‘Electronicfication’: Controlled Versus Mass Digitising of a Physics Unit.
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Sharonn M Stewart and David Cardnell
Central Queensland University
Fundamentals of Computer Technology (Hardware) is a first year core unit in both the Bachelor of Information Technology and Bachelor of Multimedia at Central Queensland University (CQU). The primary objective of the electronicfication of this unit was to provide a format that would assist the students’ understanding of the complexities of dynamic systems which were traditionally represented by static diagrams. This was achieved by exploiting technology in developing twenty-five animations to form an integral component of the learning material. However, introducing technology into a unit delivered to distance education students, forty-eight percent of the enrolled student population in this case, highlighted numerous constraints. Students’ mode of access to the newly augmented unit was a constraint resolved by the implementation of a flexible delivery option.
The authors hold a Research and Development grant awarded by the Division of Distance and Continuing Education at CQU which facilitated the implementation and evaluation of the electronicfication and flexible delivery of Fundamentals of Computer Technology (Hardware). This paper will present the constraints their impact and the resolutions encountered throughout the project.
Central Queensland University (CQU) has been a provider of distance education courses for nearly a quarter of a century, originally providing only science courses at a distance using print based material and requiring residential courses for the practical component. The Division of Distance and Continuing Education (DDCE) now provides resources to support many disciplines in the distance education mode using a variety of media. Presentation of a unit via the electronic media is not new to CQU (personal communication Jones & Jamieson; Macpherson, Bennett & Preist; Zelmer) however no other unit has formally given the student a choice of the media with which to study their material. The original driving force behind the electronicfication of Fundamentals of Computer Technology (Hardware) was to provide a format that would enhance the learning process where the student was required to understand the complexities of diagrammatic representations of systems that were not static. This resulted in the introduction of technology to display twenty-five animations of schematics which became a component of the unit study materials. The resultant constraints of introducing technology into the teaching process were addressed by implementing a flexible delivery program for distance education students. Flexible delivery required a shift in the culture of providing distance education courses at CQU.
Students enrolled in the Bachelor of Information Technology (BIT) and the Bachelor of Multimedia (BMM) at CQU were required to have access to computing facilities. Students may be required to submit assignments via email and communicate with other students in discussion groups through electronic facilities. The access was not restricted to IBM compatibles and in some units access to Macintosh machines had a particular advantage (Balsys & Gregor 1993). One unit offered in the BIT is even accessed, studied, discussed, and assessed entirely through electronic media.
Fundamentals of Computer Technology (Hardware) known affectionately as ‘FOCT’ was a compulsory unit of the BIT and BMM courses and was available to students in other courses as an elective including the Bachelor of Technology (Industrial Instrumentation) offered by the Applied Physics Department. FOCT deals mainly with the operation of computers at the component level requiring an understanding of the jargon and technical details of the operation of the various components and peripherals of a personal computer system. On the premise that introducing animations to replace static diagrams would increase the learning experience it was decided to digitise the physics unit FOCT, i.e. prepare it for the Web. Web delivery was in keeping with the philosophy of the Mathematics and Computing Department, to which Applied Physics provides a service.
Several constraints identified at the outset of the project needed to be resolved in order to effectively and efficiently implement FOCT for the given semester. Mass digitisation of FOCT (stick it all up on the Web and let them find their own access to it) alone was unacceptable. Resolution of this and other constraints was achieved through controlled digitising. Controlled digitising gives the student a choice and still provides a quality product. The constraints included:
Traditionally the procedure of offering units at CQU in the distance education mode was to develop one package of material per unit. The enrolment procedures limit the students’ choices to course, units and mode of study (internal or distance education). On confirmation of enrolment the student no longer had any input to the system. A student studying in distance mode received the learning package automatically. Concomitant with the enrolment process was the timing. Students were allowed to enrol in a unit as late as the second week of semester. Perhaps the biggest deterrent to mass digitisation of FOCT was the students were not required to have access to computing facilities. A compounding issue was the lack of historical data on the degree of access that distance education students enrolled in FOCT had to computing facilities.
