Web course tools enable any place, any pace learning

Several thousand years after Socrates invented active learning – called, by an astonishing coincidence, the Socratic Method – Web-based communications technologies are enabling the newest generation of university students to redraw the traditional boundaries of time and place in learning.

For the last three years, Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., has been steadily increasing its use of WebCT (Course Tools), a browser-based, platform-independent virtual learning environment (VLE). Essentially an intranet portal, WebCT adds synchronous and asynchronous online communication to over 100 courses, from ENGL 2P52 (post-colonial literature) to CHEM 3P63 (proteins and nucleic acids).

One strength of WebCT, according to Prof. Barry W. K. Joe, who as director of Brock’s Centre for Teaching, Learning and Educational Tools oversees the system, is its ability to fill the instructional gaps experienced by the increasing number of working students whose jobs have to take priority over class.

“Beginning about four or five years ago we had students coming to us saying ‘I just can’t make the Friday lecture because I’ve got a shift and my boss won’t change it.’ To keep pace with this trend we are looking at ‘any place, any pace learning’ so that students begin to understand that learning is not restricted to a timetable slot or a classroom number – it takes place all the time,” Joe said.

“If [my students] are at home and something occurs to them about hypertext, or they see a cool interview with (cyber psychologist) Sherry Turkle, they can hop on the Web, post to the discussion, and be done. They still made a contribution to the class, they still connected with the subject material and, in fact, they’ve integrated that into their everyday lives which brings home the fact that university learning really does have to deal with real life.”

As well as threaded discussion, chat rooms, private mail, and a shared real-time whiteboard, members of Joe’s computer-mediated communications class praised WebCT’s busy-student features that allow them to submit assignments, check marks, download handouts and share class notes.

With its 24/7 access, second year Comm student Cassie Randall has found that WebCT is a handy way to contact class members with questions and concerns. For better or worse, “It also eliminates the typical ‘I didn’t know about that assignment’ syndrome,” she said.

When used well, e-learning systems have the potential to turn a random class of 200 undergrads into a community, said Kate Baggott, a Toronto-based senior interactive specialist with consulting firm Delvinia.

“The success of any e-learning system should be measured by the amount and the quality of the interaction it supports. From my point of view, that isn’t as much a technical feature as it is a symptom of the leadership of the instructors to inspire their students to think and share their thoughts,” Baggott said.

Sarah Mavor, a third-year exchange student from Scotland’s Glasgow Caledonian University, likes, with a few reservations, the forum WebCT provides for the sober second thoughts that can get lost in a lively classroom discussion.

“In class the point you want to make often doesn’t come out exactly as you meant it. A benefit with WebCT is that you can log on at anytime and take as long as you want typing out what you have to say. However, one drawback is waiting for a reply – if you ever get one. You may be very passionate about a subject one day and by the time someone has replied you have lost your train of thought concerning it,” she said.

Another problem area for online learning can be a lack of flexibility in some elements of the Web tools, Baggott said.

“Not all professors or students necessarily have the time, expertise or aptitude to spend a lot of time learning how to bend these tools to their own purposes. Templates can give students and profs a “fill in the blanks” kind of experience…that doesn’t provide an outlet for complexity of passion, original thinking and critical insight,” she said.

Joe agreed with this concern, noting that if educators don’t adapt their methods for the technologically mediated environment the online experience can fall flat.

“The biggest difficulty (with WebCT) was educating our faculty about what they can or can’t do. Too many instructors develop what we call “shovelware” – they take a paper course and shovel the same old crap into HTML and up [to the ‘net] without changing it,” he said.

The solution, Joe explained, lies in showing staff how to be real teachers in the virtual environment.

“[The VLE] is very different than leading a seminar discussion – the power dynamic is different because you have no visual cues, no audio or aural cues – but there are techniques to facilitate discussion.”

The students, however, take to WebCT with greater ease each year, Joe said.

“We are three weeks into term now and we’ve got 35 postings where they are arguing among themselves about information flow, (author) Douglas Rushkoff and Plato’s cave. I didn’t have to tell them that [WebCT] is their forum – they’ve just taken it,” he said.

Although the cost of WebCT has skyrocketed since its developers at the University of British Columbia sold it to the Peabody, Mass.-based Universal Learning Technologies – a single-server unlimited user licence runs from US$10,000 to US$20,000 per year – Joe believes it is a worthwhile and necessary expense.

“In the 21st century students now have libraries in their living rooms on their computer. With information retrieval at their fingertips, the model of the novice or the acolyte coming to the great centre and sitting at the feet of the professor because that’s the only place you can get information has gone out the window – and we have to be aware of that.”