Supportive Multi-User Interactive Learning Environment

Kristine Nagel and Janet Kolodner

Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia

SMILE, Supportive Multi-User Interactive Learning Environment, has been developed to support collaboration and reflection during problem-based learning, project-based learning, and learning from design. The suite of tools provides support for small groups to keep records of their ideas, their experimental trials, and their criteria for success; scaffolds them through iterative cycles of understanding their challenge, proposing solutions, constructing and testing solutions, and recording and explaining results; prompts them to make coherent reports about what they’ve tried and the results they’ve gotten and to tell stories about what they’ve learned; supports conversations anchored to those reports across student groups, classes, or schools; and helps groups of students publish interesting reports or stories in a case library that other students can use as a design or problem-solving resource. Its embedded questions, hints, and examples serve as models of inquiry, reflection, and science and design talk for both teacher and students.

SMILE was developed and piloted in the context of Georgia Tech’s Learning by Design (LBD) project (Kolodner et. al., 1998). Based on case-based reasoning’s (Kolodner, 1993, 1997) model of cognition and problem-based learning’s classroom practices (Barrows, 1985), LBD is an approach to teaching science to middle school children. Students learn as a result of collaboratively engaging in design activities and reflecting on their experiences. Design challenges are set in the real world, with constraints and measurable criteria for success. Students learn about motion and forces, for example, by designing the propulsion system for a miniature vehicle; they learn about erosion, currents, and waves by proposing and modeling solutions to the erosion problems on a Georgia coastal island.

LBD addresses a broad set of curriculum objectives, including the learning of domain knowledge and science skills, and communication, collaboration, decision-making, and investigation skills important over a range of domain areas and inside and out of school. Students learn through iteratively planning, constructing, and testing solutions. The iterative approach encourages them to view failures as opportunities to recognize when their knowledge is incomplete and helps them understand that they don’t fully understand science concepts until they can apply them and make them work. Students do most of their work at tables and on the floor of the classroom. They periodically record what they are doing on paper or on the computer; they use SMILE while planning, making hard decisions, and reflecting on what they’ve done.

Making LBD work has required the definition and refinement of a system of classroom rituals that promote question posing, science talk, sharing of results, and reflection. "Messing about" is guided play for the purpose of connecting what they know already to the challenge they are addressing; "whiteboarding" is a time for articulating what they know, suggesting ideas about how to address the challenge, identifying what they still need to learn and what they are wondering or confused about, and beginning to plan experiments; "gallery walks" are a time for showing the class solutions-in-progress, explaining the design decisions that led to those solutions, using science as evidence, reporting results of trials, and asking the class for advice; "pin-ups" are similar but are reports of early design plans. SMILE is used to enhance and extend these rituals and to extend classroom discussions across classes. SMILE’s suite of tools includes a discussion area, whiteboard, case-authoring tool, storyboard author, and publication site.

(1) The WHITEBOARD is an electronic version of the recording tool suggested by problem-based learning (Barrows, 1985). The current version builds on our experiences with McBagel (Guzdial et al., 1997) and Web-SMILE (Puntambekar et al., 1997). It helps students organize what they know, ideas they have for addressing their challenge, and issues they need to learn more about, helping them keep track of these things as they iterate to a complete solution.

(2) DDA (Kolodner & Nagel, submitted), the Design Discussion Area, supports pin-ups, gallery walks, and presentation of experimental results. It helps students plan for classroom presentations of their experimental results, design plans, and design results; it provides a repository of those results for other students to consult and learn from; and it supports discussion about those results across groups, classes, or schools. Collaboration within small groups is encouraged by the prompts, hints, and examples available to help students describe their design ideas and results so others can understand them. Across-group discussion is anchored to those presentations. They are helped to structure their comments with simple suggestions.

(3) The Case Authoring Tool (CAT) helps students read expert cases, extract their important points, and write them up as cases for other students to use. Each group in the class works on a different expert case, and the whole class has available to them as resources all the cases that were read without having to read all of them in the original (which can be quite difficult). This tool helps facilitate research and provides a broad base of domain knowledge for all.

(4) Storyboard Authoring helps students prepare reflective summaries and stories about what they have learned during a design challenge. Its questions, hints, and examples help students reflect back on their experience to remember the concepts and skills they learned. Students are helped to write stories that include in them enough details so that someone else can appreciate what they learned and how they learned it and learn from their experiences. We ask them, as well, to anticipate the circumstances in which these lessons they learned might be useful later on in real-life situations. It helps students prepare a final presentation of their project; they also can publish exceptional write-ups for others to learn from.

(5) The Peer Publications tool provides student access to cases created using Storyboard Authoring and CAT. The indexing and access methodology to best assist students in locating peer published works, which relate to their situation is our current focus in the tool. Once there is a body of cases, how do other students find useful information within this vast resource pool?


This research has been supported in part by the National Science Foundation (ESI-9553583), the McDonnell Foundation, the BellSouth Foundation, and the EduTech Institute (with funding from the Woodruff Foundation). The views expressed are those of the authors.


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