Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Experimental use of electronic information transfer to enhance communication between the student and the educator

Stuart Bunt, Willem DeWinter and Nguyen Ly
Department of Anatomy and Human Biology
The University of Western Australia
In these times of increasing student numbers and static or decreasing staff numbers, it is becoming difficult to maintain high standards of staff/student contact and learning support. Mistakenly or not, information technology is being introduced in many institutions as a means of "teaching more for less". One of the perceived major drawbacks of the introduction of computer based learning is the accompanying reduction in face to face interaction with the students. In contrast many outside the tertiary education system see the introduction of new technology as a chance to increase communication and collaboration. In this project we have taken Internet video cameras, web pages, shared electronic whiteboards, online discussion groups and conventional email and attempted to use the new technology to increase rather than decrease staff/student communication and "contact". Initial problems have involved the technical difficulties of implementing a multi-user web camera system, the difficulty of providing equipment for some staff but not others, and encouraging students to use the equipment. Positive aspects have involved changes in the way that teaching is approached and a new, less threatening way of interacting with students which is beneficial for both staff and students.


It is paradoxical that while the world at large sees the computer revolution as an opportunity for a radical increase in communication, both between groups and individuals; the educational world often perceives that the introduction of information technology will lead to a reduction in staff student contact. Many fear that the reduction in face to face teaching that may occur following the introduction of more computer based learning will lead to a decrease in the quality of the educational experience of the student. Happy, noisy classrooms will be replaced with silent temples to technology, echoing to the hollow sound of clicking keyboards. Need this Orwellian view of computer based learning be necessarily true?

In this article I wish to address two issues:

  1. The opportunities that computer technology provides for increasing staff/student contact.
  2. Does the introduction of computer based learning save or cost money?

1. Opportunities for increasing staff-student contact

Using computer based learning (CBL) to increase staff-student communication
It should not be forgotten that there are disadvantages as well as advantages to face to face teaching. Many students are intimidated by the format and are reluctant to volunteer answers or take an active part in discussions. The class dynamic depends crucially on the character and teaching style of the teacher and to a lesser extent his or her students. In a conventional lecture or even in the small group teaching which has replaced tutorials, many students may be physically present in a potentially face to face situation but mentally absent; doodling, thinking about dinner, the last football match, their girlfriend or boyfriend. One of the things which is often overlooked is that with CBL you actually have the student's undivided attention.

The computer may allow the educator to communicate directly with the student and guide the learning patterns of the student more efficiently than with conventional teaching. Educators soon realize as they mark exams, that no two students take away the same information from a lecture. In good CBL students can be guided to learn in a particular pattern by means of menus, accompanying study guides, integrated "hurdles" (tasks to be completed before passing on to the next stage). In some cases this may be advantageous (the teaching of "core" knowledge that must be learnt for example in many of the new medical curricula). However this approach may have its disadvantages, it does not take account of the fact that learners do not all learn best in the same way. Some learn visually, some are linear thinkers, others take a more lateral approach. Some students may build a "knowledge space" in a hierarchical fashion, others as a meshwork of interlocking concepts and facts. In some cases we may wish the student to learn in a particular fashion but if this is antithetical to the way that the student normally learns it may actually hinder or confuse the student (Tait et al. 1995).

A greater strength of CBL may be its very flexibility. The "hypertext model" of learning typified by Web based instructional; materials can allow the student to take many self guided paths through the instructional material. Of course, without proper design, this may well lead to the student becoming lost and confused but also provides the flexibility for each student to effectively design his or her own course of study. A number of studies have shown that the path students use to navigate their way through a CBL program can vary greatly (Lin et al, 1991).

Interactive video conferencing
The technology costs are high, requiring two dedicated ISDN lines for digital data transfer if frame rates of 25fps (for smooth video) are to be realised. Apart from installation costs and standing charges such lines can cost $50 or more per hour to run. While increased competition may bring down the cost of such lines the recent demise of Australis and the uncertain future of cable companies in Australia may delay the provision of cheap high speed optic fibre to multiple sites. Considerable thought has to be given to the design of the rooms at both ends of the line(s). Anyone who has experienced watching a lecture remotely from an adjacent room is aware that a lot is lost. The immediacy of human contact can only be maintained if all participants are visible to each other, it can be disconcerting to see yourself on screen, it is remarkable the lengths some people will go to avoid appearing "on camera".

