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Developing and sustaining technology-based learning in higher education: The way ahead

Ron Oliver
Edith Cowan University
Most universities today are grappling with issues associated with upskilling their staff to enable them to make efficient use of new technologies in their teaching. The pressure for this comes from many sources including employers who are demanding graduates with generic as well as domain-specific skills, from students themselves who expect to be using technologies in their learning and from institutions that want to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the new delivery methods. This paper describes possible strategies by which institutions can support, encourage and sustain technology uptake in university teaching and learning. The paper explores the notion of providing teachers with access to, and skills in the use of, technology-based learning tools whose design and use is derived from learning needs and based on the concept of reusability. The paper provides examples of case studies and initiatives in the use of the design and development of reusable tools and learning resources to support technology based learning settings.


Teaching is a profession like many others and although it has a number of discrete characteristics, it tends to share many characteristics with most other professions. Some of the interesting characteristics that teaching shares with other professions include the need for extensive training before the profession can be practiced, the need for in-service training to ensure that skills are maintained as the field progresses and the existence of a range of tools and resources that are used in the practice of the profession.

Some of the unique aspects of teaching that tend to distinguish it from other professions include the fact that teachers can graduate with full qualifications without ever having to serve in an indentured or apprenticeship capacity. It is also interesting to note that while the field has faced few major changes over the years, developments in knowledge of, and advancements in, the practice of teaching, have tended to face many barriers in their movement to becoming mainstream (eg. Gold, 1999).

Teachers and their tools

When we consider the teachers in university and higher education, it is interesting to explore the tools and resources that are typically at their disposal and form part of their "craft toolbox". The tools and resources take on several forms. There are locations for teaching and learning such as lecture rooms, tutorial rooms, laboratories and other built facilities. If we look specifically at the teaching and learning resources as distinct entities, there are: In planning a learning environment, teachers are able to pick and choose from among the available resources to create the desired learning settings.

Like all professions, teachers are free to choose the ways in which they implement their tools and resources. University teachers today typically have a range of conventional teaching tools which they use. When designing courses and planning learning environments, the teachers select their tools and make minor adjustments to fir them to their own settings. For example, teachers will choose particular exercises out of books, particular scenes form videos, particular chapters for m textbooks, particular articles from journals as items for the teaching environments. The teachers will choose particular forms of implementation based on their experiences. Others will have refined their implementation strategies and will do things quite differently. Not all teachers choose the same resources. Some teachers have developed their own resources to suit their own needs, while others will use that are available. Different teachers use many different forms of implementation strategies and similarly, the scope and extent of teachers' sets of personalised tools and resources varies between individuals. All these difference create opportunities that set some teachers apart from others. These are the factors that often distinguish effective teachers from others.

In relation to the use of technology-based teaching, far fewer resources and tools are available to the majority of teachers. In fact, most teachers who aspire to use technology in meaningful ways find themselves having to create many of the resources they need from scratch (eg. Bates, 1998). This often entails creating Web pages with the course content, and developing learning activities to accompany them. With such overheads facing the intending teacher, it is not surprising to find that the majority are reluctant and tardy when it comes to implementing new innovations and technologies into their teaching (Fullan, 1991).

Contemporary teaching

In contemporary tertiary learning, a raft of new learning opportunities are emerging through such computer and communications technologies as the Internet and World Wide Web. These technologies appear to provide unlimited opportunities for teachers and students alike most involved in the field expect these technologies to become commonplace in years to come. As with all other tools those professionals with the appropriate skills and resources to make meaningful use of the Web will be those who will likely stand out yet again as masters of their trade and the best practitioners in their field.

