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Incorporating online learning into existing high contact first year units

Raelene Wilding, Brian Poleykett, Beverley McNamara, Martin Forsey and Ilze Jonikis
The University of Western Australia

The 2001/2002 review of two complementary first year units in Anthropology & Sociology, at the University of Western Australia, provided an opportunity to consider the incorporation of online learning into the existing high contact teaching and learning program. A team of university lecturers responsible for teaching these units in 2002/2003 joined forces with library specialists in Information Technology and Reference Services to consider the ways in which WebCT, in particular, might enhance the teaching and learning in Anthropology & Sociology 101 and 102. The development of an online learning environment also provided the opportunity to reconsider the ways in which these units were being taught simultaneously to a large student enrolment (300+ students per semester) on the Crawley campus, as well as a growing enrolment of students based at university centres in Albany and Geraldton.

The resulting team aimed to accomplish three main goals: 1. to consider the best means of integrating the existing strengths of the units with the innovative application of newly available technologies in order to enhance teaching and learning experiences; 2. to examine the responses of students and teaching staff to the introduction of new teaching technologies; and 3. to develop a 'best practice' model that might provide a template for other university lecturers wishing to adapt WebCT to the teaching of arts, humanities and social sciences units. This paper reports some of the key considerations, potentials and perils that characterised our experiences in working with WebCT, outcomes based education principles and other flexible learning technologies to complement, rather than replace, face to face teaching. We pay particular attention to the enhancement and integration of information literacy skills amongst first year students, which was identified as a key area of development for relationships between the library and university lecturers.


Within The University of Western Australia (UWA), there has been a growing interest in adopting online learning environments to enhance the face to face teaching style that is privileged as a foundation of teaching excellence. Such a focus is not new, and reflects broader trends within the University sector (eg. Jensen-Lee & Falahey, 2002). It is now accepted that online learning environments are attractive to students for a wide range of reasons, including the flexibility they offer and the opportunities they provide for different forms of interactive learning (eg. Byers, 2002). Within UWA, the interest in combining traditional teaching methods and online learning environments has emerged in a number of ways. For example, the UWA (2001) IT Strategy Implementation Plan seeks to 'develop the use of networked facilities for accessing and retrieving teaching and research information'. Also, the UWA (2002) teaching and learning priorities for 2003-2005 include the improvement of flexible teaching and learning practices by including collaboration and computer assisted learning, and the adoption of an outcomes based approach to teaching, learning and assessment. WebCT has since been adopted as a university wide learning management system (LMS) at UWA. The intention of the policies outlined above is to develop a 'high tech, high touch', approach that adopts the potential improvements in practice and outcomes represented in online learning technologies, while preserving the advantages of personal interactions that have long been recognised as important for successful teaching and learning.

It was within this institutional environment of change and development that the UWA Library and the Discipline of Anthropology and Sociology sought to combine their localised objectives within a project that came to be known as 'ANTLER' - Anthropology and Sociology Teaching and Learning with Electronic Resources. For the Library, a key objective was to become 'an active partner with academics in all learning contexts'. This was to be achieved by incorporating the use of information within all the University's learning environments, incorporating flexible delivery of information skills training within the context of the total student learning experience (Arfield, 2002; see also Carlson, 2003). For Anthropology and Sociology, a primary incentive for change was the systematic review of two large first year units, which regularly attract in excess of 300 students, to investigate the implications of a number of recent developments in disciplinary approaches. One particular concern was the growing number of students choosing to study anthropology and sociology from the regional campuses in Albany and Geraldton. In addition the introduction of Outcomes Based Education (OBE) institutionally provided productive opportunities for rethinking the teaching of anthropology. OBE allowed us to more explicitly acknowledge the information skills, literacy, research and writing skills we wanted our students to attain by the end of first year. The aim of ANTLER was to investigate issues involved in creating an academic unit that demonstrates the integration of content delivery, skills acquisition, learning and information resources and course evaluation within a single online learning environment. Three main outcomes for the project were identified: developing the two first year units; evaluating student and staff responses to those units; and, reporting our experiences and recommendations to interested staff at UWA and beyond.

