A traditional approach to the use of computer-aided learning may be visualized as follows:
The assumption is that some concept is presented to students, by the textbook or the professor, they grasp it, then practice applying it, and eventually are evaluated. As the image shows, this may be seen as a loop, in that further presentation or explanation may be provided on the basis of evaluation.
In this model, the role of technology is often limited to supporting the presentation of concepts, through web pages, slide presentations and such, and to assisting in practice and evaluation, through online exercises, quizzes and tests.
However, it is possible to conceive of an alternative approach, as the following image shows:
In this approach, students begin by grappling with data (biological systems, language, social phenomena...) and attempting to conceptualize what they observe. This activity may be done by a single individual (hence the two nodes in green), but may also take place in a group, as the addition of the pink node shows. The three elements may be seen as a cycle, where data informs conceptualization, and vice-versa, and discussion informs the other two.
In fact, the traditional and alternative models are rarely entirely pure in classroom teaching: in practice both are used. However, we believe that to date, most computer-aided language learning has been informed mostly by the traditional model. It is this we seek to change.
On the one hand, we believe that the potential inherent in electronic textbooks has not been realized. Just as we speak of web pages, thereby continuing the metaphor of the paper document, so also, we tend to see electronic textbooks as simple transpositions of paper textbooks: as a means of presenting facts and concepts, perhaps enhanced by more dynamic presentations. But it is possible to invert the usual order. Instead of presenting materials and then having students apply them, it's possible to have students begin by exploring, and have them discover concepts and test them, with guidance. Again, this approach is not new in the classroom context and is captured by well-worn slogans like replacing the sage on the stage by the guide by the side. That being said, we do not believe that this approach has been implemented as much as it might be in electronic textbooks. It is that which we seek to do here.
By the same logic, we believe that computer-aided learning software can be used not just as a means of practicing and evaluating previously-acquired concepts, but also as a means of putting learners in front of data which leads them to formulate concepts and test them against subsequent data, with perhaps the (computer-mediated or live) complement of discussion with others.
Exploring these two areas (more dynamic textbooks and more exploratory software) is the goal of our research.