Using the Web to Augment Teaching and Learning
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
University of Melbourne
The following paper outlines the experience of the author in using web-based technologies to support traditional teaching and learning arrangements. The web has been used as a medium to develop and then present a syllabus and its' supporting materials, as a mechanism to handle the submission and return of student work, as a communications medium for students and for students and staff, and as a medium for students to develop and publish research and argument. The author's experience suggests that modest innovations such as those described offer opportunities for curriculum improvement.
Over three years and through four subjects I have used web-based technologies in an attempt to improve teaching and learning in the subjects I coordinate. The emphasis throughout has been to do a better job in traditional tasks associated with teaching and learning, rather than using technology to;
The purpose of this paper is to share aspects of that experience with those concerned with curriculum improvement at the tertiary level, or with the use of web-based technologies in the tertiary sector.
In broad terms I have made use of Web technologies to achieve a number of purposes :-
To take these functions one at a time:-
Syllabus Development and Presentation
In each of my subjects a web-site has taken the place of photocopied course, syllabus and assessment guides usually distributed to students and placed on notice-boards at the beginning of semester. The web-site is the course notice-board. (An example of such a site may be located at http://www.arts.unimelb.edu.au/fcf/maas/). The web-site has also taken the place of tutorial sheets, reading lists and seminar-guides often photocopied and distributed to students each week.
A notable advantage of this arrangement is the manner in which the inherent architecture of the web-site, and the process of its construction, lends itself to top-down curriculum planning.
Top-down curriculum planning is no doubt the strategy of choice for most academics. One starts with the "big-picture" by thinking about the subject and what it's all about, gathering old resources and searching for new, scanning key texts and re-familiarising oneself with the intellectual territory. For me, the next step is to decide upon the important disciplinary issues, areas of content and skills to be exercised in the course, and accordingly a list of headings is made. When working in paper mode my next step was to develop a "concept-map" from these headings, which would sometimes cover the wall of my office, setting out links between topics, areas of content, skills and assessment tasks, and as it took shape this diagramme would form the skeleton-plan for lectures, workshops and tutorials. As the semester grew nearer, all going according to schedule, arrows and lines setting out the ontological and epistemological flow from topic to topic would be drawn and re-drawn and would stabilize to constitute the chronological and pedagogical flow of a week to week syllabus. Detail would be added to each weeks' headings and sub-headings, and voila! the semester was laid out for all to see like a rat in an anatomy class.
Now in my view this is a fine way to work, and I have found that the web is a media which supports this method admirably. Hypertext is an inherently nested, two-dimensional, top-down media which supports the deconstruction of content from breadth to depth.
Now this is all well and good - the web insists we do what the paper on the my office wall was made to do, but comes at considerably greater expense. Hardly a big deal. However, I have found a couple of other attributes not matched by paper alternatives.
The first is that a web-mediated syllabus is more flexible than paper and doesn't lock me into any specific plan of action prematurely.
The idea of determining just what issues would be considered in a given lecture a semester in advance, and then publicly committing myself to precisely that agenda, always used to irk me. I was never really sure how things would pan-out in terms of either direction or timing, despite my elaborate office-wall diagrammes, and even in courses that I had taught several times before. On the other hand I appreciated that students had a right to know what the course was about, just where they were going, what was coming up, what was expected of them, what to read and so on; they need to have access to a longitudinal perspective on the course in more than broad outline form, and need not be at the mercy of my whims. Using paper-based resources, this conflict was difficult to reconcile. In pragmatic terms, I found the task of using the semester break to prepare all courses in some detail left little time for writing and research - the ideal occupation for the class-free period. In epistemological terms, separating detailed curriculum planning from teaching divorces conception from execution, privileges decontextualized theory and/or speculation (represented by my wall-diagramme) over practice (represented by my experience at the job at hand), and denies the validity of the situated, contextualized knowledge possessed by the bricoleur that I see myself as.
Web-based syllabus resources enable a pretty reasonable compromise to be reached between my need for flexibility and students' need for support and orientation. Given that the information on the web-site is easy to update, and that students must visit the site several times per week, I can layout the course in broad-sweep well ahead of time, and fill in the detail as the time approaches without producing and distributing multiple updated-editions of the same guides. I can make major changes to timing, content or tasks in the knowledge that those changes are immediately evident to all. At a detailed level, I can alter Thursday's second workshop question in the light of Wednesday's experience, and those changes are also transparent. The subject web-site thereby provides students with dynamic support materials, editable and improveable right up to the minute of use.
Included among these materials are the speaker-notes I use as the basis of my lectures. Student comprehension is improved with prior knowledge of the direction my argument will be taking, and when printed and brought to the lecture, form a useful skeleton for note-taking. Students are better able to sit back and listen to a lecture, and the notes they do take are not transcriptions, but personal commentary.