Currently the research is showing us that the uptake of Web technologies for teaching and learning is growing in popularity but that there are many gaps in this uptake and use. For example, many of those using the Web are using it for low-level activities use (eg. Dehoney & Reeves, 1999); there is considerable investment being made in the development of Web resources but many of the resources are for single use and lack flexibility (Hanley, Schneebeck& Zweier, 1998); and much of the use does not provide the forms of return on investment one would expect from such technologies (eg. Kearsley, 1998). The purpose of this paper is to explore possible strategies for encouraging and supporting teachers in universities to take advantage of some of the opportunities afforded by the Web. In particular, the paper proposes the need for the design and development of Web resources to focus on creating tools for learning that are flexible and reusable that can be added to a teacher's toolbox and be used in much the same way as conventional teaching tools.

Effective learning

There has already been much written to describe the attributes characteristic of effective tertiary teaching (eg. Ramsden, 1992). Today there tends to be general agreement among most academics and researchers of tertiary teaching and learning that for a learning setting to be effective it needs to encourage and support: A number of writers have sought to describe the changes which are now flowing through education systems worldwide in response to a growing awareness and understanding of how learning occurs (eg. Duchastel, 1997). Some of the more characteristics aspects of the changing learning environment include: The use of technology provides strong supports and opportunities for many of these teaching elements but it is recognised by most writers that to achieve these outcomes, the environments need to have some deliberate design and the design needs to be driven by a consideration of learning needs more than technology usage.

Designing effective Web-based learning environments

For many years, people have been critical of the development processes often used in building instructional and educational software systems (eg. Bates, 1998). In many instances, the development has resembled that used in cottage industries where a small number of people take responsibility for all aspects of the process and where the product is destined for small-scale use in limited settings (eg. Hanley, Schneebeck& Zweier, 1998). Bates (1998) uses the term lone ranger to describe much of the development occurring in educational institutions where many enthusiastic novices work independently on small scale projects to support their own teaching.

The outcome of many of today's current practices in the development of instructional software is a proliferation of discrete products being used quite successfully in single classrooms. The Web promised to end this software proliferation by providing a means for developers to seamlessly integrate the educational products from servers worldwide. In reality, the Web appears to have exacerbated the problem by creating and encouraging many more small developers into the fray.

Many writers have sought to provide blueprints and guidelines for teachers and developers to promote the design of learning environments that can carry the forms of learning suggested above. In essence, it is important to consider a number of critical factors to achieve such designs. In previous work (eg. Oliver, 1998; Oliver, 1999) we have used models to describe Web-based learning based through the identification of discrete functional forms which the materials and learning environments can assume. Four categories we have identified are; information access, networked communications, interactive learning, and materials development. Each of these categories describes a unique form and tends to use discrete applications of the Web to provide opportunities for on-line learning environments. Table 1 describes these categories and provides examples the various technologies that support each.

Table 1: Learning resources and strategies for web-based learning environments

Learning activityExamples
the Web is used to convey information alone to the learner, for example, a course syllabus, a calendar, assignment descriptions, lecture notes, workshop descriptions, etc.PDF files, HTML documents, streaming audio, streaming video, applications files, eg. papers, spreadsheets, etc.
the Web is used to involve instructional elements that engage the learner, encourage reflection and decision making and provide feedback in response to learner actions.Java Applets, Shockwave movies, animations
the Web is used to provide a means for the organisation, communication and exchange of ideas and information among learners and teachers and other parties in the learning processListservs, email, chat, discussion groups
when the Web is used as a means for learners to create and publish materials. The WWW is used as a tool for gathering and collecting information and presenting that information in a published form.Creating and publishing Web pages, Web content, FTP processes.

The identification of learning strategies and resources still leaves considerable distance between most teachers and their capacity to make use of Web-based materials. Whereas with conventional technologies such as print and video where implementation is a relatively straightforward process, use of Web resources requires considerably more effort and skill on the part of the teacher. This paper proposes that a strategy to minimise the effort and skill is through the purposeful design of Web resources. In particular, the paper proposes the design of materials in ways which facilitate flexible use, customisation and reuse.

