Reference: Mononen-Aaltonen, Marja & Tella, Seppo 2000. From Brawn to Brain: Towards an Emerging Minds-on Approach in Integrated Distributed Learning Environments (IDLEs). In Bourdeau, J. & Heller, R. (eds.) Proceedings of ED-MEDIA 2000. World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia & Telecommunications. AACE/Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education. Montréal, Canada. June 27-July 1, 2000, 729-734.(Information about the authors; a PDF mindmap of this article)

From Brawn to Brain: Towards an Emerging Minds-on Approach in Integrated Distributed Learning Environments (IDLEs).
by Marja Mononen-Aaltonen & Seppo Tella (2000)

1 Too Little Attention Paid to Methodologically Sound NBL Environments

A growing number of researchers have come to the conclusion that we have moved from an earlier paradigm (computer-based education, CBE) to a new paradigm which will be called network-based learning (NBL) in this article. So far, however, too little attention has been paid to the methodological aspects needed for creating NBL environments. This article aims to analyze these developments by linking them closely to new emerging electronic learning environments and to methodology. As a concrete example we will analyze the use of one integrated distributed learning environment (IDLE) tool called "Future Learning Environments" (FLE). Our focus is on academically oriented university students in a teacher education program at the University of Helsinki, Finland.

2 Learning Environment as Dialog

Network-based learning relates directly to the concept of learning environments. There are multiple views of a learning environment, each eliciting in our minds different images about teaching, learning and studying. Mononen-Aaltonen (1998; PDF) has noted that these are often divided into three categories: learning environments as (i) ecosystems, (ii) places, and as (iii) space. As a novel way of seeing a learning environment, Tella & Mononen-Aaltonen (1998) have suggested that a learning environment should be defined as dialog in its Bakhtinian and Vygotskian sense. In the framework of dialogism (Tella & Mononen-Aaltonen, 1998) and the cultural democracy approach (Appelbaum & Enomoto, 1995), this article argues for dialogic learning environments and dialogic pedagogy. The research focus is based on the concepts of modern media education and social reconstructionism.

Our initial arguments are that

  1. Dialog as a learning environment is a social environment, in which knowledge is co-constructed and appropriated.
  2. A network-based learning environment is a computer-mediated and technology-enhanced dialog.
  3. A prerequisite (or a co-requisite) for empowering NBL environments is the fundamental flexibility of any social environment. An IDLE should be able to enable social interaction between the different communicators.
  4. When planning and designing NBL environments, one guiding principle should include the idea of providing the users with structures that they can tailor to best accommodate their own learning needs.
  5. Combining NBL environments with undominated dialog contributes to constructing a model of social interaction within an unoppressed and equal study community.

In order to implement these principles, we will have to enlarge the contemporary discussion usually focused on learning into a broader concept of the teaching–studying–learning paradigm (Uljens, 1997) in which theoretical knowledge plays an important role.

3 The Teaching–Studying–Learning Paradigm

In new electronic environments, the teacher must have a strong and theoretically well justified methodological view of her own. It can be grounded on different theories and conceptions of learning and knowledge, such as constructivism. In the teaching–studying–learning paradigm, we point out the importance of teaching, studying and the emergence of a study community, as demonstrated later in this article.

Admittedly, the teacher will change from a 'sage on the stage' to a 'guide on the side'. In an NBL environment, and in our conception of a dialog, this is not quite enough: the real question is the dual stance (Willis 1995, 14–15) of the learner and the teacher, in which the teacher is still on the center stage as an actor and as a moderator of all activities but at the same time (s)he will be on the side, observing the teaching–learning process with an attentive eye, reviewing the whole situation. The teacher, then, is both an actor and a critic. And so is the student: playing his or her part but also analyzing his or her own studying process at the metacognitive level. The teacher can easily contribute to this process by giving cognitive support, such as scaffolding. Tella (1999, 213) has argued that media educators will need a "media educational" eye in the spirit of Bourdieu's reflexive sociology (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, 248). The question, then, is not only of reciprocity and addressivity between the different actors but also of the changes of the changing roles. One way to express this change is to describe the teacher as the student's cognitive coach and as a motivating and emotional counselor. These will also help her to act as an interpreter of the student's relations with the world. This kind of 'eye' is needed when we think of a dialog as the metaphor of an NBL environment, which contextualizes the process of individual empowerment and raises the awareness of individual actors. This is exactly our link to social reconstructionism and to the cultural democracy approach.

