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Investigating the Use of Electronic Resources

The ASTER Project,  University of York

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 The ASTER Project (Assisting Small-group Teaching through Electronic Resources) aims to explore how Communication and Information Technologies (C&IT) can assist students and lecturers in making the most of small-group learning and teaching, and to promote and support effective change in educational practice. Following on from the ASTER survey of current practice in the use of C&IT to support small-group teaching in various disciplines (ASTER, 1999b) which interviewed forty-one lecturers in Higher Education institutions across the UK, detailed case study interviews have been conducted across the participating disciplines of Psychology, the Physical Sciences and disciplines within the Humanities. 

 The case studies, with the bibliographic survey (ASTER, 2000) and the survey of current practice (ASTER, 1999b), have been designed to identify the range of teaching methods which incorporate C&IT, the C&IT tools and resources being used, the educational rationale and the extent to which reported interventions are driven by theoretical or pragmatic needs. In order to identify potential interviewees, a request was sent out on a variety of electronic lists asking lecturers using C&IT to support group activities to share their experiences through the ASTER project. The case studies consisted of a semi-structured interview with the lecturer and also interviews with students where possible. The interviews were written up by members of the ASTER team to produce the case studies reports, which are published on the ASTER website.

 This report presents the findings from the 30 case studies completed during the main case studies phase of the project. (Some additional case studies carried out later in the project will not be included in this report but will be made available online.) Section I describes the ASTER case study methodology. Section II presents an analysis of the case studies carried out in each of the project discipline areas: Physical Sciences, the Humanities and Psychology. Section III examines the similarities and differences between the disciplines studied. Section IV describes the ways in which the case studies are being made available to the academic user community.


In preparation for the case studies, ASTER carried out a bibliographic survey (ASTER, 2000). The resulting online database of over one hundred and ten journal papers, book chapters and other publications provides a general overview of the use of C&IT in small-group learning and teaching situations in Higher Education. 

 Following on from this, a survey of current practice (ASTER, 1999a and ASTER, 1999b) was carried out to determine the ways in which C&IT is currently being used in small-group teaching and in collaborative learning tasks in Higher Education institutions across the UK. In order to identify potential interviewees, a request was sent out on various electronic lists asking lecturers using C&IT to support group activities to share their experiences through the ASTER project. Forty one interviews were subsequently carried out by telephone.

In order to provide some more detailed examples of C&IT use in collaborative and small-group learning and teaching situations, a number of case studies in each of the project subject areas (Psychology, the Humanities and the Physical Sciences) were planned. The case studies consisted of a semi-structured interview with the lecturer and where possible, with students. Interviews were usually carried out by a member of the ASTER project team visiting the interviewee and discussing the course in question, using an interview structure developed by the project as a guide (Appendix 1). In each case study, the use of C&IT is considered under a number of headings which cover both the context and the effects of the C&IT intervention. 

Lecturers were asked to consider the effects of their use of C&IT on the teaching process, on the learning process, on learning outcomes and on organisation and management of their module, course or unit. The teaching process relates to the way in which the C&IT resources are used by the lecturer or tutor to help students attain their learning objectives. The learning process concerns the way in which the C&IT resources affect the activities carried out by the students for the purpose of meeting their learning objectives. Of course, in some situations the teaching process and the learning process are closely inter-twined and it may not be appropriate (or even possible) to separate out the effect of a particular method or intervention. However, it is helpful to consider both aspects. Learning outcomes are concerned with evaluating the success of the use of C&IT resources in helping students meet their learning objectives (such as acquiring knowledge, improving understanding or developing skills). Management issues are those concerned with course administration: the dissemination of information about the course, collating marks, managing assessment and so on.

  • Case studies from the Physical Sciences
  • Case studies from the Humanities
  • Case studies from Psychology
Discipline Similarities and Differences

The previous sections of this report, in their subject-specific discussions of the use of C&IT to support small-group and group-based teaching and learning, have shown that there are both similarities and differences between disciplines. This section will discuss the generic uses that can be made of C&IT and the similarities and differences between the disciplines. 

The thirty case studies reported here were carried out within the discipline areas of the ASTER project team: Physics, the Humanities and Psychology. The Physics remit was broadened to include other Physical Science subject areas as it became clear that there are currently few examples of C&IT being used to support small-group teaching or group-based learning within Physics. 

C&IT Resources

A wide variety of C&IT tools and resources are being used to support learning and teaching in small-group situations. The most commonly used resource was the Web and some use was made of the Web in all the disciplines studied. However, although it was commonly used in both Psychology and the Humanities, it was relatively rarely used in the Physical Sciences (with no major uses featuring in the case studies). The Web can support small-group teaching in a number of different ways: allowing lecturers to provide course materials online, facilitating the dissemination of course information between students and tutor and providing access to external online materials and learning resources via hyperlinks. Within the Psychology case studies, the Web is primarily used for content provision and with virtual learning environments (VLEs). Within the Humanities, a major use of the Web is to provide access to primary and secondary sources that would not otherwise be (easily) available to students. 

