The Scientist 1997
For students at the University of California, Los Angeles’s College of Letters and Science (CLS), learning has taken on a new dimension this quarter-a cyberdimension. Each one of the roughly 1,000 courses that the college offered during the quarter had its own home page on the World Wide Web. But the concept of Web-based courses, made mandatory at CLS as of September 25, has drawn plenty of controversy. It has also spurred the growth of a cottage industry-the preparation of course home pages-that may develop into a significant cost center for college-level education.
The idea of a home page for individual professors is scarcely new, nor is the concept of Web pages devoted specifically to individual courses. But the administration at UCLA believes that CLS is the first organization to require home pages for all courses across an entire term’s curriculum. Within that requirement, professors have almost complete freedom in the organization and amount of material in their courses’ home pages. Some contain no more than an outline of the course and access to a chat room. Others come complete with such bells and whistles as video clips, interactive problem-solving, and links to relevant material.
Proponents see Web pages as a means of adding value to courses taught in the traditional format. According to Henry S. Bienen, president of Northwestern University, teaching via the World Wide Web will replace at least some of the lecture components of introductory courses. “If someone is going to read text, it is not efficient to gather in one large place to do so,” he explains. In addition, he says, “costs will drive certain kinds of teaching, such as introductory courses attended by large numbers of students, away from lecture halls.”
REDUCING LECTURES: Oregon provost John Moseley foresees Web pages replacing the traditional three lecture courses per week.
John Moseley, University of Oregon provost, forecasts that a single lecture complemented by Web lectures and discussions will replace three lectures per week. “Listening to a lecture is simply not the best way for some people to learn,” he argues.
Critics of UCLA’s requirement express concern that colleges are using online learning for financial rather than academic reasons. And they argue that professors could use the time they devote to maintaining their Web pages more effectively for direct interaction with students.
Mary Burgan, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, sees advantages and disadvantages in the requirement. Recalling a Web-assisted course in women’s studies that she taught at the University of Indiana a few years ago, she says, “I had to spend one hour a day to monitor what was going on in the course’s chat room. It was not a time-saver, but it was a valuable educational experience.”
Yet Robert H. Gross, an associate professor of biological sciences and director of the Center for Biomedical Computing at Dartmouth College, disagrees that his time was spent ineffectively. “The time I’ve spent on Web design and putting up notes is time I would have spent preparing for teaching and working with students.”
LIFE SCIENCE SITE: UCLA’s Tutorials in Molecular Biology Web site
The Web sites for Gross’s courses include more than boilerplate items such as the course description, lecture schedule, office hours, and grading policy. His site for Biology 4: Dealing with Genes-a course for nonscience majors-contains a wide variety of links to other sites. Students can click onto movies illustrating mitosis, meiosis, and other basics; check out previous term projects; and surf onto a variety of sites relevant to basic biological topics. The Web site for his molecular genetics course for biology majors, Biology 23, contains links to more academically oriented sites.
The reactions of students taking life science courses have varied. Several have embraced the new sites enthusiastically. “Each year the classes seem to become more sophisticated in their expectations and abilities to use the network” for classwork, says William D. Brawley, director of computing services and communications at Dartmouth.
That attitude is not universal. “At present, only about three students log in to my site each day,” reports Rhonda Foley, academic coordinator in UCLA’s department of molecular, cell, and developmental biology, who teaches a lab course in the department. “And only one student has asked a question on the Web page.”
Gross has noted that class attendance tends to fall when he posts his lecture notes on a course Web site. However, he says, the absent students are generally those who don’t pay attention to the teaching. Because of the absence of less-motivated students, “those students who do come gain more from the lectures.”
The desire to create course-related home pages, whether mandated or not, has sparked a minor industry whose products are software tools for developing course-specific Web sites. In effect, lecturers simply fill in blank spaces on a template and leave the software to do the rest in designing the site.
CourseInfo, an Ithaca, N.Y.-based company that was set up two years ago by students at Cornell University, sells software that enables professors who are novices in Internet technology to create their own course pages. “It’s a Web course-management tool,” explains Stephen Gilfus, CourseInfo’s vice president for marketing and a company co-founder. “The entire structure is set up to provide areas where you can input your own information. It supports all file types, including multimedia.” That’s particularly useful for science courses, whose home pages can benefit significantly from high-resolution graphics and video clips of experiments.
|Many examples of academic home pages are available on the Internet. They include:CourseInfo
Theory Center’s Exploration site, which contains popular accounts of work by Cornell professors in the life sciences
College’s Biology 4: Dealing with Genes, a course for nonscience majors
‘s Biology 23, a molecular genetics course for biology majors
UCLA’s Physics for Scientists and Engineers
CourseInfo has helped to set up several pages for life science-based courses at, among other institutions, Yale School of Medicine, UC-Berkeley, and the Cornell Theory Center, which contains accounts of work by Cornell professors in the life sciences. “What we find with those types of sites is the need for heavy navigation and heavy areas of interactiveness,” says Gilfus. “The software permits a site as complex as the instructor wants. But the actual design is up to the instructor.”