Anthropology & Sociology 101 Online

The Anthropology and Sociology 101 Online course was released in Semester 1, 2003. The online course was developed over several months of time intensive collaboration between lecturers within the discipline group and key librarians. While the title may suggest the 'course' is principally online, a traditional focus upon face to face teaching has still been maintained. Students attend two lectures per week and 10 tutorial sessions throughout the 13 week semester; they also complete the vast portion of their assessment through a major research essay, face to face tutorials, and a monitored final examination. The WebCT LMS provides a scaffold for the Anthropology and Sociology first year units, supporting and supplementing student-teacher interactions in lectures and tutorials, as well as providing directions for the successful completion of the various assessment items.

One of the key benefits of an online learning environment is the opportunity it provides for students to access elements of the unit 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Thus, one of the first items to be included in the online course was a link to the iLecture system, a technology developed at UWA that allows us to digitally record all lectures. While the recordings are essential to provide lecture access to students in the regional campuses, they are also useful in providing students on the main campus with greater flexibility.

The tutorial and assessment programs within the unit provided the focal point for our attention in developing WebCT. Picking up on a traditional anthropological subject that provides rich possibilities for online teaching we incorporated a kinship tutorial into the program, and assessed this using a compulsory WebCT quiz. We began using weekly quizzes, many of them optional, as a means for students to self test their comprehension of their weekly readings. We provided added incentive for students to complete these quizzes by incorporating 30 multiple choice questions into the final examination - worth 30 percent of their final examination grade.

In addition to the uses already outlined, WebCT allowed us to provide students with active links to websites that contained valuable resources such as descriptions of appropriate referencing styles. WebCT also offered a site for accessing digitised reading materials, which previously were available to students in a unit reader.

Anything included within WebCT was examined for its contribution to teaching and learning objectives (see also ITRC, 2002; Savenye, Olina & Niemczyk, 2001). When developing Anthropology and Sociology 101, we paid attention to the following

  1. the knowledge we expected students to acquire through their participation in this unit in terms of both content and concepts;
  2. the skills we expected students to acquire through their participation in this unit, including development of essay writing, research and information skills;
  3. the ways in which the 101 and 102 courses should complement each other, providing different but complementary sets of knowledge and skills; and
  4. the ways in which online and face to face delivery were best suited to delivering particular objectives in relation to content and skills.
An important aspect of the development of the online material and the development of the unit as a whole is that they have always been conducted in dialogue with each other.

Equally important to the development of the online course was the application of sound principles of web design. Anthropology and Sociology 102 Online is presented in a logical, consistent and accessible manner. Acknowledging that consistent navigation improves the useability of a site for both computer literate and illiterate students (Nielsen 1998), we paid particular attention to creating and using easily identifiable page headings in consistently designed tables of contents. It was also important that the hyperlinked text in the table of contents matched the title of the linked page (Nielsen 1998). This technique aimed at reassuring the student that they have reached the expected destination. Careful thought was also given to the selection of icons to accompany each hyperlink on the home page. The purpose of the icon is to represent graphically the function of the hyperlinked section; hence the icon needed to be familiar to most students. According to our principle of consistency, sections of the unit site with similar content should display the same icon. Therefore, each part on the home page displayed the same icon, while general unit information could employ a different one. Importantly, we found that consistency in layout and wording also simplifies the authoring process for the academic. In keeping with this important principle, files authored for the WebCT course were named according to a consistent file naming scheme, making it easier to identify to which part of the course a file belonged and its place in the overall scheme.