The studying component consists of tools and the context, and the context helps the emergence of a study community, in which, again, different tools, like IDLEs, will be used.

4 Tools and the Context

In the emergence of a study community, the dual stance of teachers and students will facilitate the adoption of a dialog as a learning environment. In this community, certain tools, media and technologies will be needed to support dialog. At the same time, this community will create an educational context in which these tools will be used.

4.1 Tools

Tools can be divided into technological and intellectual ones. While it is necessary to have a fair command of ‘technological’ tools, it is at least equally important for everyone to cope with intellectual tools. These include methods of creating, organizing, and using information and knowledge. Lin et al. (1995) note the ability to critical and sustained thinking and to reason about important content as well as the ability and motivation to life-long learning and autonomous study. Rieber’s findings (1994; cited in Lin et al. 1995, 59) show that learners’ personal discoveries, possibility to explore, feeling of ownership, and construction of knowledge can help optimize not only intrinsic motivation but also learning proper. In this sense, intellectual tools, technological tools, and learning are deeply intertwined and in close interrelationship with one another.

4.2 Context

We contend that in addition to the tools component, the TSL paradigm is likely to lead to a new kind of thinking of the learning context, which could best be depicted as an "ideal public space" in the spirit of Habermas (1974). This space is important, as it is the meeting point of all learners at the very heart of the study community. At its best, this thinking leads to contextualism, which, according to Pettigrew (1985; also Poikela 1999, 38), is one of the "world hypotheses", whose mission it is to create order to the chaos. History, time and change are the basic principles of contextualism (Poikela 1999, 38). Therefore, the metaphor of contextualism is a historical event, with a special view to the discussion of the independence of time, place and location, which is often regarded as an intrinsic feature of an IDLE.

Technology can be regarded as context, representing and simulating meaningful real-world problems, situations, beliefs, perspectives, arguments, and stories of others. Technology as context also supports discourse among knowledge-building communities of learners (Jonassen 1995, 62) and could therefore be seen as supportive of our argument of a dialog being the learning environment.

5 IDLEs (Integrated Distributed Learning Environments)

Above, the dual stance of the teachers and students was derived from the TSL paradigm. At the same time, new emerging study communities will greatly benefit from technological and intellectual tools, as well as from seeing the learning environments as a new context. In our thinking, IDLEs (Integrated Distributed Learning Environments; also called groupware tools) are ideal to be used in the framework of contextualism. IDLEs represent two mainstream cultural theories (cf. Creswell, 1998, 86–87): first, they represent ideational theories, suggesting that change is a result of mental activities and ideas enabled by language. Second, they represent materialistic theories, holding that material conditions, like resources, money, and modes of production, are prime movers. In IDLEs, we believe, these two theories, merge beneficially. Their use call for mental ideas related to teaching, studying and learning, but they also represent a context or a forum of action, a "center stage", on which different actors interact. What counts from our point of view is that IDLEs can be especially designed for communal modes of inquiry and studying, as in our research project. They can contribute to sharing and discussing ideas at all stages of the scientific inquiry process. But once on the "center stage", one needs some principles for "acting" properly. We will discuss these in the following.

6 The Four Basic Elements of the Dialogic Learning Environment, in relation to IDLEs

In our thinking, the four basic elements of a learning environment are the study community, the zone of proximal development, the We relationship and the dialogic field (Figure 1).



