This paper will introduce some dilemmas that arose during the implementation of a postgraduate Internet-based distance education unit, Computers in Education. The participants in this unit are secondary science and mathematics teachers from around Australia. The use of the Internet aims to help overcome intellectual isolation.
The main feature of this unit was the Activity Room in which the teachers, lecturer and invited visitors interacted asynchronously. These interactions focused on the major content areas of the unit which were examining current theories of teaching and learning with computers, and evaluating educational software. The use of the Web/Internet also provided the framework to focus on the learning process as well as on the content area. The challenge was to involve teachers in computer-networked communication in order for them to become familiar with the technology and to utilise it for their own communicative learning. The teaching approach involved social constructivist framework. Each week a different member of the group led the discussion by posing questions and initiating further discussions. The role of the discussion leader enabled the delegation of responsibilities to encourage participation of all the members. However, some of the participants were more active then others.
Three interesting dilemmas will be canvassed.
- How does one assess students participation and contribution in the activity room?
- Should the participation be compulsory and therefore be integral part of the assessment?
- How should the interaction be qualified?
Therefore, the unit was re-designed to match the dynamics of using the Web. All students had to have internet access. The home page was interactive and flexible enabling the on-line resources, Activity Room, additional readings and Guide to be modified weekly. The rigid component was the reading materials which for copyright reasons were mailed to the students.
This unit was supported by a Teaching Learning Group (TLG) grant which enabled me to plan the unit and to employ a research assistant to support its implementation on the Web. This was my first experience of "teaching on the Web", therefore, a technically skilled research assistant was greatly appreciated by myself and the participants. I was relying on my research assistant to resolve technical problems and consulted with him about design problems associated with the display of the unit on the Web. A web-site manager from the TLG managed the site which left me dependent on him for any changes that I wanted to make or would make in the future. This highlights one of the dilemmas of the new technologies. There is a tension between the empowerment of being able to add, remove and alter aspects of the site and the need for very high levels of technical skills to be able to develop interesting and sophisticated materials.
My aim in conducting this unit on the Web was to create a community of learners in which the common goal was learning with computers.
There were eight science and mathematics teachers from various places in Australia who participated in this unit. Most of them were high school teachers who were interested in enhancing their use of computers in their classroom as well as gaining credit for their postgraduate studies. I was enthusiastic about the opportunity of using Computer Mediated Communication to facilitate conversations with the students and expected that they would engage in discussions, collaboration and reflections.
...the beginning of the unit was quite frantic, and it took me time to settle in. This had the effect of compressing the main activities towards the end, resulting in a rushed job in the Action Research project. (Dan, November, 96).Jan who lives in Newman, West Australia, had problems finding a network provider, she finally found one but had to pay STD rates. Her next obstacle was to repair the phone line connected to the modem, and then to have another version of the network software. "After nearly two weeks of rude thoughts about computers modems and external courses I was finally on-line" (Jan, 14.9.96).
Her personal objective for taking the unit:
I feel a little bit left out being 1200 Km away from Perth so I am hoping that doing this course through the net will lessen that feeling of isolation. (Jan, 14.9.96)Students expressed their expectations at the beginning of the semester:
... like most of you, I am looking forward to the opportunities that this course will provide in integrating and using computer resources within the classroom. (Robert, 10.9. 96)
Students met in the Activity Room and most of the discussions took place there. The list group was functional and was used for messages at the beginning of the semester. However, when the Activity Room became the central place for "meeting", the list group become redundant and was used only occasionally to remind people to go and visit the Activity Room.
In my view, the Activity Room served a more combined purpose than the list would, i.e. communicating and systematically filling the discussion inputs by individuals. However, we need to practice both for a balanced means of communicating. (Dan, 3.12.96)The teaching approach that I was using in this unit involved a social constructivist framework (Tobin, 1990; Tobin, 1993). The teaching process involved learners and lecturer engaged in weekly discussions based on the particular readings for the week. Each week a different member of the group led the discussion by posing a question and encouraging any further discussions which emerged. By having a discussion leader, I wanted to delegate responsibilities and ensure full participation. However, depite this, I found it difficult to encourage all of them to take part consistently in the discussions.
To initiate the first conversation, I referred students to a web page which discussed the personal use of computers and told the group about my own personal experience. This acted as a trigger for other students to introduce themselves and talk about their own experiences. The participants who led the discussion for the week usually produced good summaries followed by questions to the other participants. However, the initial conversations did not flow and the interactivity was low and participants were sometimes slow to respond. This made me wonder how to stimulate a good discussion and involve all the participants. Some topics created more interest consequently more reflection and negotiation.
