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«Does the medium change the message? The impact of a web-based genetics course on university students’ perspectives on learning and teaching ...»

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Computers & Education 38 (2002) 267–285


Does the medium change the message? The impact of

a web-based genetics course on university students’

perspectives on learning and teaching

Jessamyn Marie O. Yazona, Jolie A. Mayer-Smitha,*, Rosemary J. Redfieldb


Department of Curriculum Studies, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, V6T 1Z4


Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, V6T 1Z4 Accepted 16 November 2001 Abstract This study explores how university students respond to and perform in a web-based learning environment. We examine whether technology can serve as a catalyst for reforming post-secondary education, and more specifically whether it can help educators address the problem of passive learning among university level science students. To answer this question we examine students’ experiences in an ‘‘autotutorial,’’ webbased version of a third-year, university genetics course. Our findings suggest that a carefully designed technology-enhanced learning environment, which combines online and face-to-face elements has the potential to assist students in thinking differently about teaching and learning science. Thus, we conclude that the medium can change the message. # 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Pedagogical issues; Post-secondary education; Teaching/learning strategies; Evaluation of CAL systems;

Interactive learning environments

1. Introduction During the past two decades, educators have invested extensive time and resources introducing computers and web-based courses into universities. It is evident however that the introduction of these new tools has not translated into changed pedagogical practices. Many professors use technology only as an extension of the chalkboard or overhead projector and rely upon traditional testing procedures to measure and evaluate student achievement in assessing technology’s potentials. Harris (1999) notes that the prevailing pedagogical approach to technology in higher * Corresponding author. Tel.: +1-604-822-5293; fax: +1-604-822-4714.

E-mail address: jolie.mayer-smith@ubc.ca (J.A. Mayer-Smith).

0360-1315/02/$ - see front matter # 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.

PII: S0360-1315(01)00081-1 268 J.M.O. Yazon et al. / Computers & Education 38 (2002) 267–285 education is ‘‘to simply reproduce the old curriculum via the new medium of information technology (IT)’’ (p. 248). Unfortunately, this traditional pedagogy reinforces students’ passive and rote learning strategies (Andrews, Garrison, & Magnusson, 1996; McKay & Kember, 1997).

Although a constructivist student-centred learning paradigm is desirable in the university setting, post-secondary teaching methods continue to focus on teacher-directed activities (Barr & Tagg, 1995).

As critics and advocates alike clamour for a justification of computer-rich classrooms, there is a need for educators to critically investigate how instructional technologies can be used more effectively to improve teaching and enhance learning. An essential part of that investigation involves examining teachers’ and students’ pedagogical perspectives and roles in courses where technology is extensively used. An examination of these experiences and perspectives may lead to a deeper understanding of technology’s potential role as a catalyst for initiating changed teaching and learning in the university classroom. In this paper we describe a study that begins to address these issues.

1.1. Context and objectives of the study

The context for our paper is an on-going study being conducted in a required third year university-level genetics course with an enrolment of over 500 undergraduates. Historically, this has been a traditional lecture-based course, with students attending three, 1-h large-group lectures and one, 2-h small-group tutorial session each week. Students and instructors associated with this course were concerned about students’ poor understanding of basic concepts, the extreme degree of difficulty students experienced when attempting to work through the assigned problems, and the high number of failures in the course. A pilot study conducted in 1992 to better understand these learning problems led to the conclusion that many of the difficulties students were experiencing were related to passive learning tendencies. Aiming to help students overcome their passive approach to learning and improve student achievement, one of the authors (JMS) worked with the course professors and teaching assistants to design and introduce a number of alternative instructional strategies in lecture and tutorial class sessions. A collaborative study group on genetics was established, and over a series of years new teaching and learning procedures were introduced into the regular course format (Mayer-Smith, 2000). The goal of these instructional interventions was to assist students in becoming more independent and purposeful learners, and active problem solvers (Griffiths & Mayer-Smith, 2000).

After 5 years of collaboration and experimentation with different pedagogical approaches, student activity and interactivity had noticeably increased in lecture and tutorial settings.

However, the majority of students enrolled in the course remained reluctant to relinquish their reliance on passive learning approaches. Based on the fact that the lecture setting was viewed as ‘the culprit’ that sustained traditional passive learning practices, one genetics professor (RJR) and a colleague, Dr. George Haughn, decided to try moving the course out of the lecture hall and into the virtual learning environment. An alternative ‘‘autotutorial’’, web-based version of the course was designed using WebCT and piloted in 1998. The modified course structure is based on a modular, self-directed, web-based instructional format (http://webct.science.ubc.ca:8900/public/biol334_201/index.html) that replaces the lecture portion of the original course (see Fig. 1 for a view of the course website). The weekly 2-h, small-group, instructor-led J.M.O. Yazon et al. / Computers & Education 38 (2002) 267–285 tutorial session was retained as part of the course design, resulting in a hybrid instructional format that included both online and face-to-face learning opportunities. The technologymediated version of the genetics course offers the core curriculum as 12 online modular units that students work through at their own pace. Each online module is infused with a range of learning activities, including traditional and non-traditional genetics problems, advice on learning approaches, and references to a range of web-based resources that build on and extend the textbook concepts (see Figs. 2 and 3 for samples of the module guide activities). Moving ahead to a new unit takes place when students have shown mastery by successfully solving genetics problems on tests associated with each module. In addition to the online module guide with activities, advice, and weblinks, the face-to-face tutorials, and the weekly written problem-solving tests, the course structure incorporates an electronic ‘‘bulletin board’’ feature providing a place for teacher or student initiated conversations, and a student help desk for individual or small group tutoring. Because students work in a self-directed manner through the course material, both students and course instructors refer to the web-based course as the ‘‘autotutorial genetics section’’.

