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Virtual Tutorials, Virtual Lectures, Virtual Prisons?

Graeme Hart

Education Services, Melbourne Information Technologies Australia


Anthony Gilding

The Centre for Professional Development

Victoria University of Technology



This paper reports on two undergraduate web-based flexible delivery programs at the University of Melbourne. The first example deals with offering standard lectures while replacing tutorials and workshops with web-based activities. The second example is of a different subject in the same course that offered standard tutorials and workshops while replacing lectures by making the lecture material available on the web in a form of an 'online study program'.

While students appreciated the freedom of virtual delivery, lecturers too can appreciate the freedom offered with this approach to teaching. Certainly the freedom to communicate with students and to view their work online at any time and any where had advantages although the disadvantage of having teaching no longer confined by space and time invaded other moments which may have been reserved for reading, writing and leisure. Unless academics utilise good time-management techniques, they run the risk of becoming slaves in a twenty-four hour virtual prison.


The fundamental changes to the educational landscape following the Dawkin's reforms of the late 1980's, along with current reductions in Commonwealth financial assistance, has seen and is seeing massive changes to tertiary education in Australia. Institutions of higher education are facing increasing competition for students and the impact of technology is set to have massive impact on the way in which academics 'work' in the years ahead (Gosper, Hesketh & Andrews, 1996)

Given the tumultuous growth in global Internet-based communication technology over the past few years, the potential competition from educational institutions outside Australia is probably of equal concern. There is a flurry of activity to create 'Virtual Universities' (Hart & Mason, 1996) around the world with the view that students will elect to complete degrees 'online'. If this is true, then the need to develop the most effective online interactive educational methods is tremendously important (Reeves & Reeves, 1997).

Both of the subjects described in this article were part of the Bachelor of Social Science degree in Information Management offered by the faculty of Education at the University of Melbourne. The majority of students were in fact not 'education' students for reasons to do with the history of the amalgamation of the former College of Advanced Education into the University of Melbourne. Each subject consisted of approximately 100 students of whom roughly 60% were female, 25% were full-fee paying overseas students and 25% were enrolled part-time. The degree program was of four years duration with a professional placement or 'sandwich' year in the third year of the course. The two subjects described, Management Statistics and Advanced Business Computing, were both final year subjects in the course.

Virtual Tutorials in Management Statistics

Virtual tutorials was the name given to the 'tutorials' where students completed the same work and the same deadlines as those students in regular classes, but were able to complete exercises off campus using web access from work or home. Students were also able to submit material via web forms controlled by common gateway interface (GCI) scripts and communicate via individual email or mail to a listserver.

Since 1998, students had used computers in the subject Management Statistics to use statistical software such as Minitab, as part of their course. The use of a Local Area Network (LAN) to make files available to students evolved into providing a good deal of course information and eventually into collecting student submissions via an Appleshare drop folder.

As students became accustomed to both collecting and depositing information via the LAN, they came increasingly to want access to the network off-campus. This was not available in the faculty at that time and hence course material, much of which was already in digital form, was converted into a web-based format (see figure 1.). Other considerations such as platform independence and access to computer mediated communication technology also played a role and have been covered extensively in Hart, (1996) and elsewhere. (Mason & Hart, 1997).

Figure 1. The Management Statistics Home Page (from Hart, 1996)

With students using the web successfully in flexible delivery mode, where students attended lectures and tutorials on campus in the usual way, why offer virtual tutorials? This was done as a response to requests from quite a small number of students initially; who had access to the web off-campus. As the semester progressed, this flexible delivery approach accommodated a greater number of students who could see no reason to attend tutorials if the material and the means for interaction with that material were available on the web.

The website did not offer a great deal of material in the way of lecture notes. This was restricted to only lecture outlines after the initial provision of detailed course notes led to quite a number of students 'skipping lectures'. With virtual tutorials, students were expected to attend the traditional lecture, but had the option of completing web-based tutorial material off-campus without ever attending a class as such. The majority of the part-time students in the course took up this option.

One of the major consequences of providing course material on the web was the extensive use by students, not only from within the traditional classroom computer workshop, but also from out of normal hours. The site recorded 50,000 hits during the semester and the result for the lecturer was a marked decrease in the number of students actually coming to his office to ask questions and seek help. The provision of 'basic' information such as the course outline and timetables, meant that when students did make a time to communicate with their lecturer in real (as opposed to virtual) time, the questions they asked were universally of a higher order. Students appeared to be better prepared in their questioning than prior to web-based delivery of material.

