Micro Curriculum Issues in Designing On-line Materials
Faculty of Education
Curtin University of Technology
This paper discusses the development for Internet delivery of a university unit requiring a large amount of reading, reflection and group interaction. It approaches the issues from the viewpoint of a teacher and designer of instructional materials. It takes the theoretical perspective of curriculum development at a micro level.
The student group is portrayed as generally unfamiliar with studying from computer or the Internet, but probably more readily adaptable to the new mode than the average university student. The reasons for choosing this mode of delivery are outlined.
One of the largest reading units in the course was selected to develop as a prototype. Once a suitable format and structure was found, it was believed that the other units would follow more easily.
The paper discusses a number of micro-curriculum issues, such as format and page design, the interactive and note taking features, student access and the need for thorough evaluation. Comparison is made with the characteristics of on-campus study and the need to replicate these in a realistic way. While the choice of WebCT as an interactive delivery tool is mentioned, its technical features are not discussed in any detail.
The conclusion emphasises the experimental nature of development for electronic teaching and learning.
Those of you who have read my earlier abstract on the Web, may have noticed that the main focus of this paper was to be an evaluation of student learning styles and preferences after a semester of learning from the Internet. I am afraid this is not going to be the case, as the project has not yet reached the stage of having students use the Internet materials.
My research and teaching specialism is in curriculum development and educational change, and I would like to change the focus of this paper to view the current development of an on-line Education unit from that perspective. One of the clearest messages to emerge from the literature on educational change over the last quarter century is that it is never easy. The fact that the trial and evaluation of this project has not yet eventuated is indeed witness to this fact.
There are two strands of research into curriculum development and educational change. One is micro-development, which deals with the individual teacher or lecturer attempting to produce the ideal learning materials according to the principles of learning theory, instructional design and educational technology. The other is change and development at the macro level, which wrestles with the concepts of development within the broader political, administrative, economic and social constraints of the educational environment. Both of these are important aspects of the change process, but the issues in this paper are those of micro-curriculum development, or those dealt with in the literature of instructional design and educational technology.
There is, as yet, little clear evidence of the superiority of Internet delivery over any other kind of teaching-learning mode. Why then did the Faculty of Education decide to go down this path and start developing the Graduate Diploma in Higher and Further Education as an Internet course?
Any new tool which offers a possible alternative method of delivery needs to be tried. Since the early research into maximising the variety of educational media to cater for individual differences, educationists have regarded new technology as a valid tool for teaching and learning. The Internet was there. We needed to see what we could do with it. Second, there exists a belief, far from proven, amongst university managers that it might make course delivery cheaper. Certainly the rising cost of printing on most campuses has us looking for cheaper delivery methods. Third, its novelty will give it an advantage for some years. Students will gain from the excitement and challenge of doing something different, in many cases something that none of their colleagues and friends have done before. And fourth, it is important for the Faculty of Education to keep in the forefront of techniques and strategies coming into education and training and, conversely, not be seen as out of date or resistant to change.
The target student group is enrolled in one of the Vocational Education and Training (VET) courses. This program already has a culture of flexible and open learning. Students in these courses are all mature aged and working in post-school training institutions, such as TAFE colleges, universities, private industry and government departments. Most have families and other commitments. Typically, students choose to enrol partly as on-campus and partly as external students. They already understand the principles of androgogy and expect their courses to contain self directed learning and workplace-based assignments. Assignments are often negotiated individually. Staff encourage open communication channels and students make use of a range of teleconferencing, email, post and telephone contacts.
Electronic communication as an alternative delivery method is already included as a topic in the studentsí course work, and as more of their workplaces are moving into Internet access, it should be a small step for them to expect electronic access to become part of their course delivery. Thus the project was in line with present practices in open and flexible delivery and was well timed to meet the changing needs of this group of students. They were expected to be more able to access and use on-line open learning than the average school-leaver Education student.
Work on this project began in mid January 1997. Initially one unit from the Grad Diploma (Higher and Further Education) was chosen for pilot development. It was thought that once a template had been developed, other units would be developed quickly and easily. The unit chosen was Ed522 Curriculum and program development.
The Nature of the Unit Ed522
Ed522is one of the largest reading units in the Vocational Education and Training program. In its original printed format, the unit content consisted of a 268 page Guide and a supporting Reader of analysed case studies. There was no text book. The first issue in developing this unit for on-line delivery was how to structure such a large unit of study in the new mode. Once this problem had been solved, the other shorter units could be expected to prove much easier.