Both the traditional and autotutorial versions of the genetics course have been offered since

1998. The traditional section of the course runs during the fall semester and the online version is offered in the winter term. Both sections are listed in the University catalogue under the course number, and students have the option to enrol in whichever section they prefer.

Fig. 1. Computer-based, autotutorial genetics course website shows the various online features on a WebCT format.

270 J.M.O. Yazon et al. / Computers & Education 38 (2002) 267–285 To explore the implications of teaching and learning university genetics in a technology-mediated environment, and the potential of this approach for improving students’ pedagogical practices, a study of the autotutorial course was undertaken. The specific objectives of our study were


1. examine learning and teaching practices in a course that combined online and traditional instructional strategies and resources;

2. document the pedagogical roles, perspectives, and experiences of the students and instructors; and

3. evaluate the effectiveness and implications of implementing a technology enhanced learning environment as a means of changing pedagogy in higher education.

In this paper, we focus on one aspect of the larger study, namely the learners’ perspectives and experiences. We ask, how do university students respond to and perform in a web-based learning environment? To answer this question we examine students’ experiences with this online course. Further, we investigate whether technology can serve as an agent for reforming postsecondary education, by exploring its potential to assist students in thinking differently about teaching and learning science. Thus, we ask, does the medium change the message?

–  –  –

1.2. Theoretical framework Barr and Tagg (1995) note that undergraduate education has retained the traditional, professor-directed teaching paradigm when a restructuring of university settings to embrace a student-centred learning perspective is more appropriate and pertinent to our times. Arguing for a move away from the ‘‘instruction paradigm’’ to what they refer to as the ‘‘learning paradigm’’ in universities, Barr and Tagg (1995) call for a shift in pedagogical practices. Within this new paradigm, learning technologies (rather than curriculum) are developed, and quality of learning (rather than instruction) is evaluated continuously (rather than just at the end of the course).

According to these educators, the goal of any undergraduate course should be to create powerful, collaborative learning environments where learning is holistic and interactive. Moreover, in this alternative paradigm, student construction of knowledge, as opposed to transfer of knowledge from faculty to student, is enacted. However, both professors and students will need to make significant conceptual shifts in their views of teaching and learning before Barr and Tagg’s (1995) learning paradigm can become a reality in university classrooms.

In calling for a pedagogical shift from the conventional, teacher-directed to the constructivist, learner-centred classroom, a number of educators have advocated using new technologies as a Fig. 3. Sample page of the module guide shows the variety of online learning activities students can engage with.

272 J.M.O. Yazon et al. / Computers & Education 38 (2002) 267–285 means of changing educational practice (e.g. Garrison, 1993; Jonassen, Davidson, Collins, Campbell, & Haag, 1995; Kent & McNergney, 1999; Laurillard, 1993; Perkins, 1992). For more than a decade, researchers have claimed that teaming thoughtful pedagogical practices with technology-rich classrooms can support a constructivist learning perspective (see Duffy & Jonassen, 1992). For example, Salomon, Perkins, and Globerson (1991) discuss how the proper use of the technology can bring about cognitive experimentation. They argue that open-ended computer activities can lead to mindful engagement and reflection on the part of the students. Laurillard (1988) points to the emancipating power of educational technologies that enables students to direct their own learning. Furthermore, Laurillard (1993) and Perkins (1992) highlight technology’s capacity to scaffold (through teacher intervention) students’ construction and re-construction processes.

Despite the espoused pedagogical benefits of computer-mediated instruction, many professors have used new technologies for traditional teaching (e.g. Dewhurst, Macleod, & Norris, 2000;

Ward & Newlands, 1998). While using computer-based technologies to post lecture notes and text, and to set drill and practice activities is a first step in shifting pedagogy, educators remind us that technologies have more instructional potential (e.g. Laurillard, 1993; Perkins, 1992). Garrison (1993) points out that how technologies are used may make the difference between meaningful and superficial learning. This highlights the need for the thoughtful and ‘‘strong’’ design of technology enhanced courses that provide opportunities for students to actively engage with the learning materials and interact with fellow students and the course instructor. Like Ramsden (1984, 1992), Garrison (1993) argues that if we want to discourage students from passively assimilating information, course activities and assessment must provide opportunities for students to enact new and effective approaches to learning. These educators’ arguments imply that when professors move away from the podium and provide activities (online or offline) that promote interactivity, collaboration, and communication among students and between student and instructor, then students will approach learning differently.

Researchers have begun to report on studies that focus on using technology to address specific student learning problems in a given context (e.g. Draper, 1998). Scaling this up to deal with learning difficulties that go beyond a particular course topic is challenging, as ‘the devil is in the details’ when it comes to designing technology-mediated courses. On the other hand, the problem with adopting a new pedagogical strategy for a single topic, or working on implementing learning technologies with only one aspect of a course is that these limited interventions can leave students uncritical of the problems associated with their traditional, learning approaches. We believe that moving students to approach learning differently as characterized by Garrison (1993) and Ramsden (1984, 1992) requires attention to both the details and the larger picture when designing a computer-based learning environment. The literature on learning with and through technologies that we have reviewed has not addressed the problem of helping students understand and move beyond their passive practices to adopt deep, reflective approaches to learning. Our study begins to answer this need.

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