An online unit of tertiary study: Starting up the hard way

Clare McBeath
Faculty of Education
Curtin University of Technology
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In a combination of unusual student enrolment circumstances, three students were invited to use an online version of a unit which was still in the process of being developed. The unit was not ready to run. There were many features of WebCT still to be explored and instructions built into the learning package. However, an arrangement was made that we would all learn together, discussing and sharing features discovered as we worked on the unit. Student participation and feedback became part of the assignment work and was graded as part of student assessment. This ensured that the students had a key role in shaping future versions of this unit. This paper will analyse and interpret the student input to tell their stories and draw conclusions.


Two units in the Vocational Education and Training teacher education program were in the process of being developed for use in WebCT, with the expectation that they would be run as pilot units with class groups in the second semester. However, due to a combination of unusual student enrolment circumstances, three students found that they could only enrol in one of these units this semester and were invited to use the online version as trial students. One was based in Perth and the other two were in the Pilbara and all were enrolled as external students.

As lecturer in charge of one of these units, I felt we were not ready to run the unit online. There were many features of WebCT with which I was not familiar and a number of design problems which had not been resolved. Nor had instructions on using WebCT been incorporated into the unit. However, we came to an arrangement that we would all learn together, discussing and sharing the features discovered as we worked on the unit. Student participation and feedback in the form of "reflective reports" was set as a formal assignment and was graded as part of student assessment. This ensured that the students, who had agreed to participate in this trial on a voluntary basis, had an involvement and a key role in shaping future versions of this unit.

The trial, therefore, became one of "learn as you work", with students and lecturer learning about the features and problems of WebCT's capabilities as they used the online materials. The students studied the course materials, used the interactive Electronic Mailbox for discussion and communication, as well as submitting written assignments as they would have for a unit delivered in a more traditional way.

The online unit has now run for one semester. The three students have struggled with the technical features and an unfamiliar learning style as they explored this new method of delivery. Many of their comments related to the newness of the learning environment and were to be expected. Other comments have been more reflective, as they analysed what they were doing and compared their study styles with previous learning experiences. Overall, a wealth of data has been received as the students delivered their reports, ruminated on their technical difficulties, chatted away to each other, and generally explored the interactive features of the online environment.

The question to be considered is whether it would have been better to have deferred the start up of the online version until everything was ready, or to have taken a "just in time" approach to suit student enrolment needs and involve the users in the development of the unit and the medium.

This paper will analyse and interpret the student data to tell their stories and attempt to draw some conclusions.

The unit

Ed522 is one of the largest units in the Higher and Further Education course. In its original printed format, the unit content consisted of a 268 page Guide and a supporting Reader of case studies. There is no text book. The problems involved in structuring such a large amount of material for online delivery was discussed in an earlier paper (McBeath, 1997). The most distinctive feature of this unit in its Internet format is how wordy it looks, in comparison with the more typical electronic learning programs with short screens and multi-layed pages. The unit structure had to deal with an enormous amount of reading in the simplest manner possible. A weekly study structure had been devised, in the expectation that most of the students would study the material in set chunks as they would a print based or on-campus study program.

The unit already had a WebCT site on the Internet and was accessible and useable, but the instructions were still being developed and there were still a number of inconsistencies, unknowns and unsolved problems.
Electronic mailbox icon

A feature of the online unit was the Electronic Mailbox, which is a bulletin board type feature which encourages students to discuss their work and their concerns with their lecturer and with each other. A special icon had been designed to emphasise the importance of this component of the study program.

Students were advised to take notes and complete self-study exercises. There was some encouragement for students to discuss these exercises on the bulletin board if they wished, but there was no expectation that these should be submitted in any formal way. They were meant merely as triggers to interactive discussion.

The original unit also included three written assignments, which at that stage of development were to be submitted by post in the traditional manner.

The students

There was considerable diversity between the students, and their needs were significantly different from each other.

All three were mature aged students in full time employment. They each had work and family commitments, and had been studying as part time external students for more than a year. Two were undergraduates enrolled in the BA(VET) and were employed as full time lecturers at Hedland College of TAFE in the Pilbara. The third was enrolled in the Graduate Diploma (Higher & Further Education) and was a lecturer at the Centre for Aboriginal Studies at Curtin University.

The Perth based student needed this unit to complete his Graduate Diploma by midyear, even though it was not officially on offer. Early in the year we negotiated that he would trial the unit online as a mutually advantageous arrangement between Curtin colleagues. His work required him to travel frequently to remote communities and interstate and the online unit would give him flexibility of access and more control over his study timetable. In return, he was to participate in intensive feedback and the ultimate improvement of the online delivery of the unit. He began studying the unit in the first week.