One of the strongest features of using learning material on the Internet is the facility to layer the material, and the ability to link quickly from ìupperî levels to more and more detailed materials below. Hundreds of ìpagesî of information, exercises, self testers and assessment management systems can exist in a vast network of interlocking layers. This facility is particularly valuable for intensive learning of a skill or a clearly defined competency. It is not necessarily as effective when it comes to acquiring knowledge through extensive reading and reflecting.
The most distinctive feature of this unit in its Internet format is how wordy it looks, in comparison with the more typical electronic learning programs with short screens and multi-layed pages. The unit structure had to deal with an enormous amount of reading in the simplest manner possible.
The decision to structure the unit into 14 weekly modules mirrored the process students used traditionally with their print-based materials. There was a familiarity in the weekly structure which it was hoped that students would relate to. It also helped retain the integrity of the original content structure and curriculum design.
Another reason for choosing the weekly module of work as the basic unit of study was the yet unknown method by which students would choose to access the material. A number of students would have to access the coursework by STD modem connection, and probably would not choose to stay on line to read and interact. They would seek to minimise their phone bills by down-loading to their own hard disc, or by printing the Internet pages to study in their own time. Larger blocks of material would be much easier to handle in this way.
Format and Design Issues
The major issues in designing the ìpagesî, with so much reading material, was that of retaining interest through visual variety. Visual variety is achieved on a printed page in tried and tested ways and is somewhat different from the demands of the Web.
First, the screen size is different. The standard A4 page size has to be converted to ìlandscapeî layout, with headings, diagrams and text assuming a different shape. The developer must be aware of a screen page as the basic visual unit. Diagrams have to be re-drawn, headings and introductory statements have to become screens with a visual integrity of their own, and the flow of the page has to be seen from a different perspective.
Second, colour is important. Colour was a completely new element for the developer who has worked only with black and white. A graphic artist was employed early in the development, and asked to develop a colour design. This was a good strategy in that it stretched the imagination of the developer. However, the artistís ideas were not necessarily good instructional design. His perspective was more that of advertising. He did a lot of work putting in design ideas which were later deleted on the basis that they would distract from the process of learning and understanding. The strength of bringing in a graphic artist early in the process, however, was that it enabled the developer to think laterally about the visual component. The design adopted eventually was a considered compromise between cognitive psychology of learning and marketing/advertising theory. Neither party could have done this without the other.
The graphic artist designed the icons for the various weekly sections. He was asked to choose a metaphor for each topic heading and turn it into a picture. This proved an interesting experiment. The metaphors in each case are obvious, however their effect on students needs to be explored when the materials are piloted.
Several features used in designing for print-based materials were transferred in the hope of increasing the learning impact of the Web version. The design aimed for a variety of activities, in the hope that frequent changes of pace would help retain student interest. For the same reason it aimed for visual variety on each page. Exercises and questions for reflection helped do this, as did the headings and subheadings. As a general rule, the text is broken between almost every screen with a heading, a quotation or series of quotations, a diagram or table, or with exercises and activities. Each screen is supposed to look interesting, with plenty of change and plenty of space. This is much harder to achieve than it is on an A4 printed page and at times became impossible.
Netscape Navigator Goldwas used as the basic html writing tool. However, there are a number of things which cannot be done with this program and it was necessary to learn how to adapt and correct the html code to achieve the desired effect.
Web writing is not as flexible as desk top publishing in a word processing package. Furthermore, there can be no guarantee that the reader will be able to see the final product in the same format as the developer has designed it. Non text elements such as colour, movement, gif files, borders, panels etc. might help to overcome these deficiencies, but there could be a problem with overusing these, and the designer needs to minimise on obvious gimmicks.
The main technical problem was to build in some sort of interactive element to simulate classroom discussion. I first planned to do this through a closed email discussion list, set up as a separate function. One of my colleagues had experimented with this approach and had achieved only partial success. It was considered more desirable to use a program linked with the Web pages and integral to the Internet program. The problem was put to a computer Adviser at the computing centre, and the choice was made to use WebCT. WebCT has an ìemailî function which allows the members of the class group to participate in discussion and to give answers to the exercises, reading and commenting on each otherís work. The lecturer can also join in, responding to studentís reflections and encouraging further discussion.
Another technical issue solved by the decision to use WebCT was the use of the note taking facility. Note taking is an integral part of the learning approach adopted by the unit. Frequent questions and points for reflection had been built into the study text and students in a face to face context always respond positively to this as an effective method of preparing for the group discussion and class based activities. In the first version of the unit, I had carefully planned and explained how the students need to set up a note taking file in Word and learn to access it quickly and easily as needed. The Mynotes function in WebCT made this unnecessary as it provided a dedicated note taking facility within the learning package.