Computer-mediated communication (CMC) was the second most popular C&IT use in the case studies. All the disciplines made some use of CMC (email, bulletin boards, chat rooms and electronic conferences). However, again there is relatively little use of CMC in the Physical Sciences case studies compared to both Psychology and the Humanities. CMC enables students to contact tutors and peers at a distance and outside normal contact hours, allows face-to-face discussions to be extended beyond the classroom, adds the possibility of dialogue that would not otherwise be available and can facilitate group work and collaborative student tasks. The relatively small use of CMC in the Physical Sciences may reflect a difference in characteristics and expectation of the discipline, where the focus is more on attaining a certain level of factual knowledge rather than on the application of subject knowledge through discussion and academic discourse. This difference in the teaching of Physical Science subjects is reflected in the small-group teaching activities that are carried out and therefore in the C&IT tools and resources that are used to support these activities.

All disciplines made some use of learning environments. This category represents a diverse range of tools that can be used in many ways. There were only two examples from the Physical Science and both concern computer programming. In one case, online course notes were provided for a computer programming course and facilities for writing and assessing students computer programs were integrated into the environment ("A Web-based Fortran Course"). The other example was similar but students emailed their programs to the tutor for marking ("Computer-based Tutorials for Teaching C Programming on an MSc in Medical Physics Course").

Virtual learning environments such as WebCT, BlackBoard and Lotus Notes provide integrated collections of facilities supporting communication, development and sharing of course materials, assessment and course administration. There was one example of VLE use in the Humanities ("Virtual Tutorials for Teaching Human Evolution, Including Archaeology"). In this case the tutor used the VLE to organise and deliver the online resources to students. She also held virtual tutorials using the online discussion tools. This enabled her to provide small-group teaching for second year students who would not otherwise have received such learning opportunities at that stage in their course.

VLEs were most commonly used in Psychology modules where there are six examples of their use. However, even within Psychology, VLEs are being used in different ways. In some cases they are being used to support the integration of learning technology across whole modules, for instance with course content materials written by the lecturer being provided via the Web, course administrative details posted online, external (Web) resources used in teaching and CMC used to support the learning process by encouraging critical discussion and subject-specific dialogue and argument (e.g. "The Use of Virtual Learning Environments to Support Two Psychology Modules" and "Using WebCT to Support Discussion and Collaborative Group Work in Psychology"). In some cases, the VLE was used purely to support the module and it was not used during teaching at all (e.g. "WebCT to Support the Teaching of SPSS in an "Introduction to Statistics for Psychologists Psychology Module"). Another tutor used VLEs simply for their communication tools ("Virtual Seminars in Psychology and Computing").

 Multimedia resources were the next most commonly used C&IT resources. This includes multimedia presentations and tutorial resources, delivered on CD-ROM or via the Web (or a local computer lab or network) and presentation tools used by students. Their use was less common and they were only used in eight of the thirty case studies. Of these, only one example was from the Physical Sciences and this involved groups of students in creating their own multimedia presentations using computer software such as ToolBook ("Computer-aided presentations in Maths and Astronomy"). In Psychology and the Humanities, tutorial presentations were used by students either before a class, to prepare for a traditional face-to-face teaching session ("Comer's CD-ROM "Abnormal Psychology" and the Internet used for Psychology Small-group Teaching") or during a face-to-face session, as the focus of activity ("Virtual Seminars for English Literature"). Sometimes students worked in groups with these resources and sometimes they worked alone. A benefit often cited by staff for the use of such resources was that students could progress at their own pace, and features such as interactive questions built into the presentations provided feedback to students (and sometimes to staff) on their progress and understanding. 

Software designed for testing and assessment was used in the Physical Sciences and in Psychology. In the Physical Sciences, computer software designed to allow students to practice skills such as performing calculations and manipulating formulae was sometimes used for formal summative assessment as well as for providing informal feedback on progress (e.g. "Computer Assisted Assessments in Chemistry"). In Psychology, multimedia resources with interactive questions incorporated provided feedback to students (e.g. "Psycle: Computer-based Simulation of Amnesia with Interactive Memory Questions and Tests Used for Psychology Tutorials"). In other cases, staff assessed students’ contributions to online discussions (e.g. "The Use of Virtual Learning Environments to Support Two Psychology Modules").

