Students lap up lessons on the laptop

November 24, 2000

Glen Postle's students enjoy their courses so much they don't want to graduate. Geoff Maslen reports.

Sitting in his Toowoomba office at the University of Southern Queensland, Glen Postle uses a computer to keep tabs on his students. Yet they are scattered around the globe - from the United Kingdom to Hong Kong, Singapore to the United States and across Australia to New Zealand. In virtual space, though, the miles are meaningless and communication is instantaneous. Whether Postle is at home, at university or travelling the world, he is always available via his laptop.

Postle is an online enthusiast. "Online teaching enables me to do things I could only ever talk about before," he says. "This is one-on-one, so I can give each student individual attention. If someone is not participating, I know immediately and can ask them if they are having problems. In face-to-face lecturing, you can't respond to students' needs in the same way.

"It's the first time in my teaching career that I've had people say they were sorry the course had finished. In one case, I even set up a list server so students could go on discussing the topics that interested them - they seemed to want to continue to learn."

USQ has a long tradition in distance education, but only in the past four years have its academics embraced online education. Now they offer 24 award courses through USQ Online.

The main campus, where Postle is an associate professor of education, is a large site outside Toowoomba, west of Brisbane. Of the 22,000 students enrolled, only one in four attends classes; the rest study at home in far-off places.

"Before 1996, the university's distance-education programmes were delivered almost exclusively via print using audiovisual, computer-mediated communication and teletutorial support," Postle says. "Since then, we've moved to online delivery for our postgraduate programmes and, to a lesser extent, our undergraduate courses."

The switch from traditional distance education to flexible delivery has done nothing to damage the university's reputation, he says. On the contrary, the International Council for Open and Distance Learning, based in Oslo, presented its top two prizes for excellence for 1999 to USQ. This month, too, USQ was named co-winner of Australia's University of the Year award for electronic delivery.

USQ is collaborating with Stirling University in Scotland so that students can gain credits from each other's institution. Similar arrangements are in place or in the pipeline with Penn State and Florida Gulf universities in the United States.

Postle is particularly proud of a unit he designed for a masters degree in online learning. He says it took six months to write and set up - almost the same as it would to develop a print-based course. A graphic organiser was used to structure the content of the unit. It was linked to a study schedule, which set out the sequence of activities, assessment details and in-text exercises and readings for each topic. The schedule was hot-linked to the study material, readings, assessment and generic information such as "netiquette", academic regulations and policies.

Essential readings were listed as texts, online and paper-based journals, interesting websites given as URLs, and the homepages of experts in the field were provided, so that students could discuss their ideas with them. There was no textbook, but relevant sources were identified in the material, some available electronically at USQ or at other internet sites.

Students could communicate with the teacher and other students via discussion groups and email. Unlike USQ's campus students, who are mostly young and female, those taking distance programmes are usually mature males. Those on Postle's course were older, most had undergraduate or postgraduate qualifications and were working as teachers, instructional designers or in educational technology. A virtual lounge allowed them to discuss relevant topics with the teacher or one another.

Postle also created forums, ranging from informal discussions to academic debates, around issues, assignments and feedback. "This communication could be undertaken asynchronously, where students and teacher posted messages in their own time and at their own pace," he says. "Or we used virtual chat, a synchronous form of communication. Because it is text-based, this is difficult to use effectively and you need students to be in the same time zones online at the same time."

He says that for the first time, he was able to teach by the Socratic method of asking individual students questions and helping them discover answers for themselves. With a statistics component in the software, he monitored the extent to which students participated.

"The total number of hits over four months was in excess of 13,000," he says. "I soon realised it was extremely important to create a virtual community, a feeling of belonging among the students. When I started, I thought the teaching would be more impersonal, but I found I got to know the students much better than I had before."

The downside is the workload. "You can't go off anywhere for a week and forget about the class. You have to be there all the time to answer questions and give help. I don't know if I could sustain that in the long term."

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