Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain
New virtual learning environments for educational innovation at the university of the present-future–EVAINU–is a research project financed by the Autonomous University of Barcelona as part of its support for emerging research groups. The project came about as a result of the growing presence of the ICTs in the higher education system and has focused on identifying typical cases, which use these media at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) involving some form of curricular innovation or improvement in accordance with the European convergence processes, which the Spanish university system is currently undergoing. As a result, three case studies of different qualifications were carried out in order to investigate their potential for improving university education. One of these cases–Virtual Veterinary Science–is described in this study. Among the preliminary results of this research so far, of particular interest is the fact that while the ICTs are clearly an important opportunity to make a qualitative leap and to go beyond teaching outlooks based on exposition, passive reception, and memorising, more institutional support is necessary in terms of working strategies, which promote new ways of organising teaching, the development of ICT skills among teaching staff and students, and the creation of incentives for teacher training, among other initiatives.
New virtual learning environments for educational innovation at the university of the present-future–EVAINU–is a research project financed by the Autonomous University of Barcelona as part of its support for emerging research groups1. The problem considered in the project arises from the increasing and sustained presence of information and communication technologies (ICTs2) in the higher education system where they play an increasingly major role in teaching. The problem also arises as a result of the opportunities, which these technologies give to the European convergence processes that are now being implemented, as they may favour teaching methodologies that are less centred on the teacher and content, and more centred on students and on carrying out activities or projects. At university, the ICTs may involve the entire teaching process as they do at the Open University of Catalonia, or just a part of it, covering specific aspects of education. This is the case at various universities in Spain, which complement traditional face-to-face teaching with the use of various electronic environments such as the Autónoma Interactiva (at the Autonomous University of Barcelona) or the UB-Virtual (at the University of Barcelona). These two schemes enable both subjects and training courses of various types to be taught either partially or completely by means of distance learning, using an electronic medium based mainly on WWW (World Wide Web) applications.
The purpose of this research project is therefore to identify new methods of training at a university involving the use of ICTs in order to investigate their potential for improving university education (i.e., for becoming educational innovations beyond the limits of the technological innovation that these tools already represent).
The initial hypothesis is based on the conception that integration of the ICTs and possibly the change involved in non-attendance of regular classes or the means of gaining access to information does not necessarily entail innovation and an improvement in teaching and learning processes. Any educational innovation starts with the inclusion of a new item in the curriculum, but it is still difficult to change the way teaching staff and students see teaching and learning processes, and the organisational and symbolic structure of the institution (Bosco, 2002; Hargreaves, Earl, & Ryan, 1998; Sancho et al., 1998; Stoll & Fink, 1999, 2000). In general, approaches to learning remain more centred on teachers than on students. Knowledge continues to be seen as something that is given and which is external to the students, and not as a construction, which takes place and, which the student must understand. Assessment is still synonymous with examinations and testing and relationships with the community as a factor encouraging learning that is more significant are still scarce (Hargreaves et al., 1998; Sancho & Hernández, 2001).
The specific objectives of the research in its exploratory phase are:
- • To identify, describe, and interpret some of the typical educational approaches that have been completely or partially implemented using the various services made possible by the ICTs at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.
- • To identify, describe, and interpret the potential of these approaches for educational improvement and change, emphasising the role of teachers and students in the process, ways of representing knowledge, the type of assessment they lead to, and the relationship they establish with the wider community of which they form a part.
The study is carried out from the qualitative perspective of educational research, as it aims to find a significance and an interpretation, taking into account the context of the various activities, which teachers and students carry out using these new learning environments. These studies have a curricular or theoretical-contextual focus in terms of research into methods (Area, 1991). The object is thus investigated in an interactive, continuous, and flexible manner in its “natural” context, accepting the complex scenario in which it is located. The inductive route, based on evidence, is used to construct its conceptions and theories.
