Integrating C&IT into the Delivery of a Law Module: A Reflective Look at Two Postgraduate Modules Delivered in the 2000/2001 Academic Year
University of Wales, Aberystwyth
The use of information technology in the delivery of academic courses has undeniable benefits. For some, it is seen as not only the way forward but also, the only way forward. With the funding constraints imposed upon Higher Education moving towards crisis level for some institutions, making the best use of the communications and information technologies available may be prudent if not essential (see Paliwala, 2001). The use of C&IT in course delivery has the added benefit of promoting familiarity with communications technologies and the development of crucial IT skills demanded by employers, whether in the legal or other professions.
The purpose of this article is to reflect upon and share experiences and observations of the use of IT to different extents in the delivery of two postgraduate law modules, included in the MBA and Masters in Management schemes at the University of Wales Aberystwyth during the 2000 - 2001 academic year. This paper is not intended to be a conceptual paper on the pedagogical virtues of information technology in course delivery in legal education. It is a contribution of practical experiences in the use of such technology in the delivery of two law modules, considering the advantages and disadvantages of such an approach[ 1].
Keywords:C&IT in Legal Education, CAL, CBL, Distance Learning, 'E-Learning', Electronic Course Delivery, Virtual Learning Environments, WebCT.
This is a work in progress published on 7 November 2001.
Citation: Poyton D 'Integrating C&IT into the Delivery of a Law Module: A Reflective Look at Two Postgraduate modules Delivered in the 2000/2001 Academic Year', 2001 (3)The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT) <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/01-3/poyton.html>..New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/2001_3/poyton/>.
The use of information technology in education, 'Web-based' teaching, or 'E-Learning' has its champions and its sceptics[ 2], but the integration of communications and information technology (C&IT) into the learning process would now seem to be one of life's certainties. My own views fall into neither extreme, rather they are those of a pragmatist looking on C&IT as a tool or resource to be exploited as any other. The benefits obtained from the use of a particular tool very much depend upon the purpose too which they are put - the wrong tool or poor use of a correct tool will deliver a poor end result.
The 'purpose' or objectives associated with the integration of C&IT could be categorised as follows;
to cope with increased student demand by utilising existing resources (both human and material) in the most efficient manner;
to adapt to changes in society by recognising the impact of C&IT on commerce and the individual and reflecting this in the educational environment;
to enhance the student learning experience by providing a contextual and stimulating environment to promote deep learning.
Measuring the success of an approach in relation to the first two objectives can be done relatively easily using a year on year approach as a point of reference. The first can be measured by recording the demand on resources and observing how 'stretched' those resources become. The second can be measured by observing the level of integration of C&IT and its use. The third objective is, from an educational perspective, the most important and the most difficult to measure. Whilst an in-depth discussion of the pedagogical merits of a particular approach is beyond the scope of this paper two distinct[ 3], although not mutually exclusive, approaches to achieving this objective can be identified. The first is to create a virtual learning environment, within which the student is encouraged to apply their knowledge by participating in exercises set in a practical context[ 4]. The second is to use C&IT as a vehicle for the delivery of materials to allow the use of contact time for more student-centred sessions, such as seminars and other small group activities[ 5]. In the two courses discussed in this paper the second approach was taken.
The first course was a Business Law module, delivered in semester one, integrating the use of information technology at a relatively low level, (principally by e-mail and some on-line provision of resources). The second course was a module on the Law Relating to Electronic Commerce, delivered in the second semester, making significant use of a web-based course management system (WebCT).
This article will introduce the modules concerned and the role information technology played in their delivery. It will then proceed to examine some of the perceived advantages and disadvantages of the use of information technology in the context of the two modules. Before each course is considered, a brief outline of the student body profile is required.
1.1 Student Body Profile
The student body profile played a significant role in my approach. Some of the observations outlined below are particularly pertinent to this student profile. The student body numbered sixty-four and the student background was varied. All students were at postgraduate level and with a minimum requirement of a lower second (or equivalent) in the student's first degree. Few students had any prior experience of legal study. The majority had a business studies, accounting, or economics background. Approximately fifty percent of the students had English as a second language and, although all had met the minimum language standard for enrolment, there was a discernible difference in the levels of linguistic competence.
