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
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
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.
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