the reports, and subjective perceptions of learning and satisfaction. The results indicate that ALN enhances the quantity and quality of the solutions to the case study due to the combination of asynchronous work with the availability of a written transcript of the discussion. In addition, the joint effect of teamwork with ALN-support increases the students’ perception of learning. No differences in final exam scores were observed.

Macro studies deal with complete courses where the technology is used to support innovative ways of lecture delivery and coursework. These studies can also be classified in real time or delayed time. Synchronous macro studies are based on the use of some form of computer-supported audio, video, and data link between two or more sites. The technology is used to support real-time instruction between local and remote participants. Asynchronous macro studies deal with entire courses delivered via the Internet.

Alavi, Yoo, and Vogel [3] investigated the effectiveness of networked classrooms at two universities (same time/different place). Results indicate no significant differences in mastery of the material due to the medium (face-to-face or videoconference lectures), but students were less satisfied with the videoconference lectures. This study included an out-of-class team project using an asynchronous GSS (different time/different place) where students from both locations were grouped to discuss and solve a case study.

Hiltz [6] reports the results of the Virtual Classroom or VC project. A long-term research program that compared traditional classrooms with totally distant classrooms was conducted using a combination of videotaped lectures and asynchronous computer-mediated communication. The study found no consistent significant differences between traditional (nonsupported) courses and VC-supported classes in mastery of the material (actual learning) as measured by grades. Subjectively, however, most students reported that VC was overall a better way of learning than traditional classes due to better access to professors, classmates, and materials.

Despite the differences in the technology used, some of the studies report no difference in mastery of the material due to the medium [2, 3, 6]. Only one study ([1]) reports that students who used the technology obtained higher final exam scores than students in the traditional section. Some studies ([1, 2, 4, 6]) indicate that computer-supported groups had more positive perceptions than unsupported groups, while others (for example, [3]) report that technology-supported students were less satisfied.

These findings seem to be contingent upon the technology employed, the subject matter of the course, the tasks, and the students. Thus, it is very difficult to produce meaningful comparisons and meta analyses. The inability to compare findings across studies is mainly due to the use of different technological platforms (for example, GSS vs. ALN). New research projects should compare synchronous and asynchronous learning activities within the same systems, and test the effectiveness of different pedagogical approaches leveraged by the new generation of learning systems.

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Effective applications of IT in education are those aligned with the teaching/learning model driving the course and the spatial and temporal boundaries of the communication. Pedagogical models can be broadly classified into objectivist, which emphasizes the one-way transmission of concepts from the professor to the students, and constructivist which is based on the belief that knowledge emerges from interaction.

IT applications consistent with the objectivist model are aimed at mediating the lecturing process by complementing or replacing the traditional role of professors and printed materials. To complement lectures, IT can be used as a presentation technology in the classroom or as a repository of course materials on the Web. To increase the efficiency of concept delivery, IT can automate the lecturing process.

IT applications in the constructivist paradigm consist of supporting collaborative learning environments during lectures and beyond them. The use of computer-mediated communication systems, the Internet, and the Web allows students to participate in continuous online learning communities and access other peers, experts, and sources of information regardless of their geographical location.

The temporal dimension of communication refers to whether a course is taught in real time (synchronous lectures) or delayed time (asynchronous lectures). Delayed-time lectures can be prerecorded and distributed via streaming video. The spatial dispersion of the participants refers to the geographical location of the students and the professor. Students in different campuses or even in different countries can attend the same lecture (in real time), and participate in the discussion. Also, guest speakers from anywhere in the world can be invited to give a virtual talk to a class.

There are many possible ways to incorporate new information and communication technologies in education and training, but there is a lack of theoretical frameworks to classify these applications. As a contribution in this direction, the conceptual model presented here integrates the three relevant dimensions (pedagogy, location, and mode) to illustrate the alignment between different alternatives. Two main implications are derived from this model—pedagogical and research-oriented.

At the pedagogical level, the model can be used as a road map to select the most effective IT-supported learning activities based on the teaching paradigm driving the course. Education and training in many disciplines consist of conveying conceptual and pragmatic knowledge, thus some courses present a mix of objectivist and constructivist activities. In this context, the conceptual model developed here can offer some guidance to select the appropriate type of technological support for learning activities.

The implications are not restricted to the pedagogical realm. The model can be useful to put in context theory and research in computer-supported learning, to categorize previous findings, and to guide forthcoming empirical studies. Future research in this area should compare the effectiveness of different learning activities across different cells of the conceptual model, in order to identify which ones truly enhance the educational experience of the students.

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F1 Figure 1. Typology of dispersion.

F2 Figure 2. Tridimensional model.

F3 Figure 3. Objectivist matrix.

F4 Figure 4. Constructivist matrix.

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    1. Alavi, M. Computer-mediated collaborative learning: An empirical evaluation. MIS Q. (June 1994), 150–174.

    2. Alavi, M.; Wheeler, B. and Valacich, J. Using IT to reengineer business education: An exploratory investigation to collaborative telelearning. MIS Q. (Sept. 1995), 294–312.

    3. Alavi, M; Yoo, Y and Vogel, D. Using information technology to add value to management education. Academy of Management J. 40, 6 (1997), 1310–1333.

    4. Benbunan-Fich, R. and Hiltz, S.R. Effects of asynchronous learning networks: A field experiment. Group Decision and Negotiation 8 (Sept. 1999), 409–426.

    5. Harasim, L. Hiltz, S.R., Teles, L., and Turoff, M. Learning Networks: A Field Guide to Teaching and Learning Online. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1995.

    6. Hiltz, S.R. The Virtual Classroom: Learning without Limits via Computer Networks. Ablex Publishing, Norwood, NJ, 1994.

    7. Hiltz, S.R. and Wellman, B. Asynchronous learning networks as a virtual classroom. Commun. ACM 40, 9 (Sept. 1997). ACM, New York, 44-49.

    8. Johansen, R. An introduction to computer augmented teamwork. Computer Augmented Teamwork: A Guided Tour. Bostrom, Watson, and Kinney, Eds. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1992.

    9. Kendall, J.E., Kendall, K.E., Baskerville, R., and Barnes, R. An empirical comparison of a Hypertext based system analysis case with conventional cases and role playing. The Data Base for Advances in Information Systems 27, 1 (Winter 1996), 58–77.

    10. Kuechler, M. Using the Web in the classroom. Social Science Computer Review 17, 2 (1999), 144–161.

    11. Leidner, D. and Jarvenpaa, S. The use of information technology to enhance management school education: A theoretical view. MIS Q. (Sept. 1995), 265–291.

    12. Nunamaker, J., Dennis, A., Valacich, J., Vogel, D., and George, J. Electronic meeting systems to support group work. Commun. ACM 34, 7 (July 1991), 41–61.

    1MRE HyperCase can be found at:

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