Another factor here was the use of a listserver to provide 'global' communication to students. This was euphemistically called 'StatChat' and was an open list to which all students could contribute. In fact, while all students were able to read material posted to the list, only a minority actually sent mail, probably because of similar reasons to why the majority of students are unwilling to ask questions in a large group situation such as lectures. Most email communication from students was of an individual nature. However, while the mailing list was practically a waste of time in getting students to ask group questions, it was extremely handy to post global notices to all in the subject. Over the course of the semester, approximately 1,000 emails were sent and /or received to/from students by the lecturer. Of the 100 students in the course, the majority of mails were from those students enrolled in the virtual tutorials, around 20% of the students, and so the potential for an impost on lecturer time if all students actively engaged in online communication is huge. Of course, the partial tradeoff was the decrease in the number of students coming to the lecturer's office to ask questions and there are no doubt societal issues to be address here.

One of the most interesting aspects of offering students the option to enroll in virtual tutorials, was that, besides the majority being part-time students, quite a number 'floated' between virtual and real in that they attended some classes where they considered the content merited actual attendance. This certainly had some impact on the social structure of the ' class' and the establishment of the usual rapport with students was interrupted by the occasional presence of seemingly 'strangers' in the group.

A few enterprising students wanted their own 'space' on the website and so a StatCafe was created where like-minded students could exchange files by ftp. The technical nature of the method of transfer prohibited most students from engaging in this process, but a drag/drop web-based environment would be extremely appealing to all students. Again, the technology raises the potential of plagiarism among students and is a factor that needs to be kept in mind.

Overall, those who chose to enroll in virtual tutorials and complete the majority of their course activity off-campus were students enrolled part-time. Given the outside commitments of work and family, their choice was one of convenience rather than the view that this approach was likely to improve their learning outcomes.

Virtual Lectures in Advanced Business Computing

Advanced business computing (HREF 1) is a subject that focuses on current uses computer technology has in business and this year included the topics of the Internet and world wide web, the management of a web server including the construction of web pages using HTML editors, the development of multimedia materials, web-enabled databases, and data validation using client side programming. Besides learning about aspects of theory related to the previous topics, students were expected to construct a web-based portfolio of their development of a web-based multimedia application.

Formal lectures were replaced with a study program delivered on the World Wide Web (see figure 2). The study program comprised an assembly of content notes, tutorial questions, hyperlinks, workshop activities, and exemplars of the type of computing in which students had to engage. It even included a small Human Resource Management System which students could operate from any browser. At the end of the course students provided feedback through a course evaluation questionnaire (HREF 2) provided to them over the web and about 60 percent of the students responded over a two-week period. Some of the questions were taken from the University Quality of Teaching Student Feedback Questionnaire while others were designed to elicit student response to the changes in the course and its delivery over the web. The student responses used below are to the following questions:

Did the content and workshop material presented on the web suit the way you study?

What do you believe you missed from not having lectures?

What do you believe you gained by having the course delivered on the web?

Figure 2. The Advanced Business Computing Home Page.

Many students, especially those in full time employment, appreciated the flexibility of being able to access material at any time and off-campus whether it was lecture or tutorial material. "I'm not always able to get into Uni. - working from the web allowed me to access it out of hours." Another student highlighted "It was always available when I needed it, as long as I had access to a computer."

Students appreciated the control they had over their learning, free of constraints of time and space. However this new found freedom had some problems. For one student it "meant that I was able to take things more at my own pace, but was very difficult it I got stuck or had technical difficulties." Some students became easily lost in cyberspace. a common problem with hypertextual environments (Dias & Sousa, 1997). There were also new skills to learn and software to operate: "The content is good, but for someone who is unfamiliar with the browser (e.g. links to another web site) will have problem getting around the links." The independence given to students was welcomed - "well it was very difficult at first but I liked the independence to the course. You worked at your own pace and you could always get questions answered by sending mail." Ironically few students used email for purposes other than obtaining information about their project work and solutions to immediate technical problems (e.g. Accessing their web pages from home). "It enables to study depending on the personal situation and needs. ..."

A printout of the web pages was provided on a weekly basis and students were to 'scribble' additional notes on these pages as they used the web site and other resources. The students appreciated the two forms of notes: "I prefer to have a 'looking down' perspective on my work, as opposed to a 'looking across' perspective at the computer monitor. The printout notes from the web made this achievable." The web provided students with more than 'text' but in form that was not easily packaged, placed in a bag and reviewed on the tram ride home.

With virtual lectures, some students wanted a return to traditional teaching methods and missed the contact with other students provided through the traditional lecture setting. Students missed the information and interactions provided in lectures such as overviews, lecturer's response to student questions, what other students have to say along with general interaction with lecturer - in essence, a sense of direction. With a traditional lecture, concepts can often be more clearly explained verbally rather than in writing. Other students missed the presence and contact of a lecturer even though the workshops were placed where specific problems and content was discussed. Another students appeared to benefit more from lectures than independent study and felt a certain obligation to turn up to lectures and found it harder to get motivated without them.

