Problem-based Web-based Teaching in a Computational Linguistics Curriculum

Problem-based Web-based Teaching in a Computational Linguistics Curriculum
Kai-Uwe Carstensen / Michael Hess (Zürich)

1 Introduction

There is no doubt that learning in groups is in general more fun, often more stimulating, and sometimes more successful than learning individually. This simple insight is reflected in the computer supported collaborative work (CSCW) tools omnipresent in class-management systems (e.g., WEBCT, cf. and web-based learning (WBL) platforms (e.g. MILCA, It is also corroborated by the results of the new problem-based learning (PBL) paradigm which is essentially a collaborative work learning strategy used together with a new concept of teaching (Rhem 1998).

Not always is group learning reasonable or possible, however. While preparing for exams most students will have to work through course materials individually (in addition to group work with fellow students), as their personal level of competence will vary widely. In some teaching contexts, extensive tutoring of student groups would be desirable, but due to financial restrictions this may not always be possible. Web-based tutorial systems with up-to-date progress monitoring features provide the student with individual and adaptive help and feedback. And yet, in assigning the student a passive role in learning, they are in conflict with one of PBL’s most basic demands: active learning as a prerequisite for life-long learning. In addition to that, both WBL and PBL cannot easily be conceived of as natural extensions of continually evolving lectures and their corresponding lecture notes, which requires a text-centred approach (as opposed to an environment-based one) to learning. It would therefore be beneficial to find a synthesis of these antagonistic approaches within the computer aided learning (CAL) paradigm, and to integrate traditional lecture notes with WBL and PBL.

In the years 2000-2002, the University of Zurich funded well over 70 projects dedicated to the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in implementing web-based learning and tutoring (Seiler-Schiedt 2003). In this framework, the Institute of Computational Linguistics realized a project on web-based tutoring for introductory lectures in Computational Linguistics. The goal of this project was to develop a CAL concept that a) smoothly integrates with and extends the lecture notes of existing lectures (so-called “blended learning”), b) is oriented towards self-paced learning by the individual student, and c) realizes core ideas of problem-based learning. We assumed that instances of this concept could be easily combined with CSCW-tools (email, chat, whiteboard etc.) and integrated into an encompassing class-teaching environment (which also includes assessment tools like quizzes, tests, etc.). Therefore, we concentrated on the content- and task-related aspects leading to a synthesis of PBL and CAL. In the following we will first elaborate on PBL in some more detail and will then describe our “TIP approach”, i.e. Text-centred, Individual-oriented, Problem-based CAL.

2 Problem-based-learning

The past decades have seen exciting developments in educational and technological approaches to learning. From the educational viewpoint, classical teacher-student instructivism is increasingly replaced by constructivism, a philosophical view on how we come to understand or know. Constructivism assumes that “knowledge” is not a pre-existing entity to be assimilated by the learner but must rather be “constructed” by the learner based on previous knowledge and overall views of the world. According to Savery/Duffy (1995), constructivism can be characterized by three primary propositions.

First, knowledge is in our interactions with the environment. Understanding is not only a function of the content, but also of the context and of the activity and goals of the learner.

Second, the stimulus for learning is a cognitive conflict or puzzlement for the learner. This determines the organization and nature of what is learned.

Third, understanding is influenced by the processes associated with the social negotiation of meaning. What we call knowledge is not fixed forever but usually open to discussion or scientific refutation. Quite opposite to what happens in school, we therefore constantly look for alternative views and additional information in our social environment in order to judge the viability of our understandings.

The first proposition corresponds to the basic tenet of situated learning (Clancey 1995) that an authentic context is important for learning. Traditional instructivist learning is often quite distinct from authentic activity, and many of the activities undertaken by students are unrelated to those performed by practitioners in their everyday work. In the model of cognitive apprenticeships (Brown et al. 1989), authenticity (and with it, meaningful learning) is achieved if the learner can act as an apprentice observing the ‘community of practice’.

Being rather an instructional strategy than a theory of learning, problem-based learning (PBL) shares the basic assumptions of constructivism but puts an emphasis on the second proposition: “The principal idea behind PBL is that the starting point for learning should be a problem, a query or a puzzle that the learner wishes to solve” (Boud 1985). “Cases”, i.e. real-life scenarios that exemplify the problem to be solved, provide the authentic context for learning, and students try to achieve a solution to the problem in a collaborative manner, which includes dealing with alternative viewpoints on the problem (see figure 1).

PBL presents a radical departure from instructivist learning strategies in the sense that puzzlement (deprecated in traditional learning styles) is taken literally: Problems are typically ill-structured so that more information is needed to gain an understanding of the problem than is immediately available. This understanding becomes the center of interest in PBL, as opposed to the focus on achieving solutions in other learning styles.


~ by jeanehistoria on December 29, 2009.

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