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Developing guided self study materials for higher education: The Curtin experience

Robert Fox
Curtin University

In an age of accelerating technological change where today's knowledge and skills are obsolete tomorrow, it has become imperative to maintain a continuous process of inquiry and learning to update present expertise. It is thus not enough for our educational systems, from primary through to tertiary, to simply produce 'knowledgeable' people, we must produce people who are equipped with the skills and attitudes to continue the process of learning throughout their lives; we have to produce lifelong, autonomous learners.

Curtin University was one of the earliest Higher Educational institutions in Australia to express significant interest in independent learning. In the mid 1970s money and time were made available for staff training and the development of materials. Schools and Departments set up whole courses, or parts of courses, in the independent study mode for students on campus. Some of these courses are still running successfully now, others were discontinued, mainly because of the time it took to develop and update the materials. All of this took place before the technology was available which can now make the task of developing and updating independent learning materials less onerous.

The availability of relatively cheap, sophisticated technology, the reduction in financial resources for teaching, the current, and I hope lasting, trend towards the promotion of autonomous learning and the dissatisfaction with 'chalk and talk' as the sole method of instruction has led to a resurgence of interest in developing more independent learning materials for use by on campus students at Curtin University.

Guided self study is a form of independent study for which there are a whole host of names, each having a slightly different emphasis, but having much in common with guided self study. You may be familiar with the following names:

Directed Private Study
Individualised Learning
Supported Self Study
Programmed Instruction
Packaged Learning
Correspondence Education
Distance Education
Learning by Appointment
Open Learning
Learning by Contract
Keller Plan
Personalised Systems of Instruction (PSI)
Home Study
Computer Based Training
Postlethwaite Audio Tutorial System
As I see it guided self study is an early step on the continuum towards producing fully autonomous learners. Yet, depending on the emphasis, it can still be considered a teacher centred approach - hence 'guided'. It is a mode of study which, because it doesn't have to lean too much towards learner autonomy, is relatively non threatening to the more conservative staff and institutions who are reluctant to release the reins. It is thus a 'softly, softly', diplomatic shift in the direction of developing independent learners. It is a way of beginning to promote self directed learning in traditional institutions.


The aim of this presentation is to look at guided self study as a step towards fostering self directed learners with reference to developments in this area at Curtin University in Western Australia.


The paper is divided into 3 sections:
  1. The advantage of using guided self study to complement the more conventional chalk and talk method of teaching. In this section I shall cover areas such as:

    This section is based on issues raised in a recent seminar in Curtin on developing guided self study materials.

  2. Sections of courses which adapt well to guided self study mode. In this section I shall cover areas such as:

  3. Technology being used at Curtin University for guided self study programs. In this section I shall look at:

The advantages of using guided self study to complement the more conventional chalk and talk method of teaching

The advantages of using the guided self study mode are made apparent when we look at the obvious disadvantages inherent in the lecture based method of instruction. The lecture is of course valuable but it should not be used as the sole source of learning, for the following reasons: In a recent seminar at Curtin on developing guided self study materials lecturers, currently involved in using such materials as part of their courses, agreed that the following were the main pedagogic advantages of using this mode of instruction: It was generally agreed by the speakers at the seminar, all of whom are lecturers running guided self study programs at Curtin that: The above advantages of using guided self study materials relate directly to the students using them, with lecturers being the indirect beneficiaries, but what are the specific advantages for lecturers who invest time in developing guided self study materials? The following were discussed in the seminar: Other, more general advantages of guided self study that came up in the seminar were: So, given all these advantages and the very positive feedback from lecturers currently involved in guided self study programs why is there reluctance on the part of the majority of staff to use the guided self study mode?

The following reasons were expressed in the seminar:

How then can we encourage a change of attitude towards the implementation of guided self study and more independent learning modes?

Sections of taught courses which adapt well to guided self study mode

Introductory modules

In many units, the introductory lectures may: Instead of introductory lectures, students could be given guided self study modules comprising readings, references, and activities planned around objectives which have to be achieved by all students, working at their own pace, but within a period of, for example, three weeks. Students are then free to choose where they begin. Some may decide to cover all the modules, others, who are familiar with the content of some modules, will discard those and concentrate on modules with which they are not familiar. A self evaluation test, or a more formal test can be administered either after completing the modules, in the case of self evaluation, or at the end of the third week in the case of a more formal test. Having mastered the content and activities within the modules all the students would be at an equal level of competency and be orientated towards the ensuing course of core, as opposed to introductory, lectures.

