Learning from the Web: Are Students Ready or Not?
Azza A. Arif
While more institutions around the world are rapidly moving towards the integration of technology within their educational systems, here at the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa, there is a more prudent approach. The slow adoption of any of the numerous technology tools available for educators has many factors contributing to it. The past regime, with no doubt, produced immense inequalities in the society in general and in education in particular. The introduction and use of educational technologies, on one hand, could surely help in addressing accessibility issues for a wide base of learners. On the other hand, in a different context it could nevertheless alienate certain sections of the learners' society. This view is also expressed in a report regarding technology-enhanced learning in South Africa written by a ministerial committee, (Report, 1996). The report, or rather investigation as per its title, recognizes that "the mere introduction of the technology, is as likely to disempower as to empower." It calls for organizational, curricular and institutional decision-making processes to be in place for careful monitoring and evaluation.
More students in the South African higher education institutions are coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. The meaning of disadvantaged here implies limited or no access to basic resources that are taken for granted in the developed world. For example, statistics show that 25% of the urban households do not have access to piped water supply and as many as 46% are not connected to an electricity supply grid, (Du Preez, 1996). In such a resourceful country poverty is overwhelming among the majority of the population; between 36% and 53% of South Africans are estimated to live below the poverty line, (Castells, 1998).
On the technological front, the country is considered "linked to the informational/global economy." It has the highest number of Internet hosts, of any non-OECD country, (Castells, 1998). This does not necessarily allude to a technology-conversant constituency. In fact, there are many students who enter university with no exposure to the Internet and little, if any, to the computer technology. They have to go through programs of structured orientation and guidance that most institutions are now offering. However, only after a dedicated period of self-learning and training do they get to their colleagues’ readiness levels for the use of technology.
All the above-mentioned factors combined, influenced the adoption and application of educational technologies in the education system and resulted in the current slower pace of development in the area. Hence, in the case of Web-Based-Education (WBE), although it is one of many educational tools used extensively in the higher education circles these days; its introduction at UCT took place only last year. It started with a few pilot projects around campus, (Monday Paper, 2000). My cautious implementation in a Construction course module was one of them and this paper will reflect on the methodology applied as well as on the students' perception of the application.
The Web Environment
Undoubtedly, using the Web for teaching is proving to be a useful addition to the lecturer’s tools in terms of the vast resources it offers; "as an information storage and retrieval system it is a very well-designed medium," (Laurillard, 1993). It also facilitates student-lecturer communication quite effectively, releasing the restriction of the classroom or the office and allowing accessibility to anyone from anywhere at anytime, a world-wide-web indeed. The Web environment, though, forces some kind of transformation in the development of coursework. The process of putting the course content on the web, formulating the teaching aims and goals for that medium, setting up on-line assessment and evaluation activities, is a completely different process from that followed by the lecturer in a traditional teaching situation. Moreover, just as live lectures evolve as the lecturer gains new information and refines the old, so does the computer-based environment through revision and maintenance. This represents an added responsibility on the lecturer that requires a thorough consideration from the earlier stages of the course inception.
In parallel, the web environment for the student is one full of excitement and provides an interactive medium with which traditional methods can not compete. The hypertext environment is quite different and "has many characteristics of entertainment such as adventures and fantasy, and elicits free association in the learner," (Kommers, 1996b). Accessing the material on-line and following hyperlinks from one topic to another represent a dramatic change from the traditional reading of text in a printed format and flipping the pages between chapters in a sequential manner. This clear distinction lies in the structure of electronic texts. While books are linear because their pages are physically bound in a fixed sequence, electronic texts have no set boundaries and it is easy to jump between two nonconsecutive pages, (Costanzo, 1994). Learning, however, from the screen is not a natural process. For the student to adjust his/her traditional learning strategies to meet the challenges of the new format there is a need for training. “Hypertext is not a stand-alone learning medium… it needs additional support from the teacher, just as library work does,” (Laurillard, 1993).
With all points considered both teachers and students might not necessarily be ready to use the web environment effectively. Assuming that they will quickly grasp its scope as a teaching and a learning tool is not realistic. This paper argues that the concept of web-based education requires obvious adaptations both in the teaching and in the learning methods. The discussion will focus on the latter. It will examine the second-year students' perception of using the web in one module of a core course and how do they feel about its impact on their studying and learning methods.
WBE in Application
In an attempt to study the students' reaction and their acceptance of the application of technology, I decided to introduce a web application in one of my courses. The latest university purchase of web-based software (WebCT) and the available technical support for its users on-campus supported my inquiry. More importantly, it was supported by the students' eagerness to try a new method of content delivery. With the aforementioned background, the only way to proceed in that direction was to test the application on a small scale; i.e.: one module of the coursework.
The starting point was one of four modules covered in the Construction Technology course. This is a core course offered to the second-year students of the Construction Management and Quantity Surveying programs at UCT. It was a group of 36 students in their first semester of the year 2000. The first three modules were covered using traditional methods in the classroom; lectures supported by visual transparencies and site visits, along with handouts and notes in a print format. The fourth module was then offered on-line.
