Center for Instructional
Innovation and Assessment


Kenn Apel
Scott Brennan
Shaw Gynan
Ken Hoover
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Dr. Kenn Apel
Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders



Construction Authentic Learning Experiences via Synchronous Technology


Communication Sciences and Disorders 553 (Seminar: Preschool Language Development and Disorders) is one of three language development/disorders graduate courses in the department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Western Washington University (WWU). Dr. Kenn Apel teaches this required course to all graduate students majoring in speech-language pathology. Dr. Apel's colleague, Dr. Kathy Coufal, teaches a similar graduate course at University of Nebraska, Omaha (UNO). Using web-conferencing technologies to send two-way video and audio, students at WWU and UNO met to discuss shared readings and perspectives on course material. In this course portfolio, Dr. Kenn Apel describes the background, process, and development of the WWU-UNO collaboration.


One of the goals for our graduate students is to expose them to others' views and opinions on topics discussed within our respective seminars. Using web and video technologies, we worked with our technology support teams to extend the classroom and facilitate synchronous cross-campus interactions among our two graduate classes. In Winter quarter, 2000, we engaged our students in scholarly discussions webconferencing software (NetMeeting) and a two-way audio and video signal. The process for establishing this project spanned essentially two years.


The conceptual foundation for the class and use of web-based instruction is based on Vygotskian theory and analysis of instruction: that learning environments are social systems, mutually created by students and teachers, in which students learn by engaging in collaborative activity. This interdependence is central to what is currently referred to as constructivism. It is not typified by rote practices in which students passively sit in silence, take notes, read assigned texts, and work in isolation to complete assignments and tests. Rather, it is an interactive environment in which students create new knowledge and form new cognitive constructs through interaction with others in problem-solving activities that link their 'everyday' understanding of the world with the more formal or 'scientific' concepts. Teaching and learning become a generative process for all participants.

Improving the quality of student thinking is an essential goal of education to prepare our youth to meet the challenges they face in our technologically-oriented, multicultural world. "Students must be prepared to exercise critical judgment and creative thinking to gather, evaluate, and use information for effective problem solving and decision making in their jobs, in their professions, and in their lives" (Swartz & Parks, 1994, 3). Although all students come to school already thinking and making decisions, they are not necessarily thinking skillfully in a manner that promotes effective decision making and realization of outcomes resulting from well conceived plans. To improve the quality of thinking skills, instructional methods that foster development of critical and creative thinking emphasize three principles that emerged from educational research:

  • The more explicit the teaching of thinking is, the greater impact it will have on students.
  • The more classroom instruction incorporates an atmosphere of thoughtfulness, the more open students will be to valuing good thinking.
  • The more the teaching of thinking is integrated into content instruction, the more students will think about what they are learning. (Swartz & Parks, 1994, 3)

By acquiring and using new knowledge in meaningful contexts, the process provides the learner with cues that facilitate future retrieval and foster the application of knowledge needed for the learner's later performance in functional contexts. Teaching thinking skills should be done through the infusion of information and concepts for the purposes of reflective thinking, effective problem-solving, and decision-making. "Infusion, as an approach to teaching thinking, is based on the natural fusion of information that is taught in the content areas with forms of skillful thinking that we should use every day to live our lives productively" (Swartz & Parks, 1994, 4). Rather than presenting the curriculum as a collection of dissociated bits of information, the infusion process creates a collage of information and materials that inform and are useful in making judgments because they are integrated in meaningful and purposeful ways. The type of thinking skills critical to intelligent behavior include three broad categories: generating ideas, clarifying ideas, and assessing the reasonableness of ideas. Within these, there are thinking skills and processes that include generating possibilities, creating metaphors, analysis of ideas and arguments, assessing basic information for accuracy and reliability, making inference through deduction, causal explanations, prediction, generalization and reasoning by analogy. Although this list is not exhaustive, it provides the core skills necessary for making well-founded decisions and determining the best solutions for complex problems (Swartz & Parks).

Vygotsky observed that the collaborative activity or social interactions in which teaching and learning occur are mediated through use of cultural signs and tools, such as speech, literacy, and mathematics. It is through interaction with peers and professors that students generate their own knowledge or understanding of how to use these signs and tools to mediate interactions with others; to communicate their personal intellectual activity. While these artifacts are social in origin, they are used to mediate contact with others--to communicate. As the use of these artifacts becomes internalized, these same tools are later used to mediate one's own thinking. Thus, the introduction of web-based instruction as an extension of the classroom walls. Today's cultural signs include use of interactive technologies as essential tools for today's learner/tomorrow's professional. Web-based teaching allows students to engage in the reflective, critical thinking skills essential to intelligent behavior by going beyond the constraints of assigned class time. It facilitates mediation among students and faculty.

