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A case study using the WWW as the medium for the delivery of learning resources


On-line learning

On-line systems have been used for the delivery of learning in various forms for many years. In the early seventies centralised mainframe systems like PLATO provided drill style courseware for mathematics. In the eighties Viewdata services like PRESTEL and NERIS allowed worksheets and simple CAL software to be downloaded for off-line use. Each example and experiment embodied a pedagogic model, whether explicit or implicit, and promoted a particular organisational style. NERIS, for example, took the form of a central Viewdata facility containing professionally written materials for school education, thus embracing the traditional publisher - teacher - learner model. The ITEC Training Materials Network, on the other hand, involved each participating institution running their own Viewdata host system on which teaching staff placed their own materials to be accessed by their students, but then integrated all the systems into a network, thereby enabling the exchange and joint development of materials and promoting a more collaborative model of teaching, while also supporting open and flexible learning (Liber 1994).

Exploration of the use of conferencing systems for learning also began in the eighties, most notably by the Open University (Mason and Kaye 1989). These promoted a more conversationally oriented pedagogic model, allowing students to discuss their learning with each other and their lecturers or teachers.

There were several obstacles to the successful use of these systems. Bandwidth constrained the nature and quality of on-line materials; the cost of technology was prohibitive; and user interfaces were often unfriendly. These prevented the emergence of a critical mass of educational actors (teachers and learners) necessary for the viability of any technological learning system. Developments in the nineties promise to change that. Computers are now widespread in all levels of education, and are more powerful and simpler to use. But most importantly the emergence of the internet, particularly the WWW, enabled by enormous improvements in bandwidth, have made the electronic delivery of multimedia materials a viable option. In addition the internet has provided the possibility for the integration of the delivery of learning materials and conferencing, bringing together the two central activities involved in teaching and learning.

The features of the World Wide Web have been extensively described (eg. CTISS, 1995), but in summary, it enables materials in electronic form to be structured in a variety of ways, and to include combinations of text, graphics, photographic images, video, sound and computer programs. This means that these materials are easily accessible to a student using a computer and that s/he can have access to them at all times, and can follow them at their own pace. It also means that connections to related materials elsewhere in the academic community can be searched for and made, providing a richer learning experience than might otherwise be possible. Providing resources in this way offers students a rich range of relevant materials, more control over their learning and a route through the plethora of materials on the Internet. It potentially enables lecturers to keep track of their studentsí work, and enables students to use the same client software to interact with them through email when they cannot contact them directly, and to work collaboratively with other students. The integration of computer conferencing will further enhance this process, enriching interactions between students and lecturers.


TLTP Project

In March, 1994 a project entitled 'The Implementation of Computer Aided Learning (CAL) Across the Campus' began, based in the CAL Unit at the University of Wales, Bangor, and funded by the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP). The aim of the project was to develop an appropriate infrastructure and cultural context for the widespread use of CAL at the University of Wales, Bangor (UWB). Part of the Project's role has been to co-ordinate the range of CAL initiatives taking place at UWB into an institution-wide approach in order to allow colleagues to take advantage of each other's work and expertise.

On-line Learning Resources Project - a feasibility study

It was clear early on in the TLTP project that the WWW and its application to the delivery of on-line learning were highly significant developments. The Computers in Teaching Initiative (CTI) and the TLTP recognised the importance of the WWW by adopting it as the favoured method of on-line delivery in March 1994, and many Higher Education Institutions throughout the UK and beyond have done the same. The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) acknowledged its importance in a recent issues paper (JISC 1995).

In October 1994, the Enterprise in Higher Education (EHE) initiative at UWB was approached and agreed to fund a feasibility study to investigate the relevance of the WWW for the management and delivery of on-line learning resources at the University of Wales Bangor (UWB). The WWW has mainly been used for the dissemination of information to a potentially global audience, for the searching of and 'surfing' through this information; however, the intention of this study was to focus on the application of this technology to the sharing of materials locally, its use as an interface to learning materials of a wide range of types, and its ability to enable students and lecturers to collaborate. This way of using internet technologies has recently been termed the 'Intranet', and is being increasingly adopted by business (Computing, 16 May 1996). It was envisaged that it could provide a new channel between lecturers and students, allowing new forms of teaching and learning to take place, complementary to traditional teaching methods. The study did not concern itself with issues of control or copyright, which it saw as being more directly the concern of those managing a Campus Wide Information System (CWIS) (Kelly, 1995).

The study investigated factors affecting the adoption of this technology, including the state of the technology, its availability, functionality, stability and ease of use. It examined the practical issues involved in creating materials in appropriate formats, installing them on WWW servers, and allowing students access to them. A number of academic departments were helped to start to explore the use of servers for the provision of learning materials, thereby uncovering the practical, pedagogical and organisational implications of this approach.

The study concluded that although it was clear that it was feasible to use the WWW to deliver learning materials within the university, there are pedagogical, technical, organisational, financial and institutional issues that need to be addressed if such an approach is to be successful. Most crucially, this method of delivering education must be pedagogically sound. The normal teaching and learning process involves iterative interaction between teacher and learner which may take a range of forms - presentations, discussions, experiments, explorations, and so on. The richness of these interactions depends on organisational constraints - timetables, length of lectures, laboratory availability and so on. The technology explored in the study can lift some of these constraints, by allowing access to learning resources at any time and in any place, by providing computer aided simulations, and by supporting interaction through electronic mail and computer conferencing. (This is elaborated later in this report).

The study suggested that with careful planning, involvement of all stakeholders and appropriate investment, networked learning could make a large contribution to student learning, lecturer effectiveness, organisational flexibility and institutional competitiveness, but the many issues involved need to be addressed at all structural levels of the university to ensure its successful adoption. Its recommendations identified what these were, and how they should be tackled, and were targeted at lecturer, department, institution and service levels. (Liber 1995)

As a result of this initial study, further funding was granted by the Teaching and Learning Committee to take this work forward at UWB by developing a framework for managing learning resources using the WWW, supporting pilot on-line courses in departments, and enabling the College to move towards developing a strategy for the delivery of on-line materials, whilst ensuring a coherent pedagogy. One of the on-line courses developed as part of this project is the subject of the following case study.

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