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Enhancing Student Learning Through Online Support

Gary Williams, Bill Lord and Mark McFadden,,

Centre for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching

Open Learning Institute - Charles Sturt University



In 1997 Charles Sturt University has been trialing the delivery of online-supported subjects. The Autumn trial included 26 subjects and approximately 1000 students. The Spring trial included 126 subjects and over 6000 students.

The objectives of the trials were to:

Each trial involved the use of a subject template to enable students to access: a subject outline; some learning resources; areas of CSU's administration; and online communication facilities including email, listservs and web forums.

This paper describes: the design and development of the subject template, the support mechanisms provided, the evaluation procedures used, and commences discussion of the trial outcomes.


Since 1996 Charles Sturt University has been developing a strategy for the online support of subjects. The objective is to encourage students and staff to use the Internet as a tool, rather than a tutor in the conventional sense of a computer-based learning program. Such a tool should allow:

In particular, the provision of online-supported subjects is an opportunity to address some of the challenges faced by the University's 16000 distance education students, who frequently have limited opportunities for communication related to social, administrative and learning needs.

Design and Development of the Subject Template

In April 1996 a working party was established to design and prototype a method of providing online support for each subject. The task was to develop a subject template that provided a consistent method of online support. The issues addressed included:

The working party consisted of two educational designers from the Open Learning Institute of the University, and an analyst programmer from the Division of Information Technology. They relied on a reference group of academics, drawn from most faculties, to evaluate the work of the team, to provide specialist input into the design process, and to test any prototypes. The final report is available at

Figure 1 - A screen snap from the hypothetical online-supported subject HST202. The left frame details the menu choices. The right frame illustrates the front page of the subject web forum, accessible from the 'Communicate' menu choice.

The issue of access arising from consideration of equity to online-supported subject material continues to be debated by the University community. Currently no critical subject information is provided solely online. The objective remains not to disadvantage those who cannot obtain Internet access.

Early prototypes of the subject template employed HTML 3 with Netscape Navigator 2 extensions, and used a frame-based system for ensuring navigation and menu choices were held in a constant position on the screen. As is illustrated in Figure 1 the left frame contains the menu choices, with the right frame displaying the content for each menu choice. Table 1 summarises the type of content for each menu choice.

Emphasis is given to encouraging the use of the unique capabilities of the Internet to support communication. Students can email their lecturer(s). As well, during the Autumn 97 trial students could subscribe to their subject listserv.

Menu choice



The Forum (An online discussion group)

Email the lecturer or other students individually

Communicate with the University

  • Student Information
  • Change your email address
  • Open Learning Institute (OLI) Help Desk
  • Division of Information Technology Service Desk


CSU Library Catalogue Search

World Wide Web Search


Introduction to the subject coordinator

Subject overview

Subject objectives

Topics covered

Read me

What is in each online-supported Subject section?

Tips for using an online-supported Subject

An Introduction to the Library online

Contact procedures

Academic conduct


Study schedule


Assessment information

  • Terms and conditions
  • Grades
  • Assignment schedule
  • Due dates
  • Extensions for assignments and late assignments
  • Assignment marking
  • Assignment preparation
  • Assignment details
  • Submission of assignments


Prescribed texts

Additional references

Residential school

CSU Library

Student Services


Hyperlinked list of online subject contents

CSU Services

Academic Calendar


Student Association

Student Services

University Handbook

The Co-op Bookshop On-line

Personal Information Area

  • Internet access charges
  • Monthly usage report
  • Redirect your email
  • Current charges and finance balance
  • Student statement
  • Phone usage charges for residential students
  • Change name/address
  • Student transcript
  • Message boards


Sources of assistance for University or subject based information


Return to the complete list of online-supported subjects

Table 1 - The type of content for each menu choice included in an online-supported subject.

Formative evaluation, involving student and staff interviews, indicated that many had difficulty subscribing to and using a listserv. Therefore, for the Spring 97 trial each subject listserv was replaced with a subject web-based forum. The objective was to remove the technical barriers to electronic communication, while providing the ability to thread messages by topic. The front page of a forum is illustrated in Figure 1. Although providing separate forums for social and learning purposes was considered, the decision to generate multiple forums for the one subject was left to the lecturer.

