Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Using the Internet as a teaching tool

David Parker
Senior Lecturer in Law
and
Anthony Gilding
Centre for Professional Development
Victoria University of Technology


Technology can be a means by which we reflect on, and ultimately transform, our teaching practice. The following is one account of embryonic steps to develop materials to support the teaching of law to university students, which not only resulted in the production of web based support materials but also in the first author's reflection of his teaching in this new environment.

The Internet can be used as a tool in two ways: first, it can be used in teaching in ways that support students undertaking independent and self directed study; secondly, it is a process of learning about the development of flexible delivery, which often includes skill and knowledge of instructional design and the web technologies, to reflect upon the way we teach in this new and sometimes strange environment.

In 1995, with considerable help from a computing lecturer, I (David Parker) established an embryonic home page for the subject of company law[1]. The page was static and basically contained my class overheads, over 100 of them, which were virtually a summary of the whole subject. In 1996 I attended a company law teachers conference and viewed a demonstration of Top Class Software, an interactive learning software program which potentially extended the boundaries of teaching no end.

Again with considerable help, this time from Tony Gilding in our Centre for Professional Development, I established a revamped home page and learnt how to download and edit a web site using Front Page software[2]. I received an in-house educational grant from our University's Centre for Professional Development, the object being to develop web delivered subject support materials and then to move into Top Class software - which allows for interactive online learning. I have achieved the first stage and I now look to move into the interactivity possibilities of my project using Top Class software.

Top Class is a sophisticated software package designed to manage the delivery and support of training and education over the Internet, and campus or corporate intranets, using the world wide web. The program has built-in messaging and conferencing areas along with support and collaboration tools for users[3.] Top Class software is not the only online software but seems to be in vogue at present.[4]

My current web based support materials are presently situated on a server with the Centre for Professional Development, who are currently conducting several professional development programs designed to give staff the opportunity to experiment with using web based technologies to support their campus based teaching[5]. I am connected to the Internet both in my university office and at home, which means under the current arrangement I can actually construct materials and download them at any time of the day. The ability to edit means that I can use a building block approach to the page; not everything has to be ready before a site and its various pages are constructed, materials can be progressively added to or edited for mistakes and outdated material.

In the latter part of 1998 I taught 3 different subjects, one of which I had not taught before. In the new subject I would create a series of tutorial questions, overheads and references and these would be downloaded before the class commenced. In my other 2 subjects I would week by week add to the existing references, correct mistakes as they were pointed out to me, update the current assignment and add interesting Internet links as I found them.

My first feeble home page was very successful, every student I taught had either accessed the Internet or got someone to download notes for them so they could copy them. However, the site took hours to produce, I was totally dependent on the skills of my computing colleague and the page was very limited in its use.

The present web materials I have established are now more interactive, through the use of an email facility, and more interesting since it covers far more material than I had before. The development of Internet software and tools means that it is now quite easy to write, edit and download materials for students. I have used MS Front Page 98 software, which has already had a new edition. Front Page 98 is a friendly program once the rudiments have been mastered, it allows for graphics, hit counters and an automatic dating mechanism which informs the viewer when the page was last updated.

I have pages for the following:

I use a lot of overheads in my teaching, and to overcome the copying of overheads (which slows the class down), I encourage the students to download a copy which they can add to in class, or even use to build a summary of the subject. Learning to use web materials means I can progressively update and correct my overheads topic by topic. So if something arises, for instance I find a mistake or a student points out some interesting material they have found, the information can be readily amended.

Included in the home page is an email address which, while having a few technical problems, allows student to send messages to me - though this does not seem to have been used very much so far.

The web materials have been a roaring success. In the first week my hit counter showed 10 or 12 contacts (a lot of them from me to see if the sites worked) but by the end of semester once the word had got around, there had been more than 1800. Given that I teach about 150 students and there are a further 200 spread out elsewhere on other campuses, many students must have visited the site several times. While there is no mechanism to show why students kept viewing the site and how materials were progressively used, the number of hits does make us optimistic.

The reaction of students to the web site materials was interesting in itself. Some students merely printed off everything that was available and seemed quite happy to shuffle continuous reams of paper. Other students actually constructed the materials into sets of reference notes, adding their own bits and pieces. These then became the basis of materials that were used in the open book exam for the subject. A walk around the exam room showed an extensive use of the web resources.