In terms of unit design, a significant advantage of WebCT lies in its potential to enrich the student learning experience with additional information. For example, the essential reading for each week was introduced with a brief description, providing students with suggested interpretations of the material and questions that drew connections between the readings, lecture and tutorial content. Additionally, assignment descriptions became more extensive and instructive than hard copies of course outlines allow. By embedding into the assignment information links to other web pages, we were able to direct students towards a 'Secrets for Success' page that provided them with the opportunity to explore techniques for improving their learning and skills. The intention was to allow struggling students to identify the strategies used by successful students, as well as providing more dedicated students with opportunities to further develop their skills and knowledge.

In accomplishing all that has just been described, we were also conscious that the purpose of ANTLER was not simply to improve the quality of the units, but also to reduce costs (Twigg, 2002). While the initial work in establishing the LMS was labour intensive, it is expected to eventually reward in reduced administrative and preparation time, more flexible approaches to online tutorials, and greater levels of student directed learning. The choice of a commercial LMS, automated assessment and shared resources were strategies adopted with the explicit aim of reducing costs while simultaneously enhancing the teaching and learning experience. The movement of non-essential unit information from a booklet of more than 80 pages to an online format significantly reduced the administrative, copying and distribution considerations that affected previous coordinators of the unit. However, this development also required significant thought as to how the content should be restructured and which information should remain in the substantially smaller six page unit outline that was distributed to students at the commencement of semester.

Evaluation of Anthropology & Sociology 101 online

Significant attention was given throughout the ANTLER project to decisions regarding the structure of the online unit, including choices about what information to include and how teaching and learning activities should be linked to assessment within the unit. However, we also recognised the need to test our intentions against the outcomes of the unit in terms of student perceptions and experiences of the unit (see also Peat et al 2002).

A range of evaluation strategies were employed, including the following.

  1. Peer evaluation: expert external evaluation was sought from the UWA Centre for English Language Teaching, the WebCT implementation team who were employed during the implementation of our project; and various members of the UWA Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning.

  2. Teaching assistant evaluation: a focus group interview was conducted with the tutors responsible for sustained contact with Anthropology 101 students in Semester 1, 2003; the resulting transcripts were analysed using QSR N4 qualitative analysis software.

  3. Student evaluation: the students in first year anthropology had three opportunities for reporting their experiences in Anthropology 101: (a) Student Perception of Teaching (SPOT) evaluations - two SPOT surveys were conducted throughout the course of the unit; (b) eReserve evaluation - a survey specifically targeting experiences of online reading materials was provided within WebCT; and (c) focus group interviews - students were invited to participate in one of four focus group interviews with the resulting transcripts analysed using QSR N4 software.

The various evaluations indicated that the implementation of online learning within Anthropology and Sociology 101 has been largely successful. Only a few areas were identified as requiring further development. We were pleased to see that our attention to good web design principles was rewarded with reports that the course is easy to navigate, well structured, and includes many useful elements. Furthermore, it appeared that our efforts to 'add value' to the online learning environment were largely successful. For example, in response to the question, 'Doing this course again, would you want to use WebCT?', all focus group participants replied in the affirmative, with most suggesting that they would like to see WebCT expanded across the university to their other units. However, some of the aspects of the online course were identified as problematic.

Access emerged as a primary area of concern for many people. During focus group discussions, many students and tutors expressed concern that there was an implicit expectation that students would have ready access to a computer and Internet connection, and that this may not be the case for economically disadvantaged students. While a survey showing 8 percent of students reporting difficulties accessing WebCT indicates that there could be cause for concern regarding access and equity, it is impossible for us to tell from available data if this results from socio-economic concerns, or from other factors such as general unwillingness to utilise computer technology, or uneven access to computing facilities in different faculties. Exemplifying the latter point, in 2003 librarians reported increased usage of computing facilities, while other facilities are significantly under-used, possibly due to lack of awareness about their location and availability.

