Learner interaction and current practice in asynchronous delivery
Tim S Roberts
Central Queensland University
Moore (1996) identified three types of learner interaction - learner-content, learner-instructor, and learner-learner. This paper presents four models of online teaching currently in use within the Faculty of Informatics and Communication at Central Queensland University (CQU), a multi-campus, regional university at the forefront of flexible delivery, and evaluates each of the models in terms of the three types of learner interaction.
The current paper summarises four models of online delivery described in (Roberts, Jones and Romm, 2000) - the naïve model, the standard model, the evolutionary model, and the radical model - expands on the advantages and disadvantages of each approach, and recommends the circumstances under which each should be considered as the preferred model.
It then proceeds to relate each of these four examples of current practice to underlying theory, in terms of the three types of learner interaction - learner-content, learner-instructor, and learner-learner - described by Moore (1996).
The three types of interaction
Moore (1996) describes the importance of distinguishing between three types of learner interaction - learner-content, learner-instructor, and learner-learner.
In learner-content interaction, learners effectively "talk to themselves" about the information and the ideas they encounter. An extreme example would be self-study from a text in a library.
In learner-instructor interaction, learning effectively takes place from a "sage on the stage", who supposedly imparts knowledge and wisdom to the students. This is still by far the most common method employed by most educational institutions, from primary schools through to universities.
In learner-learner interaction, students help themselves to learn, by sharing ideas and discussing problems, often in a real or virtual group setting. This is clearly the least common and least conventional of the three modes of interaction, but one of the most exciting for those interested in online delivery, since the use of online forums and email lists generally enable group discussion to a far greater extent than is possible in a conventional lecture / tutorial environment.
The four models described
The naïve model, the standard model, the evolutionary model, and the radical model are four models of online delivery in current use in the Faculty of Informatics and Communication at Central Queensland University, a tertiary institution with students on eleven campuses, eight in Australia and a further three overseas, and a large number of other students seeking to study by distance education. While students on many campuses are served by video conference facilities, enabling the provision of real-time lectures and tutorials, students on many other campuses are not. A large number of the students are mature age, and many are from non-Australian backgrounds. Thus, the student population is very diverse, and conventional face-to-face delivery is often not appropriate or even feasible.
Thus, a number of different models of delivery have been developed. Categorisation into four types is artificial, since many examples exist that could be considered hybrids of two or more of the models described here; however, such a categorisation is beneficial in describing the various modes of delivery.
The naïve model
The naïve model may be characterised as "putting the lecture notes on the Web". No extra facilities are provided, and the notes used in live face-to-face lectures are transformed with minimal alteration into a web-based format accessible by a standard browser.
The point has often been made (eg Jefferies and Hussain, 1998) that using the Internet to support learning and teaching requires a culture change for both the teaching staff and the students. It is not surprising, therefore, that this minimalist model is widely used by those wary of embarking on such a change.
The naïve model has been widely disparaged in the literature. Nevertheless, the naïve model
Disadvantages of the naïve model may not be numerous, but they are substantial. They include
- is relatively cheap to implement, in terms of both hardware and software resources and staff time
- provides web-based material which can add significantly to printed material sent out to students at the commencement of the course
- provides material which being web-based can be altered relatively simply (in order to correct errors and/or add extra information)
- is the least threatening to students, since communication in strictly one-way, instructor to student.
- requires few prior skills of the student beyond the ability to browse Web pages
- allows students maximal time to concentrate on the course content (rather than spending time mastering the technology)
- allows instructors to spend the majority of their time and effort in the preparation of the course
The naïve model should generally be preferred only in contexts where
- no opportunities for interaction or feedback
- the fact that the notes are usually such as to be ill-suited for display on the Web (having been designed primarily for face-to-face lectures)
The naïve model is very clearly learner-content oriented, with little or no possibility for interaction with either the instructor or other learners. Therefore, successful use of the naïve model depends upon a high degree of independence on the part of the student(s), and comprehensive and easily-understandable material being made available.
- preparation time is extremely limited, or
- space on the web server is at a premium, or
- the instructor is new to web-based delivery and lacking in the most basic computer skills (Roberts, Romm, and Jones 2000).
