Web-based staff development may be able to overcome some of the problems inherent in 'traditional' staff development. Teachers, as learners, can work at their own pace, in private if they wish, and material can be covered in a just-in-time fashion targeting the exact need. However, online instruction has the potential to be as ineffective as other poor forms of instruction. With this in mind, a web-based staff development module was developed at the University of Western Sydney based on constructivist learning principles. This paper looks at the rationale for web-based staff development, how constructivist principles were applied in practice and preliminary findings from research into the use of the online module developed.
Initial attempts at Web-based teaching often involve little more than providing large amounts of non-interactive text to read (McNaught, Kenny, Kennedy, & Lord, 1999). However, there are methods to enhance interactivity and collaboration with a view to catering for the needs of adult learners. In particular, the self-directed nature of Web-based learning suits work-based staff development. The participant can work at their own pace at a time and location that suits them for as long as they want. Web-based resources can be visited many times (Wills, Nouwens, Dixon, & Lefoe, 1997). The hypermedia nature of online material lends itself to a constructivist perspective for organising information. Rather than a linear sequence leading to certain conclusions set by the author, the learner can select the information in the quantity and order they choose and in ways which make sense for them (Fowler & Dickie, 1997).
To be most effective staff development should 'be centred around choices made by teachers' (Cifuentes, Beller, & Portela, 1999). A major factor in resisting change is lack of ownership (Fowler & Dickie, 1997). Allowing staff to move as they wish through a hypermedia environment may create a greater perception of control and ownership. The multimedia nature of the material may also assist in catering for different learning styles.
In addition, top-down activities may not model the desired approach. For example,
"it is surprising.. how often the principle of constructivism is conveyed to teachers in the context of how they should help their students learn, without it being the basis for how the teachers are helped to learn themselves" (Loucks-Horsley et al, 1998)Most universities are moving towards greater use of online learning. The use of web-based staff development can model good practice in this area. It has been found that teachers who have positive experiences with technology and have adequate support are more likely to integrate technology into their own teaching (Freeman, 1997). To successfully develop skills in online teaching, academics are likely to benefit by actively experiencing them as a learner (Wills et al., 1997).
Concerns are grouped into four dimensions
|Dimension||Stage||Expression of Concern|
|Impact||6. Refocusing||I have some ideas about something that would work even better|
|5. Collaboration||How can I relate what I am doing to what others are doing?|
|4. Consequence||How is my use affecting learners? How can I refine it to have more impact?|
|Task||3. Management||I seem to be spending all my time getting resources ready?|
|Self||2. Personal||How will using it affect me?|
|1. Informational||I would like to know more about it.|
|Unrelated||0. Awareness||I am not concerned about it.|
When self and task concerns are largely resolved, the individual can focus on impact concerns. A movement toward Stage 4 Consequence and Stage 5 Collaboration concerns indicates that teachers are 'beginning to focus more on effective uses of technology and how technology will impact their students and less on the mechanics of using technology' (Maney & Brooks, 1998).
In addition, there are 3 open-ended questions -
Multiple representations of content / Complex learning environment:
Sections on 'How do I do it' are based on multiple representations (eg. Online document, downloadable document, slide show and video). Most of the text-based content is in summary or point form. Where there is more information on a point the user can click on the text and a new 'pop-up' window with more information appears. As reading large sections of text of a screen is, for many, uncomfortable participants have the option of viewing and printing the content for large sections in PDF (portable document format). There are links to many examples and free or low-cost resources. A consistent navigation system and site map help prevent the learners from getting lost in a 'sea of content'.Social Negotiation:
Participants are encouraged to collaborate and discuss issues and ideas with colleagues using a discussion group. The 'How to' section suggests that staff may want to "Ask a question, Share a good idea or link, Describe how you use the technology, Describe the frustrations you have found.."Understanding the Knowledge Construction Process:
By experiencing online education as learners themselves, teachers will have a much greater understanding of what will be required by the students. In particular, the teachers may experience some of the same frustrations typical in online environments, such as technical problems, which interfere with the learning process.Student-Centred Instruction:
As well as having the freedom to use the module as they wish, contributions from participants are encouraged.
69 staff (and some invited visitors) have entered the site. Unsurprisingly, the survey on entry is a barrier for many (43). What is surprising is the number of staff willing to fill in the survey to gain access (26), particularly at a time where most staff are either busy getting ready for a semester brought on early due to the Olympics or heavily involved in a major restructure of the University. The compulsory nature of the initial survey is likely to be removed to see if this improves the participation rate.
Over 400 pages have been accessed. Of these 164 have been open for longer than a minute. However, this does not necessarily reflect active engagement as the page may remain open and the timer continuing while that participant has moved on to other activities (or even left the office). Over 100 pages have been opened for 10 seconds or less which is enough time, in most cases, to read the summary information. Only 14 pages have been opened and moved on from very quickly (3 seconds or less)
Apart from the entry page the number of times an individual page has been accessed ranges from 0-25. Those that had been opened more than 10 times include -
|How to use the site||19|
The concentration at the moment is on how to post electronic lecture notes. While this in itself is not a bad thing, lecturers will be mistaken if they think this is providing flexible, online education. Therefore, it is pleasing to observe that the section on constructivism is proving relatively popular among those whose discipline is not education. While interest in the other sections may be linked to concerns about practical issues this section is totally theoretical.
Considering the importance of social negotiation to a constructivist perspective, it is of concern that the discussion area has generated little interaction at this stage. This may reflect the voluntary nature of this activity and techniques to enhance participation (such as polite email reminders) may be employed.
"The phrase 'traditional methods' is often used to represent some widely practiced method that presumably has predictable acceptable results. If technology performs better than traditional methods, such questions imply, everyone should use it. A neat picture, but traditional methods doesn't define the higher education that I know and love, nor is it the higher education that research reveals" (Ehrmann, 1995)'Horse race comparisons' between web-based methods and some non-existent traditional method are not likely to be productive (Marx, Blumenfield, Krajcik, & Soloway, 1998). In addition web-based learning has the potential to be "just as inflexible and inappropriate as any other form of poor instruction. In other words it is not the technology that is important, it is how it is used by the teacher to create new experiences for the learner" (Bennett, Priest, & Macpherson, 1999). Web-based staff development is probably best viewed as a supplement and not a replacement to current practices. Perhaps with this extension to the repertoire a wider audience can be reached and participation rates increased.
Much analysis remains to be done in this particular project. One of the main areas of interest in the final evaluation will be the effect of the module on the perception of staff towards online staff development. Of course, the real test will be if participation leads to changed practices that enhance teaching and learning.
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|Contact details: Graeme Salter, University of Western Sydney|
Phone (02) 0246 3511 Fax (02) 0246 3075 Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Please cite as: Salter, G. and Hansen, S. (2001). Facilitating web-based staff development in higher education. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 612-617. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/aset-herdsa2000/procs/salter1.html