Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

(Web) Publish or perish?

Anna Boyd, Bob Fox and Allan Herrmann
Centre for Educational Advancement
Curtin University of Technology
Given the perceived need for universities to move into flexible delivery of learning materials, institutions are encouraging academics to go 'online' without first considering the consequences. Any debate on how this move towards flexible delivery should be achieved has been silenced in the rush to put materials on the web. Because various 'tools' have been made available to university academics to publish their own learning materials for the web (for example WebCT at Curtin), staff have been given 'the keys to the car' without being shown where the seatbelt or break pedal are.

In this session, we will discuss what role instructional designers and academic staff developers have in monitoring pedagogical, design and copyright issues in web teaching and learning materials.


Introduction

The availability of programs such as Page Mill which convert text directly into html, and then on to web pages, or systems such as WebCT which provide a framework in which a whole unit can be embedded, means that many staff are taking the responsibility for the university's push to produce WWW materials, on themselves. Although Henri and Parer (1994) suggest that the challenge of computer mediated communication will be to transfer theories of learning and pedagogical practice into applications of this technology, in practice only some teaching/tutoring staff wish to focus on this challenge.

One of the problems in a generalised move into web-based materials, is that materials for a diverse range of students including both on-campus and off-campus are being produced. While not a problem in itself, lecturers producing materials for their on-campus students are placing material such as lecture notes and overheads on the web, without any of the instructions, communication or explanations that normally accompanies a lecture or tutorial. Where on-campus students can clear up any confusion with their lecturer, in some cases the units are then being used as a template for distance units, with the expected level of confusion resulting.

A number of assumptions either explicitly or implicitly underlie the intention to 'load' print based materials onto the web and are embedded in the assumption of the neutrality of technology. For the most part they are reflected in the much used Clark metaphor, 'mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes change in our nutrition' ..... 'Basically, the choice of vehicle might influence the cost or extent of distributing instruction, but only the content of the vehicle can influence achievement'. (Clark 1983:445)

Perceptions and meanings

In examining lecturers' use of the World Wide Web (WWW), three perceptions become apparent. While they are not mutually exclusive, lecturers tended to identify with: The main outcome of the first two perceptions was a "load-up the existing materials" approach. These perceptions are embedded in an 'education solely as product' philosophy and saw the WWW as merely a delivery mechanism.

The third perception could be typified as coming from a more 'process' view of education and in most cases was associated with more constructivist approaches and resulted in the lecturer endeavouring to include more discussion opportunities for learners to interact with her/himself and other learners and construct their own content meanings.

One disadvantage that lecturers who conscientiously try to incorporate both a comprehensive materials delivery site and a full communication/discussion facility is that they tend to find their workload overwhelming, and some consider that too much effort is required to use the internet as a teaching and learning environment.

Basic skills

While the typing skills of the unit developers may increase the output in terms of the number of web pages, and their knowledge of html or one of the proliferating web development software packages may improve the technical and design sophistication of the page, it is to a large extent, the meaning which is placed on the web as a teaching and learning tool which can impact most on the educational outcomes.

Student volunteered perceptions regarding the use WWW in teaching, indicate that distance students, the majority of whom are mature aged part-time, will not undertake activities related to their study without receiving a 'pay-off'. This does not necessarily have to be of any great magnitude, but must provide a significant return on the extra time and resources invested. This may mean that they will not participate in web components to their courses, unless they perceive some meaningful benefit. Students responded that: when they linked in, they wished to view and interact with new 'content', not merely a re-presentation of the print materials which they had already received. However, as the semester progressed, the interaction with the tutor and other students provided greater interest and the majority of respondents agreed, proved more rewarding. Thus it is important that staff are able to design web pages with useful content as well as manage online discussion and communication

Staff development is needed, to enable lecturers to design and select content in a way meaningful useful to the learners. As mentioned above, simply converting lecture notes or even quality distance materials implies that a change in media would not benefit from content changes. Unit developers need to be encouraged to re-think their curriculum and consider new strategies in the web component development and implementation. This is particularly important when unit developers are able to use such tools as WebCT to upload any of their teaching materials directly form their PC, possibly without the reflection process which is usually part of developing a web component to a unit.

Strategies for academic staff development

Staff development for academics developing web courses, takes a multi-faceted approach. Traditionally, the CEA has tended to move from one-off skills development workshops and instead select staff with whom to work more closely over the longer term. Often these staff already have shown high levels of interest and enthusiasm, or have been recognised as having potential to do so and can act as role models and supports within their teaching schools.

Recently, the CEA has run a number of workshops, the first series looking some of the general issues in teaching distance education online, and another series based on producing materials through WebCT. While this latter series is much more based on how to place your materials on the web, rather than 'why, or what or when', it is hoped that in the near future these seminars will become more pedagogically driven, rather than process driven.

To a large extent, it is the lecturers' decision as to whether they undertake the technical work of page design and development themselves or use a tool such as WebCT, or whether they use the development support services which can be provided at little or no cost to them through the Centre for Educational Advancement. As with most distance materials development, effort is expended is at the 'front-end' in an attempt to reduce work at the delivery point. The lecturer is asked to examine which outcomes are required of the student and how best these can be achieved, keeping in mind cost-effectiveness for the university and learner and equity and access requirements. There are, of course, many subjective 'professional judgements' involved in this process which provide the opportunity of enhancing the skills of the teaching staff.

Conclusion

Clearly there are more issues involved in assisting lecturers to use WWW as part of their distance teaching than can be canvassed in this paper. However, the issue of the need to re-conceptualise the unit for developing a CMC component has become evident. Simply moving content from one medium to another without taking into account any of the problems or opportunities which arise misses the point. Feedback from lecturers and learners is critical to providing valuable information for enhancing future development.

References

Carter, V. (1996). Do media influence learning? Revisiting the debate in the context of distance education. Open Learning, 11(1), 31-40.

Clark, R. E. (1983). Reconsidering Research on Learning from Media. Review of Educational Research, 53, 445-459.

Evans, T. and Nation, D. (1989). Critical reflections on distance education. London, Falmer Press.

Henri, F. and Parer, M. (1994). Computer conferencing and content analysis. In T Nunan (ed.), Distance education futures. Selected papers from the 11th Biennial Forum of the Australian and South Pacific External Studies Association, 21 - 23 July 1994, Adelaide.

Please cite as: Boyd, A., Fox, R. and Herrmann, A. (1999). (Web) Publish or perish? In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 56-58. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/boyd.html


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