As a result, case studies have been selected as the methodological strategy as they enable in-depth study of one or more units, which represent the subject being researched (Stake, 1999). In fact, this is a design with many cases in which each case is an example in action, and it therefore allows us to “illustrate” the problem for which it is the focus of examination and study (MacDonald & Walker, 1977). For this reason, three typical cases have been selected based on previously established criteria (Goetz & LeCompte, 1988). The main methods for gathering information were exploratory interviews, observation, and analysis of documents and devices, and in some cases, the survey and questionnaire (see Table 1).
Table 1. Data gathering tools by participant
|Heads||Teaching staff||Students||Technical staff||Environment/Classes|
|Analysis of documents||x|
The first step in the research was to identify the teaching approaches, which used ICTs and which also considered themselves to be innovative (i.e., they thought of themselves as an improvement compared to the methods without ICTs). To do so, we identified teaching approaches that had presented “teaching innovation projects” to the selection processes for teaching support grants (with financial endowments) of the UAB Higher Education Teaching Innovation Unit, or which had been accepted as communications at the Innovation Day Sessions organised by the unit. Another requirement for selection was that they had to include more or less all the ways of using ICTs in teaching, which are used at the university.
We thereby identified three cases: (a) The repository of virtual materials in the faculty of veterinary science, “Virtual Veterinary Science,” (b) the geography degree through the “Geography on the Net” programme, and (c) a group of three subjects in different degree courses, which complement face-to-face teaching with the use of digital materials and the virtual campus of the university (the Autónoma Interactiva). Due to limitations of space, we will only look at one of these in this study, Virtual Veterinary Science (VVS), and give a description and analysis of the method of teaching in these studies, based on carrying out “study cases”3 (Wassermann, 1999), which by means of ICTs contributes extensively to these processes of change promoted by European convergence.
It should be made clear that our study of Virtual Veterinary Science consists of three subjects from the Veterinary Science Degree Course, which are analysed in depth. These are representative of the process that takes place in terms of the structure and use of the repository and other possibilities with ICTs–the first year of Anatomy I, the second year of Parasitology, and the fourth year of Pathological Anatomy. Using subjects from different courses enabled us to check the data more extensively.
The three subjects organise their teaching in theoretical and practical credits. While the theoretical part is generally covered by classes organised in the traditional way as exposition of content, the practical classes have particular characteristics that are specific to each subject. In Anatomy I, the practical classes consist of anatomical dissections coordinated by the subject’s teaching staff, while in Parasitology, specialist equipment is used to observe microscopic organic material (parasites). Finally, in Special Pathological Anatomy, students participate in an autopsy in the practical classes. Based on this, they have to ascertain the cause of death of an animal.
Virtual Veterinary Science
Virtual Veterinary Science is a study case because it is a significant example of the contribution that can be made by ICTs to educational processes in higher education institutions. Another reason is that it is one of the few initiatives including ICTs in the teaching and learning processes, which involve an entire qualification–the Veterinary Science Degree Course.
These studies, like many other qualifications at the university, are undergoing a transformation in their teaching and learning process, which is related to the European convergence process4 in university education in which they consider that the ICTs may have a beneficial role. This is especially true in terms of the implementation of curricular innovation processes in which the organisation of teaching would be more closely related to carrying out a series of activities than to mere class attendance, where knowledge should be built up based on these activities, and where assessment would be nothing more than a means of recording these activities in a clear way, and something which would not necessarily mean in practice that an examination would be sat.
Virtual Veterinary Science (hereinafter VVS) is a repository for learning materials, which is also called a learning objects library by some authors (Pedreño, 2004). This is a collection of digital materials stored, collected, and controlled by a university or higher education institution, regardless of their purpose or origin. Some authors (Crow, 2002) feel that this type of resource should have two complementary objectives: (1) to promote the restructuring of the means of publishing in academia, and (2) to make up a tangible body demonstrating institutional scientific productivity. A repository is thus a digital archive, which brings together a faculty’s intellectual output, its academic staff and students, and is accessible to both members of that institution and other institutions in an open manner. Some of the main characteristics attributed to the contents of an institutional repository are:
- 1. It is institutionally defined (i.e., it is not oriented toward the collection of materials in a specific discipline or subject), but it is instead a collection of original material produced or selected by one or several institutions with similar aims (for example, several universities).
