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The DDCE Online Learning Project

Colin Macpherson, Susan Bennett, Ann-Marie Priest


Division of Distance & Continuing Education

Central Queensland University



Online learning is attracting attention as the latest revolution in tertiary education. In distance education, where the traditional delivery system has been based on print and post, the potential for improved service and support offered by online technology is attractive. But experience in teaching and learning online at a tertiary level tends to be fragmentary. At Central Queensland University (CQU), few of those involved in teaching at a distance have the necessary knowledge to fully assess the implications of online learning and thus to realistically determine its usefulness and possible future applications.

To address this situation, a small team from the Division of Distance and Continuing Education (DDCE) developed a short online course in which interested CQU staff could enrol as students and experience the joys and frustrations of online learning for themselves. The idea was that by completing the course, staff would be able to evaluate some of the pedagogical principles and strategies informing online learning and make their own judgements about the online learning environment. But as well, the course was entirely valid in its own right, giving students an in-depth look at a significant historical event: the Irish Potato Famine.

This paper briefly reports on the design, development, implementation and evaluation phases of the project with the intention of providing useful information for others interested in the practice and possibilities of online education.


What is online teaching? How does it work? Is it effective? What does the lecturer do? What do students do? How much does it cost? Who knows about all this stuff here?

This is a small sample of the questions that were being asked by academics and administrators a year or so ago at Central Queensland University (CQU) and, we suspect, are still being asked at a lot of other higher-education establishments. CQU has more than half of its 12000 students completing their various courses in distance education mode, so the possibility of a new form of delivery and pedagogy was clearly of importance.

One obvious problem in CQU's case was that although pockets of expertise existed and there had even been some useful dabbling in the area of online delivery via the Web, the majority of academics and administrators had little or no idea of what this new approach to teaching was all about (see Macpherson 1997a and 1997b for more on this). Furthermore, the literature seems to be divided on the issue of effectiveness of online delivery compared to traditional approaches. For example, McClure (1996), More et al. (1996) and Wilson (1996) suggest that learning outcomes resulting from online delivery - as with other electronic media systems - are not significantly different to those resulting from traditional face-to-face delivery. Schutte (1997), on the other hand, has data that suggests there may be benefits from online delivery that are not at first apparent.

It was in this atmosphere of uncertainty that the Online Learning Project was undertaken by a small team at the Division of Distance and Continuing Education (DDCE). It was devised as an attempt - which proved to be highly successful - to provide CQU staff with a set of experiences that would allow them to make more informed contributions to the various debates about online education.

Very early in the development of the project concept it was decided that we would make the intended knowledge and experiences available to staff via an online course. The idea here was that the best way to learn about a new form of teaching is to enrol as a student in a course that uses the form. The next decision was a little more radical - rather than make the course content focus directly on online teaching techniques, we would introduce students to such techniques indirectly via some other content domain. Also, we were very much aware of the fact that the course would have to be short, with no more than 10 to 15 hours of engagement necessary. Any longer and no one would be interested, time being at a premium for most staff.

Based on the experience of one of the team members in a different time and place it was decided to make the course about an historical event - The Irish Potato Famine (IPF) or An Gorta Mòr as it is known in Irish Gaelic. We were convinced that this topic had the potential to hold the interest of people from a wide range of backgrounds while they partook of the online teaching and learning experience. As a result, we prepared two sets of objectives to guide our development of the IPF course. These objectives appear at the course information and enrolment site for prospective enrollers (Macpherson et al. 1997a) but are worth repeating in full here.

Online Instruction in General

Upon completion of the course we intend that you will be able to:

This Particular Content Area

As well as the above we intend that you will also be able to:

Besides these objectives for the students another important intention of the project was for our team members to develop new skills and abilities as they worked together designing and implementing the IPF course. Furthermore, it was our intention to use the instructional designers at the DDCE as tutors, assistant tutors or triallers in order for them to gain insights and skills that could be important in the near future when they might need to give advice to lecturers about incorporating online activities into their courses.