Many students also identified downloading online reading material as a particular problem. The key issue was reliability and access to technical support, particularly during periods of temporary technical failure. Students expressed concern that their study routines were interrupted by unexplained failures of WebCT, their Internet access, or the computer they were using. Access to online readings was frequently reported as a problem, particularly in terms of excessive download times. For example, an online survey conducted towards the end of semester indicated that 51 percent of respondents felt the online readings took too long to download, and 59 percent found the online readings difficult to read on a computer screen, requiring them to purchase printouts of the materials. However, there was general agreement that online readings are a useful resource when provided in addition to hard copy versions of the readings in a course reader. Regional students, in particular, felt that online readings were a useful resource, and indicated that they would like more of these to be available to supplement their limited library resources. Given these concerns, and in anticipation of further use of WebCT and online readings throughout the University, a WebCT management committee and the University Information Technology Committee are investigating these issues. It is important to identify if student concerns are expressed because of a lack of knowledge about available resources already in place, or if additional resources are needed. It is equally important to determine reasonable expectations for the availability and access of online reading materials.

The most successful elements of the online course were the quizzes, 'secrets for success' pages, and links to learning resources. The focus group interviews in particular indicated that ANTLER was highly successful in integrating information literacy and disciplinary content within the one online location. Commenting on the quizzes, students said that they aided their learning enormously, 'the quizzes let you know whether you understood what was being taught and if you have misunderstood something, you could go back and revise that', and, 'the quizzes give you a very short, sharp way of reviewing the semester without having to traipse through piles of notes'. In relation to information literacy, students were even more enthusiastic about the benefits they had received from the online learning environment. Students reported that the 'Secrets for Success' pages provided them with tools to become better researchers, more efficient library users, and more accurate in their essay referencing techniques. In regards to this question, the students' comments provide the best evidence of the success of 'Secrets for Success'. For example, in commenting on the development of library and research skills, one student reflected the comments of many when stating that 'I've learnt a lot more about the library in this course than I have in any other course; before, I was really lost and I didn't even know what the reserve collection was'. Referencing correctly for essays was also enhanced, and several students commented explicitly on the useful link to the web page outlining correct referencing techniques. Students were also positive about the integration of explicit learning outcomes into the presentation of content within the online course, with one student commenting that: 'I think [the best aspect was] those learning outcomes, so you knew what you were aiming for in your assignments. You knew the main things they really want you to cover.'


Making a leap in teaching practices to embrace a new technology such as WebCT is not an easy one. There are important issues to consider, such as availability of time, resources, appropriate software, skills in web design and other basic principles of content creation, and the creative impetus necessary to ensure that the unit content and the online course content are compatible, valuable and appropriate. The availability of support services plays an integral part in the success of such initiatives, in that 'integrating new technologies into the daily life of the classroom requires such skill and courage that it simply will not happen across the board in all classrooms unless safety nets are constantly and conveniently available' (McKenzie 1998).

The significant support environment that was created for this project through the combination of resources and expertise from the Library, the Centre for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning and the Discipline of Anthropology and Sociology ensured that more extensive preparation and evaluation could be conducted in relation to these particular WebCT courses than would normally be possible in high pressure university environments. However, it is hoped that the unique resourcing of this project will result in the distribution of templates used in structuring the online course material, as well as recommendations that will enable other lecturers to pursue some of these initiatives from the foundation that has been constructed by ANTLER's productive relationship.

Overall, it was worth making the leap into an online teaching and learning environment. Students were generally positive about what Anthropology and Sociology 101 Online offered them. No doubt when their suggestions for improvement are incorporated into next year's courses, they will be even more satisfied with what we have to offer them.


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Authors: Dr Raelene Wilding, Anthropology & Sociology, University of Western Australia
Brian Poleykett, Library Information Systems
Dr Beverley McNamara, Anthropology & Sociology
Dr Martin Forsey, Anthropology & Sociology
Ilze Jonikis, HSS Reference Library
University of Western Australia
Email contact: rae@cyllene.uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Wilding, R., Poleykett, B., McNamara, B., Forsey, M. and Jonikis, I. (2004). Incorporating online learning into existing high-contact first year units. In Seeking Educational Excellence. Proceedings of the 13th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 9-10 February 2004. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2004/wilding.html

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