From the classroom to the Internet: Pedagogical and technological infrastructures for WWW-based learning

Bente Opheim
Department of History / ACO*HUM
University of Bergen
Sydnesplassen 7, 5007 Bergen, Norway
bente.opheim@hi.uib.no
http://www.hist.uib.no/


Introduction

An increasing number of teachers worldwide is using the Internet for teaching. Politicians encourage such activity, both economically and rhetorically, and educational institutions are eager to launch projects which they can label ODL or ICT. Teachers set up web sites for the students with the course syllabi and links to related information on the Internet and call it web based learning. Or e-mail connection between students and teacher qualify to call it distance learning. What is gained by such activities?

Investigations have shown that web based teaching not necessarily improves the quality of the result. On the contrary, some cases show that ODLclasses suffer from lack of motivation, lack of communication, low productivity and poor exam results. The History department at the University of Bergen has 6 years of experience with web based teaching of history students at undergraduate level. This paper will discuss the pedagogical and technological framework for open and distant learning on the web based on the experiences with the ABSALON project at the History department at UIB.

The ABSALON project

The ABSALON project was started in 1992 at the initiative of Jan Oldervoll at the History department at UIB. He had prevously been working with census data and especially the Norwegian census from 1801. The project was a response to the following problems. The number of students at the freshmen level was increasing and passed 300 students per semester in 1992. Some 35% of the students failed their exam, and the results of those who passed were very poor. According to the objectives stated for the project, "They did not achieve any clear understanding of why historians think they know something about the past, and how this knowledge is produced." (http://www.hist.uib.no/papers/jan/luxembou.htm). Consequently, the project aimed at stimulating the students to work more actively with the historical material through writing and discussion. This, however, could not result in more staff hours on the part of the department. A learning program was developed which let the students use the Internet as a dissemination forum and receive comments on their work by other students and teachers. The students could also engage themselves in electronic discussion seminars which were open to all the students as well as people from the outside world.

The project proved sucessful, with an improvement of results and motivation among those who attended the project compared to students who did not attend. Nevertheless, it soon became very evident that teaching on the web required careful planning and consideration, not only of the technical tools involved but even more of the pedagogical implications of such teaching. One frail point seemed to be the lack of a pedagogical infrastructure on the web.

Infrastructure for learning on the WWW

The success of the ABSALON project lies in the building of a pedagogical infrastructure for learning on the web. The technological tools used in the project are directed towards improvement of communication, dissemination and assessment:

  1. Communication - As in any kind of teaching the importance of communication can never be underestimated. The methods used to uphold and improve communication between teachers and students and among students have to be carefully considered. E-mail and e-mail lists are one way of doing it, but not a good one. Various types of HTML-lists are also being used with different outcomes. We have decided to develop a web based system (KARK) which enables the students and teachers to communicate efficiently with a browser as the only tool. Messages or topics for discussions can be posted and will appear as links in a table, indicating date and name of poster. The text will appear when you click on the link. Answers or replies will appear below the entry, thus creating the appearance of an ongoing discussion (select electronic seminar at http://www.hist.uib.no/grunnfag/andre/g7/eng.html)
  2. Dissemination - As already indicated, the examination of undergraduate students of history in Bergen is focused on the students´ ability of applying a historical method through writing. The question for the History department was: how can you teach people to write on the Internet in a cost and labor efficient manner? The answer was to create a system which enabled to students to publish their own texts and to make comments to the texts on-line. And again, with no other software than a browser. (Select students assignments at http://www.hist.uib.no/grunnfag/andre/g7/eng.html)
  3. Assessment - The students would not only have other students´ comments on their texts, but also the teachers´ reactions. For the History department in Bergen this meant that 100 students did not need to come by several times during a semester in order to have their assignments copied and read by students and a tutor. A workload was lifted from already burdened shoulders. A second problem was also solved: the teachers, who would often be Ph.D.-students or associates with their main obligations at a different institution, could easily get access to the text on the Internet and not be dependent on picking up a stack of papers at the front desk.

Pedagogical considerations

The above tools have shown to give the necessary infrastructure for learning history on the Internet. In order to get good results however, a number of considerations have to be made which influences the pedagogical conditions:

  1. Size of group - It is our experience that the groups should not be too large. 6 people at the minimum, since smaller groups tend to fall apart and 12 people at the maximum since larger groups seem to break off into subgroups.
  2. Autonomous or assisted groups - The involvement of a teacher is an important consideration. On the one hand, one wishes to stimulate the students to work independently and function as an autonomous group. On the other hand, it is important to control the activity and be able to step in if help is needed. The History department in Bergen follows two models:

Until now, the last model has only been offered to students with experience with the first model, and as an offer upon the students´ initiative. It is too early to evaluate the outcome of such student controlled activities on the web, but everything indicates that these groups work much better than the teacher controlled groups. However, full comparison can only be made with groups on the same level.

Practical considerations

Such a teaching program as described above also implies some practical considerations:

    1. Access to computers
    2. Amount of technical training
    3. Staff time
    4. Money

All the points listed above have to with available resources at the teaching institution. The History department is not, and has never been, a very wealthy department. In fact, the program was initially started as a means of increasing the quality of the teaching in a time of financial cutbacks. One factor has nevertheless been of vital importance, the support of the faculty and the central administration of the university. The reason for this support has to do with the general aspect of the project. Although it was developed in careful conjunction with the historical discipline, by historians with computing skills for history students only, the infrastructure could easily be transferred to other humanities disciplines and even outside the humanities. The department of Philosophy is among those who have started a similar project for some of the students of "examen philosophicum," a required course for all university students. We look forward to seeing the results of that project as we further develop and improve the ABSALON project.