Innovations in Large-Scale Supported Distance Teaching: Transformation for the Internet, Not Just Translation
Petre, Marian, Carswell, Linda, Price, Blaine, Thomas, Pete, Journal of Engineering Education
Innovations in Large-Scale Supported Distance Teaching: Transformation for the Internet, Not Just Translation*
This paper reports on large-scale trials of Internet-based universitylevel distance teaching. The use of technology, and more specifically the Internet, has been an important advance for distance education. However, simply translating material from familiar media into electronic form is rarely productive -and is certainly inadequate for supported distance education, which aims to engage the student in a "community oflearning."Thevalue Internet technologybrings to distance education lies not in direct translation from other media but in transformation of support mechanisms to exploit its potential range. The paper addresses how instruction and support functions can be served and potentially enhanced by an Internet-based structure. It considers which changes in culture help to preserve or improve teaching qualitywhile adapting to screen-based and often asynchronous interactions. It discusses our trials of mechanisms for interactions among students and tutors; assignment marking using an electronic marking tool; electronic assignment handling; synchronous and asynchronous Internet-based problem sessions; and automatic student registration. The paper summarizes qualitative and quantitative findings of an extensive evaluation involving several hundred students over three courses and considering learning, student experience, assignment marking, problem sessions, scalability,
and integration into existing administrative structures. It highlights both costs and gains of using the Internet to transform the distance learning environment for those associated with it: students, tutors administrators, and institutions.
I. INTRODUCTION: TRANSFORMATION, NOT TRANSLATION
The use of technology, and more specifically the Internet, has been an important advance for distance education. The Internet has the potential to meet students' changing social and educational needs - in particular the need to choose their own time, place, and style of study. Universities respond to societal trends, and it is natural that they should follow the trend to use technology.l "Universities, like other organizations, are having to re-examine their ways of working, stimulated by developments towards `an information superhighway' and the ease of accessibility to non-discursive global information resources."2 Educators are looking to technology to solve many of their problems -- including increasing student:staff ratios and diminishing funding -- while at the same time seeking to improve their teaching to provide a better student experience.3-5
Yet innovation comes at some cost, and side effects may include increased demands on staff time, complication of the supporting administrative system, and additional overheads for students.6 Many institutions are converting lecture notes or other paper-based materials to HTML for the world-wide web, but, with little support provided for the student, the gains are minimal. Simply translating material from familiar media into electronic form is rarely productive - and is certainly inadequate for supported distance education, which aims to engage the student in a "community of learning." If we hope to improve rather than translate, we must understand the whole teaching and support process through a critical examination of its functions. What the popular enthusiasm for the Internet and the superficial translation exercises tend to overlook are the fundamental questions:
whether technology's effect on the learning it is meant to support is constructive, rather than obstructive
whether the benefits offered outweigh the costs involved.
We can learn something from the pattern of the research on televised instruction and subsequently on instruction via video-conferencing. A variety of studies compared early, television-based distance education with conventional teaching, starting with early experimental efforts (e. …