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Although engaging students in the learning process is a daunting task, it is necessary if we want to teach students thinking skills that will help them to be critical thinkers and independent learners. This issue of CDTL Brief on Engaging Students discusses the importance of engaging students in the process of teaching them thinking skills..

July 2006, Vol. 9, No. 2 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Academic Culture Online
Associate Professor John Richardson
Department of English Language and Literature
Vice Dean, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Professor K.P.Mohanan
Department of English Language and Literature
Deputy Director, CDTL

For the past two years (AY 2004/2005 and AY 2005/2006), a small team of people has been working on an online 1-MC module (PLG2005 "Plagiarism. NUS") intended to introduce students to academic culture. The module is nearly finished. This short article is a report on some of the problems we encountered along the way, and some of the partial solutions we found for them.

Not all our problems were connected with the module's virtual status. Academic culture is a topic none of us has taught before, and it took a good deal of discussion both for us to understand the norms, conventions and practices of academic culture, and to clarify what we wanted students to learn (the curriculum content). But it is the pedagogical and technological problems we struggled with in working in a new medium that might be useful to others embarking on similar ventures. Those are the focus here.


One of our earliest difficulties concerned navigation, and looming behind that was the larger problem of the need to abandon some of our classroom preconceptions. The first version of the first lesson we produced had quite a linear navigational structure, largely because at some level, we were thinking of a lesson as something that occurs in a specific place over a specific time. We planned our first online lessons as we would plan a normal lesson, as a sequence of events, one leading from another.

The responses we received on this were mostly negative. Our first group of guinea pigs experienced the structure as constraining, and the lesson as boring. So, we opened the navigation up, and in doing so, changed the model of the lesson we were creating. Instead of a classroom lesson, it was more like a book, we realised, with a sequence that readers are always at liberty to reject. Or perhaps a closer analogy still is a loose-leaf folder, with some non-binding advice about sequencing.

Modification and Adaptation

Another problem that came in part from our experience as classroom teachers was the tension between flexibility and the finished product. A classroom allows constant, spontaneous modification of materials and approaches. If one thing seems not to be working, a classroom teacher can abandon it, adapt it, try something else or launch a renewed effort the next week.

This kind of modification and adaptation are more difficult when the lesson is created as a more or less finished product. The more elaborate the production and finished the product, the more difficult it is to change and adapt. Our eventual solutions were to use text for large parts of some lessons, since text can easily be changed, and to keep the highly produced and finished elements to a minimum.

Student Engagement

However, the most intractable problem was-and is-that of eliciting student engagement. Although it took us some time to work out exactly what should go into the module, we were clear from the start that any introduction to academic culture should reflect academic values by encouraging students to be engaged critics rather than passive recipients. We should practise what we were preaching, or rather, we should avoid preaching, and instead find ways of persuading students to think critically about topics as far as that is possible.

One solution we have adopted in parts of the module is the use of scenarios and choices. The student viewer watches a scenario which raises a reasonably complex problem-for instance, whether the existence of a plagiarist in a group project turns the whole group into plagiarists? Such a scenario is followed by two branches of choices (Branch A and B) which might lead to further choices, and at some point to feedback. The approach has the advantages of allowing us to ground problems in similar real-life situations and elicit reactions from students. Its limitations are two. Firstly, the number and nature of choices that can be offered are always predetermined and limited. To return to the classroom analogy, there cannot be the range and spontaneity of classroom discussion with the scenario approach. Secondly, there are necessary omissions in a branching structure of this kind. A student who chooses Branch A will miss what is in Branch B, unless the lecturer adopts the clumsy expedient of sending him/her back to try the other branch as well.

Another solution we have tried is the use of textboxes to elicit more complex responses. In the methodology lesson, for instance, we invite students to write suggested methodological approaches to problems or critique suggested approaches. This is both more open and more intellectually challenging than the choices approach, but it also has disadvantages. All the invitations come with a health warning that student's textbox response may or (more likely) may not get an answer from the team. We are working on the assumption that at some point, large numbers of students might access this module and others designed like it. Teacher reactions to all our students' musings will not be possible. So, what the textbox does is to invite students to send their ideas out into an empty, unresponsive space. The problems associated with that need not be elaborated.


Perhaps the most abiding lessons from the experience of working on the module are the following:

  • Principles. It is important to keep educational principles alive, even while recognising that an online environment is different from a classroom. That different environment must still be used to make students think for themselves.

  • Openness and resilience. If the module is a team effort, team members must be ready both to give and to receive what might euphemistically be called 'robust' criticism.

  • Development time. It takes longer-a lot longer- to develop something for an online environment than it does to plan a traditional class.

  • The expenditure of time, however, is repaid in the fact that an online module has a potentially huge audience. It can be of benefit even to students outside NUS and outside Singapore. Moreover, once the module is revised and fine-tuned, it does not require much effort is to run it for subsequent years.
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Inside this issue
Teaching Students to Think: A Matter of Engaging Minds
Academic Culture Online
Thinking Skills: A Discipline-centred Approach