2. Module 1 - Introduction to Business Law. Semester 1. 2000/2001
This was a first semester module allocated one two-hour session, per week for 11 weeks. It was part of the accredited MBA course as well as being an element of the MSc in Management scheme and its content was prescribed. The module had to cover: -
Introduction to the Legal System;
Principles of Contract Law;
Elements of Employment Law;
The Law relating to Business Organisation
The full complement of sixty-four students enrolled on this module.
Drawing upon experience and the course structure common to many taught Masters schemes, my preferred approach would have been to use the contact sessions to promote student-centred discussion of the relevant legal issues in the business context. It seemed that the ideal would have been to have sessions comprising a brief introduction to a topic in the form of a lecture and a subsequent student led seminar the following week structured around problem style questions. However, the relatively high student number, whilst clearly a positive benefit for the University, was not conducive to this preferred approach. To run the sessions in that way would have required splitting the students into more manageable sized groups for seminar work (e.g. 20 students or fewer), this would have added considerable contact time, which was not available in the timetable or in terms of resources. One way to deal with that time constraint would have been to reduce the course content, allowing for seminars within the allocated time. However, the class size would have still required the scheduling of multiple seminar periods and changing the course content was not possible. In summary, with little or no space in the timetable for additional or split classes, and with restricted resources, another approach had to be sought to provide an appropriate level of interaction between myself, the students, and the material, whilst ensuring delivery of all of the prescribed module content.
The alternative approach, which seemed worth investigation, was the use of electronic forms of communication to enhance the delivery of the module. Drawing on some of the research previously undertaken[ 6] I decided upon the use of E-mail to facilitate discussion and interaction. Within the constraints of predetermined course content requirements, I used the weekly sessions to 'deliver' the course materials in a traditional lecture, providing the students with a relatively 'passive' learning experience. However, it was at this point that the technology was used to stimulate a more 'active' learning experience. The students were given 'seminar style' questions at the end of the lecture. Such questions would be briefly addressed at the start of the next session but, significantly, in the meantime, students were encouraged to raise the issues encountered through the use of e-mail, providing some opportunity for interactive learning. The students had the opportunity to expand upon the delivered material and apply their acquired knowledge. Student queries, or suggestions, would be responded to fairly rapidly (usually within twenty-four hours).
For the majority of the observations my point of reference or comparison is with the experiences associated with a 'traditional' seminar session.
In this context, the flexibility obtained from the use of C&IT provided the opportunity to add a more interactive approach in a situation where traditional seminar sessions were not practical, or where the use of more tutor and student time was not possible. The elements of flexibility usually associated with the introduction of IT relate to freedom from 'temporal and geographical constraints' (Widdison and Schulte, 1998) and these elements were clearly in evidence here. The use of C&IT can also provide flexibility in relation to how the course is delivered. In this case, the students were able to consider the set problem and communicate suggestions and questions via e-mail as and when they desired, from any location with e-mail access. They could work at times convenient to themselves, and many could even work from home or in their halls of residence. This facility was particularly appreciated by students who lived further afield or had family commitments. It also had an added benefit for those who had English as a second language if they required a little extra time to understand the materials. In short, students could work at their own pace, taking time to understand and digest the material, asking questions intermittently over the space of a few days.
The value of tutor-student and student-student interaction is difficult to precisely assess and varies between individual tutors and students. It is nevertheless recognised as one of the most important elements of a learning experience (Laurillard, 1993). The interaction can be provided in different ways and to differing extents. At the one extreme we have the individual one-to-one tutorial and at the other the mass lecture. A great deal has been written about the pedagogical merits of various approaches. (For example see Gibbs, 1995, Paliwala, 2001and Laurillard, 1993). In this course, e-mail was used to add a level of interaction. The question is; to what extent did the use of e-mail add to the students learning experience?
3.2.1 Tutor - Student Interaction
By using e-mail I was more accessible to the students and available for what was essentially one-to-one interaction, albeit of a 'virtual' kind. With the students using e-mail to raise questions between sessions they were able to interact on an ongoing basis rather than being restricted to a one-off session. I could respond to the students and be aware of any problems or misunderstandings as they arose or at the very latest, the next day. In addition, the discussions provided me some insight into the student's progress with the material, although that was limited by the unstructured nature of the communications. The majority of students appreciated the 'personal' contact and increased accessibility provided by the use of e-mail. In the course evaluation, responses relating to staff accessibility were favourable[ 7]. However, the benefits obtained from giving the students greater access and individual attention placed unanticipated demands on my time. My initial perception was that the contact via e-mail absorbed little of my time. The error in this initial perception became apparent in the final analysis. By the end of the course, I had received a little over 400 e-mails. By posting answers to more general inquiries to the whole group, the reply e-mails only ran to half of that number. Nevertheless, the amount of time involved was not insignificant. In addition, whilst appreciating the e-mail system, some 70 per cent of students would have still preferred small group teaching. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that the time might have been better-spent conducting seminars, but the point has already been made that this more obvious use of time for interactive teaching was regarded as outside of the module 'budget'.
