Implementing Studios for Experiential Learning

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Implementing Studios for Experiential Learning. Christabel Gonsalvez and Martin Atchison. School of Information Management and Systems. Monash University.

Implementing Studios for Experiential Learning Christabel Gonsalvez and Martin Atchison School of Information Management and Systems Monash University {chris.gonsalvez, martin.atchison} Abstract

and adapted to suit the needs and constraints of the two degree progra ...... es.

This paper sh .....,~rises some of the key issues arising from the implementation of studio-based teaching in two ITbased undergraduam courses. The studios a i m t o p r o v i d e s t u d e n t s w i t h e x p e r i e n t i a l l e a r n i n g . ; i n which they can 'learn by doing'. They are based on a model of studio teaching advocated by Schon. The paper descn'bes a wide variety of ideas which have been tried in the studios, and discusses student ~nd staffresponses. It indicates some oft.he lessons which have been learned, and identifies the key issues which need to be addressed when implementing studio t~aehin$. 1.


This paper stmauarises some of the key issues arising from the implementation of studio-based teaching in two ITbased undergraduate courses run by the School of Infor~fion

1VIanagement and Systems


within the

Faculty of Information Technology at Monash University in MeIboume, Australia. There is strong and growing support for the view that university courses should contain a higher content of expe1"ienfiallearnln~, in which students can 'learn by doing' as opposed to traditional 'chalk and talk'methods of instruction.There are many examples of the applicationof various forms of experiential learning to IT teaching in the educational literature: for example [2,5,6,8,10,16]. SIMS has adopted the use of the model of studio-based roaching advocamd by Schon [13] as a key component of itsIT-based undergraduam courses [I]. Studioswere implemented first in the Bachelor of MRlfimedia ~B1V[~ in 1998, and then in the Bachelor of Information Management and Systems (BIMS) in 2000. The design of the Studio curriculum was based on the principles described by Schon,

l~ion to make disilal ~ hm'dcopies of all or part of this w~.k fmpenoml or d t n m o m t m is snmted witheet ~e provided that copies a ~ not made or dislr~uted f~" profit or connnercial advanatge, and that COlfies bern"this netke tnd the fldl cimion on the tim i~tSL To mpy o t ~ e , tn republish, m pint on ~ or m redi~ra~ute m I~,, requkes ;riot specific pernmsion and/or a fee. ACE 2OOO12/00 Mea~om'ne,Australia O 2000 ACM 1o$8113-271-9/00/0012 ... $5.00

The authors have been closely involved in the design and teachinE oft.he Studio components of the two courses. This paper briefly summarises key aspects of the SIMS experience of implementing Studios. It identifies the main areas in which it was hoped that Studios would support teaching, and hishlights the main issues to have arisen m date. 2.

Studio Experiences

Studio work comprises 25% of the content of each year of each of the degree programmes. In their Studio work, students are required to participate regularly for extended periods of time in a range of structured and unstructured work sessions, and to carry out a variety of tasks. The work is heavily practically-based, and aims tO provide students with experience in developing systems and system components in conditions similar to those which they will encounter in the workplace. Forrml teaching in Studio sessions comprises a mixture of teachin~m e t h o d s , with blend varying according to the topics being discussed. Although there have been some si~mcant differences in the way in which the Studio model has been implemented in the two degree progr~mmes, for the sake of simplicity, observations about the experiences from both courses have been combined in this paper. The original proposal for incorporaRng Studio teachi,s into the course CmTiculumidentified a w~mher of areas in which it was hoped that learning outcomes would be improved. Following is a brief evaluation of experiences in each of these key areas. The specific aim~ of the Studio are described for each area, followed by an outline of the ~r~i. featm'es of the methods used to achieve these aims, and some of the key issues which have arisen in practice. 2.1 Objective: To enable students to gain experienceIn applying their leamlng to the solution of realistic businns problems. Ainu: Providing students with practical experience is seen as being an essential aspect of current IT curricula [8,14,15]. A key focus for the Studio work is to give


Issues: As with other forms of industry based experiential learning, finding suitable industry projects which cover the required areas of learning can be difficult. FindinS webbased development projects proved relatively easy for students in the B M M because of the cmrent popularityof the web and the suitabilityof web projects for small organisations. However, finding appropriate system development projects for the B I M S studentsis much more all--cult Industry development of information systems tends to be for large systems, is carried out more often in large organisations, and o f ~ n requires more technical infraslrtlcture than is readily available to students in a university. It has been necessary to resort to the use of artificial case studies based on real life problems as a substitute until this problem can be resolved.

