Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

So you want to put your course on the web?

Roger Atkinson, Allison Brown, Romana Pospisil and Geoff Rehn
Teaching and Learning Centre
Murdoch University
This session concerns one major aspect of web and Internet based delivery of courses, units or subjects. Of the various kinds of tasks involved in "getting a web course ready", what tasks are best undertaken by a course's teaching staff, and what tasks are to be carried out by central academic services staff?

Dilemmas

For discussion of this question, we nominate a number of perspectives or dilemmas which seem to us, at this point in evolution of practices, to be the most critical, at least in Murdoch University's context, and perhaps in other contexts as well.

University centralised or devolved to schools or faculties - what's the optimum?

In common with other universities, Murdoch has restructured and downsized its academic support services units, devolving functions to faculties and departments. However, also like many others, Murdoch University is adopting new plans for flexible delivery, web based courses, quality assurance, and other innovations and enhancements. Thus encouraged, many course coordinators are contemplating the question "So you want to put your course on the web?". The dilemma is that resources and services in instructional design, computer help desk, student user training, html writing, graphics, web server technical support, course administration and related areas are becoming scarcer relative to demand, not more plentiful.

In response, those of us who are conducting central services in these areas attempt to cope by adopting a range of strategies, including:

These strategies are surrounded by considerable uncertainty. The extent to which academic staff in general may become their own instructional designers, html writers, computer help desk persons, and so on, isn't really tested by observing the experiences and enthusiasms of the early adopters of web based teaching. Will "downsized services units" have the capacity to implement a comprehensive range of strategies? Will further devolution to schools or faculties increase the risks of the scenario which the AVCC (1996) described as the "IT support crisis"?

Students' perspectives on course design - how are they to be assured of good learning?

The students' concerns range from practical issues regarding computer resources through to issues relating to study skills and the quality of teaching materials. As with any other medium for conducting teaching and learning, we can expect a strong association between "good teaching" and the extent of supportive, human recognition of their concerns. The list below indicates some typical kinds of questions we encounter or anticipate.

Issues regarding computer resources

Teaching and learning issues This is by no means a comprehensive list of questions that may be asked by a potential online student. However, it does indicate that student concerns will include many issues which cannot be resolved readily by the academic staff teaching in individual online units. Can a set of standards and a suitable central help and services infrastructure ensure that students are not at risk of becoming "stranded" by their selection of an enrolment in a web based version of a unit?

Diversity versus conformity - should one or the other of these perspectives be dominant?

Certainly in the earlier days of academics putting work up onto the Web, there was great diversity, as the notions of style and standards were as yet unclear and institutions themselves had yet to develop guidelines and policies that might contain some of the rampant anarchy that is the Internet. In addition, there was the usual bogey of the question of "academic freedom", where any attempt to impose any restraints might be viewed suspiciously.

However, there was the well established precedent of the development of materials for traditional distance education, wherein established instructional and publishing design guidelines were adhered to, via a centralised agency of an institution (or across institutions, as was the case in Western Austrlia). Thus, the use of templates for structuring of study materials with a fairly consistent design interface that reflected an institution's corporate identity is a familiar process for many academics.

In the context of the publication of materials for the Web, contemporary experience might suggest that many content providers do not wish to be concerned with such matters as writing HTML and designing web pages per se; indeed, the attraction of "web courses in a box" to many, where content is "poured into" templates, might lead to a boring conformity across units and courses, that might have a mind-deadening effect on students.

Institutions will require some consistency in the public presentation of online materials and quality control of the finished product must be ensured. Experience has suggested that perhaps this can be best maintained with services provided by a centralised agency, although it must be conceded that in the earlier days of web-publishing, it was the work of the pioneering individuals that captured the attention of educational providers, indicating that the Internet was a viable means of delivery. Today, economies of time and staffing, and the sheer volume of work to be put online, would indicate a clear division of labour is necessary, where the role of the academic is as content expert and the services of specialised staff are required.

However, institutions might well be increasingly attracted to "web courses in a box" wherein the need for intervention by specialised staff is minimised, all design issues having been pre-determined by the developers of such tools. This scenario may well be efficent in some respects but might lead to a high degree of conformity that needs to be resisted.

Compulsion to adopt web based teaching and learning or free choices?

