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Abstract: This paper explores how the Cognitive Flexibility Theory (CFT) as a collaborative model has promoted student learning in a university course for engineers as teachers. More specifically this paper presents the application of CFT as an instructional and collaborative model to teach how to apply Microsoft packages in/through authentic problems, fostering multiple cases and different perspectives of learning, in the mode of situated applications in tertiary education students. Research results revealed that CFT may be valuable for the teaching of principles and applications. According to the findings from the experiments, the learning concepts seemed easier when students tried to apply them to real problems of/in everyday life, because of the link between theory and practice.
When information is being presented in a well-structured and simple way, traditional methods could be useful for the learners by using a linear model to present the information. But when the knowledge domain is complex, and the material ill-structured, the aforementioned traditional methods could be ineffective for educational programs in tertiary education (Dick, 1991).
During a typical university course, the instructor follows linear methods to introduce the students to the academic subjects, such as lectures, tutorials, or examples presented in a traditional instructional way. Thus, sometimes these approaches fail to accomplish the complex educational objectives of different academic domains. In these domains, students have to assimilate and accommodate the information and knowledge in their own repertoire and be able to transfer this board of knowledge across the new varied domains of their prospective professional practices. Especially, when university students have to learn different conceptual perspectives from various academic interdisciplinary domains, the ability to reflect this knowledge in action, according to the demands of the different problems in their career. (Spiro et. al.,1991).
Due to the fact that the teaching is a very complex process, CFT approach is an important meta-cognitive way for teachers to develop their professional expertise. According to CFT, the way students are taught affects the method they acquire their cognitive structures, the representation and storage of information and knowledge. Furthermore, teachers could flexibly extend, understanding a wide range of the board of this knowledge in their professional practice. Information and knowledge should be presented in a variety of ways and techniques in order to be flexible to understand and solve the ill structured problems in a situated context.
An academic course, entitled 'Collaborative Learning Environments' (CLE), based on the scientific ground of Digital Systems, comprises the theoretical concepts of the collaborative learning theories and methods, based on collaborative software, digital tools and environments. Students, also as future engineers-teachers, need to integrate this theoretical background and its applications into effective instructional methods, in order to help their future students by using their acquired knowledge. The main instructional objectives of this course are: (1) to teach students how to integrate the theoretical background of collaborative learning in the development of applications, and (2) to teach methods of applying learning principles, strategies, and conditions to every day educational practice.
In this paper, we use the main principles of CFT and web-based collaborative technologies to develop a "course-workshop" for prospective engineers-teachers to learn about the requirements of software applications, placed on the domain of Digital Systems. Students have to successfully transfer what they learn, to school setting, by choosing and evaluating the given conditions of an ill-structured problem methodology in the setting of teaching Microsoft applications, including MS Word. Obviously, it is not inherently easier, but the goal is to learn appropriate methods that could be applied in school programs. This course will teach the basic subjects of Microsoft application developing the best practices for schools, by using "hands-on" activities and the teaching of how to apply the acquired knowledge to everyday problems. In all of the workshops, there is an assessment of the knowledge level, and the educational scenario is adapted to students' specific needs.
Cognitive flexibility is a learning theory, in which students structure and restructure their knowledge collaboratively, in many different ways, in order to respond to a variety of different situational demands (Spiro et. al., 1995). This theory is created to address the real-world complexity and ill-structuredness of many knowledge domains, such as History, Medicine, Mathematics, and Engineering (Spiro et. al., 1995). "Ill-structuredness" is a term which is used to represent that many concepts (interacting contextually) are pertinent to a specific case, but that their patterns of combination are inconsistent across case applications of the same nominal type (Spiro et. al., 2004).
The basic principles of CFT are presented below (Spiro et. al., 1995), along with some notes on how these principles were used in our experiment:
(i) Emphasis on knowledge construction, not transmission. More specific, learners must construct texts and schemas, using basic and advanced Microsoft Word knowledge so as to complete the activities.
(ii) Acquisition of basic and advanced knowledge in a real-world context. The scenario of the experiment was designed to give students the opportunity to adapt their existing basic and advanced Microsoft Word knowledge in authentic situations.
(iii) Focus on advanced knowledge acquisition. In our experiment, particularly in the use of hypertext.
Studies, based on CFT, point out that cognitive and metacognitive skills contribute to the teaching process. Numerous researches have investigated variables such as problem solving, collaborative and metacognitive skills. In this experiment, problem solving skills, collaborative skills and reflecting thinking skills have been acknowledged as factors that contribute to teach engineers as prospective teachers in secondary schools. In particular, CFT has been investigated by examining the relationships between these variables.