Who pays the several hundred dollars typically needed for a single course’s home page? “It’s generally paid out of the annual allowable budgets for administrative purposes,” explains Gilfus.
Several colleges have units-and budgets-dedicated to setting Web pages for faculty members. “Our academic computing department has a unit that’s geared specifically to supporting curricular computing, including use of the Web,” notes Dartmouth’s Brawley. “We encourage staff from academic departments to come in for training, so that we can show them how to maintain the sites themselves.”
That training equips faculty members and other departmental staffers with the basic skills necessary to set up their own Web sites. For links to videos, animations, and significant other sites, Brawley’s team provides primary help. “There’s an initial learning curve where we’re eager to help users,” he explains. “Then, once you do it, it becomes easier on subsequent attempts.”
UCLA’s CLS also organizes its course sites in a hands-on way. Faculty members can design their own home pages or call on the services of software specialists. These specialists, who usually are graduate students familiar with the Web, help individual lecturers to create their home pages or even carry out all the work themselves, without any input beyond the lecturer’s notes.
The college actually mandates little about the content of the course sites. At a minimum, pages must contain a basic description of the syllabus and access to an online chat room. At the other end of the scale, some pages contain outlines of lectures; problem sets and other homework, along with the capability for students to file their work online; solutions to problems; graphics; audio and video clips; and links to other Web sites.
‘MORE FEEDBACK’: UCLA physicist professor Maha Ashour-Abdalla’s Web site enables students to file their homework on the computer.
One of the more comprehensive home pages in the CLS collection is that of physics professor Maha Ashour-Abdalla, for the freshman course known as Physics 8A and titled “Physics for Scientists and Engineers.” Links from the home page direct students to the syllabus, a table of contents, a bulletin board that contains details of schedules for examinations and lectures and the availability of homework solutions, instructions for using the page, homework assignments that are updated each week, and information about UCLA’s Interactive Multimedia Education at a Distance (IMED) system-the basic approach to teaching using home pages combined with live or taped lectures.
For Ashour-Abdalla, the most important facet of the IMED approach is its interactivity. This, she explains, “enhances students’ understanding and provides more feedback to the student in a timely manner using the computer.”
Students carry out homework assignments online and turn in the answers on the computer. “These homework assignments test students’ conceptual knowledge as well as more quantitative knowledge,” says Ashour-Abdalla. Software analyzes individual students’ answers by not only checking for right and wrong answers, but also working out where each student has problems. “This way,” she points out, “the instructor can pinpoint difficulties both individual students are having and how the class as a whole is doing.”
The interactive technique has particular value for well-attended general courses, such as freshman physics, chemistry, and biology. “This directed and rapid feedback represents a great improvement over the present system, whereby hundreds of homework assignments are handed in on paper, graded by a reader, and returned to the students a couple of weeks later, with little or no interaction with the instructor,” says Ashour-Abdalla.
In practice, however, the system needs enthusiasm from both professor and students. So far, that’s somewhat lacking among UCLA life scientists. For a start, according to Foley, few professors have erected pages that contain more than the basic necessities. “Some are very enthusiastic and have made wonderful use of their sites,” adds Lianna Johnson, academic administrator in UCLA’s Division of Life Sciences. “All those who have used their sites actively feel that communication with students has increased. Others feel that the students are too removed from the faculty as it is, and see this as another way to reduce direct interactions. However, the faculty who feel this way have been generally unwilling to put their hypotheses to the test and see if, after a quarter of using their sites actively, their student contact decreases.”
Even sites with more exciting content don’t necessarily draw much interest from students. “I can monitor which students have logged on, and when,” says Foley. “That shows me which are the serious students.” To try to stimulate more interest in using her course’s home page, she says, “I try each week to put something in the page, like a quiz tip.”
According to Johnson, students have generally reacted positively to active class sites. “In one of our large courses, Life Sciences 2-also known as ‘Cells, Tissues, and Organs’-the students used the class Web site bulletin board to organize study groups.”
Interactive simulations provide useful tools for building physical intuition, notes Ashour-Abdalla. “They have been found to be a very valuable tool for understanding science concepts in both physics and chemistry.” Since they solve the appropriate equations in real time, students have the opportunity to change initial conditions and explore in more detail than normal the systems they study.
Yet another feature of UCLA’s courses is virtual office hours. “We have office hours when student can call in and see me talking and see the blackboard,” Ashour-Abdalla explains.
The first-year physics course is a test bed for online distance learning and its applications for students who have less flexibility because of their need to work part-time to finance their education. “If this works out,” says Ashour-Abdalla, “we will apply it to other subjects.”
Peter Gwynne, a freelance science writer based in Marstons Mills, Mass., can be reached online at [email protected]