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Extending the Potential of the Internet for Higher Education: Two Research Projects at Vanderbilt University's Learning Technology Center

- Dana W. Cammack, Vanderbilt University
- Jefferey T. G. Holmes, Vanderbilt University


Traditionally, teacher education and higher education are based on a "transmission" delivery system of knowledge and instruction (Alvermann, 1990; Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 1999). The Learning Technology Center at Vanderbilt University has been focusing on developing interactive systems that would move past transmission models. Two current projects, CTELL (Case Technologies to Enhance Literacy Learning) and the VaNTH ERC (the Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Texas and Harvard Engineering Resource Center) hope to enhance higher education by combining new research in the fields of literacy instruction and biomedical engineering with the flexibility and interactivity the Internet affords. Transmission models rely on textbooks, lectures, supplementary readings, overheads, field experiences, and other familiar approaches to transmit information from one place to another (Kinzer & Risko, 1998). As well, they often do not make use of current technologies. According to the national Campus Computing Survey 2000, only 42% of all institutions of higher education integrate the Internet into the curriculum, usually in the form of "web resources" (Campus Computing Survey 2000). The Internet becomes a repository of information, similar to a vast encyclopedia that can be easily accessed. The focus of the Internet delivery system in the CTELL and VaNTH projects is to move from using the Internet to transmit and store information to an interactive approach. These projects hope to extend the use of the Internet in higher education by designing an Internet delivery system that can be incorporated into existing curriculum and allow for greater interactivity and student control.

Both of the projects are housed at the Learning Technology Center at Vanderbilt University, which is a center devoted to research and developments in technology, learning, and teaching. Both focus on the use of the Internet to teach using a variety of strategies including case-based instruction, anchored instruction, and modular design as strategies that, when combined with the Internet, are student-centered and afford more interaction between students. CTELL and the VaNTH ERC combine research-based findings in literacy, biomedical engineering, and learning sciences with an Internet delivery system that gives students and teachers greater access to information and the opportunity to collaborate and interact in a constructivist fashion. As well, both projects provide important partnerships between several universities that draw upon resources of distributed expertise.

The Learning Technology Center (LTC) began in 1984 as a research center with a focus on research on K-12 learning. Early in its development, according to Center Co-Director Dr. John Bransford, the LTC began to broaden its focus to include product development. "We needed the development in order to do our research. We started to see the need to develop things that teachers really wanted to use in their classrooms," Bransford said. As the LTC began to develop products including the Jasper Woodbury series, which uses the pedagogical technique of anchored instruction, it also began to look at expanding its research area beyond K-12 education. "Now the challenge is also teacher learning and adult learning. The more we worked with schools, the more we began to rethink how preservice teachers are educated," Bransford explained. CTELL and VaNTH are two major projects at the LTC that focus on adult and preservice education.

Both involve the development of web-based delivery systems for use in higher education in combination with content and pedagogical knowledge shared across sites. This distribution of expertise and research across sites has important implications for both projects, Bransford said, "As we work across universities, the perspective changes and you become more aware of the culture and the context. This then changes how you create adaptive tools like modular design that can be used flexibly in many ways." CTELL and VaNTH are designed to make use of the differences in contexts to broaden their research and development. As Bransford stated, "These two projects are kingpins in the LTC. One focuses on reading instruction and the other on the newly emerging field of bioengineering. Both are cross-institutional and make new use of technology. These are not just design projects; they are also an attempt to study what and how people learn."

The following sections describe how each of the projects is using web-based delivery systems with content-area knowledge and constructivist pedagogy to enhance higher education. As well, the sections explain the partnerships of each project and the research that each seeks to extend.

