Transforming Distance Education Courses for Large-scale Internet Presentation
Marian Petre, Pete Thomas, Blaine Price and Linda Carswell
The value Internet technology brings to distance education lies not in direct translation from other media but in transformation of support mechanisms to exploit its potential range. The Open University, which teaches around 150,000 students at a distance, has developed a well-tuned machine for providing high-quality university education for part-time students studying at a distance.
For two years, members of the Computing Department have been developing a learning environment to support the whole instruction process, encompassing students, tutors, staff support, and administration. We have investigated mechanisms for:
- interactions among students and tutors
- assignment marking using an electronic marking tool
- electronic assignment handling
- synchronous and asynchronous Internet-based problem sessions
- automatic student registration
- electronic examination.
The systems have been tried on an entry-level and an upper-level Computing course, involving approximately 350 students and 23 experienced tutors in 1996, and some 500 students in 1997.
Our solutions must observe the Open University ethos of begin "open and equal" with respect to technology access, both in the UK and abroad. Hence the backbone of our technology is plain-text Internet e-mail, which can cater for almost any student, regardless of the speed of the network connection or software available. Several mechanisms have been developed:
- a Web-based, automatic registration system (see http://mzx.open.ac.uk)
- electronic examination using encrypted examination papers downloaded via the Web at strictly supervised examination centres at appointed times
- an electronic assignment handling system, including electronic assignment submission, a marking tool (with a component for quality monitoring), and automatic verification and record-keeping
- conferences and Web resources.
Considerable data, both qualitative and quantitative, has been collected to support well-founded comparisons of conventional and electronic delivery. Performance between the Internet and conventional student cohorts was statistically comparable; in broad terms, the Internet students performed at least as well as the conventional students.
Face-to-face problem sessions (tutorials) are a focal point in teaching, where concepts become immediate and personal through students' interactions with their tutors and each other. In translating the tutorial for Internet presentation, the priority is to preserve the immediacy of the face-to-face tutorial, despite the problems of cost, compatibility and synchronisation. Tutors devised new, appropriate structures for electronic sessions which proved effective and engaging, for example:
- week-long, asynchronous, role-play scenarios using problems built up in stages to effect a cumulative, collaborative solution
- mixed-mode tutorials incorporating asynchronous e-mail discussion and synchronous Internet Relay Chat discussion, backed up by logs and question-and-answer digests
- the continuous tutorial, in which problems, issues, and conundrums are set, discussed, and reviewed on a regular basis, with one rolling into the next.
Taking care over the integration of the electronic tools into the existing administrative infrastructure paid off. Administration is faster and more efficient with electronic assignments. Turnaround time is reduced; less paper is consumed; access to assignments and records is facilitated; and automatic logging increases accountability.
Observed Costs and Gains
- substantially more technical support
- tutors bear the brunt of the transition: mastering new tools and skills, evolving a new culture, new strategies, new materials
- students must take responsibility for their own learning. Some presentation costs (eg, connect time, printing) are off-loaded onto students
- students were disappointed in their interactions with other students; with limited resources, this is a difficult medium in which to establish a community of learning
- electronic tutorials are as yet no substitute for face-to-face interaction, although they clearly have value and tremendous potential.
- more rapid feedback for students
- increased tutor collaboration and communication
- greater access for students
- increased administrative efficiency
- reduction in administrative errors
- potential for flexibility.
Supported Internet presentation is not a cheap option, but it may be one that can provide greater flexibility and can shift effort from administrative details to teaching. The real key to successful application of technology is good teaching: using technology only when it is a cost-effective servant of pedagogy.
More information on the web at: http://mzx.open.ac.uk/
Marian Petre - The Open University
Tel: +44 1 908 65 33 73