Planning and developing software for use beyond the immediate institutional setting requires unique and particular design strategies. The development of products for widespread usage and application gives rise to many new considerations in the design and implementation process. The design must consider such attributes as scalability, the ability to undertake a large number of software projects in a systematic way that produces consistent and reliable results, and to distribute those products widely so as to gain large strategic benefits. Simultaneously the design must carry sustainability the ability to maintain, revise or otherwise provide the technical and user support necessary so that software developed will continue to be available and of value to learners over time (Hanley, et al., 1998).

The concept of reusable software tools carries the forms of flexibility and functionality required for scalable and sustainable software development. Appropriately designed Web tools can provide highly flexible materials in terms of how they can be applied in learning settings, in terms of who can design this application, for example, teachers, trainers, facilitators, and also have the prospect to break the short-term usage cycle characteristic of most educational software products. The deliberate design of a software system with flexibility for adaptation and change creates new options for its use. To illustrate this point, let us examine some forms of software that have been designed in this fashion.

Reusable Web resources

There are a number of different types and a number of degrees of flexibility that are possible in the design of reusable Web resources. Figure 1 describes a continuum of flexibility of use by which reusable Web resources can be considered. The continuum suggests three main forms of reusable objects, curriculum packages, course modules and generic tools. Consideration of the discrete forms shows that there are opportunities across each for open and flexible materials development. At the same time, each of the forms carries limitations and pitfalls that can act to impede their application and use. The following section describes each of the forms and considers the associated usage factors.

Figure 1

Figure 1: A flexibility continuum describing reusable learning resources

a. Generic tools

There are many examples of reusable resources that provide total flexibility and support for teachers and flexible course developers. An example that illustrates this type of resource is the on-line debating tool shown in Figure 2. This tool is based around a Web bulletin board and accepts input from users as they provide arguments for the debating topic. The students enter their arguments into a Web form and these are dynamically added to a Web board. The arguments for and against the topic show in parallel windows. As a learning activity students can see the debate unfold as the remote users enter their arguments. Those students who have no new information to offer can participate in the debate by providing rebuttals to arguments already presented. When the debate is complete, students can reflect on the opinions and views expressed and determine the winning side.

The tool is generic in its design and can be used in any subject area for which this type of learning activity is appropriate. Teachers simply have to decide on a topic and the tool provides creates the Web page and provides the teacher with the link by which the page can be accessed. This is an example of a reusable tool which can be used in a variety of ways over and over again and by many different teachers. The opportunities provided by a tool of this form are supported by its flexibility enabling it to be used by any teacher for any topic. The resource supports innovative and creative curriculum applications and is powerful yet simple enough to be used by non-experienced on-line teachers. There are many types of this form of resource currently on the market and available for use by teachers and developers. These include such resources as:

Figure 2

Figure 2: An on-line debating resource

b. Course modules

In this second category, it is possible to identify reusable resources that provide more freedom and options to the teacher but are less substantial and support only small elements of a curriculum or course. In the second category, the typical form of the resources are stand-alone learning objects. In the main these objects tend to be stand-alone entities which can be employed in various ways. The characteristic feature of this type of object is that teachers and students need to do little to access and use the resources.

These forms of learning activity tend to be small-scale simulations or process-oriented activities which the students manages and controls to bring about some desired effect. Depending on the complexity of the resource, the student can manage a number of variables and receive contextualised feedback to guide the learning process. The resources take the form of Java applets or Shockwave movies that enable the learner to interact in meaningful ways with the system. Typically, the resources can be made to take a variety of parameters enabling them to be used several times by the same learner in the process of developing some skills with, or level of understanding of, the process.

The example below demonstrates this form of reusable learning resource. EvolutionLab ( is a tool to enable learners to explore the concepts of evolution and natural selection. It simulates the evolution of finches in a context (an island setting) which learners can manipulate and control. The simulation program enables the learners to vary a number of parameters including the beak size of the birds, the seed sizes, the number of eggs in a clutch, and the size of the island (Figure 3). Learners can then observe over a period of generations what happens to the bird population. The simulation can be used to help learners develop some understanding of the concept of evolution. The activity itself cannot do this. The teacher needs to design a learning activity to guide learners' activities. In this the learning can be customised to suit the needs and requirements of learners. It can be used with learners as young as twelve to learners studying at university.