3.2.2 Student-Student Interaction and the Loss of a Physical Presence
By using e-mail to discuss the problem questions, there is the risk that the loss of interaction with other students will be detrimental to the learning experience, removing the potential benefits students gain from listening to each other's questions and the responses they elicit ('vicarious learning')[ 8]. The use of e-mail may have removed the immediacy and physical presence one would usually expect in a traditional 'seminar' environment and hence the exposure to the learning experience of peers. However, the point can be made that, with this particular degree scheme the students had a lot of other face-to-face interaction with each other, including group-work projects. That does not, of course, completely meet the point of its relative absence from the particular module but the issue may have a more significant impact on schemes where the students do not have the opportunity to study in the physical presence of their peers at all, such as a course delivered entirely through distance learning techniques.
3.2.3 Loss of the Physical Presence and the Tutor
Whist the removal of the physical presence of peers may have a detrimental effect on potential 'vicarious learning' for the student, for the tutor not being in the physical presence of the students may have two further effects. First, facial expressions and body language provide important indicators of the effect a session is having for a student, which may allow the tutor to adapt to a particular situation. This is lost when communicating by e-mail. On this course this effect manifested itself in the occasional need to further clarify responses with additional e-mails where the first response had not successfully resolved the query. This may not have been necessary in a face-to-face situation where comments can be adjusted in response to the student's reaction.
There may be a second potential disadvantage of this removal of physical presence for the tutor, particularly if the tutor is new or inexperienced, or when delivering a new course for the first time, or delivering a course to a different level of student. Part of the tutor's learning process includes developing the ability to observe the class or group to 'pick up' the reactions to the delivery of materials in the lecture environment, or to gauge the progress of a discussion in a seminar environment. The use of e-mail and the corresponding loss of a simultaneous physical presence could result in the loss of an important learning and development experience for the tutor. While a more experienced lecturer may be able to pick up the 'tone' from the e-mail discourse, many of the important messages gleaned from facial expression and body language remain lost. If this is the case, then perhaps the only approach to reduce this effect would be a video link or similar, with it's associated technological difficulties - and the negating of the 'temporal' freedom produced by e-mail.
3.2.4 Delay in Response
The lack of a need for a simultaneous presence, even a virtual one, has its advantages, but it also has its disadvantages. Although e-mail can appear to be an 'instantaneous' form of communication, there are inevitable delays, whether due to the technology or to the fact that student and tutor are not on-line simultaneously. This is one of the disadvantages of the flexibility mentioned above. A delay in response could lead to a disruption in the students work at that point. To this extent the approach taken could be viewed as insufficiently interactive. The disruption of a student's thought process could result in frustration and loss of interest. However, even if the student was preparing for a one-to-one seminar such 'disruption' would occur. Short of an ever-present tutor, to answer queries immediately, that 'disruption' is an inevitable part of the student's work and may be viewed as having the benefit of promoting independent thought and analysis of the material.
3.2.5 Time Implications for the Student
The time implications for the tutor are discussed above. For the student, the additional time implications of using e-mail were minimal. In general the course e-mails became integrated into their daily ritual of accessing their individual e-mail accounts. This added some time to the whole process but this was generally seen as part of their independent work time between sessions.
3.2.6 Duplication of Questions
One foreseeable problem was the inevitable duplication of a particular question by several students working at different times. This was to some extent alleviated by copying responses to the rest of the group.
4. Communication Skills
With the use of e-mail, what would usually be verbal communication became written, albeit electronically. Once again, this factor introduces a mix of benefit and detriment.
