The WebLabs project (http://www.lkl.ac.uk/kscope/weblabs/) was a 3 year EU funded research project, which investigated creating new ways of representing and
expressing mathematical and scientific knowledge in European
communities of young learners (10-14 years). Our focus was on
designing activites which promoted collaborative construction, description and interpretation of phenomena in domains such as number sequences, force and acceleration, infinite sets, randomness, and ideal collisions. In order to support these activites we designed and developed an on-line publishing system called WebReports (http://weblabs.org.uk/wlplone).
individual and collaborative facets of learning are intertwined at all stages
of our activities. The WebReports
system was set up to support both. The
primary aim of this system is to allow learners to reflect on each others work
by sharing working models of their ideas. The "atomic unit" of content in the
system is a web report: a document containing formatted text, along with
multi-media objects, Java applets, and most important – ToonTalk models. These
models are embedded in the report as images, which link to the actual code
object. When clicked, they automatically open in the reader’s ToonTalk
environment – which could be in another classroom or another country. The
reader can then manipulate the object, modify it, and even respond with a
comment that may include her own model. Note that by including a revised or
alternative model the students have several ways of building on each others
knowledge. This last point is crucial: rather than simply discussing what each
other thinks, students can share what
they have built and rebuild each others’ attempts to model
any given task or object.
primary focus was on the design of a system consisting of technology,
activities, and organizational interventions we made a strategic decision to
use (and enhance as needed) existing “vanilla flavour” open source systems. Our
first prototype was built upon JSPWiki (http://www.jspwiki.org)
whereas the current system is based on Plone (http://www.plone.org).
This led us to focus on the functional and usability design, and minimize our
implementation efforts. Our code is now available for free download from http://www.lkl.ac.uk/kscope/weblabs/webreports.htm.
Reports are edited using a visual editor. Apart from standard text
formatting features, this editor allows users to easily embed media including
Java applets of their models as well as objects embedding the ToonTalk code in
their reports. Students
can grab any program object in their ToonTalk
environment, and copy it instantaneously into their report.
catalogued along three axes: topic, site and function. The first categorizes
reports by their subject content (e.g. Infinity, Sequences, 1D collisions). The
second lists the reports by the real-world team of the author (school, class or
club). The function heading presents content by the way it was conceived to be
used (programming component, personal report, tutorial etc.).
With over 300 users spread across 6 European countries, the WebReports system was successfully used to support a wide range of activities across diverse knowledge domains. Some activities were game-based, such as Guess my Robot  and Guess my Garden. Others, such as colision modeling  involved simulation. It also served as a platform for creating and sharing on-line games .
The Weblabs System
The strength of the WebLabs project emerged from the co-ordinated design of platform, tools and activities. The new possibilities brought about by this design also called for a new outlook on classroom dynamics and the role of the teacher. Some of these issues are discussed in .
Our methodology of activity design has emerged through a process of
iterative refinement. Our approach interleaves modelling tasks and discussions
(face-to-face and on-line). The former builds intuitions in the domain area,
while the later forges these into formal argumentation. Our activities follow a
common cycle: first a
scientific phenomenon or research question is introduced via a group discussion
and specific modelling tasks are derived from it. Students then work
individually or in pairs, exploring the question at hand through modelling in
ToonTalk. Once done, they use a specialized template to publish (on the web) a
written report on their findings. The models they have developed are embedded
in this report. These reports are then used as input for a group discussion,
which concludes with the publication of a group report. When possible, this report
will be reviewed by groups from other countries, working on the same topic, to
initiate inter-group discussions.
evolution of our methodology is in itself an interesting example of the
mediating role of technology. At an early stage of the design, we realized that
if we wanted to interleave on-line discussion with modelling, the WebReports
system would have to support this practice. Among the
required features were streamlined embedding of coded models in a textual
report and templates which scaffold students’ writing. Only after these
features were available did we realize that they enabled us to create a new
tool, and a new related practice, which we called task templates. These
are report templates which include task instructions and questions. The novelty
of this tool is that all the tools required for the task are embedded in the
template. Students click on the tools they need, work their way through the
modelling task, and eventually replace the question text in the template with
their own observations.
The ToonTalk programming environment
software programming as playing a key role in individual and group learning.