In contrast, the Hedland students began the unit very late and under a great deal of stress. There had been a number of enrolment problems at Hedland at the beginning of the year and the two Hedland students were justifiably angry that they had been wrongly advised to enrol in a unit which was not on offer. It took some time to assess the extent of the Hedland problems before we decided that they could substitute study of the online post graduate unit for the unit they were enrolled in. They agreed to the experimental nature of the unit and began study in the sixth and eighth weeks respectively. Hence, there was always more of sense of urgency and "just in time" decision making in their case.

The feedback assignment

In the Introduction and orientation section of the unit, which the students would normally read in the first week, they are warned that they will be expected to provide evaluative feedback. They are told that we need to collect data on the way they use the materials and what they think and feel about them.

This was included to make them aware of how they studied and conscious of the different ways they went about things. As Education students, they are constantly asked to reflect on their own styles of teaching and learning, and this is regarded as a valid exercise in all of their Education units.

They were each sent a print-based copy of the unit Plan, which included an introduction, a checklist of unit materials, references, the weekly program of work to be covered, and the details of their assignments. However, specifically for this trial, a formal feedback component was substituted for one of the original assignments.

The special first assignment was included to emphasise the trial status of the unit and to encourage involvement and ownership in the development and improvement of the online version. The assignment included the words

You will give a weekly report on your reactions to the unit, first impressions, for instance, on how you find your way around the files, the colour of the readings, setting out, your ease of reading, etc. We also need to know how you use the materials and any difficulties you come across. You will use the Electronic Mailbox function to give these reports. Your unit adviser will communicate with you mainly through the Electronic Mailbox function, but you are welcome to telephone whenever you need to.

Some suggestions for feedback are given in the Introduction (Welcome to Ed522 on the Internet!), and include the following

Their comments and feedback were to be used for two purposes. First, to improve the online unit for future use, and second, to develop an evaluation questionnaire for future students. It was also seen as a valid exercise in student reflection on their own learning, a skill which is emphasised throughout their teacher education program.

As it happened, the students did not complete the assignment exactly as planned. Weekly reports proved impossible with the other demands of the unit, and were reinterpreted as "regular" reports. Management of the unit was messy, and it is fortunate that there were only three students in the trial. The two students who started late continued to run late as was expected of them, and none of the three have yet completed the unit. However, some very useful comments were made, and the following discussion is based on that feedback.

The technical issues

There was diversity and contradiction in the student comments on technical matters, according to their level of earlier experience and their degree of satisfaction or frustration at the time of response. On the whole, their initial frustration and negativeness softened over time as they became used to the medium of study.

Only one of the students initially had full access to a suitable computer and Internet browser capable of handling the online unit. One had a Web Mosaic browser, which does not support frames. The third began by using other people's computers until he managed to upgrade his own. Eventually all students had what they needed to study the unit, both at work and at home, but this took most of the semester and the experience caused considerable frustration. WebCT specifies the need for at least Netscape 2 running on a 486 or higher capacity computer.

A major technical weakness for the Pilbara students was the slowness of Internet access. On too many occasions they complained that they couldn't get access when they wanted it. While there is an IT person on the staff at Hedland college, and I understand that he was very helpful at first, he soon found that the problems were too many and too frequent for him to handle on a regular basis. Home access was further complicated by the need to find access times when "every kid in the Pilbara" was not playing on the Internet! File loading times of up to 10 minutes were reported, even though the pages had been designed to minimise such delays. The following comment reflects the effect delays had on students.

... the time taken to open a page only to discover this is not where you want to be is very time consuming. This may be due to the server here in Hedland, however regardless of where the problem actually lies, this will no doubt cause some students distraction due to frustration.
However, the same student reported that things became much faster as she acquired more experience and learned more about operating the package.

The Perth base student compared his situation favourably with the problems his fellow students appeared to be having "up north". He found response times were very fast and he was able to access the program at any time, day or night.

Many of the problems the students identified related to components I did not know about, did not use, or could not see. The students worked a lot of things out for themselves, or told each other when they discovered new things.

There appeared to be problems with how they were viewing things on their own machines. Comments like "the little blue box", "the blue on brown writing is very difficult to read", "the font Style is not right", "the orange text" (which always looked red to me) "the green menu on the left hand side"; "the purple underlined message"; "the colours of the reply/quote/save" box, etc. left me bewildered and I had problems responding to these comments as I was not viewing things as they were. Two of the students reported struggling with the MyNotes component, with comments like, "It still scrolls half way down the page when you click in the text box. Is this something that can be fixed? It is a little annoying." The lecturer, however, had no need to use MyNotes and did not know how it could be fixed. They discussed these things with each other on the Electronic Mailbox and helped each other with new views and techniques.

