UniServe Science News Volume 11 November 1998


Oz Soils - an Interactive Multimedia Approach to Teaching Soil Science

Peter Lockwood and Heiko Daniel
School of Rural Science and Natural Resources, The University of New England


Soil is one of Australia's most valuable resources and it is crucial that future natural resource managers understand at a fundamental level how soils behave and how they interact with other components of ecosystems. Introductory soil science is taught to university students with a wide range of backgrounds and abilities, and the authors' experience has been that some students have difficulty in grasping the core concepts and processes of soil science. We have identified four basic problems that students face:

  1. understanding the core concepts of soil science, such as soil water potentials and phase relations;
  2. understanding the mechanisms of individual soil processes - these range from the molecular scale (e.g. the interaction of dissolved cations with clay surfaces) to the landscape scale (e.g. the influence of climatic factors on soil formation);
  3. integrating the effects of individual physical, chemical and biological soil processes in order to understand the functioning of the soil as a whole, and hence to appreciate how soil interacts with other ecosystem components; and
  4. gaining familiarity with the wide diversity of soils that occur in Australia and understanding how these relate to their environment.

The rapid technological advances in computer aided learning in the last few years have offered a means of addressing these problems, in the form of interactive multimedia. We are in the process of developing such a program, which we have named Oz Soils, to assist in the teaching of introductory soil science (Daniel et al., 1996). The program has four major sections (Figure 1): nutrient cycling, the hydrological cycle, soil structure, and soils and the landscape. Each section contains a number of interactive modules.

Figure 1.

Figure 1. Main menu screen showing the four major sections

The project

Oz Soils started as a small experimental project in 1995, funded by The University of New England. The authors are lecturers in soil science, and we have worked in conjunction with instructional designers, graphic designers, and programmers from the UNE Teaching and Learning Centre. In 1996 we released version 2.0 as a dual platform (Mac and PC) CD-ROM, and currently we are designing an expanded version 3.0 with the support of a National Teaching Development Grant.

Educational uses

To illustrate how the program will function, here is one example of how UNE internal students use Oz Soils. After having attended lectures on the nature and behaviour of soil organic matter, the students are directed to Oz Soils for further study. A student can navigate, by pointing and clicking on hypertext links, from the Oz Soils opening screen to the organic matter module which is contained within the nutrient cycling section (Figure 2).

Figure 2.

Figure 2. Nutrient cycle

Once inside the module the student finds several screens, each of which addresses a different aspect of the topic, and demands some appropriate activity. For example, one screen contains animations which illustrate, at a microscopic scale, the processes of crop residue decomposition (Figure 3),

Figure 3.

Figure 3. The processes of crop residue decomposition

and the student can, by clicking the appropriate button, run scenarios for residues of different nitrogen content and see how these affect available soil nitrogen levels. The student can explore the screens in any order, but at the end is presented with a series of revision questions. The answers that the student enters elicit a response from the program in the form of praise or an admonition coupled with an informative comment. The student can thus quickly assess whether she or he has in fact understood the material to a satisfactory degree, and, if not, is encouraged to return for further study. Finally, armed with a conceptual understanding of how organic matter can influence soil nutrient cycling, students attend a laboratory practical class in which they carry out a chemical analysis for soil organic matter and an experiment on the influence of residue type on soil nitrogen availability.

To give another example, students can expand their understanding of soils and the landscape by using the computer to examine a range of soil sites, their particular soil profile characteristics, and their associated land use. In the Australian Soils module, students explore a number of soil profiles and their associated landscapes from different environments in Australia (Figure 4).

Figure 4.

Figure 4. Soil profiles and landscapes

Each soil profile/landscape pair includes a series of questions and answers that lead the students through the important features of that soil, and encourage students to apply their knowledge of specific concepts and processes gained from other modules.


Several formative evaluations of Oz Soils have been carried out as an integral part of the development process. In 1995 and again in 1996, students who had been using Oz Soils for a semester as part of their introductory soil science unit (SOIL 211) were asked, by means of a questionnaire, to evaluate the program (Lockwood and Daniel, 1997). The main theme running through the responses to the questionnaires is that students had a strongly positive response to Oz Soils. They found it easy to use, enjoyable and felt that it was educationally effective. Some typical responses to questions are shown in Table 1.

% yes% noResponses, n
As preparation for a practical class, Oz Soils was more effective than written pre-work notes.928170
Oz Soils did not contribute significantly to what I have learned in Soil Science 211.1189167
The animations in Oz Soils helped to explain the content.982169
I think that I would learn more in an hour studying a textbook than in the same period spent working with Oz Soils.1090168
Navigating from the opening screen of Oz Soils to the module I wanted to work with was straightforward.946170
Working with Oz Soils was more interesting than studying the same material in a textbook or written practical notes.973168
I think it would be worthwhile to expand Oz Soils and make it more widely available so that it can become a bigger part of the teaching in Soil Science 211.946170
Table 1. Summary of responses to some of the questions
asked of SOIL 211 students in 1995 and 1996

In addition, we watched and videotaped students as they sat at the computer using Oz Soils, and during a follow-up interview. These observations enabled improvements to be made in the program interface and navigation. A study was also made of learning strategies used by students in their work with Oz Soils (McLeod et al., 1998).


The positive response we have had to Oz Soils has encouraged us to develop the program further, and has provided us with insights into what works with interactive multimedia and what doesn't. We benefited greatly from working as part of a team which included graphic artists and instructional designers. We also took the time to learn how to write material for the new medium and how to convey our message visually, and lessen our dependence on text. Users have liked the high degree of interactivity and especially the use of self-test revision questions. Finally, being able to offer Oz Soils to both Windows and Macintosh users has been an advantage, especially when the program is served out to students in computer laboratories.

The product

The Oz Soils version 2.0 CD-ROM functions under both Macintosh and Windows operating systems, and ordering information can be found at the web site below. It is anticipated that an expanded and updated version 3.0 will be available from mid 1999. More information about the program, and a downloadable demo is obtainable via the World Wide Web at: http://www.une.edu.au/agronomy/ozsoilscd.html


Daniel, H., Greenwood, K.L. and Lockwood, P.V. (1996). Oz Soils - an interactive introduction to soil science, Multimedia CD-ROM, Teaching and Learning Centre, The University of New England, Australia, http://www.une.edu.au/dec/mm.html

Lockwood, P.V. and Daniel, H. (1997). Computer-assisted teaching in soil science. Sciences of Soils 2, 1997 at http://www.hintze-online.com/sos/1997/Articles/Art5/

McLeod, R.J., Daniel, H. and Lockwood, P.V. (1998). A Study of learning strategies used by students with the Oz Soils interactive multimedia program. EdTech '98 Proceedings at http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/gen/aset/confs/edtech98/pubs/articles/m/mcleod.html

A review of Oz Soils - an Interactive Introduction to Soil Science is also included in this publication.

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UniServe Science News Volume 11 November 1998

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