4.1 Practice of Written Skills
The benefit of using a written, rather than oral means of communication should be the opportunity to practice writing skills. However the informal approach adopted in e-mailing did not encourage a discourse notable for its written excellence. The students' questions and propositions tended to be in note-form with little attention to grammar, with the language used being of a relaxed, informal style. This was not necessarily a completely negative consequence because it may have resulted in a more readily accessible and less intimidating experience for the student. However, it did mean that the written method of communication failed to provide any significant opportunity for the enhancement of the written skills of many of the students.
4.2 Oral Skills
The use of e-mail, in comparison to a physical seminar session, did not encourage spontaneous articulation of opinions in response to questions and the comments of others. E-mail fails to further the development of the oral communications skills, which may be fostered in a traditional seminar environment. This could be improved, to some extent, with the use of 'real-time' communications or video conferencing, but the point has been made that such devices lose the 'temporal freedom' provided by e-mail.
4.3 Removal of Barriers to Communication
It is accepted that a proportion of students' are inhibited when it comes to asking questions in a seminar or other public environment. Some students also find it difficult to approach a tutor to ask questions on a one to one basis. This situation may be compounded where the student is communicating through a second language. The use of e-mail can considerably reduce these inhibitions. When questioned informally, students with English as a second language, and even those for whom it is the native tongue, felt that the ability to take time to compose a question or suggested solution, available with the e-mail system, increased their confidence. It reduced the pressure otherwise created by the need to express themselves in the presence of their tutor or peers. However, the point can be made that oral communication skills are very important for a student seeking a place in the legal profession. It must be a questioned whether, as providers of legal education we should be consistently encouraging the development of oral communication skills rather than providing the means to avoid their use?
5. Technological Implications
5.1 Cost and Resource Implications
With any innovation, one of the first considerations has to be the resource implications of the exercise. As indicated above, there was a far more significant cost in terms of the tutor's time than was initially anticipated and that is a cost to the institution as well as the individual. Less obviously, there are also other costs involved. As with many institutions e-mail costs are absorbed in the total cost of IT provision for the institution. As far as the student is concerned the workstation rooms are available free of charge with twenty-four hour access and many rooms in student halls have Internet access if the student has their own PC. One unexpected cost of the use of e-mail is the cost of paper and printing. Several students felt the need to print out the electronic correspondence to put a paper record in their notes. This additional cost was raised as an issue by the students, as was that of the printing out of lecture handouts and the assessed essay question, which were delivered as e-mail attachments. (The 'inconvenience' of having to print out the handout before the lecture was also raised as a negative issue by a proportion of the students). The supply of handouts and questions by e-mail produced a saving in printing and photocopying costs for the department, however, the students did not appreciate the transfer of costs.
5.2 Development of IT skills (Added value) and 'Techno-levels'
IT skills are an unavoidable necessity in today's society, particularly in the field of commerce. Integrating the use of IT into the educational program helps develop these skills, 'adding value' to a course. In this particular module the skills practised related to the e-mail package in use (Either Eudora or Microsoft Outlook). On the whole, e-mail is regularly used by students and it is safe to say that at a basic level the students were making use of a skill they already possessed, albeit a little more often. However, the use of more 'complex' e-mail skills was also encouraged - e.g. group mailing, using attachments, using different formats, such as html and using hypertext linking.
The reference to 'techno-levels' refers to any technological barriers for the student, tutor, or institution to overcome. With e-mail, there appeared to be few. All students had a comfortable base level, which was tested with an initial e-mail requiring only a brief confirmation of their e-mail address in reply. For the students the only real disparity between them related to the regularity of use and the extent to which they could utilise additional facilities available. There were no difficulties for me in the level of technological knowledge required for my role as a tutor using these methods. As an institution the University and department have been utilising e-mail for many years, so few problems were encountered here. If faced with a group of students unfamiliar with e-mail, then a supplementary session would be required to bring the students to the required level.
6. Other Factors
Motivation is a key component for a satisfying and successful learning experience. If the use of C&IT can increase student motivation to engage with the subject matter then this will benefit the student, tutor and ultimately the institution. The e-mail facility in this module was provided to encourage student involvement in a discussion of the issues raised in the course, motivating them to consider the legal principles at a more contextual level. For the majority of the students the e-mail discussions provided the desired motivation. However, a significant proportion of the students (15 per cent) did not use the facility at all. Their opinion was that as the e-mail discussion was an 'optional' addition to the course, and the set questions were discussed in the following weeks' lecture, participation was not necessary because they were capable of working through the material independently.
