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Category: Professional practice
Teaching and Learning Forum 2008 [ Refereed papers ]
Resurrecting the dead: Use of online learning in forensic science

Sasha Voss
Centre for Forensic Science
The University of Western Australia

This study aimed to incorporate online learning into a traditional face to face forensic unit with a heavy emphasis on problem based learning activities. An online component consisting of both a forensic software tool and the more usual WebCT learning platform were incorporated into a postgraduate forensic entomology unit at the University of Western Australia (UWA). The selected online material and activities were designed to address the known issue of variation in student learning success associated with problem based learning approaches. Students were surveyed to evaluate their perceptions of the online component and its value as a learning tool.

The online component was positively received by students who considered it a valuable supplement to traditional teaching delivery. In particular, the introduction of an online component to a traditional problem based activity proved a successful learning tool. Students demonstrated a preference for the online activity over the paper version and they felt that the online activity increased their understanding of the lab and assignment exercises. Students also liked the convenience, flexibility of access to information, communication options, quiz feedback and interaction activities offered via WebCT. Significantly, all students surveyed wanted an online component to be integrated into the rest of the forensic program at UWA. This study highlights the benefits of implementing a blended learning format to a unit with a problem based learning focus. Incorporating online learning into forensic teaching has the potential to overcome the observed disadvantages associated with problem based learning.


Forensic science encompasses a wide variety of scientific disciplines and involves the application of scientific knowledge to legal situations. Traditionally, as an applied science, forensic courses are taught in a face to face format with significant hands on learning activities that reflect authentic, 'on the job' problem solving exercises (Allen & Duch, 1998). Problem based learning results in student-centred learning and encourages students to draw upon their own knowledge, see the exercise in a larger perspective beyond the classroom and engage in critical thinking. Students can also decide and prioritise their own learning agenda and through collaboration with peers are exposed to multiple perspectives on a problem. Such authentic activities are the focus of advocates of situated cognition theory as a basis for improved student learning and long term retention (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989).

However, early in the learning process, learners may not have mastered the information required to solve the presented problems. This is particularly problematic in the forensic discipline where it is common for students in the same class to have varied scientific backgrounds. Further, students may be initially uncomfortable with, and find it it difficult to adjust to a learning style that is self directed as opposed to a teacher lead approach. This is especially evident if they have previously only been exposed to learning styles in which the teacher is the sole disemminator of knowledge. In these cases, problem based learning can be an ineffective instructional strategy (Ward & Lee, 2002).

The incorporation of online learning tools in problem based teaching activities can alleviate the disadvantages associated with this type of teaching approach. The flexibility of online learning tools both in and out of the classroom can aid student access to background information and the multiple media options offered can assist with the issue of differences in student learning styles. Online tools allow students to progress through a problem based activity at their own pace while learning the information through its application to the set task (Anderson & Elloumi, 2004). Further, familiarity with the latest information, computer techniques and practices is an acknowledged requirement of the forensic discipline by both students and employers. On this basis it was decided that an online component would be introduced to the forensic postgraduate course at the University of Western Australia (UWA) in 2007.

Selected E-learning activity and WebCT

Online learning is often considered a vehicle for the delivery of instructions rather than a device that influences student achievement by itself. Research has indicated significant learning benefits can be gained by implementing online media options in preference to traditional paper based media (Ladyshewsky, 2004). These benefits are, however, related to the instructional activities built into the learning materials as opposed to variety in the medium of instruction (Mioduser et al., 2000; Anderson & Elloumi, 2004). Improved learning is only possible where the selected online activities implemented adhere to the principles of sound learning theory (Anderson & Elloumi, 2004). Learning activities should motivate students, facilitate deep learning, cater for differences in student learning styles, encourage student collaboration and interaction, provide feedback, facilitate contextual learning and provide opportunities for learning support from both peers and teachers (Anderson & Elloumi, 2004).

