Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Connecting and engaging learners with the WWW

Ron Oliver
Arshad Omari
School of Information, Computing and Mathematical Sciences

Jan Ring
University Learning Systems
Edith Cowan University

Much use is currently being made of the World Wide Web for flexible delivery and open learning. The WWW supports many forms of instructional applications including information access, interactive learning and networked communications. Most contemporary uses of the Web centre around its capacity to carry and deliver content and information. We believe that much of this use in higher education is potentially ineffective and limiting. We have been exploring a number of WWW applications that appear to have a greater potential to enhance learning through their capacity to more meaningfully engage learners. This paper describes some simple tools and applications we have developed that are content-free and make use of the communicative capabilities of the WWW to connect and engage learners. We also discuss outcomes from the use of these applications and suggest how other teachers could achieve similar results.

Introduction

Recently there have been questions made concerning the nature of the typical teaching and learning environment in Australian higher education (eg. Baldwin, 1991). The main criticism has usually been that university teaching is passive and didactic with the teacher seen as the font of all knowledge and the transmitter of information. Contemporary learning theories and a growing interest in issues of quality and efficiency have recently led many university teachers to consider alternative forms for course delivery. The alternative forms which have been favoured by the educators have been those which have provided a means to place more control in the hands of the learner (eg. Nunn, 1996) and principal tools for this are computers and computer-based technologies.

There has been a rapid growth in recent years in the use of technology-based learning materials in higher education. This growth appears to have been stimulated by the development of multimedia technologies and supported by the strong educational opportunities provided by these tools. In recent years a new computer-based technology has emerged which appears to have the prospect to drastically alter the way in which university teaching is conducted. This technology, the World Wide Web, represents a combination of many of the best features of previously discrete technologies. It combines powerful multimedia functions with communications capabilities. At the same time the WWW appears to have significantly reduced the time and cost of materials development. When these factors are taken together, it is not surprising that the WWW is causing considerable excitement and interest among teachers and course administrators.

Teaching and learning on the World Wide Web

We have previously described a framework for considering the various forms of educational application supported by the WWW (Oliver & Omari, 1997). In this framework we identify 4 main areas; information access, interactive learning, networked learning and information construction. Each of these areas represents a meaningful application of the WWW but each varies to some degree in the nature and scope of the learning which is supported.

Information Access This category describes WWW-based materials which are used to deliver content. The common forms are WWW pages containing the various components of course material and content. A quick inspection of most university on-line learning reveals learning programs based around text-based WWW pages containing the teacher's course content and links to associated resources on the WWW. The use of the WWW for the delivery of course information usually involves minimal changes to existing teaching or learning processes. The advantages that are returned from this form of WWW usage relate mainly to administrative efficiencies and convenience.

Interactive Learning Apart from delivering text-based documents, components of the WWW enable the production of documents with a range of interactive elements. When these interactive elements are coupled with an appropriate instructional design, the materials can serve specific teaching and learning purposes. Interactive learning materials result from the use of the interactive features and capabilities of the WWW in ways that engage the learner. Such activities are characterised by forms of learner control and active engagement where learners can take and make decisions and learn through the consequences of their actions. The forms of interactive learning supported by the WWW are growing rapidly and more recent courses tend to include more interactive learning elements than those developed previously.

Networked Communications The third form of WWW application in the framework describes applications of the technology to provide communication between teachers and students. The WWW supports many different forms of communication which can be used in a myriad of ways in student-centred learning environments to support communicative, collaborative and cooperative activities among students and their teachers. There is a strong rationale supporting this form of learning activity. Language plays an important role in the learning process and forms of communication and talk are integral component for learning (eg.Vygotsky, 1978). With networked communication, the WWW provides a forum for communication and discussion and a means for storing this discussion for subsequent use. Learning and knowledge development occurs through the research and reading that precedes the writing, from the negotiated meaning drawn from discussions with others and the exposure to multiple perspectives which this form of activity supports.