More specific, problem solving is a higher-order cognitive process that requires the modulation and control of more routine or fundamental skills. It occurs when a person needs to move from a given state to a desired goal state (Amsel et. al. ,1991). Problem solving necessarily engages a variety of cognitive components, such as rules, concepts, strategies and principles. Collaboration implies a situation, in which two or more people work together to learn something (Dillenbourg, 1999) and it can increase student mastery of domain knowledge, reasoning strategies, and social skills, but it is only effective when designed to encourage particular behaviors (Johnson & Johnson, 1990). So, collective problem solving is a hallmark of most real-world situations and also it promotes synergistic insights that may not occur in individual problem solving. Also, in groups, students display multiple roles, allowing them to apply their prior knowledge, reflect constructively on their performance, and confront ineffective strategies and misconceptions.
Researchers (Antolí et. al., 2003) have generally observed that when students use a problem solving strategy affected by environmental factors, which are relevant to that particular strategy. However, it was observed that this effect depends on the problem solving strategy adopted by each person and especially the change of the restrictions introduced. Moreover, a similar study (Antolí et. al., 2005) points out that when participants were trained under constant conditions they showed a tendency to maintain their strategies. That is to say, the type of training can affect change or modify, in certain degree, the CFTor what is the same thing, the possibility of participants to adapt to the new conditions of the environment.
Recent research, based on CFT hypothesized that collaborative learning would further enhance the CFT-based education process and evaluated this effect by organizing students to complete the module individually or in pairs and comparing test results for these groups. So, it examined the effects of collaboration in a computer supported environment. The research data showed that students who collaborated had higher score than those who worked individually (Heath et. al., 2008).
According to these issues, in this paper we describe a proposal framework developing an educational scenario for teaching engineers, as prospective teachers in secondary schools. The scenario is based on CFT developing the components of problem solving skills, collaborative skills and reflecting thinking skills.
Goal of the Study
The general purpose of this study was to present a framework developing an educational scenario for schooling and business practice, based on CFT and a technological supported environment. More specifically, this experiment sought to investigate the relationship between problem solving skills, collaborative skills and reflecting thinking skills.
The Proposal Framework for Developing Cognitive Flexibility Scenario
We propose a framework which can be used as a template for CFT scenarios in an e-learning environment. The framework based on the principles of CFT we designed the proposed framework. The following Figure presents the framework which involves the phases, the duration, the type, the technique, the roles, the interaction and the proposed tools for each one phase.
Figure 1. CFT scenario
For the needs of the CLE workshop, 28 fourth year students of Digital Systems attended a mini-course for 4 weeks, during a spring semester. The course, entitled 'Collaborative Learning Environments' (CLE), included a short theoretical range of Computer Supported and Collaborative Learning (CSCL) theories and methods of applying these principles by using collaborative software, digital tools and environments. In this point of view an application of Microsoft educational programs was chosen as an effective tool to integrate the theory into the schooling and business practice by using an educational scenario based on CFT.
The study investigated the following questions:
The relationship between problem solving skills and collaborative skills in an experiment based on CFT.
The relationship between problem solving skills and reflecting thinking skills in an experiment based on CFT.
The relationship between collaborative skills and reflecting thinking skills in an experiment based on CFT.
In order to collect the experiment data, the MSN Messenger (Microsoft Network), was used as an instant messaging tool, which uses an auto-save mechanism to store a conversation between the users. Finally, assessment rubrics were used for the collection of self- reported data, which students and supporting team completed during and after an activity.
Design and Procedure
A within-subjects experiment design was used to investigate associations between variables that refer to characteristics of the same group of participants. The experiment included an educational scenario entitled "Trying to organize a seminar at the University: Web development with Dreamweaver", that was based on CFT. The experiment took place at the computer labs. The students were given four assignments: (i) The first assignment was class based. Specifically, the supporting team (tutor, researcher) presented the topic of the activity and distributed a manual with the instructions. (ii) In the second assignment, students were divided into four equivalent groups and the supporting team distributed four roles. The groups studied the written instructions given to them and then implemented them. (iii) The third assignment was a group based activity. The groups implemented the instructions given to them in order to complete the activity. This assignment required students to design poster, invitations, program, list of guests, questionnaires and certificates of attendance for the seminar by using the hypertext examples. (iv) In the last assignment, the students assessed the process of the activity by completing some rubrics. All the necessary resources (hypertext examples, instructions etc) were in an asynchronous platform e-class. This platform based on the Claroline open source system was adapted from GUnet for the online content support.
Problem solving skills, collaborative skills and reflecting thinking skills were the variables under consideration for this experiment. Problem solving skills were measured based on the IDEAL model (Bransford & Stein, 1984), which includes the following steps: (i) identify the problem, (ii) define and understand the problem, (iii) explore solutions, (iv) act on strategies and implementation of guide lines to the problem (v) look back and evaluate through the rubrics.