Forensic entomology laboratory classes at UWA introduce students to a dichotomous key as a 'real-life' problem solving activity. Dichotomous keys are fundamental tools used for the identification of biological specimens. Such keys consist of a set of written couplets detailing mutually exclusive biological traits. The key is used by first deciding which of the two statements applies to an unknown specimen and then proceeding on to the next indicated couplet. Students progressively move through more specific characteristics of a taxonomic group until they arrive at an identification point for that specimen. In this way, assuming the correct choices are made by the student, an unknown specimen can be identified to a specific taxonomic level. Even when a student arrives at the wrong answer in the key their second attempt can allow them to work through where they went wrong and why. Consequently, students are active learners applying and integrating previous knowledge to answer a question in a different context. In this way, students are engaging with the material and testing their knowledge in a way that encourages deep learning (Cope, 2003).

Prior student feedback on the effectiveness of this learning exercise consistently identified several key problem areas. Firstly, it was assumed that all students had both learned and remembered previous information on insect structure to the same degree, and secondly that they could correctly apply this information when keying out their specimens. The reliance on student recall limited the learning gain achieved by students from this exercise. Aspects of the laboratory's design are highly beneficial but without refreshing student memory and establishing that each student has a solid understanding of the prior learning required to complete this laboratory, these benefits are negated (Mioduser, Nachmias, Lahav & Oren, 2000; Tanner & Allen, 2004).

It was proposed that an online component could be introduced to this activity in a form that would allow students to access previously taught information. Advances in information computing technologies (ICTs) have lead to the introduction of several software programs that either replace or compliment traditional paper based dichotomous keys. For example, LucID is an interactive, multimedia computer based training tool which can be designed to allow the construction of a dichotomous key for specimen identification. A LucID key has a number of advantages over traditional paper based identification keys including the fact that the keys are interactive and can be enhanced with multimedia such as, images, video, sound, fact sheets and Internet pages rather than just a verbal description (Norton, Patterson & Schneider, 2000). In this way, terminology can be explained by images and text as a student progresses through the key thereby refreshing the student's memory and reinforcing information previously learned (Terry, 1999; Schroeder, 2004). Offering students the use of both a written key and an online key ensures they are familiar with the traditional method of insect identification and more recently introduced software tools. The online method offers a flexible, visually interactive framework that allows the user to progress at their own pace and gradually build their skill level to make the most of the desired lab outcomes. Students can also access the software outside of class time for use in their assignments and field exercises, thus encouraging a deeper learning approach by integrating the lab classes with additional problem solving activities (Allen & Duch, 1998). In addition, the interactive and online nature of the LucID program can heighten the level of interest and encourage collaborative learning. Students can work together either within or outside the lab classes to achieve the set goal (Tanner & Allen, 2004).

A WebCT site was also designed to supplement traditional course material. Currently, WebCT is the online learning management system of choice for staff at UWA. The WebCT online platform provides a central location for students to access course related material including programs used in laboratory class activities and communication systems (Ma & Saunders, 2006). WebCT is used in various UWA undergraduate science courses but has yet to be incorporated into the forensic science postgraduate course. The WebCT site was designed to allow students to access information, engage in interactive multimedia exercises and to communicate with teachers and peers. They were also able to gain a measure of their achievement in the course prior to formal assessment based on informal online quizzes. Given the importance of usability and ease of navigation in an online learning environment, attention was also paid to the design, layout, icons and file naming scheme of the WebCT site (Wilding, Poleykett, McNamara, Forsey & Jonikis, 2004).

Information resources and online learning activities incorporated into the forensic entomology unit were designed bearing in mind the educational theory behind appropriate implementation of online supplemental material. Rather than presenting information through an online platform in a traditional format, attempts where made to link technology and pedagogy in the design of the instructional activities to more effectively harness the learner centred benefits of advances in ICTs as an educational tool.

Study aims

This study aimed to incorporate online learning into a traditionally face to face course with a heavy emphasis on problem based learning activities. The selected online material and activities were designed to address the known issues associated with a problem based learning approach, such as the variation in student mastery of information needed to solve set problems. An investigation of how students perceive and use online materials and the effectiveness of such learning resources is an essential component for the establishment of a successful blended learning program (Fox & Brown, 2007).

