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Multimedia and microbiology: An Australian first

Peta Edwards
Lecturer, School of Biomedical Sciences
Curtin University of Technology


During the second semester of 1990 and 1991, "Microbiology 263", the first accredited tertiary telecourse in Australia, was televised on the Western Australian television channel, GWN using its educational network, Ed TV. The telecourse was developed at Curtin University through the Schools of Biomedical Sciences, Nursing, The Educational Media Centre and the Centre for External Studies.

Reasons for the development of the telecourse

The course was developed in direct response to solving problems which had previously prevented us externalising this subject. The major hurdles were the essential need for hands on practical experience and problems we were experiencing on campus with the assessment of 600-700 nursing microbiology students per year.

Normally external students attempting a unit with a practical component would be required to come onto campus for up to a week. However, the costs associated with airfares (as high as $1200 from the Kimberley) and the disruption to family and working lives the absence of the student causes dissuaded us from taking up this option.

The idea of providing students with practical kits which they could use at home was addressed. However, the thought of unsupervised students working with disease causing organisms and the need to transport and maintain delicate and expensive microscopes in working order, deterred us from acting.

We eventually settled for a two day practical workshop at the student's nearest hospital laboratory. This would be undertaken under the guidance of the Unit Controller at Curtin and supervised by the Senior Medical scientist in the hospital laboratory.

The second problem, that of assessment was one which had plagued us for a number of years in all of the nursing microbiology units taught on campus. Pre-telecourse, students wrote up a small practical report after each session, completed two tests and a final examination. This meant literally thousands of pieces of assessment were requiring marking each semester. We decided to produce a series of self assessment questions after each practical session. It was hoped that these would obviate the need for students to sit centrally run tests during the semester. Answers were provided in the following session or were available in an answer booklet on sale from the bookshop.

To overcome any further need for students to come onto campus we arranged for all examinations to be taken in the student's home town.

The telecourse

In its present form the telecourse now consists of. Each tape is approximately 40 minutes long and encompass 20 hours of television. The tapes are accompanied by the following print material: The Study Manual and the Practical Workbook contain the aims and objectives for each video module and a guide to where the material can be found on tape or in the text. The Study Manual also contains copies of all the overhead material used in the lecture tapes. The Unit Guide informs the students of how the unit runs, where materials can be found and how to make best use of the materials in the package.

As well the student is expected to complete the two day practical workshop and a final examination.

To our knowledge this is the first time in the world that a unit in microbiology, encompassing both practical and theoretical components has been taught through television. The same unit is offered on campus in the traditional face to face mode. However, all of the print materials developed for the external unit are used by the on campus students and the tapes are housed in Closed Reserve in the library. These are used as a back up source if students happen to miss lectures or practicals or if they want to clarify points they are not sure of. Another spin off was the fact that they could be used for lectures if the lecturer was not able to be present.


We were most interested to see whether the telecourse might disadvantage our external students or if marks attained by them were equal to, or better than those of their colleagues on campus.

A number of people have undertaken studies on the evaluation of the educational effectiveness of televised teaching programs in comparison to the use of the more traditional face to face or chalk face modes (Mintzes, 1975; Hart, 1988). There is considerable debate as to whether or not student outcomes are better for those receiving television instruction (Scramm, 1977 cited in Catchpole, 1988; Talabi, 1989) or whether the outcome is the same when compared to traditional teaching approaches (Cresswell, 1986) or worse as Olenick (1988-89) has suggested in the evaluation of video tapes designed to teach high school physics.

In the Microbiology 263 study, marks attained in the final examination by the three groups of students studying this unit were examined. The three groups were:

Using the SPSS statistical package (1988) no statistically significant differences could be demonstrated (p > 0.05) between the examination results for pre- and post- telecourse. However, when examining results between the modes of study for individual years, the examination mean for the students completing Microbiology 263 in the mixed mode was significantly different (p=.0118).

In Tables 1 and 2, the mean and the number of students are shown for each of the modes of study and pre- and post- telecourse.

Table 1: Comparison of pre and post telecourse exam
results for each mode of Microbiology 263

263 on campus263 external263 mixed mode

No. of
No. of
No. of

Pre-telecourse16062.03 N/AN/A5066.04
Post-telecourse10662.16 2659.731861.67

Table 2: Comparison of examination results for Microbiology 263 by year

263 on campus263 external263 mixed mode

No. of
No. of
No. of

198910762.51 N/AN/A3765.73
19907463.95 1762.351968.37
19918561.8 954.781256.75

Advantages of the telecourse

The telecourse provides a number of advantages for the teaching of microbiology over more traditional methods. These include:

Being able to show pictures of microbes moving under the microscope, close up operation of equipment such as microscopes in the laboratory, staining techniques and isolation and identification techniques. Television is able to bring the student into close contact with the essential components of the unit.

As well, the telecourse lends itself to self paced learning and students have the advantage of being able to study at a time and a place that is suitable to them. The videos can be replayed until the student fully understands the material under discussion. The tapes can also be used as revision tools before the practical workshop and examinations. The students have the choice of studying either individually or within a peer group.