One of the students' comments in his final feedback was:
For me it has been a road to learning, not only about using new technologies, but also learning to attach value to the human touch behind these technologies. (student, 26.11.96)A major advantage of this unit was that many of the features of the unit could changed and evolve over time. Web sites were added, new topics were discussed and this led to new and relevant issues being initiated by the students. The hub of the unit was the Activity Room. It was a place to meet, to interact, negotiate and clarify ideas and constituted an innovative use of the web.
For example, the following questions generated by one of the discussion leaders illustrates the level of conversations and the reflective process that took place in the Activity Room:
What reflections do you have on the dimensions? (part of the evaluation model?) How has your critical thinking about the software evaluation been extended? (2.11.96)These questions created further discussions and responses such as Michael's on the 13.11.96:
Although half wishing that it had not happened so that I could continue in ignorant bliss about the effectiveness of the check list approach, I have been exposed to an enormous paradigmatic shift in understanding in relation to software evaluation. The possibilities are certainly more broad than I ever imagined, and the process much more involved than I thought.Joan, for example, replied to the second question: [the critical thinking]
Extended - it has been elongated and broadened beyond belief. Coming into this unit I was very happy to take someone else's checklist about (as I know now) basically irrelevant criteria and use this as something on which to base my software purchases. I would want a much closer inspection now before I was prepared to part with my or my institution's money. (16.11.96)At the end of the semester, Michael wrote:
Thanks for your input on this course, it has been a real eye opener for me in terms of effective evaluation of computer software. This is definitely relevant to a teacher in my position. (Michael 24.11.96)A guest visitor was an excellent idea which always provoked a good discussion. The invited 'guests' in the Activity Room were people whose papers we read and with whom we had stimulating discussions. Talking with the experts and being able to direct questions to them was a valuable event.
Studying at a distance has its own unique problems and contact with the lecturer/tutor is very important. For those students with Email access this has become a very efficient method of receiving help quickly in answer to queries (Joan, 21.9.96)In addition to the discussions in the Activity Room, the participants had to conduct action research and had the opportunity to present it as a web page. The research was conducted in the teachers' classes and then most participants submitted it as a written assignment. Only a few managed to present it on their web page for further discussion. I envisage that in the future most of the teachers enrolled in this unit will present their work on the Web and will get the technical support to do so.
I found the Activity Room great because of the ability to follow a thread of argument, and the reduced pressure of time because you could come back later and complete some missed work. (Robert 21.11.96)
In another attempt to resolve the assessment dilemma I decided to give the students' shared control of the assessment issue and asked their opinions about what it could be. My message to them was as follows:
All the active participants will pass this unit .... In addition, the second goal required your own self-assessment (ie. reflection on your learning) because you are the best one to know how far you have come since the beginning of the unit. I appreciate your self assessment....Please note that I am more interested in the quality of the unit and what you have gained from the unit rather than the more technical issues. (Dorit, 19.11.96)Suprisingly, students were slow to respond. One student expressed concern as she claimed that this assessment policy was not announced in advance. Other students were happy with my suggestion and said:
I think the breakdown is fine and the type of assessment is good too. I think it's fair and reasonable and offers scope for our assignments as well. (Jacqui, 21.11.96)
One of the reasons for the excessive amount of work for a relatively small unit of 15 credits was the that the unit evolved and developed during the semester. Because the topic was "Computers in Education", and because it was taught on the web it was easy to frequently add new and relevant resources. For example, web sites on evaluation of computer software or learning with software: pedagogies and practice; as well as articles about constructivism and technology.
I was faced with the problem of how to keep realistic boundaries to the unit when I discovered a new website that I thought was of great value and relevance. Learners had opportunities to comment on problems and to evaluate the unit. One of the initial criticisms was that I was not responding quickly enough to the email. This was because I too was experiencing, for the first time, this mode of learning. The development process was very time consuming and much more demanding then a face-to-face class curriculum.
As a facilitator of this unit, I feel that I am on a steep learning curve which hopefully will improve. Feedback from students and my experience as a facilitator of the unit assisted me to restructure the unit which will enhance the quality of learning opportunities provided to future participants.
In summary, in implementing this unit on the Web we achieved the following:
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|Please cite as: Maor, D. (1998). How does one evaluate students' participation and interaction in an Internet-based unit? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 176-182. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA.http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/maor.html|