Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

What is the most appropriate way to use the Internet for teaching and learning?

Rob Phillips
Computing Centre
Curtin University of Technology


The aim of this paper is to consider some of the ways that online technology can be used to enhance teaching and learning. In too many cases, the Internet and the world-wide web have been used according to the traditional didactic paradigm of learning. In this paper I will discuss some alternative approaches whereby online technology can be used to enhance teaching and learning, drawing from a recent book, "Learning Networks" by Linda Harasim, Starr Roxanne Hiltz, Lucio Teles and Murray Turoff (Harasim et al, 1995).

Learning Networks pays little attention to the more technologically advanced areas of the Internet. It does not concern itself with the multimedia aspects, such as Shockwave and Java, which require network bandwidth not currently available to students off-campus.

Instead, the authors argue that the key advantage for learning is the opportunity for collaboration. They advocate the use of Email and Computer-Mediated Communications to create the richness of an on-campus experience for off-campus students. Some very rich learning environments can be developed for both on-and off-campus students, using well-established and inexpensive technology, but the key factor is the types of activities generated for the student by the teacher.

Harasim et al. (1995) identified a range of activities which can be categorised as Teacher Centred and Learner Centred activities.

However, my observation is that the majority of courseware currently available on the web consists of only the first of each category, that is electronic lectures and resources. The question is, do these materials add any value over and above that possible in a traditional medium, such as lectures and on paper? To go to the effort of producing electronic material requires that the new approach demonstrates some advantages over the old approach.

Let us look at the types of online learning activities identified by Harasim et al. and how they may be used in practical teaching situations.

Types of Online Learning Activities

Teacher Centred

Electronic lectures (Electures)
Electronic lectures deal with the presentation of facts, approaches or skills; or cover crucial concepts or techniques which are needed as background information which students can apply to a problem. There is a role for these in conjunction with a range of other techniques, but they should be kept small and to the point.

Ask an Expert and Mentorship
This mode deals with class interaction with a subject area expert on a given topic, or a professional in a given subject area. It gives quick access to current and relevant information, and provides ongoing feedback to an apprentice (student). This approach can add relevance and currency to the student's experience of the course.

Tutor Support
Tutor support can be complementary to face-to-face and online classes. It uses a one-to-one approach between tutor and student. Online tutor support can be efficient, because of its asynchronous nature. Tutors don't have to post 'office hours' when they have to be present in case students wish to ask questions. Students don't need to wait until their tutor is available, but can send a message at any time. Tutors can the respond daily to student queries, but at a time convenient to them.

Student Centred

Access to Network Resources
This mode is probably the most widely used application of the Internet to learning, where lecture notes and other course resources are made available. However, it can also be used in more innovative ways by allowing access to online databases, special interest forums and scientific data gathering. In Harasim's eyes, this mode of delivery provides backup material for use in other types of activities, and thus is the least important.

Informal Peer Interaction
A particular disadvantage that off-campus students have is in the social dimension of university life. The Internet allows a range of informal interactions which can bridge this gap. For example, students can have social interaction through a Virtual Cafe, electronic penpals, Special Interest Groups, and individual Email contact.

Structured Group Activities
"Learning Networks" identifies a range of structured group activities which can be undertaken, and argues that these are the most powerful way the Internet can be used for learning. That is, instead of a teacher-centred approach, a learner-centred approach is taken. Students are expected to construct their own understanding of the material, and learn by doing.

Structured Group Activities

Online Seminars
Online seminars are similar to face-to-face seminars. Students read the assigned material, and then discuss, debate, extrapolate on and critique key issues. Other students may act as group leaders, initiating and directing discussion. See also 'Group Presentations'.

Small Group Discussions
In small group discussions, students work in small groups to analyse a particular topic. This mode is suitable for active discussion in a large class, or where there are particular special interest groups.

Learning Partnerships
In this mode, students are grouped into pair, or dyads, and work together on an assigned task. Dyads are useful early in a course because they provide peer support and act as icebreakers. Students realise that they have contact with another person with similar problems and fears. After coming to grips with the dyad, students can progress to larger groups.

Student Work Groups (Learning Circles)
Learning circles are used for student collaboration on major tasks, such as a research project. The optimum size is 3 to 4, and this mode requires students to clearly define tasks, decision making, roles and timelines.

Group Presentations
The most effective learning comes from teaching others. So students are set the task of researching, writing and presenting a paper online. This activity combines some of the other modes.

In the example given in "Learning Networks", a learning circle may work together on writing a paper for presentation. The paper is online for one week. A dyad has responsibility for moderating the discussion. Each day they restate the status of the discussion and refocus it. Other students have the task of responding to the paper. Finally, another two students have the task of writing a synopsis of the discussion as a whole. Each group is marked on their role in the discussion.

Role Plays
Online role plays can be used to apply theoretical knowledge in a simulated environment, such as in management and business. They can also be used to discuss philosophical issues.

Related to role plays, but more formal, are online debates. These discuss contentious and controversial issues according to formal debating rules, and can be a powerful learning tool.


The authors of "Learning Networks" argue that the opportunity for communication and collaboration is the most powerful strength of the Internet. Resources need to be available for reference, and there is some call for the transmission of important concepts. However, the important factors for learning are the activities set by the teacher for the students to generate their own knowledge.

However, this approach goes contrary to the traditional view of a teacher, who is expected to transmit their knowledge to the student. Some paradigms need to be challenged here!


Harasim, L., Hiltz, S. R., Teles, L. and Turoff, M. (1995). Learning Networks - a Field Guide to Teaching and Learning Online. Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Please cite as: Phillips, R. (1997). What is the most appropriate way to use the Internet for teaching and learning? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p276-278. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/phillips.html

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