The Online-environment Software

There is some irony in the fact that we chose to use a software package developed in Ireland - its name being WEST (Web Educational System Tools). In fact, it was a remarkable coincidence that the company that produced the package used the Irish Potato Famine as the basis of a short demonstration of its product at its home site on the Web. We believed that the demonstration course left an awful lot to be desired in terms of structure, design and pedagogy - even though the actual online teaching and learning environment produced by the software was reasonably good. Our project manager took advantage of this situation by approaching the WEST company (now WBT Systems) with a suggested arrangement whereby our team would produce a cut-down version of our proposed IPF course that the company could use on its Web site rather than the poor quality example it was currently using. In return, we wanted a licence - at no cost - to use WEST at CQU. The WEST package allowed for the setting up of classes, each with a different tutor, and produced a self-contained environment that allowed for tutor-student and student-student e-mail, the submission and assessment of assignments and tests, and the recording of communication and assessment data. It clearly suited our requirements for delivering the IPF course.

Trying out some Initial Ideas - Prototyping

As part of our negotiations with the WEST company the team agreed to demonstrate its competence by producing a prototype Website in standard html incorporating audio, graphics, a Shockwave animation and a test that students could submit for marking. From our point of view this work would not only help us on our way to a free software licence but would also allow us to develop design principles and some materials for the 'full' IPF course.

The prototype course consisted of six short sections which summarised the history of the Famine. Each section featured links to resource materials such as personal accounts and poems from the Famine period and the present day. Some suitable resources were already available on the Web while others had to be created and provided on our server. The structure we used allowed students either to proceed linearly through the sections while branching out to specific resources, or to navigate through the sections and resources as separate spaces.

Our approach to the content of the prototype course was to provide mainly basic information overall but to delve deeper into certain areas. We also planned to use this strategy with the main course, believing that such a mix would engage students both intellectually and emotionally without requiring too much of a time commitment. The WEST company were impressed enough with our prototype to enter into the full agreement we had hoped for.

The Full IPF Course Plan

We thrashed out the pedagogical strategies which would inform our 'full' course design before we began work, and refined them through the hands-on process of course development. We decided that the course material would be presented in six lessons, each focussing on an important topic or set of issues. Each lesson would include an assessment task involving the use of a different set of skills as well as exemplifying some of the possibilities for online assessment activities, and the assessment tasks would become more complex and challenging from lesson to lesson. One of the guiding principles of the assessment design was to facilitate electronic interaction - and hopefully stimulate the cross-fertilization of ideas between students. An associated principle related to tutor support, and was fundamental to the course implementation: tutors would respond to any student communication - task submission or otherwise - within 24 hours.

In researching and writing the course we drew on as many sources as possible, aiming not to reconcile but to throw into relief the tensions and controversy which have always surrounded interpretations of the Irish Potato Famine. We resisted drawing conclusions and instead encouraged students to confront for themselves the many contentious issues the subject raises.

Our original commitment to a nonlinear design which would allow students to work through the lessons and associated resource materials in any order was challenged by the hierarchical nature of the WEST package, which, perhaps ironically, prescribed a strictly sequential and linear course structure. We did work within this structure, but were also able to subvert it through hypertext links which enabled students to move 'sideways' from a particular lesson to additional resource pages not contained within the WEST environment. Each lesson also contained links to other resources available on the Web.

Illustrations - mostly black-and-white drawings and cartoons from the time of the Famine, but also maps and paintings of key figures - were an important part of the overall look of the course, but as well, we saw them as a valuable source of information in themselves, and they were carefully chosen to supplement the textual information provided in each lesson. We also used a number of sound files to add 'colour' and depth - for instance, we included a sound file of a local poet reading a poem about the famine in Irish Gaelic.