6.2 Creation of a 'Permanent' Record
The e-mail system (barring any accidental erasure) produced a 'permanent' record of the communications, allowing analysis of student participation and progress. However, this analysis was hindered by the sporadic nature of the e-mail discussions. Incoming messages did not arrive in a structured manner resulting in difficulty reconstructing the thread of a discussion. The permanence of the record also promoted an increased awareness of my own comments in the knowledge that such comments may be the subject of future scrutiny. This gave the discussion a formality that would not normally exist in a spoken conversation.
7. Summary Conclusions
By combining the e-mail discussions with the lecture sessions I was able to cover the required material and introduce a greater level of student interaction. Although far from a perfect solution the use of e-mail had definite benefits. A large proportion of the students took advantage of the e-mail facility and indicated approval of the ability to 'discuss' the issues between sessions. Many students would still have preferred 'face-to-face' seminar sessions, but nevertheless felt that the problem questions and e-mail approach enhanced the experience and aided their understanding of the legal principles by placing them in context.
On the negative side, the e-mail approach did consume a considerable amount of my time, which, on reflection, could have been reduced by the use of a more structured and prescriptive approach. In its defence, the email system was very flexible and although, once considered as a whole, the time demands appear substantial most of the e-mails were read and replied to at opportune moments throughout the day without requiring a prolonged halt in other activities at any particular time.
It is conceivable that the system encouraged students to ask a question and wait for a response, rather than making further enquiries themselves. This is perhaps a case of tutor 'over-accessibility' and the students making the most of the resources available to them rather than student lethargy. Once again a stricter structure to the e-mail discussions may have reduced this problem.
Finally, the e-mail system sometimes led to a 'chain of e-mails', with each answer leading to further questions. Often these questions simply required a re-wording of the original answer to clarify a point. In addition to being time consuming, this highlighted one of the main disadvantages of electronic communications - the inability to react to the facial expressions and body language of the other person, which can often help inform the tutor of the reception of their answer.
8. Module 2 - 'The Law relating to E-Commerce'. Semester 2 2000/2001
This new module was required to complement related modules on the 'Masters in Management' program for students following the 'E-Commerce stream' of that program, and as an elective course for MBA students. This module was also allocated eleven two-hour sessions. Forty-five students enrolled on it.
The preferred approach for this module was the same as that discussed above. The student number was lower but this did not have a significant impact on the practical constraints (little or no space in the timetable for additional classes and restricted resources). Once again, alternative approaches to course delivery had to be considered to provide an appropriate level of interaction between myself, the students and the course material.
Towards the end of Semester One I had been introduced, by the Aberystwyth Learning and Teaching Online (ALTO) team, to a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) called WebCT and had volunteered to take part in the University's evaluation of this and other VLE's. This platform would provide the opportunity to organise the contact sessions in a manner more conducive to student-centred learning.
8.2.1 WebCT (A Brief Overview)
Many will have already encountered the WebCT virtual learning environment, but to summarise, the package provides the user with a platform and various tools to aid course delivery. In the words of one of its creators, WebCT is designed to provide:
'a flexible, integrated environment where he [the tutor] could use the latest technology to foster inquiry, encourage discourse and inspire collaboration' (WebCT.com).
As for the final product it is also suggested that:
'Both the Standard and Campus Editions of WebCT are user-friendly, give faculty members the pedagogical flexibility to teach their own way, provide tools to enhance interaction between students and faculty...' (WebCT.com).
The platform utilises a range of tools to achieve this goal. The standard format consists of 'course components' and 'course tools'. The course components comprise of the course homepage (Figure 1). From here access can be gained to the course contents and bibliography, the syllabus, a glossary and a search facility. The course tools include communication, evaluation, and study tools. On this course the communication tools used were the discussion forum and e-mail facility. In the study tools section student presentations were uploaded. The evaluation tools have interactive quiz elements but on this course only the assessed work and a sample examination paper were placed in this section.
The Homepage comprised of a welcome/introduction to the course (Figure 2), outlining the course syllabus, aims and objectives and explanation of the WebCT approach, layout and a link to the course content. The 'Welcome' and 'Course Content' pages included a brief section on the objectives or outcomes relating to each topic. Other links included - a link to resources and bibliographic lists both online and off, a link to the communication tools, to study tools and to the evaluation tools.
Figure 1: The Course Home Page
The primary objective was to use the platform as a focal point for the course with the key elements of each topic and course materials delivered via the WebCT platform (Figure 2) reducing the time required for formal lectures.
