EduCom EduCom '98 Orlando, Florida, October 12-14, 1998

Web-Based Teaching and Support in a Networked World
The New Imagination in the Classroom
Robert Beard
Bucknell University

 

1. Introduction

As I left my office early this semester, a colleague stopped me in the hall and suggested we go for a cup of coffee. When I told him that I was on my way to class, he responded with genuine amazement, "Where is your stuff—your notes, your books, your handouts?" I left him with a puzzled gaze, saying "Waiting for me in class."

At that moment I realized that my teaching had changed dramatically over the past three years in ways I find difficult to discuss with most of my colleagues. I not only distribute my materials differently, I use new and different kinds of materials. I have vastly different ideas of what the student's relationship to the course is. In short, I think differently about the structure and objectives of courses, and how the objectives should be achieved.

If we assume that most instructors will eventually teach the way those of us here today teach already, we must admit that instruction is about to undergo breath-taking changes. Once the instructor's syllabuses and teaching materials, including lecture notes, exercises, and quizzes, are served from a course website, the instructor inevitably begins thinking in new ways about what should go into a course, how it should go in, how students should access it, and what they should be held responsible for.

Russia, my subject matter, used to be three weeks away by mail. Now Russia is on every monitor and TV set on campus: Pravda, Izvestia, and fifty other Russian newspapers are on line, as are a dozen Russian-language radio stations and even a television station or two. All the major Russian works of literature are on-line in electronic form, as well as biographies and chronologies of their authors. Vladimir Vysotsky, Russia's most popular folk singer of the century, sings his complete works via RealAudio from two discrete websites. Six Russian dictionaries and two substantial grammars of the language are already on line; they are supported by a dozen additional sites with spoken and written language-learning exercises.

This new embarrassment of resources, constantly available on one common desktop instrument, by itself leads us past the question, 'What is this course?' to the question, 'What can this course be?' If students can read Pravda and Izvestia at home daily and send me questions in Russian by e-mail, we must begin reconsidering the notion of the classroom and the role it plays in bringing faculty and students together. As Cynthia Whitsel (1998) notes, "[t]he same-time, same-place learning environment is being displaced by the anytime, anywhere learning model." We are entering an era that calls for a new imagination, an imagination that in the past was constrained by an insufficient toolbox; a network of networked computers changes all that that forever.

2. The New Imagination of the Web

I would like to explore here how the complete integration of networked computers in the curriculum will promote new ways of thinking about courses, classrooms, teaching and study, and how they interact. Four of the many advances brought to course design by the Web open new doors to the imagination. I'm thinking now of immediate feedback, interactivity, non-sequential organization, and professional self-publication. Let me examine each briefly and then summarize my reasons for thinking they will require a new and imaginative rethinking of our enterprise that teachers cannot manage alone.

2.1 On-line Testing and Immediate Feedback

The traditional way of teaching many subjects at the post-secondary level is to assign homework on Monday, which is turned in on Wednesday, then graded and returned on Friday. Students must wait minimally three days to get feedback on their performance on homework and quizzes, and that assumes that all grading is done promptly and students never cut classes. Instructors must adjust the content and pace of their course plans accordingly.

Once the security issues are resolved (at institutions without an honor system), it will become possible to separate most testing and grading functions from instruction and remove them from the classroom altogether. Students will be able to test themselves on any part of a course using on-line tests whenever they feel confident enough to be tested. Multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions will graded on the spot by the computer, the grade immediately added to the on-line grade book (as WebCT provides). The instructor may be divested of all responsibilities of testing except writing the original tests. The implications of this move for our conception of courses are dramatic. Instruction will exclude all assessment except that of essay-writing. The assessment of logic, research, and argument structure requires exclusively human intervention. Testing for basic concepts and terminology will become the exclusive domain of computers.

On-line interactive homework provides immediate feedback to students. Well-designed testing assignments apprise students of their performance level immediately upon acquisition of the concept. Such exercises may provide students with hints before they submit answers and inform them of the precise type of error they have just made when they err. E-mail contact with the instructor brings answers to any remaining questions before the first class begins. Well-designed web-based multimedia exercises thus foster study focused precisely on individual problems carried out before arriving in class the first time. This reduces the necessity of responding to specific errors in the classroom where time limitations often interfere. On-line, each student receives the same attention to all their problems individually and instantaneously before anyone goes to class.

There are two consequential implications of this change in the nature of instruction for teaching methodology. First, students should be better prepared coming to class. Instruction in the classroom will have to be modified in light of more learning occurring outside class. The instructor might wish simply to increase the amount of material covered. On the other hand, the instructor might maintain the same material and rate of progress, and increase the amount of class time devoted to deeper discussions of the material. In language courses, conversational practice could be expanded. If this occurs, students should become more verbally skilled at discussing material to greater depths. A new kind of imagination is needed at two ends of this instructional innovation: in dreaming up effective tests and exercises, and in restructuring lectures to intelligently fill the additional time.

