Poor educational outcomes and logistical problems of a benchtop laboratory class in Human Biology at Curtin University prompted the development of The Osmosis Program, interactive courseware built using Supercard. The program incorporates a self paced background tutorial and a laboratory simulation. Students master background chemical principles then generate data in the laboratory simulation. A team of specialists developed the courseware and linkages of individual team members contributions coordinated. The Osmosis Program was trialled with students before full implementation into Human Biology 133. Quantitative and qualitative data were collected during the trial and used to subsequently modify the Osmosis Program.
Many of the advantages of a practical class can be recreated on a computer screen using interactive multimedia. The possibility of replacing practicals with interactive multimedia has increasing significance to tertiary education in Australia, where funding cutbacks often mean that the relatively expensive practical component is the first to be sacrificed.
There are other reasons to consider replacing practical classes with interactive multimedia. Current and relevant laboratory equipment may be too expensive to purchase and maintain for student practicals. An increase in student numbers may prohibit supplying enough equipment to allow hands on experience to all class members. Funding may not allow the provision of the extra academic and technical staff required to adequately supervise practical classes. Tertiary institutions must also accommodate more variable study patterns, including distance education, part time study and scheduling of some classes outside the traditional hours.
In addition to funding considerations, there are also some ethical reasons for finding alternatives to traditional benchtop practicals. The use of animals in classroom experiments in the life sciences was, until relatively recently, an acceptable practice. Administration, students and staff now question their use and seek justification in compelling educational terms.
These considerations produce significant challenges to maintaining quality educational experiences in science based tertiary courses. They will affect the provision of practical classes and result in the need to choose teaching priorities. The options for tertiary education appear to be :
The students are from a broad range of courses, including nursing, the therapies, pharmacy, environmental health, medical laboratory science, health promotion and nutrition. These students enter with widely diverse backgrounds, bringing with them differing knowledge bases and confidence levels. Some of the students are mature aged entry, and often do not have strong mathematics and chemistry skills and baulk at concepts based upon these principles. Students entering some clinical courses, especially nursing, have omitted these subjects in their school based science courses.
Over the last two years, we have significantly restructured Human Biology 133 to increase the use of independent learning and to emphasise mastery rather than merely coverage of basic but essential concepts. We were especially concerned that many students were not adequately mastering the chemistry needed to understand osmosis: the movement of fluids in and out of body cells. Within the unit we used print based materials, a videotape and a laboratory practical to show the effects of these processes at a cellular level. However, it was evident that many students were not achieving well on this section of the examinations despite performing well in other human biology topics. Anecdotal evidence also supported the view that many students found the concept of osmosis difficult. It was not viable to provide the extra tutor support to those students who were experiencing difficulties with osmosis due to financial and timetabling considerations. As there were also students for whom the section presented no difficulties, providing designated class time was considered an inefficient use of limited resources.
The area in need of a new approach was a benchtop practical class which uses red blood cells to illustrate osmosis. Red blood cells either swell and burst or shrink under different osmotic conditions and cell bursting can be quantified using colorimetry. As cells burst, their red pigment, haemoglobin is released and dissolves into the solution. If cell debris is then removed, the solution is a clear red and the depth of colour reflects the proportion of cells which have burst or haemolysed. In the class, students generate their own data which provides information about the degree of haemolysis expected from solutions of different salinity. Done carefully, this laboratory practical provides good results from which to explain the concepts involved. Students are then expected to predict the outcome of other experimental situations from an understanding of the results generated.
For students with a background in chemistry, this practical did indeed achieve the aims, but many students unfortunately failed to grasp the concepts and their application. Many of these students were achieving well in the anatomy areas of the course and thus the issue appeared to be one of inadequate background knowledge rather than ability. Some students appeared to be distracted by the complex and time consuming laboratory procedures and were unable to link the results to the effects across the cell membrane. Tutors in their turn, were being frustrated by the time constraints imposed by the laboratory procedures which did not allow them the time needed to explain basic chemical principles. Although a self paced prelab had been designed to go through the basic materials, students had often not completed the section or realised the need to understand the principles involved.
Thus, the need for constant technical support, large amounts of consumables such as solutions and glassware and the occupational health and safety provisions which limited access to fresh blood were significant factors in our decision to utilise interactive multimedia.