We planned to run the course twice for CQU staff, running three small classes for each course period depending on enrolment numbers. Each class would have both a tutor - initially, a member of the course development team - and an assistant drawn from the pool of instructional design staff at DDCE. In the first course period, the tutor would train the assistant in the technical aspects of online teaching; the assistant would then become the tutor in the next course period and themselves train an assistant. In this way, most instructional designers would gain experience in teaching in an online course.

The Enrolment Process

Staff at CQU were kept informed about the project via the Internet - first by e-mail and later through a Web site where they could read some general information about what we were doing, and also listen to an audio file of a staged version of one of our team meetings. Even at this stage, however, we didn't let anyone know about the 'unusual' content of the course - we intended this revelation to be made only when the course was ready, the idea being that this strategy might lead to more enrolments.

The full announcement was made on a multiple-screen Web site that had some images together with the objectives of the course and other information about how the course would operate, including the level of commitment that would be required in order to complete the course (see Macpherson et al. 1997a). After reading through this information, staff could enrol by filling in a screen-based form and submitting it to the team.

After enrolling, people were directed to another site we had constructed where they were given information about how to configure their browsers (if needed) in order to play the audio files and Shockwave animations that were part of the IPF course. Enrollers were then advised to test their configurations with sample files at the same site (see Macpherson et al. 1997b).

The two course periods offered were of two weeks duration each. We had 20 staff members sign up for the first period and 26 for the second. The cut-off date for enrolments was set for only a few days before the first classes were to begin and it was during these days that we ran a 'compressed' trialling period using three instructional designers from the DDCE as trial students. Their feedback was of great value and, with appropriate adjustments made, the first release version was ready with only a day to spare.

The Initial Course Begins

The first course began with three classes, two of seven students and one of six. All students had been welcomed by e-mail prior to the beginning of the course and given a username, password, URL and some advice about how to configure their machines and how best to approach the course. We suggested that they try to complete a lesson per day in order to complete the course comfortably within the two-week period and to synchronize with other students in their class. There was an initial flurry of e-mail between students and their tutor as students accustomed themselves to what was for many an unfamiliar learning environment. A few students needed further advice about how to configure their computers, and a few more had difficulty understanding how to do unfamiliar things like sending e-mail to a discussion list and submitting assignments electronically. These issues had not arisen during the trial, and exemplified for us the enormous differences in students' experience of and confidence with the Web.

The Initial Course Ends

Although a total of 46 staff enrolled in the six initial classes only 20 completed the whole course - completion being defined as the submission of all six assessment tasks. Most enrollers did complete at least two or three tasks and, we believe, browsed much of the lesson material. A short online form was used to collect comments from the 20 finishers. The survey questions asked participants to reflect upon both the effectiveness of the course from a 'student' perspective and its effectiveness in increasing their own understanding of the Web as a learning tool.

The first section of the survey asked participants to rate aspects of the course according to the following scale:

5 = excellent

4 = very good

3 = good

2 = satisfactory

1 = unsatisfactory

The average ratings, shown in Table 1, indicate a high level of approval regarding most aspects of the course - particularly its effectiveness in teaching about the Irish Potato Famine. However, the results show a relatively low average rating for the use of audio files. A closer examination of the ratings and comments reveals that many participants did not possess the necessary hardware or were unable to configure their browser software appropriately (despite the availability of detailed instructions and testing facility). A few were unwilling to download the files because of the wait involved, some files being moderately large.


Average rating

The effectiveness of the interaction process with your tutor.


The value of the visits to other sites on the Web as part of the teaching and learning process.


The value of the assessment tasks as aids to your learning.


The value of the audio files as aids to your learning.


The ease of use of the facilities offered by the software environment

(e-mail, movement between lessons, reading noticeboard, etc.).


The helpfulness of the course in learning about the possibilities of online teaching and learning.


The overall success of the course in teaching you about the Irish Potato Famine.


The overall quality of the course design.


The overall quality of the implementation of the course.