The standard model
The standard model attempts to actively utilise the advantages provided by the technology to allow a significant degree of communication and interaction between students and staff. Lecturers have responsibility for the content that appears on the Web, and collaborate with technically-proficient web-masters where necessary to produce the desired web-based materials. While the software used could be any number of commercially available products such as Web-CT or Blackboard, most of the courses based on both the standard and evolutionary models described here utilise an in-house development environment named WebFuse (Jones 1999b).
Features of the standard model included on the Web site for the course include a range of electronic resources linked to from the course home page, electronic copies of all printed course materials, lecture slides in PowerPoint format, any notes arising out of on-campus lectures and tutorials, workshop tasks and solutions, assignment marking guidelines, full contact details of all instructors, copies of past examinations for the course, hints and tips for the current examination, an electronic course discussion list, and a list of updates and additions, in date order.
The standard model provides many advantages as compared with the naïve model. Amongst these are
These advantages come at a cost. In particular may be noted the following:
- the ability for students to communicate easily and effectively with the instructor,
- the ability for students to communicate easily and effectively with each other,
- a large number of extra resources to enhance the learning process.
The standard model is preferred in circumstances where:
- the increased amount of time necessary on the part of the instructor, both to upload various items of information throughout the semester, and to ensure currency
- the increased expectations on the part of many students for online information to be up-to-date and error-free at all times
- the significant additional workload imposed by the need to respond appropriately to newsgroup postings on a regular basis.
The standard model incorporates all three types of learner interaction; while still learner-content dominated, learner-instructor and learner-learner interactions are enabled by the inclusion of email discussion lists as an integral component of the course delivery. Further, the learner-content interaction is greatly enabled by the far greater provision of relevant, up-to-date web-based materials.
- the instructor is experimenting with web-based delivery for the first time, and/or
- students are acquainting themselves with a web-based course largely for the first time, and/or
- paper-based submission of assignments is preferred for some reason, and/or
- lectures cannot be pre-recorded (Roberts, Romm, and Jones 2000).
The evolutionary model
The evolutionary model, described in Jones (1996a, 1996b, 1999a, 1999b) takes the standard model as a basis and supplements it with many other features to enhance both the teaching and learning environment.
Aspects that distinguish the evolutionary model include distribution on CD-ROM of a mirror of the Web site as it pertains at the beginning of semester, pre-recorded audio lectures available both on the CD and from the Web, animations to explain many of the concepts, 'live' lectures given only in response to specific student requests, web-based archives of mailing list discussions from previous semesters, electronic assignments submission, recording marking, and return, and the provision of a "feedback barometer" (Svensson et al, 1999).
The evolutionary model has many advantages over and above those implicit in the standard model. Those worthy of mention would include:
Disadvantages of the evolutionary model would include:
- the provision of the initial Web-site on CD-ROM, which significantly reduces the amount of time students have to spend online (thus also usually cutting down on expensive time online),
- the provision of lectures also on CD-ROM, which enhances the learning environment for many students who prefer to hear the spoken word,
- the provision of supplementary live lectures only "on demand", which reduces the costs associated with the delivery,
- the illustration of difficult concepts through the use of animations, which are widely considered to enhance student learning in a variety of areas - though animations can also be easily mis-used - see for example Lelouche (2000),
- increased equity between on-campus and external students with regard to assignment submission and return,
- greatly enhanced processing of assignments,
- increased feedback from students with regards to all aspects of the course.
The evolutionary model has many more features designed to enhance web-based learning, and is recommended whenever circumstances allow - in particular where:
- the time and resources necessary to prepare the CD-ROM in advance of the commencement of the semester,
- the need to pre-record lectures (either from a previous semester, or as a "one-off special",
- the time, resources, and expertise necessary to provide appropriate animations.
In the evolutionary model, learner-content interaction is further enhanced by the use of a CD sent to all students, and by the provision of animations to explain difficult concepts. Learner-instructor interaction is enhanced by the provision of audio lectures from previous semesters, and the electronic submission and return of assignments, which enables the instructor to provide greater feedback in less time than would otherwise be possible. Learner-learner interaction is enhanced, in a slightly unusual sense, by the availability of archived, web-based email discussion lists from previous semesters - students can read for themselves of previous students' problems and difficulties and possible solutions.
