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

Case Study 2: The Department of Psychology

The following short case study is included in this report to illustrate the kinds of learning activities that may take place once a department has gone beyond the "beginner" model described in the last section. The School of Psychology has a much longer history in the use of computers for learning, and employs technical staff for this purpose. The department has run its own WWW server for some time, and consequently the use of internet technology is quite advanced. In this study the approach taken was to use the WWW to focus on a particular task.

Searching the World Wide Web in Health Psychology

One of the long-standing aims of my final option course introducing health psychology has been to familiarise students with the sources of information on psychology. As an applied area much of the research information is published outside psychology outlets, especially in health journals and books.

The Internet is an increasingly important repository for such information . In this session I decided to include an introduction to finding relevant information sources on the web as a formally taught and assessed component of the module. I will describe how this was done and report on some of the difficulties encountered and summarise student feedback on the exercise. The 50 students taking the course have a reasonably high familiarity with (Macintosh) computers which they use for document preparation, statistical analysis, email, and computer assisted learning packages. Although they had access to World Wide Web browsers in the year prior to taking the module (1994-95), they had not been instructed in how to use them nor had they received much encouragement to do so. Nevertheless there were a few enthusiastic experimenters. The instruction consisted of a lecture on the Web and demonstration for one hour in the lecture room. This was followed a week later by one hour hands-on tutorial sessions for 25 students in the departmental computer lab (thirty Macintosh 6100s running Netscape 1.1N). The module home page has pointers to health sites as well as course bibliographies, past papers, and administrative information. It also contains a pointer to the assignment.

The assignment consists of a set of questions about health related topics. These seek factual information. For example:

The Cochrane Collaboration facilitates the creation, review, maintenance and dissemination of systematic overviews of the effects of health care. Where did it get its name?

There is an on-line form to complete to submit the answer. This is implemented using Netforms 2.0 on the departmental web server running WebStar 1.0. Students can choose between searching the web themselves using a search engine or subject directory (examples of which had been demonstrated/bookmarked for them) or asking for hints on the topic. Each question has four hints associated with it. The more hints a student asks for the lower the mark they receive for their answer. The hints are graded. Typically the first hint advises on how to categorise the question. In the example given above, the hints were :

  1. This area of study is known as health services research
  2. The University of York is a major centre for such research in the UK
  3. They maintain the <link>HSR Superhighway guide<link>
  4. The question is answered in a <link>FAQ at the Collaborations main server<link>

Hints 1 and 2 help the student develop a search strategy, but still require the student to use a search engine or form the URL. Conventions such as <> for British universities had been discussed.) In hint 3 a very highly targeted resource directory is directly linked. Finally hint 4 takes the student directly to where the required information is published. The exercise was designed to lead the students through development of a search strategy. Sometimes it's very much more efficient to take some hints but it generally is possible to reach the information without doing so. The hint level requested was automatically recorded with each answer submitted.

Of the 50 students taking the module 49 submitted assignments. All of the responses recorded were correct. The majority of students (28) did not request any hints. Relatively few requested all four hints for any question. There were some technical difficulties in getting the server to work as proposed. Students experienced frustration with the occasional inaccessibility of either the departmental server or the external servers they were trying to reach. The assignment was also delayed because it took me longer than anticipated to prepare all the hints in HTML. I am also concerned that the system may not be sufficiently secure. As presently configured it is possible to accept the hints and then use the browser’s ‘back’ button to return to the "no hints" page and submit the assignment from there, though this is not very obvious to the casual user. (I did have one student ask me on the evaluation for technical information about how I had set up the system).

Twenty students attended a follow up course revision lecture (after the assignment was completed) and gave feedback on the assignment. Only one recommended that the web assignment be dropped from the course next year, the rest supported its continuation, though most of them had recommendations for improving it. The biggest category of change requested was that the questions posed bear more directly on the general course contents. ("More would have been learned about health psychology if the questions were more connected"). Related to this was a feeling that the assignment only dealt with specific kinds of information. ("There was some interesting stuff that I have gone back to since but the nature of the assignment and the fact that it took so long meant that I concentrated solely on finding the answers and not reading the articles"). Of course one can only draw on resources which are already out there but presumably this requirement will get easier to meet as the resources on the web increase (or come to my attention!). Students also expressed frustration at how time-consuming searching the web can be. This was partly through technical, network delays. ("Would have been good if there weren't so many hitches and shut downs and fatal errors and waiting so long to connect to new USLs (sic)"). However it may also reflect the fact that relatively few students took hints - using the library would be much slower if students did not have bibliographies for their lecturers. Several students asked for more extensive demonstrations/tutorial help. As students are now being introduced to the web from first year onwards this is less likely to an issue in future years.

Overall the exercise has been successful. I expect that it will evolve from year to year with less emphasis on the mechanics of using a browser and more discussion of search strategies, types of resources available and how to evaluate the validity of information published on the Internet. It is also envisioned that students will begin publishing materials which they generate in the module on the Internet and engaging in web mediated dialogue with other students of health psychology.

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