Parallelism in open learning and working environments

by Rik Min, University of Twente, Enschede, the Netherlands.

First published in the British Journal of Educational Technology, Vol. 25, no. 2 (1994) pp. 108-112.

Keywords: Instrumentation technology, designing, user interface, presentation medium, CBT, CAI, multimedia, instruction, parallelism, linear medium, working environment, learning environment.

Working environments
Interactive working environments such as instruction programs, learning programs and self-organizing learning environments require different techniques and methods of presentation from the monitor than linear programs do. Instruction environments resemble linear programs and so the problem is not very domineering. With self-organizing environments such as spread sheets, text processing and programming environments you see a lot of minor problems and different tricks depending on the user's nature. When processing text, many users use old listings and notes on paper beside the computer. When listings of programs are indispensable for the organization of one's work in order not to get lost in one's program. For text processing, papers are likewise practical but not indispensable. For learning environments we should not believe that everything can be done with electronic materials. Many efforts have been made to make the monitor suitable for learning environments without any papers. This phenomenon also applies to taking notes, essential for most users to organize their learning processes. Some learners can do without notes, others have no memorizing problems. Today not yet possible to have one's notes or to take down notes parallel with the processes taking place on the monitor.

Learning environments
In fact we know very little about learning processes in complicated computerized and non-computerized self-organizing environments. That can be seen in discussions about 'learner models'. There are many theories but it depends very much on the individual. A recent research paper of a French group mentioned 250 types of learners in the population of secondary schools.

There are many instructional theories but few about the practice of learning which is linked to the structure of someone's character. One of the main characteristics of pupils which teachers should take into account is whether they are visually or audibly oriented. In learning more types can be distinguished. This is undoubtedly influenced by the degree of freedom present in learning. The main characteristic of a classical learning environment is that the pupil can be surrounded by a large amount of informative materials (papers, books, dictionaries, pictures, notebooks, maps, schemes, 'talking heads', etc.). CAI and CBT are characterised by classical 'programmed instruction'. Information appears on the screen while previous information disappears. For this, one needs either a good memory or one has to take notes. However, taking notes is seen by designers of CAI and CBT as a failure in their programs whereas it could be vice versa: ignoring the need to take notes and the need to consult other media might be the reason that it has failed so often in this respect. The arrival of multimedia does not diminish this problem. The user likes to use more than that which the electronic media have to offer. Over the last ten years many have tried to solve these shortcomings of the monitor. It seems that people are human beings who retrieve parallel information and who like working with lots of things in view.

Although we are not aware of it, parallelism is a frequently occurring phenomenon in class and also in ordinary life e.g. in museums or libraries where one is flooded with information. For instance in a classroom the geography teacher will tell about a country while the pupil has a book in front of him, in front of the class a map will be visible and in a glass case he may even see various pieces of equipment from that country displayed. Although some pedagogues would say that this is not an optimal learning environment, children think differently. They need to learn because they are inspired to do so by other situations. Learning tools such as computer simulation are not meant to be instructive (...) but they should motivate pupils to increase their learning levels and to understand why other earlier and possibly boring lessons were required.

Linear media and boring lessons from a teacher are one-way situations and learning environments have a two-way potential. How to make this clear is the problem. Good learning environments require parallel instruction. We see a lot of parallel instruction situations all around us in everyday life. Firstly the earlier mentioned classroom learning situation. Secondly a museum with a guide or walkman supplied at the entrance. Although the instruction looks linear, it is certainly a form of parallel instruction. Thirdly, training of working environments such as learning Word Perfect with headphones and a cassette recorder with instructions, is another example of parallel instruction. Fourthly a newspaper is an example that people like to have everything in view before they decide what they are going to read. In the fifth place the 'desktop philosophy' of Apple Inc. and Steve Jobs with their WIMPS operating systems and the resulting market for DTP environments has been a tremendous step forward in shaping the monitor's linear character into equipment suitable for more normal two-way human activity. In the sixth place the enormous success of SUN workstations is probably for the greater part determined by the diameter which is wider than usual and the monitor's very high resolution. Technicians and students using these workstations in order to organize their design activities, keep many windows permanently open and on 'stand by' which indicates the earlier mentioned need of humans to have a self-structured working environment. All these examples indicate that efforts are continually made both consciously and unconsciously to instrumentate this human need.

The parallel instruction theory
In his Instruction Theory for Simulation, the Pi- theory, Min poses that for simulation environments the need for instruction is very large but parallelism is essential (Min, 1992). Open learning environments for simulation fail without instructions or with poorly poorly shaped instructions. Many experiments with more than one thousand medical students were done by Min at Limburg University with paper instruction materials in cooperation with Struyker Boudier (1982). These simulation environments also used two parallel monitors and paper instruction materials. Also Miltenburg with his training course about the dynamics of economics (1988) and Coleman with his simulation programs in university courses for medical students shows that paper materials are absolutely essential to success (Min, 1993).