On the positive side the opportunity for interactivity provided by multimedia was a major influence in our decision to redesign the osmosis practical and associated prerequisite content into interactive multimedia courseware. We were encouraged by the development of multimedia in science education and by research which indicated that in laboratory classes, interactive experimental simulations could be used successfully (Smith, Jones & Waugh, 1986)
In developing the courseware which we called the Osmosis Program we wanted to retain the advantages of the benchtop practical but eliminate the negatives aspects. We therefore focussed our attention on :
The early stages of the development process were dominated by the need to survey available software for suitability. In contrast to other developers, the content and educational objectives of the material were already largely prescribed for us. We wished to simulate the practical component of an existing class and to develop self paced tutorial material which would enhance understanding for all students, regardless of background and " confidence in prerequisite knowledge and skills. Our need for software which would allow the incorporation of animated and colour graphics, such as in the subtle differences in colour of blood cell solutions influenced our choice of Supercard.
The project was boosted by participation in a residential weekend workshop run by the Curtin Computing Centre. Thus provided us as content specialists access to specialist programmers and designers, allowing some foundation components of the practical module to be built. This was useful in a motivational sense, and provided a reference point from which to work.
Determining the freedom with which students could navigate through the courseware was our first decision and a major influence on the structure we have developed. The essentially linear path of the laboratory class provided the courseware structure. We wanted to produce a sequence which would motivate the students to complete prerequisite sections before attending the laboratory and would guide them through a series of graded steps to understanding these concepts. However, whilst we wanted to guide the students we also wanted to give them the opportunity to side step from the pathway for self testing or remedial help. We were also aware of the evidence that indicates that poorer students may have more difficulty in selecting sequences and reviewing material unless there is some structured guidance (Steinberg, 1977) This emphasised the need for sufficient external control to effectively guide students through the program whilst allowing them flexibility in the way they consolidate prerequisite concepts and test their understanding.
Planning of the content and sequencing of die material was largely done on paper. Whilst this was mainly due to lack of hardware available to the content specialists, it proved useful for keeping track of feedback loops, glossary and other items which sidestep out of the main pathway. From this we devised a useful method of "screen drawings" on paper, which could easily be shuffled, re-ordered, or added to, and clearly indicated to the team programmer and designer our intentions for each card. Later we utilised Inspiration software to help us keep track, and as a record of developmental progress.
It was decided to aim towards completing a working version of the Osmosis Program to trial with a group of students, and to use their feedback to complete the courseware. This proved to be invaluable, as was the peer review which we sought from computing experts, educationalists and human biologists. The completion time for the working version was approximately 10 months, allocating an average of four hours per week for assembly of content
The responses to questionnaire instruments were analysed using the computer package Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) (Nie, Hull, Jenkins, Steinbrenner & Brent, 1975). Eighty percent of the student group was female and over 50% had done no computing before. Forty seven percent of the group evaluating the Osmosis Program described themselves as having 'below average" or "very poor" skills in computing.
The following items were identified as positive aspects of the program by more than 50% of the students. The table shows the items, the percentage who responded with a definite agreement to the statement (4 or 5 on the Likert scale). The following graph shows the most positive aspects as indicated by student responses in the evaluation questionnaire.
From the open ended questions 'what did you like most about the program" students commented that "the program was easy to learn and understand" (23.4%), "you could move at your own pace" (14.9%), "the pictures and noises were good" (11.7%) and that they liked the novelty of using a computer (16.0%). The least liked features from the open ended questions were that the program was too slow (23.2%), there was too much material to cover (11.0%), they weren't given enough time for the project (9.8%), and that the program was unclear in places (8.5%).
Students were given the opportunity to make any overall comments on the program. Whilst the numbers were small the comments indicated that some students felt that their computing background knowledge was an issue in using the program (n=5), that there was a lack of human contact (n=3) and more programs should be developed (n=7).
One hundred and thirty nine students completed a comment sheet for the background tutorial. Of these, the majority (61%) were aged 20 years of younger. The comment volunteered by 26.7% was that they found the Background Tutorial useful or helpful in understanding osmosis, whilst 18.5% stated they enjoyed the session or found it fun. Negative comments were dominated by complaints about the slow reaction of the program after clicking the mouse (15%), that they didn't have sufficient time to finish (4.4%) or that they were irritated by mistakes or glitches in the Background Tutorial (12.6%).
