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November 2000, Vol. 3 No. 6 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Using the WWW in Teaching Is it worth the effort?
 
Professor Brian Stone
University of Western Australia
 

The use of the World Wide Web (WWW) in teaching has been on the increase. There are many reasons for this and often it is a combination of some of these reasons that result in a new ‘convert’ to the WWW. Typical reasons, in no particular order of importance, are:

  1. to be or to appear to be ‘Hi-Tech’, 

  2. to satisfy a requirement by an employer,

  3. to aim at teaching better,

  4. to reduce teaching loads and teach more efficiently,

  5. to be able to teach at a distance, and

  6. to allow students more choice in how and when they learn, often termed flexible delivery.

In the writer’s case the main motivation was the desire to teach better. The subjects involved were first year engineering dynamics and vibration. Both of these topics involve motion and the ability to animate motion was clearly an advantage compared to a static blackboard or overhead projector. As a result of many years of computer simulation of dynamic systems, it was not too difficult to produce animations for the WWW. Some examples of the material produced for vibration may be seen at http://www.mech.uwa.edu.au/bjs/Vibration/OneDOF/. (In particular, try the example at http://www.mech.uwa.edu.au/bjs/Vibration/OneDOF/OOB/ Starting/OOB.html.)

The animations are used in lectures and students may investigate their understanding by varying parameters and seeing what happens. The writer finds some satisfaction in producing ‘good’ material, particularly when student surveys show that the animations were helpful. It is also satisfying when other institutions use the material.

One of the major advantages of producing such WWW material is not immediately obvious. As the delivery platform is relatively new and has few constraints, it means that the lecturer will often engage in serious reflection on how best to teach the material. Many teachers just teach in the way they were taught and rarely reflect on the way they teach.

In the writer’s experience it has been noticed that though good WWW notes with animations are appreciated by students, it is rare for such material alone to result in raised pass rates in exams. The only demonstrated way to improve pass rates has been found to be by using the WWW as a tutoring system with continuous assessment. Such a WWW-based system has been developed at the University of Western Australia (UWA) and a recent project has resulted in the transfer of this technology to the Faculty of Engineering, NUS. Students are given a series of problems to solve and enter their answers via the WWW. The system is diagnostic so that students get immediate feedback on wrong answers. After doing a set of required but not assessed problems, the students then proceed to do some assessed problems. An online help forum is attached to each problem. Lecturers only have to answer any question once as all students can see the posted questions and responses. An example of the system may be viewed at http://www.mech.uwa.edu.au/courses/e101/. (Choose ‘the computer-based tutorial system’ and use the ‘guest’ facility.)

It has been found that the WWW-based tutorial system produces improved exam performance if the students make full use of it. It has also been found to be very efficient in staff time. The system also has a comprehensive monitoring facility so that the lecturer is at all times fully informed about the progress of the whole class. This informs the lectures so that they may be adjusted appropriately to the various difficulties being experienced by the class.

The tutoring system has been extended to calculus and uses Mathematica to check answers in equation form. Again diagnostic feedback is given and is quite detailed, giving the parts of the equation that are wrong. This may be viewed at http://ae.maths.uwa.edu.au/. (Again use the ‘guest’ facility.)

The question that was posed at the start, “Is it worth the effort?”, needs now to be addressed. For most academics, the effort in writing WWW pages is significant. To produce interactive animations and diagnostic tutorials is far more demanding. Recently, I co-presented a keynote paper entitled: ‘We did it our way—you must do it your way’1. The main thrust of the paper was that the skills/knowledge of individual lecturers varies so much that each will develop material in a unique way. Some will be able (as N.W. Scott and myself were) to write all their own material. Others will need expert assistance in the areas of programming and multimedia. However the effort required is very significant. So is it worth the effort? Consider some good and bad outcomes, such as the following:

Better Teachers

Though perhaps obvious, it needs to be stated that poor teachers and poor materials do not somehow transform into being excellent, simply by using the WWW. The writer has had many uncomfortable moments with people who wish to show their (in my opinion) very poor material. It is a major issue for all universities to develop some policy statement on quality of WWW materials. Is there to be some central control and checking of material or are staff to be responsible for their own pages? Whatever is decided, the result can have major implications on the enthusiasm and creativity of staff. If the control extends to specifying the exact format/ layout of WWW pages, then creativity is inevitably killed. WWW pages that make good and innovative use of the WWW require the freedom to be creative. However teaching may improve significantly, particularly if serious reflection occurs while creating WWW material.

Promotion and Recognition

Some universities take teaching into account when promotion is considered. The use of the WWW in teaching may then prove to have been very helpful. Also some universities and countries have significant prizes/recognition for outstanding teaching. In Australia, the National Teaching Awards are worth A$40,000 to the winners in each category. If a university wishes to improve teaching, then appropriate rewards are a necessary part of the process. The culture of ‘publish or perish’ is a serious handicap to improving standards of teaching.

Dependence on Programmers

For most academics, the need to do research and publish means that they do not have the time to produce excellent WWW materials. The solution is often to attempt to get grants/money to employ programmers and multimedia professionals. These people rarely have any specialist knowledge of the subject matter to be put on the WWW. As a result, it is possible for the academic to expect too much and not give the guidance that only an experienced teacher can give. It is also often the case that good programmers, after gaining the necessary skills and producing a ‘product’, are not retained. The expertise lost is often catastrophic so that a policy of long term opportunities for programmers is both costeffective and necessary to the maintenance and upgrading of WWW pages. Universities must therefore be aware of the costs of producing and maintaining good WWW materials and provide the appropriate funding.

Final Word of Advice

It is our experience that academics who decide to make an investment in producing WWW pages often aim too high. It seems to be a characteristic of academics that they wish to attempt Mount Everest before climbing smaller mountains. The result is they fall short and nothing useful and of good quality is produced. We have come to the view that nothing is too simple if it is helpful to students. We now have a preference for numerous small building blocks. Each has a very specific purpose and may be used in a variety of contexts—something like the pictures available in ClipArt software though this is now rather ClipEd (as in Education). Thus WWW pages may use a selection of such material and academics may add to the collection.

Conclusion

The effort in producing and maintaining good WWW material is significant. To expect academics, who have many other demands on their time, to take on this extra load is unrealistic unless good teaching and good quality WWW materials receive appropriate recognition in the promotion process.

Reference

1. Scott, N.W. & Stone B.J. ‘We did it our way—and you must do it yours’. Keynote paper at AaeE Conference, Adelaide, September 1999. Australasian Journal of Engineering Education. Vol 8, No 2, Nov 1999. pp. 99-123.

 
 
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Using the WWW in Teaching Is it worth the effort?
   
The Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences Web-Based Learning Centre
   
Computer-Mediated Collaborative Learning: Laying the Foundation for an Awareness of Regional Perspectives
   
Use of the World Wide Web in Teaching: A Personal Experience
   
Glossary of Basic Technical Terms (used in this CDTL Brief)