Participants were also asked to respond to a series of open-ended questions which asked for comments on the positive and negative aspects of the course. The following sample comments are typical of those received and tend to endorse the course as being effective in its primary aim of increasing awareness about online learning:

"I enjoyed the opportunity to do an online course for the first time. I picked up many ideas on presentation and structuring."

"I will be able to use what I have learned here in my teaching practice, and it has 'fired me up' to design a similar package for the students."

"Not really a negative but problems with servers - difficulties at certain times of the day connecting are a reminder that the technology we are using is still far from perfect and course design and delivery as a consequence need to be flexible (as it was)."

"It has really opened my eyes to online learning and reinforced my opinion that we have to be very careful developing material to be delivered in this way."

The WEST Demonstration Version

When the initial course was finished, we used it as the basis of the smaller demonstration course we had agreed to provide for WEST to locate at its home site. One of our primary considerations in producing this smaller version of our course was that WEST would not be able to provide the tutor support for assessment activities that was a fundamental component of the main course. In this case we had to focus on making the capabilities of both the WEST software and online learning evident to a casual browser rather than a committed student. Accordingly, we reduced and simplified both the course content and some of its pedagogic features while still giving some idea of what was possible when good design and the WEST product were brought together (see Macpherson et al. 1997c).


By most measures the Online Project and the IPF course were both very successful. Firstly, each of the four project team members strongly believes that they have developed a number of important skills because of their involvement in the project. These skills focus on such areas as design of online teaching materials, content research, assessment strategies, and project management. The team is now confident - on the basis of the IPF experience - that it can produce high quality online courses in a broad range of disciplines.

Secondly, the instructional designers who were involved as course triallers or tutors all feel they have benefited from these experiences and that they could now confidently discuss with lecturers from different faculties the use of the model that underpins the IPF course. This will be of great value if CQU decides to embrace the idea of online delivery using the IPF course approach.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the course evaluations completed by members of the first two classes show that both the professional-development and content-learning objectives we set for the course were met by all the staff who completed all the activities. The fact that this number was only around 43% of those who enrolled was not unexpected - many of those who dropped out contacted us with the explanation that they just didn't have the time but hoped to re-enrol at a later date. The evidence shows that by completing the course class members felt they had learned a lot about the operation of this model of online teaching and learning, and how such a model might be applied to their discipline. Furthermore, the assessment data, as well as those from the evaluations, show that the course was highly successful in teaching about the Irish Potato Famine - in other words, the pedagogical strategies (in this case at least) work effectively. Given these successes it would appear that the IPF course model, right from the information-provision stage through the course-design and implementation stages to the completion stage, could be used by other course providers - both for professional development purposes and for content learning. We hope others will consider our experiences reported here and use what we have learned to develop their own successful online courses.


Macpherson, C.R. 1997a, 'Famine on the Web', DERUN (Distance Education Research Updates Newsletter), Issue 2.

Macpherson, C.R. 1997b, 'Famine on the Web' DERUN (Distance Education Research Updates Newsletter) (web version), Issue 2.

Macpherson, C.R., Bennett, S., Priest, A. and Benson, G. 1997a, The Irish Potato Famine course - information site,

Macpherson, C.R., Bennett, S., Priest, A. and Benson, G. 1997b, The Irish Potato Famine Course - plug-in test site,

Macpherson, C.R., Bennett, S., Priest, A. and Benson G. 1997c, The Irish Potato Famine Demonstration Course,

Schutte, J.G. 1997, 'Virtual Teaching in Higher Education: The New Intellectual Superhighway or Just Another Traffic Jam?', California State University.

McClure, P.A. 1996, 'Technology plans and measurable outcomes', Educom Review (May/June), vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 29-30.

Moore, M. & Kearsley, G. 1996, Distance Education: A systems view, Wadsworth Publishing, Belmont.

Wilson, D.L. 1996, 'Self-paced studies', Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. XLII, no. 21.



(c) Colin Macpherson, Susan Bennett, Ann-Marie Priest


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