Figure 2: Welcome and Course Content Page
The weekly contact sessions were given some flexibility. This allowed the timetable to be re-structured (Table 1) introducing sessions in different formats and requiring student participation at different levels, creating a varied learning environment. This structure had the additional advantage of breaking the sessions down into smaller blocks, enhancing concentration.
Student group presentations on Task 1
Task 2 Seminar sessions
Task 3 Seminar sessions
Task 4 Presentations
Table 1: Timetable
The 'Tasks' would either require students to produce a group presentation for delivery the following week or prepare material for a seminar session. These sessions were designed to promote student discussion and develop the students' awareness of the significance of the key legal principles associated with electronic commerce in a business context.
In this module the introduction of C&IT was intended to produce flexibility in the method of course delivery and it achieved this goal. The system provided an effective means of delivering topic outlines, notes and materials, which released valuable contact time for more student-centred sessions. The use of WebCT also released students from temporal and geographical constraints to a greater extent than the e-mail system in use in module one. With a variety of resources and materials accessible from a central portal the students could readily navigate their way around the structured handouts and linked resources, and unlike books or journals there were few limits on the number of students able to use a resource at any one time. In short, in addition to having an element of discretion in when and where they considered and discussed the subject matter, they also had flexibility in when and where they undertook their own research utilising the resources integrated into the system. The WebCT platform provided a more 'complete' platform for course delivery and student learning.
In this module the introduction of C&IT replaced a portion of the passive delivery of material by lecture and the time was used for sessions rich in student-tutor and student-student interaction. Issues relating to the lack of a physical presence associated with electronic communications were reduced because the most interactive elements of the course occurred during the contact sessions. The ability to e-mail the tutor and fellow students remained but the frequency of use was considerably reduced with only 45 e-mails relating to the module being received. This had a notable impact on the demand placed on tutor time. To an extent this can be attributed to the fact that WebCT can be used in a quasi-interactive way[ 9]. A Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section and an electronic Glossary allowed students to receive answers to queries automatically. The students could access these elements either via links integrated into the notes or through the 'stand alone' sections provided. On the course feedback questionnaire 90 per cent of the students responded positively when questioned on the merit of the FAQ and Glossary. The introduction of greater student participation in seminar and presentation sessions was met with almost unanimous approval.
9.2.1 Discussion Forums and Chat Rooms
In the early stages of the course themes in the discussion forum and chat rooms were introduced and some of the students participated. However, as the course progressed, the use of these communication tools became negligible. It would appear that if the students were going to discuss an issue, they would much rather discuss it face-to-face with their peers over a coffee. In situations where this luxury may not be available, such as distance learning, this tool may have greater value. The discussion tool of the WebCT platform did, however, prove to be of some value to the students in an unforeseen way. Several 'practical' difficulties were posted on the discussion forum and as a group the students developed solutions. One particular problem, the uploading of student presentations, led to an extensive discussion. The WebCT platform requires a rather complex process of zipping and uploading the materials and then unzipping and organising them on the server. In the postings the students with the superior computer know-how explained the process to those having difficulty, indicating the development of IT skills, whilst overcoming a technical problem.
9.3 Communication Skills
The development of written and oral communication skills can be seen as an indirect consequence of the use of WebCT rather than being attributed directly to the platform. The flexibility introduced by the system, allowing for more student-centred sessions, rather than the integral parts of WebCT, provided the opportunity for the development of communication skills.
The student presentation sessions produced the most significant opportunity for the development of written communication skills. By requiring the posting of student presentations onto the WebCT platform an element of formality was introduced into the process. The majority of the notes were well written in the knowledge that they would be scrutinised by peers as well as the tutor. The seminars provided the opportunity for students to practice and develop their oral communication skills and the delivery of presentations also encouraged the development of visual communication skills.
Another advantage of the WebCT environment was the accessibility of resources and materials during chat-room or forum discussions. Students could easily refer to notes or materials without breaking off from the discussion for any significant time.
9.3.1 Removal of Barriers to Communication
The increased confidence and lessening of inhibitions observed in the use of e-mail in the first module were also evident on this module. In addition, the discussion forums and chat rooms may have helped remove communication barriers that exist between students. These barriers may be more readily associated with undergraduates but nevertheless exist at postgraduate level. Where the students were having difficulties, technical or academic, they appeared to be more comfortable posting a question on the forum rather than approaching their peers directly.