My design of the content was conscious about the logical breakdown of the topic to sub-topics to give the student the sense of order. Researchers agree on the basic cognitive models of reading where "it is more difficult to create a mental representation of a disjointed or disorganized text," (Charney, 1994). Many of the principles applied in the module layout are adopted from Grabinger's design guidelines. On the micro-level organization of the content, I used headings to reflect the structure and to provide directive cues, (Grabinger, 1996). They were placed in an area of the screen that serves for orientation. At any level of the hierarchy, students had the option of jumping forward or backwards if they desire. Linearity was not enforced. Attention was also given to the graphic presentation and the screen design, (Arif, 2001). The purpose was to make it consistent as well as visually interesting. One has to mention the already built tools that the software provides; they are easily tailored to the lecturer's specific needs. However, only tools relevant to this particular module were explored, such as the Calendar and Self-Test tools. There were a few opening sessions aimed at getting them familiar with the software and the content structure on the screen which were well-attended and proved useful.
At the end of the semester, the students provided their opinions on the format and the application of that particular web-based module. From the class of 36 students, 26 responded, translating into a 72% return. Their feedback forms indicated their general satisfaction with the software used (WebCT), the screen design and structure of information, the tools offered for self-assessment and the on-line calendar availability, (Arif, 2000). Nevertheless, their views on studying from the web-site directly did not match their overall enthusiasm and satisfaction.
The following analysis is based on the data extracted from those feedback forms. The selected questions focus on the students’ perception of using the Web for studying and learning and their general past and future use of it.
Using the Web - generally
Serving as an introduction, the students were asked about their previous experience with the Web in terms of study and research. The following table gives a relative indication of the general computer abilities for this group of students. From Table-1, it appears that the majority of students (88%) are familiar with the Internet and with using its resources for academic purposes despite the fact that their curricula, to date, do not require that knowledge. All our current courses at UCT are mainly based on traditional teaching and learning methods without any outlined formal requirement for the use of computer technology. Effectively, the experiences they gained in using the web are mainly individual efforts.
Noteworthy, upon registration, students are given automatic access to the Internet via the UCT system with individual e-mail addresses. They are offered an introductory course, during their first year, on Basic Computer Skills that covers the essential survival points, i.e.: logging on to the local network, saving and retrieval of documents in addition to printing overview. The course also provides them with word-processing and spreadsheets start-up guidelines. Hence, this group of second-year students had a full year to get comfortable with computers and ready to use the Internet and explore its potential.
This high percentage of familiarity would probably decrease dramatically if it were a first-year group of students that comes from a variety of school settings. In general, there is a concentration of resources among a few selected schools while others are completely left behind. For instance, there are schools in areas where the teacher pupil ratio mounts to 1:80 and seldom lower than 1:40, (Du Preez, 1996). Schools do not necessarily have electricity for light, let alone working computers. In some rural areas, schools can still only be accessed on horseback which makes it difficult to equip with the necessary facilities, and to service them, (Report, 1996). Unsurprisingly, great variance in the exposure of students to the technology exists and will have to be considered at all levels of education especially in the teething years of transformation.
Table 1. Using the Web - generally
The remaining 12%, who are somewhat familiar with the Internet or have not used it at all for academic purposes, should not be underestimated. In many countries around the world, computer courses are no longer optional at secondary and primary school stages. Their students' surfing of the web is not only geared towards leisure and entertainment; but rather researching topics and fundamental data retrieval formulate integral parts of their curriculum. Therefore, the context of such applications and the students' composition plays a primary role in the selection, adoption and extent of use of these technologies.
Using the Web - for learning
Despite the high familiarity with the web shown in the previous table, this did not translate into a comparable high satisfaction with using it for acquiring knowledge on the subject matter. Only 54% of the class think this method of content delivery through the web was more helpful in comparison to the traditional methods of delivery, as shown in Table-2. This response points to the need for more than the mere familiarity with the web and the basic computer skills to use it effectively for learning. Several studies support this view.
Table 2. Using the Web for learning
In using WBE as a new learning tool, students are faced with a number of challenges. Firstly, reading on computers may seem less natural to those who have spent a lifetime reading conventional texts, (Costanzo, 1994). In the analysis of electronic versus printed texts, one forgets that even a simple habit like taking in large chunks of printed information at a time, had to be learned. Similarly, reading from the computer screen needs to be learned, especially with its shape and size where fewer words can be seen at a glance. Secondly, there is a shift of roles between the teacher and the learner. The learner, and not the teacher, is the director and the manager of the information, accessing it and creating the necessary links between parts of it, (Kommers, 1996a). Several text features have been established as a product of centuries of experimentation by writers striving to make their texts more comprehensible to readers. Hypertexts compound the difficulties of creating a coherent mental representation by shifting a large portion of this burden to the reader, (Charney, 1994), or the student in this case, which represents another factor affecting any WBE application.
Using the Web - for studying
As students are in control of their learning in this environment, an added emphasis is placed on their self-assessment. Making use of a Quiz tool that the software offers, I put together a series of questions on the subject for the students to use at any point of their readiness. The provision of these tests was intended to promote active knowledge construction, where the student responds to queries on problem solving, analysis and application of knowledge. They were based on the premises that content is not the end but the means to an end, as the ultimate goal is the ability to use that content and apply effectively. This kind of assessment provided the students with an immediate feedback that guides and informs them about their performance. They were able to make personal judgments about their progress and decide how to redirect their learning.
