UniServe Science News Volume 11 November 1998



Chris Hughes and Lindsay Hewson
Professional Development Centre, The University of New South Wales

Through the WebTeach project at UNSW the authors are exploring ways of supporting more sophisticated, more educationally effective interactivity in asynchronous web-conferencing. We faced the need for more effective communication and teaching tools when we added an independent study option to our postgraduate program in Higher Education. The existing tools offered little more than email and bulletin boards, and we found that these options were inadequate to our needs. The current version of WebTeach supports a range of interactive modes designed to offer teachers and students greater support as they tackle the communication issues that arise in on-line teaching.

Each WebTeach class group involves three basic forms of communication: a Notice Board (one way communication from the teacher(s) to the class group); a Seminar Room (where formal two-way teaching activities can be initiated by the teacher(s)); and a Coffee Shop (where anyone can start a two-way conversation).

Within Seminar Room activities and Coffee Shop conversations a number of further communication modes are supported.


Discussion is the basic mode supported. All Seminar activities take the form of a web page, one per activity, and each begins with a presentation by the teacher (or originator in the case of the Coffee Shop). The presentation text may be one line or many paragraphs long, although excessive length can become confusing. We have found that it is better to make long texts available via separate web pages, or on paper or audio cassette. Initially each activity consists only of the initial presentation together with a final form inviting comment. A button is available to request full anonymity for contributors, in which case no information about the source of a comment will be revealed. Comments are added to the page below the initial presentation and above the final form, and so a transcript of the discussion is built over time. Each comment is identified by a name or pseudonym entered by the contributor. Students can be nominated as 'discussion leaders', which gives them access to all the teacher options available in the activity, and thereby permits an on-line correlate of the more traditional student led seminar. Teachers can also opt to have their comments highlighted in the transcript, a facility that is useful when supplying further information for a case study or problem under discussion. At the bottom of the page there is also a menu for teachers to use to switch to a different communicative mode.


At any time in an activity, a teacher or nominated discussion leader can initiate a brainstorm. This is achieved simply by submitting the question or topic for the brainstorm and selecting the appropriate item from the final menu. The brainstorm question or topic is inserted into the transcript at the end and the final form is changed to invite ideas in response to the brainstorm question. The only student contribution possible during a brainstorm is the submission of ideas. As ideas are submitted they are displayed below the question or topic in a simple table and without any identification of the contributors. As the brainstorm proceeds the table grows. At any time the teacher (or again, a nominated discussion leader) can switch modes, back to discussion - the most common option after a brainstorm - or to another mode. The change of mode is signalled by a bold face insertion in the transcript together with a change to the final form and menu to reflect the new mode of interaction.


Informal questions can always be raised in the course of a discussion, but sometimes a more formal process and the imposition of a 'wait time' is called for. WebTeach supports formal questions with its 'pose a question' mode. Once posed, the question is highlighted in bold and inserted at the end of the transcript just above the final form, which now solicits responses to the question. No other student contribution is possible. The responses received are not displayed immediately, but are held on the server. The teacher can 'peek' at these responses at any time to peruse them and to decide when to switch modes. Once the teacher changes the mode, usually with a comment on the responses and an invitation to discuss them, all the responses are displayed (with student identifiers) in a table that is inserted below the question and above the teacher's comment.

Task setting

Another mode available to teachers is task setting. This allows teachers to submit task instructions (such as "please read chapter five and tell me what you think it says about this issue"). The instructions are inserted at the end of the transcript and the final form changes to invite indications of completion, together with a comment. As these indications come in they are displayed with identifiers in a table. Eventually the teacher will decide to change modes to discuss the task, or perhaps to pose a question.

Quiz questions

In a group's Seminar Room there is a quiz facility that allows teachers to submit quiz items. Once a student has supplied a response to an item they are given access to the teacher's suggested response and to the responses of other students. The latter are displayed without identifiers to students, but teachers have access to the identities of all respondents for assessment purposes. Only one response from each student is accepted.

A WebTeach class group may involve many Notices, Seminar Room activities and Coffee Shop conversations, together with Quiz questions, being supported concurrently, but asynchronously. The maximum workable number of students in a group is around 30. The system will support many such class groups on the one server, the number is constrained by disk space and processing times only.

The system automatically handles URLs, images and email addresses (converting them to links, image references and 'mailto' tags), making these tasks, which are crucial to much Internet teaching, accessible to teachers and students without special skills. The system also integrates with email so that each contribution to the group's pages triggers an email notifying the group of the topic of the contribution and its URL.

The WebTeach system is a working prototype rather than a commercial product. The prototype is implemented as web CGI in HyperCard and it runs on a Macintosh Server. It is being used in a range of disciplines, from French and Philosophy to Psychiatry and Higher Education at UNSW and other universities.

A demonstration of WebTeach is available at http://www.pdc.unsw.edu.au/webteachdemo/welcome.html

Inquiries should be directed to the authors.

Figure 1.

Figure 1. A sample Seminar Room activity including the initial presentation, a quick
brainstorm and then a switch to the discussion mode

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UniServe Science News Volume 11 November 1998

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