As one might imagine though, there are problems to overcome in realizing the advantages of web-based syllabus development and presentation.
The first is the need to provide and maintain an adequate infrastructure to support the students and staff in these initiatives. It is very easy for academics to fall between two stools by mandating technologies which at the end of the day students don't have access to.
There is also a sense in which the method is a time-trap. The web is an emerging medium. New tips and tricks appear every day, and it is easy to spend hours fiddling around with surface affects. The result of an afternoon's work can be gloss and glitz (not to mention crass bad-taste) rather than well thought through teaching and learning materials.
A more subtle and more profound problem is the implicit commitment one makes to high-technology and to the communications-mediums of late-modernity. The technology is not neutral in its relationship to our economy, culture or sense of self. It is transformative, perhaps even revolutionary, and the transformations are highly contested. Against this background is it appropriate that you implicate yourself and your subject as part of an advanced guard? Is it appropriate that you compel your students to commit themselves to the technology? To make this implicit commitment to high-technology is to actively adopt a "discourse of action" which is intelligible to all, which is influential, and which severely compromises any fundamentally critical position one may wish to adopt in respect of these technologies.
In my case, I was prepared to make this implicit alliance in a couple of subjects which were in any event premised on the skillful use of high-technology and an appreciation of its various fields of application, but not in a subject which has as its beginning-point a skeptical and critical consideration of information technologies in the social context.
The Submission and Return of Student Work
Networked computers may also be used as a medium for the submission, marking and return of student work, and in my case drop-folders and e-mail attachments have been used to entirely avoid the use of paper. (In my experience drop-folders are the method of choice, e-mail attachments being more fragile and slower to handle in the marking process.)
Where computers are used to complete assessment tasks, and where an understanding of e-mail software, file types, directory structures, operating systems, networks and so on, is congruent with the general purposes of the subject, coherence and consistency between completion and submission is desirable.
However, it does add another layer of potential difficulty and disputation. For example does an unreadable disk equal a legitimate reason for an extension, or is it as lame as "my dog ate my essay"? Of course everything should always be backed up, but as I write I am faced with the problem of a crashed file-server, unrecoverable data and an incomplete backup tape. Some students have lost 10 week's work. How am I to assess them?
A Communications Medium
The networked computer is very much a communications device, and offers all sorts of possibilities for discourse and social-constructivist collaboration, locally, internationally, synchronously and asynchronously.
In a didactic context for example, web-mail and e-mail access to tutors is provided, and is both popular and highly regarded by students and teaching staff.
Before e-mail was available to undergraduates, web-based form-mail embedded in workshop activities and lecture notes enabled students to fire-off an e-mail at the click of a button. The volume of Web-mail generated was large, and the ability to ask a question or make a comment in the course of routine homework was valued by students. My task in replying to the mail was significant (perhaps 30 minutes per day), but was kept to manageable proportions through the use of a FAQ page in the place of individual responses to each request. (A sample of questions and replies from the FAQ page is available at http://www.arts.unimelb.edu.au/fcf/maas/admin/answers.html). In February 1997 e-mail became available to all University of Melbourne undergraduates, and I replaced the web-based system with e-mail through Eudora. Unexpectedly, the volume of mail dropped substantially. I speculate that the reason for the decline in volume was a product of denying the spontaneity of reflex communication. Web-based form-mail was embedded in the task at hand, and exercising "point and click" actions is an habituated practice in the "Nintendo, web-browsing" genre. In contrast, to communicate with dedicated e-mail required students to put aside the application they are working with, leave their web-browser and open Eudora - the dedicated e-mail application. Further, replies to e-mail became private one-to-one replies, rather than public postings on the FAQ page. The public profile of electronic communications was therefore reduced, publicly accessible examples of questions and answers were not provided - perhaps causing doubts about the line between "legitimate" questions and "foolish" questions. Unexpectedly, this simple shift seemed enough to give pause, and reduce traffic substantially.
In less didactic and more discursive disciplines - the social sciences, liberal arts or humanities - one-to-one e-mail may be less useful than communications software designed for groups.
Student work in electronic form, on a network, becomes work which is potentially in the public domain. Students may publicly "post" their work in draft-form for comment, difficulties with argument or evidence may be raised for critique and suggestion, and the process of completing the scholarly task becomes transparently collaborative. (Of course this assumes that one accepts that student (and collegiate) collaboration is a good thing, and that one implicitly rejects the notion of entirely independent intellectual work, and in my view this rejection is appropriate. Knowledge is socially contextualised and is founded and defended in discourse, not isolated contemplation. Our disciplines and our knowledge-domains are social discourses, not private constructs.)
