UniServe Science News Volume 12 March 1999


From the Director

Ian Johnston
Director, UniServe Science

The start of 1999 means, for us at UniServe Science, the end of our first year of operation away from the rule of CAUT/CUTSD. It was therefore an opportune time to sit back and think about where we are going. Having undertaken that exercise, two important issues emerged.

Firstly, there is the question of our national presence. Although we are now totally funded by The University of Sydney, we remain committed to trying to keep up the service we offer to science teachers on the national scene. We believe passionately that CAUT was correct when it set up the UniServe network. There was, and still is, a crying need on the part of teachers for information about information technologies. It is not a localized need. Teachers everywhere want this information. If there is an organization to satisfy this need, it makes no sense that it should be restricted to one university. In 1994 CAUT realized that it has to be nationally funded. Unfortunately it isn't any longer. We are entirely supported by The University of Sydney, and therefore our national presence is being maintained by their far-sightedness - for which our heartfelt thanks.

When we started UniServe Science, we inaugurated a system of having personal contacts in every university science department in the country. It seems to us that it is time to refresh those contacts. Towards the end of last year we started a program of talking, in person, to as many of our contacts as possible. We have visited Perth and Adelaide and held meetings there. They were moderately successful, but we only managed to talk with a fraction of those we would like to have met. We'll keep doing it, although it is expensive and time consuming. So we will in time get round to the rest of you. But if anyone can think of a more effective way to keep this vital exercise going, please let us know.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is the question of where we should be directing our efforts. In the four years of our existence we have assembled a lot of (we hope) useful information about software that can be used in teaching. Just go through the searchable database on our web site if you doubt that. Indeed we always called ourselves, "the Australian clearinghouse for educational software in science".

But recently, our reading of the wider situation is that the use of IT in teaching is subtly changing. There seems to be less emphasis on individual software packages, and more on teaching structures. Indeed some of the important packages we identified when, for example, we were preparing our QuicKards are starting to date - and they don't seem to be being replaced. Instead what developmental work there is around the country seems more and more to be directed towards organizing whole courses by IT means, particularly on the web.

Therefore it seems to us that we could usefully redirect some of our effort. We believe we need to devote more attention to means for re-engineering how courses are offered. Our searchable database, for example, needs to expand to start cataloguing (and evaluating) web sites, flexible learning tools, and so on. We won't discard all the items already there, but we will remove obsolete items. For one thing, we believe that in a few years, when universities have become comfortable with the idea of using the web as a flexible teaching and learning environment for their students, developers will again start working on individual packages to be integrated into these new structures. To steal Arnold Schwarzenegger's line: they'll be back.

In the meantime, as a first step in this new direction, this year's national workshop will reflect new orientation. It will be entitled "Tools for Flexible Learning". (See our web page http://science.uniserve.edu.au/workshop/flearn/ for more information.) I do hope you'll be there.

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UniServe Science News Volume 12 March 1999

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