The presentation of materials on a web site has particular advantages such as student access at any time to course materials; while assignment questions and syllabi were initially handed out, students were aware that this was always available on the web site if further copies were needed. Possibly down the track we will also have the availability of tutorial questions which traditionally at our University have been bound and sold to students. I would like to develop the subjects I teach into pure online materials and to educate the students in the use of non paper forms of information sorting. While not every student would have a computer and Internet access, this university at least provides the Internet (and now the intranet) to students and I would wonder at a student's commitment to learning if they did not potentially acquire some form of a computer.

Students who I had taught in an earlier subject and had learnt to use the Internet and access materials, when joining my later new subject were in a sense 'trained' to use the Internet medium. In fact I would get the hurry on if notes were not ready.

Before wholeheartedly embedding technologies used for flexible delivery into university teaching, the use of the Internet is not without its difficulties. The major problem in using this medium is that as a novice I am dependent on others to show me how to operate the software, particularly when something goes wrong. The commitments I have mean that I haven't the time to spend hours sorting out difficulties. For instance the email works for some readers of the page but not for others, this apparently is due to different types of servers communicating with each other; it is a problem which may be easy to overcome, but the means to do it at this stage are beyond me. Possibly there may need to be more support in the future with the use of a trouble shooter for each department to solve such problems. Similarly I know that I face hours of work in getting the next stage of Top Class working.

Issues of access need addressing. One difficulty was that students have different abilities to access the materials. Some students have Internet access from home and of course from work. However, those students who work in places or jobs where the Internet is not available often complained to me that it was 'not fair'. Possibly there is some inequality given that the materials are only available electronically which gives some students the luxury of easy access. I always pointed out to students that access was always available from the several laboratories around the University and from the University Library, but it is perhaps an issue.

Another side effect is that once you post information, advice and articles, it is open to other academics to view what you are doing. I had some colleagues making comments about some of the work I had posted onto the web site, suggesting they would have done things differently. The use of the web creates a deal of transparency but only for those using the medium, none of my critics in fact shared their materials.

The management of the site can be become interesting, particularly as it grows. Within a week or two I could no longer store the various pages of materials on one disk, it had to be stored on the hard disk of a computer, or on a zip drive (which I am still trying to work out!). Part of the problems of storage has resulted from my use of lots of graphics, which while making the page look more interesting fills up a lot of space. This lecturer admits to a novice's penchant for elaborate backgrounds, graphics and whirly gigs which can detract from the main thrust of the site. Technology brings with it ways of working that academics must accommodate and work with - technology is far from neutral.

The use of a web site does add another dimension to teaching. It has a certain convenience for both teacher and student in relaying and receiving information. With the new and easier technology the use of this medium is empowering when mastered. It opens the way for future developments of technology and tools which might present themselves[6]. While I have mixed feelings about online teaching and virtual universities, I believe the use of the Internet supplements straightforward teaching, it takes out the boring copying down for instance and adds some interest material which would not otherwise be available in the class room.

At Victoria University we now have several web masters and even a professor with a mandate to develop courses and explore the possibility of the university offering on line courses. One reason for learning at least the rudiments of web sites is the possibility of 'e-commerce' and future technological developments. Using a computer for word processing was fairly novel about 10 years ago, now it is mandatory. I think that Internet use will become a standard tool in teaching[7].

Endnotes

  1. http://cougar.vut.edu.au/~corplaw/complw0.htm

  2. http://cpdserver.vut.edu.au/parkerda/

  3. http://www.wbtsystems.com/
    See the CPD centre's trial: http://cpdserver.vut.edu.au/topclass/

  4. There are many programs available including: Learning Space, Socrates Program, ToolBook II, WebCT and LearnLine to name a few.

  5. http://cpdserver.vut.edu.au/

  6. See the work at Murdoch University for instance:
    http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/teach/online/
    http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/edtech/asdf95/lessons/lesson_index.html

  7. See some of the projects and Victoria University of Technology:
    http://cpdserver.vut.edu.au/vutonline/scripts/sitelist.asp
Please cite as: Parker, D. and Gilding, A. (1999). Using the Internet as a teaching tool. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 302-305. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/parker.html


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