Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Collaborative learning at a distance: The Human Biology experience

Susan Fyfe
School of Biomedical Sciences
Curtin University of Technology
    Human Biology 133, offered internally and by distance has recently changed, for the internal mode, from a large lecture and lab based unit to one in which students work collaboratively to complete activities and some assessment. Tutors facilitate group work and provide both academic content and pastoral care. To match this type of learning environment via distance mode and without on campus contact, was a challenge we had to meet.

    The new distance structure follows the internal unit with sessions comprising activities, investigations and infobytes. The distance infobytes give the detail provided by the tutor in the internal class. To allow students to undertake practical activities a kit was developed which provides similar outcomes as on campus activities but without hands on access to human material. To provide this, we collected images of cadaver specimens and histology slides used by internal students and developed a website and CD ROM. The CD ROM allows access without the download times and costs involved in online use.

    Students collaborate at a distance using email, chat rooms and a bulletin board through WebCT. Virtual groups of 3 students are allocated at the beginning of the semester and are encouraged to "chat" regularly and discuss specific questions from activities and investigations. A group assignment requires students to become familiar with working by email and transferring documents electronically. Students have access to an online tutor for any academic enquiries and online technical assistance for problems with electronic resources.

    The unit was trialed in semester 1 ,1999 and 19 of the 26 students enrolled completed the unit with a 95% pass rate. There were many problems in developing and implementing the unit but the approach has allowed students to complete Human Biology without on campus contact and with a means of overcoming the isolation which so often accompanies distance education.

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In 1996 Human Biology 133 was a first semester unit based on a traditional lecture and illustrative laboratory class format. Human Biology 133 is taken by almost all students in Health Sciences at Curtin and thus has an enrolment of around 1000 students per year. Over the years the unit had become tighter with learning objectives clearly outlined, unit notes available for students, answers to laboratory questions available: everything for a successful unit. However, we found that students were very passive in their learning and that we were making them dependent rather than independent learners. We were also concerned that students were passing the unit without mastering important concepts and we wanted to improve both our teaching of those concepts and our assessment of them. Tutors were frustrated by student attitude and their lack of preparation for classes and lecturing staff found the large lectures impersonal and dissatisfying.

We wanted a change and were influenced by first year experience literature (Elliott, 1997) which indicated that first year students are more likely to complete their first year successfully if they have a significant person that they know personally and who can act as a mentor during that year. We also wanted students to be active learners who collaborated in their learning and supported each other.

Development of the internal and distance mode

A team of eight worked on this new unit; three academic staff from Human Biology, three technical staff members and two others with extensive teaching experience with diverse student groups, both at secondary and tertiary level. We decided on student centred tutor facilitated learning with classes of 40-45 students working in groups of four. The class meets for two hours twice a week. Each two hour session consists of learning activities which the students undertake in their groups, infobytes which are mini lectures of no more than 25 minutes given by the tutor, and investigations, which are out of class activities for students to complete.

The internal program was trialed in Semester 2 1997 and fully implemented within the university in Semester 1 1998. However the existing distance program followed the old lecture /laboratory format which provided lecture notes for students studying and required on campus attendance for the laboratory component at least once during the semester. Our aim was to parallel the learning experience which we had successfully developed for students studying internally and in addition, to allow students to complete the unit without having to come to the campus. This meant that we wanted distance students to be active learners who collaborated with other students in the unit to complete activities and assessment. To achieve this we modified the sessions in the unit workbook, developed mechanisms for collaboration between students and developed a resource kit to allow students to complete the practical activities without on campus contact.

Workbook: Session modification

Where possible we paralleled the on campus activities, for example, where on campus students use a science drama to role play the formation of a small protein, distance students build a jigsaw to produce the same protein. Where on campus students work in pairs to collect anthropometric data and collate these data into a class set, distance students engage a "helper" to collect their data and then add it to a class data set for analysis. We provided infobytes as notes or guided readings and questions and gave specific text references for completion of activities and questions.

Collaborative mechanisms

We decided that the units practical resources and collaborative mechanisms would be offered through the internet and via CD-ROM. Thus we required students to have or be able to access a computer with CD-ROM, access the Internet and email in order to complete the unit. We also put them into "virtual" groups of three students.

The university has a mechanism for working with distance students through WebCT. Web CT allows us to provide each virtual group with chatroom access. All distance students in the unit can interact via a Bulletin Board both with other students and with their tutor and can also submit data and evaluations through the "quizzes and survey" facility.

Through the Web CT interface we also provide students with data sets for analysis , guidelines to session activities and laboratory simulations.

A group assignment requires students to become familiar with working by email and transferring documents electronically. Students have access to an online tutor for any academic enquiries and online technical assistance for problems with electronic resources.

Resource kit

The kit developed to support session activities includes plastinated specimens, an artists model, slides, a CD-ROM, a video, photographs and paper puzzle pieces. Students also have access to a dedicated Website for the unit.

The plastinated specimens are animal specimens which have been completely impregnated with a polymer to make a durable but life like anatomical specimen.