Duplicated or often repeated lectures

Certain lectures are common to a number of units. Lecturers often have to give the same information to different classes. Repeating the same lecture can be tedious and the tedium is probably sensed and reciprocated by the students. Unnecessary duplication of lectures also has cost implications.

Duplicated or often repeated lectures are easily transferred to self study mode; for example, by the production of print based workbooks or by a package of video and worksheets.

Service teaching

Certain subjects, for example statistics, are taught in more than one school or department. To avoid continually reinventing the wheel it would save schools and departments time and money to transfer shared subjects to the self study mode.

Laboratory Work

Ensuring that students have mastered relevant theory before embarking on laboratory work may mean that laboratories and workshops remain unused for weeks.

Once all the students have been through a course of theory lectures there is suddenly a difficult period of timetabling 100 or more students into laboratories and workshops to do the practical work. In some subject areas so many students need access to labs and workshop facilities that it is necessary to extend access hours and sometimes have students working unsupervised.

These logistical problems can be overcome by developing guided self study manuals embracing theory and instruction related to laboratory and workshop assignments. Students may work to a prescribed order or one which suits them. The point being that not all students will need access to labs and workshops at the same time. Thus reducing timetabling problems.

Technology being used at Curtin University for guided self study programs

The following technologies are being used or will be implemented to complement or replace the lecture based mode of instruction at Curtin

Desktop publishing and computer graphics

All teaching divisions at Curtin use DTP and computer graphics to produce their teaching materials. In fact print is still the medium used for over 95% of all guided self study and project based materials produced on campus. This is so for the following reasons: With the advent of desktop publishing capabilities, it is now possible to include graphics, photos and illustrations thus making lecturer produced material look similar to professionally published texts.

The potential of this technology for education is enormous. Since all the data is on computer, it is now possible to produce either whole units as guided self study packages, or divide the units into individually packaged modules, each complete with their own learning objectives, text information, learning tasks and self evaluation tests with answers etc. These could then be interchanged with modules from other units thus giving students a far greater range of options than ever before from which to build up courses more closely suited to their individual needs and goals. Obviously, this flexibility would not be possible within an institution offering only lecture based courses.

Computer managed learning

This has been tried and proven successful in our School of Nursing and Department of Human Biology where 1,100 students are using the CML program. I'll just describe how it is being used for one program in the School of Nursing.

The program was developed specifically for nurses who are returning to the profession after five years and thus need to re-register. 100 students are currently following the nursing re registration course. Instead of requiring all 100 to come from all over Western Australia to attend a series of formal lectures at Curtin, the course comes to them. Students access computers through local learning centres strategically placed in the major cities or towns of the geographical regions of the State.

The program is made up of 22 discrete print based topics. Each topic has a set of learning objectives and contains information type material and clear instructions to guide students through the instructional module. A1122 topics must be completed successfully before students are allowed to progress to the clinical stage of the nursing course.

Students can randomly select topics to study although progression from one topic to another is entirely controlled by computer testing. Tests precede and follow each topic. If students achieve 80% in the pre test, they are not required to study that topic and can choose another at their level of knowledge. Students must also achieve 80% in the test which follows each topic before going on to another one. On completion of the end of topic test the computer provides the student with a list of areas which need more work, plus references for further reading for revision; an individual attention which is often not possible within a lecture based program where the teacher/learner ratio is often 50-1 or more.

All test items taken and test results are recorded and stored by the computer so that students and course controllers can monitor progress.


The use of video for guided self study is becoming increasingly popular at Curtin. Videos are relatively easy and cheap to produce and allow students a greater amount of flexibility in terms of 'when', 'where' and to some extent 'how' they study.

The Educational Media Centre at Curtin has recently produced a short video course in learning skills to replace a series of learning skills lectures. The course is aimed particularly at non-native English speaking overseas students coming into Curtin. There are ten videos in the course, each packaged with a set of notes and learner tasks for users to complete. The advantages of such a program over a series of lectures for overseas students are obvious. They can play and replay the videos to ensure complete understanding and they can make mistakes in privacy: an important factor in all independent learning materials - and particularly important for Asian students.