At first they lost messages, couldn't find the notes they had made in the MyNotes file, couldn't print out diagrams, had trouble switching back and forth between different functions and files, and underwent all the frustrating things we all experience when coming to grips with a new computer package. They were very much on their own with this level of learning, and apart from directing them to the substantial documentation on the WebCT Home Page, I more or less left them to work things out for themselves.

One student was distressed because there was no spell check on the bulletin board, "which means I have to sit with a dictionary on the computer table." This was an important issue in the context of the standards of literary presentation we expect in all their course work. They discussed the possibility of preparing and correcting their "reports" in Word and pasting them into the bulletin board, or of using the Attach function. One student commented "I am afraid at times to experiment. It's safer to figure out the basics and do no more than what is required." I was happy to accept their work on that basis, as it was not technical expertise that I was concerned with in this unit.

Keeping the Threads of discussion going was identified as a problem. With the three students on three different timetables, it proved impossible to keep the comments consistent within the weekly topics While this was seen to be rather messy, it was not a major problem as all the messages remained visible on the Electronic Mailbox, in the order they were posted, and it was easy to search back and forth. One student commented on the way the Electronic Mailbox was set out as a real advantage over email, "... as it keeps all the messages and responses together for easy access." Whether the organisation of Threads will improve with a much larger class group, starting all at the same time next semester, remains to be seen.

There were also a couple of unforeseen problems on our end. The WebCT site was changed twice during the life of the unit. This should not have affected us, but one student claimed to have lost access completely for several days on one occasion. Server changes occurring without notice within the university definitely affected the stability of our email aliases, and added one more frustration to distant students trying to establish email contact.

All three students reported studying in a non-computer mode when they felt it was better or easier. All printed out various parts of the unit for easier access and for more traditional learning with pen or highlighter in hand. One reported a need to continue to take handwritten notes, apart from those he kept in MyNotes.

I did not entirely get away from pen and paper technology ... throughout the semester I have maintained a file and have committed many thoughts, notes, summaries and drafts to paper.
The choice students have to use the online materials in the way that best suits them probably needs to be emphasised more next time the unit is run.

The design issues

Apart from occasional mistakes and breaks and things not completed in the html version of the unit, there were also problems with some of the page design features. I was interested to hear the students' reactions to colour, font size, navigation, etc, into which much of the design effort had gone when the unit was transposed from print to screen format.

The use of colour was initially the most powerful impression on which the students reported.

On initial inspection of the Home Page layout, I was most impressed with the icons and colours used.

The ease of identifying quotations [in coloured boxes] for instance, is excellent. When looking over the Guide for a quote, I can look for the text in the coloured box.

The inclusion of colour is an obvious advantage. I found the colours helped make the diagrams easier to interpret and more attention-grabbing than if in black and white. Colours also help in differentiating some of the sections within the text. They provide an indicator as to where I am up to and where a change has occurred from say text to exercise.

I find the background colours soothing.

Two students commented on the difficulty of reading the sections which had been written in a smaller font. All quotations from the literature had been mounted this way and while it had always looked attractive in print, it did not work well on screen. Use of the Increase Size and Decrease Size capabilities are not practicable when they have to be used repeatedly. All small font sizes have now been increased in the revised version.

One student identified being able to see "half a page at a time" as a problem. This is an interesting issue in learning psychology. Students are obviously conditioned by previous experience to regard an A4 sheet as "a page" and the amount visible on that page is what they feel most comfortable with. Although some considerable effort had been made to design screens as discrete "pages", this student found it distracting to scroll up and down to check things which came before or after.

The absence of the Module number as part of the major heading of each file created unexpected difficulties. When I pointed out that the module number was included in the hidden title and was displayed in the Location box on each page, I was told that it was lost when the reader switched between files. This has since been attended to and each module heading now contains a number.

Two students referred several times to "eyestrain and tiredness" as a major problem.

The black text is not as solid as it is in print.

The eye strain and text colours [not sharp enough] are still issues at this stage.

I have chosen to access this unit in every way. The method I have found most useful has been to print out the material as a hard copy and work from that. Reading the monitor for long periods has given me headaches and blurred vision on occasion.

The more experienced student did not mention physical difficulties with reading from the screen, which may imply that it was unfamiliarity with using an electronic screen for long periods of time that caused the problem.

Nobody mentioned navigation at all, even though the feedback assignment had given it as a cue for comment. Either it was working well enough not to warrant comment, or else there were so many other problems, that they hadn't got around to noticing it!

The cognitive issues

The major question when introducing an alternative learning medium must always be, Are the students learning as efficiently in the new medium as they did in the old? In this case, there is some evidence that they may not have been. The newness and excitement of the new experience was a motivating force, but may in itself have interfered with established patterns of learning. The technical problems may also have been a distraction to learning. Comments included
I am not sure that my learning of the subject matter has been any better with this mode than with traditional materials.

