|Computers & Texts No.
Dr Stan Beeler
University of Northern British Columbia
Dr Stan Beeler describes his experiences of using the World Wide Web to teach English courses by distance learning at the University of Northern British Columbia, an institution located in one of the remotest regions of Canada.
In a very short time the use of the World Wide Web as a teaching medium has evoked so much interest that it risks becoming 'over-exposed'. Because of this high degree of interest in the Web, the concept of teaching with the aid of this new medium elicits a broad spectrum of responses from scholars, educators, and administrators in the field of higher education. On the positive side we have extravagant claims for the efficacy of the 'new medium'. It is said that web-based teaching will break down the barriers that students of the electronic generation encounter when faced with traditional methods of learning. Administrators believe that it will 'streamline' the teaching process and allow institutions to reduce the number of expensive instructors and buildings. One of the most interesting claims is that teaching on the World Wide Web will allow distance education to finally come to fruition.
On the negative side we have the very real fear that Web teaching will replace the unavoidably slow, but ultimately pleasurable experience of education in a scholarly atmosphere for a superficial pseudo-learning, based on a facile partial understanding of subjects. Scholars fear the destruction of the university environment which has been developed over so many centuries. If education becomes divorced from its traditional institutions what will prevent it from degenerating into the product of mail-order information factories?
Although we are aware of both the positive and negative sides of these arguments, at the University of Northern British Columbia we felt that we had to come to grips with the new possibilities of teaching because of the logistical difficulties of our mandated area. Located in the sparsely populated northern central area of British Columbia, Prince George is a city of around 70,000 inhabitants, about 700 kilometres from any other centre of population. The University of Northern British Columbia was opened for full operations in 1994 to serve communities that are up to 500 kilometres from the main campus in Prince George. Web teaching is one of many strategies for course delivery with which we are experimenting. Courses have been given by telephone, live video link, video tape, printed mail, and local lecturers at satellite campuses. None of these methods have been completely satisfactory and as a result we have a relatively large number of students who are willing to take the time and spend the money to move to our city to complete their education. However, teaching on the Web has been an attempt to ease the financial and social burden on our students and allow them to take some courses in their home communities.
Using any form of technology in Northern Canada has certain drawbacks that are not found in major centres in the world to the south. Remote communities are the last to have their telephone connections upgraded, links are often less than dependable since they stretch through hundreds of kilometers of unpopulated forest, and service calls are sometimes difficult to arrange. When in 1996 Professor David Dowling and I received a grant to develop World Wide Web courses for UNBC, I decided that I would not be able to use existing teaching software. Four professors in the English Department at UNBC volunteered to create courses for this pilot project. Dr. Dee Horne developed English 420: Literature of First Nations (the term used to designate the aboriginal inhabitants of Canada); Dr. Karin Beeler produced English 430: Contemporary Canadian Literature; Dr. David Dowling provided English 440: Postcolonial Literature: Australia and New Zealand, and Dr. Ross Leckie developed English 470: Creative Writing: Poetry. Around 116 students signed up to take these courses. The custom software package used to deliver these four courses would have to be minimalist, designed to reduce the load on the transmission medium, and to work with a wide diversity of computer equipment. With these goals in mind I set about developing two major components to the software of our project.
The first element is a document delivery system that transmits a single 'virtual' page of text from a large file of course notes. This pagination system is written in perl in the form of CGI (Common Gateway Interface) scripts, and has the function of transferring the load on the Internet connection to a load on the server. That is, when the student requests a page of the course notes, the virtual pagination program looks up the requested page, converts it from ASCII text to HTML, and then transmits it to the student. In addition to the need to reduce the load on the fragile Internet links in our area, this design was intended to have three added advantages:
First, the addition of a logging function that keeps track of the students use of the notes. Each time a student pages forward or back in the course notes, the time and the page number of the notes are recorded. This aspect of the software led to some lively ethical discussion among the team of instructors presenting courses in this pilot project. Some believed that this was an unwarranted intrusion into the activities of our students. My intention in designing this function was to provide the instructor with some compensation for the lack of physical contact with a student. All teachers develop a sense of which students are actually reading the material that is based in part upon simple attendance, body language and response to class questions. The logging function on the virtual pagination software was used to provide instructors with a weekly record of the number of student accesses to their assigned material. Some students were able to do well despite low access to the course materials (not all material was online), but in general it appears that the students with lower access figures had a correlating reduction in their final marks. We also have a good diagnostic tool that will allow the fine tuning of the course material when the courses are given again.
Secondly, the virtual pagination allowed students to search for any given term or phrase across an entire series of course materials. This was intended to permit the students to use the index-like features to review difficult concepts and compile lists of pages with topics for review. In practise the keyword search function was almost completely ignored by the students. I am not sure of the reason for this; it could be due to the ingrained study habits of non-computer mediated instruction, lack of experience with the software, or it could be that this function was simply an unnecessary complication to the learning process. In any case, it is one of the aspects of the package that will have to be reviewed before the software is used again.
Finally, the system allowed the instructors to submit their lecture notes as plain ASCII text, using any word processor could be used. A student assistant on the project (Basia Siedlecki) wrote a pre-processing program which converted the text into a format suitable for the virtual pagination system. It was expected that the instructors would be unfamiliar with HTML, and therefore content with the relatively plain output of the package. This was not the case. Although at first somewhat unfamiliar with the possibilities of hypertext and graphic presentation, the instructors soon became much more comfortable with the medium, and began to demand substantial revisions to the basic pagination structure. This required extensive editing by graduate assistants in order to maintain the integrity of the pagination structure. In order to accommodate the enhanced expectations of Web-aware instructors, the pagination software will have to undergo substantial revisions. We will also have to impress upon instructors in the future that the limited bandwidth of Northern connections to the Internet make attractive graphics and impressive additions in ancillary programming languages less than optimum solutions for our students.