WebCT requires access via a student name and password, thus ensuring a closed environment and the privacy of the group in its tutorial discussion and seminar activities. An element of the privacy issue currently generating some debate is whether it is better to give open access to university course work, or whether to deny access. There are those who believe that open access will enhance the reputation of the writer, the course and the university, on the one hand, and those who are afraid that others will steal their ideas and their hard work and devalue it in an increasingly competitive market. I am among the former, but the choice of WebCT took the decision out of my hands. It appears to run only as a closed program.
It had to be borne in mind what kind of students would access these units and study via the Internet. The principal student group will be external enrollees, in many cases based in full time employment at non-metropolitan TAFE colleges, hospitals, government departments and mining companies. Metropolitan students will also be encouraged to use the on-line materials and discussion as part of their study.
A printed Plan will be sent initially to students, encouraging them to set up Internet access and advising them how to find access to a server. Once they have access to the unit, they are counselled in the Introduction on the features of Internet study, such as navigation, taking notes and down-loading. Evaluation of the trial unit will explore student behaviour in some depth and further changes can be made to the Plan and Introduction as necessary.
There may be an inherent contradiction in designing this unit principally for distance students. Distance education typically has fostered flexibility, with a strong emphasis on the importance of students studying at their own pace in their own time. The interactive and collaborative aspects of this Internet unit, however, encourage students to replicate the class room discussion experience of the on-campus sessions. This will require students to keep more or less together, putting their reflections and comments into the weekly electronic discussion. The response to this will need careful monitoring and evaluation.
At least two units are expected to be ready for piloting in the second semester next year. This offers a valuable opportunity for extensive, well planned evaluation. The first units will be piloted with both on and off-campus students. Evaluation will take place by way of observation, discussion and formal written questionnaires. At the end of the semester, a sample of participating students will be interviewed.
The Introduction section of the Internet version includes these words
This is an experiment for us as well as for you, and we need to monitor the effectiveness of Internet delivery as an alternative method of teaching and learning. Regard this as a trial, or a pilot. We need to collect data on the way you use these materials and what you think and feel about them. We would appreciate it if you would complete a series of evaluation questionnaires at various stages during your progress through this unit.
The evaluation will look at the studentsí style of operation, including how they access the unit, whether they worked from the screen, down-loaded or printed the various sections, how often they opened each section, the amount of time they spent reading and doing the exercises, how quickly they worked and whether their pace varied and how comfortable they felt with the new study mode. This part of the project will ascertain their preferred styles of operation, and why they made the decisions to work as they did.
Second, the evaluation will take note of their level of participation, and their feelings about joining in the class discussions. When faced with public reflection on, and discussion of the course concepts, they can be expected to react differently from each other, as indeed do students in a face-to-face classroom discussion environment. Data will be collected on their participation rates and how they felt about typing their responses into the program. WebCT allows the lecturer a degree of observation into student pace and the frequency with which each student opens each section, and data will be accumulated on this.
Third, the evaluation will evoke student comments on the materials themselves, one of the most difficult parts of any evaluation. Typically students do not have strong feelings about format, page design or colour, but prefer to comment on whether they found the material easy to read, easy to understand, easy to relate to, conducive to reflection and interaction, or annoying in any way. It is expected that students prefer the learning process to be transparent, and they will only comment on the appearance of the study material if it distracts or frustrates them. They will also be asked for suggestions on how the materials might be improved.
Affective data will be gathered to help judge their hopes and fears as they began to use the new medium; whether their moods fluctuated and what caused these fluctuations; and whether their feelings changed as they become more familiar with the medium. They will be asked what they liked and what they didnít like about studying this way, and whether they would choose to study via the Internet again if they had the choice.
The evaluation, it is hoped, will lay a foundation for a detailed analysis of many characteristics of student learning and the use of the on-line materials.
A small number of past and present students and some staff members have had access to various versions of the Internet materials, so we have not worked completely in isolation. Although much thought has gone into the design features, and the metaphors from print based, face to face teaching and learning have been consciously transferred to the materials, we are far from knowing what we are doing.
The real challenge is ahead as we offer the course in a real time learning situation. In depth research into implementation and further development is paramount in the arena of curriculum change and, in the case of electronic delivery, an essential element in discovering where we are going with this new technology.
(c) Clare McBeath
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