"Study support aids" were popular in the Physical Sciences. This includes the use of analytical tools and computer-based "worksheet" exercises which allow students to practice specific skills. Simulations were used exclusively in the Physical Sciences. The use of simulations allows students to explore complex systems or situations in ways which would be difficult, impossible or dangerous in the real world. In the case study examples, they were used either during a teaching session, or by students outside class hours, usually by individuals but sometimes by pairs of students working together. 

Teaching Activities Supported by C&IT

Many different teaching activities are supported by the use of C&IT in the ASTER case studies.  Although the primary interest of the project is in small-group and group-based teaching activities, it is often impossible (and unhelpful) to isolate one particular type of teaching used from the context around it and from the rest of the module as a whole. In addition, "small-group teaching" means different things to different disciplines, institutions and individuals and terms such as "tutorial" and "seminar" may be used interchangeable, or may have distinct meanings in an individual context. The use of the term "small" can also be misleading. Within arts and humanities subject, the aim of small-group teaching is often to provide "collaborative learning situations in which students iteratively interact with each other or a tutor and engage in dialogue for analysis, reflection or critical thinking" (ASTER, 1999b). In science-based subjects, the aims, purposes and characteristics of small-group teaching are often different, perhaps focusing on the development of subject-specific skills and happening within lab classes or practicals.

One relatively common use of C&IT in Psychology, which did not feature strongly in the other disciplines studied, was the use of technology to support tutorials by providing information, content and exercises as subject matter for a subsequent "traditional" face-to-face tutorial or seminar. In this case the learning technology becomes just one more resource available to staff and students (in addition to books, journals etc) but with advantages such as interactivity, customisability, ease of access and a multimedia approach.

The use of technology to support a module, for instance by disseminating course information or to provide support for students, was most commonly seen in Psychology and the Humanities. The only use in the Physical Science case studies involved the use of Web forms for students to supply future tutorial topics to the tutor ("Automatic Questionnaires and Web Forms for "Mathematics for Engineers" Classes"). In Psychology, the relatively high use of VLEs is reflected in the number of case studies where course information is made available to students online (e.g. "The Use of Web Pages and WebCT to Preserve Small-group Work in Seminars"). Stand alone Web pages are more likely to be used to provide course information in the Humanities (e.g. "Online Support for Theology Students"). 

In some cases, C&IT tools and resources used by students in small-group activities or for self-study were also used during lectures, either to demonstrate concepts, or to demonstrate their use (e.g. "Simulation Software in a Foundation Level Waves & Optics Module"). There were also some examples of C&IT being used to support lab sessions and practical classes in the Physical Sciences (e.g. "Computer Assisted Learning in Practical Astronomy") and one example of C&IT supporting a dissertation module in the Humanities ("Integrating Research and Teaching: using the Corvey Project to Teach Students Research Skills"). 

Student Activities and Learning Tasks Supported by C&IT

A wide range of student activities and learning tasks are supported by C&IT across the disciplines.

Self-study featured across all three disciplines and was mentioned in 21 of the 30 case studies. Whilst this is usually not the primary aim of the use of C&IT, the tools and resources provided to support a module are often also available to students outside class time, via the web or on an intranet or in the local computer lab. This extends the study opportunities available to students. Resources made available in this way can support preparation before a class and revision afterwards. 

Information retrieval was a common activity in both Psychology (e.g. "Using WebCT to Support Discussion and Collaborative Group Work in Psychology") and the Humanities (e.g. "Virtual Tutorials for Teaching Human Evolution, Including Archaeology"), and has already been discussed. In the Physical Sciences, students generally were not asked to use C&IT resources as a source of information or for access to course materials. 

Subject-specific skills development was the most commonly mentioned student activity in the Physical Sciences, being a major component of all but one of the case studies. This is in contrast to Psychology (where there were only three examples, e.g. "Psycle: Computer-based Simulation of Amnesia with Interactive Memory Questions and Tests Used for Psychology Tutorials") and the Humanities (where there were none). Again, this seems to reflect the emphasis placed on development of discrete skills such as the use of mathematical formulae and other similar specific skills in undergraduate Physical Science teaching (e.g. "Computer Assisted Learning in Chemistry"). 

The emphasis on formative assessment seen in the Physical Sciences case studies also reflects this need for the development of specific skills. One of the strengths of C&IT is its ability to provide immediate feedback to the student as they progress through a set of questions or examples, marking answers as right or wrong and providing additional questions where necessary (depending on the software used). For example, the software employed in the "Computer Assisted Learning in Chemistry" case study sets questions on the topic (chemical reaction calculations) and provides instant feedback to the students in the form of validation of their answer or explanation of the calculation. The more conceptual, discursive nature of much Psychology and Humanities teaching makes this use of C&IT harder to apply. However, there are three similar examples in Psychology, where questions are incorporated into virtual tutorials or multimedia presentations (e.g. "Creating and Running Virtual Psychology Tutorials using MTutor").