Ultimately, this study aimed to evaluate the effectiveness of ICTs as student learning aids in forensic entomology and to establish the merits of incorporating an online component into additional units of the forensic postgraduate program at UWA.

The objectives of this study were to

  1. investigate student perceptions of a newly integrated online component into a forensic postgraduate unit.
  2. identify the value students placed on the available online materials as learning tools.
  3. obtain a measure of student satisfaction with the way the online component was employed.
  4. identify areas where the material could be improved.
The success and effectiveness of incorporating online materials and activities into the course as an aid for student learning was evaluated through a survey of student perceptions.

Survey design

Survey questions were aimed at gauging student perceptions and preferences of the WebCT design and to determine whether students would embrace this form of delivery in additional units of the forensic program. Aspects such as the extent to which students accessed the online material, student opinions of the effectiveness of WebCT as a pedagogical tool and student views on the value of the online activities in preparing them for assessment and in instilling confidence with the course content were investigated. In particular, students were asked whether the online activities were sufficient to contribute to their successful completion and understanding of the advanced laboratory sessions and thus whether the addition of an online component resolved the issues that were identified based on past student feedback. Responses provided guidelines for good practice in blended learning programs and establish the merits of introducing online components to other units within the postgraduate forensic program.

Students were informed of the surveys purpose. Surveys were anonymous and voluntary although a box of chocolates was offered as a raffle prize for those who returned their responses. This was successful as all enrolled students submitted a completed survey, providing a sample size of 19 respondents.

Questions fell into 4 categories; (i) access and use of WebCT, (ii) opinion of materials available, (iii) perceptions of online material benefits and (iv) perceptions of online learning activities. The majority of questions were framed as 'strongly agree', 'agree', 'neutral', 'disagree' or 'strongly disagree' (Appendix A). Data analysis was carried out using Microsoft Excel.

Student perceptions: Results and discussion

Access and use of WebCT

Previous research has linked student learning successes with online delivery to the student's level of computer literacy (Arbaugh, 2000; Hara & Kling, 2000). While only 58% of students had prior experience with WebCT, 84% found that navigating their way through the material on WebCT was easy. When needed, students referred to help handouts for assistance when using WebCT (33%) while others obtained help either online (11%), by trial and error (17%) or from their teacher (11%). The vast majority of students (89%) felt they did not require a class training session. This suggests that students at the postgraduate level have gained considerable computer experience and familiarity at this point in their studies. While not necessarily exposed to WebCT previously, the online components of this course were unlikely to result in student technical problems and associated frustration with the learning experience. For future classes at this level, an instructional handout would suffice as an introduction to using WebCT and navigating through the material rather than taking up teaching time allocated for course theory.

Access issues were not evident as students accessed WebCT about once a week (63%) or more (26%), usually from home (45%) or on campus (45%). Throughout the semester, staff were asked to actively promote the material available on WebCT. This approach appears to have succeeded given that 95% of students felt that they received enough encouragement to make use of the WebCT material.

It was of some concern that the introduction of online material, while hopefully beneficial, may have added to the student's workload. However, an overwhelming 96% of students disagreed with the statement that 'Using WebCT in this course increased my workload'.

Opinion of materials available

Students indicated a marked preference for several of the materials offered on WebCT including self assessment quizzes, the LucID taxonomic key software and the online lecture notes. These features of WebCT were used the most often and considered the most useful (100%, 100% and 80% respectively). Other features used by students and considered useful included the WebCT discussion board (64%) and the information/reference link page (60%).

In retrospect, a single direct question asking students to write out areas for improvement could have been included in the survey design but at the time this was not considered beneficial as, based on past experience, the majority of students shy away from long written answers. Instead students were offered a variety of additional options for the WebCT platform and asked what they would like to see included in future years. When offered a wide range of additional WebCT features, students selected graded assignments (44%), audio/video lectures (30%), past exam papers (15%) and blogs (11%) as features that they would like to see included on the WebCT platform. Despite the absence of these features 90% of students were satisfied or very satisfied with the material available on the WebCT platform. Further, no student was dissatisfied with the material available although 11% indicated a neutral response.