The prototypes and the first working subject template were developed using Microsoft FrontPageã . In late 1996 academics responded to a request for expressions of interest in trialing the template. This resulted in 26 subjects being included in the Autumn 97 trial. For each of these subjects, content was added to the template by educational designers specialising in technology. The content largely comprised the print-based subject outline issued to all distance education students. This information was divided into sections and sequenced in a way that best suited online delivery. For example, information was divided into sections to minimise the amount of screen scrolling. Additional information included an introduction from the academic and details about any planned online activities.

Adding the HTML content for each subject proved to be time consuming and inefficient, and was clearly beyond the scope of educational designers if substantial numbers of online-supported subjects were offered. Therefore, the task of automating the process of filling the template was handed to the Division of Information Technology (DIT). The number of online-supported subjects increased to 126 for the Spring 97 trial.

Support Mechanisms

This section describes the support mechanisms developed to try to ensure effective student and staff use of online material during the Spring 97 trial. For the subject template to be used effectively students and staff had to have a reasonable level of computer competence, be familiar with the operation of a web browser and email, and know how to access and use the library databases and catalogues. A number of support strategies were put in place to deal with these training and support needs.

Support for Students

Before the semester students received three items encouraging them to engage in the online trial: first, a pamphlet entitled 'On-line supported subject trial Spring 97: What is it and why should I consider using it?' was distributed; second, a brochure entitled 'CSU Online', and third, a disk containing a program simulating an online subject were also distributed.

The brochure, 'CSU Online', had been developed before the first online trial, in Autumn 97, to give students and staff information about connecting to CSU from work or home. The revised brochure gave more detailed information about this process.

The aim in distributing the program simulating an online subject was to allow those students not connected to the Internet to consider the value of the material before they expended money and time. A PC version was distributed, and a Macintosh version was available upon request. This guided tour was developed using Authorware Professional.

Throughout the semester students were able to gain help with accessing and using the online material by contacting, by phone or email, the various University help desks. Contact information was within the online material and the 'CSU Online' brochure. An online liaison officer also monitored the web forums to answer questions of a non-academic nature.

Support for Staff

Staff involved with the Spring 97 trial received copies of the material provided to students. Staff were supported by the provision of information sessions, training sessions and the establishment of a web discussion area.

Over 100 staff attended information sessions run on each of the University's three main campuses to explain the aims and objectives of the trial. At these sessions staff were able to question a panel of personnel who had been involved in the development of the trial.

After the information sessions a training needs survey focusing on academics' competence with web browsers, email, and library catalogues and databases was distributed to all involved academic staff. There was approximately a 70% response rate to this survey. On the basis of the analysis of the training needs survey, training programs in each of the areas of need targeted were developed, advertised and run. Immediately before the commencement of the trial a full-time online training officer was appointed.

In tandem with the running of training programs, a moderated web forum discussion area was established to enable staff to continue to air problems and concerns associated with the trial. Through this area, staff were encouraged to provide feedback on the developing subject template and to seek solutions to any technical problems encountered in the lead up to the trial. It was also envisaged that the establishment of the forum would encourage staff use of the same communications technology to be used by students.

Evaluation Procedures

Building upon the experiences of the Autumn 97 trial an evaluation procedure, described in this section, was developed for the Spring 97 trial. The aim was to develop the University's understanding of the affect of providing online-supported subjects, and thereby inform CSU's future policies and practices. Its focus was evaluating student support, rather than subjects or staff. A seven-person evaluation team, including representatives of the library and the Division of Information Technology, designed and enacted the procedure.

The objectives were to investigate the:

There were five evaluation cohorts: students, academic staff, educational designers, librarians and information technology specialists.


Based on a student's use of his/her online subject material the student was categorised as belonging to one of the following three groups:

Students who had never accessed the online material completed the questionnaire reproduced in Appendix 1. Students who initially accessed the material, but discontinued, completed the questionnaire reproduced in Appendix 2.

After eight weeks of the semester an Educational Designer surveyed students in 20 subjects that had associated residential schools. It is recognised that the cohort questioned during the residential schools is not representative of the entire online-supported student body. Given that it is important to investigate as comprehensively as possible why some students never accessed the material, the survey, reproduced in Appendix 1, was mailed to all students whose subject did not have a residential school and who never accessed the online material.

Those students who continued to access the online material throughout the semester were asked to complete an online questionnaire during the thirteenth week. An objective was to encourage students to describe what they liked, and disliked, about the online material. To this end, 21 of the 35 questions required an open-ended response.