It seemed harder to take in the text [on the screen].

This was confirmed to me when I printed out some chapters and it was as if I had not read them before.

The text looked so different in hard print. Obviously my concentration and retention is not as good on the screen and needs to be developed.

Much higher concentration is required when reading, I think this is because I cannot underline, highlight and make marginal notes on the Internet.

To print or not to print was a re-occurring question. One student reported being tempted to print out the Guide to study, but tried to force himself to read on screen. A second printed sections out to speed up the process. The third printed out the Reader in the hope that it would facilitate cross referencing.

The issue here is one of cognitive familiarity. The student who tried initially to do all his reading on screen may have felt that he would eventually get used to the discomfort and gain more from the new environment and the new learning metaphors. He was also attempting to explore the medium as a future delivery mode for his own students, and hence his motivation may have been different.

It is significant that, under pressure to complete the unit, all students resorted to printing out the materials to speed up their learning in a more familiar mode. However, I sensed that they believed they should not have done this.

In future students will be told quite clearly that this is choice they are free to make for themselves and one approach is not necessarily better than another.

The affective issues

It appears that the students simultaneously loved and hated their online learning experience.

One student claimed to be enjoying it right from the beginning. Another started very negatively but announced several weeks later, "I hate to admit it too much, but I am enjoying this a bit ... using the computer as a classroom. ...". By the end of the semester, most of the comments were positive.

I am enjoying this method of study. The experience has had a substantial novelty element about it

After getting over the early technical and skill hurdles, my attitude towards the medium improved as I became more familiar with it.

Learning is certainly more interesting this way, ... because of the colours and flexibility of some features.

One student was most enamoured with the Electronic Mailbox function, whereby interaction was occurring rapidly and frequently between students and lecturer. An appreciation of the "more immediate feedback", in comparison with the time taken for written assignments, for instance, was remarked on by two students, and commended by one as a good teaching/learning model.
I am one for student rapport building and peer rapport building to encourage learning.
Public participation in the Electronic Mailbox component has been useful. I actually feel a part of a class, however it is difficult to make comment on this material without someone else reading and using my evaluation ideas as well.

Other affective comments point to the dual love/hate relationship the students had developed with the online mode.

I have become more comfortable with it and more clever in its use.

Best thing about it is its availability (24 hours a day).

Mostly I have not enjoyed this method of studying, and I am still analysing my reasons as they may be due to the prejudices I experienced in the initial set up period. ... I think I would prefer not to use this method of delivery again at this point.


This paper could have included further sections on other issues. An intensive, in-depth study of three students may have opened a Pandora's box of issues. However, I will save that for a later time when I have run the gauntlet of a whole class evaluation. It is important, however, that the many issues be continually studied and analysed as we enter this era of electronic delivery, and it is equally important that we learn from all our experiences and strive towards a grounded theory of teaching and learning in this new mode.

Some significant conclusions can be drawn from the study outlined in this paper.

Most of the problems described above grew more out of the transfer of learning to an unfamiliar electronic environment than from the content of materials themselves. It is probable that well designed study materials will retain their validity in any new delivery mode. The central problem remains that students find ways to study them as efficiently as they did in traditional modes.

My first concern has to be with the content of the unit. Students need to be told that I am not a computing teacher and I don't really mind how they go about their learning. I do not want to write detailed documentation on the functions of WebCT explaining which buttons they need to press to get them started, and what to do next. These instructions already exists on the Internet and it would unnecessarily complicate and distract from the main purpose of the unit content to draw undue attention to the technological requirements of online study.

Another point is how important it is for the providing institution to have good systems in place, so that nothing is changed or liable to fall over. If we are going into this technology we need iron clad guarantees that our systems will not fail the students who are having a difficult enough time of it already.

All students, as they gained confidence, began to give advice about what I should tell the students next semester to help them avoid the problems they had had.

In retrospect, I do not think we would have benefited much by waiting until the online unit was "finished", as I doubt whether I could ever have been ready for the demands of the real experience. There is no way that I could have anticipated the quantity and variety of the responses and have made the online unit completely airtight before this trial began.

Thanks to the three of you.


McBeath, C. (1997). Micro curriculum issues in designing on-line materials. What Works and Why. Proceedings ASCILITE'97, Curtin University.

Dr Clare McBeath
Senior Lecturer in Curriculum Studies
Faculty of Education
Curtin University of Technology
GPO Box U1987, Perth WA 6845
Phone: +61 8 9266 2182

Please cite as: McBeath, C. (1998). An online unit of tertiary study: Starting up the hard way. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Planning for Progress, Partnership and Profit. Proceedings EdTech'98. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology.

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