The arrival of modern windowing computers such as Macintosh, SUN and Next computers, meant a tremendous step forward. Together with Van Schaick Zillesen (1991), Min developed a designing system during the period 1984 to 1988 for simulation programs with many parallel windows, based on Apple's desktop philosophy.. Besides the simulation output a conceptual scheme or map of the mathematical physiological models was used. In spite of all this they found to their amazement that paper instruction materials remained a decisive factor.

A cheap and practical method for teachers to produce adapted instruction for simulation programs proved difficult to replace with electronic means. The arrival of a cheap and widely used instructional authoring system HyperCard, led to a series of experiments with electronic instruction. These experiments proved rather unsuccessful. The researchers were concentrating too much on HyperCard's possibility to move from one program to the next, and to go from one frame to another that after their experiments it turned out that their learning environment had unfortunately become a linear program as it were. After this series of experiments the multi-tasking operating system appeared, the Multifinder and System7 came on the market. The use of multi-tasking proved immediately useful in a working environment but not as soon in a learning environment.

In 1992 Min accidentally found that the multi-tasking operating system was extremely useful in two respects: for educational computer simulation programs. Firstly this system allows a simulation part to be made with simulation tools and the instructional part is made with cheap authoring tools. This is of interest for the so-called second designer, the teacher at school. This situation is a very natural one for the design of this type of software. The simulation part is designed by a specialised designer, the instructional part also but in an entirely different way and with another tool. Secondly it allows a certain measure of asynchronic working, as with paper instruction materials, because the two parts have stand-alone characteristics. The experiments with Van Schaick Zillesen are now called the 'linear instruction method' (Min 1992). It is characterised by having an introduction into the learning matter first so that the pupil can try to master the simulation environment. The instruction program disappears from the screen, and after the simulation environment he continues in the instructional program and answers a few test questions on what has been learned. This method is called by them the 'sandwich construction'.

What is the aim of this concept?
The Pi-theory tries to explain why certain learning environments do not result in good learning behaviour whereas others do. It is a theory about shaping instruction with simulation and it possibly explains why ms.dos computers are not really suited to create good simulation environments with electronic instructions. The theory explains a number of things such as:

Through years of research and development projects in the field of simulation, it turned out time and again that the media were lacking in the classical skills lab presentation. Computer simulations proved in general more successful with paper workbooks. The electronic medium that did not take the parallel instruction theory into account, failed time and again until the arrival of the multi-tasking operating systems. Using full electronic equipment for learning needed to have a user environments where things can be kept in view for an unlimited period of time. Most people do not need the interaction between one object and the next. They like asynchronic objects.

People are best motivated to receive instruction when they can decide for themselves at what time and how much they need to do so. With linear instruction, the instruction always arrives at the wrong time and in the wrong quantity. It has disappeared by the time it is needed most. Most interactive media prove in practice a collection of often linear concepts, with all their drawbacks. Our first experiment with sequential, electronic instructions (the 'sandwich construction') gave us the clue. From the point of view of instrumentation technology, creating a simulation learning environment with a specific tool, equipped for the provision of simulations, and the instruction environment with a specific instruction tool is more practical than one authoring system for both simulations and instruction.

The ms.dos/Intel concept is too much oriented on informaticians and not suited to learning attitudes of children and adults, as described above. Ms.dos and even Windows3.1 are technically speaking incomplete for the creation of quick multi-windowing, multi-tasking environments based on the Pi-theory. Macintosh and Next computers are way ahead in this field. The desktop video system and the natural way in which they handle windows on the Motorola/68000 computers is inimitable. IBM's most recent manoevres to purchase the Next software concept of Steve Jobs definitely looks promising for the not to distant future.

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Koopal. W., (1993). Design, realisation and evaluation of learning environments for simulation. MSc thesis (in Dutch), University of Twente, Enschede.

Min, F.B.M., (1992). Parallel Instruction, a Theory for Educational Computer Simulation. Interactive Learning International, Vol. 6, no. 3, p. 177-183.

Min, F.B.M., (1993). Computer Simulation as an Educational Tool (Chapter 2). The heart as pump: the computer simulation program CARDIO (Chapter 10). Fluid volumes: the computer simulation program FLUIDS (Chapter 19). In: Modelling and simulation in physiology and biomedical enineering on a Personal Computer; Springer Verlag Berlin; (Editors: D. Moller and R. van Wijk van Brievingh.) ISBN 3-387-97650-7 / ISBN 3-540-97650-7

Min, F.B.M. and H.A.J. Struyker Boudier, (1982). Computer simulation programs in problem oriented medical learning at the university of Limburg. Computers & Education, vol. 6, 153-158.

Schaick Zillesen, P. van, (1990). Methods and techniques for the design of educational computer simulation programs and their validation by means of emperical research. PhD thesis, University of Twente, (promotor E. Warries, assistent-promotor F.B.M. Min) ISBN 90-9003874-4.