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Editorial: Developing web-based learning environments at Warwick

Jay Dempster, Centre for Academic Practice, University of Warwick

The use of the World Wide Web for teaching and learning is growing rapidly. Web resources are often included in course reading lists and seminar work is being extended by the use of electronic discussion. Computer-assisted learning (CAL) materials developed for network or CD-ROM distribution are now more commonly prepared for delivery over the Web. Such methods are highly valuable in developing more student-centred approaches to teaching and learning whilst retaining the benefits of tutorial/seminar-type interaction. While this is often most appropriate in delivering effective distance education, it also offers benefits to campus-based students as opportunities are increased for (a) more flexible access to course materials, (b) communication with tutors and peers and (c) collaborative group work. 

More recently, web-based learning environments that provide an easier means of producing and accessing learning materials and activities are highly valued by lecturers and students. However, implementation of such learning environments will only be effective and of benefit in the longer term when elements specific to (a) the pedagogic aims of courses in particular disciplines and (b) the institutional culture are integrated into the overall design. It is this overarching framework for developing effective learning environments that the TELRI Project based at Warwick is seeking to identify in providing applicability across disciplines and across institutions. In this sense, there are no products for producing web-based learning environments currently available that provide an appropriate vehicle. 

The HE sector in the UK has needed to respond recently to a range of inputs, such as the HEFC funding changes, Subject Review (formerly Teaching Quality Assessment, TQA), and HEQC Quality Audit. Additionally, massification of the HE system, modularisation, semesterisation, an increasing emphasis on graduate standards and a growth in information and communications technologies have also demanded that institutions consider more student-centred approaches to their existing teaching and learning processes. In doing so, the challenges facing lecturers in harnessing learning technologies are three-fold: 

  1. The wide array of knowledge and skills needed to set up one or more technology-assisted learning opportunities requires a large input of time. Lack of motivation to devote significant time to teaching development, away from research where incentives for achieving excellence are more apparent, results in reluctance by academic staff to embrace IT for teaching purposes.
  2. The effective integration of technology-assisted methods and materials into courses requires a rethinking of teaching and learning approaches that many lecturers find difficult. Technology-based methods and materials that are "bolt-on" rather than integrated into teaching and learning approaches will generally neither enhance student learning nor benefit overall teaching efficiency. The academic development support is currently most effective on a small consultancy basis.
  3. The successful integration of educational technologies in the longer term requires consideration of both the culture of a specific discipline and the institutional ethos. Currently, little implementation work considers this part of the process of managing change.

In addressing the issue of integration of learning technologies, "learning environments", such as FirstClass, LotusNotes, WebCT, WebBoard, and 20 or so others, have come onto the market. These enable lecturers to provide, and students to access, documents, resources and discussion forums within one application reducing the breadth and depth of skills required by both and students. Integration in this sense, however, still does not necessarily embed pedagogic and cultural aspects into the overall course design. This element is still left to the lecturer and/or academic developers. 

In this issue of Interactions

The first article in this issue of Interactions examines the extent to which the opportunity to develop expertise in web-based education is ripe for the harvesting. The second article describes the use of LotusNotes at Lancaster University providing valuable insight into some of the educational potentials and shortcomings of a popular choice of  learning environment in the  HE and business sectors. The third article describes the thinking behind the development of a web application called COSE (Creation of Study Environments) at Staffordshire University under a JISC Technology Applications Programme (JTAP) project that embedding learning approaches within the system design. 

The Innovations section includes some further accounts of the use of IT, particularly the web, in teaching and learning across a range of disciplines.  The resources and links sections in this issue all provide useful access to papers, guides, resources and services that assist the development of web-based learning.   

Ways forward at Warwick

The Educational Technology Service is currently investigating the best step forward in a choice of web-based learning system for university-wide provision. We are keen to get it right. We are evaluating the advantages and limitations of each of the main platforms and taking into account the experiences of others. There is serious consideration to develop a new system, based on COSE or starting from scratch, which embraces the pedagogic and cultural issues in managing learning which, so far, is not met by currently available systems.   

Benefits of developing web-based learning environments at Warwick
  1. Web-based learning environments designed on a sound educational model encourages staff to consider their aims and objectives and the capabilities they are wishing to develop in students, and to base assessment approaches on these criteria. We will increasingly be called upon to define academic levels and outcomes, and this would be a useful opportunity to develop academic staff thinking in this area.
  2. Web-based learning environments provide a low-cost, common learning environment, which departments should be encouraged to use to supplement or incorporate existing teaching methods. Software standardisation would bring obvious benefits in support and training.
  3. Web-based learning environments might enable us to support the development of effective open and distance learning provision, by providing an environment which students could access from outside the University.
  4. The educational model which informs COSE and TELRI work will be developed further through the experiences of implementing and evaluating educational technologies across a range of disciplines at Warwick in the TELRI Project work and in other teaching development activities.

Editor

Dr Jay Dempster
Centre for Academic Practice
University of Warwick
Tel: +44 (0) 24 7657 2737
Email: jay.dempster@warwick.ac.uk


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