Study Community


Dialogic Field



We Relationship


Zone of Proximal Development


 Figure 1. The basic elements of a learning environment (Mononen-Aaltonen 1998, 195; see also

In Buber’s philosophy, the concept of We is overshadowed by the dominating doctrine of I–Thou, and as a consequence, the We has failed to attract sufficient attention. The Buberian We is animated in the shared speech and finds its beginning when one addresses another on the I–Thou basis. The Buberian We suggests a setting for dialog to realize itself.

It is through a dialogic field that learners discover their ways of thinking, their truths, their belief systems, their fields of vision, which of them they share with others and which are unique to them.

For Vygotsky, the most essential feature of teaching and education is that it creates the zone of proximal development (ZPD). The dynamic movement within the ZPD is a prerequisite for growth and knowledge construction that moves the learner from one stage of development to another. This is done with the help from outside one’s mind, with the help of another voice, another mind. Through technological tools, especially when combined with intellectual tools such as cognitive support, coaching, modeling, and scaffolding, we can help elevate learners through their zones of proximal development.

The study community is interpreted in line with Bruner’s ideas of the classroom being a subcommunity that specializes in learning among its members—a subcommunity of mutual learning. Mutuality is tangible in the sense that we can feel, notice and see it as well as identify with it.

7 The Research Project

The Media Education Center of the University of Helsinki has recently launched a research project on dialog, communication and technology in teaching and learning at the university level. The project is carried out in a foreign language methodology research seminar, where the traditional face-to-face mode of studying and learning is complemented with working in an NBL environment by using an IDLE tool called Future Learning Environments (FLE), designed for communal modes of inquiry and studying. The study project is part of the FLE Project, launched in 1998 and co-ordinated by the Medialab of the Helsinki University of Art and Design. The teacher in charge of the research seminar has been Marja Mononen-Aaltonen.

Our aim is two-fold: (i) to create a learning environment that would empower the students to participate in the discourse of educational sciences and to conduct research on foreign language methodology, and (ii) to support each student’s research project as a whole within a dialogic frame of reference. We aim at promoting sharing and discussing ideas at all stages of the scientific inquiry process. The research seminar has been chosen for two reasons: First, the students come from other university departments in order to do their teacher education module (one academic year) at the Department of Teacher Education. They start our research seminar only three weeks after they have first entered the world of educational sciences, which is to them a totally new academic culture with its own discourse and traditions, concepts and research problems. Second, the program includes two two-month school placements. The students are expected to continue their research papers also in schools, and complete them by the end of the academic year.

As stated above, our study is based on the notion of a learning environment as dialog in the Bakhtinian and Vygotskian sense. The seminar is conducted in such a way that dialog is likely to become the way to be a seminar member: the way to teach, to study and to learn the culture and the language of the academic community of education, and to participate in its scientific discourse. The study aims at developing general pedagogic principles and teaching practices to support dialog in an academic learning community.

We will now briefly analyze how the four components of the dialogic learning environment (Figure 1) can be worked on as elements of an academic study community.

For instance, when creating the dialogic field, the participants need to be engaged in the dialog from the very first research idea. Then thinking becomes a text and the students as well as the teacher has a 360° field of vision. This might lead to a temporary chaos, which is shown in the unstructured and non-linear nature of the research process.

One more step is to activate the ZPD by making the research process visible and understandable to the learners. More data will be needed, browsed and analyzed during the on-going process than in traditional seminars. Continuous feedback is needed. The target at this stage is telos, the cognizance of common and shared educational aims to be achieved through the research project.

At the same time, an interface to the We relationship needs to be created. It means, among other things, that the openness of the relationship becomes an opportunity and a risk. In this process, the teacher’s contribution is crucial. However, the teacher needs to remember that participating in a dialog is voluntary, too much control or pushing will destroy the budding dialogic atmosphere.

8 Research Findings

One of the foci of our research project has been an authentic use of information and communication technologies in the real world and their potential in research-focused teaching in teacher education. The data gathered during the academic year 1998-99 are being analyzed at the moment. Therefore, these findings are preliminary but indicative.