Their perception of this tool is very positive, as shown in Table-3, where a majority of 84% indicates that it complements their studying. They appreciated providing them with those tests that they could use more than once depending on their need. The questions also included general comments along with the correct answers to clarify particular concepts. Students were allowed non-restrictive access to the tests, available at any time from anywhere. Marking was automated so they knew how they performed instantly, and they had statistics for their overall progress.
Table 3. Using the Web for Studying
Traditionally, they would write a test on one day and would wait for days, or weeks, for their papers to be marked. Then, according to their results they would start filling the gaps in their studying. There is an obvious advantage here in using the technology and such elements most likely contribute to the students’ enthusiasm about using the web in their course. It has to be noted, though, the limitations of technology in that area. Not all types of questions could be written, answered and automatically marked on-line. Further discussion about this issue is beyond the scope of this paper but it was generally noticed that the simplest form to use is the multiple-choice questions. This issue might constitute a hurdle for some types of courses and contents; perhaps those courses with essay-type responses requiring a more subjective assessment.
Using the Web - repeatedly
Despite the students’ hesitation in favoring the web-based delivery method over the traditional delivery methods as far as being more helpful to their studying preferences, their acceptance to the technology in general is quite positive. Their satisfaction with the technology and its valued application within their coursework is clear and resolute. A high majority of the students (85%) supports the application of web-based-education in their courses, as shown in Table-4. They welcome the interaction offered by the new medium and are not discouraged or intimidated by the new demands and shifts that the technology imposes on their learning techniques. As learning from new technology is relatively unfamiliar, they have to develop their learning techniques for this, (Laurillard, 1993). It will only happen with some guidance.
It is not easy for students to learn to take the initiative. They will certainly face difficulty in suddenly having to start planning their own learning strategies. It is a new role with new demands and they have little experience, practice, or training to assume it. If left on their own, students may continue to choose the same learning strategies over and over again, even if these are inappropriate, ineffective, or inefficient, (Grabinger & Dunlap, 1996).
Again, a form of orientation to enhance their full and effective use of such methods is the way to strengthen their readiness for such tasks. The length and intensity of such guidance will largely depend upon the students’ baseline knowledge and familiarity with the computer technology and the Internet environment.
Table 4. Using the Web - repeatedly
Moreover, it will rely on the frequency of similar applications. The effect of learning new techniques and getting guidance for application will certainly prove more useful to the students if applied to more than one course in their studying. As Diana Laurillard recommends, in her analysis for setting up the learning context, "unless students use what they learn on a package, it will soon be forgotten, no matter how good it is, or how well they learned it initially," (Laurillard, 1993). Currently, more academics around campus are interested in trying new technologies. This year is witnessing a substantial gain in the popularity of educational technologies and their application in a variety of disciplines. Hence, more courses will be introduced in that medium where students will start to develop their skills in that area and gradually get ready to function with the new media proficiently.
Using the web as a medium for teaching and learning exemplifies one of several educational technologies that is widely used and successfully implemented in many parts of the world. Web-Based-Education, being a fairly new concept in the University of Cape Town, represents a tool of tangible potentials that is being explored in the local context. Many factors play significant roles to reach a successful formula for its application. These factors comprise the type of course, module(s) content, timeframe of preparation and delivery, all of which apply to any educational environment in general terms. However, the students’ composition and the available technology form the foremost critical factors in the South African context. There is a wide discrepancy between students entering university level, which is more evident and manifested in their understanding and use of technology. These are reflections of the dark days of apartheid, which ended in 1994 by the election of a new democratic government. The new plan of reconstruction and transformation aims at achieving access, equity and equality in education and training, (Report, 1996). These goals dominate the approach to all educational innovations, including web-based modules, and they shape the extents of it application.
Following a web-based course module, the students expressed certain difficulties in studying and learning from the on-line content which, this paper argues, are a product of their mixed levels of readiness to use the medium and lack of preparation. While trying to deal with acquiring new knowledge from the course content, many students were struggling to understand the basics of computer technology let alone dealing with the web environment, all at the same time. In developed countries, where computers present part of the curricula in secondary and even primary schools, these issues might not have such bearing. The case is different in developing countries and gets more dramatic in the South African context.
Studying the reaction of the students to a web-based module signifies the role played by the student and his/her readiness to use the new methods productively. Questions should be asked and answers should be sought. As a starting point, is the student well prepared for using the computer technology? Then, is the student competent in using the Web for accessing course content and navigating through it easily? Moving towards educational concepts, is the student well equipped for self-assessment and judgment to adapt new directions in learning? Finally, the ultimate question, is the student ready for a change in the old studying techniques to the new ones? The paper emphasizes that readiness of students should not be taken as a given and that readiness could have different annotations pending on the educational system to which the students belong. That readiness certainly represents a crucial variable that needs to be researched and considered before the dispersion of such applications.