Figure 3

Figure 3: EvolutionLab, a simulation for Web-based delivery

c. Curriculum packages

In instances where the reusable resources are quite large sets of materials, the resources tend to have many fixed elements which been designed with customisation options to support use beyond the immediate setting. Outstanding examples of reusable resources of this nature are materials developed for the ANTA Flexible Toolbox project (Oliver, Towers & Pearl, 2000). This project has involved the large scale development of flexible learning materials to support the delivery of Training Packages within the Australian Vocational, Education and Training(VET) sector.

Figure 4

Figure 4: ANTA Flexible Toolbox sample

The various toolboxes produced in this project incorporate a wide range of the building blocks including:

The materials have been developed by a number of development teams across the country. To ensure that the materials are reusable in the broadest ways possible, the developers have followed quite stringent technical specifications in their development processes.

Managing reusable resources

The concept of teachers having access to a wide range of on-line tools and resources for their teaching and learning requires a number of changes to the ways in which people currently develop and organise such resources. In the first instance, the idea requires that teachers and institutions be prepared to share their learning resources and to implement practices that can facilitate their storage and retrieval. There are a number of initiative currently in train that are seeking to create more opportunities for resource sharing including the development of metadata standards to enable resources to be catalogued and the establishment of collaborative teams among universities whose express purpose is to provide a mechanism to share the multitude of on-line resources which each owns.

From the perspective of the technology, the development process needs to consider such aspects as:

From the perspective of the individual teacher, in order to be able to make use of the various tools and resources which will become available through such initiatives, teachers will need to have access to Web-based authoring tools that will facilitate the retrieval and inclusion of the resources into their own learning materials. The form of system architecture that appears to provide the forms of functionality and support required are those associated with database-driven applications. Such systems use dynamic Web-page design to build the Web pages on the fly and to incorporate the resources accessed from shared servers. A number of developers are now providing the tools that support this form of Web-based materials development. Whereas in the past many teachers will have resisted the move to embrace Web-based technologies because of a lack of good materials or the difficulty associated with creating effective resources themselves, the use of reusable Web resources supported by powerful database driven Web authoring tools is helping to reduce the barriers and to support the mainstream adoption of the Web into university teaching and learning.

Summary and conclusions

This paper has discussed aspects of Web-based teaching from the perspective of the tools and resources which teachers need to be able to create effective learning settings. The paper has argued that a useful strategy for promoting the use of the Web as a learning tool is to provide teachers with an array of Web resources and tools from which they can choose when planning learning environments. All teachers are familiar with this process in the design of conventional learning environments and it has the prospect to provide an equally effective support for the design of technology-based learning settings.

There are however a number of considerations that must be taken if this strategy is to be successful. The design of the Web resources needs to consider the important issues of portability, scalability, flexibility and customisability in order that the materials can truly be interchangeable between computer systems, teachers, courses and institutions. As technology develops and the complexity of design increases, many of these issues will become harder to manage. There are currently a number of initiatives being undertaken in Australia which are exploring the notion of the development of reusable learning resources based on these principles (eg. Oliver, Towers & Pearl, 2000). These initiatives should provide some useful guidelines for others to follow and when linked with international initiatives should provide the forms of resources that will enable Web-based teaching to become a mainstream activity in tertiary institutions.


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Author: Associate Professor Ron Oliver
School of Communications and Multimedia
Edith Cowan University
2 Bradford St, Mt Lawley WA 6050, Australia
Phone (08) 9370 6372 Fax (08) 9370 6668
AJET Editor

Please cite as: Oliver, R. (2001). Developing and sustaining technology-based learning in higher education: the way ahead. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 10-19. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA.

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