students this 'real-life' perspective to their studies. Feedback from industry suggested that students fxom traditional course and teach/rig environments found it difficult to apply their knowledge adequately when faced with business situations in real life. There was a distinct feeling that the first working year for a new graduate was a non-prodnetive 'training' year. The Studio aims to familiarise students with the realities of the business problems which confront practitioners, so that they can be productive fi'om the start of their working life. Practice: The Studio uses industry based project work and case studies to provide this perspective thmnghout all years of the course. There are two main components to the Studio p r o ~ in this area:

The changes of amount, timing and duration of industry projects during the course have followed fi'om experience with different student cohoF~, and have demonstrated that careful management and some flem'bility are needed to get the right balance. Too much industry-based work can become ffi'ustrafing for students who want to have some freedom to expexl.u~nt and try things which may not fit within the parameters of the projects they are working on. Industry work which comes too soon when students are s(ill 'feeling their way' with aspects of the technical or theoretical content can cause their suess levels to rise to the point where they interfere with their learning. Projects which go for too Ion8 may become tedious and cause the students to lose i n ~ . s t , or may require the students to focus too mash on the peculiar/ties of that project when they would prefer to try something new.

• projectsfor real clients: Students are required to carry out project-based work developing products or systems for clients. Preferably these clients are from outside the university, but good internal projects are also l~,~itted. Students are expected to find their own projects, m~nage the projects, carry out all required consultations and negotiatious with their client, and deliver a working final product. Academic staff are responsible for vetting projects for suitability, and monitoring progress, but otherwise take no part in the projects. The use of clientbased projects has been vasied in several respects since the first implementation of Studios. The main changes have been in: - amounP.


- duration:

i n i ~ l y all major project work was clientbased; subsequently this was modified to reqlfire a minirrmm level of client-based work, but with the students being a11owed to choose a blend of non-client-based and client-based work; initially all students were expected to undertake client-based projects throughout each year of the course; subsequently this was relaxed to aUow students to choose to do non-client-based work in first semester; initially the client-based projects were fixed at one semester long in first year and two semesters long in second and third years. This was subsecpmnfly relaxed to I~rmit projects of either one or two semesters duration in second and thirdyear.

On the other hand, there are also students who 'can't get enough' industry-based projects; there are students who are capable of dealing with the stresses and the technical aspects of projects right from the start of their course; and there are students who like long projects which really enable them to 'get their teeth' into something. The key to success for project work in the Studio has been to set a suitable basic core of industry-based work for all students throughout the course, and maintain flem'bility to enable students m do more ff they are wining and able to do so. The use of industry practitioners in Studios brings the usual problems with finding the 'right' practitioner, not only in terms of their knowledge but aLso their ability to present that knowledge. While practitioners can be very useful in helping students think about practice implications, their biases sometimes clash with the theoretical base supported by the course. This can pose some diR:icutfies, as practitioners may have more credibility than academics in the eyes of the students, and it may be difficult to convince students that the practitioner is not necessarily right However, on the positive side, Studios provide a roach

• use of skilled practitioners fi'om industry: To further expose students to the realities of professional practice, practitioners from industry are used to discuss and demonstrate how they approach business problems, or to give lecturesor seminars on various aspects of theirwork. Students also share their own industry experiences formally. They l~Sent their materials, methods used and group experiencesto the other groups, which helps expose the whole student body to a range of experiences.


better environment for practitioners to demonstrate and discuss their work in a relatively informal setting. 2.2 Objective: To provide students with experience of working as part of a project t u r n

based project work, such as group selection, equity of assessment methods, managing problem groups, etc [8,12]. With the studio approach, however, the amount of group work and project work and the e ~ h a s i s on reflective learning allow students to learn from their mistakes and implement different strategies to improve in future projects and groups. This learning fixnn experience is reflected in their improved ability to n~nage and function in groups as the course proceeds.

