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Technically speaking

{Technically speaking}
(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 Memorial’s 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, I’ve 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 it’s learning without distance," she explained. "That’s 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. Murphy’s study aims to address both the possibilities and the limitations of this advanced technology in the context of how discussion forums function.

"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 on."

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 don’t 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 emurphy@mun.ca.

{Memorial University of Newfoundland}