The students we face in our classrooms today are part of what is known as the N-Gen (Net generation). This is a new culture, rooted in the experience of being young as a member of the biggest generation ever, as part of a culture growing up using interactive digital media. As noted by Tapscott, the experiences in cyberspace, in which the consumer has control, "foreshadows the culture they will create as the leaders of tomorrow in the workplace and society" (1998, p. 55). The N-Gen culture has moved from the passive TV culture to the active, interactive medium of cybertext. This return to text is not a closed dialogue, however, but a new form of discourse. The purpose of the Internet is communication and participants become producers of culture, "creating and sustaining an Internet culture based on the principles of interaction" (Tapscott, p. 80). N-Gen thinking has been characterized using the information-processing model familiar to our profession. Research has shown that the N-Gener takes in information from multiples sources that are not necessarily sequential. Rather, the student can organize information into complex structures containing links to other information in a systematic, nonsequential manner and interacting using both synchronous and asynchronous communications. As noted by Tapscott, the N-Geners think conceptually and use hypertext tools to develop clear thinking that must be expressed explicitly to the 'decontextualized audience' via the Internet. He reports that N-Gen students "appear to be smart, accepting of diversity, curious, assertive, self-reliant, high in self-esteem, and global in orientation. Evidence suggests they process information differently than their predecessors; they have new tools for self-development . . . (that will) serve them well later in life" (p. 104).

Thus, the goal of the project was to provide students with technology that would allow them to learn in new and creative ways, while embedding that learning in the social context in which they would find themselves in their professional life, namely discussing theoretical and practical issues with colleagues. This goal was achieved in phases, starting in the academic year 1998-99 and continuing on into the academic year 1999-2000.

Academic Year 1998-1999

The first step in the collaborative process between the two professors was establishing a time frame during which interactions could occur. Given the two hour time difference, this was not an easy task. In addition, Kenn Apel was on a quarter system, while Kathy Coufal was on a semester system. Thus, there was no one-to-one overlap on weeks in session or out of session. Fortunately, both taught courses on Tuesday afternoons/evenings and there were enough Tuesdays when both were in session to allow them to initiate the project. With the time difference taken into account, a 45-minute window of overlap was available on several Tuesdays.

The second step of the process was determining the material to be discussed and the medium to be used. Because this initial phase was initiated after both seminars had been initiated, some restructuring of time and readings needed to be accomplished. Both professors agreed to include reading material that had been assigned to the other group of graduate students, such that some of the discussion material would involve readings that were already in place, and some of the discussion would focus on additional readings.

The technology to be used also presented a challenge. Initially, the most time efficient and easiest obtained technology was used: telephone conferencing (i.e., teleconferencing). In Winter quarter, 1999, the two groups of graduate students "met" via a teleconference using a telephone speaker system at each site. The lack of visual input quickly became apparent with this technology and resulted in misunderstandings of intent underlying comments as well as the more practical issue of turn-taking. Thus, during Spring quarter, 1999, the experience was repeated using videoconferencing technologies and services to have real-time discussions with visual input.

The results of these two simple events were evaluated by both the graduate students involved and the two professors. All agreed that telephone conferencing was not a viable option for the goals of this project. However, videoconferencing met everyone's expectations and needs in discussing shared materials. Students felt that their understanding of the material was broadened and deepened by the experience. This led Kenn Apel and Kathy Coufal to attempt the project again the following year.

Academic Year 1999-2000

Kathy Coufal did not teach a graduate course during the fall. During this time, though, Kenn Apel and Kathy Coufal met at a national conference in San Francisco to plan out the goals and objectives of the project for the following semester/quarters. This proved to be a useful, albeit short and intensive, planning time, simply because email and phone correspondences did not seem to allow the quick exchange of ideas and brainstorming that face-to-face interaction permitted. At this meeting, the two professors settled on a mutual text for both groups of students to read, as well as preliminary ideas about the structure of the sessions (e.g., amount of verbal support and scaffolding provided by the professors during the meetings).

At the beginning of the new semester/quarter, the two professors arranged for the university-based technology support teams to communicate with one another to establish the best means for holding web-based class meetings. The web-conferencing software, NetMeeting, was chosen as a suitable technology tool to meet the goals of the professors as well as the capabilities of each institution. To ensure sight and sound were part of this connection, a two-way audio and video signal communicated via a server running the NetMeeting software (see Technology Notes). Four sessions were scheduled during February, 2000 to discuss four separate chapters in the mutually-shared text.

During the week before each NetMeeting, the two professors posted possible discussion questions to each group of students, either via the University of Nebraska, Omaha's online discussion board (Blackboard) system or through a course-based listserv through Western Washington University. Students then "met" online via NetMeeting to discuss in real time the questions posed as well as other issues that naturally evolved from the initial discussions. After completion of each particular session, students from both classes were encouraged to discuss further the issues brought up during the NetMeetings. All students, both University of Nebraska and Western Washington University, had access to the University of Nebraska, Omaha's Blackboard system that was assigned to Kathy Coufal's class.

Benefits Thus Far

The benefits of the project have been many. First, on a personal level, it has allowed the two professors to engage in discussions of pedagogy that have led to new strategies and innovative techniques in their teaching. Students have reported increased awareness of the difficulty of expressing their views with others who may have different experiences and backgrounds. This is seen as a benefit of the project because these students will face this continually in their professional lives. In addition, significant and extended discussions have continued after each session, which suggests that further learning may be occurring as a result of this process.

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