The members of the seminar are interpreted to form a study community, in which they participate in a real research project instead of "just writing" an academic paper. This study community is seen as a ‘common obligation’ to everybody in the Latin sense of the word: cum (with, together) and munis (duty, obligation), thus, a common obligation, shared by everybody but not imposed on anybody. In this way, the students’ minds will be geared towards research and thus the process is more likely to result in a 'minds-on' approach, instead of an earlier more pragmatic hands-on approach. The work is therefore moving from brawn to brain, with a distinctly conceptual character. The many comments by the students indicate that we have succeeded in this.

The support given by an NBL environment to the emergence of a study community and the We relationship is indirect and mediated. In research-focused teaching, NBL appears to be very important as the creator and maintainer of the zone of proximal development and the dialogic field.

We believe that it is through dialog with others that learners discover their ways of thinking, their truths, their belief systems, their visions, all of which they can then share but which will still be unique to them. Their ways of thinking, being, believing and studying open up as a dialogic field. As Bakhtin put it: "What we see can never be what you see, if only because I can see what is behind your head".

Our students participate in a real research project with the aid of an authentic IDLE. From the very beginning, they are aware of belonging to a large research project. They understand that they are not only writing an 'academic piece of paper' but are fully committed to developing a new area of methodology and the tools to be used in it.

The approach we promote also include a few hazards and threats. The FLE interface consists of each participant's desk, open to everybody else in the same study group. Everybody's documents and other materials are openly accessible by everybody else. Even access to each other's messages is open. In this sense, the FLE functions as a technological and intellectual interface to the We relationship, but, in our case, again in an indirect way: the students knew each other and the teacher before entering the seminar, as they had participated in her other courses before this seminar. The openness of the FLE to all the participants of the seminar with open desks and files is a new opportunity for collaboration and sharing ideas and thoughts. But at the same time the students may find it awkward to go to their co-researchers' desks and open their files. Clearly, more emphasis should be laid on the personality characteristics of learners who find it valuable to use these emerging technologies, such as the IDLEs. We simply refer to Dede's argument (1995, 47) that there might exist a whole new dimension of learning styles orthogonal to the visual/auditory/kinesthetic/symbolic categories now underlying pedagogical approaches to individualization.

One of our conclusions is that the metaphor of a desk is not appropriate; rather, we should speak of a public space, like a virtual library, in which everybody can browse through the documents. If the concept of virtuality represents cultures based on the logical rather than the physical (as argued by Agres, Edberg & Igbaria 1998, 72), it seems that ours is one of the cases in which bringing reality into the virtual world might encounter some unexpected barriers at the conceptual level of the learners.

Lin et al. (1995, 54; as reported in Tella 1997) argue that social considerations belong to the second wave of the cognitive revolution, focusing attention on the social contexts of learning that have pervasive cognitive and motivational effects, while the first wave mainly dealt with individual thinkers and learners, de-emphasizing affect, context, culture, and history. In this light, the use of a groupware tool such as FLE is most likely to amplify the relations between the teacher and the students, and between the students themselves, and finally helping construct a study community, in which the second wave cognition and motivation prove indispensable. We would argue that a traditional research seminar is much more likely to point out the first wave emphases, i.e., individual work done without any real co-construction of knowledge.

The teacher’s role seems to prove most crucial in creating a dialogic learning environment in the context of FLE. It is the teacher who either creates the We relationship or destroys the opportunity to establish any relationships on a dialogic basis. The teacher's role becomes even more important in creating and maintaining successful mediated learning experiences. Importantly, an IDLE may open up the chaotic and non-linear character of almost any research process, but at the same time it helps to give order to this chaos. In the final analysis, then, the mediated learning experience consists of the individual empowerment properly contextualized within the virtual working concept of a study community, and inducive to fostering a better comprehension of individual participation in a mutually shared research project.

9 References

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Willis, J. A. 1995. Recursive, Reflective Instructional Design Model Based on Constructivist-Interpretivist Theory. Educational Technology/November–December 5–23.

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