Agony aunt

April 30, 1999

Q. My department is using more and more computer-aided learning and I detect that some of my students are becoming bored with pointing and clicking. How can this be avoided?

A. Peter Murray-Rust, Director, Virtual School of Molecular Sciences, University of Nottingham

I think it is diagnostic of the fact that the student is not getting much educational reward for the click. Humans will point and click all night if they are getting something that they want. There are, of course, students who are bored with being sent to the library to look up a paper. Not all students are motivated to explore required educational resources to the same extent.

The key thing is to agree on what the objectives of the educational process are and what the students' and tutors' responsibilities are. Technology is never a substitute for inspired content and pedagogical methods. It is very easy to assume that pointing a student to a high-quality information resource is the totality of the learning process.

The internet provides a whole array of top-quality material, much of which can be used with great success in education. However, it is extremely variable between disciplines and the motivation of the authors is usually not primarily to produce an educational resource.

Examples of when it works well are when there is a well-defined objective, such as a mathematical demonstration, or when the resource represents peer-reviewed research material that is current and valuable for the student's learning objectives. I would say the biological web is an excellent example of such a resource, but because of its size students need careful guidance as to what they explore and how to use what they find.

In many parts of the educational process the human contact is still an essential part. If the proportion of pointing and clicking is too high in a particular course, boredom will be an obvious symptom.

A. Su White, Learning Technologies coordinator, University of Southampton

When you use technology it is best to draw upon all of your previous teaching experience. In many ways it is no different from face-to-face teaching. It is important to hang on to that and not be beguiled by the technology.

When you create web pages, you need to have an underlying structure, in the same way as you would structure a teaching session, with clear outcomes and activities to engage and pace the learner.

With resources developed elsewhere you might provide worksheets and study notes in the same way as you would when teaching with someone else's textbook.

Can you get students working in twos and threes at the computer? It may be a good way of getting students to engage with the material.

A. Peter Atkins, Professor of chemistry, University of Oxford, and bestselling textbook author

I think the answer lies in using multimedia in conjunction with a book so it enriches what the student is reading. You can do a multimedia simulation of an experiment that leads to a particular result in a book, and that can be interesting.

One of the problems with using multi-media for learning is that it is sometimes too easy, in that it lacks the intellectual rigour of a book. With a book you really have to struggle with the intellectual content. With multimedia it is often designed to make it more amusing so you do not have the same kind of intellectual challenge. The students might be responding to the fact that they perceive it as not intellectually challenging.

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