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A case study using the WWW as the medium for the delivery of learning resources
Case Study 1
The effect of this trial
The main focus of this case study has been the use of the WWW for accessing learning materials and in using computer conferencing to support discussions about the course. Accessing lecture notes in this way allowed students to prepare for their lectures, and this affected the manner in which they were delivered. No doubt this would be further affected if the on-line materials were richer, with hyperlinks to additional sources, and supported by multimedia resources. Secondly, despite this being most of these students' (and lecturers) first use of conferencing and thus not as well used as it potentially could have been, their reaction was very positive, suggesting that future experiences will be richer. It is felt that as an approach to helping non technical users to use on-line learning, this was a good method, and worth repeating. It has also led to those involved identifying for themselves the new facilities they would wish to use and to offer to students. These include a better conferencing environment, hypertext links in the learning resources, going beyond lecture notes. Most interestingly, there has even been a tentative suggestion that course materials could link to materials in other related subject areas - 17th century literature could link to 17th century history materials.
This approach has helped all those involved feel a sense of ownership over the technology. They are now able to engage in conversations concerning on-line course design, specify their needs, determine technological functionality, and even solve some of their own problems.
We would suggest that this integrated approach offers a number of advantages over the provision of fully fledged, off the shelf systems designed elsewhere. It will support a richer variety of teaching and learning models and approaches and is therefore more likely to lead to a successful uptake of CAL.
Some pedagogical thoughts
The approach used for this case study is only one example of the way communications technology can be used for learning. The study was concerned with pedagogical and organisational issues around the use of technology, and the course design was informed by conversation theory; the model suggested by Laurillard, describing the necessary activities and processes involved in academic teaching and learning and the relations between them, was particularly useful (Laurillard 1993).
Traditionally in the context of a university, the teacher presents their conception in lectures, and students present theirs in tutorials or by writing essays. At the level of actions, teachers prepare or suggest experiments or other activities that students should undertake to help them deepen their understanding, which allows them to then represent their conceptions. However, the channels between lecturer and student are somewhat narrow in the formal situation. A lecture is a "one-off" affair - it cannot be re-run by the student, except in the memory. Likewise students' access to lecturers for discussion is limited to a few tutorials before the next idea is introduced. Experiments and activities are similarly constrained by timetables and availability of staff and resources. So, while all the aspects of this model are covered in the formal situation, interactions lack richness.
Using technology to supplement this approach can help improve the situation. Presenting the teacher's conception by providing resources on the WWW allows the student to control the pace and timing of the delivery; email and conferencing enable a rich and ongoing conversation between a group of students and a lecturer that allows the conception to be thoroughly explored, unconstrained by timetabling restrictions. Interactive CAL materials, microworlds or simulations can be designed by lecturers and also delivered via the WWW, and could allow students to explore new ideas. Using this blend of technologies can enrich the interactions between students and lecturers by freeing them from the constraints of formal sessions.
Information systems...can act as a catalyst of change: promoting active and flexible, rather than passive, learning and engendering a deep, rather than shallow, approach to learning. (JISC, April 1995)
However, to fully adopt this approach would have serious repercussions on lecturers' work, the organisation of courses, and the overall management of the institution. These need to be carefully considered, and an appropriate programme of action designed. To approach the adoption of learning technology in a piecemeal way, could lead to the worst of all worlds - the disruption of normal teaching, but with inadequate benefit from expensive technology. The following need to be addressed:
- the technological requirements to deliver learning in this way; these should include minimum hardware configuration, number of machines, and network access and bandwidth
- the extent of lecturers' training requirements to be able to deliver learning materials
- the need for all students to be trained in the use of these new approaches to learning
- the design of courses and the change in departmental organisation to reflect new methods of learning
- the impact on institutional organisation, especially the structure of modular courses, permissible combinations, and the effect of these on cost centres
Conclusions and Recommendations
It is felt that the approach that was taken was successful in its aims. Once the WWW server was set up, and training provided, the department was able to maintain the server with very little support, and lecture notes were successfully edited and added to the server weekly with no problems. Anyone who is competent in the use of word processors and a computer's file system should be able to set up and maintain a WWW site running on a PC or Macintosh. WebStar on the Macintosh is particularly straightforward to manage. Running a departmental server allows greater scope for exploration and rapid adaptation than having to depend on central and often overworked computing staff for all changes and updates, and is to be recommended. Employing someone with the specific task of developing this approach has many advantages, but much can be achieved if this is not possible.
The following points provide a checklist for those thinking of exploring such an approach. The sequence in which they are addressed would depend on the specific circumstances of the institution involved.
Identify sources of support
Contact your CAL Support Unit (or equivalent) if you have one to find out what support they can offer you
- Spend some time exploring the WWW until you feel you have an understanding of the underlying idea.
- Identify the course in which you wish to explore/use an on-line approach
- Decide on the model you will be using, how technology fits in and what features it will have, i.e.: the sorts of materials to be used (lecture notes, images, CAL materials etc.) the nature of any on-line communications to be taking place etc.
- Identify the resources you will use and the design and structure of the WWW site (indexes, materials and navigation) well in advance of going live.
- Keep it simple to start with.
- Check with Computer Services that you have a computer capable of running a WWW server, or they can offer you the equivalent
- Check that you and your students have adequate access to machines that can access the WWW.
- Find out from Computer Services whether your institution runs a news server, or other conferencing systems, and ask for one of these to be set up for your course.
- Find out how links to the Newsgroup/conferencing system are made from your WWW pages, and set them up in appropriate places.
- Make sure that all students and staff involved have email and access to newsgroups/conferencing system
- Nominate one person to take responsibility for maintaining the server, checking its structure, accesses and updating.
- Make sure that you have someone you can turn to if things do go wrong!
- Design and set up your WWW pages, set up links to the Newsgroup/conferencing system
- Make sure all the links work and the structure is sound
- Test it on someone who has not been involved in its creation, but who understands what it is for
- Make sure you know the basics of HTML editing, either by attending a course, or reading some of the on-line documentation.
- Identify the training needs of your students and a way of meeting these (e.g. do Computer Services run courses or will you have to organise these yourself?)
Ask your CAL Support Unit staff to keep you regularly updated on developments in on-line learning as new tools are being developed constantly
Some hand holding will be necessary for the first few weeks, but once the issues above are sorted out, you will be able to set up and run courses from your departmental server with minimal support from central services.
Virtual Environments Visualisation