The VaNTH ERC Project

The VaNTH Engineering Research Center for Bioengineering Educational Technologies is a multi-institution effort focusing on the integration of bioengineering and the learning sciences supported by several new educational technologies that include an Internet delivery component. A major goal of the project is to design a bioengineering education system that is prepared to meet the teaching and learning challenges of a rapidly evolving scientific field. To achieve this, the Engineering Research Center (ERC) is bringing together learning sciences and bioengineering expertise from Vanderbilt University, Northwestern University, the University of Texas at Austin and the Health Sciences and Technology Division of Harvard and MIT. In part, the project seeks to understand the students' perspectives of bioengineering, the challenges they face in learning the material, and their own attitudes about learning and instruction. This information can then be used to design an Internet delivery system that effectively makes use of what the students know, what they want to know, and how they best can learn it.

An important element of the VaNTH ERC project centers around conducting exploratory and evaluative research in bioengineering to develop a better understanding of current practices in bioengineering education. This grounds the work that has, as noted above, the goal of implementing change that will positively influence future teaching and learning in this area. A recently published National Academy Press book "How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School" provides the theoretical framework for this project. The How People Learn (HPL) publication is a synthesis of human learning research that outlines four elements of successful learning environments. These describe environments that are learner centered, knowledge centered, assessment centered, and community centered. Vanderbilt learning scientist Sean Brophy explained how each of the four categories guides specific elements of the VaNTH learning science research.

The first involves the creation of a learner-centered environment. Preliminary studies intend to shed light on the styles, attitudes, and unique characteristics of students in the current bioengineering program in order to design learning systems that capitalize on the unique characteristics of this group. The second component analyzes subject-domain content to identify particularly challenging aspects of the curriculum. By recognizing the importance of being knowledge-centered, this component informs the development of innovative learning tools such as simulations and visualization software that address difficult content areas.The VaNTH ERC is developing several models of Problem Based Learning (PBL) so students will also learn the context and utility at the same time they acquire content knowledge.

The third vein of exploratory research based on the HPL framework revolves around issues of assessment. One goal of the assessment and evaluation thrust, lead by David Cordray at Vanderbilt University, is to develop knowledge about how elements designed around the HPL framework (such as student attitudes and adaptive transfer of knowledge from one situation to another) can be measured and assessed. This aspect of the VaNTH ERC is adapting existing assessment tools and creating new measures to assess student learning as well as the effectiveness of the new instructional innovations as they are implemented.

The fourth category, community-centered learning, highlights the importance of fostering a supportive learning community. Because community can occur at several levels, the project is scrutinizing several different communities as they impact the area of bioengineering. For example, the classroom setting is explored with a focus on understanding what features contribute to the development of a successful learning community in the field of bioengineering. On another level, attention is paid to the development of community between the bioengineering faculty and members of the learning sciences group within the VaNTH ERC. By strengthening the connections between bioengineers and learning scientists, the VaNTH ERC hopes to combine effective cognitive practices with crucial content information.

The notion of modular design provides a structural design framework under which various new materials are developed. By organizing the curriculum around a series of modules, it is possible to develop learning resources that are more flexible and easier to disseminate across a diverse group of institutions. As well, these modules allow for greater interactivity across learners by combining group-based projects with self critiquing and peer coaching components. Because instruction and the modules are being delivered through the World Wide Web, the web based interface provides the potential for this type of interactivity both within schools and across sites.

The development of innovative learning technologies is central to the VaNTH strategy. Brophy commented that the delivery via the web has several important advantages. Some of these are pragmatic, such as increasing accessibility and the opportunity to provide immediate feedback as the students complete assignments. But the web also plays a part in changing the classroom culture. Brophy noted that providing resources on the Internet means that professors can "offload a lot of what [they] do in lecture to the web so that students can explore challenges prior to class and then come more prepared to participate." This provides an opportunity for professors to do more than simply lecture during class time without sacrificing course content. Enabling students to wrestle with material before class is an important part of the HPL philosophy, which places an emphasis on preparation for future learning.

Other technologies that affect change in the classroom are also being explored. One example is the development of a Personal Response System (PRS), a network of wireless devices that links each student to a central classroom computer. Using this system, a professor could pose a question to the class with several possible answers. A summary of student responses can be used to inform the instructor of gaps or misconceptions in the students' knowledge as well as providing an anchor for discussion.

