Burn out warning at rebirth of the cool

March 14, 1997

In two years teaching science on the web, John Venables has watched students, and some faculty, conquer a difficult learning curve. Now, he says, it is time to ask how well those fancy web sites meet the very different educational needs of graduate and undergraduate students.

Use of the World Wide Web can be advantageous for many kinds of teaching and learning in higher education. However, most efforts have been experimental and provisional, and we are all very early on the learning curve. It is time to consider some of the pedagogic and other issues, based on the experience of those who have been experimenting over the past two to three years.

This should happen before efforts are made to involve everyone in HE and large investments committed to chase new students "out there". But the web is developing so fast that this approach is impractical. Discussion is needed among faculty, students, education and computer professionals on what is appropriate pedagogical use of the web and the time of those involved. But underlined by the need to keep experimenting.

The THES has been covering these issues in depth over the past few months, and I need not repeat Tim Greenhalgh's warning that universities must take open learning seriously (THES, November 8, 1996).

I write as someone who has used the web for undergraduate and graduate courses and who has participated in staff development sessions and education meetings devoted to the topic, since January 1995. I do not have special expertise in the sense that I have not done anything technical that could not be done by any member of faculty with enough interest and time. It is important to keep the issues at various levels separate as needs and requirements are different. Let me start with specialist graduate teaching.

Last spring, I taught a surface physics course at Arizona State University, which I had given a few years before to between 15 and 30 graduate students with physics, chemistry, materials science and engineering backgrounds. I could have had an easy semester repeating myself to the select band of 12 who took it for credit, but eased myself into putting course notes on the web, and taking on distance-learning students in Canada and Sussex.

Why go to this trouble? The underlying reason is that we are under pressure, in the United States and the United Kingdom, to earn our living by standing up in front of undergraduates, preferably in large numbers. Specialist graduate courses are typically given every two years, and it could easily slip to a lower frequency. If that were to happen, then the necessarily small graduate classes would become useless. We would be saying to our students "we will give you a course in your specialist area, but it may take place while you are writing your thesis".

Use of the web turns this argument on its head. What was an infrequent event becomes a continously available resource. Students can download material, and the teacher can interact with the student any time, anywhere. Moreover, students can access material put up by other groups working in related areas, and can incorporate such material into projects. The combination of projects and resources is powerful, because projects by current students, suitably filtered, can become future resource.

Further material, including working programs or models, can be prepared or explored as part of research experience for USundergraduate programs or final-year projects, with the possibility of collaboration with other institutions. The need to cover every topic locally has disappeared. This should be liberating for smaller groups in specialist areas. Presentation does not have to be flashy; high-quality information is required, as western science graduate students exist in a computer-rich environment and have sufficient motivation to succeed.

The longer term downside is likely to be that the teaching may only be credited fully the first time such a course is given and constructed; after that, faculty may be expected to service the students, by email for example, and on a student rather than faculty timescale, alongside other duties which carry more student credit hours. Good courses of this type take two years to construct: the first stab requires considerable modification in the light of student reception. Points for discussion and resolution include copyright, accreditation and costing of off-campus students, and useful forms of student-student interaction.

Discussions with faculty on such points elicit various responses, from the defensive through to being too busy, to concerns about copyright, tenure and the nature of a university. Practitioners and enthusiasts simply think this is a moving train which you either catch or you don't. I think that the case for using the web in this way for specialist graduate teaching is overwhelming, as I argued in a recent talk to the winter meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers in Phoenix. The examples I used can be found at http://groucho.la.asu.edu/ venables/grad/aapttalk.html.

If specialist graduate teaching represents one extreme, the use of the web in conjunction with large-class undergraduate education represents the other. Teaching in person with enthusiasm is vital for motivation. Often students must be cajoled against their wishes to master subjects (first-year physics, in my case) which they may consider difficult or unrewarding, but which are required for career choices. At ASU, I taught such a course in 1995, using the web as a supplemental form of communication and I am doing it again this semester.

The developments since 1995 are extraordinary, and raise a number of issues which need to be more widely discussed. First, web use must depend on the level of student familiarity with email and browsers; it is not the job of every faculty member to teach this stuff. In 1995, some 20 per cent of my class of aspiring engineers had an email account, and maybe 10 per cent had heard of the web; this figure perhaps doubled during the semester.

