Electronic communication in university teaching: expectations and implication over the next five years.

Maree Gosper1

Centre for Higher Education and Professional Development

Macquarie University

Sydney, NSW, 2119


John Andrews3

School of Law

Macquarie University

Sydney, NSW, 2119

Beryl Hesketh2

Department of Psychology

Macquarie University

Sydney, NSW, 2119


Mark Sabaz4

Department of Psychology

Macquarie University

Sydney, NSW, 2119


A recent national study of computer-mediated communication in University teaching aimed to get a picture of how long it will take for computer technology to effectively penetrate traditional instruction. This paper will report on the findings, provide an overview of the types of technology which can be expected to be adopted within a five year timeframe and detail the forces for change and the barriers associated with implementing change.

1 Introduction

In recent times Universities have been faced with a number of factors that have influenced an inevitable move towards the integration of technology into the teaching and learning process. These include the demand for professional education to keep abreast of new developments and market forces, research and developments in new technologies, the potential for technology-based teaching to attract fee paying students, increasing demand among students for flexibility in access, opportunities for export of education services to overseas markets, competition for market share within Australia, and the need to provide quality education [1].

In response to these influences several Federally funded higher education initiatives have provided direct incentive and direction for the adoption of technology into teaching and learning. These include the establishment of Cooperative Multimedia Centres (CMC), Open Learning Technology Corporation (OLTC), Educational Network Australia (EdNa) Open Learning, Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching (CAUT). Despite the success of these projects in promoting a number of innovative approaches to teaching, there is no evidence of a groundswell of interest in moving towards a systematic and informed use of new technologies. Rather, most developments involving information technology (IT) in teaching are related to individual enthusiasts or small groups with expertise [2], many of whom have been successful in obtaining special funding.

A recent study [3] commissioned by the Evaluations and Investigations Program (EIP), funded by The Department of Employment, Education Training and Youth Affairs (DEETYA) aimed to get a picture of how long it will take for computer technology to gain a critical mass of usage to effectively penetrate, replace or enhance traditional practices. The study was conducted over a nine month period, August 1995 to April 1996. We understand the report will be published by DEETYA as an EIP publication and will also be available on the WEB.

This paper will provide a brief overview of the methodology used in the study, and the types of technology that can be expected to be adopted within a five year timeframe. The paper also summarises the forces for, and barriers against, change identified in the research, with comments on the updated implications of these 12 months later for work place practices, research agendas and staff development.

2 The study

The study of computer-mediated communication in university teaching aimed to:

The term computer-mediated-communication was defined broadly to include all computer based applications to the teaching and learning process including administration, the delivery of content, and interaction and communication between and among staff and students. Video and broadband TV services were also included because of substantial current usage and the possibility for future expansion of these services. In summary the range of technologies covered included:

3 Methodology

The methodology used was a modified Delphi Technique [4] with two phases: the administration of a questionnaire in phase 1 with feedback and the opportunity for further comments in phase 2.

The development of the phase 1 questionnaire was an extensive process involving a literature review; a series of interviews of experts in the use and administration of information technologies from representative universities across Australia; a series of focus groups using practitioners from Macquarie University; and interviews with the project advisory panel. The final questionnaire consisted of three parts:

Part A related to usage - gauging the likelihood of various computer-mediated applications in teaching being implemented within the next three to five years (36 items)

Part B was related to forces for change (10 items) and barriers against the adoption of computer-mediated communication (25 items).

Part C dealt with strategic issues, such as the level of policy and planning, and infrastructure available (28 items).

Participants were asked to rate individual statements to provide a picture of their views about the issues in each part of the questionnaire. There was also the opportunity to give written comment for each of the questions as well as to raise issues that were not represented.

We were looking at the issue of computer-mediated communication in teaching from the perspective of practitioners within the university sector who were working with the new technologies or had responsibilities for putting policy into action. Included were:

Participants in the study were identified from existing email lists (eg. librarians, senior computing administrators, staff development units, NCODE and ODLAA) and presenters at relevant national conferences, and workshops. Of the 254 invited to participate, 198 responded to the first phase of the process. All universities were represented in this sample although the participation rate was not even. A wide range of discipline groups and functional areas were represented but again, participation was uneven and not entirely representative of the University population.