While students wanted to see an audio/video lecture feature included on the WebCT site, they still felt the need for face to face lectures (87%). This corresponds to previous research which indicated that students prefer online course components to complement traditional face to face lectures rather than replace them entirely (Ma & Saunders, 2006; Keasar, Baruch & Grobgeld-Dahan, 2005). Past research at UWA has indicated that students mainly use the i-lecture recording system, Lectopia, for revision purposes followed by catch up, note taking on the occasional missed lecture. As such, student requests for multi-media lecture options is most likely related to flexibility of access issues and for revision purposes. Many external factors influence student motivation and attendance (Devadoss & Foltz, 2006). Students place a high value on lecture options in cases of missed lectures or inattentive note taking. Certainly, including this aspect in the future would be a positive step to improving the overall online component.

Written responses regarding the aspects that students liked most about the WebCT supplementary material included the encouraging, "I found it helped my understanding of the source material" and remarks that further indicated the WebCT features that students placed a high value on, including

Perceptions of online material benefits

Student perceptions of the online material offered was exceedingly positive with 90% of students agreeing that the WebCT material as a whole was a valuable supplement to traditional class teaching delivery. Based on student responses, the value students placed on the material was largely attributed to the ease of access allowing for greater independent learning. Further, many felt that the online material better prepared them for assessment (Figure 1).

The majority of students felt that the online material had been well integrated into the course (89%). However, responses suggested there was room for improvement in regards to the focus of the material offered. While 79% of students felt that the online material offered allowed them to focus their study effort on the most important aspects of the course content, 10% of students disagreed (Figure 1). Several of the offered online resources were designed to encourage deeper exploration of the topic and may have instead sidetracked students from the core course information. Certainly, students were divided on the role the online material played in encouraging exploration outside of class requirements (42% agreed; 21% unsure; 37% disagreed). Placing repeated emphasis on the core material in the online activities should help resolve this issue along with a link to the expected course outcomes, which currently only feature in the course book.

Of particular note, 84% of students thought the online material helped them learn the subject matter quickly. When asked to what extent the online material assisted students in mastering the course content, 16% responded that is was essential and 84% of students said that it was helpful. Students also felt that the WebCT material played a role in retaining their interest in the course subject matter (79%). Clearly, student perception of the online material was favourable, with the majority of students indicating the material provided a beneficial learning aid.

Additional learning outcomes such as increased familiarity with computer programs and improved peer collaboration skills as a result of online activities were of mixed success. Students did not feel that their interactions with the WebCT material improved their computer skills (63%), presumably as most were already more than competent at computer usage. Students embraced the activities that encouraged peer collaboration with 74% of students indicating that the WebCT discussion board increased their communication with other students regarding course work and exercises. This result highlights the value of the communication aspect of the online component which appears to have encouraged student learning communities. Increased communication through online modes was not related to student confidence or security issues when discussing the course content in face to face situations. Only 11% of students felt that online modes of discussion with teachers and peers were more comfortable than face to face engagement. Rather the increased communication observed was likely related to online advantages such as the flexibility offered in terms of access hours and locations.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Student responses to survey questions aimed at assessing student perceptions of online material outcomes

All students (100%) indicated that they would like to use WebCT materials in other units in the forensic program and similarly 100% of students recommended retaining the supplementary online material as part of this course in future years. Given that only 58% of students had previously used WebCT, this positive embracement of the online learning material was contrary to previous research findings in which students were found to prefer the mode of study they were most familiar with (Felix, 2001). This difference may be related to the education level of the students. Students who have a high level of self discipline and enjoy independent learning activities have more positive perceptions of online learning modes (Dunlop & Scott, 20001; Ladyshewsky, 2004). Postgraduate students tend to have a high degree of self-discipline, autonomy and motivation and may have more readily embraced the increased level of independent learning offered by access to supplementary online materials. However, students still valued the face to face contact of the course as 87% of students felt that they still needed to attend lecture and lab classes.

Perceptions of online learning activities

The online LucID key activity appeared to be a successful learning tool. 74% of students felt they related better to the online key compared to the traditional paper version of an insect key.