The CD-ROM which mimics the website exactly provides all the resources available on the Website but allows access without the expense of online and download time. The Website/ CD-ROM provides photographs of the human anatomical specimens which are used by students on campus. Although students do not have the opportunity to handle these specimens they do work with exactly the same specimens as the on campus students.


As the unit used a very different approach and required the payment of an up front fee we sent out the plan to all students who enrolled informing them of the costs and technological requirements for undertaking the unit. Those who wished to go ahead with their enrolment then contacted us and we sent them the resource kit and workbook along with their password for accessing the WebCT site.

Twenty six students enrolled and started the unit in Semester 1 1999. Over the course of the semester a number of students withdrew and 19 completed the unit. Of these 18 passed (95%) with an average grade of 62%. This compares very favourably with the results for internal students where 88% passed with an average grade of 60%.

Issues related to the implementation

There were a number of teething problems which needed to be overcome. The Human Biology team working on the unit had never worked with students online before, it was a steep learning curve for all of us. As we were working on sessions during the semester the whole package was unavailable at the start.


In Semester 2 1999 we evaluated the distance unit. An independent researcher interviewed students for their feedback We asked questions about the best and worst things about the unit, working in groups, the resource materials available and the support they received from the Human Biology team. We were able to contact and interview nine of the original 19 who completed the unit, including the one student who did not pass the unit. All interviews were transcribed and content analysis undertaken.

Technology and computing issues

A number of students were very new to using computers and the Internet.
I was scared, very scared because I didn't know what to expect and how I was going to go about it and I'd never been on the Internet before.

For example, our group, I'd say people had only just got on the Net because they had to for the unit, so they had gone with a cheaper Net sort of thing because all they are doing is going on it so they can complete the unit. And so for all our team work that we did probably took about 8 weeks of the semester before everyone could get in the chat room without it cutting out on someone or they weren't a priority user, so someone else would cut them out and so that was quite frustrating from that point of view.

We provided as much support as we could for those having problems accessing the Web, using their CD-ROM or their email. However, the evaluation showed that a number of students struggled on and that we were unaware of their problems.


Our aim was to make student collaboration a strength of this unit and a way of reducing the isolation of distance education. However, although it worked very well in the internal unit where students meet face to face twice a week, there were a number of problems for distance students. Many students found the logistics of contacting each other a problem with time zones differing and problems related to unreliable technology whilst some groups lost members due to withdrawal during the semester. The instability of some groups and differing levels of commitment amongst group members made the interaction very difficult for some students.
How did you find working with others in a group at a distance?

Not very good for me. Not very good at all. I think it's that face to face, not being able to maybe bond, the internal factors such as you start to look around and you know who you would like to work with and you'd know who you would work well with, this way it's too mish mash.

The worst thing I thought was working with other people. I didn't find that beneficial at all.

My group fell apart and I was the only group member left which made it a bit difficult for group activities

Our group disintegrated basically. Two of us, we banged away right until the end and we seemed to have quite a good rapport. There was a younger girl and she kept dropping in and dropping out and in the end about 2/3 the way through, we hadn't heard from her in weeks and so myself and the other lady made a joint decision and dropped her

There were some good experiences in having others to work with and some groups were quite supportive.
I mean it was good to chat with other people and it was good to know that you weren't the only person who was experiencing the same problems or whatever

It was good. I had a really good person to work with but if they worked, like she was a nurse as well which helped so her background helped a lot. So some of the things I didn't have an understanding of, she could really help me out. So it worked pretty well.

However in general the positive aspect of having support was outweighed by the problems in communicating and the instability of the groups. The synchronicity of the chatrooms exacerbated the problems and a number of students were more positive about the Bulletin Board which can be used asynchronously.

The Resource Kit

We had an advantage that we could use our on campus specimens for the images which were presented and although students did not have the benefit of handling human specimens the plastinated specimens did provide some examples of the "real thing".

Response to the use of the resource kit and HB133 CDROM was generally positive

I found most of them helpful. Certainly the slides and that. The plasticised specimens, I mean they were good to be able to pick up and hold but you could almost do it with the photographs and that off the Web and CD's

The fact that it was on computer, you could look at it without actually having to be there helped me.


The unit was trialed in Semester 1 1999 and was also offered in Semester 2. The format allowed students to complete this first semester Human Biology unit without on campus contact and has allowed students from interstate and those studying abroad to undertake the unit. The support services for the unit in terms of the unit resource kit generally worked well and supported activities effectively.

However the collaborative aspects of the unit were less effective and group dynamics and technological problems both had a negative impact on the success of group based learning in the unit. As a result of the feedback provided in the evaluation we are currently focussing on asynchronous interaction using the Bulletin board where students can work at their own pace and interact with others who are making similar progress in the unit. From our experience, collaboration in distance learning needs to be tempered with an appreciation of the personal and technical limitations which affect students involvement in the unit. Our challenge is to find better ways to encourage and support collaboration for distance learners whilst recognising the desire of many students to work independently and at their own pace.


Elliott, J. (1997). Early Student Withdrawal: The Reasons Students Give for Leaving the University. Report to Curtin First Year Experience Group.

Please cite as: Fyfe, S. (2000). Collaborative learning at a distance: The Human Biology experience. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/fyfes.html

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