Safe route drove me to distraction

March 28, 2003

Sue Currell took her students for a spin on the virtual highway, but found some were reluctant learner drivers.

I have dreamt of ditching my e-learning L-plates ever since Sir Ron Dearing called for "effective use of communications and information technology in learning and teaching" in 1997. Dearing's report, however, gave no practical or pedagogical advice on how to pass the e-test.

I had to turn to my own discipline for instruction. Luckily, it was American studies, where online tools and materials abound. I decided to experiment with new media to explore old media. I devised a module, titled "Film culture and mass consumption", about the relationship between consumer culture and the US film industry up to 1939. Instead of contact via the lecture theatre, students were to spend two of their three hours with me in a computer-networked room. They were to study library texts, film and multimedia on a Nottingham University website I created.

Although no webpage novice, I faced technical and legal teething problems.

These included learning new software and web-publishing policies, accessing web space, and rewriting the module so as not to break disability discrimination laws.

In an ideal world, students would have been surveyed about their computing skills before arrival. I did this in busy week one. Their skills were as varied as the disciplines they studied. The workshop scenario meant students of social sciences rubbed shoulders with those of film, history, theology, architecture and American studies. They could all study at their own pace. The more technologically competent could assist the less experienced. I used this freeing-up of my time to address the needs of less confident students.

The students were mostly enthusiastic about their virtual field trip. They could browse the US Library of Congress collection to see turn-of-the-century entertainment in a way no set reading could capture.

They could tour department stores, world fairs, movie theatres that no longer existed and films that a few years ago were available only to researchers in white gloves. But then cracks appeared.

While discussions were lively, traditional essays did not really test the skills or sources acquired in workshops. Many students were new to using primary source materials, searching web archives and analysing visual materials. While a couple of assessments were excellent, many others were disappointing compared with the buzz of the seminars and workshops.

Students seemed resistant to writing in new ways and putting their work on the web, despite my encouragement. They opted for a traditional essay style, relying primarily on print sources.

Who could blame them? They were opting for the safe route. I had to go back to the drawing board. I started thinking about developing online assessment pages, class tests, self-awareness and feedback forms. More training, more experiments. While improving the raison d'être of the module, I began to doubt how appropriate these tests were for humanities students, whose skills of essay-writing and exposition form the bedrock of their degree.

Using the internet is bad enough, would I also be accused of dumbing down?

My ambition to encourage students to put their essays on the web never materialised. By constructing hypertext themselves, I had hoped they would take responsibility for constructing information and knowledge. At their request, I ran a webpage-writing workshop. But there was not enough time to practise and turn the essays into multimedia html pages. Students avoided the assessment minefield I had created. After all, there was little incentive to spend hours putting essays online if it was not recognised in the final mark.

Creating a balance between content delivery and offering the chance to innovate was no simple thing. If student evaluations are anything to go by, however, the module was a great success. So much so that I have a group twice the size this year - posing new problems. This year's students appear more confident. I have concentrated on helping them adapt to the changes.

Some have just submitted their assignments on disk to post to the website after marking. And I remain avidly enthusiastic that my module is best taught in this way.

Yet this is no quick-fix mass-market education. The module is capped at 30 students. Large group teaching in this style would require considerable adaptation of materials and pedagogies. Do the e-learning spin doctors know how labour intensive and costly this type of teaching is? There is always a risk in the new or unusual. Will the new teaching quality academy allow such risks? Should I risk my position by taking the wheel in early career?

Students on the internet are like learner drivers. They have to learn how to manoeuvre and prevent crashes. Only by constant practising will they - and we - find out what works and what doesn't. But I understand all too well their desire for safety.

Sue Currell is a research fellow in the School of American and Canadian Studies, Nottingham University.

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