- 2. Academic: Depending on the objectives established by each institution, an institutional repository may contain any product generated by the students, teaching staff, researchers, and/or other staff. It could therefore include electronic assessment portfolios from the students, instructional materials, institutional video recordings, software, databases, photographs, virtual works of art, and any digital material, which the institution wishes to preserve. Flexibility and control of what is published must also be strictly regulated. There must be established mechanisms, which evaluate the material published, which should be part of the policy of each participating institution or institutions.
- 3. Cumulative and perpetual: The contents must be of a long-lasting nature, and although they need not be included on a permanent basis, the system must be powerful enough to accumulate several million objects with the passing of time, and many terabytes of data as a result.
In VVS, the repository is exclusively composed of teaching resources, and in this respect, it does not meet all the requirements or all the characteristics for this type of resource mentioned above, although it does meet some of them. It is in fact a learning objects library, which is collected by a faculty in order to support teaching, and is therefore institutionally defined. Although it is linked to specific knowledge areas, it is academic, cumulative, and perpetual.
The Repository Materials
The three subjects analysed in these studies have produced materials specifically for teaching (all in Virtual Veterinary Science), and in all of them, these materials present the development of their basic contents in a more or less schematic manner, depending on the subject. This is especially true of the inclusion of images, some of which are even microscopic, which provide a meaningful illustration of the subject in question. The word meaningful is used here because some of the subjects dealt with require an image to at least begin to understand them. For example, if the aim is for students to identify an inflammatory process caused by a disease, bacteria, etc., in a specific organ, it is highly likely that they will need to see what this inflamed organ looks like, including at microscopic level. The same is true if they need to recognise a type of parasite or the muscles or nerves in a specific part of the body. It is highly advisable to look at their appearance, shape, etc. This is at least one of the steps to be followed in order to be able to recognise it later, and attach the appropriate significance to it. In fact, it would be ideal to see this material in reality. Examples where this is possible are in Anatomy I and in Parasitology in practical classes, although there are some difficulties due to the number of students, as well as in Special Pathological Anatomy, but in a different way. The material observed depends on what is available in the autopsies room on a given day, and only a small group of students can have access to it at the same time.
In Special Pathological Anatomy and in Parasitology, there is also a type of more application-based material for acquiring knowledge, which is therefore more interactive in the sense that an understanding of it requires more work in intellectual terms. Examples of these types of materials are the autopsy of the week (which is left in Virtual Veterinary Science each week) and/or the self-directed learning cases, which the students have to resolve (which are created based on the most common diseases of organs and animals) and Parasitology tests. This means that it is no longer a question of “presenting” content but instead the content requires a different type of interaction from students. It requires solutions to a problem, and they have to use knowledge that is related to the problem but not developed as part of it. In short, they have to use knowledge, which is assumed to be acquired or which this material can help to produce.
Why Do We Say That Virtual Veterinary Science Could Facilitate Less Traditional and More Innovative Teaching?
At first sight, it could be said that the materials that facilitate less traditional student-centred learning to the greatest extent are connected with those that stress the selection and management of information for solving a problem rather than the presentation of information. They also lead to types of actions that are complex from an intellectual point of view, such as producing and checking hypotheses. However, having access to material where most of the content is dealt with can also facilitate teaching based less on exposition or “information transfer.” If the students can consult the material by means of Virtual Veterinary Science, some students suggest that it is then not necessary for the same material to be presented in class, unless it is decided that it is highly complex, which could be possible in some cases. On this subject, a first year student said:
The virtual material is very helpful because it enables you to see anatomical aspects, which we do not have time to study, or are very difficult to identify in a dissection (referring to the practical classes in Anatomy I). The negative aspect is perhaps that the teacher often only shows the image and does not explain it in detail.