Aims: Since most professional practice in information systems is get/erally done in project teams, the ability to work proficiently in a group is a key foundation skill [II,14,17]. Sn,d,.nts should learn how to work collabomtively with their peers towards a well defined goup-set goal. They should be able to define the boundar/es of the task at hand, and allocate group resources based on the knowledge and ~k/ll~ of group members. They nmst aim to achieve the best possible ou~::ome in the most efficient way possible within time and resource constraints. Examples of the key ~'k-ill~they are expected to practise are:

The issue which is of particular concern in Studio work is finding the right balance in the student's overall blend of group-based and individual assessment. Many students react strongly in favour or against group-based work. On the one hand some students feel that groups hold them back and reduce their fieedom to develop their own ~k'ill~ and approaches to problem-solving. On the other hand some students like the 'comfort' of working in groups, and may use the group to help them avoid dealing with some aspects of course content which they don't l.t~e. The Studio program has to satisfy the student's need for fi-eedom of personal expression and the academic need for individual assessment, while ensuring that the pedagogical objectives for teaching group work are met.

managing their time to meet on-going de~dliv~s; using a range of inter-personal dHlh 'to manage CO mication w#hln the group a11d with external clients; negotiating and resolving any group conflict. .......

Practice: A significant pe~entage of the project work in the Studios is done within goups. In the first semester of their first year, students are put into groups on a relatively arbitrary basis, informed only by a very broad selfassessment of their skills and interests. However, for all subsequent semesters they choose their own groups. The group size can vary from two to five, and the composition is entirely up to the students.

2.30bjectiwD: To develop Independent learners




Aims: With the rapid rote of change in many aspects of business, students need to be able to learn independently throughout their careers to keep abreast of current developrr~t~ [4,9]. This is especially true in Information Technology, where continually updating ~'lcill~ is essential to staying relevant in the industry. Professional practitioners must be able to conduct research and quickly achieve competency in completely new areas of knowledge which may become of interest or importance to their client. The Studio alm~ to encourage development of independent learning s~]l~ in students.

The students are required to evaluate the group they have put together, and reflect on group composition and how it best relates to the needs of the project. They present a written report on the choices made, the roles of the group me'tubers, the skills they ~ and how they are going to fill skill gaps in the group. This assessment forces them to think about the impact of group membership on project success. At the start of each project the studems define their expectations of group slructure and performan*e. At various points during the project and after it is completed, the groups reflect on their actual perforr~nee and c o n ~ it with their expectations. This refiection is crucial for them to put their experiences into context.

Prat~i~: Studio work has been structured to encourage students to become independent learners in three key ways. First, the recu, h~g project work wit'hi~ the Studios encourages students to become independent learners. The variable and relatively uncontrolled nature of the projects leads to situations in which the students have to cope with circumstances which they have not experienced before. They are required to carry out their own research, using their own peers and a range of academic and indu.~y based resources to find appropriate solutions. Students can seek advice from the Studio leader, but tmffke some other forms of experiential learning, they do not have their own personal supervisor to guide and direct them. This forces them to seek out solutions for themselves.

While experience is their main teacher, some forrrml sessions on the nature of group work are useful after the students have had some experience. The problems experienced by the various groups can be used as a basis for discussion, together with solutions they have tried. The theory of group work becomes much more interesting and makes a lot more sense to the students when studied against this background.

Secondly, the format of the teaching program in the Studio alm~ to create a learn/ng environment in which students are forced to take more direct responsibility for their learning.

Issues: Studio-based group work experiences the problems which tend to be co ..... nu to all forms of group-


One useful compromise approach which has been used successfully is to use the best-performing students to lead some of the formal 'teaching'. While this form of peer instruction helped the students who had been struggling to get started on the task, it also demonstrated that independent learning was possible, as shown by the ma.~ery achieved by some of theirpeers. The acadcmlc staff member's role becomes one of arranging and facilitating the class, rather than ~ n ~ on the central role as instructor.