In my case, group-ware software called "AltaVista Forum" provided students with an opportunity to continue to engage in discussion with one another and with myself beyond the periods set aside for face to face discussion. The "live" and the "electronic" thereby offer at least two communication modes, at least two bites of the discursive cherry, so that for example, ideas first raised in one mode may be pursued at length in another; students may engage in more casual, humorous, speculative, spontaneous discussion when in live conversation, knowing that a parallel electronic alternative offers the opportunity for more considered, formal, well-developed contributions and interventions (or indeed, vice-versa), and students who are not so forthcoming in one mode may be so in another. The traditional ideal of the "community of scholars" drawn to one another to explore ideas together is a desirable model of long standing, but is certainly difficult to achieve when discourse between members of the community is restricted to one fixed time-period per-week. The ideal is still difficult to achieve, technology or no technology, but the ideal is perhaps more likely to be approached where conversation may be on-going, entered into and accessible at any time, often centred around shared documents, shared questions and shared tasks, and punctuated with regular face to face meetings rather than contained by face to face meetings.
The forum provided students with another site to express themselves, to test a view or ask a question, and to read other student's views. It gave them another opportunity to write and to argue a position - itself a good thing in my view. Nearly all students availed themselves of the opportunity on a regular basis and some contributed thousands of words of closely argued opinion. In general the quality and sophistication of the postings is excellent. (You may judge for yourself at http://forum.edfac.unimelb.edu.au/cybersociety/dispatch.cgi).
On the other hand I was disappointed by the volume of postings - I had hoped for much more traffic - and I was disappointed by the gravitas of the postings - I was hoping for some postings that were a little more tentative and a little less refined and conclusive, and I was also hoping to see far more in the way of threaded exchanges and less in the way of unanswered monologues.
In retrospect I think a number of factors account for lower than expected traffic, the serious tenor and the preponderance of monologues. Most significant I think, is the fact that participation in the e-forum is contingent on computer use, and whilst all students have access to computers in one of several university labs, this is not their habitual place of work. In this subject the networked computer was not embedded in student's daily work practices. The e-forum was therefore seen by students to be divorced from the major tasks and routines of their work, and is seen as something extra, something asked in addition to the main tasks. To do the reading is a major task, to prepare responses to questions, write essays and to discuss the questions at seminars are all mainstream student tasks. To contribute to the e-forum has not been equated in the student mind with "preparing for seminars", "discussing the reading", or "drafting the essay" - though the forum has been "sold" as such.
Using the Web as a Medium for Student Work.
The objective in using the e-forum was to create an alternative venue for discourse, to augment the mainstream tutorial discussion, seminar papers and essays.
Rather than augmentation, one may go the whole hog and abandon the seminars, tutorials and essays, and base the whole of the subject around workshops and the web. Such has been the case in a subject called "Using Computers in Research".
In this subject students negotiate a particular knowledge interest and a specific research topic, use the Internet and other sources of digital material to assemble resources, then use those resources to design and construct a web-site focused on their knowledge interest and research topic. Internet searching and downloading takes the place of library work and photocopying, and web-site design and HTML takes the place of essay-writing. Studies as varied as those covering Biotechnology, the European Union, the Bacchae, and Female Genital Mutilation have been conducted in this fashion (for examples see http://www.arts.unimelb.edu.au/amu/ucr/student/1996/)
The subject has been well received. Students appreciate the correspondence between the subject and current media, and value the chance to develop new and very marketable skills. At the same time, work with the web and with multimedia allows students to develop and express creative skills and aesthetic sensibilities in addition to logic. Most significantly, students appreciate the public nature of the work. Constructing an argument to present to a lecturer is one thing. Constructing an argument to present to a global audience of (potentially) 30 million people is something different.
However, it easy to throw the switch to vaudeville, and students, like staff, can be caught up in the media per se, rather than approaching content and disciplinary principles through media. Even with this gloss avoided though, the most sober application of hypertext involves an embedded architecture which is associative, web-like (of course), and non-linear, and does not lend itself to the construction of tight, lock-step argument commonly anticipated in the essay genre. The media offers plenty of promise, but it is the message, and we need to seriously consider the epistemological implications of pursuing and expressing argument in this fashion.
It is thus the case that the web can be used and has been used in support of traditional teaching and learning practices. The traditional syllabus is supported by a flexible and transparent medium for design and presentation, the lecture is supported by providing students with skeleton notes, the tutorial and seminar are supported by providing students with another venue to continue discussion and to share ideas, student research and exegesis is supported by providing students with hypertextual media and multimedia as an alternative to plain text. None of this is without difficulty, but modest innovations such as those described do seem to offer useful opportunities for curriculum improvement.
© Michael Arnold
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