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A case study using the WWW as the medium for the delivery of learning resources
Case Study 1
The experience of the course
About 50 students enrolled on the course for the first semester. There were a number of problems identified by students but these were mainly to do with gaining access to computers in often busy labs, and printing out their notes on an already heavily used printer. Some students clearly managed to take the whole course without ever using the on-line materials or communications. It had been intended that this should be possible for the first run through the course as it was new for all concerned, and it was not clear what the problems would be.
The following sections explore the experience and views of the participants in the course. There are many aspects it would be useful to explore in greater depth, but it does make some issues clear, and enables a number of observations and recommendations to be made.
The course itself.
This was a completely new first year course with lectures and seminars, and they were not sure what the numbers of students would be. The lecturers' primary experience was outside the field of Classical Literary Tradition, and they wanted to write new materials anyway. The framework was quite different from the original course in Classics which this was replacing, it therefore had the advantage of being a new project anyway.
Lecturers in the department have been becoming increasingly alert to the difficulty first year students have with dealing with lecture material, and it was clear that the most successful bit of the experience was the 'most primitive bit' which was the delivery of lecture material on-line, which gave a framework and the structure of the argument. It would not have been possible to have handed these out in printed form because of costs. It was clear which students had read these before the lecture itself. It was disappointing that most of the students were printing out the notes, as he had expected they would be saving them to disk to work on and annotate themselves.
The discussion group worked better the first time round with the larger group, perhaps because there was a critical mass, and he wondered if it might be a minority interest. The second semester group in a final discussion said they hadn't realised how easy electronic discussion was, and in particular how easy it would be to have a direct dialogue with the lecturer. There had not been much dialogue around the lecture material. The group said they would be taking advantage of this in the future. Perhaps they were not clear enough that this could be a route into a private discussion with the lecturer. This is a real advantage of such a system, the possibility of this kind of dialogue taking place with a student despite the larger numbers they are having to cope with. He was not worried about the amount of his time this would take, it would be quicker for the student than finding him. He felt that these advantages have not yet been realised but they are very clear.
There were also problems because one of the lecturers was not connected to the network for the first half of the semester which obviously limited the progress of the use of on-line discussions.
Students learnt from each other, and he regularly observed them going off in a group to work, the results of this could be seen in the discussion group.
It is intended to elaborate the lecture materials with images, and further develop the use of electronic discussions.
Other courses in the Department:
It is intended that there should be something on-line for all courses in the department, including the use of electronic communications. Some courses have very large numbers of students. This will inevitably represent a change in practice. Some courses may have more elaborate materials such as historical documents and manuscripts. There is a specific course in Women's Writing which it is intended to offer in Distance Learning mode as part of the interdisciplinary Women's Studies degree.
She had no previous experience of using the WWW, and little of using Windows before undertaking the teaching of his course and felt she was a 'reluctant recruit', but Lecturer 1 was keen to explore offering the course in this way. It was appropriate as it was a new course anyway, and not at the 'heartland of the English Department'.
Hardware had been a big issue for her because of the difficulties she had getting connected to the network during the first semester so this clearly hampered her use of the discussion group in particular, and her more general familiarisation with the WWW.
She received a great deal of support from the Departmental secretary who was mounting materials on the WWW server and maintaining it, and she felt she had been dependent on her for this, often 'having to work against the clock'. She felt that one of the implications of making materials available some time before the lectures themselves was that it 'sets your deadlines backwards' so notes cannot be finished at midnight the night before if necessary! She felt that there were many issues raised by the provision of lecture notes, on-line or not. They should be short and basic, containing facts, information, difficult spellings etc. There was one example of a student misusing the materials made available but it was very obvious to the lecturers that he had done this. This could however be a problem if several lecturers were involved in a course. It was more efficient and cheaper to deliver lecture materials this way because of the stacks of photocopying that would have been involved otherwise.
