What is so great about lectures?

July 12, 1996

The SToMP project was supported by the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme. It originally involved departments at the University of Cambridge, University of Manchester, Open University, University of Portsmouth, Queens University of Belfast, University of Salford, University of St Andrews, University of Surrey and University of Wales College of Cardiff. These were later joined by departments at the University of Keele, Lund University (Sweden), Queensland University of Technology (Australia), Nelson Polytechnic (New Zealand), and University of Guelph (Canada).

Microcosm is now being maintained and marketed by Multicosm Ltd.

Richard Bacon welcomes the demise of traditional one-way teaching.

The SToMP (software teaching of modular physics) project was one of four United Kingdom winners in this year's European Academic Software Awards (Multimedia, June 14). We believe the SToMP project is particularly interesting because it represents a genuine attempt to change the style of staff student interaction in undergraduate education. SToMP materials were designed from the outset to be suitable as a replacement for conventional lectures, although they can in practice be used in a variety of ways to enhance learning.

The SToMP project team started designing and creating the materials in 1992, with funding from the Higher Education Funding Councils of England, Scotland and Wales, and the Department of Education for Northern Ireland. Nine university departments were originally involved, and a further five departments from the UK and other countries have subsequently made contributions.

We took distance learning principles as practised by The Open University and others, and applied them to the creation of an integrated set of multimedia documents and interactive programs. By 1995 we had completed two first year undergraduate modules: Waves and Vibrations and Measurement and Uncertainty. A module in optics is now about half way to completion and another in astronomy is in the early planning stages. These new materials are being assembled by inviting contributions from academics, departments and other agencies.

The integration of the documents (typically 1,000 per module) is handled by a multimedia document management system called Microcosm. This was developed in the multimedia laboratory at Southampton University under the direction of Wendy Hall. The Microcosm system handles the hyperlinking required (typically 3000 hyperlinks per module) and provides the information retrieval facilities necessary to make good use of the large data resource. The SToMP package runs on a PC under Microsoft Windows. It utilises multiple windows that can display all the basic content types (text, pictures, video and programs). Sound is also used. The physics material is organised into units, each approximately equivalent to a single lecture, supported by a wealth of background material. These include chapters from textbooks, biographies and data books, and tools such as a spreadsheet, a vector calculator and a graphing package. The academic support built into the system is comprehensive, but it is best to have a human tutor with whom to discuss the physics.

The unit scripts are designed to guide the student through topics in the same way as a lecturer would, but the scripts also offer the student access to video clips, diagrams, pictures, interactive animations, graphs, mathematical derivations and models in a way that is far removed from a conventional lecture. The open style of the system and the multiple windows interface ensure that this learning experience is also completely different from the 'programmed learning' style of package.

This flexible and versatile style of teaching and learning resource is the logical next step from a conventional text book. The use of the computer greatly enhances the quantity and diversity of the data, and allows superior indexing and animated presentations. A particular strength is the ability to create physical models which respond correctly to changes in parameters. In practice the versatility of the system is sufficient for all the tasks required of a student, except real laboratory practicals. The tools and resources provided to students are similar to those used by professional physicists.

The use of SToMP materials in the physics departments of one Australian and five UK universities has been the subject of a study carried out by the Centre for Engineering Educational Technology under Dr Tony Cartwright, of the University of Surrey. This study used questionnaires for students and staff, before, during and after the trials, direct observations of students using the materials, and an analysis of students' examination scores where these were available. Two important findings of this study were that students learned as well or slightly better than when using traditional methods, and that the role of the academic changed from being that of a lecturer to that of a tutor.

It was also observed that some students at first resented the fact that the package actually was interactive and required them to read, to think and to do, rather than just sink back into the normal 'I am here to be entertained' mental state found in so many lectures.

When a SToMP timetabled session is used in place of a lecture, the lecturer is recommended to attend the session to give academic assistance to the students. This usually involves observing students' progress, chatting to them about what they are doing with the interactive models, and generally ensuring that they understand what they are doing. This type of informal interaction is not particularly less demanding of the academic, but it does require less preparation.

In conventional physics courses students are lectured to, are given assistance in laboratories, are given tutorial assistance in small groups or in problem classes and are expected to complete and hand in a number of assignments. This typically results in a few staff (those involved in laboratories and tutorials) getting to know some students quite well, but the majority of staff may only see students during their lectures.

The sort of interaction that occurs during a SToMP class provides an opportunity for staff to get to know their students in a way that is impossible under normal lecture conditions. As the number of SToMP modules available is increased and their use becomes more widespread, this change in staff student interaction will result not only in better learning experiences for the students, but also a better understanding by staff of particular students' problems and difficulties.

Watching a student work with an interactive model can be very revealing, and much more can be achieved in a short time with such models than with real laboratory experiments. This can mean that the whole of a complex experiment can be visualised and discussed by student and staff in a more meaningful way, so that the concepts involved can be more readily grasped. When the student meets the real experiment in the laboratory, he or she will have a schema for the exercise including analysis of the data obtained, so that better use is made of staff time and laboratory time.

Richard Bacon is a lecturer in physics at the University of Surrey, and director of the SToMP project.

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