There is a groundswell of compulsion for web based delivery from a number of quarters and for a number of reasons: convenience of access for students; streamlining from an administrative perspective; cost savings from a senior management perspective; a certain 'upfrontedness' about course content; easier quality control....

There is also the issue of the perceived increase in marketability of online course material, particularly if whole courses and services can be accessed in this way. We are being swept up in the panic for 'new markets', more students, greater flexibility....

What tends to be lost in these arguments is the educational perspective. Surely the primary question should be "Which delivery option will enhance my students' learning in this course?" Rather than being driven by the technology (or feeling that we should be involved in web based teaching because 'it's out there'), should we be more concerned with the judicious consideration of a range of delivery options and a selection of those best fitted to the educational purpose?

Will web based teaching serve only the "new markets" or more broadly, all students?

As proponents for effective introductions of innovations and enhancements in teaching and learning, typically we look to secure the broadest possible base in student users, staff users and subject areas. Usually that is less risky for the new technologies and techniques compared with dependence upon a narrow range of subject areas or "new markets". The risk is that "the technology" may end up being the scapegoat if the "new markets" are not well chosen and developed. On the other hand, a broad based effort over many subject areas may lead only to modest and slowly acquired benefits for teaching and learning processes. Also, is linking to "new markets" an advantage in obtaining additional funding and resources, and is it easier to cater intensively for select numbers of students compared with the student body as a whole?

The senior management perspective - is it only about how to do more with less?

There is ample evidence, derived from statistics for enrolments and income, that the university system in Australia is being asked to "do more with less". However, the proposition is more debatable if we apply it to a particular kind of teaching and learning activity, such as web based courses.

Proponents for web based courses often use the argument, among others, that adoption of innovations will enable teaching staff to adjust to or cope with the pressure to "do more with less". Many points may be made in favour of that hypothesis, but there are acknowledged difficulties due to requirements for an additional investment of staff time in learning about and preparing web based courses. How do we overcome the hurdle that initially a web based course means more work, required in advance of later payoffs in the form of a return to "normal" workloads? Suppose that hurdle is exacerbated by the rise of perceptions that the burden of "doing more with less" is not uniformly distributed throughout a university? That kind of scenario, if arising, could lead to feelings that senior management's perspective upon web courses and other innovations is indeed "only about how to do more with less".

Adopting new technologies with standard funding or only with special additional funds?

The idea of "special additional funds" is probably universally attractive. Nevertheless, it contains dilemmas. Does additional funding carry the risk that initiation of web courses becomes linked irretrievably to funding incentives and won't proceed unless unless the same incentive is continued forever? Are we willing to go further down the path of "piecemeal payments" for each bit of teaching we do? How we sustain and encourage the idea of integration of all kinds of media and techniques if one particular medium and set of techniques, Internet based teaching, is singled out by a different way of funding?

Costs of web based courses (or "how to screw cost centres other than mine")

One of the dilemmas in considering costs of web based courses, in relation to demarcations or sharing between a course's teaching staff and central academic services staff, can be expressed colloquially in the phrase "how to screw cost centres other than mine". Rarely an intentional "screwing", but the risk that increased workloads or expenses may be created elsewhere within a university by unforeseen or unexpected demands for services. Student user training, technical help services and administrative services are especially vulnerable to unintended imposition of extra work.

To what extent are the dilemmas within and between these perspectives "real dilemmas" or only "apparent dilemmas"? In discussion, we expect (or hope) to elicit views and examples which incline towards the latter conclusion.

References

AVCC (Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee) (1996). Exploiting information technology in higher education: An issues paper. http://www.avcc.edu.au/avcc/pubs/eitihe.htm

Murdoch Online. http://www.murdoch.edu.au/online/

Atkinson, R. (1997). Murdoch Online: Preparing an infrastructure for virtual campus operations. In R. Kevill, R . Oliver and R. Phillips (eds), ASCLITE '97: What works and why, 42-47. Perth: Curtin University. http://www.curtin.edu.au/conference/ascilite97/papers/Atkinson/Atkinson.html

Please cite as: Atkinson, R., Brown, A., Pospisil, R. and Rehn, G. (1998). So you want to put your course on the web? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/atkinson-r.html


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