Some students changed their priorities since having to learn in their own time meant because material for this subject did not have to be read by a certain time, hence other subjects with due dates became a priority ahead of business computing. It seems a web presence may not be as motivating as a human one. Students freely admitted not completing the required work. Without standard lectures, workshops tended to be used as 'mini lectures" much to the dissatisfaction of some students. While students often feel obliged to do required tasks that are emphasised in lectures this appears not to be the case for web based material. Web delivery challenged those students whose conceptions of learning were framed by assessment and as one student put it, "It was hard to apply a structure to learning. Especially with the many links provided, I was unsure of exactly what was to be studied."

Students want Web delivery and improved electronic communication together with a lecturer who can provide overviews, summaries, criticisms, content detail and a social environment where people meet and talk to others about the course. Students see learning as a human activity that may be supported by technology in times when other commitments draw them away from their community of learners. Campus based students only want to apply the "correspondence principle" (Luke, 1996) to studies in limited way.

Virtual Prisons?

In many campuses based courses students are likely to want the freedom of choice as to attend lectures and obtain information from web-based materials. It is unlikely the technology will replace lectures completely but rather server technology will supplement the traditional thereby transforming it into new arrangements for the academic and student. There are new skills for both to learn as they begin to construct and operate within a more complex sociotechnical system - one that transforms both the production and practice of a university course.

Universities will attempt to assist course development by adopting new web based authoring environments in the production of course material. Software such as cMILE may provide a more integrated, powerful and simple way of mounting courses over the web. However the academic will still need to develop new skills surrounding the software, design of web pages and communication interfaces that will be a part of such systems. Universities must not only provide the appropriate technical infrastructure for online courses, there will also need to be professional development programs to support individual lecturer's development of appropriate skills and pedagogy. At the moment, the hegemony of technical solutions overshadows the university's development of professional development programs.

The quality of a course not only depends on the lecturer's communicative interaction with his/her students but also on continued profession development, scholarship and research. There are peers to interact and collaborate with and ideas to mature and manifest into University courses. Server technology, with its demolition of space and time constraints, along with external pressures on Universities to be more client-centered means a lecturer's open door policy may be greatly extended.

There needs to be a balance between the needs of the institution, the needs of the student and the needs of the lecturer that seeks to improve the quality of education programs offered. There will undoubtedly be industrial issues ahead, but lecturers must also learn time management skills associated with delivery of courses over the web. Institutions also need to develop polices that preserve the capacity of lecturers to maintain a balance of activities some of which involve web delivery of courses and electronic communication with their students. Enslaving the academic will lead to poorer quality programs in the long run.

There is little evidence to suggest that delivering educational programs via the Internet lead to improved learning outcomes by students. On the other hand, there is also little evidence to suggest that it is worse. The forces of change come from a changing student clientele to whom flexibility and choice are seen to be important. There are also considerable incentives for educational institutions to be seen to be offering 'leading-edge' opportunities for their students.

While students appreciated the freedom of virtual delivery, lecturers too can appreciate the freedom offered with this approach to teaching. Certainly the freedom to communicate with students and to view their work online at any time and any where had advantages although the disadvantage of having teaching no longer confined by space and time invaded other moments which may have been reserved for reading, writing and leisure. Unless academics utilise good time-management techniques, they run the risk of becoming slaves in a twenty-four hour virtual prison.


Dias, P. & Sousa, A. (1997). Understanding Navigation and Disorientation in Hypermedia Learning Environments. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, Vol. 6, No. 2.

Gosper, M., Hesketh, B., Andrews, J. (1996). Electronic communication in university teaching: expectations and implications over the next five years. ASCILITE'96.

Hart, G. & Mason, J. (Eds.), (1996). The Virtual University: Symposium Proceedings and Case Studies. The University of Melbourne.

Hart, G. (1996). Creating an Online Teaching Space. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, Vol. 12, No. 2, pp. 79-94.

HREF 1 - Advanced Business Computing Website

HREF 2 - Course evaluation questionnaire http:\\\feedback.htm

Luke, T. (1996) The Political Economy of Cyberschool: Rethinking "Instructional Technology" and the Suitability of Cyberspace as an Educational Environment.

Mason, J. and Hart, G. (1997). Effective Use of Asynchronous Virtual Learning Communities, in Cicognani, A., (Ed.), Creative Collaboration in Virtual Communities. University of Sydney.

Reeves, T. and Reeves, P. (1997). Effective Dimensions of Interactive Learning on the World Wide Web, in Khan, B. (Ed.) Web-Based Instruction, Educational Technology Publications, Englewood Cliffs.



(c) Graeme Hart and Anthony Gilding


The author(s) 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 author(s) 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 97 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.


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