|Number of respondents||Background tut.||Prac. module|
|% aged 20 yrs or less||61%||71%|
|Total number of unsolicited comments||266||303|
|% volunteered comments re:
1. program was useful or helped their understanding
2. session was fun, enjoyable, OK, easy to do
3. Too slow to respond to mouse click
4. Mistakes, examples of glitches in program
5. Provided good feedback
6. Poor or insufficient feedback
7. Would rather work on computer than benchtop
8. Would rather have benchtop experience
After working through the practical module, 148 students completed a comment sheet. The extra respondents were all from the age group of twenty years or younger. Many (58.5%) stated they found the practical module fun, easy to do, fine or OK, and 22 % volunteered the information that the module had helped them to understand osmosis. Six point five percent expressed the opinion that they would rather work on the screen than on the benchtop whilst 2.5% stated a preference for benchtop practical activity. The screens interchanged too slowly for 12 % and 4.2% had specific complaints about segments of the practical they found unclear. Data gathered from the comments sheets are summarised in the table above.
The interaction analysis sampled and categorised interaction between students and tutors and between students themselves into six major categories: questions related to content of the Osmosis program, general questions about osmosis, requests for explanation of a screen, questions related to progressing through the program and both "on task" and "off task" student-student comments.
Thirty six percent of all interactions were between students and other students, generally their neighbours at the next computer. The majority of these interactions were related to the practical and the Osmosis Program with only three percent of all interactions coded as "off task' comments or interactions. Questions asked of tutors were mainly related to progressing through the program ("what do I do next?") and questions concerning the content of the Osmosis Program itself.
With the exception of response time, the comments about the program content and interaction were generally positive. Most students found the Osmosis Program easy to use and understand with the material presented seen as clear and concise. Our efforts in producing good graphics and animation appear to have been worthwhile and were a major positive feature of the program for students. Questions asked of tutors about navigation did show that some were unsure of how to progress through screens and this feedback has been valuable in modifying navigational instructions.
In our evaluation, we were encouraged that despite some initial apprehension students appeared to have Increased their confidence in using screen based technology. Our change in the introductory session in second semester which reduced the amount of MacBasics done (omitting document producing and file saving etc) allowed students to access and begin to use the Osmosis Program in their first class. Students will have more hands on experience whilst their tutor is available to help and we believe this will increase students confidence in using the program by themselves.
The interaction observations showed some interesting contrasts to anecdotal evidence from tutors about students in the traditional benchtop laboratory. We found that the Osmosis program students showed more "on task" behaviour with students discussing their results and progress with their neighbours. The traditional lab produces blocks of time when students are either waiting for equipment or for a procedure to be completed. These times lead to a much more social "off task" interaction than we observed in the computer lab. The variations added to the results students generated in the computer lab both simulated reality and also led to interaction between students as they compared their results with others. Tutors indicated that with the Osmosis Program there was more time to concentrate on helping individual students with conceptual difficulties rather than supervising practical procedures.
Development of the Osmosis Program has also highlighted some issues we consider essential for the successful incorporation and role of interactive multimedia courseware in tertiary science courses with a practical component. Available hardware must meet courseware demands, especially where the the speed of response is compromised by graphics load. In the development process we have also found that the value of feedback from a working version for the further refinement of the program outweighs any concerns about trialling incomplete courseware.
Courseware such as the Osmosis Program may enhance learning for more students in increasingly heterogeneous student populations. It is a marvellous platform to support good teaching practice but does not come with its own built in educational advantages. Developed courseware can only be as good as the educational input with regards to content, presentation and sequencing. A project requires planning to ensure adequate funding for time release, so that content, navigation, programming and design are the best and most appropriate available. It is essential that projects consider implementation details to maximise usage of developed courseware and that evaluation is carried out.
Our objective is to ensure that our students are in no way disadvantaged, and may perhaps be significantly better off due to the incorporation of interactive multimedia courseware in human biology.
Nie, Hull, Jenkins, Steinbrenner & Brent (1975). Statistical Package for the Social Sciences. Chicago. SPSS Inc.
Smith, Jones & Waugh (1986). Production and evaluation of interactive videodisc lessons in laboratory instruction. Journal of Computer-based Instruction, 13, 117-121.
Steinberg. (1977). Review of student control in computer-assisted instruction. Journal of Computer-based Instruction, 3, 48-90.
|Authors: Sue Fyfe and Georgina Fyfe, Dept Human Biology, Curtin University of Technology, GPO Box U1987, Perth WA 6001. Tel: 09 351 7364
Please cite as: Fyfe, S. D. and Fyfe, G. M. (1994). "Click and drag the test tube": A role for interactive multimedia in human biology. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 152-158. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/dg/fyfe.html