9.3.2 'Cut and Paste' Mentality
With the rapid development of electronic resources the issue of plagiarism and the 'lesser evil' of bad academic practice is of increasing concern. The potential exists for the development of a 'cut and paste' mentality, stifling creativity and originality (Widdison and Schulte, 1998). With the substantial reliance on electronic material in this module it was prudent to introduce a system for identifying incidents of this practice. To this end electronic copies of assignments and presentations were requested from the students. In this way the submitted work could be compared with the electronic resources to highlight suspect passages. There is specific software in development for this purpose[ 10], but in relation to this course the only systems available were Internet search engines (Google or Yahoo, for example) or the 'compare documents' tool in programs such as Microsoft Word. These methods are relatively successful but their major drawback was that they are prohibitively time-consuming with a group of any size. Nevertheless, the knowledge that these methods may be in use should provide an impetus for students to carefully consider their use of the work of other authors.
10. Technological Implications
10.1 Cost and Resource Implications
10.1.1 The Institution
For the institution the cost of licensing the software, purchasing additional hardware (i.e. servers) and updating of communications infrastructure to ensure access for all students and lecturers is a major financial concern. When the cost of access to materials and obtaining copyright permissions is added the expenditure begins to escalate. Another important implication is the cost of support and training for both lecturers and students. Without relevant training and awareness of the value of the system, WebCT or any other platform will become an expensive, under-used resource. On the positive side, costs to the institution in terms of paper resources should be considerably reduced. The system can also be used to establish distance-learning schemes, an important area offering opportunities for considerable growth, which are traditionally very 'paper-reliant' and expensive to set up.
10.1.2 The Lecturer
The implications for the lecturer could also be added to the section above, with lecturer time being a direct cost to the institution. As in the 'real' world the initial preparation and production of materials for this virtual environment consumes the largest portion of lecturer time. However, this initial preparation has positive effects, which may outweigh the initial input. First, after the initial set up, the course can be maintained, updated and amended with ease, minimising the amount of preparation time required at the beginning of each session. Second, the flexibility introduced into the delivery of the course by the use of a virtual learning environment allows contact time to be used in a manner designed to stimulate student centered learning and enhance the students' understanding of the material. This second factor is of increasing importance where resources, particularly the human resources, are scarce and student numbers are increasing.
10.1.3 The Student
If the student wishes to print out materials, such as notes and assignments then they incur the additional cost of printing. This may appear to be an unfair burden, placed on already financially stretched student bank balances. However, a balance can be struck that reduces waste and cost to the institution without over-burdening the student, whilst at the same time creating a 'greener' more resource aware group of individuals. By providing the student with a 'free print quota' at the beginning of the year to account for courses being delivered electronically, the burden is not completely passed to the student and all parties should benefit, as well as the environment.
11. Development of IT skills (Added value) and 'Techno-levels'
The WebCT package promoted the use of IT at a fairly involved level. A higher 'base-level' of computer literacy was required at the outset. This led to the development and practice of more complex skills than simple e-mail. Although this initial base level was higher than in the previous course, for the student with some experience of Windows and 'point and click' user interfaces, WebCT provided a familiar environment to work within. For students with limited experience, following an initial introductory session, the use of WebCT promoted the development of an understanding of a common form of interface utilised by most businesses and professionals today. The use of WebCT also provided the opportunity to develop file management techniques with the uploading of group presentations to the server. This required the zipping, uploading and unzipping of the files. For some students this step produced difficulties, however, these difficulties led to a substantial discussion theme in the WebCT Forum (discussed above).
From the tutor perspective the introductory session provided by a WebCT representative was essential. Whilst managing the environment and the files is not particularly difficult, it takes some time to become accustomed to the system, particularly the uploading and manipulating of files on the server and the file format demands of the package. It is foreseeable that this may prove an obstacle to its use by less IT acquainted staff.
12. Other Factors
12.1 Convenient Record of Student Progress
The WebCT environment has an integrated system to track student use and the regularity of that use. This facility is useful to establish whether students have used or collected particular materials, how often they access the system, and what pages they access. This can be useful to flag up any potential problems and time the release of material to the students' progression.