She was very positive about the use electronic discussion groups and communications, but there were many problems with the use of Newsgroups because they felt they needed more control over editing, and the structure of contributions (some were duplicated, others made in the wrong 'thread' etc.). However using them was also easier than she initially thought. The discussion group was the significantly different aspect of what they did, and they would like to pursue this more next year
She saw the WWW as 'just a new filing cabinet', the difference being that it is public, and that the 'mechanism has been confused with the substance'. She questioned the idea that this had put something new before people as slightly odd. One of the problems for both herself and the students was that when there was a problem 'with the hardware' they did not know the nature of it, so did not know what to do next, and became rapidly discouraged, and fell back on older, familiar systems. She felt one could not overestimate how easily students could become discouraged.
She felt that lecturers were used to being frugal with resources, but that it was essential that the introduction of the use of computers was properly resourced, with the right sort of support, and then there would be long term benefits. There was a real problem with proper resourcing, there needed to be clear benefits as a result of using an approach like this, and it must be done properly, especially if it is to be done campus wide.
Discussions took place with the team involved about the project over June and July 1995. Detailed planning about the implementation of the server then took place shortly before the beginning of term, and the structure and pages were set up. Both the areas of the server concerned with Departmental information, and the on-line course materials, were set up at the same time. Although two secretaries were involved at this point, one became heavily involved in setting up a database, so most of the rest of the work was undertaken by one secretary. This involved putting departmental information on the server, and also marking up lecture notes and putting these in the on-line course section on a weekly basis. These were uploaded from the Mac server to a UNIX box in such a way that the materials were identical to the user.
She felt that as long as you were computer literate, you could pick up HTML editing, she ‘thought it was going to be more difficult than it actually was’, and she knew support was there if she needed it (from the CAL Unit). The approach taken was for them to learn all the HTML ‘commands’, then after a few weeks they were set up with ‘ a programme on the Apple which did it automatically’. She thought it was easier to use the editing programme, but also thought it was useful to have the grounding. It was a bit fiddly remembering bits, but useful if you went beyond what the editing programme could do. She didn’t get to do any of the graphics or scanning aspects as the departmental scanner was not set up at that stage, but it is now.
She felt happy with the overall experience of running the system (as long as she knew backup was there), and in fact she rarely had to call on this. She felt they had a good model because they had sat down and thought carefully about what the structure should be, and she thought it was essential to do this. She found that it took more time than she had expected to mark up lecture notes (could be half a day sometimes), and it was an extra thing for them to do at a very busy time. She thought that the training had been adequate given she was computer literate, but it would have been useful to have known more about the WWW more generally as she does now.
Questionnaires were issued at the beginning and the end of the course to elicit feedback from the students. A transcript of comments made at the end of the first questionnaire may be found in Appendix A. Data for the first can be supplied if requested from the authors, and that from the second may be found in Appendix B.
The questionnaire issued to the students on the course was one which was circulated to all new first year students at the beginning of the autumn term in 1996. Of the students on the course, 62% were female, 24% were over the age of 21, and only 42% said the last educational establishment they had attended was school. However 78% had taken 'A' levels. When asked about the use of computers, only 2% said they had never used a computer ever, 18% said they never used one now, and 20% owned their own. The overwhelming application used was word processing (70%), followed by games (54%), whilst 16% said they had used email, and only 6% said they had used the WWW. When asked how confident they felt, 30% said 'neutral', 36% said 'a bit nervous' and 18% were 'terrified'. Only 18% expressed some confidence. When asked how competent they felt, 52% felt 'poor' or 'hopeless', 19% said 'average', 10% said 'good' and no-one said 'expert'.
This therefore challenges the notion that new students are arriving both computer literate and experienced in using the Internet, although it complies with a view that students choosing to study in the Humanities are likely to be also making an active choice to avoid technology-based subjects. This has important implications for increasing the use of computers by students in Arts-based subjects, and appropriately designed training is essential.
Despite this, as may be seen from their comments in Appendix A, most were positive and some rather idealistic, about the possibilities offered by the use of computers. 90% thought that it would be helpful for making lecture notes available, 52% for explaining concepts, 54% for student-student communication, and 60% for student-lecturer communication. Only 40% thought they would be useful for revising. The most positive views were therefore about lecture notes and communication, both the areas where the on-line course had focused (before this survey took place!).