The unit FOCT was taught to both internal and distance education students. Certain aspects of the electronicfication of the unit, if integrated into the lecture format, would give internal students an improved learning experience. CQU has five regional campuses in Queensland and five remote campuses around the world. In this context regional is defined as having the ability to receive real-time interaction. The unit FOCT is offered regionally, remotely and via distance education. The regional campuses are linked through a communications network that provides lecture size classic videoconferencing technique (dedicated ISDN lines). Three regional campuses are connected via a 34Mb/s microwave link with a 2Mb/s Telstra link between the other two. It doesn’t take much imagination to envisage the complication this added to the digitisation of FOCT. How was the unit to be presented to the regional campuses and take advantage of the adoption of digitisation? How was the unit to be presented to remote campuses that did not have videoconferencing facilities?
Implementing Web delivery of a unit was undertaken on an adhoc basis throughout CQU. As a result, any supporting administrative processes that may be relevant are not well known, rather it is a case of eliciting advice and information from colleagues on an as needs basis.
Time was also a limiting factor. The net effect of the decision making process resulted in a development time-frame of 3 months from the date of approval to the project going on-line. This constraint meant the unit content could not be completely redesigned to best suit the media. This resulted in the textual content essentially remaining the same.
The Interactive Multimedia Unit of DDCE at CQU undertook the technical development of the project in conjunction with the lecturer and tutor. The lecturer responsible for the unit had studied other units offered on the Web and also had some experience with browsers and browsing but no technical expertise on the provision of material in this format. Insufficient time was available for appropriate training of other team members in cutting edge technologies. Basically two expertise dilemmas were apparent: the requirement to employ an appropriate Web publishing system to support the efficient delivery of FOCT, and a method for converting the schematics to animations. Both of these tools were required to match the knowledge base of team members.
All distance education students had to be provided with unit materials that maximised their learning experience. In the past when print was the only component of materials this was not a problem. However, in the technological age it becomes a quandary which necessitates decisions concerning what level of technology to base distance education delivery around. It was unrealistic to assume every distance education student had a computer in their home. Forty-eight percent of the enrolment of FOCT were distance education students at an average of 32 years. Web delivery alone was unreasonable as this had the implication that students not only had to have access to a computer but also the Internet, most likely via an Internet Service Provider (ISP), and the associated expenses this service incurs. Another question raised was what to deliver to a student who had computer facilities but no Internet access. These students would have the technology to view the newly introduced animations, yet would not be able to gain access via the web, was this equitable? CD-ROM technology was briefly considered, but again it was felt there was not enough knowledge regarding students’ computing capabilities to support this media. These were constraints which a single delivery mode would not satisfy, where could we go, what could we do? Simple, let the student decide from a list of options where at least one would satisfy their circumstance. This provision of choice to the students was the first official implementation of flexible delivery at CQU. The authors’ believe on-line presentation of a multidisciplinary unit cannot be the sole access to that unit, flexible delivery is a must. The definition of flexible delivery in this context is similar to that of People 1997:
“Flexible delivery is an approach rather than a system or technique; it is based on the skill needs and delivery requirement of clients, not the interests of trainers or providers; it gives clients as much control as possible over what and when and where and how they learn...”
Flexible delivery of FOCT was a carefully orchestrated venture in implementing three separate modes of delivery.
Print based material was a well-tried method of presentation and the entire infrastructure to support his mode was available in the university. The authors contend print material for the distance education student cannot be entirely abolished. However, students without adequate technological capabilities must be considered equitably and not as an adhoc enrolee to deal with on an as needs basis. It was conceded this option would not enable access to the improved content, i.e. animations.
· World Wide Web
Complete on-line delivery was akin to mass digitising and this mode certainly allowed the animations to be presented as planned. There were individuals within the university to provide advice with implementing this mode of delivery of the unit.
· Print and disks
The major question was how to reach an equitable compromise for students who had capabilities between print and the Internet. One proposal was to provide the on-line resource as an off-line package on CD-ROM. However again, the authors felt the computing capabilities of the student body was too much of an unknown; how many students have CD-ROM drives on their machines? Distance education students have financial commitments and priorities that may result in their ‘getting by’ without a multimedia computer. This student group most likely bought their machines when multimedia was an optional extra to the basic personal computer system. In consideration of this fact controlled digitising, the option to study FOCT with a combination of printed material with animations on floppy disk, was implemented.
Producing FOCT on the Web was an advantage for those taking lectures on regional campuses via the Interactive Systemwide Learning (ISL) facilities at CQU. At times it was challenging due to the image size at certain sites and the transmission bandwidth, causing synchronisation difficulties with the animations. However, the advantages of the ability to insert a computer display with network access into the transmission far outweighed any short-term synchronisation problem. This implied that lectures for the regional campuses were better services through ISL than the previously utilised technology of Video Assisted Learning (taped lectures discussed in tutorial mode). Remote campuses previously employed distance education delivery for FOCT and with the advent of flexible delivery these students were better serviced by print and disks as their mode of delivery.