Information Construction Yet another discrete form of WWW activity capable of supporting many learning outcomes is use of the presentation components of the technology as a learning activity. In such settings, the WWW can be used by students as a display tool to create and publish documents. The learning is derived from the planning and access of the relevant information, its organisation into a publishable form and the collaboration that can be involved. Through the delivery capabilities of the WWW, other learners can participate in the development process at a distance. There is a large amount of research and writing that supports and demonstrates the learning potential of this form of activity (eg. Laurillard, 1995; Wild, 1997).

The use of the WWW as a means to carry and deliver content and information is perhaps the most common application in higher education. In this mode it provides a useful and valuable tool for teaching but there need to be many more elements if it is to serve a valuable function for learning. Access to information is a necessary but not sufficient component of learning. Learning occurs through active engagement and what is important is not that the learner has accessed the information but more importantly the cognitive processes by which the the learner deals with that information (eg. Reeves, 1992).

Much of our research and development work with the WWW as a teaching and learning resource at Edith Cowan University is towards developing settings which encourage and motivate learners to become actively engaged in the learning process. We are doing this by focussing on the development of materials that use the WWW not only for information access but also for innovative forms of networked communication. Some examples of these materials and supporting learning activities are described below:

  1. Dynamic Web Pages
    A simple but elegant application we have developed and trialed provides a means for learners to collaboratively build a Web page containing descriptions and links to Web sites relevant to specific topics and content areas. The basic form of this application is a page which supports browsing and inquiry on the WWW and a facility to post relevant sites to a public bulletin board. The bulletin board represents a dynamic knowledge base which builds as the students participate in learning activities. This application is relatively easily built into an instructional setting by teachers establishing lines of inquiry for students to pursue through WWW searching.

    The application can be used to encourage organised learning across sections and components of courses where relevant information is accessible through the WWW. In our trials, we have used the application in a course based on a definitive textbook. The WWW was used as a complementary resource and a means to supplement the information in the textbook with current data and information. Students were given questions to pursue through a WWW-based inquiry and the combined investigations and explorations of the class developed a bulletin board containing information relevant and pertinent to the topic. The use of the dynamic web page provided many instructional advantages and represents an application of the WWW which can engage and connect learners in the learning process.

  2. Peer Tutoring and Coaching
    Another project which is providing indicators for success is our WEB-faq, a WWW-based peer tutoring and coaching application. We created this application in response to difficulties we faced in providing an effective learning environment for a technology-based unit with large numbers of student enrolments. The unit attracts many students with differing backgrounds and experiences and in previous years, it has been difficult to meet the diverse learning needs of many of the students in the course. To provide a potential solution we developed a WWW-based support system built around the concept of a bulletin board. It was our idea to provide students with a mechanism and a purpose to share resources in a way that all could benefit. In designing the system we wanted to support both novice and experienced students and to provide a medium in which there was a free and meaningful flow of communication and ideas. The system we finally developed appears to provide a unique solution to our problem but one which has many applications at the university level. It has 4 main components: a questions and answers section, a frequently asked questions section, a section showing authoring tips and tricks and a section enabling students to submit URLs.

    The system is currently being trialed before a full implementation is conducted in the unit in 1998. Our trials to date have tested and verified the capacity of the WWW to support the various functions we have planned but have also demonstrated a need for a very carefully planned and considered implementation strategy. Students have not demonstrated the forms of enthusiasm and interest in using the system which we had anticipated. We are considering various options for implementing the system and are very aware of the need to consider student needs and responses in our plans.

  3. Online Communication and Chatting
    The use of IRC (Internet Relay Chat) has also shown promise as a way of encouraging students to interact with each other and with us. This has been particularly successful for off-campus students studying via distance education mode. All our units that are mounted on the web have a tutorial chat room associated with them. Students go to the unit home page and enter their chat room via a chat-link icon. Additional chat rooms for informal chats can be accessed via the Virtual Campus website.

