Educational Technology & Society 3(3) 2000
ISSN 1436-4522

Towards First Year Biology online: a virtual learning environment

Mary Peat
Director, First Year Biology
School of Biological Sciences
The University of Sydney
NSW 2006 Australia
Tel: +61 29351 2100
Fax: +61 29351 2175


In our changing world where university students are demanding a greater say in their tertiary education, and in particular are demanding a greater flexibility in the way they receive their instruction, it is imperative that we investigate and experiment with course delivery strategies that fulfil these expectations. Online delivery of learning materials offers teacher and students a more flexible mode that may better suit the learning style and commitments of many of the students.

First Year Biology at the University of Sydney caters for a large number of students with varying incoming academic backgrounds and interests. In an attempt to offer them greater flexibility in the learning environment we first launched a Virtual Resources Room (VRR) offering access to various learning materials and subsequent development of communications capabilities turned the VRR into a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).

 The paper will show how the learning experiences of first year biology students at the University of Sydney have been influenced by a change in teaching philosophy and how this change has stimulated the development of a virtual learning environment which offers both individual learning experiences and opportunities to work together. Further developments in 2000 will exploit Web discussion technologies (in particular WebTeach) to enable students to have more effective communications with one another and with teaching staff.

Keywords: Virtual learning environments, Web, CAL, Online communications


The merging of robust learning technology with the Internet offers a new breed of learning experiences, in particular the development of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs). Virtual learning environments can be described as online domains that permit synchronous, collaborative interaction among teachers and students, while also providing asynchronous learning resources for individual use by students at any time. VLEs offer a learning system, made up of many components, with all the advantages of computer-based learning but with the added advantages of access and use over the Internet. VLEs today include a plethora of alternative teaching spaces including, internet based courses, tele-conferencing courses and virtual reality courses. The common link for all environments is that students come to a ‘place’, or use a technology to link them to a place to acquire new knowledge.

For the institution a VLE can offer a place where much of the essential learning on a course could occur, be encouraged, managed and monitored. For the students a VLE can offer a flexible, self-paced, self-centred learning experience or set of experiences that better suits the timetable of the students and their perceived learning needs. Within the VLE students are able to view course material, work on projects in small, collaborative groups, engage in discussion, access reference materials, self-assess their understanding of content and concepts and communicate with their peers and their teachers. The fact that students must read and write to use a VLE is one of the most compelling arguments for their use in education!

Despite its textual nature, a VLE is divided into working spaces (often as ‘rooms’ or ‘laboratories’) that are connected to each other by ‘exits’ or ‘pathways’ according to an intuitively spatial arrangement. Students can meet in small discussion rooms; they can ‘walk to’ a virtual library; or visit a resources centre; or visit their teacher’s virtual office (by email) to ask a question. This virtual spatiality is one of the most important features of VLEs, since it makes infinite variety possible in an environment that is also intuitively easy to navigate and use.

Are virtual teaching environments a major leap forward? It is not the intention to suggest that a virtual learning environment is the panacea for solving the current educational crises (e.g. of reduced funding, of increasing student heterogeneity and thus of increasing individual requirements).  However this paper will describe the development of a VLE for a large first year biology class and show how this move online has increased student learning opportunities. The paper will show how the learning experiences of first year biology students at the University of Sydney have been influenced by a change in teaching philosophy and that this change has helped stimulate the development of a virtual learning environment which offers both individual learning experiences and opportunities to work together.


First Year Biology

First Year Biology at the University of Sydney caters for 1300 students each year in large lecture classes (500 students per series) and laboratory classes with 60 students in each session (with 28 sessions on offer each week to suit the students’ timetables).