As can be seen in Anatomy I, for example, the material complements the practical dissection classes in which it is difficult to identify some anatomical aspects for various reasons. However, in some cases, the material makes theoretical classes into a mere “presentation of material,” which is not especially useful. This is firstly because when the material is easy to understand, it does not need a theoretical class for presentation. The practical class complemented by the material is sufficient. Secondly, when the anatomical structures are sufficiently complex, a new class (the theoretical one), in which they are studied in some depth, becomes necessary, as well as the practical class and the material.
In any event, the material facilitates processes of understanding while it complements practical classes. However, it would seem that the class (theoretical) should become something other than what it is. In fact, the various types of materials in the repository could help to innovate in the sense of making the class less “expositional.” This could be because occasional activities are carried out in order to help with dealing with the material in an independent manner, or because they are not necessary, as they have been replaced by the material. This means that as a whole, Virtual Veterinary Science could help to promote a type of less traditional/expositional teaching, at least as a first step, which should be complemented with other types of activities, which are more like those promoted by learning based on problems or projects or carrying out activities such as case studies. Learning is based on the formulation of one or more problems in these methodological approaches, and the learning processes are directed by the participants (i.e., it is the students who formulate their own problems based on their experiences and previous baggage). The activity or activities are a central part of these approaches, and are carried out using searching, decision-making, and writing processes, and work is generally done in groups with advice from the teacher.
Some students give various ideas on the type of activities, which could help them toward a better understanding of the concepts and could even bring them closer to working in their future profession. They talk about not completely eliminating classes, but instead making them different and more geared toward understanding, more focused on learning than on teaching (i.e., where what the student does goes beyond understanding a text or memorising names and requires the establishment of more complex relationships), and less toward exposition and lectures. In fact, the degree course could be divided between independent study and autonomous learning, as well as the important practical work that is impossible to replace in these studies. We consider autonomous learning to be learning, which encourages students to work with some degree of independence, setting their objectives and study plan in accordance with their needs and interests. The teacher’s task is to facilitate this learning by providing the best conditions and the resources and the materials necessary to achieve the objectives set. As can be seen, this involves an active type of learning, which is committed, not managed or directed from outside, and is meaningful and student-centred. Virtual Veterinary Science may be deemed a resource, which facilitates this type of learning.
Study Cases in Special Pathological Anatomy
One of the subjects making up the case, Special Pathological Anatomy, already carries out part of its teaching by a methodological approach, which encourages autonomous learning–study cases.
As its name suggests, an obvious feature of this way of teaching is that it takes place using an educational tool called a case. A case is a narrative, which includes information and data on a specific subject. However, although the focus is on specific subjects such as history, paediatrics, government, law, business, education, psychology, child development, nursing, etc., they are by their nature interdisciplinary. In fact, good cases are based around problems or broad-based ideas–important points in a subject or knowledge area–although the narratives are based on real-life problems, which present real people:
A good case is a vehicle by which a piece of reality is taken into the classroom in order for the students and teacher to examine it in minute detail. A good case keeps the discussion focused on some of the stubborn facts which one has to face in some situations in real life … it is the anchor for academic speculation; it is the record of complex situations which must literally be dismantled and reassembled for the expression of attitudes and ways of thinking that are set out in the classroom (Lawrence5, 1953, p. 215).
These cases are also solved in group work, which is guided by the teacher thanks to a series of procedures such as critical questions, examination of the case, and follow-up activities. Critical questions are usually asked at the end of the process forcing the students to review important ideas related to the case. They are not questions with a single closed answer such as a name, date, or description of a phenomenon or event. Their objective is instead to promote understanding in such a way that they require students to apply what they know (they even require them first to ascertain what they do not know) when they analyse data or suggest solutions. This means that they have to prepare hypotheses for solving or understanding the case, and therefore bring superior cognitive skills to bear. This examination of the case is crucial in helping students to carry out a more acute analysis of various problems, and encourages them to make an effort to obtain a deeper understanding.