The content and conduct of the Studio sessions aims to emphasise the role of the academic staff as facilitators of discussion, rather than allowing or requiring them to drive and direct the smuients, as tends to be the case in more conventional teaching modes. The format and structuring of studio-based acclivities and the physical layout of the studio space aim to set up an environment which reduces the focus on the teaching staf~ and encourages students to take more responsibility. Thirdly, students are required to identify the area(s) of work for which they have a partiodar interest or aptitude, and carry out projects which demonstrate their special competence. This work is done on an individual basis, though it may also be done as part of the student's coutn'bution to a group projecL These tasks require students to identify areas of interest to them and independently develop their ~ l l g with minimal academic

2.4 Objective: To encourage students to leam by reflection and evaluation of their work and skills, and the work of ~ e l r peers Aims: One of the ha11~c~rk3 of the de/lied p r a c t i n ~ r is their ability to reflect upon their work, evaluate its outcomes and identify their own strengths and weaknesses [7,13]. Students must learn how to ~alyse their own abilities and be able to objectively evaluate what they have to offer to a project. They need to be able to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, so as to be able to offer the best of themselves to their group, or improve in their weak areas if those siH11~ are re,quired. They aLso need to evaluate the work of others, adding value to the product being reviewed without denigrafin~ the efforts of the individual.

guidance. Issues: The quality of the experience of independent learning achieved as a result of project work depends on the nature of the project and of the group itself. Projects vary in the extent to which they provide new learning experiences, and group dynamics affect the extent to which groups encourage or enable their members to take their opportunity to develop independent skills. Interesting projects dud smoothly-functioning groups create many opportuaifies for independent learning, but mnadaae projects and dysfunctional groups can jeopardise the experience. Careful monitoring of projecm and group perfor-~-~e is needed.

Practice: Encouragement of reflection is done at various times and with varying degrees of form~llty throughout the Studio prog~, ..... ,e in every' year of the course.

At the least formal level, the conduct of the Studio sessions allows the Studio leader to seize opportunities as they arise to encourage discussion and reflection within the student group.

SU'u~ of studio teaching sessions to facih'mte independent learning requires a balance between relatively 'traditional' structured teaching methods and a much less interventionist approach in which the academic sets a framework within which students are required to work on their own initiative. It is easy for academic staff to err in either direction. Ozl the One hand, they may bring their familiar lecture theatre/tutorial approach intO the Studio, and lose the flem'bility and 'student-centredness' which the Studio tries to achieve. On the other he.ud they can be too laissez-faire and provide too little s~ucture and direction, leaving some students feeling unsure about what to do, and uncertain about the intended focus of their Studio work.

At a more formal level, students are required to keep diaries that are updated at least weekly, and preferably more often, as part of their studio work. They write about their expectations for the week, and at the end of the week, reflect on what they learnt and how they managed the week compared to their" expectations. This forces them to think about what they are doing rather than just blindly following instructions. At the most formal level, students are required to submit assessable material about their reflection on their knowledge, understanding and perfoJ,,-nce in a number of ways as follows:

Not all students are enthusiastic about becornln~ independent learners. To ensure that independent learning does occur, it is important to be able to push the students without overwhelm/rig them. Creating the fight degree of complex/ty for a task can be difficult.,given the range of abilities and motivations within a given student body. Class progress needs to be monitored carefully to assess how well students are coping, and to decide whether a more

• general: students are required to submit written assessments about themselves three times a year, discussing their skills, interests, aspirations and intended career outcomes. At each assessment they reflect on past answers to see where they have moved, and over the period they learn to critically evaluate themselves. They are asked

interventionist approach is needed.


to identify their strengths and weaknesses and identify what work they need to do to/reprove; • project work: students are required to evaluate their conm'butions to each of their group projects, with both an interview and written report. This reflection helps them identify issues they have with group work and project management, and the sic/1]~ they have to offer within a group; • other activities: students are encouraged (and in some cases required) to assess their own work. They make their own assessment of what mark they think their work on set ta~k~ deserves, and commeut on areas of deficiency and what is required to improve it. They are encouraged to revisit work done earlier in the course, and re-assess it in the light of their current knowledge.

practice attempts to address these problems. It airn~ to make students aware of the behavionr which is expected of professional practitioners, not merely by formal instruction on topics such as professionalism, ethics, etc, but by requiring them to work likp professionals throughout their course. Practice: Many aspects of the sinmlation of the professional work environment are covered under other headings in this paper (eg working in teams, independent learnln$; reflective practice). However, it is important to h/~hlight soma of the siznifie~"t features of the way in which Studio practice conm'butes to the student's learning in this area. The three years of Studio work are used to expose students to the variety of roles they can perform in practice, the set of ~1ci11~involved in these roles, and the changing role and responsibil~es of the professional practitioner. While teachln~ stodfllts the tlLory of how to conduct yourself in practice is possible, giving the students the oppormmity to practise these ~lcills is a far more effective teaching method. The studio sessions create a forum where topics based around this theme are raised frequently, and the student's responsibilities to their project group and to their client are h]~hli~hmd throughout all their project work. invited guests from industry are also brought in to add their insights. Students learn that professional practice is an in~gral part of all their work, rather than a topic that they learn in isolation. They are forced to th/~k and act like professionals fight from the start of their first project in the first year of their course.

