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ALT-C Conference Report


The fifth Alt-C conference was held at Oxford University on the 21 - 23 September. The main theme of the conference was 'Lifelong Learning on a Connected Planet', and sessions during the three days looked at topics including learning environments, assessment, staff development, evaluation and educational policy. The amount of interest in the conference theme was clearly shown by the large number of participants, including many international participants and speakers.

The conference was opened with the presentation of the European Academic Software Award (EASA) awards for innovative software and IT use in education across Europe. Full details of the awards can be found at: http://www.york.ac.uk/inst/ctipsych/easa/welcome.html

Following the awards, Professor Graham Richards of the University of Oxford gave the opening keynote speech. The key theme of the speech was a need for universities to become more entrepreneurial, for example in marketing computer based learning software as professional products, and to stop relying on research grants and funding, a notion that did not sit well with many of the delegates. He felt that the time was right for such a move, with the opportunity through the rapid growth of the Internet, and disarray within the publishing industry about how to handle this. On a less controversial note, he stressed the need for a central policy on IT, rather than the current system of initiatives coming from the bottom up common in many institutions, a recurring theme through the conference.

Multimedia Courseware

Many of the speakers provided examples of the implementation of multimedia courseware. Bandwidth is obviously a concern where such courseware is delivered over the Web, and several speakers described the use of multiple media, for example CD-ROM and WWW to overcome this problem. Esther Paist of the Thomas Edison State College described how a hybrid WWW/CD-ROM system was used in their college.

The Thomas Edison State College is an entirely distance-learning based college, catering mainly to mature students. All students in the Master of Science in Management programme are required to have computer and Internet access. The particular module in question, "Ethics for Managers" consists of case studies and scenarios which have been videotaped for the students to analyse and discuss. In delivering this over the Web, there is need to deliver the video, provide a high degree of interactivity and feedback, allow collaboration and communication with other students and staff, and to be able to update the material easily.

To solve the bandwidth problems associated with delivering video, a hybrid WWW/CD-ROM system, Web-iV was chosen. This allows video, stored as MPEG-1 on a local CD-ROM drive, and other high bandwidth materials, to be seamlessly integrated with the course Web site. The Web site contains text-based materials such as the syllabus and course assignments which may change frequently, and links to other related sites.

The course was developed in conjunction with Midi (http://www.midicorp.com/public/index.html), who designed the hybrid site and created the CD-ROM. Even though most of the video already existed in analogue form, the total cost was approximately 56,000, not including the time spent by members of the faculty in preparing the course and providing technical advice to students.

The author believes that delivering the course in this way enhances the students' learning experience, and has provided valuable templates, tools and experience for converting other courses. She also believes that one of the most important benefits of this project is that it has the potential to 'position the College strategically in the distance-education marketplace'.

Eileen Scanion and Canan Blake described how the Open University is using CD-ROM and WWW, though not in a formal hybrid system. They described the delivery of a distance based Masters degree (Studies in Science), where the students were provided with materials comprising texts, video and audio and a CD-ROM containing a searchable library of readings. The students also had access to WWW resources, and the First Class conferencing system. Generally the students coped with the technology well, particularly First Class, though some had ISP related access problems. The main issues related to the variety of previous computer experience among the students, and the problems caused by students using different setups and different machines. The conclusion was that the Masters degree could be supported by new technology, but its real effectiveness remains to be seen.

Assessment

It was unfortunate that few of the speakers could present any real assessment results showing the benefits (if any) of delivering multimedia courseware over traditional methods, though some, such as Denise Whitelock, of the Open University, did present the results of some initial assessments. This paper looked at providing computer based materials that could not be available in any other way to students on a science undergraduate course, and examining how the degree of learning could be assessed. Materials included a virtual field trip and molecular modelling software.

Firstly they looked at ways to measure interaction with the program, for example drag and drop and sequencing or ordering items. They also looked at several metrics for measuring learning:

The results showed that more interactivity leads to a higher cognitive change score, and a correlation between on task score and cognitive change score. In the discussion following the paper it was pointed out that interactivity also affects a number of other variables, such as time spent on a topic, and these could be influencing the cognitive change score. They also found the pacing of the material was important, and devised a 'tell, explore, check' (TEC) method, spending around 2 minutes on 'tell', 2-10 minutes on 'explore' and a similar time on 'check'. This is to encourage students to reason rather than just repeating material. No delayed tests had yet been carried out, so it was not possible to say whether this encouraged long term as well as short term memory.

