Computers have become an important element in a student's experience at university. In 1994 a questionnaire was sent to the Biology departments of Australian Universities, with 50% response rate (54 departments). Ninety per cent of biological departments at Australian universities surveyed have computer facilities available to biology students for biology-related tasks. The type of personal computers used in biological departments at Australian universities are largely desktop machines, either Macintosh or PC, and currently there is no clear preference for either platform. Students at over half of the departments have access to computers running under each platform. The availability of differing platforms is often not determined by educational principles, but rather reflects costs, ease of networking, prior usage of a particular platform by academics, as well as the availability of suitable Computer-Aided Learning (CAL) packages. It is expected that educational issues will take a higher priority in future.
Computers in first year teaching
Of the departments that responded that teach biology at the first year level, two thirds use computers in their first year program. The nature of teaching and the likely needs of CAL differ from first year to later years. First year teaching typically involves large classes, teaching focuses on the conveyance of facts, and there is a potential for greater similarity of teaching programs from one institution to another. CAL is a useful addition to traditional means of education, particularly suited to large classes so that the time of academics can be released for remedial or advanced teaching. CAL is also well suited to developing a factual understanding. From a financial perspective, it is more likely for CAL to be cost-effective (on a per capita basis) in first year teaching due to the large numbers of students undertaking introductory biology courses. Teaching in subsequent years is often more focused, more institution dependent, and involves smaller classes. The use of computers in such years may shift to the communication of complex issues - such as modelling. The use of CAL in more senior years is less likely to be as cost-effective as in junior years, and current use in senior years is more patchy.
Computers contribute to many facets of biology teaching
Computers are used in many aspects of teaching by biological departments. They may be used to present biological information and concepts, to simulate complex situations, develop generic skills, to graph and manipulate data, and to assess students. Even within these broad functions, there may still be a wide diversity in the ways New Technologies are used. For example, CAL packages that are of the `tutorial style' may be used to extend talented or more motivated students, or they may provide remedial help, or for revision. When computers are used for testing students they can provide automated and immediate feedback to a student about their progress, or for assessment purposes. The use of computers to assess student performance has been adopted by some departments to reduce costs of marking. The use of computers has the benefit of providing feedback at a speed impossible if marked by staff. This allows many biology departments to provide the large number of students with guidance as to whether they have grasped the material at hand and where they need extra effort. There are clear advantages of using computers across a wide range of teaching activities, and planning for the future should be alert to the diversity in this area.
Most biology departments want increased use of New Technologies in teaching
Of those departments that use CAL for teaching undergraduate biology, 90% use it for less than 10% of the contact time, almost half of these using CAL for less than 2% of contact time. The remaining departments (under 10%) use computers for 10-30% of contact time. No department uses computers for a larger proportion of contact time than this.
Only 15% of respondents were satisfied with the level of use of computers for teaching in their department. All of those dissatisfied with the use of computers believed that too little CAL was being used in their teaching program. The main impediments to making greater use of New Technologies in teaching were a lack of money, time, and persons with enthusiasm and knowledge in the field. The lack of money is a reflection of the costs of computer hardware and software, and the funds for staffing the development of CAL programs or simulations. Lack of time was not listed specifically in the questionnaire, but 13 of the respondents mentioned it as a factor restricting use of computers in teaching. This suggests that for many the enthusiasm and desire to be involved in the use and development of CAL for teaching is there but, due to the many demands on an academic's time, this cannot be achieved to a satisfactory degree.
Computers are already in widespread use in biology departments for teaching. They are welcomed by staff and students as a supplement to traditional teaching devices. There is a general view that they are under-used. The enthusiasm with which they are used and greeted can assure us that the near future will probably see all students using computers at some stage in their biological education. Computers are used in many different ways. The survey has revealed the variety of hardware, differences in access to computers, the immense diversity of ways in which computers may be used, and the fact that each institution may seek to communicate different subject matter. It has revealed a motivation largely based on the educational needs of the students and not on commercial criteria.
The reasons for fostering the use of computers in teaching may have had little to do with the desired educational outcome, but more with management of staff, space, and budgeting. These benefits are not to be seen as incompatible with educational objectives, but rather as providing supplementary incentive to develop the use of CAL.
In addition to promoting an understanding of biology, the use of computers in biology departments enhance a student's generic, transferable, skills such as familiarity with computer operating systems, word processing, the use of spreadsheets and databases, as well as introducing and reinforcing biological content and concepts through biological CAL packages and simulations, and informing the students about their progress through the class material.
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