In recent years, educators and parents have been concerned about the impact of online learning on students’ learning, with some reports suggesting that using smartphones, laptops and other digital devices hinders, rather than improves, outcomes in the classroom.
However, a new study by researchers from two major Australian universities shows that an interactive online learning platform can support students’ engagement in science by enhancing their ability to create and interact with representations of what they’re learning.
Dr. Connie Cirkony of Monash University and her co-researchers from Deakin University, Professor Russell Tytler and Associate Professor Peter Hubber, explored the use of the STILE (Student Teacher Interactive Learning Environment) as an example of an interactive and customisable tool designed to support teaching and learning in K–12 education settings.
Ultimately, the study found that STILE presented an accessible digital tool that allowed for collaborative design and an interactive teaching approach for school-based science education.
Engaging students in science: challenges and opportunities
Dr Cirkony said governments across the world have reported a consistent decline in student engagement with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) during their transition from primary to secondary school and this is no different in Australian schools, where the OECD reported that students' performance in school science has been declining since 2012.
“These trends are thought to be due, in part, to the mainstream approach to science education that has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s,” Dr Cirkony told The Educator.
“This includes an overcrowded curriculum that does not encourage deeper and connected learning, an emphasis on recipe book approaches to practical investigations, and teacher-centred approaches guided by textbooks.”
As a result, says Dr Cirkony, students don’t generally see science as relating to things they are interested in and value, don’t recognise the many pathways opened up by studies in science, and have a restricted view of how science and scientists’ work.
“Moreover, students maintain persistent misconceptions about fundamental science concepts and practices,” she said.
“Australia has one of the highest rates of out-of-field teaching internationally, with an increasing number of teachers who have no background in science, and not enough professional learning for teachers to learn more contemporary instructional approaches.”
Dr Cirkony says the Monash-Deakin case study has some important implications for school leaders looking to create a more engaging learning environment for their staff and students.
“This case study reports on a science-specific instructional approach, where the teacher used guided-inquiry to facilitate discussions and activities on an interactive online learning platform in a face-to-face setting,” she said.
“The STILE learning platform included opportunities for students to create and evaluate their own digital representations (e.g., diagrams), use digital writing tools, and to discuss ideas from prepared videos as part of their pathways to science understandings.”
Dr Cirkony said the platform was able to support collaborative invention and discussion of ideas through representation.
“This is managed by the teacher and duplicates the strength of a face-to-face setting but enhances students’ digital learning skills,” she said.
“The online design provided flexibility and agency in accessing multiple media and representational resources in ways not readily available in face-to-face modes.”
Advice for online design and delivery
Dr Cirkony said the timing of the introduction of scientific ideas and resources is “paramount”.
“The sequencing of online activities should enable students to first share their prior knowledge and explore their ideas before encountering the scientific perspectives,” she said.
“Otherwise, students will ‘memorize’ instead of learn.”
Dr Cirkony also pointed to the importance of students learning through multiple representations.
“Scientific concepts are complex, and their meaning cannot be fully understood through a written explanation,” she said.
“Students need time to represent and refine their ideas across different modes [e.g., diagrams, role-plays] to fully understand and convey meaning.”
Another important consideration for schools, says Dr Cirkony, is coordinating students’ ideas with scientific ones.
“When the ‘science’ is provided, online activities need to enable students to integrate the science into new representations,” she said.
“This way, students have a chance to refine their ideas and illustrate their conceptual learning through their drawings, role-plays, etc.”
Dr Cirkony said that by guiding discussion and evaluation, teachers can create a number of opportunities for students to enrich their learning.
“Either through face to face or online instruction, the teacher leads the learning by directing the activities, engaging with students’ responses, adapting further activities based on students’ responses, providing the ‘scientific perspective, and facilitating dialogue and/or online interactions between students,” she said.
Finally, says Dr Cirkony, professional learning is a key part of ensuring that teachers can leverage digital platforms for impact in the classroom.
“There is a need to support science teachers’ learning about how to best use the digital platform to support an engaging but rigorous guided-inquiry, representation focused approach.”
This journal article for this study has been made free access by MCERA’s Publishing Partner, Springer: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11423-022-10094-z