A mix of face-to-face activities and online activities together form the basis of many university courses today and we have followed this recipe in an attempt to offer students a greater flexibility in the learning environment. Candy, Crebert and O’Leary (1994) suggest that courses that enhance lifelong learning must offer some flexibility in structure and provide for development of self-directed learning. We have not only done this but have changed the philosophy from teaching students to facilitating student learning especially within the laboratory experience and so we have moved from teacher-centred to student-centred learning. Early changes in this move involved organisational and structural issues, such as the way the laboratory classes were designed or reviewing which activities best suited a student-centred learning approach. The introduction of computers as a permanent feature of the laboratory experience, and the development of computer-assisted learning modules (CAL) to target specific learning difficulties led to a focus on the use of computers in the learning process.  For example, students have difficulty with understanding the process of cell division and with the concept of surface area to volume ratio and the significance of this to animals and plants.  We have produced modules that target these problem areas. In particular the use of revision and self-assessment materials was targeted. The face-to-face classes themselves are now designed and written to embrace a peer study group model to help students collaborate with one another. All students are members of a peer study group and work together in class on experiments, computer-based learning materials and workshop activities, and outside class on field work and research for the presentation of posters (back within class). Both staff and student assessment is used for some of the student outcomes of the laboratory program. Gibbs (1992) argues that students employ deep approaches to learning when they perceive that the teaching is ‘open’ (as opposed to ‘closed’).  A ‘closed’ conception of teaching, where the student believes the entire process is teacher-controlled does not encourage students to take responsibility for their actions and to function independently of the teacher, whereas an open conception of teaching does encourage independence. This can be equated to teachers facilitating learning rather than teaching content. Gibbs also proposes that the appropriate focus of attention in improving the quality of students’ learning is course design and process rather than teaching and content. We have made considerable changes to both course design and process to enhance the learning experience.  In addition, it has been argued (Fraser & Deane, 1997) that students must engage in deep or meaningful learning if they are to become suitably equipped for the workplace, with a knowledge base and understanding that may be built on in years to come and is also transferable. With these issues in mind, we initially created a Virtual Resources Room to help students engage in meaningful learning and this has since led to the development of a Virtual Learning Environment in which we offer students opportunities to be involved in group or individual activities.


Virtual Resources Room

The Virtual Resources Room (VRR) was originally launched in response to student requests for greater access to a real resources room which had limited opening hours, and we could not afford to extend these hours. The VRR initially contained materials available in the real resources room, and we hoped that this virtual delivery would alleviate the problem of access and also, because  many of the resources offer a student-centred, self-paced format, help encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning. The materials available in virtual mode included computer-aided learning (CAL) programs, lecture notes, and special self-assessment modules (SAMs). These have been described and discussed elsewhere (Franklin & Peat, 1998; Franklin, Peat, & Mackay-Wood, 1998; and Peat, Franklin & Mackay-Wood 1997).

With the launch of the VRR it was seen that such a facility could be more than just a repository of some materials, but could also be exploited for improving communications between student and staff and students and students. We offered the students a novel link to supportive staff by setting up CyberTutor and a mechanism for student-student interaction in the form of a simple discussion forum.

CyberTutor allows students with an email account to send questions about the course content and organisation to the staff. Anecdotal reports indicate that those students who avail themselves of this facility are very appreciative of this as they are able to contact us without a face-to-face visit and this often saves them precious on-campus time which they need to redirect into other activities. The staff remain anonymous which allows for the involvement of several staff acting as CyberTutor during the course.  The students do not remain anonymous although their email addresses are cryptic enough to mask their identity. Barnes (1999) discusses the need for students to remain anonymous when communicating with staff.  He argues that being anonymous is more comfortable for students and that they are more likely to use an anonymous service.  We have not investigated this argument with our student although we have not found that being identified discourages them from emailing us. In fact the opposite may be true – in a large class (1300 of them), they welcome the individual one-to-one conversation even though they do not know which one of us it is.

The simple discussion forum currently in operation encourages students to access each other in real or virtual time, although it is best used asynchronously. It allows students to post questions or discuss any topic with their peers. Student use of this facility was slow to start with but it is becoming more used as more students obtain better access to the Internet and their skills in using these facilities improve. Discussion topics include: exams; lectures; lab reports; ethics of using animal materials; posters; lecture theatres; how to reference URLs; and technical help with downloading materials.


Evaluation of the use of the VRR and its materials

Surveys, focus groups and online feedback forms have been used to evaluate the use of the VRR and its materials. Responses are positive and anecdotal evidence indicates that we have produced materials that help students in many ways.  Students find that having 24 hour a day access to the learning materials suits their varied life-styles. The students find the learning materials to be very useful for many different reasons.  This supports our own claims that our CAL is subject to extensive formative evaluation before being launched.  External peer review reinforces this claim.  Two CAL programs were selected as finalists in 1998 in the ASCILITE (Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education) annual software awards. Entries into these awards must be working products and they are judged on their appropriateness for the target audience, appropriateness for stated educational rationale for use, quality, innovation and evidence of effectiveness. One of the CAL programs won the Best Small Project category for 1998. The ASCILITE panel evaluation of the VRR was ‘This is clearly an excellent resource for students studying biology. Well structured and excellent evaluation data.’

