UniServe Science News Volume 13 July 1999


First Year Biology Virtual Resources Room

Sue Jones
School of Zoology, University of Tasmania


This site has been developed to support first year biology teaching at The University of Sydney. As might be expected from the innovative teaching team involved in that course, the site contains a variety of on-line material, ranging from course information to custom designed computer-aided learning packages (CAL). The site is obviously aimed at their own first year biology classes, but any teacher of entry level biology would benefit from browsing the site to see how the learning materials are presented, how dialogue is maintained between students and staff, and to appreciate the underlying philosophies of learning exemplified by the way this site is put together. It is well worth a visit just to experience the award-winning CAL modules "Photosynthesis" and "The Ear".


The site provides an extensive virtual learning environment. The home page, the Virtual Resources Room, represents a stylised room with graphics of "computers" with access to various learning packages, a stack of "handouts", a graphics board, and an entrance to a lecture hall; doors lead to related sites at The University of Sydney. A group of figures invites you to join a lively discussion group to which both students and staff can contribute, while students can email specific questions to the teaching team through "CyberTutor". Learning resources include self-assessment modules, Visual Reminders, and CAL packages, all thoughtfully produced to a high standard with exceptionally good graphics. I strongly recommend checking out the mid-semester mock examination developed by Dr Mary Peat, using Authorware. After sitting the examination in real-time, students mark their own paper on-line, and can then use related revision workshops to improve their understanding of key concepts, an excellent example of how to use on-line resources to stimulate independent learning.

Obviously the material is very much geared to the content of the units being taught at The University of Sydney. In the self-tests, therefore, I found that some of the questions required answers derived from a very specific knowledge base. However, higher level questions required paragraph answers, so there was more scope for students to explore concepts. There were occasional very minor irritations such as americanisations.


The site is easy to access and loaded reasonably quickly on a Mac Performa and a 686 P200+, using Netscape 3. Generally, images are a vital component of the content, and text-only versions would not be appropriate. The home page recommends 16 bit colour for viewing, but some modules do suggest a black and white option for optimising browser performance when accessing the site through the Internet. Shockwave is required as a plug-in for viewing most of the learning material because it includes animations; however, downloading Shockwave is very easy using the buttons located both on the home page and on the first page of relevant packages. A language plug-in is necessary for utilising the site search option. Specific trouble-shooting advice is available on downloading Shockwave, and there is also a link to the University's IT help desk.

Access is free, but entrance to the "lecture hall" is by password for enrolled students only. Interestingly, there is no password required to join the Discussion Group. Reading some of the interchanges showed that an initial requirement for password access had been removed early in the semester because of difficulties caused by the requirements for different passwords for lectures, assessed quizzes and discussion groups.

Interface related aspects

The layout of the home page is immediately understandable, although I thought the labels on the graphics could have been in a more definitive colour or typeface. I also turned off the audio after encountering the 'page-turning noise' in the visual reminder modules! It is difficult to comment concisely on the interface because the materials available here are so diverse, and serve very different purposes. For example, the lecture notes provided very much reflect the style of individual lecturers. It appears that they are still indeed lecture notes; not substitutes for lectures; I assume that most students would attend lectures in real-time and that these would be available as back-up. The site is easy to navigate around, with links back to the Virtual Resources Room, the School of Biological Sciences, and to the university home page at the start of all modules. Overall, it is a thoughtfully designed site, which would be readily accessible to novice users.

Overall issues

This is a site prepared and maintained by the first year team of the School of Biological Sciences at The University of Sydney. As a university-based site, it contains no advertising, and links only to other university sites, although I did find some URLs recommended by specific lecturers in their lecture notes.


This site is an impressive product of a dedicated teaching group who have whole-heartedly embraced the versatility of on-line teaching, as well as the benefits regarding catering to very large classes. I would strongly recommend to people still at the planning stage of a move into virtual teaching that they visit this site to see what can be achieved. The overall impression is that the pedagogy has been carefully considered in the design of the various components, and the range of materials presented. The comments of the students on the discussion group were hugely enthusiastic, and include some insightful comments into their experiences of the learning process, providing an appropriate demonstration of the value of well-designed electronic learning materials.

Rating: excellent

The Virtual Resources Room is located at
and is maintained by First Year Biology at The University of Sydney

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UniServe Science News Volume 13 July 1999

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