Within the module design framework, a key innovation involves the development of an authoring system known as the Courseware Authoring and Packaging Environment (CAPE). Developed by the Institute for Software Integrated Systems (ISIS) at Vanderbilt University, CAPE is an architecture that supports the development and delivery of standards-based courseware so that learning modules developed in the VaNTH project will integrate seamlessly into existing course delivery systems. The CAPE architecture enables the integration of authoring tools, a digital library, and a courseware assembler and delivery system. A major benefit of the ISIS effort is the reduction in cost of instructional material development since the CAPE system promotes the reuse of modular components. It is also hoped that the innovative architecture will provide valuable feedback to courseware standards developers. The developed materials will be distributed to bioengineering programs across the country. As well, the project intends to extend the distribution to include middle and high schools and even practitioner communities through continuing education programs.

Case Technologies to Enhance Literacy Learning

The Case Technologies to Enhance Literacy Learning (CTELL) project is a five-year, interdisciplinary effort that seeks to extend the current notions of case-based, anchored instruction to positively impact preservice education and students' literacy achievement. This project involves four universities: the University of Georgia, the University of Connecticut, the University of Illinois in Chicago, and Vanderbilt University. By using anchored instruction and case-based learning, both of which have been shown to positively impact learning among preservice teachers, CTELL hopes to change the nature of preservice literacy instruction. The project goal is to increase children's literacy achievement by combining cases with Internet technologies. This combination will provide teacher educators with a web-based case interface to be used with preservice literacy teachers. One of the main research questions this project will address is how case-based materials designed with web-based technologies will significantly increase preservice teacher knowledge and later efficacy as teachers. According to Dr. Charles Kinzer, Co-Primary Investigator, "The goal is to improve the literacy abilities of children in general with a focus on kindergarten through third grade. We are trying to improve literacy achievement in the early grades by improving the preservice education that teachers currently receive."

This project is based on three main assumptions: first, that"best" or most effective practices in literacy instruction (with and without technology) can be identified; second, that technology can be effectively used to improve young children's reading achievement and preservice instruction; and third, that cases used through the pedagogical technique of anchored instruction are a powerful way to introduce preservice teachers to the complexities of the classroom. Kinzer explained, "We have a vision that case-based instruction, coupled with technology, affords us something that was not available in the past. Potentially, what the web allows is access by any instructor or student whenever they need it. It also fosters a sense of community that other media can't since part of the web interface will allow for interaction between class participants. This is much more difficult to do outside the web."

Case-based instruction has been used in various professional schools including law and medicine to teach students how to think like an expert by using the information available to an expert in a typical situation. Cases for preservice education seek to do the same thing by capturing instances of teachers' practice and the factors that are involved in that practice. A case is then defined as a classroom and includes the factors that impact that particular classroom. It must include enough data that it can be revisited and analyzed. Cases that show the complexity of life in a classroom give preservice teachers the chance to combine the power of a field experience with the scaffolding available in their preservice literacy class. "What we know about teacher education and learning indicates that field experiences are more powerful than reading or lectures. Out of those studies, we have taken a look at ways to maximize constructivist learning environments in preservice programs. Since we can't always be out in the field, case-based instruction mediated by technology can be true to both constructivist learning and the idea of a learning community," said Kinzer.

CTELL is developing cases in K-3 classrooms to highlight the best practices used by teachers for both literacy instruction and technology use. Since no comprehensive research exists concerning the best practices for using technology in K-3 literacy teaching, CTELL is surveying nominated teachers across the country concerning the effective ways in which they use technology. These teachers have been nominated by their peers to serve on a National Teacher Advisory Board that is compiling, through multiple survey responses, perspectives about the effective ways to use technology for literacy instruction. As well, 12 teachers are the focus of an individual case showing their use of effective literacy practices. Their classrooms and teaching practices have been filmed and are integrated into an anchor video for each case that presents literacy instruction in the respective classroom.