Issues: To be effective, reflection requires maturity, selfesteem and self-confidence. Learnin,g how to critically =nalyse their o w n work can be difficult for students, many of whom have been raised in educational environn~uts which encourage them to view a task as completed for ever once it has been submitted. Returnms to submitted work, reviewing it and re-assessing it seem like a waste of time. Many students also feel uncomfortable about criticising or praising their own work.

It takes most students a considerable time to learn how to reflect on learnlnS experiences rather than providing a list of achievements each week. They tend to treat reflection as a form of project planning end management, rather th.~ as an exercise in self-evaluation. In the first year of studios, to ensure task compliance, updating diaries became a pl~mw.d task at each studio session. This forced activity in m~ny ways negated the reason for the diary existence, which was reflection at leisure.

Issues: Traditional university teaching and learning spaces (lecture theaues, tutorial rooms, laboratories) are generally poorly-suited to enable the sorts of interaction and establish the sorts of a~tudes which are required for this learni-~l The physical work space usually available in universities places the academic staff member in the position of prom/hence, and discourages or i-hibits interaction between students or between students and academic staff as peers. It encourages students to take a relatively passive role as note-takers and receivers of inforl~tioR, rather than conU'ibuting actively as budding professionals whose university course is merely one component of a career of life-long learning. Effective Studio work requires teaching and learning spaces which have been designed to encourage interaction and the sharing of knowledge between students and academic staff. The School has experimented with a number of different layouts for Studio spaces, and has designed and built new teaching spaces in which to conduct the Studio progr~ ..... ,e. Details of these spaces can be found in [3].

Providing the right physical environment aud managing student anmhers in the student sessions were vital for ensuring that group discussion and reflection were possible. If thc mlml~T Of SUldcnts in a session exceeded twenty, it was very difficult to creme an environmaat where the group felt safe enough to share their views. Invariably, the extroverts in the class took over, changing the mode from relaxed discussion to presentation, with many students opting not to participate. 2.5 Objective: To famlllarlse students with professional work environments Aims: As professionals, the graduates of a university course have sicmificant responsz~oilities towards their colleagues, their employees, their clients and the co ....... m/ty at large. Universities and Waditional teaching programmes provide a work environmeut which bears little resemblance to that which students will encounter in professional practice. Most course structures give stodeutS little opportmfity to experience and reflect upon their future role and responsibilities as professionals [8,13]. Studio

Students vary in their w i l l i n ~ l ~ s to u~:~Lst,~:t and accept the burdens of behaving in a professional way. Some of them have attitudes about their role as students which are


almost the exact opposite of what we want them to develop as professionals - eg they have no obligations to anyone, they are entitled to 'get away with' whatever they can, the academic staff are responsible for teachin~ rather t h a n the student being responsible for learning, etc. The existence of these attitudes serves to reinforce the importance of addressing issues of professionalism, but it also means that the transition from student to professional must be managed with some sensitivity towards the ability of the students to handle the change. 2.6 Objective: To faclll~tu the Integration of student's knowledge



Skilled professional practitioners bring together a range of knowledge and skills from a variety of different areas of practice in order to solve business problems. S~d~nts should likewise learn how to integrate their knowledge from the wide range of topics which are covered during their course. Not only does this give them practice at working in the manner which will be expected of them in industry, but we believe it also significantly improves their ability to undersmud each of the topics being taught [15]. Lfl~epieces of a jigsaw, the individual subjects or topics covered in a university course may not maka a lot of sense to a student when viewed in isolation. However, as the pieces are integrated to make the total picture, the contrfimtion of each piece to the whole becomes clear, and its imporumce can be better understood. The Studio aims to provide the horizontal and vertical integration of the various con3)oneuts of the course required to enable students to undel~stand the complete picture. Aimx:

Core Subject 3

Core Subject 4




Subject Subject



Elective Subject.

