UniServe Science News Volume 12 March 1999

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Using TopClass in Biochemistry

Tony Dawson, Ann Simpson and Ralph Orwell
Department of Cell and Molecular Biology
University of Technology, Sydney

TopClass (WBT Systems) is a web-based education program which the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) has adopted for use in its flexible learning program. In 1998 it was decided to introduce TopClass into the clinical biochemistry subjects that UTS offers to senior undergraduate and postgraduate students. These subjects were chosen because many of the students enrolled in them also work part-time or full-time in laboratories throughout the Sydney region and have difficulty in attending the university outside the scheduled class times. However, most have access to the Internet, either from home or from work, and can therefore make use of web-based materials. TopClass operates as a secure system in so far as users must be registered class members in order to gain access to the relevant course materials. Each course comprises one or more units of learning material (ULMs) which may include lecture notes, hyperlinks to other web sites, and tests of various kinds. TopClass also enables students to view announcements relating to their classes (e.g. lecture and practical schedules, due dates for assignments etc), facilitates communication with other students and instructors through an internal message system, and allows users to see and contribute to discussions through subject specific discussion lists. Learning materials provided for clinical biochemistry students comprised course notes, links to other sources of information including the web sites of various professional and scientific associations, and a series of multiple choice tests relating to each of the broad topics covered in the subjects. The tests were included only for the purpose of self-assessment and normally provided feedback on incorrect answers, mostly through hyperlinks to the course notes since comment boxes were restricted to 256 characters. In addition to the above, a limited number of discussion topics was set and students were invited to contribute. Participation in discussions was taken into account in the formal assessment of students in the subject. When the subjects were evaluated it was revealed that 83% of the 46 students who responded to the questionnaire agreed or agreed strongly that the self-assessment tests were useful in assessing their understanding of the subject. On the other hand, only 54% wanted more use of the discussion topics, though 24% gave a neutral response to this question. Given that student learning is largely assessment driven and that the self-assessment tests were constructed in a way that assisted students to prepare for their formal examinations, the results of the evaluation are perhaps not surprising. However, they are encouraging and the system is to be used again in 1999, refined so as to place greater emphasis on feedback through the self-assessment tests. The value of web-based discussions for undergraduate students is uncertain but as the response was generally neutral to favourable it has been decided to retain them but to offer a wider variety of topics in an attempt to engender greater interest. In summary, our early work with TopClass has shown us that web-based materials can assist students through providing greater flexibility in their studies. However, our experience also suggests that they are most valuable as enhancements to, and not simply as replacements for, other forms of learning.

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UniServe Science News Volume 12 March 1999

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