To hear Iris Li talk about it, it's almost metaphysical.
"It's neat having something that's intangible," she says. "You don't have the physical presence of other people when you learn, so it's more like a connection of minds."
Li, a third-year University of Calgary English Honours student, is describing how students in her English 492 class conduct online discussions. Combining the Internet with small group work and class meetings, the course is an example of how educators use technology to teach in new ways.
Not surprisingly, the Faculty of Continuing Education uses a great deal of Internet technology. According to Dean Thomas Keenan, the faculty offers three main types of Web courses: live Webcasts, Web Course Tools (WebCT) and a combination of classwork and online work.
"There's actually an instructor there with you all the time, except you might be in different places," Keenan says of the live Webcasts. "They do it online, they hear the instructor and they see what the instructor is writing, what the instructor is doing. If they want to meet the instructor, they can arrange to meet the instructor at some other time."
Another option is WebCT, pre-designed Web pages containing information, assignments, online quizzes and multimedia features. Students can access it any time, but usually no live instructor is present when students log on, which limits available online help.
"Students are always concerned about that and I think anybody who designs these courses has to think about how these students are going to be handled when they ask a question," says Keenan, suggesting a library of Frequently Asked Questions or telephone tutors as possible solutions.
The faculty's Master of Continuing Education program is a hybrid course that combines a Web environment and traditional classroom setting. Students meet for three weeks at the beginning of the year and then communicate electronically for the remaining 49 weeks.
"We do that because we want them to get to know each other," says Keenan. "If you send an e-mail with a question, now that I know you, it's different from if I had never met you."
As for accessibility, anyone with at least a 28.8 kps modem connection and 133 MHz computer can take the courses the faculty offers.
"We have kind of picked a common denominator technology that doesn't exclude a lot of people," says Keenan. "But eventually we think everybody's going to have high-speed connections and we're going to be planning stuff for that."
Keenan believes many mainstream university courses can benefit from including more technology, but it's up to the professors to strike an "intelligent combination" of face-to-face interaction and technology. He is convinced that programs can teach certain things like English grammar and computer programming as well as human beings, but not other topics like how to discuss philosophy.
"What we need to do is use technology for what it's good for and direct people to the technology," he explains.
At the U of C, video conferencing is used by several faculties, including Humanities, Engineering and Nursing. In video conferencing, video and audio links are set up between two rooms equipped with monitors and microphones.
For Russian professor Dr. Nicolas Zekulin, Head of the Department of Germanic, Slavic and East Asian studies, video conferencing allows small and highly-specialized programs at different universities to pool their resources.
"It permits us to mount courses that otherwise would be unavailable, certainly at one university, and possibly both," he says. "The number of students might not justify putting it on, and you may not have the expertise."
Zekulin currently teaches a Russian literature videoconferencing course with four U of A students and one U of C student, fourth-year German major and Russian minor Lisa Jacobson.
"In a video conferencing course, it's more interesting because you have people from two areas talking to each other," she says. "At U of C you know all the profs, all the students in your program. You don't know the students at the U of A."
To give students both sides of the learning experience, Zekulin goes up to Edmonton at least once a semester to teach a class. Instead of favouring the students who are in the same room as him, Zekulin says he finds himself talking more to the monitor.
Zekulin attributes the stigma of video-conferencing to lack of experience with the technology.
"Most students will not chose an electronic course as a first choice," he says. "Students who've taken one may tell you they don't like a particular professor or they might tell you that type of course doesn't work as well electronically, but that's no different from what students do now [with non-electronic courses]. I remain convinced that where a course is well and successfully taught, it doesn't matter if it's video conference or not."
Zekulin firmly believes live interaction and technology will co-exist at universities in the future.
"If what you're interested in is expanding your mind through contact with other minds, I think there is a place for a live university and will be for a long time to come," he says. "That does not mean to say that within that general framework there isn't room for this kind of technology. As long as the bottom line is the benefits--in terms of pedagogy, not in terms of budget, not in terms of getting people through the system, but in terms of learning--then it seems to me you need to pursue it."
Professor of Chemistry Dr. Ian Hunt has brought a significant Web component into his tutorials for his organic chemistry classes.
The course Web site, > contains course information, lab preparations, review materials, old exams and solutions and weekly updates. The site started about five years ago with the creation of an online laboratory preparation component to replace poorly-attended lab lectures.
"And it just gradually grew," Hunt says. "Why don't we put the course information sheet on? Why don't we list what the experiments are week by week so that people can look at them? Why don't we list where the lab sections occur?"
Other technological aspects include a class e-mail list where students ask questions about assignments or concepts and answers are sent to everyone on the list, as well as another Web site supplementing the organic chemistry text book. The largest technology-based component of Hunt's course is the Computer Assisted Learning, or CAL, tutorial sessions.