Deficiencies of the unit

One of the deficiencies of the unit at the moment is the need for students to sit their final exam at a pre-arranged time with an appointed invigilator. Because of security problems, the exam date and time has to be the same, State-wide. To overcome this problem we are currently developing a computer managed assessment program (CML) to be used by on campus, distance education and mixed mode students.

The development of a computer managed assessment program

We are currently compiling the question bank for the CML, which we anticipate will be trialled in the first semester of 1992. For the present this will run off the mainframe at Curtin and off campus students can use the system via a modem. The mainframe is being used largely because of security problems associated with use of personal computers and Apple Macs. The latter would be the preferred choice because of the ability to use more sophisticated software such as "Authorware".

At present there are 30 modules covering the practical and theoretical components of the unit. Each module contains up to nine objectives with some duplication between the practical and theory. For each objective we are aiming to establish a bank of between ten and thirty questions. Once the CML is functional we are still able at any time to add questions or make changes to the bank.

With the present system we are restricted to a test bank comprising multiple choice questions or questions requiring a true/false answer. If we use "fill in the blank" questions we run into problems with other possible options for answers to questions which have not been programmed into the computer. These include the mixing of upper and lower case and in microbiology, spelling errors. Often an answer is phonetically correct. When manually marked, and because of expectations at this level, the answer is accepted as correct. It would however, be recorded as incorrect on the CML program. Early next year we will be able to scan in diagrams which can be labelled, but again the choice of answer would probably need to be placed in a MCQ format because of the latter problems.

The program is designed to guide students to areas in the text or videos where they have made errors on the test. There will be a centralised recording system showing the questions each student has been asked and their marks.

An enormous amount of marking and coordinating is currently necessary to maintain assessments with present enrolments of between 600-700 students per year. Hopefully this system will relieve some of the drudgery. It will also allow all students to sit assessment modules when they feel they are ready rather than at a pre-arranged time which is often inconvenient. However, the system will necessitate greater responsibility by the student for learning and arranging test sessions.

Tutorial sessions

At present, on campus and mixed mode students attend tutorial/demonstration practical sessions and the external students view the videos as part of the clinical microbiology component. On campus, these classes tend to be reasonably large and it is often difficult to generate discussion and maintain interest.

We feel that the above problems can be largely overcome by the use of a program such as HyperCard for the construction of tutorial sessions for the clinical microbiology section of the unit. An outline of a clinical case study will be given with patient symptomology and relevant laboratory results. Using Hypertext stacks which are presently under construction, students will be able to interlink data and concepts across the microbiology modules by association rather than by the linear format of a textbook or conventional video tape. Once again this will allow the students the option of self paced learning. They will be able to spend as much or as little time as is necessary to become familiar with the material, able to apply it to the clinical situation in which they are working and interpret clinical results.

Where errors in logic or wrong assumptions are made, or results misinterpreted, the program will give the student the option of feeding back to the appropriate area in the text, graphics or video sequences so that they can obtain correct information.

Self assessment questions, as well as guided tutorial questions can be built into the system. At this stage these will not count towards assessment but it is felt that students who do complete the tutorial sessions will be at an academic advantage to those who don't make the effort. We will however develop a recording section which students can use to assess their progress. This will also provide guidance as to where students might be experiencing problems or where there might be glitches in the system.

By use of guided self study using all of the components of the unit, namely the videos, the print based material, the CML and the tutorial sessions we can free up some of the contact time which has been used for face to face teaching and still expect that students be familiar with the course material. We could then use contact time for discussion of the latest developments and applications of this science in the clinical setting.


At Curtin we have developed a means of teaching a unit with a high practical component to external students without those students having to come onto campus. We have shown that these students are not academically disadvantaged by this method of delivery.

By combining the telecourse with CML and the HyperCard tutorial session we have been able to make the package self paced for both on and off campus students. Hopefully, students will find the acquiring of microbiological knowledge, its interpretation and application within the working environment easier, more interesting and more fulfilling.


Catchpole, M. J. (1988). Student response to a distance education course incorporating live, interactive television. Proceedings of the International Council for Distance Education (pp 156- 158). Oslo.

Cresswell, K. W. (1986). Does instructional TV make the grade? Journal of Educational Television, 12(1), 19-27.

Hart, A. (1988). Educational media: Innovation and evaluation. Journal of Educational Television, 14(3), 210-212.

Mintzes, D. S. (1975). The A-T approach 14 years later: A review of recent research. Journal of College Science Teaching, 4, 247-252.

Olenick, R. P. (1988-1989). The development of video tapes for high school physics courses: The mechanical universe and beyond. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 17(1), 33-47.

Scramm, W. (1977). Big media little media: Tools and technology for instruction. Beverley Hills, California: Sage Publications.

SPSS X User's Guide (1988). SPSS Inc.

Talabi, J. K. (1989). The comparative effect of televised and programmed instruction. Journal of Educational Television, 15(1), 17-24.

Please cite as: Edwards, P. (1992). Multimedia and microbiology: An Australian first. In Promaco Conventions (Ed.), Proceedings of the International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 65-70. Perth, Western Australia, 27-31 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1992/edwards.html

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