Participants were asked to identify whether their responses were from a local (department/ school/ faculty) or University wide perspective. Eighty-three nominated to respond from a local perspective while 101 viewed issues from a broader University wide perspective.

4 Results

Detailed findings from the study are available in the full report to DEETYA [3]. In this paper we comment selectively on findings with a particular emphasis on those that were identified as important, and that have become even more so over the past 12 months since the data were collected. Major findings from each of the three key sections of the email survey (extent to which technology will be adopted, forces for change and barriers against its adoption) are discussed below in the light of changes that have occurred since the data were collected.

4.1 The predicted adoption of new technologies

To give some indication of the computer-mediated applications likely to be adopted within the next 5 years, a selection of ranked items from the most and least likely categories is presented below in Table 1.

Students have the facility to log in remotely and conduct on-line searches of library and other research databases
Email acts as a communications medium between staff and students
Courses will still be delivered using traditional methods
Students have on-line access to course materials - lecture notes, overheads, computer-based learning materials
Traditional lectures incorporate widespread use of computer-mediated presentation techniques
Electronic communication be used to facilitate collaborative group work

Courses be OFFERED collaboratively with other departments, and universities using a variety of communications media
Broadcast TV (PAGE, Open Learning) be used to deliver courses to off-campus students
One-to-one (desktop based) videoconferencing be used to deliver information and communicate with students off-campus
Student's assignments be presented using full multimedia capabilities
Scientific experiments using specialised equipment be remotely controlled via the internet

Table 1: Selection of the most and least likely technologies to be adopted.

Overall, the ranking of items contained few surprises. Benefits were seen to be equally likely for both undergraduate and postgraduate students as well as for those studying on and off campus. Gender differences, and differences between the two groups with a different orientation (local Departmental/School vs University wide) were also examined and several points of interest emerged. Compared with males, females saw the implementation of technology as less likely to occur. Those responding from a university perspective were more positive about the introduction of computer-mediated communication compared with participants who responded from a local perspective.

The extent to which different forms of Information Technology were perceived as likely appeared to be closely related to respondents' own current use of and knowledge of technology. The most likely technology to be adopted in the study (Table 1) related to internet usage, a form of technology that is familiar to most academics. Likely applications included email communication, distributing information electronically and logging in remotely to search data bases.

It is difficult to predict future usage - even 3 to 5 years hence. Five years ago it would have been impossible to predict the impact the Word Wide Web was to have on disseminating information, and facilitating interaction and communication. Likewise, the impact of broadband services, currently being introduced into the domestic market by the telecommunications industry, is yet to be determined. Nevertheless, the strength with which personal experience and usage of technologies influences the perception of likely adoption has implications for approaches to staff development and training.

Current approaches to staff development which offer short term exposure to specific case examples will not develop the required critical mass of expertise to allow technological approaches to become mainstream. Rather, what is needed is direct and longer term engagement which actively involves staff members in using the relevant technologies [5]. A more effective approach will be resource dependent and time intensive and will necessarily involve the commitment of university management to the integration of IT strategic planning into management plans for teaching, learning and research.

The last 12 months has seen a continuing trend towards delivering materials through the World Wide Web. HTML editing programs such as Netscape Gold, Hotdog, and PageMill have become more sophisticated in their ability to provide a seamless and easy method of writing in HTML format. The trend will continue, giving academics and students easier access to the Web publishing medium. An outcome of this is that teaching materials which once were restricted to a local University audience, can now be viewed nationwide and internationally. However, it is imperative that materials are of the highest quality as they have the potential to become a yardstick by which to measure the quality and reputation of Universities.

When designing and producing good multimedia teaching applications, more is involved than just converting traditional resources to a new computer based format. Integral to the development of materials must be the consideration of design elements relating to structure, learner control, interaction, feedback, cognitive load and motivation. To ensure the appropriate adoption of computer based technology into university teaching, curriculum design and materials development must be informed by what the aims are of a particular course within a particular discipline, what we know about student learning [6, 7, 8, 9] as well as the technical capabilities of the instructional media.