To avoid the staid "conference" format and high costs we have gone for the use of individual "Internet Video" cameras.

The CamWiz Internet camera

The CamWiz Internet camera

By avoiding analogue video entirely and going from a CCD camera straight to the parallel port of the PC, costs are kept to a minimum. Typical installations cost less than $300 per computer. Online costs are limited to the cost of connection to the Internet, for many academic institutions this cost is absorbed by the institution. Due to the low bandwidth of the Internet (or rather the typical bottlenecks in the Internet), these cameras may be reduced to as little as 3 frames per second. This is can show emotional responses but is slow enough to provide a disconcertingly noticeable delay between speech and action. The size of the video window is also restricted, at full screen resolution in true colour it can take many seconds to download one frame. This is good for still objects but useless for interactive procedures.

Accompanying software may allow only one-to-one or one-to-many conversations, sound may not be duplex (simultaneous two way) without the addition of expensive sound cards. Many programs offer "white board" facilities of varying degrees of sophistication. These provide a drawing "surface" on screen which is viewed "simultaneously" by all participants connected to the system. Many can display graphics and allow annotation. If graphics are not required then an Internet phone may be all that is required and with appropriate choice of compression algorithms this can be quite effective over Internet lines.

We have found that these cameras are quite processor intensive and require a Pentium with 16MB of RAM if the user is to be able to run the camera software in the background while still continuing with normal tasks. We have set up such cameras on all the staff computers involved in gross anatomy teaching and they are linked with a camera in the dissecting room. Instruction web pages have been produced and the system is ready for use with next semester's students. Initial trials have shown that the non-duplex speech requires the adoption of the "Roger and out" style of signaling when you wish to hand control of the line to the other speaker.

A double edged sword, this both gives access for students and can be a nightmare for the educator. This can be integrated into the web pages or used as a conventional 'stand alone' mail program. The communication can be one-to-one or in the form of a moderated bulletin board where questions and replies are visible to all participants. This can lead to lengthy discussions forming amongst several participants and the need for "readers" to follow "threads", a line or cascade of answers and questions started by a single inquiry. Email has the advantage for the student that the educator (or rather his e-mail) appears always available to the student, whether the educator is present or not. For the academic it has the advantage that questions can be answered at times convenient to him or her and can be addressed more succinctly than personal visits, of course the downside is that interactivity may be delayed by hours, there is no direct feedback or chance to expand if the student does not understand the first explanation.

This may not traditionally be thought of as an interactive medium but the clever use of scripts written in Java, Perl or such like can provide a degree of feedback and communication. Forms can be used to elicit responses and email can be integrated into the pages. Records can be kept of performances and usage patterns. Usergroups and bulletin boards can be seamlessly integrated into web pages so that anyone familiar with the typical web browser can access them easily. Communication between educator and a student can be static as well as dynamic; at a trivial level web pages can replace paper handouts and learning materials, and at a more sophisticated level can replace a tutor's guidance through difficult topics, complete with feedback.

Virtual teaching areas
Online conferences have been with us for a while, while not often attempting to literally reproduce a "virtual conference centre" complete with multiple rooms, entrances and exits and sundry inhabitants, none the less such conferences often have areas going by names such as "conference centre", "registration" etc. While allowing interaction with other participants, most such conferences lack any visual element so are of limited use in fields such as the biological sciences where graphic results are required. Discussions take on an odd timeless characteristic and there is the usual problem encountered with email of the lack of facial clues to tell if your argument is hitting home or is being laughed out of court! Without the isolation from day to day tasks that usually accompanies attendance at a conference it is all too easy to be distracted from the conference and get on with other work.