Developing students' C&IT skills was frequently mentioned as a motivation for the use of C&IT in Psychology, occasionally in the Humanities case studies and only once in the Physical Sciences. In a few cases activities were provided specifically to develop these skills, for example to teach students how to use the web in order to facilitate study generally (e.g. "Introducing Ancient History Students to C&IT and the Web"). In other cases, improved C&IT skills were seen as a by-product or added advantage of the use of the C&IT resources for other purposes. In many of the case studies, a certain degree of proficiency with the use of C&IT was required of students and sometimes this requirement for new skills and new methods of working caused anxiety in students (e.g. "Using WebCT to Support Discussion and Collaborative Group Work in Psychology").

The development of communication, discussion and argumentation skills were common aims in Psychology and the Humanities, supported by activities such as the use of bulletin boards to hold asynchronous group discussions extending outside face-to-face hours, internet chat rooms for virtual tutorials and students writing and presenting their own web resources. Again, prerequisite skills are an issue. Many tutors, reflecting on their use of C&IT in their teaching, realised the need to equip students with such skills as part of the course. For instance, the use of CMC to hold online discussion can be a very successful small-group activity. However, the characteristics of an online discussion are different from face-to-face discussions and so, in addition to understanding how to use the C&IT tools, students need to be made aware of this. There were no case studies involving communication or discussion in the Physical Sciences.

C&IT tools and resources were sometimes used to develop students research skills, including critical analysis of resources and critical reading. Critical analysis of web resources was often set as a collaborative group activity in Psychology (e.g. "The Use of Virtual Learning Environments to Support Two Psychology Modules"). Critical reading of texts (again often available over the Web) was an activity found in the Humanities (e.g. "Using the Web in Archaeology Tutorials"). 

C&IT was used to support group activities in eight of the Psychology case studies, only once in the Physical Sciences ("Computer Aided Presentation in Mathematics and Astronomy", where students worked in small groups to create their own computer-based presentations), and not at all in the Humanities. This reflects the emphasis placed on group-based activities in traditional teaching across the disciplines. Discussion and group-work are often central parts of Psychology courses and this is reflected in the use of C&IT to support these activities. Within the Physical Sciences these activities are traditionally less important. 

In the Physical Sciences and Psychology there were a small number of examples of the use of C&IT for submission of work and for final summative assessment. The two Physical Science examples both involved students’ computer programs ("Computer-based Tutorials for Teaching C Programming on an MSc in Medical Physics Course" and "A Web-based Fortran Course"). The examples from Psychology involved students taking part in online discussions (e.g. "The Use of Virtual Learning Environments to Support Two Psychology Modules") and producing Web resources as a collaborative group activity (e.g. "Using WebCT to Support Discussion and Collaborative Group Work in Psychology").

 For a further discussion of the issues surrounding discipline differences in the use of C&IT, see Condron (1999) and Bennett et al (2000).

Obtaining and Using ASTER Case Studies and Resources

Two of ASTER’s key aims are:

  • to document and evaluate current practice and methods using C&IT to support small-group teaching and 
  • to disseminate acquired expertise and information on best practice to teaching and support staff, through on-line information, publications and workshops. 

 To this end, a number of resources designed to support small-group teaching and learning have been developed by the project and are available from the ASTER web site. The case studies form a major part of this resource. In addition to the thirty examples reported here, a small number of additional studies are being carried out and will be published on the web site as they become available. Users of the Web site can browse the case studies by:

  • subject,
  • C&IT tools and resources,
  • teaching methods,
  • student activity or learning task

An online bibliography provides additional examples from the literature of the use of C&IT to support small-group and group-based teaching and learning. 

 The reasons given by staff for introducing C&IT into their teaching are often pragmatic: larger numbers of students, the need to make courses more interactive, participative and student-centred, the need to cater for more diverse student populations etc. In addition, the experience and expertise collected together in the ASTER case studies has a generic value across disciplines, which can be lost if staff only consider examples from their own discipline. ASTER is therefore developing a set of "frequently asked questions" which will provide users with guided access to the combined bibliography and case study resource. This will help to guide users through the issues involved in the choice of C&IT for small-group learning and teaching and will point them to information and resources of interest to their specific situation.

The case study interview procedure has been found to be a useful tool for staff reflection. A set of reflective tools have therefore been developed by the project which aim to help staff to develop and articulate their teaching and learning aims for their small-group teaching and for the introduction of C&IT tools and resources. These reflective tools follow the broad structure of the case studies, facilitating staff reflection on all aspects of their course including the teaching process, learning processes, learning outcomes and course organisation and management.


This summary was published with permission by the ASTER Project (Catherine Bennett).

A FULL report from the 30 case studies is available from the ASTER Project web site.


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