One of the items in the questionnaire asked participants how likely it was that collaboration would occur between universities in the development of IT-based materials and in offering of joint courses. The question was included because Moran [10] acknowledged the importance of collaboration between universities. Yet, respondents in the study did not consider this very likely to occur when applied to developing or offering courses using computerised-communications and the media. The lack of commitment to collaboration may have related to the level of competition that exists among universities for attracting students and resources. This is particularly so in the present system of funding which is based on a short cycle, and dependent on competition for student numbers. Although collaboration would be sensible in the current context where universities are aiming to reduce costs and at the same time maintain quality programs, our research did not indicate a strong feeling that this would occur.

4.2 The forces for change

The forces for change, ranked in order of their perceived importance are given in Table 2. As indicated, the main forces were related to student demand for flexibility of delivery to fit in with lifestyles, competition in attracting students and maintaining a competitive edge.

Student need for flexible delivery to fit in with life-style
Competition among universities in attracting undergraduate, postgraduate, and continuing professional education students.
Perception that other competing universities have a technological edge.
Opportunities to export education more readily to overseas countries.
Expectations from the business sector and professional bodies that students will be literate in the use of technology.
Possibility that the Federal Government will provide incentives for computer-mediated communication in teaching.
Students' level of expectation that computer-mediated communication will be used in teaching.
The threat to Australian universities from overseas degrees marketed in Australia.
The potential for computer-mediated communication to provide more equitable access to education for some disadvantaged groups.
The possibility that industry and professional bodies will provide accredited degrees if universities do not meet their needs.

Table 2: Rank ordering of all the forces for change

Of interest is the finding that the group of participants responding from a global university wide basis endorsed the forces for change more strongly than did those responding from a local school/department or unit level.

Although there is recognition of the importance of maintaining a competitive edge in the Australian education sector the threat to Australian universities from overseas degrees marketed in Australia ranked lowly as a force for change. This tends to indicate that respondents are not taking a global view of higher education nor taking seriously the threat of overseas universities encroaching on the Australian education market. Similarly the possibility of industry and professional bodies providing their own accredited degrees was not taken seriously, being ranked bottom of the forces for change.

It is of concern that the competitive ethos of universities is narrowly focussed within the Australian education sector. Information Technology makes distance and time insignificant and there are few obstacles to delivering courses across national boundaries. Information Technology has the potential to transform the lucrative education market into a global industry. As education becomes more expensive, students will become more vocal in their demand for quality in their education and training. Whether it is provided on or off shore, or by traditional or private commercial enterprises will be of little consequence.

4.3 The barriers to change

All the identified barriers to the implementation of computer-mediated communication were seen as genuine, with none being given a low rating. There was little difference between a local and university wide perspective and compared with their male counterparts, females perceive barriers associated with skills and training as more important.

Table 3 gives the participants ratings of the 5 strongest and 5 mildest barriers out of a possible 25 items. The lowest rank overall was given to the perception that Information Technology is threatening to job security. While popular opinion could lead us to believe that job security is a strong barrier, this is clearly not the case. Rather, staff perceived that lack of technical skills and technical support, costs, time and increased workload arising from new technology to be the important barriers. They also expressed concern that an increased attention to technology and teaching would not be rewarded adequately within a university system where research is often the major yardstick for promotion.

The time and expertise involved in preparing material for teaching in new formats.
Lack of time to put the effort into information technology training.
Promotions and reward systems which emphasise research rather than innovative teaching.
Increase in workload in offering units in several modes.
The capital costs involved in implementing information technology.

Concern that computer-mediated communication will replace face to face teaching.
The use of multimedia programs that are pre-packaged and produced external to the university.
Concern about confidentiality and security.
Students' need for social interaction only afforded through on-campus teaching.
The perception that information technology is threatening to job security.