The project is solving issues that will ultimately allow a web-based delivery system that will incorporate video footage of classroom instructional activities, interviews with parents, other teachers, principals, experts, examples of student work, and other important facets of classroom experience. These cases will be used to teach preservice teachers about the complexity of literacy instruction in a classroom, the factors involved in teacher decision-making, the contexts that students and teachers must be aware of, and the effects of the use of best practices.

Anchored instruction involves the use of an anchor, or "shared experience" that provides background and a reference for discussing teaching and learning. When this classroom footage is edited into a case, it becomes an experience that will sustain repeated explorations. The ability to randomly access scenes through digital technologies facilitates deeper understanding and discussion (Goldman & Barron, 1990). Preservice teachers and their instructor can return again and again to examples of literacy instruction to determine and analyze the factors involved in teacher-decision making and student literacy achievement (Risko, 1992). This analysis becomes a shared knowledge base that members of the class can use to understand the complexities of classroom instruction and begin to apply some of that understanding to their development as future teachers. Preliminary research on the use of anchor cases in education shows that preservice teachers "engage in high levels of problem solving, gain expertise, confidence, and the ability to implement literacy instructional strategies in the field" (Kinzer & Risko, 1998).

By combining anchored instruction pedagogy with cases developed to highlight literacy and technology best practices, CTELL hopes to make preservice education more powerful and more constructivist. As Kinzer explained, "We will have a better sense of the efficacy of merging case-based instruction with web-based technology. We're looking to provide web-based resources to enhance the student-centered learning in preservice classes." This web interface will allow for greater instructional capability than a CD-ROM or videotape-based case would afford. For example, the web can extend student learning through links to other relevant sites and information as well as access to supplemental classroom information including parent and teacher interviews, copies of student writing, student test scores, and district demographic information. An Internet delivery system also provides the opportunity for online discussion that can be linked to the cases or class readings available online. This interactivity adds to the value the cases provide through a video format to give preservice teachers and teacher educators the opportunity to analyze classroom instruction in greater detail and context.


While the VaNTH ERC and CTELL represent only two of the projects at the Learning Technology Center, they are powerful indications of the ways the LTC is extending current research to impact education. Both are excellent examples of the integration of technology into education in ways that make use of content-area knowledge and interactive, web-based delivery of instruction. The projects hope to change how higher education uses technology and assess the results of that change. As well, the university partnerships that form a basis for each project allow researchers to draw on a wealth of distributed expertise. With these partnerships has come a change in the notions of what it means to be an expert from someone who knows everything about a subject area, to someone with a degree of knowledge compared to what is possible. As Bransford noted, "What we do know pales in comparison to all that is knowable. This has helped us a lot as we start to move across universities and between schools to answer the question: How do you collaborate with a variety of experts to combine content and pedagogical knowledge with new technologies to change education?" The VaNTH ERC and CTELL are just two examples of ways that the LTC is trying to answer that very question.


          Alvermann, D.E. (1990). Reading teacher education. In W.R. Houston, M. Haberman, & J. Sikula (Eds.) Handbook of research on teacher education (pp. 687-704). New York: Macmillan.

          Bransford, J.D., Brown, A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.) (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Academy Press: Washington, D.C.

          Campus Computing Survey (2000). The Campus Computing Project. Encino, C.A.

          Goldman, E. & Barron, L. (1990). Using hypermedia to improve the education of elementary teachers. Journal of Teacher Education, 41(3). 21-31.

          Kinzer, C.K. & Risko, V.J. (1998). Multimedia and enhanced learning: Transforming preservice education. In D. Reinking, M.C. McKenna, L.D. Labbo, & R.D. Kieffer (Eds.) Handbook of literacy and technology: Transformations in a post-typographic world (pp. 185-202). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

          Risko, V.J. (1995). Using videodisc-based cases to promote preservice teachers' problem solving and mental model building. In W.M. Linek & E.G. Sturtevant (Eds.). Generations of literacy (pp. 173-187). Pittsburgh, KS: College Reading Association.

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Last Updated on 14 December 2002