Analysis of the use of CyberTutor indicates four main categories and the results in Figure 1 show that the students are using the facility mainly for accessing information about academic matters (lectures and lab classes) and that queries about Internet use have begun to decrease.  This reflects the increase skill base of the incoming students and also the fact that we have made greater effort to help our students develop the generic skills required.


Figure 1. Email enquiries by category as a percentage of total enquiries. “A” represents Semester 1 each year and “B” represents Semester 2


The total number of enquiries is still rather low and this needs to be investigated.  In 2000, students will get more information about the facility and we will build a small exercise on using email and Web resources into the first semester curriculum.

The VRR has been peer reviewed by two colleagues (one from the University of Tasmania and one from Curtin University of Technology, Western Australia).  These reviews are available on the Web (Jones, 1999; Fyfe, 1999).


Future development of the Virtual Learning Environment

The enlargement of facilities within the original VRR to encompass communications capabilities and links to other materials of interest turned the VRR into a Virtual Learning Environment. The development of a facility by accumulation and slow evolution often leads to the focus changing and the end result not very clear. This is currently the situation with the first year biology VLE. A focus group discussion with student users led to a re-think of the purpose of the VRR and how we could re-purpose the VRR into a VLE.  The requirements of the re-design were to:

  • improve navigation;
  • separate out each unit of study (course);
  • introduce CyberAdmin, an administrative help facility; and
  • allow for future expansion.


We are using the metaphor of a building to re-create the VLE. Students will enter the building and travel by lift to Level 1, 2 or 3 – representing first year, second year and third year. On leaving the lift they will enter the Level lobby and meet CyberAdmin, some general notice boards and doors, which open into a room for each of the units of study. Within each room students will be able to find learning materials and notices for the unit of study, again be able to link to CyberAdmin, with an additional link to CyberTechSupport, and have the opportunity to ‘sit down’ and talk to one another. There will be no control over access to the lobby or each unit room, although there may be control over access to some resources (e.g. lecture notes). We have a third year student from the focus group working on the prototype of the new-look VLE and the group will trial the site before it is launched.



University teaching and student learning are moving through transition processes, driven by many factors including changing student requirements and economic forces.  In first year biology we have tried to provide a more flexible delivery for some of our materials, such that our students can choose when they want to be engaged in these activities. To this end we have used Web technology to enable a virtual learning environment to be available all the time for our large class of first year students.  This allows students to learn in a way that suits their lifestyle and which we hope will enhance opportunities for participation in higher education. Better communication facilities have improved student access to staff.  With increasing student numbers and decreasing staff resources it is imperative that we continue to address the communication issue.

In first year biology we aim to mix virtual learning on the Internet with real life, face-to-face learning in practicals and lectures, but with an emphasis on accessing virtual learning resources. Students now have greater access to the materials than previously as our on-line facility is open 168 hours a week. Depending on their preference, students can now access all our teaching and learning resources either in person by visiting the actual resources room or electronically via the Virtual Resources Room. Thus students without Internet access are not disadvantaged.  In time the traditional three lectures a week and three hours of laboratory work are likely to diffuse into a mix of these styles with small group activities and independent activities associated with computer-aided materials, and with a greater emphasis on student autonomy within the learning process.

In Australia, as elsewhere in the world, most institutions in higher education are committing themselves to using computers in education. This is happening for four compelling reasons: staff-student ratios have risen; the modularization of courses is increasing the pressure to share materials; technology is beginning to offer stability to meet user-expectation; and there is a consumer expectation that an institution will be heavily involved in information technology and computer-assisted learning materials. In the science context there is a strong push to investigate alternatives to some face-to-face laboratory experiences for students. Our VLE is neither a substitute for nor a complete departure from the traditional teaching environment, but a compelling extension of it. The challenge we face is to identify the best in VLE-type learning and use it in conjunction with traditional classroom teaching.



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