Table 3: A selection of strong and mild barriers to the introduction of IT into teaching

To be able to take advantage of technology generally, as well as in teaching and learning, staff will require a new skills base. Included will be generic computing skills, technical skills to set up modems and install communications and other software, as well as teaching and design skills for producing new materials for a multimedia and electronic environment. There is widespread concern about the underestimation of both the range of skills required and the time needed to acquire these skills.

While there is a shortage of resources and team expertise, barriers to the effective integration of technology into teaching will continue to exist. Moran also [10] identified a need for policies and organisational structures to be put in place to support staff development and training aimed at building expertise in the new computer technologies and in the development and delivery of educational materials.

Cost to students is an issue that has become more prominent recently. Increased HECS payments and the possibility of introducing a user-pays system for internet access will place a greater financial burden on students. Students will no doubt become more discriminating in their choice of university as they seek value for money. Universities will need to balance the cost of introducing technology, and students ability to pay against the quality of programs being offered.

In the study, teachers expressed some doubt as to whether technology can enhance teaching and learning. 12 months later this is still an issue, perhaps more so as information technology continues to carry the often unsubstantiated promise of being able to deliver better and cheaper programs. Clearly there is a need for further research in this area, as well as more opportunities for staff to use technology-based applications and develop skills which will allow them to acquire an understanding of this new medium.

5 Future directions

In the 12 months since this study was undertaken there has been a change in government and the imposition of tough budgetary measures resulting in cuts to Universities operating grants. Universities must critically analyse their strengths and weaknesses, seek out opportunities to ensure both survival and advancement, as well as look realistically at the threats facing their operations from domestic, international and commercial education providers. This re-evaluation of the role of Universities was inevitable: the timeframe has just been moved forward.

Technology has enormous potential to contribute to new operational paradigms which will inevitably include new approaches to teaching and learning. The issues raised in this study relating to the forces for change and the barriers to the implementation of computer-mediated communication in teaching are just as relevant now as they were 12 months ago. Although, the budgetary situation may have increased the urgency of introducing change, it is unlikely that the pattern of important barriers and resistances will have altered since the data were collected. In some respects, the forces for change are more pronounced, but the barriers and resistances remain as strong. In light of this, understanding these barriers is particularly important in any attempts to increase the adoption of technology in teaching. As many staff remain sceptical of the benefits of IT in teaching, a stronger research basis may help convince universities and their staff of the advantages and importance of utilising new technologies to satisfy the demands of a changing market. We suggest a need for research to:

6 References

  1. D. Tinkler, B. Lepani & J. Mitchell. Education and Technology Convergence. Commissioned Report No. 43. National Board of Education and Training: Employment and Skills Council. 1996.
  2. M. Hayden and G. Speedy, Evaluation of the 1993 national teaching development grants. Committee for the Advancement of University Teaching. 1995.
  3. B. Hesketh, M. Gosper, J. Andrews and M. Sabaz, Computer-mediated communication in university teaching. Report prepared for the EIP unit of DEETYA, June, 1996.
  4. W.M. Reid, J. Pease and R.G. Taylor, The delphi technique as an aid to organization development activities. Organization development journal, 8(3), pp.37-42. 1990.
  5. B. Hesketh, Dilemmas in training for transfer and retention. Applied Psychology: An International Review. In press.
  6. M.J. Hannafin and L.P. Rieber, Psychological foundations of instructional design emerging computer based technologies. Educational Technology Research and Development 37, pp. 91-101. 1989.
  7. J. Jonassen, Designing structured hypertext, and structuring access to hypertext. Educational Technology 28(11), pp. 13-16. 1988.
  8. M.J Atkins, Theories of learning and multimedia applications: an overview. Research Papers in Education 8(2), pp. 251-271. 1993.
  9. D. Laurillard, Rethinking University Teaching: A framework for the use of educational technology. Routledge, London. 1993.
  10. L. Moran, National policy frameworks to support the integration of information technologies into university teaching/learning. Report of a Search Conference Commissioned by the Department of Employment, Education & Training. Deakin University.1995.


M. Gosper, B. Hesketh, J Andrews and M Sabaz (c) 1996. The authors assign to ASCILITE and educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to ASCILITE to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the ASCILITE 96 conference papers, and for the documents to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.