Only twenty one students filled the second questionnaire which means that an incomplete picture was obtained of how the students experienced the course. However there were some clear trends. Students had some difficulty gaining access to computers, with a third indicating considerable difficulty, and only a fifth experiencing little difficulty. About three quarters of the students were generally satisfied with the training and support they received.
The great majority (85%) looked at the lecture notes regularly, with over half (52%) looking at all of them. They seemed to find it easy to access the notes, and the vast majority (71%) printed them to read later. 62% thought that it was very useful to have lecture notes provided in this way, and only 14% disagreed.
This positive picture changed somewhat when looking at the discussion group. Few respondents said they looked at or contributed to the discussion group. This did not in fact reflect the experience of the staff involved as some considerable activity had taken place in the Newsgroup, both in terms of seminar-type discussion as well as organisational communications, but it had also been clear that the numbers involved had not been substantial. 57% felt that the discussion group facility was not useful, and no-one appeared to have contacted the lecturers by email. 62% felt the course had not affected their confidence in the use of computers.
From a technical standpoint, the project was successful - the technology delivered all that was expected with a satisfactory level of performance. Both the Macintosh WWW server and the UNIX WWW server performed well, and no problems were reported. The Macintosh server software was simpler to use, and this was made evident when the decision was taken to restrict access to lecture notes. On the Macintosh it was relatively simple to password protect pages or directories that contained a given string of letters, and could be easily amended by the secretary who managed the server. On the UNIX server it was more difficult, and required the involvement of the UNIX systems manager. This minor point suggests that if servers are to be run by non technical staff, then they should have tools that make such customisation as easy and intuitive as possible; UNIX systems administration skills are not widely available! New tools are becoming available that make server management more straightforward, both for the Macintosh and Windows NT.
Netscape Navigator 1.1 was perfectly fine as the student browser, but as the interface to the Newsgroup was less than perfect; several students duplicated their contributions through not remembering to reload the Newsgroup index after sending their first effort.
As far as email was concerned, Navigator only provided half the answer. While students were able to send mail to their lecturers using the mail facility, they had to use a dedicated email program to receive mail. Not surprisingly, these students did not use email very often for this course. Navigator 2.0 and later have since resolved this issue by incorporating full email and Newsgroup facilities.
The use of a Newsgroup as the conferencing system for the course was less than ideal, particularly because of the lack of edibility, moderation or administration tools. Students' duplicated contributions could not be removed except by the UNIX systems administrator. Further it lacked any security features, allowing students from other departments to read and contribute to this discussion. A dedicated and fully featured conferencing system like FirstClass would have been much better.
Access to computers and training
There are a number of themes that emerge from the surveys. Sufficiently easy access to computers and to support is essential if students are not to be discouraged, and possibly disadvantaged by delivering materials in this way. Appropriate training is of crucial importance to enable them to identify the type of problem they are confronted with and therefore what to do next. Printing lecture notes only defers the problem of providing paper from the department to the central service so cannot be a long term solution, although it is also arguable that people like to read text on paper. If students are to gain full advantage of digital text and be able to manipulate it, they need to be comfortable with handling files, copying and pasting text, switching between applications, and with word processing. For many students, this requires a significant level of training which needs to be integrated with their academic studies. If students are to begin to use information on other sites on the WWW, then there are further training needs in information handling and retrieval, navigation and other research skills. The problem of being diverted from the task at hand when using the WWW is well recognised and needs to be addressed in training.
It is essential that planning takes place well before any implementation so that the role that on-line materials and discussions are to play in the course is clear. It maybe that these are to be offered in addition to the usual activities, or they could be entirely replacing them. It is inevitable that moving in this direction will begin to raise some profound questions about the learning process and these should be anticipated; the pedagogical approaches discussed later can enable this to be a positive process. There are many advantages to starting carefully without being too ambitious, then allowing development to take place in an evolutionary way..
Electronic discussion and communication for seminar purposes require as much facilitation as when they take place face-to-face, and there are further obstacles because all the usual non-verbal cues are absent. This therefore means that they unlikely to take off or be significantly useful without careful planning, identification of the role they are expected to play, and ongoing attention. Training and staff development are therefore essential in this area, as well as identifying appropriate conferencing software, as newsgroups have a number of off-putting features.
Virtual Environments Visualisation