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:
- to be or to appear to be ‘Hi-Tech’,
- to satisfy a requirement by an employer,
- to aim at teaching better,
- to reduce teaching loads and teach more efficiently,
- to be able to teach at a distance, and
- 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/
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:
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
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
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.
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.
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.