The introduction of flexible delivery exacerbated the administration issue. Giving students a choice was a time consuming administrative process. Once the choices were identified (Print, World Wide Web, Print and disks) there was a seemingly endless administrative nightmare with which to contend. Enrolled students were provided with information about flexible delivery and the technological requirements for each mode, with a request to advise of their chosen mode within a specified timeframe. The choice was mutually exclusive, an important factor in maintaining a manageable inaugural project. ‘Organisation in threes’ became the modus operandi for administration. The authors have found the timeframe of the enrolment - delivery mode choice - delivery cycle was critical to the process of flexible delivery. After a certain point in time choice no longer became feasible and the students who had not made a choice were assigned a mode so they would receive their learning materials in a timely fashion. To address this issue in an equitable manner and to maximise student learning, print and disks was the default mode of delivery for FOCT in Spring semester 1997.
From an institutional administrative angle there were other issues to deal with. As this was the first implementation of flexible delivery at CQU, cooperation was required between several student support units. There was constant planning and communication with the Delivery and Student Support Unit which incorporated the Production and Dispatch sections for distance education, in addition to communication with CQU Student Administration. Communication and information was a major factor in the smooth implementation of this project.
Information regrading the computing facilities of distance education students, as previously mentioned, was virtually non existent. Real data was needed as a basis for future postulation’s and was collected by way of a survey in conjunction with the original flexible delivery notification mailout. The developers also wanted to collect important information on the design and effectiveness of the animations and on the unit content for future improvements. We assumed positive outcomes implementing flexible delivery and animations, but how would the students react? A successful application for a research and development grant awarded by the Division of Distance and Continuing Education facilitated the implementation of an evaluation project in conjunction with the augmented delivery of FOCT.
Time and expertise were combined factors that influenced the final direction of the development of the unit and ensured team dynamics became critical to success. Due to the inflexibility of the development time, two issues were apparent: 1) the necessity to find a well supported, easy to use publishing system to deliver FOCT via the web, and 2) simple development of animations which could be delivered both via the web and on floppy disk.
1) Web publishing system
Development team members had limited experience with delivering educational material via a Web publishing system. ‘WebFuse’ was the Web publishing system chosen to implement the first version of FOCT in its’ electronic format. ‘WebFuse is a collection of scripts and programs designed to reduce the effort involved in designing and maintaining a collection of WWW pages’ (McCormack & Jones 1997). This system was being developed by CQU academic David Jones, and having virtually immediate access to WebFuse specialists on campus was a major factor in adopting his system. There was also something to be said for supporting other factions of the university community.
Animated GIFs was the technique chosen to represent the dynamic nature of the selected schematics. This format was suitable due to its’ ability for easy incorporation onto both the Web and floppy disks; and for its relative ease of development which suited the current level of expertise of the developers. A review of literature supplied guidance on the application of animations in the scientific context (Baxter 1996; Hall 1996; Williamson & Abraham 1995; Windschitl 1996) and a development cycle for production of the twenty-five identified schematic transformations was initiated and implemented. This process involved a high level of communication between all team members, especially the technical (lecturer) and non technical (graphic artist). Transforming the lecturers’ nit picking attention to inappropriate detail into meaningful frame sequences that caught the essence of the graphics purpose was achieved through open communication and a respect for each members abilities.
More information is known about the student population enrolled in FOCT. Approximately 42% of this population is studying by distance education. Just over half the students are enrolled internally and approximately 75% of these have access to the ISL process.
Seventy-six percent of the distance education students responded to the requirement to choose a flexible delivery mode. (The remainder of the population were provided the print and disks default delivery mode.) Of this 76%, the breakup of modes was somewhat expected (students maximising their options by getting all they can), although not to the extent shown. As Figure 1 demonstrates print and disks was the most popular mode at 78% of the population, whereas only 12% chose on-line delivery. This is in spite of 70% of students having Internet access as shown in Figure 2.
Of equal importance was the response of internal students to the electronicfication of FOCT. In the past internal students were able to buy a copy of the study guide printed for distance education students. However, it was assumed these students would prefer the on-line version at no financial cost. Hence the printed study guide was no longer available for purchase by internal students. The realisation came early that both the university and students’ computing resources were inadequate to deal with this assumption; students wanted hard copy and printing on university facilities was inadequate. Therefore, early in the semester in response to student requests printed study guides were again made available to internal students.