Elective Figure 1 (b). Conceptual coun¢ map s~ucture. upon the work the students do in their Studio classes for illustrations of the application of theory to practice. This interaction enables students to see the Imk~ between their subjects in many different business contexts. For ~ample, the connections between entity relationship modelling, database design, progr~ ...... ;n~ and interface design which are all taught in different subjects during the course are hi~h,ghted during the Studio sessions. This knowledge is then taken back and contn'butes to the learning in the individual subjects. The students can see the content they are learning in context., and their learning is sj~nifiqautly ¢nh~nned. Issues: The need for tight horizontal and vertical integration between core subjects and the Studio work requires more planning of the course structure and a greater attention to detail in advance than is usually required. It reduces the flexibility for subject leaders to modify the timing or content of the core subjects as they progress through a semester, because chRn~es may have significant imptications for planno~t Studio work. The c o ~ a n i c a t i o n channels between the various subject leaders, year leaders and the course leader need to be excellent, and there must be a continuing flow of information about subject progress to rn/nimise the chances of 'rn/~alj~,nment' of content.

Sere 1 Studio


Scm 2

Figure l(a). Standard Course Map Structure. Practice: A Studio subject runs throughout each year of the course. (See Figure 1(a)). Although this can be seen in the 'standard' course map structure, the nature of the real llnk between the Studio and its surrounding subjects is better shown by the conceptual course map shown in Figure l(b). Ideally, there is a two-way interaction between the Studio and the other core subjects; Studio work is used to highlight, illustrate and integrate aspects of the content taught in core subjects, while the core subjects can call

Particular care must be taken with subjects which pem~t enrolments by students from other courses who are not t ~ n E the Studio subject. The subject content must be delivered in a way which enables Studio students to take advantage of their Studio work, while not jeopardising the learning of the students who do not do the Studio subject. Issues may also arise with course progression for students who fail one off their core subjects. Strategies to deal with


problems like these must be developed as part of the planning for Studio implementation. One of the original planned benefits of the Studio environment was that it would provide flem~oilityof content delivery, and give the chss more freedom to improvise and explore topicsas they arise, rather than being tied to the phnn~ syUabus outline. It has proven to be not always posm'ble to achieve these benefits because of the possible impact on other subjects. The Studio leader needs to be totallyaware of all core subject content and the timing of that content to maximize learnings ratimr than repeating or pre-empfi-g the content in the core subjects. 3.


Toowoomba, Queensland, Australis.





The SIMS implementation of its model of studio-based teachin~ is still in its infancy. Studio teaching is very different to any other form of teaching which the School has attempted in the past, ..d we are stilllearning about the most appropriate methods for carrying it out. The model is in a state of contim,ous imgroven~nt, and is likely to undergo further c ~ - g e as we gain experience in its use.

Studio teaching requires a major input of resources, not only in terms of time and physical infrastzuctore, but also in the investment of effort by academic staff in rethinking their approach to teaching and reworlfing their course matemh. However, despite all the difficulties, the responses of both students and staffto the model have been generally positive. Our experiences indicatethat the studio offers s~n]ficant improvements to teaching and learning.









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Institutions which are interested in adopting studio-based teaching as a form of experiential learning should feel encouraged by our findings. This paper has highllgh1~:l some of the key issues which they need to address.


Chase, J.D. and Okie, E.G., Combining Cooperative Learning and Peer Instruction in

Queensland, AusUa~.


[s] As with any significant innovation there have been teething problems. We have experimented with a wide variety of ideas, some of which have worked exceptionally well, but some of which have proved unsuccessful or too difficult to ;-,plement. In almnst all cases, o"ngiI~d ideas have had to be reconsidered and reworked in the light of practical experience.

Carbone, A., Lynch, K. and Amott, D., Introducing a Studio-hased Learning Environment into Information Technology in Proceedings of ASET-HERDSd Conference 2000 (July),



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Education in Proceeding of ACSE '97, (July 1997) ACM Press, Melbourne, AusU'alia. Wilictn¢, D.E. and Lawheed, P.B., Evaluating Individuals in Team Projects in Proceeding of SIGCSE 2000 (March 2000) ACM Press, Austin, Texas, USA.


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