Educational Technology & Society 1(1) 1998
ISSN 1436-4522

Does the web offer solution to many old problems but create new ones in turn?

Moderator: Ashok Patel
Director, CAL Research & Software Engineering Centre, Bosworth House, De Montfort University, Leicester, United Kingdom. Email: apatel@dmu.ac.uk

Summarizer: Samantha Hobbs
Lecturer, Open University, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom. Email: S.J.E.Hobbs@open.ac.uk

Discussion Schedule
Discussion: 31 Aug.-9 Sept. 98
Summing up: 10-11 Sept. 98


The moderator offered the initial observations and invited the forum to discuss whether the World Wide Web solved many old problems but created new ones in turn!

The Web technology offers a relatively standard user interface through the Web Browser. It has multi-media capabilities and can communicate with the user through multiple channels of communication. It is link based and therefore has a flexible structure enabling subsequent addition or deletion of material much less painful than the 'hard-coded' programs. With increasing support for interaction through scripting and programming languages, it is possible to add the 'intelligence' so that we can now start designing Web-Based ITS (Intelligent Tutoring Systems).

It can now be considered quite possible, excepting problems of intellectual property and payments, that with appropriate authoring shell and indexing mechanism, teachers across the globe can co-operate in incrementally building/revising/updating tutoring material to cover all the possible parts of the curriculum. It is also possible, that the web will follow the 'printed book' so that one or more author/s might cover a range of topics in a webbook (as opposed to textbook and where 'book' represents an organised collection of learning resources) and the teachers would recommend the webbook that has a teaching approach which matches with their own teaching style. Unlike a printed textbook, the digital webbook has the flexibility of carrying different sets of links, so that, say, depending on the index you choose, you might get a top-down or bottom-up perspective, holistic or serialist approach to material presentation etc.

In short. standardised interface, multiple channels of communication, flexible structure, ease of amendment, possibility of division of labour ... the benefits of web technology surely overcomes many of the old problems. But before we are seduced by this very enticing technology, we should think about the new set of problems it might bring with it.

The forum is invited to discuss whether the web technology has indeed solved or offers better mechanism to solve any of the old problems and what are the new problems that the web technology is likely to bring with it.


Post-discussion summary

The solutions or advantages offered by the WWW were generally perceived by the contributors to be its ability to transcend the barriers of time and place (Dennis Nelson, Geoff Harrington, Diane Ehrlich), the ease with which information could be updated and accessed (Wendy Lowe, Mia Stern) and the communication it allowed between and among the various different types of users including the academics collaborating in developing courses and educational resources (Chris Baugh, Ashok Patel and Mia Stern), academics co-operating in implementing such courses and resources (Ashok Patel), students and 'experts' (Diane Ehrlich) spread across vast distances. A non content-based advantage of this ease of communication was the experience of and access to diverse cultures and knowledge-bases (Wendy Lowe).

Some of the challenges, however, were seen to be closely related to these advantages:

  1. The access to different cultures could be seen as a threat to the maintenance of cultural diversity (Alex Hogan) and, without training and/or sensitivity, cross-cultural communication could lead to communication problems and misunderstandings (Dennis Nelson).
  2. The asynchronous nature of WBT could be very challenging for students as deadlines tended to be fewer and the incentive of the face to face meetings was lost. There was consequently a greater need for self motivation, commitment and maturity to be able to complete courses (Dominique Hallett).
  3. The communication currently offered through the WWW was felt to be insufficient and devoid of social contact and constructive conflict (Janice Whatley, Peter Weisner).

Other challenges were seen to be caused by the technology being in flux and the rapid pace of development of the medium. The constant changes and advancements in the medium and the tools for using its diverse capabilities presented challenges to both the developers and academic staff (Mia Stern) as well as to the students (Nora Carrol, Peter Taylor) all of whom may either spend a lot of time and effort trying to keep up to date with a transient state of technology or be frustrated and alienated by products too far beyond their 'comfort zone'.

The concept of the 'evolution' of CBT/WBT was raised (Geoff Harrington, Bruce Jones) as an effective analogy to apply to several WWW-based challenges and there was support for the belief that the WWW will 'evolve' to fit the new spaces, needs and technologies on offer. A concrete example of this was that the development of a best practice use of text and other media within an appropriate multiple media strategy seemed to be lagging behind the possibilities offered (Geoff Harrington).

This problem of 'newness' was also proposed as a reason why CBT/WBT have not yet developed to provide the same degree of interactivity, leadership opportunities and mystery, amongst other things, as computer games (Peter Taylor).

The medium itself was seen to present other challenges:

Problems and compromises involved in the migration from CBT to WBT were commented on (Mia Stern, Chris Baugh) focussing on the loss of interactivity and feedback. Current research into a potential solution was outlined (Ashok Patel), suggesting that once the appropriate development tools were in place, the quantum of such interactive resources could far outstrip anything produced by the traditional CBT, due to the possibilities of sharing of both the developmental activities as well as the developed resources.

Tom Dickenson raised the concern that students may treat WWW or WBT as a proxy for interacting with the real world. Concerns were raised over the interference of advertising in teaching through the WWW both as a backdoor influence on students (Joe Beckmann) and as an unnecessary complicating factor for screen design (Janice Whatley).

There were a couple of interesting issues raised which extended outside the main discussion theme. The debate concerning potential financial savings by teaching through the WWW was raised in the discussion (Mike Zenanko) and has been discussed in more detail in the on-going informal discussions of the forum. The question of the need for memorisation of material as part of a learning strategy was raised and briefly discussed (Bruce Jones, A S du Plessis) in the closing stages of the discussion.

Commenting on the draft summary, Robert Holloway reiterated the problems relating to ownership and intellectual property rights, briefly touched upon in the moderator's initial observations and recommended them as quite significant problems.


Conclusion

The web offers exciting solutions to some old problems, particularly those of communicating, collaborating and co-operating over time and distance, whilst raising others. These were mainly relating to more diverse and heterogeneous user populations, continuous changes and rapid pace of developments as well as the problems of ownership and intellectual property rights. It was generally acknowledged that the use and development of WWW has not yet progressed far enough to utilise fully all it has to offer and consequently its true potential in practical terms as well as the associated problems are yet to be fully understood.


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