The original rationale behind digitising FOCT was the exploitation of the technology to improve learning through the introduction of animations. Feedback received to date on this aspect is positive. Students have indicated the animations were a welcome improvement of the static diagram although they “cycled too fast”. This was a drawback of the technology employed.
In the metamorphosis of FOCT it was realised that although a serial process of learning was implied in the traditional study materials, the chapters themselves need not be studied sequentially. The unit could therefore be redesigned in a non-sequential structure allowing the user more control over their learning.
This implementation of FOCT reiterated the necessity of a download facility for web delivered courseware. Students are justly concerned with the transferral of costs such as ISP and printing which they meet as a result of the shift from printed to on-line material (Stewart & Cardnell 1997). A download facility would address this issue to a large degree. This is perhaps the fundamental reason for a flexible delivery program, instead of forcing costs and learning styles on students let them choose.
Flexible delivery is now a fact of life for FOCT, and the culture shift has occurred without too much traumatisation. Academic process did not adapt so readily and student enrolment still occurs until the end of second week in the semester of offering, a continual administrative challenge for future offerings.
Clearly, research to date guides the ongoing development of FOCT, now known as Computer Hardware Fundamentals. Phase 2 is nearly complete with phase 3 already on the drawing board.
The animations in phase 1, although an improvement on the original static diagram, still employed a split source of information as operational text accompanied the animations. ‘Split source of information may generate a heavy extraneous cognitive load because material must be mentally integrated before learning can commence’ (Chandler & Sweller 1991). Phase 2 eliminates split information source by the addition of audio to the animations. In response to student feedback regarding the animations cycling too fast, animated GIFs have been eliminated and will be translated to Quicktime technology. “I read, I see, I hear, maybe I will understand”. Phase 2 will also employ CD-ROM technology in deference to floppy disk. Research indicates 85% of the distance education student body have computers with CD-ROM drives, a figure which is believed to be an acceptable rationale for further development on this media.
The ever present tight development timeframe does not allow for phases 2 and 3 to be developed at once, resulting in phase 3 being marked for development in early 1998. However, in developing phase 2 the team is cognisant of requirements in phase 3. This version will provide an interactive learning facility which allows the student a means to determine what material they have covered, how well they covered it, and a chance to review and retest until they achieve their desired level of understanding. Development of the unit in phases allows analysis of the students’ response and provides a greater measure of confidence in the effectiveness and efficiency of the development. Consequently, this becomes a guide for the direction of future development.
Our idea and interpretation of flexible delivery was borne by the desire to enhance the learning process by exploiting technology, and to give the students a choice in when, where, what, and how they undertake their tertiary education. Students have responded well to the introduction of animated diagrams and the flexible delivery program. The students’ choice of method of delivery has been somewhat predictable choosing the delivery mode which contains multiple resources. Hence, they have maximum tools to optimise their learning experience.
Balsys, R.J., Gregor, S., 1993 Evaluation of the human-computer interface by questionnaire, ZCHI 93, Canberra, pp 267, Published paper extract
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Chandler, P. Sweller, J. 1991 Cognitive load theory and the format of instruction in Cognition and Instruction Volume 8 Number 4 pp293-332 US
Hall, D. W. 1996 Computer-Based Animations in Large Enrollment Lectures: Visual Reinforcement of Biological Concepts in Journal of College Science Teaching Volume 25 Number 6 pp421-25
McCormack, C. & Jones, D. in press Building a Web-Based Education System John Wiley & Sons NJ
People, K. 1997 Definition of Flexible Delivery http://www2.cit.act.edu.au/national/dsdfl.htm
Stewart, S.M. Cardnell, D. 1997 Distance education students having a choice in delivery mode of a Physics unit: their choices, causes and consequences. Report of a seed grant awarded by the Division of Distance and Continuing Education, Central Queensland University.
Williamson, V.M. Abraham, M.R. 1995 The Effects of Computer Animation on the Particulate Mental Models of College Chemistry Students Journal of Research in Science Teaching Volume 32 Number 5 pp521-34
Windschitl, M. 1996 Instructional Animations: The In-House Production of Biology Software Journal of Computing in Higher Education Volume 7 Number 9 pp78-94
© Sharonn M Stewart and David Cardnell
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