UniServe Science News Volume 14 November 1999


Human Biochemistry

Gareth Denyer
Department of Biochemistry, The University of Sydney

The purpose of this site is to complement the two-semester Human Biochemistry course at the University of Canberra. It is designed and maintained by Jo Beaver and uses the standard WebCT format. There are no special browser or plug-in requirements and, because each page is mainly text, links never take very long to load. The intended audience is specifically the students in the above course and entry is password protected (although it may be that others in the institution can access the information).

From the opening page, it is very clear what resources are available. There are links to lecture summaries for each semester, example questions with model answers, a 'chat room' for the students, a noticeboard and calendar, past examination questions and even a page with email messages for me (the student!). Another link allows the student to select whole chunks of the site to print out in one big hit. The opening page also sets a nice, informal tone with its cheery icons and the way that the course title is described as being "Humane" - a tone that is extended with soothing messages like "Don't Panic" in the rubric of Jo's examination papers.

The lecture summaries are very well organised and have the sensible warning that "These provide no substitute for attendance at lectures. These notes are provided to enable you to spend more time in each lecture thinking and learning, and less time transcribing." For each lecture topic (and there are about 19 per semester), there are extensive bullet point summaries, complementary diagrams and references to specific pages in textbooks. So they are literally summaries of the major points rather than notes. The home page doesn't say when resources were last updated, but I get the feeling that, with the exception of the bulletin board, the information is meant to be relatively static within a particular year.

The bulletin board is where the page really comes into its own. Although only a small proportion of the students seem to use the facility (looking through the archives showed the same names again and again) it was popular enough for the students to implore Jo to encourage her successor to keep it active. Although the number of academic questions was limited (a great deal of the 'questions' were jokes and perennial questions along the lines of "what do we need to know for the exam?"), the instructors always answered problems promptly and lucidly. More to the point though, by allowing the 'banter', the bulletin board obviously set up a great espirit de corps between learners and teachers. I found this delightfully ironic - ask students to contribute 'in class' in front of their peers and you'll often get an uncomfortable teenage silence (they're all being 'cool'!). However, let them communicate by email and soon their guard comes down and their enthusiasm for learning comes out. Jo and her team should be congratulated for allowing the camaraderie to develop in this way and for being so attentive and proactive with the students' questions. I noticed that she allowed anonymous questions and I'd be interested to debate the pros and cons of this. Of course, having to answer students' questions (especially extrapolative and off-beat ones) is great for the teacher - it makes the job interesting, it shows the students that we're lifelong learners and it shows them how resourceful we are too! It should be appreciated that posted answers are available to ALL the students - not just the one who asked the question - which means that everyone gets to learn from the insight or mistakes of their peers.

Much of the site is devoted to formative review questions and past paper questions. Although model answers are given to the former, Jo explicitly states that worked answers won't be given to the latter. I bet both of these approaches give her a bit of a headache. On the one hand I can see the students pestering her for 'model' answers to past examination questions (even subtly via a 'question' to the bulletin board). On the other hand, there is always that danger that prefacing answers as being 'model' responses can drive students into rote learning those structures. Perhaps a better approach would be (for both the formative and examination questions) to provide broad sketches of answers and/or indicate, in general terms, what sort of statements would be good or bad.

The section devoted to administrative information is very clear. The course handout has excellent descriptions of learning objectives, criteria for assessment, mark breakdowns, hints for study and practical requirements. I was amused to note that we all have the same problems - plagiarism, spurious special consideration forms, late work, etc.! I thought, however, that the reading list was rather daunting and that perhaps could be dispensed with as so much content was available from the 'Lecture Notes' section of this web site.

There appears to be a substantial 'Calendar' supplied with the WebCT template. However, it doesn't look as if Jo made much use of this and the entries dry up around about April 1999 (anyway, the administrative information is already very clear). Certainly the other instructors haven't kept the calendar up-to-date and perhaps it should be removed from the site (its presence is frustrating as you waste time going there "just in case"!). Having said that, each student can use the calendar as their own individual planner (the entries can come from both the instructor and individual students). Similarly the 'Chat Rooms' were completely devoid of activity each time I logged in. This is, of course, testimony to how rapidly the instructors respond to students' questions posted on the bulletin board. However, if the instructors' excellence in the latter area makes the 'Chat Rooms' redundant they are perhaps best removed from the site. On the other hand, this feature may prove to be a very useful way of conducting 'virtual' consultations with whole groups of students and I know that Jo is keen to pursue this idea. Another facility provided is that of 'Personal Email' but it's difficult for me to judge the efficacy of this because I was hardly likely to receive any messages! Again, I would imagine that the success of the bulletin board as a means of general communication between the instructors and students makes this facility superfluous.

This web site obviously provides a great complement to the Human Biochemistry course at Canberra University. Not merely because of the extensive administrative and course materials that can be accessed from it, but also because of the bulletin board which nurtures dynamic interaction between the learners and tutors. This is especially important in these days of increased extra-curricular work loads that our students seem to have to endure. Ongoing archiving of the students' questions should provide an exceptionally valuable resource for the students and will allow the teaching staff to further reflect on their explanations and demonstrations.

Human Biochemistry is located at: (Select Biomedical Sciences)
and is maintained by Joanne Beaver, University of Canberra

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UniServe Science News Volume 14 November 1999

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