The incorporation of software used in the forensic field and the 'authentic' design of the exercise itself were key aspects to the learning benefits resulting from the introduction of the online materials. 100% of students felt that using the latest computer technologies was applicable to the forensic discipline and 89% of students believed the LucID program contributed to their understanding of the lab exercises and assignment. Significantly, 95% of students considered the computer program valuable for future classes (Figure 2).

All students indicated that the visual aids available through the program contributed to their understanding of insect anatomy and basic taxonomy (42% strongly agreed; 58% agreed). Prior student feedback on the effectiveness of the paper version of this learning exercise identified a reliance on student recall of insect structure for accurate identification. The interactivity of the online software offered several multimedia options and links to such information for students which assisted with the laboratory exercise. Students were better able to assimilate this information and reinforce their prior learning through the application of this information to the new tasks presented in this lab.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Student responses to survey questions aimed at assessing student perceptions of online learning activities

The incorporation of an online activity to the lab allowed 84% of students to use their lab time more effectively. The 11% of students who indicated this was not the case may have considered the time required to learn to use the software a problem as it may have reduced their time for the activity itself (5% neutral responses). This is a negative aspect of introducing an unfamiliar computer tool to the classroom. However, students placed a high value on using the latest technology of their field suggesting there is some room for trade off between the two aspects in the absence of additional contact hours.


The integration of an online component was positively received by students who considered it a valuable supplement to traditional teaching delivery. Student perceptions of the design and type of material implemented were also favourable. Students liked the convenience, flexibility of access, communication options, quiz feedback and interactive activities offered via WebCT. The majority of students were satisfied with the material available and thought it was well integrated with the face to face course component.

Students placed a high value on the self assessment quizzes and felt that these aided their learning and confidence prior to assessment and examination. Importantly, the majority of students felt the online material helped them learn the subject material quickly and helped retain their interest. In particular the LucID software and associated online problem based activity proved a successful learning tool. Students demonstrated a preference for the online activity over the paper version and they felt that the LucID activity increased their understanding of the lab and assignment exercises. Such feedback indicates that the online materials increased student motivation for learning and gave students more control over their individual learning process. Certainly, active learning strategies such as self assessment quizzes, practical activities and discussion boards assisted in the engagement of students.

Positively, all students surveyed wanted both an online component to be integrated into the rest of the forensic program and for the current supplemental material to continue in future years. The student perspective of their increased learning success resulting from the supplemental online material implemented in this study highlights the importance of pedagogical input into the design of the online component. Technology, in itself, is not the cause of improved student learning. It is well designed instruction which takes advantage of technology improved media options that aid student learning outcomes (Ladyshewsky, 2004). In focusing on the pedagogy behind the design of the online material a high quality outcome was produced. As such, there is significant merit in incorporating blended learning within additional units of the postgraduate forensic program.

As a guideline for other forensic units, some areas were identified as requiring further development. Some students felt that the online material did not help them to focus their studies on the important course material. The WebCT site offered a range of resources which may have sidetracked students from the core course information. Placing repeated emphasis on the core material in the online activities should help resolve this issue along with a link to the expected course outcomes. Further, while online lecture notes were valued, many students wanted to see an audio/video lecture feature included on the WebCT site. Student requests for multi-media lecture options is most likely related to flexibility of access issues. Where students cannot attend classes or have taken poor lecture notes the option to review lecture material is highly desired. Thus, it is recommended that such a feature should be included in the future.


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Appendix A

Appendix A first half
Appendix A second half

Author: Sasha Voss is currently a forensic PhD student at the University of Western Australia. Email: sasha.voss@uwa.edu.au

My research is focused on the use of insects in the estimation of time since death in homicide cases. In 2007, I commenced a Postgraduate Teaching Internship at UWA. The Postgraduate Teaching Internship Scheme allows doctoral research students to develop teaching skills in their various fields and to undertake a program of professional development activities during the course of their PhD candidature.

Please cite as: (2008). Resurrecting the dead: Use of online learning in forensic science. In Preparing for the graduate of 2015. Proceedings of the 17th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2008. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://otl.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2008/refereed/voss.html

Copyright 2008 Sasha Voss. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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