2.2 Interactive On-line Multimedia Instructional Materials

That learning via multimedia is more efficient than studying textbooks with only text and graphics by now is a truism. Humans have more than one type of intelligence capable of learning and multimedia exploits more than one simultaneously (Gardner 1983). We can no longer ignore multimedia learning tools because the Net Generation demands them. Don Tapscott's (1998) recent research suggests that this generation will not only be computer literate but computer- and internet-sophisticated. Teachers who are not themselves internet sophisticated will appear incompetent before students who can find the similar courses with interactive multimedia elsewhere on the internet. Again, teachers will have to think in vastly different ways about their subject matter if they are to create successful multimedia applications. I learned this over the past two years as I developed a multimedia tool for teaching the English language sound system to my students.

The first topic of most introductory linguistics courses is phonetics, the sound system of language. To understand phonetics students must learn four interrelated points:

These four points are usually discussed sequentially in four distinct segments of introductory linguistics courses and textbooks. Often students are tested at the end of each segment before proceeding to the next. This semester I tried something different, made possible by interactive on-line animation: I tried to teach all of these four points simultaneously, using an interactive Shockwave animation. This application allows the student to click any of the symbols for US English sounds and see the proper tongue position while at the same time hearing the sound. They will also be able to click that sound's features and see the same thing. This should facilitate the association of all four levels of phonetic material simultaneously.

The spread of effective on-line multimedia instructional techniques has already improved students' ability to visualize problems and develop some of the other 'intelligences' described by Gardner (1983). Developing these applications will require a kind of visual imagination not usually associated with all disciplines. In this instance I had to reconceptualize four separate sequential problems, as a single one with four nonsequential, interrelated parts. This was not an easy task: the project has taken two years and more revisions are yet to come. However, I have as a result learned what it is to recast problems in terms of the new electronic tools and have begun the long trek away from blackboards and transparencies to what I think is a new plateau in teaching.

2.3 Alternatives to Sequential Organization

When the Web first emerged, an immediate concern was whether education would be undermined by the disorganization of hypertext. The advantage of a book is that everything in it is sequentially ordered, page after page, and it is easy for the author to control the reader's thinking. Hypertext, on the other hand, is filled with hyperlinks leading to topics of varied relation to the main text: background information, supplementary material, peripherally related topics. It is virtually impossible for the author of a hypertext web page to control the progression of ideas in the mind of the reader without eliminating hyperlinks, a step that would defeat the very purpose of websites.

The application of a bit more imagination to this vice, however, converts it into a virtue (see also Englebart 1962). Human do have multiple intelligences, multiple ways of learning and sequential learning is but one such possibility. What alternatives to sequential learning might there be? In fact, material may now be organized any way that can be represented visually or auditorily.

2.31 Layers of Ascending Complexity

Suppose we are teaching an extremely complex concept that requires several weeks of working with data expressing it before students can absorb the concept. Breaking down the concept into sequential steps does not alleviate the problem, for the concept simply escapes anyone until they have heard it explained from several different angles in a rich field of data.

The problems associated with the teaching the concept of the 'phoneme' is a good example. The phoneme is a mental representation of a sound, which varies greatly when actually spoken. For instance, English has a single phoneme /t/, which is pronounced by placing your tongue on the alveolar ridge behind the upper teeth—try it: pronounce /t/ and see where your tongue is. If you place your hand in front of your mouth, you will notice that /t/ is accompanied by a puff of air, called 'aspiration'. If you say 'top', 'take', 'tick' you always get aspiration. If, however, you place an /s/ in front of the /t/, there is no aspiration; try 'stop', 'stake', 'stick'. So aspiration disappears after /s/. Now try /t/ before 'th' as in 'eighth' or 'width'. Before 'th', /t/ is pronounced with the tongue on the teeth, not the alveolar ridge. While the letter 't' indicates that we think we are always pronouncing one sound /t/, in fact, we pronounce it radically different in different contexts.

The phoneme /t/ is, in a sense, what we think we are saying, while the variants, or 'allophones', are what we actually pronounce. This basic distinction in linguistics underlies many others and must be mastered before progressing through even more complex material. Now, it is easy to define the phoneme:

Learning the concept of the phoneme, however, is very difficult and simply takes time and repeated experiences with different kinds of data. The basic concept followed by a few examples, such as the one just mentioned, may be covered sequentially in a few minutes but even the best students will be able to apply the concepts to fresh data only after a week's trying. Sequentiality is irrelevant to such a teaching task. What makes more sense is what might be called 'layered learning'. Layered learning is learning by hearing a concept explained simply and then repeated with ever-increasing detail with more and more data on successive days or class periods. What is needed is organization in layers of ascending complexity. Each layer is more complex than the previous one.

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Definitions
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Problems
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Rules
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Rather than a sequence of concepts, the same concept is repeated in several variations, each more complex than the previous. It begins with an explanation of the concept. Next the concept is exemplified with data and problems. Finally, the rules which the concept define across the data are introduced, accompanied by more problems and practice with the data.

2.32 Radial Organization

Another type of organization that we may now think about is radial organization. In this organizational scheme, there is a central concept with several ramifications not sequentially ordered but rather radiating out from the concept itself. For example, Faraday's Law in physics is a formula that predicts induced electrical output of magnetic fields. In order to understand the formula, students must have each element of the formula defined, they must understand how the elements interact with each other, they must understand how it is applied, and how its output is controlled by the variables.