The Educational Media Centre at Curtin has also produced a major new video course in Microbiology - a key unit in the degree offered by the School of Nursing. The series will be available for the second semester this year. It comprises 18 topic based video lectures and ten laboratory demonstrations. The videos are accompanied by a study manual and practical workbook which will allow students to work through the unit requirements at their own pace. The workbook includes tests and answers, so that students can evaluate their own progress through the topics. At present a conventional 2 hour end of unit written exam is offered. The unit is wrapped around a published text which all students are required to purchase.

The intention, after trialing the material, is to divide the unit into discrete modules and adapt the program for CML.

The Unit is being offered to 'off campus' external and country contracted students. In order to reach external students dotted across the whole of WA, 28 videos will be broadcast on the local GWN EdTV Network. Students will be informed when these programs are to be aired and back up copies of each video will be held in the regional colleges as well as in the main Curtin Library External Editions Reserve.

Interactive video

There are two ongoing interactive video projects in which Curtin is involved: These projects are still in the very early stages of development, but are expected to be ready for use at the end of 1991.

The Surrogate Laboratory

DEET has funded the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering with assistance from the Educational Media Centre to develop the surrogate laboratory interactive video for on campus students and for the WADEC distance learning program.

The displays and controls of various technical equipment are stored on video disc and are made available for adjustment by the student through the computer controlled interactive video. The displays and controls are easily integrated with graphics and textual teaching material. Students are thus enabled to operate as well as to see and be informed about the equipment.

Educational audit software will be integrated into the package. This will provide the student with immediate feedback on progress and will provide the educator with longer term statistical and progressional information.

Access for the student is via a computer controlled video disc, thus eliminating the need, in many cases, to provide the full range of training equipment in the early stages of the learning process. Considerable capital and maintenance cost savings are made. In addition, students only gain access to delicate equipment when competent to operate it, having undergone basic training via interactive videodisc.

Not only can interactive video improve teaching methods and the presentation of educational material, but it can also be used to minimise problems associated with teaching in remote locations and the lack of availability and access to extremely expensive equipment. Where the student population is remote from an educational institution, or where the student population is widely distributed, it is uneconomic, as well as physically difficult to ensure adequate access to a wide range of technical equipment for a suitable period.

The Japanese Interactive Video

This interactive video is also funded by DEET and is being produced by WA Distance Education Consortium.

This interactive video is to be a major resource for Australian educational institutions for use by upper secondary and beginning tertiary students in, either distance education or classroom mode. The disc will be suitable also for use in business and industry as a self instructional or open learning package.

The project will be composed of video sequences of 5-30 seconds in length. These sequences can be linked to each other or they can be self contained. Users select video sequences and further select ways of interacting with them.

It is intended that users will be able to:

Within these choices are a whole range of other options. This non-linear approach to learning offers new challenges for learners allowing them greater control in the design of their own learning experiences.


The notion that the traditional education system can equip individuals with sufficient knowledge to last the rest of their lives is hardly realistic. Rather individuals need to develop skills to equip them to learn throughout their lives. The major focus of higher education institutions should be to help students to 'learn how to learn'.

Introducing educational change is always fraught with difficulties, especially in traditional institutions. Management and colleagues have to be convinced. It is safer in the long run to approach the change of focus from teacher controlled instruction to student self directed study on a 'softly, softly' basis, easing into guided self study and slowly moving towards the goal of independent learning.

We have technology available which can make the task of producing effective guided self study materials less daunting. Technology also makes the exploitation of materials more flexible and enjoyable for the learner. However, no matter what technology we have access to it is the teachers' skills as facilitators, resource persons and counsellors, which, in the end, determine the success or failure of the independent learning experience.

Author: Robert Fox, Lecturer, Instructional Design, Curtin University, GPO Box U1987, Perth WA 6001

Please cite as: Fox, R. (1990). Developing guided self study materials for higher education: The Curtin experience. In J. G. Hedberg, J. Steele and M. Mooney (Eds), Converging Technologies: Selected papers from EdTech'90, 141-151. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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