March 6, 2003, Gazette
by Chris Hammond
(L-R) Dr. Elizabeth Murphy, Trudy Morgan-Cole,
a graduate student assistant, and Stephen Keats.
"Although technology has the potential
to support enhanced learning, all of this promise is wasted unless the
tools are used properly, explained Dr. Elizabeth Murphy, an assistant
professor in Memorials Faculty of Education.
Intrigued by the possibilities afforded to learning through the use of
technology, Dr. Murphy focuses much of her research on examining and enhancing
how this learning occurs.
As of late, Ive been involved with the evaluation of two national
projects the benefits of Telesat's satellite technologies for schools,
and MusicGrid, which pioneers large-scale broadband music education. I
also just finished two other projects: one investigated the role of video
in Web-based learning and the other looked at the use of synchronous or
real-time communication tools, she said. A study for which
I am currently co-investigator looks at the role of discussion forums
in Web-based courses. Specifically, we want to know how we can measure
or find evidence of collaboration and problem-solving in asynchronous
discussions in Web-based courses.
Backed by a Social Science and Humanities Research council of Canada (SSHRC)
grant to the tune of $110,000 over the next three years, Dr. Murphy, along
with researchers from two other Canadian universities, is working toward
the realization of such instruments.
There is a limited amount of empirical evidence available on what
discussion forums actually do for learning. The research tells
us that asynchronous discussion forums provide support for more effective
learning. However, it does not tell us how to use these tools in such
a way that we can actually achieve that goal. We need to move to a point
where research actually drives our teaching practices.
Educational practices at Memorial University are becoming increasingly
technical, as Web-based distance courses garner greater numbers of students
from a wide variety of disciplines. This technological movement offers
unlimited possibilities for learning, according to Dr. Murphy, for those
both near and far.
Distance learning allows freedom from temporal and spatial constraints.
So really its learning without distance, she explained. Thats
why I prefer to use the term Web-based learning as opposed
to distance education, because it focuses more on the sophisticated
cognitive tools that support these new forms of learning.
The physical layout of a traditional classroom provides support for the
instructor to play the role of sage on the stage, said Dr.
Murphy. Web-based learning in general, and discussion forums in
particular, however, provide support for the role of guide on the
side. If we know how to manage the tools and exploit their potential,
then we can more easily adapt to this new role.
Dr. Murphys study aims to address both the possibilities and the
limitations of this advanced technology in the context of how discussion
With the permission of course instructors and students, she
said, we will look closely at communication patterns and interactions
in a given forum, as they relate to collaboration and problem solving
in a Web-based course. Through the development of instruments that can
identify and measure collaboration and problem-solving, we hope to gain
a deeper understanding of how to manage the technology in ways that will
be advantageous for students.
With plans well underway for her latest research, this education enthusiast
recognizes the invaluable nature of collaboration in her own work.
I work with some very supportive and knowledgeable people,
acknowledged Dr. Murphy. From the support of research assistants
to the help I receive from the faculty, and from Distant Education and
Learning Technologies (DELT), I really have a lot of people I can rely
This network of assistance will soon be broadened as Dr. Murphy continues
to recruit instructors for her research on Web-based discussion forums,
linking empirical study to the actual practices of students and professors.
This connection is essential to understanding and improving current
practices, Dr. Murphy added.
When asked about the underlying message in all of her technology-based
research, Dr. Murphy conceded that it all comes down to how we use the
tools. You cannot build a house with tools you dont know how
to use, no matter how powerful or sophisticated those tools might be,
she said. My research therefore places emphasis on understanding
how the tools can be used to improve teaching and learning.
For more information, or to get involved, please contact Dr. Murphy at