The second major component of the software developed for this course is a web-based asyncronous conferencing package called Natter. Although this component was not an original part of the software conceived for this project, it proved to be the central means of communication between the instructors and students for the course. The original specifications for the course included an INN (network news) server, and communication using standard newsgroup software. However, it soon became clear that this project could not afford the extra time for systems administration, and the faculty and student training required for the management of a newserver. The Natter discussion group software was designed to emulate the controlled flow of discussion found in a classroom. In many web-based conferencing systems it is far too easy for users to change the topic of discussion away from the original thread. This can be devastating to a classroom as well as to an online discussion of teaching materials. Therefore, Natter requires that the user return to the main menu and invoke a separate process in order to start a new topic of discussion. There is still room for variation in the individual responses to the message threads since the system records a user name, an email address (an active link), the time and date of posting, and a subtopic field. When the user opens the main menu there is the possibility of looking at all of the discussion threads and then selecting all or the last five messages in any thread. It is also possible to look at only the last ten messages entered into the entire discussion. The user may search for any term or combination of terms throughout the whole system. For example, it would be possible for a student to look for the instructor's name and the keyword 'assignment' in order to discover any comments made by the instructor using the word assignment. The Natter forum was arguably the most successful and heavily used component of the courses.
Fig. 1 The Natter Conferencing software used as part of the English courses allows students and instructors to interact both formally and informally.
In fact, the creative writing course was based almost exclusively upon the discussion forum. The instructor did not have lectures, but relied upon posted poems and commentary by the instructor and fellow students. Of course, this was a heavy strain on software that was in its initial release. Students were prolific (there were over thirty-five students in this class) in both their creative writing and in their critiques of each other's work. All involved in this course found the reading load excessive. If this course is to be given again, I suspect that a more controlled approach to the discussion would be more productive.
Some of the instructors used the Natter discussion forum in a highly controlled fashion, archiving both discussion and subjects each month so that it was impossible for the students to carry on past the point that the instructor felt was useful. Other instructors felt that the course should be less structured, and discovered that most students found the extra freedom combined with an unfamiliar teaching medium to be detrimental to their final marks.
The use of the discussion forum to replace classroom interaction between students and instructors is an important element in determining the number of hours that both faculty and students have to apply to a given course. The administration theory that computerization would lead to a reduced number of instructors is patently wrong in this case. The professors who taught this course had to read and write a lot more than those teaching a traditional, face-to-face course. If web-based teaching is to be the answer to the desire to 'downsize' the university in the next century, we are not using the correct methodology. On the other hand, this kind of teaching has the theoretical advantage of allowing the shy, non-verbal student to excel, and it improves writing skills of all students. When their words are being read by all others in the class rather than just the instructor, students suddenly become more aware of poor spelling and grammar. All instructors found this to be a definite advantage in an English course.
It would be a gross misrepresentation of fact to assume that all Web courses are created equal, and in the case of the UNBC English Department pilot project, there are several factors which would weigh against many generalizations. The first, and perhaps the most significant factor in assessing these courses is the primary goal of dealing with distance-teaching in the special environment of Northern Canada. The software was custom crafted to deal with the idiosyncracies of this location and, in general, evidence points towards success in this goal. There were some problems caused by the vagaries of Internet connections, but for the most part students in remote locations were able to successfully complete their course work. In fact, one student managed to complete her course work even though she spent over a month on the other side of the continent in Nova Scotia, thus proving that Internet connections spanning a country are sometimes more reliable than those connecting communities only five hundred kilometers apart.
Despite the fact that this project was designed to deal with students not located on our central campus, it was also open to local students. In fact, a higher percentage of our students were located on our main campus. These students chose to take the Web courses for a variety of reasons. Many found the flexible schedule very attractive. On the other hand, some of the local students began to meet regularly in the computer labs in order to work on the course material. These Web courses did not have the high dropout rates that have been reported by other Web based teaching projects. I believe that this is partially due to the heavy reliance on teacher-student interaction through the discussion forum. As long as students are given incentive to keep working and to be online they will respond positively.
One of the major problems with this course package was the diversity of equipment and software used by our off-campus students. Although the software was designed to be as open to diversity as possible, often students did not have a clear understanding of how to use their own equipment and software. While technical staff tried to deal with this as much as possible, it would be optimistic to suggest that any institution could deal with the full range of technical problems associated with Internet usage. For this reason it was suggested that in the future we must make it clear that students not using equipment and software provided by the university (or its exact equivalent) must find some other avenue for technical support. We have also provided a basic manual for use of the courseware (written by Ron Hemple), and suggested that students for Web courses take an introductory session that will familiarize them with the kind of Web usage expected of them.
A demonstration of the virtual pagination software is available from http://donne.fac.unbc.edu/engl430/ and the Natter conferencing software is at http://donne.fac.unbc.edu/campus/omnichat/.
[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]
Computers & Texts 15 (1997), p. 5 Not to be republished in any
form without the author's permission.
HTML Author: Sarah Porter
Document Created: 8 September 1997
Document Modified: 21 May 1998
The URL of this document is http://info.ox.ac.uk/ctitext/publish/comtxt/ct15/beeler.html