A much more radical attempt to produce a "virtual conference centre" has been set up on the world wide web by Gustavo Glusman at http://bioinfo.weizmann.ac.il/BioMOO. This is based on early interactive games such as Multi-user Dungeons and Dragons (MUD) that were the first attempts to create "virtual" worlds on line; albeit text based ones relying as much as anything on the imagination of the user as the designer. When walking the "halls" of these virtual dungeons you could never be sure if the characters you met were computer (programmer?) generated or real fellow players. This idea has been adapted by Glusman to produce a virtual conference centre, library and museum all rolled into one and in a less literal interpretation for online conferences. In these virtual worlds the student can meet you as a tutor in real time or recorded, the virtual world may contain objects of interest such as list of participants, a notice board or timetable. In various "rooms" there may be educational devices such as experiment simulators, puzzles, tests and tasks to be carried out. The range of devices is limited only by the imagination of the authors, these can as well be fellow students as online "tutors (Tiffin and Rajasingham, 1995).

2. Costs of production of material

An increasing emphasis has been put on using computer based learning for "efficiency". Rarely does this mean increased learning efficiency or quality but rather teaching more with less resources. The most blatant case of this philosophy is the United Kingdom Teaching and Learning Technology Project (TLTP). This four year, 35 million pound program was set up with the express intention of making "teaching and learning more productive and efficient by harnessing modern technology". Darby (1994) estimates the cost per "delivery hour" was UK pounds 5,070 for projects not using multimedia, and UK pounds 2,437 per hour for those using multimedia. By arbitrarily assuming that the lifespan of the material would be about three years he estimated the cost per student hour ranged from 22p to 333 pounds! The mean was 31 pounds per student per taught hour. This would seem to indicate that computer based learning projects are very expensive, rivaling the most expensive wet laboratory classes. The wide variation in costs reflected the large differences in size both of target groups (10-10,000 students per year) and the amount of material produced by each project (2 to 2,000 hours per project).

Is such cost-benefit analysis relevant to educational projects? Cost benefit analysis can only be applied when both costs and effectiveness can be measured in monetary terms. It can be argued that it is almost impossible to value the effects of an educational process in reliable monetary amounts. (Moonen, 1994). Cost-effectiveness analysis may be more appropriate when the effects (education?) are measured in non-monetary terms. Using this method of analysis for two courses with the same effectiveness the one with the lowest cost is the "most efficient" and when comparing two different methods of delivery with the same costs, the most "effective" is the most efficient. Unfortunately when CBL is introduced the costs are usually higher but is "effectiveness" improved? A number of studies purport to show that CBL is more "effective" (Kulik and Kulik 1991) while others have indicated in similar cases, that once the novelty has warn off and teacher enthusiasm returned to normal levels that there is little to choose between the effectiveness of traditional and "new" teaching methods.

Given that the introduction of CBL is probably a costly exercise, it needs to be demonstrated that it in some way increases the "effectiveness" of teaching. The strongest case for CBL lies in those areas where it can be shown to provide benefits unobtainable using other teaching methods. Increasing staff-student communication may be one such area.


Darby, J. (1994). Multimedia: So much promise-so little progress. In K. Beattie, C. McNaught and S. Wills (Eds.), Interactive Multimedia in University Education: Designing for change in teaching and learning. Elsevier Science (North Holland).

Kulik, C. C. and Kulik, J. A. (1991). Effectiveness of computer-based instruction: An updated analysis. Computers in Human Behavior, 7, 75-94.

Lin, X., Liebscher, P. and Marchionini, G. (1991). Graphical representations of electronic search patterns. J. Amer. Soc. for Information Science, 42(7), 469-478.

Moonen, J. (1994). How to do more with less? In K. Beattie, C. McNaught and S. Wills (Eds.), Interactive Multimedia in University Education: Designing for change in teaching and learning. Elsevier Science (North Holland).

Tait, H., Speth, C. and Entwistle, N. (1995). Study skills: Identifying students' needs and delivering targeted advice. In C. O'Hagan (ed), Empowering Teachers and Learners through Technology. SEDA Paper 90.

Tiffin, J. and Rajasingham, L. (1995). In Search of the Virtual Class. NY:Routledge.

Please cite as: Bunt, S., DeWinter, W. and Ly, N. (1998). Experimental use of electronic information transfer to enhance communication between the student and the educator. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 49-53. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/bunt.html

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