Children explore and test their conceptions of the phenomena through
programming. Furthermore, by sharing programmed models, they communicate ideas
in a concrete yet accurate form. We are programming with ToonTalk (Kahn, 1996; 1999; http://www.ToonTalk.com) a language used in the past with younger
children to construct video games (Hoyles, Noss & Adamson, 2002). ToonTalk is a computer game,
programming environment and programming language in one. In ToonTalk programs take the form of
animated cartoon robots. Programming is done by training these robots: leading
them through the task they are meant to perform. After training, programs are
generalised by “erasing” superfluous detail from robots' “minds”.
Designing for systems of activity
last decade, activity theory has been gaining attention as an aid for designing
computer interfaces (Nardi, 1996), CSCL, and the learning sciences in
particular (Kaptelinin & Cole, 1997; Jonassen, 2000; Fjuk & Ludvigsen,
2001; Barab et al, 2002). Activity theory spans from the idea, put forth by
Vygotsky (1962; 1987), that human actions are directed at objects and
mediated by artefacts. These objects define the focus of our attention,
while the mediating instruments shape our perception. Hence, the three form a
minimal unit of analysis in understanding consciousness and learning. Objects
and instruments are artefacts of culture, developed though its history.
A comprehensive analysis needs to take these factors into account as well.
Cognition and learning are always situated in socio-cultural contexts.
Vygotsky’s method is dialectic and emphasizes how the different components of
the system shape and change one another; it builds on a Marxist tradition and
on the ideas of Hegel.
have been elaborated by Engeström (1987; 1999) and Cole & Engeström (1993),
to include the community in which the subject (acting agent)
operates, the outcomes, or aims, of the activity, the rules which
define the subjects relations with the community and the division of labour
between subjects. Activity theory is never content with describing these
constituents in isolation, but focuses on the relations and tensions between
them. Indeed, learning is often driven by the need to resolve contradictions
within the system.
of our project lies in the integration of constructionist modelling activities
with web-based knowledge building discussions, to support learners distributed
across six European countries. For us, this means looking beyond the isolated
constituents of educational design, and exploring the activity system as
a whole. This system includes a combination of components such as technological
development, design of novel learning activities, and organizational efforts to
support teachers and students in different countries. In this analysis we use
activity theory due to its emphasis on understanding human action as systems of
activity in social, cultural, and historical settings. By viewing our design efforts
not only as particular technological developments (in the form of new ways to
support programming or a new system for collaboration) but also as the creation
of a system consisting of new educational activities and organisational
changes, we intend to show how all these components interact to form the system
in which the students are central actors. This allows us a rich understanding
of the educational context the students are working in. Note however, that this
does not mean that technical developments are not important contributions of
our work, but rather that these developments must be understood in the context
of the activities and the settings in which they are used. By introducing new
technologies in an activity system, the system itself is changed which may be
the source of contradictions between the different components in the system.
Fjuk & Ludvigsen (2001) discuss how contradictions in the use of such
instruments arise from their multiple purposes, and how the particular purpose
within one activity system is shaped by the activities that accompany the use
of the instruments from another. They demonstrate how contradictions between
the different purposes of an instrument may afford contradictory activities.
Their analysis suggests that in order to understand the design of educational
technologies we need to analyse these within the context of the activity and
settings where they being used. This viewpoint has been a guiding element in
the analysis of the present paper. Our system was designed in tandem with the
educational activities, and the analysis is done in their context. These
activities do not occur in a void; we need to be aware of all components of the
The structure of the community
(or communities) of researchers, teachers and students.
The division of labour between
these three groups and within them.
The social rules which govern
interactions between students and between students and teachers /
The web of connections which
tie local groups and global communities.
Other instruments in the
environment, such as the programming environment and spreadsheets,
traditional tools, such as whiteboards and paper, as well as specifically
designed objects for collaborative group activities.
The mathematical and scientific
objects which are explored and the educational outcomes of these
 Yishay Mor and Jakob Tholander and Jesper Holmberg (2006).
Designing for cross-cultural web-based knowledge building. In Timothy Koschmann and Daniel D. Suthers and Tak-Wai Chan, editor(s), The 10th Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) conference (2005), 450 - 459, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,