12.2 Convenience and Motivation
The WebCT platform provides a very convenient focal point for a module. Although, arguably, we are teaching to the 'Nintendo' generation (Aikenhead et al, 2000), perhaps more influential is the fact that we are now teaching to a 'convenience generation'. In this generation expectations are high when it comes to access to information. By using a platform like WebCT to provide centralised access to course materials, electronic resources, and the tutor, these expectations can be satisfied. The student response indicated that this had a positive effect on their motivation to engage with the course materials. The benefit for the lecturer is the convenience of a central platform from which the course can be managed and he can interact with students and monitor their progression through the module.
13. Summary Conclusions
The re-allocation of time, made possible by the use of WebCT, allowed for more student-centred sessions resulting in the students becoming more deeply involved with the subject; applying the legal principles to practical scenarios and developing a contextual understanding of the law.
Having a central portal for the course and relevant materials provided a genuine opportunity for students to follow their own particular learning styles, working at their own pace and at the times best suited to them. This element of convenience was rated very highly by all of the students in the course assessment questionnaire.
On the negative side, a significant number of students expressed the opinion that there was too much 'computer involvement' in the course. On further investigation, during informal conversation, this opinion appeared to be based upon the perception that they were getting a 'lower value product' with contact with a lecturer being replaced by time at a computer, which in their opinion was not comparable.
On the platform itself, WebCT is ready-made and relatively simple to use with a degree of flexibility allowing lecturers to manipulate the materials to fit their pedagogical needs. However, this is not without qualification, since the uploading and management of materials requires more than a simple copy and paste approach. The students found the system relatively easy to use, although certain skills required some development.
The collection of data is still in progress and at this stage only brief conclusions can be drawn in relation to the objectives discussed in the introduction to this paper.
In the first course the use of e-mail provided the student with greater access to a particular resource - the lecturer. However, the demand placed on the lecturer's time did not result in the most efficient use of that valuable resource. With the use of WebCT in the second semester, following the initial input to prepare the course, the demands on the lecturers time were significantly reduced. In this course the use of C&IT facilitated a more efficient use of lecturer and student time.
For the majority of students the use of e-mail did not require the development of new IT skills but rather, utilised a form of communication familiar to most. WebCT however, did require the students to become familiar with navigating their way around a typical 'windows-style' environment. For the students less familiar with this type of interface the course introduced skills, which will be useful in the modern business environment.
From the feedback thus far, the impact of C&IT on the students learning experience can be summarised as follows. In the first module the use of e-mail was intended to compensate for the lack of time available for seminar sessions. The resulting discussions were beneficial but the student experience was not comparable to that of a traditional seminar. In the second module WebCT was used to replace a 'passive' element of the course delivery releasing time for seminar and presentation sessions. On reflection this was a far more effective use of C&IT in module delivery. It facilitated a student-centred learning approach rather than attempting to replace it. This approach retained the unique elements or qualities of human interaction (in the physical presence of others) that have a profound effect on the learning experience.
It is the evaluation of the use of C&IT and its ability to contribute to enhancing the student learning experience that will be the focus of the final research paper. The student feedback data and to a lesser extent the analysis of assessment performance will be used to evaluate the approaches taken and the extent to which they contributed to enhancing the student learning experience.
C&IT can clearly be used to enhance module delivery but, in this writer's opinion at present, it is most effective when used to provide time for appropriate face-to-face human interaction.
Footnotes and References
1. I would like to express my gratitude to Elizabeth Macdonald and Richard Ireland for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.
2. For a sceptical view see, for example, Dreyfus, 2001, p7 et sec, and for an enthusiastic view, see Migdal and Cartwright, 1997.
3. Being the subject of future work following further research over several teaching cycles and the analysis of student response data.
4. See the discussion of LMSS in Aikenhead et al, 2000.
5. See the 'New Durham Experiment' in Widdison and Schulte, 1998.
6. In particular much of the work reviewed and discussed by Widdison and Schulte 1998fn vi and the observations of Paliwala, 2001.
7. To the statement; 'Lectures and tutors were accessible for feedback and discussion of the course material', on the module evaluation questionnaire (filled in at the end of the module), 95 per cent of students either agreed or strongly agreed.
8. See < http://www.hcrc.ed.ac.uk/gal/vicar/>
9. The system does have a fully interactive element in the quiz and self test facilities but these were not used on this course.
10. See < http://www.jisc.ac.uk/mle/plagiarism/strandtwo.html> for an example of such software.
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