In addition to the student questionnaires, students' use of the online material was tracked. Amongst the plethora of data collected is information about visits to the forum by date and by thread, and information about visits to the various pages of each online subject.

Academic Staff

A survey was distributed to the academic staff whose subjects were online supported. This survey was designed to elicit their views about:

Educational Designers

A survey was distributed to the 21 educational designers. It asked them to provide written responses to questions about: the preparation for the Spring 97 trial, collaboration between themselves and academic staff, and production issues.


The library conducted focus group discussions about the following issues.

Information Technology Specialists

A survey of the information technology specialists, within the Division of Information Technology, was conducted. This survey aimed to elicit their views as to the process of developing and maintaining the online material.

Trial outcomes

Final analysis of the data had not been completed at the time this paper was submitted. However, access and needs were the two major themes to emerge from the surveys of students attending residential schools. These students were those that had not accessed an online subject, or who had accessed a subject but had discontinued use. A report about the evaluation results will be provided as a supplement to the conference proceedings, and will be available at

Students reported that access was the main determinant affecting their use of online subjects. A significant number did not have access to a computer. Cost was a major reason for not having a computer, or a machine with Internet access. Comments indicated that students often could not afford the additional cost of a computer, Internet connection and usage fees. Although some had computers with Internet access at their place of work, use of these machines for study was often restricted.

Several students reported that they had no Internet Service Provider (ISP) in their residential area, and were not prepared to pay STD costs. Students reported technical difficulties in accessing the Internet. Also, a significant number reported difficulties in gaining access to their online subject due to problems with their login IDs and passwords.

The second dominant theme was that of needs. Some students could not identify a need for online study support, with significant numbers stating a preference for studying from printed resources. Students were often frustrated to find the web forum contained little worthwhile subject communication. There was also a strong preference for communication with the University and academics through the conventional means of telephone or facsimile.

Issues for Consideration

While cost and technical difficulties in establishing an Internet connection are major factors inhibiting the uptake of the technology, students clearly need to have a need, and the ability, to use the Internet to support their learning. If online subjects are offered as an accessory to existing learning strategies and resources, many students will adopt a minimalist approach to learning that enables them to achieve their academic goals using conventional approaches.

Appropriate and practical uses of the Internet in education involve the development of strategies that use the technology as a tool for facilitating reflection, collaboration and research, especially where students are isolated by time or place. Structured activities can engage the student in online learning if this use is integral to the objectives of the course or subject. Yet the best intentions of universities will be thwarted unless the issues of access are addressed.

Internet access can be made a prerequisite to study, if it can be assumed that such access is meeting the educational needs of the student and is a valid application of educational technology. The remaining obstacle, is the management of the students' and academics' training and support needs with respect to connecting and using online resources. Technical training is only one part of the story. All training and support for students and academics needs to situate learning in a meaningful context. Competence in the use of technology is then developed as a tool to support and extend learning.

Appendix 1

Questionnaire (minus demographic information) for those students who had never accessed the online material during the Spring 97 trial.

Please select the factors that contributed to you not accessing the online material (i.e. the subject support material provided by Charles Sturt University via the Internet).


I didn't know that there was online material


I do not have access to a computer


I do not have access to a computer connected to the Internet


The computer I use is not sufficiently powerful to access online material


No satisfactory Internet Service Provider available


The CSU pamphlets about accessing the online material didn't help me enough


The CSU floppy disk about the online material didn't help me enough


I am unfamiliar with the use of computers


I am not confident with the technical processes of connecting to the Internet


I prefer to work from the printed material


I prefer communicating with the lecturer by telephone/fax


I prefer accessing the various University services by telephone/fax


I feel it's not worth the effort to set-up the required systems to access the online material.

Any comments:

Appendix 2

Questionnaire (minus demographic information) for those students who initially accessed the online material, but discontinued during the Spring 97 trial.

  1. How often did you access the online subject material?
  1. Why did you discontinue accessing the online subject material?
  2. Were there any features you found helpful/interesting when you accessed the online material? If yes, please identify these.
  3. What would you have liked online that would have encouraged you to continue accessing the online material?
  4. Did you access the online forum (i.e. discussion group)? If yes, please describe what you thought of it.



(c) Gary Williams, Bill Lord and Mark McFadden


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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