The problem solving skills were assessed by using rubrics. Rubrics are divided into two categories. The first one was completed by the students and the second one by the supporting team. Each one of them assesses the understanding of problem and the implementation of instructions. Also, they contain four 3-point scale Likert-type items ranging from "1" (not at all) to "3" (very). Furthermore, problem solving skills were evaluated by using email content, according to the following criteria: (i) understanding of the problem (ii) compliance with the guidelines (iii) application of guidelines, and (iv) goal achievement.
The collaborative skills were measured by using the MSN messenger, which records the history of conversations and the rubrics, which were supplemented by the participants. The criteria used to assess collaborative skills were the following: (i) interaction with content (ii) interaction among participants, and (iii) use of web resources. Moreover, collaborative skills were evaluated by rubrics, which were completed by the students and the supporting team. These rubrics assessed the achievement of the goal and the demonstration of collaboration and they consist of six items, which are assessed in a 3-point scale ranging from "1" (not at all) to "3" (very).
Reflecting thinking skills were measured by assessing the emails, which contained the students' assignments. Specifically, according to this scenario, students were invited to apply their knowledge in order to deliver their assignments. The discussions from MSN were assessed by evaluating the poster, invitations, list of guests, questionnaires, program and certificates of attendance which they contained. Furthermore, reflecting thinking skills were measured by the rubrics (those of students' and supporting team's). Each of these rubrics assessed the application of prior knowledge and it was measured using 3-point items, from "1" (not at all) to "3" (very).
Paired samples t-tests were conducted to check for possible significant differences between problem solving skills and collaborative skills, problem solving skills and reflecting thinking skills, collaborative skills and reflecting thinking skills.
The SPPS tool was used to compute the paired t-tests, to check for possible statistically significant differences between the pairs of dependent variables (i.e. problem solving skills vs collaborative skills, problem solving skills vs reflecting thinking skills, collaborative skills vs reflecting thinking skills). The results of the paired samples t-tests are presented in Table 1.
No significant difference was found between problem solving skills and collaborative skills t(23)=-27,607, p>.05, thus underlining the relationship between the methodological approach of problem solving theory and the development of collaborative skills. Also, no statistically significant difference was found between problem solving skills and reflecting thinking skills t(23)=50,610, p>.05, therefore a correlation may exist. This finding underlines the fact that students develop cognitive and metacognitive skills by following the methodological approach of theory to solve problems. Finally, paired samples t-test results revealed that no significant difference existed between collaborative skills and reflecting thinking skills t(23)=-74,606, p>.05. This phenomenal correlation between these variables implies that students apply the acquired knowledge in a practical context, while interacting with each other to complete the activity.
95% Confidence Interval of the Difference
Std. Error Mean
pss* - cls**
pss* - rts***
cls** - rts***
Note: * problem solving skills ** collaborative skills *** reflecting thinking skills
Table 1. Paired Samples t-test
The results of the rubrics, which were completed by the supporting team, revealed a correlation between the variables (Table 2). We ascertained that there is a significant positive correlation between problem solving skills and collaborative skills (p<.05) and this confirmed the relationship between the methodological approach of problem solving theory and the development of collaborative skills (Antolí et. al., 2003). On the other hand, there is no significant correlation between problem solving skills and reflecting thinking skills (p>.05). This means that supporting team observed that there is not a strong relationship between the development of cognitive and metacognitive skills and the implementation of knowledge in a practical context. Furthermore, the paired samples t-test indicates a significant positive correlation between collaborative skills and reflecting thinking skills (p<.05) and this, also, confirmed that the students apply the acquired knowledge in a practical context while interact with each other to complete the activity (Heath et. al., 2008).
95% Confidence Interval of the Difference
Std. Error Mean
pss* - cls**
pss* - rts***
cls** - rts***
Note: * problem solving skills ** collaborative skills *** reflecting thinking skills
Table 2. Paired Samples t-test
Conclusions and Recommendations for Future Research
This paper attempted to explore the relationships between the variables "Problem Solving skills", "Collaborative skills" and "Reflecting Thinking skills", in a technological supported environment. The relationship between the variables was significant positive and that means when a variable increases and the other increases. So, in a technological supported environment based on CFT that enhances the cognitive and metacognitive skills, the students demonstrate a high level of problem solving, collaborative skills and reflecting thinking. Furthermore, the learning concepts appear to become easier when the learners try to apply them to real problems of everyday life, especially when they link theory with practice
This study raises several areas for further research. Future research should focus on more qualitative aspects of this research, trying to approach a more useful insight into the real-world complexity and ill-structuredness of other domains. Moreover, future study could also examine the necessary conditions to successfully implement a CFT scenario. Finally, the findings of this study are tentative and need to be verified in further research.