After these critical questions, basic ideas play the central role in the discussion. Trivial issues disappear and problems are not necessarily solved, which is tangible proof that complex questions do not have faultless solutions. It is often necessary to suspend one’s judgement and tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty.
Finally, the follow-up activities are put forward in order to give improved responses to the case. They may be very varied and whatever they are, their value increases when further discussions take place leading to a wide-ranging examination of the problems with the introduction of new perspectives.
In the subject dealt with here, the objective of this work is twofold. Firstly, cases help in developing content for the programme of the subject (i.e., various pathologies in different species of animals. Secondly, the aim is to create an activity similar to the professional work that the students will have to do when they have completed their studies.
The “case” is made up of the autopsies carried out in the subject’s practical classes–“a piece of reality, which is brought to the classroom” to which a solution is be found using a degree of “academic speculation” achieved by consulting bibliographies, the teaching staff, and by means of group work with partners. This is a tool bringing together important points in the syllabus to be dealt with, which warrants in-depth examination. The objective is to find out which pathology caused the death of a real animal, and whether the diagnosis and treatment received were correct. To that end, all the necessary background is available wherever possible, and is the basis for the beginning of a cooperative research process. One of the teachers in charge says:
(…) the student who attends an autopsy… looks at a case under the supervision of the teacher, and the teacher tells him or her why it is unusual: why it is a species that is seen rarely, because of certain reasons, and that there are between 2 and 4 students who are assigned this case, and then they work on it (…) The students can search for information wherever they want, on the Internet, in libraries, coming to see me here, with class notes, using whatever they want…
The case exactly as it (…) happened. (…) you receive it, you do autopsies in the autopsy room, you take the macroscopic and microscopic photographs, they discuss them, they give differential diagnoses, they look for reasons, what we call the ‘pathogeny’, i.e. ‘this organ has this because this has happened to it…’, ‘the cause-effect relationship is this, and this is also related to the symptom that the animal had of convulsions, etc…
The information about the case is organised with guidance from the teacher and mostly follows the same structure: presentation of the animal, clinical history, macroscopic findings, microscopic findings, diagnosis, pathogeny, differential diagnosis, and synopsis. This same structure is followed for its presentation in public after it has been “resolved” or at least once the most plausible hypotheses have been presented (see Table 2).
It can be seen that resolution of the case leads to a series of activities involving a search for and analysis of information, consultation of experts, interviews with those involved, etc., which is indeed a practice that is very similar to what they will do as future professionals, in which the teacher is a tutor and when assessing the resolution of the case, an expert.
Table 2. Case study presentation diagram
|CASE PRESENTATION STRUCTURE|
Presentation of the animal: Species, breed, age…(i.e., everything concerned with the details of the animal).
Clinical history: The evolution of the disease which caused the animal’s death: Its
general state when it arrived at the hospital, symptoms, laboratory data, radiology, and
all the practices and everything done to diagnose the disease in question.
Macroscopic findings: All the pathologies the animal suffered from and which were
readily apparent during medical examination (e.g., lesions on the skin, state of the
Microscopic findings: The data that are found concerning the disease when the
material is analysed with a microscope, and the findings that can thus be made about
what was affecting the animal, which can corroborate the diagnosis of the vet who
treated it or show new results, which explain the disease.
a) Lesional: Concerning the anatomopathological lesions observed.
b) Etiological: Concerning the origin and the specific cause of the disease.
c) Disease: This is the optimum diagnostic level, including lesional diagnosis,
etiology, and symptomology.
Pathogeny: Establishment of the cause-effect relationships between all the lesions
observed during the autopsy, and between these lesions and the signs and symptoms of
the disease recorded in the clinical history.
Differential diagnosis: Carried out in accordance with the initial clinical diagnosis
recorded in the clinical history. This involves the production of a diagnostic algorithm
allowing the probabilities that the final diagnosis will be the most correct one possible
to be increased.
Synopsis: A synthetic integration of all the above.