Shirley Alexander of the University of Technology, Sydney (http://www.canberra.edu.au/CUTSD), gave an overview of a much more detailed assessment study. This study reviewed most of the IT based projects funded by the Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching (CAUT) in 1994 or 1995, to examine what, if any, benefits there are to student learning. Of the 104 questionnaires returned, 87% said they wanted to improve quality of learning, and 31% felt they actually achieved this. Only 10% felt they had improved learning productivity. One of the problems with the study was the general lack of good evaluation by the projects, most only measuring student attitudes. Some projects did stand out as good case studies, for example, a successful project using CMC to deliver teaching to very large (1100) classes.

The study reiterated an important common sense point, technology alone will not improve learning without good design. Types of design that were generally successful included:

Some of the benefits they found with good learning technology included:

For benefits to be realised, IT must be developed as part of the curriculum, not a 'bolt-on' extra. This needs suitable staff development, good project management right from the start and support from heads of departments and institutions. Good technical advice must also be available at all levels for both staff and students, and evaluations must be carried out to assess the success of the project. It is important when assessing the projects to make sure the assessment is measuring the right thing. If a piece of courseware is designed to increase a student's deeper understanding of a topic, the assessment should not measure how much they have simply memorised. In general the most successful projects, in addition to good learning design also addressed a particular need, were well integrated and realistic in scope.

Institutional Policy

The vital role of a clear institutional IT policy was highlighted by speakers throughout the conference. Barbara Watson of the University of Durham described 'Five Years Experience Of Learning Technology' at Durham, looking at how institutional policy has been shaped by changes in that time, including:

Internally:

Externally:

The main problems with integrating IT into the curriculum at Durham were felt to be a lack of time and money, and the prevalence of short-term contracts, forcing staff to focus on other areas. The problems can be overcome in part with more money, but there is also a need for academic recognition, support from senior management and a programme to follow up initiatives whose initial funding has stopped.

Jay Dempster of the University of Warwick also described how their unit, the Educational Technology Service (ETS), had been founded and then evolved over recent years. The ETS was formed to create a focal point for promoting awareness and use of learning technologies at Warwick. However, initially there was little input to policy making decisions and few links between support and research groups. To combat this more links were forged, and resources were publicised and disseminated by creating a web site, setting up a user group and seminar programme. They also sought to have a larger role in advising senior management about IT in teaching and learning and a greater involvement in academic policy, which has been assisted by its recent move to the Academic Staff Development Office.

Finally, Stephen Brown examined the situation in De Montfort University. He felt that there have been many factors driving a change in the way teaching and learning is delivered in recent years, including increased student numbers, demography, declining resources, pressure for increased quality and accountability, competition for students both nationally and internationally. At the same time Government policy to IT in education has been defined by reports such as Dearing and the technology has changed dramatically, with commercial providers continually pushing new products. There has also been a shift away from 'mass learning' such as large lectures to more individual learning, often distributed learning, and some degree of collaboration between departments and institutions to deliver teaching materials that are effectively 'multiple brand'.

To deal with these changes many organisations are developing links with private/public partnerships, links with schools and online learning resources. Although there is still considerable problems with developing an 'electronic campus', including cost, time, lack of infrastructure, staff attitudes and a lack of good evaluation of existing electronic materials, the author believes there will be an inevitable move to an electronic campus. The main reasons for this are the enhanced flexibility it allows, not only to distance learners but also students on campus, and the need to develop a 'trading position' that will allow it to compete for students.

In order for this to be achieved he felt there needs to be an awareness of the benefits the technology will bring, recognition for staff who develop the materials, staff development and of course, the network infrastructure around the campus to support it. Although there are a huge variety of tools and multimedia formats available, by sticking to simple tools and a restricted number of media types it will be possible to deliver better support and make materials more widely available. Support from senior management is also essential at all stages, with central co-ordination, but local control.

Closing Plenary

Dr Stephen Ehrmann of the Teaching, Learning, and Technology (TLT) Group (http://www.tltgroup.org) gave the closing plenary. He believes that we are now on the edge of the 'Third Revolution'.

All aspects of IT have been on the increase in education over the past few years. It has the potential to offer cheap, convenient access to education, a wider range of experiences and better teaching and learning methods. Traditionally however, better quality education has meant restricted access and visa versa. Dr Ehrmann believes that, as with the advent of reading and writing, the technology is now poised to bring about a revolution in education, where access and quality can be improved. He believes this can be achieved in a number of ways:


Sue Cunningham
AGOCG
Manchester Visualization Centre
Manchester Computing
University of Manchester
Manchester M13 9PL
UK
Tel: +44 (0) 161 275 6095
Fax: +44 (0) 161 275 6040
sue.cunningham@mcc.ac.uk
http://www.agocg.ac.uk