Caught in web of click to learn

March 9, 2001

Net-based teaching is growing, but Gareth Davies believes that this is not always such a good idea.

Information technology in teaching is a wonderful thing, but so is chocolate. There are times when it simply is not a good idea. The trick is judgement. But judgement is difficult when being swept along in a tide of enthusiasm.

As bright-eyed evangelists sing the virtues of the latest web-based learning methods, to sound even a note of caution can be a waste of breath. Yet, there are problems and they ought to be addressed.

My doubts arise from my experience creating web-based courses at the University of Groningen, in north Netherlands. Like other Dutch universities, we have web fever. Soon, each course will have its own site. There will be basic documents, links to other sites, interactivity, notice boards and a discussion forum for the teachers and students. There will even be a chatroom for each course so students can continue their classroom discussions from home. By the standards of web innovators this may be prehistoric stuff, but for a university of 18,000 students it is ambitious.

Discussion boards can work surprisingly well. Students help each other and form a class bond that does not come out of just sitting in the same lecture hall. If assignments have short deadlines, so that students tend to be working at the same time, perhaps even the chatroom will come to life. If information is just a click away, students are likely to check it out and may end up with more knowledge than if they had to do their own web-searching or, perish the thought, library research.

However, there is no pleasure without pain. Creating these websites using Blackboard Software takes days of work and in order for their interactive potential to be realised staff have to monitor them and respond to student input. Is this time coming out of research or are lectures going to dwindle?

More important, I wonder if we are stopping children from becoming adults. A large part of the point of going to university must be learning to be independent, including in study. This means doing your own research and answering your own questions. If you do not learn this you can still get good grades, but you are ill-prepared for life beyond.

In return for being less demanding than schoolchildren, students are taught by people who have the time and inclination to be at the forefront of their subject. The teacher gets the satisfaction of knowing that they have an audience willing and able to make the effort to understand it and who appreciates its value.

This is an idealised view, but a line has to be drawn somewhere. University staff should not have unlimited commitment to teaching. There must be a time when it is right for a lecturer to say: "I'm not helping -find out yourself." Deciding when to say this is part of the art of teaching.

Competitive pressures between universities will only increase, marketing them on the basis of fantastic IT learning facilities. Marketing on the basis that "we won't help you and as a result you will learn", is rather harder to see.

Wet-nursing students is one fear, giving students limited horizons is another. On a web-based course the boundaries of the virtual world are defined by teachers. As a result, students may become more knowledgeable, articulate and confident, but they will not realise the extent of their own conditioning. They may learn about the law or biology, or whatever, only through borrowed eyes. The real world, however, is not as bounded as this. It is more difficult to get information out of the wider world. Students ought to be out there developing their own minds.

Gareth Davies is lecturer in law, University of Groningen, the Netherlands.

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