- electronic assignment submission is preferred, and
- lectures can be pre-recorded, and
- the instructor has sufficient time throughout the semester to ensure currency of the web-site, and
- interaction and feedback is actively sought, and
- complex and/or technical issues have to be explained (Roberts, Romm, and Jones 2000)
The radical model
Whereas all three previous models attempt, to differing extents, to adapt the traditional face-to-face lecture delivery method to a more suitable web-based format, the radical model (Romm and Taylor, 2000) dispenses with lectures entirely. Instead, students are formed into groups, and learn by interacting amongst themselves and using the vast amount of existing Web-based resources, with the instructor providing guidance as and when required.
Distinguishing features of the radical model include a video sent out to all students prior to the commencement of semester explaining the "way the course works", minimal traditional instruction from the instructor, an expectation that students will use the set text, and make extensive use of search engines and other facilities to seek out resources on the Web, compulsory use of the mailing list for communication, the replacement of lectures by email presentations prepared by the students themselves, based on the topic for that week, the allocation of students into groups, each of which is responsible not only for providing an electronic presentation, but also for responding critically to all other such presentations. The students' final marks are based on a combination of their group work throughout the semester, and their performance in an end-of-semester examination.
Amongst many real advantages of the radical model may be listed:
Amongst the most-commonly expressed disadvantages of the radical model are
- the emphasis on group work,
- the need for students to utilise real-world skills both for effective communication and research,
- the significantly lower demands on staff time than with most other models,
- the greatly increased level of feedback (typically, by the end of semester, students will have received over 100 inputs on their work from other students in the group, other groups, and the instructor).
The radical model should be preferred in cases where
- the emphasis on group work,
- that students need to adapt early to the demands of the model (the first presentations are made as early as week three or four of the semester),
- that students used to a more conservative model of delivery may feel aggrieved at the lack of direct instruction unless the model is fully explained to them at the start of semester.
Unlike other models, the predominant form of learner interaction in the radical model by far is learner-learner. Though content is provided (in the form of a text book), and the instructor provides input (mainly in the form of feedback to presentations), almost all learning takes place either directly or indirectly via learner-learner interaction. Weekly presentations are all group efforts on behalf of several students, while other students provide the great majority of the feedback. Thus, as has been mentioned before, the radical model is the least conventional of the four models described here, but the one most suited to those seeking to maximise the level of learner-learner interaction.
- the use of group work is considered beneficial, and
- students have some familiarity with email, the Web and the use of search engines, and
- students are sufficiently mature to be able to study without continual direct guidance, and have some research skills, and
- the instructor is happy to act primarily as a guide and a facilitator rather than as a direct purveyor of knowledge, and
- sufficient resources exist on the Web directly relevant to the course content.
Four different models of online teaching have been presented, and their application in terms of Moore's (1996) theory of learner interaction has been described. The naïve model emphasises learner-content interaction. The standard model introduces both learner-instructor and learner-learner interaction. The evolutionary model attempts a balance of all three, while the radical model is heavily learner-learner oriented.
Hopefully the four models described here and their relation to the different forms of learner interaction will assist not only researchers examining the relationships between current theory and practice, but also academics and course developers in their efforts to choose the most appropriate form of online delivery for their courses.
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|Author: Tim Roberts is a Senior Lecturer with the Faculty of Informatics and Communication at the Bundaberg campus of Central Queensland University. He teaches computer science subjects, including Programming A to over 1000 students located throughout Australia and overseas. In 2001 he, Lissa McNamee, and Sallyanne Williams developed the Online Collaborative Learning web site at http://musgrave.cqu.edu.au/clp/clpsite/index.htm. In 2002 he was awarded the Bundaberg City Council's prize for excellence in research. Email: email@example.com
Please cite as: Roberts, T. (2002). Learner interaction and current practice in asynchronous delivery. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/2002/roberts-t.html
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