In a straw poll as the this year's semester got under way, the figures were 95 per cent email accounts, and 90 per cent web usage. The first lecture was introduced by showing the course pages on a projection system installed in the large lecture theatre, and the first week's computer assignment was to find the corresponding web page and to send me an email; 90 per cent of them had done it within two weeks.

This means that one can almost use email and web pages as the primary means of communication. Around 15 per cent of the email addresses turned out to be off-campus commercial accounts. This is a US, rather than UK, phenomenon. A second straw poll held recently, about posting exam results and statistics on the web, revealed a large majority in favour. The result was that I spent an evening constructing beautiful graphs of how they had done on each question. This could get tedious, but of course it will be easier next time, won't it?

Other colleagues note that my budding engineers are well ahead, and quote the case of introductory astronomy, where a third of the class thought that they were going to learn about astrology. But even there, web usage was initially 50 per cent. Moreover, the teachers have put their notes on the web, exploiting the remarkable pictures coming from the Hubble telescope and other observatories.

This means that in two years, most US science undergraduates at major universities have traversed the web learning curve. In the computer field, the UK is not much more than a year behind the US. These developments are bound to have profound implications for delivery of undergraduate education in the UK. What may be different is that we tend not to have such large classes in the UK (but for how long?), and the faculty are even more pressed for time, as a result of the rapid expansion and assessment exercises. All these issues are connected, and we may need to discuss them carefully. In present circumstances, the US looks like stability itself; in the UK, the point is that revolutions, while extremely painful, do present opportunities. The question is: for whom?

It is fascinating to see parallel development in action in several countries. The trajectory of the enthusiasts is clear. Starting in spring 1995 or a little earlier, they got the department interested by the autumn, and by the following autumn had fancy presentations, with "cool sites of the week" often found by students.

There are experiments with online homework and multimedia exams, with video clips to study before answering the questions, instant feedback and suggestions for how to go about choosing the right multiple-choice answers. There is even the concept of just-in-time homework: students do their assignments electronically just before class. The teacher reviews the individual results as she walks in, and then modifies her lecture in accord with the students' current state of understanding.

Yet, in many departments scepticism rules. We are told that the trajectory of the enthusiastic faculty will obviously lead to burn-out and disenchantment. "We've seen it all before." I think this attitude neglects two factors:

First, ease of portability. One friend and enthusiast I saw at the Materials Research Society meeting last November explained how much effort had gone into his site, how much the students loved it, but that it could all be wasted as he was going on sabbatical in the spring and the next guy wouldn't do anything. When I checked the site this semester it was thriving.

Second, student and societal demand. I said I wouldn't sound warnings, but we all know that they are for real, and depend upon political forces and alliances. However, I think that it is possible to use the new medium to help deliver more personalised teaching and to encourage learning, while responding to (and in the UK case, rebutting) societal demands for greater cost-effectiveness.

In a recent colloquium at ASU, I posed some of these questions, without (of course) allowing enough time to extract any real answers - that will take time and input from a variety of sources. I would welcome contributions to the debate. We could start with the following questions (online at http://groucho.la.asu.edu/ venables/grad/asutalk.html): First, how fancy do we want to get? Do we really want to give bonus points for "cool site of the week", and will such extra web-based material prove diversionary rather than helpful to the student? Introductory courses require the student to concentrate on limited objectives. The ubiquity of part-time jobs exacerbates this problem. It also makes campus attendance onerous. Using the web to keep in touch is seen by students as a benefit, which overwhelms any worry that the web will be a diversion.

Second, do we really want instant feedback and online examining? Students want to know how they are getting on, and where they stand. However, recent US developments might be paraphrased as taking a nation with an attention span of two minutes and reducing it to 30 seconds. US experiments are technologically driven, and will force us even further in the direction of multiple choice tests and the neglect of anything but push-button answers.

We don't want to go too far down this route; but this doesn't detract from the positive aspects of the web. Given the availability of web technology, the demands of more students for asynchronous learning, and the need to meet other societal demands, the final question for faculty is, will we all have to do it?

If the answer is yes, the learning curve for many faculty and departments has to be tackled.

John Venables is professor of physics at Arizona State University, and honorary professor of physics at the University of Sussex. He would welcome comments to john@venables.co.uk or john.venables@asu.edu.

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