Teaching
Development
Report

UniServe Science News Volume 15 March 2000










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InterLearn: A Software Tool for Increasing Interaction in On-line Courses

David Murphy
Centre for Higher Education Development, Monash University

Introduction

Though considerable progress has been made with respect to the development of elegant and appealing on-line courses, the issue of interaction among participants in such courses has lagged somewhat. Such interaction is usually restricted to discussion groups, chat rooms and similar environments, often separate from core on-line learning materials. A challenge facing software developers is thus to design more integrated software, that embeds opportunities for interaction and collaboration within the learning environment. In confronting this problem, the Centre for Higher Education Development at Monash University has recently developed a software tool, InterLearn, that has been used successfully in one of its courses. A demonstration of the software can be accessed through http://www.adm.monash.edu.au/ched/courses/GCHE/.

Increasing interactivity

During the first semester of 1999, the Centre for Higher Education Development offered its Graduate Certificate in Higher Education (GCHE) to academic staff at Monash University for the first time. The course provided us with the opportunity to put into practice many of the ideas concerning flexible learning that we have been espousing to our Monash colleagues. We worked as a team (five academics contributed to the materials) over a period of about seven months to develop the first subject, with the support of a graphic artist, a programmer and an administrative resources person.

As the course was to be undertaken by typically busy academics with little opportunity to attend scheduled classes, it was decided that the bulk of study time would be on-line. This environment would be supported by a few days of intensive face-to-face workshops, a couple of non-compulsory tutorials and printed study materials (a short Study Guide and a book of readings).

Our greatest challenge was that we were determined to emulate some of the workshop activities that we would use in typical face-to-face workshop sessions, some of which were of the type where 'a typical starting point would be for students to make notes on the same text, swap and criticize them in pairs, bring their conclusions on note-taking together in a group of four and so on'1.

We were thus keen for participants to share their experience and understanding of key concepts within a framework of 'student-centred flexible learning'. As stated in the Monash Strategic Innovations Fund Guidelines, 'student-centred flexible learning places particular emphasis on interaction between learner and teacher and between learner and learner as a means of facilitating a shared, social construction of knowledge and understanding'2.

Investigation of available software to support on-line learning revealed, however, that none fulfilled our aims concerning interaction. So as we designed and developed the course, we also set out to create our own software tool, now called InterLearn (from interactive learning on the Internet). InterLearn is built on a database structure, which allows student's individual activities to be stored and viewed on demand by whomever is given access to the material. Each student logs onto an individualised 'worksite', where they complete set activities and enter responses in dialogue boxes. The activities are labelled as either 'shared', meaning they are available for viewing by all course participants, or 'individual', meaning only the participant and the teaching team can access them. The way this operates in Designing for Learning, the first subject of the GCHE, can be illustrated by describing the first three on-line activities.

In Activity 2.1, participants are asked to interview someone about their learning experiences, and enter their findings in a dialogue box that automatically stores their response for later viewing or modification. This is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Figure 1. The first on-line activity

Similarly, Activity 2.2 asks participants to describe their own learning, and provide examples of 'good' and 'bad' learning experiences. The interactivity occurs in Activity 2.3, which asks participants to use the 'Activity Search' button (see Figure 2), which allows searching of responses by student and Activity.

Figure 2.

Figure 2. Using the 'Activity Search' function

Activity 2.3 requires participants to view the responses of other students to the first two activities, form an opinion of the essential elements of effective learning, and post their comments in a dialogue box (Figure 3).

Figure 3.

Figure 3. An 'individual' activity calling for use of 'Activity Search'

Further interaction between participants is available in an on-line discussion group, in this case using a Netscape Collabra Discussion Group, the standard adopted by Monash. It was our plan that the worksite interaction would stimulate participants to use the discussion group to extend their ideas and further share their understanding of the topics under study.

Evaluation and feedback

As teachers of a new subject being offered in an experimental on-line environment, we were understandably a little nervous about how the materials would be received and applied by the participants. We had spent time during the initial face-to-face sessions preparing them for the learning materials, and as subject coordinator I had started a series of weekly global emails, but we still wondered how they would respond to the activities and whether the discussion group would 'take off'. As it turned out, the outcomes exceeded our expectations - the quality of responses to the activities was high, and the discussion group started even before the first welcoming message from the teachers was posted. As the semester progressed, it became decreasingly necessary for any of us on the teaching team to post on the discussion group, as the participants engaged in a series of fascinating threaded interchanges. For the most part the discussion group had a life of its own, with a heartening emphasis on teaching and learning issues.

A variety of approaches were used during the semester to obtain evaluative feedback from the participants. These included tutorial discussion, qualitative and quantitative questionnaire items, focus groups and the scanning of comments in activities, the discussion group and reflective assessment pieces. Where possible, adjustments were made to the study programme as the semester progressed.

The questionnaire at the end of the semester contained 23 quantitative items, with five-point Likert scales with responses ranging from 'Rarely' through to 'Almost all the time' for the amount of time the statement was applicable. Concerning items that particularly relate to the on-line materials and their interactivity, the results in Table 1 were obtained from 34 respondents (of a total class of 45).

  Questionnaire Item Rarely Some About half Most Almost all
8 The on-line materials covered the important aspects of the subject. 0 0 1 19 12
15 The way this subject is taught is appropriate for the material. 1 0 4 13 16
17 The flexible nature of the course allowed me to study more conveniently than if it had been a conventional course. 1 1 2 6 24
18 The interactivity of the on-line materials fostered a sense of a 'learning community'. 1 3 8 11 10
21 Using 'Activity Search' to look at others' responses contributed to my understanding of the subject. 0 1 7 16 10

* Where totals are less than 34, not all respondents completed the item.

Table 1. Selected items from questionnaire

Participants were asked about the particular facets of the subject that they found useful.

"The ability to see other work and particularly peoples' feelings and experiences written to the group."

"I am particularly happy with the activity system adopted in the course under different modules. The activity system allows me to build my knowledge gradually in a very flexible way. It also allows me to share other's experience and gain from their experience and knowledge. Another good reason is that I can practice what I learned from others in my own class and add that experience to activities."

"... I find I have learnt skills and developed knowledge that I did not think was possible using a distance and flexible learning package. I have learnt that this can be attributed to weekly tasks that require myself, as a learner, to actively implement knowledge gained from reading relevant material, to build on learning from previous weeks and to incorporate prior experiences and reflection into current learning."

On the basis of our experience, we thus claim that there is considerable room for improvement in terms of interaction in on-line courses, and that this can be achieved with simple software applications. We have also demonstrated that interactivity between students in on-line courses can be stimulated without necessarily adding substantially to the overall teaching load.

Finally, we must not forget that 'it helps if the course is fun. The somewhat technocratic approach to course design ... should not mean that the product is laundered of that zest for life and learning so necessary to the human spirit'3. The final word can thus go to one of our students whose simple statement on Designing for Learning was 'Practical and fun!'.

References

  1. Daniel, J. and Marquis, C. (1979) Independence and interaction: getting the mixture right, Teaching at a Distance, 14, 37.
  2. Monash University (1999) Monash Strategic Innovations Fund Guidelines.
  3. Daniel and Marquis, op. cit., 42.

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UniServe Science News Volume 15 March 2000

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