Dick Henry of the Bucknell Physics Department added an on-line multimedia application to his Physics 211 materials organized radially around the formula. The formula is the central concept: each element must be defined under the assumption that not all students will need the same elements defined. This is accomplished via simple hyperlinks to each element expressed on a sensitive map of the formula. Students must then see the formula in operation. The effects of Faraday's Law are presented in three QuickTime animation clips, each demonstrating one variable. A series of questions that check the student's progress is also linked to the central page.

There is no logical sequence here for all students, assuming they have varying backgrounds in mathematics and physics. Some students may understand the formula after seeing the animations and not need the lecture. Some students will understand the formula immediately from the lecture and need only to check their knowledge via the moot test. Others will need access to various elements of the definitions before testing themselves. It is conceivable that some student might discover by self-testing that he or she needs to take a look at the animations or some of the definitions. The point is that there are many ways to present this formula but no particular sequence suggests itself, assuming a target audience of varying backgrounds. Not only is the law taught more effectively, the presentation is shortened by reducing the size of the text which, in turn, reduces the error rate in comprehension. Again, students read less but learn more.

2.33 Complex Organizations

Of course, under most circumstances the organization of a course will be complex, incorporating sequential, layered and radial lines of association. We actually see this in the Faradaze Flicks application. The tests and flicks radiate from the formula, but the definitions of the formula are a deeper layer. The point is one that was first made by Englebart (1962) 35 years ago: sequential learning was forced on us by the printed word. We now have a means of escaping that type of organization but we have to think in radically different ways to do so.

2.4 Professional Self-Publication

The impact of the Web as a publication outlet for university faculties has so far been minor but that will not continue indefinitely. Placing teaching materials on-line publishes them—either for a limited audience such as a class or for everyone in the world interested in the topic. I receive e-mail from people all over the world asking if it is possible to take my linguistic courses. Many have done so on their own, purchasing the textbooks and following my syllabus and lecture notes. The syllabuses of my courses are publications, too, and I more and more treat them as such.

The Web, of course, will be the great leveler in publication. Because access is equal, the Web will not be prejudiced in favor of faculty at large, research institutions as are the presses. Those of us at smaller institutions, indeed, high school teachers and students, will have an equal opportunity to publish and be read. Indeed, we will have to publish on-line, for the process will be student-driven by the Net-generation. I suspect advertising techniques will become a part of teaching and publication, as smaller and larger schools look for means of attracting the attention of students to their accomplishments and resources. All this portends major redirections in our definitions of 'teaching', 'publication', and the relation between the two. It will require new kinds of imagination from those who teach.

These changes will transform attitudes toward course materials themselves. A major advantage to having course materials on-line is to allow one instructor to link to the materials of others at several institutions in order to enrich his or her courses. Eventually this will become such a widespread practice, that it will have to be considered in faculty evaluation. Faculty will hence be judged to an increasing extent, not on what they borrow from others and incorporate in their course materials, but what they contribute to the common pool.

The knowledge that placing your material on-line is a form of publication and the eventual use of these materials as a basis of evaluation, will force course materials to a new level of professionalism. Blackboard scrawl and xeroxed handouts will not compare well with ShockWave and Java animations running in colorful HTML pages with a variety of fonts created by a desktop publisher for the Net Generation. Over the next decade we will see a new professionalism in course planning and design that has not been present in the past. This new professionalism will also demand a new kind of imagination of teaching professionals that will change materially the world's and our own perception of what we do.

3.0 Conclusion

Very little of what I have said here today is original. What I hope to impress you with is an enormous task facing educators, especially those of us at small universities like Bucknell. It is not a task we can shrink from, for the opportunity for teaching more than we ever have before, far better, is too great to ignore. Indeed, it is not a task we can shrink from less we appear incompetent before the next generation of students. We, as teachers, will have to become publishers, multimedia developers, and website developers, while redesigning our courses in radically different ways.

Of course, we cannot do this by ourselves and maintain our current level of competency in our disciplines. We will need increased support from the most important arm of the university administration: information resources. That support, however, will have to go beyond providing hardware, software, and workshops. The faculties of universities will have to learn how to think a bit more like information resources staff and information resources staff will have to think a more like faculty members. We will, in fact, become more like each other in not only the way we think about our jobs but in the way we carry out those jobs. Computer technicians will have to become teachers just as faculty members will have to become computer technicians to a greater extent than ever before. The borders between us are bound to become much hazier in the future.

 

References

Englebart, Douglas 1962. Augmenting Human Intelligence: A Conceptual Framework. Stanford: Stanford Research Institute.

Gardner, Howard 1983. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

McLuhan, Marshall 1966.Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Toronto: The New American Library of Canada.

Tapscott, Don 1988. Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Whitsel, Cynthia 1998. "Reframing Our Classrooms, Reframing Ourselves: Perspectives from a Virtual Paladin." Vision, April 1998. http://horizon.unc.edu/TS/vision/1998-04.asp, visited October 10, 1998.


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