    Structured tutorial sessions are organised by lecturers in much the same way as an on-campus tutorial. Students are advised of the time and topic and are expected to attend by logging in and joining the chat. In most cases tutorial materials are made available on the web, and students will have them at hand when working with their groups. Feedback from students and tutors has been positive about the value of online tutorials. For example, a series of formal chat sessions we ran to teach study skills, while challenging to run from a tutor's perspective, proved to be successful in improving the quality of assignment work and also improved students confidence in themselves as learners (Ring, Wilson & Fuller, 1996).

    Informal chat sessions have also proved to be successful in building a supportive community of scholars. and have been instrumental in breaking down barriers between on and off campus students. One such group meets regularly on a Sunday afternoon and includes off campus students from around Australia as well as on campus students connecting from the computer labs or from home. Students from outside Australia have also joined in these sessions. Off-campus students use the chat rooms in the same way that on-campus students use the coffee shop. For example, students will organise to meet online after exams to give everyone a chance to talk about the experience, compare reactions and provide group support. Surveys of students have indicated that after email, the chat sessions are considered to be the most successful form of communication in terms of improving course satisfaction and retention rates. Once again, the WWW is being used not only for the delivery of information to the students but to support learning through connection and active engagement.

Conclusions

There are many guidelines which exist now to aid and direct developers of WWW-based learning environments. This paper has argued the need for learning environments that do more than present and pass information and content to learners. It has presented a number of examples of WWW applications which use networked communication to support teaching and learning. We believe that developers of WWW and on-line learning environments need to be creative and selective in their instructional design and we suggest that the use of networked communications provides strong support for this. When these functional forms are applied in instructional design, quite different applications and alternative environments for WWW learning can result.

There appears a strong rationale to argue the need for a change in the focus of the use of the WWW from a content delivery vehicle to that of a collaborative and interactive learning environment. In such settings the role of the teacher changes from content provider to that of a coach and guide. Roles of the students change from information absorbers to active participants. Where there is a tendency to repackage existing print-based materials for WWW delivery, the opportunities and potential of the new media are potentially lost. The WWW holds outstanding promise to deliver teaching programs and to create enhanced learning environments. The challenge is for designers to approach the move to the new technologies from a learning perspective which recognises the advantages to be gained from appropriate applications. When technology is used without due consideration for the value it can add, the advantages to learners and the learning environment are minimised and often missed completely.

References

Baldwin, P. (1991). Higher Education: Quality and Diversity in the 1990s. Australian Government Publishing Service: Canberra.

Laurillard, D. (1995). Multimedia and the changing experience of the learner. British Journal of Educational Technology, 26(3), 179-189.

Nunn, C. (1996). Discussion in the College Classroom. Journal of Higher Education, 67(3), 243-266.

Oliver, R. & Omari, A. (1997). Using the World Wide Web to support distance education and open learning. In J. Osborne, D. Roberts & J. Walker (Eds.), Open, Flexible and Distance Learning: Education and Training in the 21st Century. Thirteenth Biennial Forum of Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia. (pp 354-369). Launceston, Tasmania: Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia.

Reeves, T. (1992). Effective dimensions of interactive learning systems. In A. Holzl & D. Robb (Eds.), Finding the Future, ITTE'92. Proceedings of the Information Technology for Training and Education Conference. (pp 99-113). Brisbane: University of Queensland.

Ring, J., Wilson, V. and Fuller, R. (1996). Teaching Study Skills via Telecommunications. In S. Leong and D. Kirkpatrick (Eds.), HERDSA: Different Approaches: Theory and Practice in Higher Education, Perth: HERDSA

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Wild, M. (1997). Building knowledge acquisition into the Web. In Muldner, T. and Reeves, T. (Eds.), Educational Multimedia/Hypermedia and Telecommunications, 1997. Charlottesville, VA: AACE.

Please cite as: Oliver, R., Omari, A. and Ring, J. (1998). Connecting and engaging learners with the WWW. In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 237-241. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/oliver.html


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