According to Hunt, the computer-based tutorials and quizzes were a way to eliminate the immense task of marking two-question paper quizzes for 500 students five to six times a semester.
"You can automatically grade, you can ask more so you can enhance the learning experience; environmentally, there's not a ream of paper being printed every two to three weeks," he says, adding that some students wouldn't pick up their marked paper quizzes to see what they got right or wrong. " With an electronic medium, they have it as a permanent record, they can't lose it, and they can hopefully learn from the mistakes they made in that online testing format."
Hunt is undecided about using technology such as PowerPoint in lectures.
"The headache, from a chemical perspective, is the huge amount of work it would be to translate all those chemical structures into workable PowerPoint presentations," he says. "I think the other issue is what if the technology doesn't work when you walk into the room? You've got to have a backup."
Second-year Zoology student Heath Simpson agrees.
"PowerPoint would be good, but only if profs know how to use it," he said. "If it's not set up and ready to go, they don't know what to do sometimes."
Simpson also likes having notes posted online so he can just add to them during class.
"As [profs] are talking I don't have to worry about writing down the overhead," he says. "In some situations, like big classes, it takes away from the monotony, and with some of the teachers you can't read what they write."
Simpson adds that though some profs may fear posting notes online deters students from attending class, the decision is ultimately his.
"I'm paying the money, I should be able to choose whether I go or not."
Although English is not traditionally associated with technology, Drs. Aruna Srivastava and Shaobo Xie are integrating both Web and classroom components into their ENGL 492 (International Literature) course. The course combines a WebCT site and another Web site, > as well as small group work and monthly class meetings.
(continued on next page)
Srivastava lists several reasons for using a Web component.
"One particular reason, in the context of the courses I teach--aboriginal literature and post-colonial literature--is that there are alternative resources on these you can only find on the Internet," she explains. "Another reason is technology literacy. I think students have to be critical of their use of the Internet, but they have to be able to know how to use it to be critical of using it."
Srivastava also believes working with the Web fosters "creativity in thinking" students may not develop from print research.
"Going to a Web page is not a linear process," she says. "It involves a more tangential process to be thorough. Students, when they first go to a Web page, will not investigate all the links and URLs that occur because they're not used to doing that."
Reactions from students are mixed. Li, who has never taken such an interactive course, admits she doesn't log on to the online discussions on the WebCT that often because she's busy with other classwork.
"The people who do go on, they generate a lot of incredibly challenging and invigorating ideas," she says. "It's more of a community for students; you're teaching each other more than being taught to by a prof."
According to fourth-year English student Scott Hames, the electronic format prevents one person from dominating a discussion or wasting time with irrelevant questions. Hames also likes that students can take their time crafting their argument as well as quote a previous post in their responses.
"To really get my head around an idea I need to be asking questions like, 'what do you mean, how about this, can you be more clear on this bit here,' et cetera, which the online discussion is better for," he says.
Hames does acknowledge the system is open to abuse.
"It hasn't happened in our class, but there are a few well-known cases of abusive e-mails being received from anonymous addresses, both in other English classes and in past 492 ones, apparently," he says.
Not everyone prefers the online discussion format over face-to-face class discussions. Sebastien Windle, a fifth-year English Honours student, thinks it's a faceless format that doesn't produce constructive criticism.
"It should be a place for free exchange of ideas," he explains. "You shouldn't be insulting other people and ideas. It's degraded into 'I don't think that's right.'"
"Face-to-face discussion is more fast paced, people have to think on their feet," adds Windle, a self-described traditionalist who prefers the lecture format. "Your true colours come through. You have less time to craft an argument, but that's the point. You come to class, you've read what you're supposed to, and what other people say makes you think."
Windle adds that it takes a certain amount of self-discipline and motivation to succeed at a course like this.
"The biggest problem is that some of the other students are just in their third year," he says. "They're not in the mentality that you have to be in to motivate yourself."
Srivastava, who got involved with technology "kicking and screaming," does not believe Web-based courses will take over professors' jobs in the future, since developing a Web course is so much work. She also sees an unexpected trend where online teaching influences traditional classroom methods.
"What they're doing is engaging people in more interactive teaching and learning rather than being a more top-down model because online learning isn't face to face," she says.
"What we're being taught about online learning is we have to be more collaborative, more interactive, more student-centred. So all these online teachers are actually saying, 'I'm teaching differently in a face-to-face classroom because I now teach online.' They're learning, to me, some obvious things, like group work and asking students what they want. I'm not sure if that's actually happening or if it's just a trend in pedagogy, but that's partly what I see happening."
Srivastava also sees more creative Web-based courses and CD-ROMS being developed for students, which is where she feels online learning should go in the future. The danger, however, is in unengaging Web-based courses.
"WebCT is cool in a lot of ways, but it could also go in a very negative direction, which is to plunk any course you have into the WebCT and serve it up to your students," she says. "I'm hoping we don't go in that direction."