In 1996, a grant was obtained to convert a paper-based extramural (distance education) plant protection course to an electronic one. The author had experimented with HTML pages since 1994, as a way of delivering assignment material to internal students. It was decided to produce the course entirely in this now-standard format, with a view to offering it over the World-Wide-Web.
Perceived advantages of the new course
The proposed electronic course seemed to offer three main advantages:
1. Better visual material
Plant protection is a visual subject. One of the objectives of the course is to familiarise students with common crop problems. In the absence of live specimens, good quality photos are important. This could only be done in a limited way with the existing paper-based extramural course. Using computer technology seemed a cost-effective way of doing this.
2. More interactive exercises
Internal (on-campus) students have practical exercises thus allowing much interactivity between themselves and the course material. While innovative things can be done within paper-based study guides, computer technology makes this easier to manage.
3. More class participation
Extramural study can be a lonely activity. Through the use of discussion boards and chat rooms, the experience of "belonging to a class" could be enhanced, thereby in part emulating the experience of internal students. Extramural students could be given the chance to raise issues and debate them, as internal students would do in a tutorial setting.
Features of the electronic course
In 1999, the electronic course was launched and has been used from that time. It consists of two parts, a CD-ROM and several WWW resources.
The course contains a total of 784 HTML pages including 777 images. A total of 757 person-hours were spent developing the course over two years.
Results, observations and experiences
1. Institutional support is critical
It is important to get institution and/or departmental support for this kind of project. It takes an enormous amount of time and effort to convert a course. The author was fortunate in that support was given in terms of time (in the form of teaching relief) and money (for equipment).
2. Consider the resources your distance students may have and deliver the electronic course accordingly
In New Zealand, Internet access is still slow. A 56kbs modem is the average specification for the home user and images can take some time to download. This being the case, a CD-ROM rather than the web was ideal for delivering the bulk of the course, especially as Massey University had an existing distance-learning infrastructure by which enrolment and posting of material off to students could be easily facilitated.
3. Class Participation...
(i) It's as good as you make it
One of the objectives hoped for in delivering Understanding Plant Protection in an electronic mode was to increase interactivity between tutor and student, and student and student, thereby simulating a "class" experience. Discussion boards and chat rooms can facilitate this but beware! It takes a considerable amount of planning and time as a teacher to do this well. Discussion topics often need to be seeded regularly, and students often have to be encouraged to contribute. In the author's experience, the use made of the discussion board by students seemed to be directly related to the effort made by the teacher to guide, cajole and stimulate interest. This author tended to seed the board with a discussion topic only once a month or so, and few replies (typically from only a fifth of the internet-capable students in the class) were forthcoming. A more pro-active effort by this teacher is required in 2001!
Private e-mail was a lot more popular for teacher-student interaction. Like the discussion board, it takes time to interact this way. Fortunately, the author's own class varied between 20 to 30 students, which was a manageable number.
The observations that good web-teaching takes much time and effort concurs with those found in an excellent U.S. report on web education. I'd strongly encourage readers to peruse it. There is a feeling by some administrators that electronic teaching will mean fewer teachers. Based on my own experience I suggest just the opposite is the case!
(ii) Not all extramural students want it
The heterogeneity of adult students off campus has a bearing on their approach to the course. Some students found the web discussions interesting, and an enhancement to the course. Others just wanted to learn the material and pass the exam. For them, they were quite happy with the directed reading and had no desire to "feel part of a class".
The chat room was set up for student-student interaction. No tutorials were scheduled in it. It was akin to a student bar when students could chat with each other. It was seldom used.
4. Students are likely to print web pages out
This being the case, it is worthwhile producing them in a form where they will be useable if in hardcopy.
The electronic course was a clear winner in its first objective : to deliver an electronic textbook, with high-quality photos and diagrams to distance-students at a reasonable cost. It also fulfilled the second objective. Many of the exercises had some degree of interacting with the material through the use of careful navigation, problem-solving exercises (for example this small diagnosis exercise) and the use of fill-in forms.
The third objective i.e. increasing student-tutor and student-student interaction, was only moderately successful largely due to the author's limited efforts. Despite this, it is my opinion that such activities are very valuable for the distance student. It is important that institutions resource this activity well if they wish teachers to use the Internet for teaching, rather than just for delivery of material.