UniServe€Science News: Newsletter of the Science Software Clearinghouse Vol. 2, November 1995

Interactive Computer Tutorials in Basic Biology

This project is currently funded by a CAUT grant to Paul Whitington of the Department of Zoology at the University of New England

Introductory Biology is a demanding subject and many students new to Biology are prone to underestimate its difficulty. Here are some common problems that students face:

The present CAUT funded project was designed to address these specific problems. Few would claim that lectures alone are an adequate vehicle for delivering an understanding of theoretical knowledge in Biology. Regular, small-group tutorials with committed, experienced instructors arguably provide one of the best forms of assistance to students. But the resources, both financial and human, to provide such tutorials to large first year classes are seldom available.

The computer tutorials, which we are developing in this project, may provide an alternative solution. Indeed, this particular learning aid may provide certain advantages over conventional tutorials: computer tutorials can be used by the student repeatedly, at their own convenience; dynamic biological phenomena (e.g. cell division) can be explained using animations and digitized video, media which are not normally available in the conventional tutorial setting. Furthermore, computer tutorials could be of particular value to external students who do not have direct access to advice/feedback from academic staff outside of residential schools.

In designing these tutorials we have assumed the sort of fragmented, incomplete knowledge which an average student gleans from a typical lecture. From this starting point, we carry the student down a reasonably tightly structured path. The emphasis is on the development of basic concepts, rather than the presentation of factual information per se. A central element in the design of the tutorials is a high level of interactivity - an inherent advantage that the computer medium provides over a textbook.

We chose Authorware Professional as our authoring program, largely because it enables the use of quite sophisticated, multimedia/interactive techniques while at the same time being `programmer-friendly'. It has the additional benefit of allowing cross-platform development; this is an important factor as our students comprise a mixture of Macintosh and Windows users. Animations are authored using Macromedia Director(TM).

The general structure of the tutorials is to pose a question, drawing upon assumed knowledge, then to provide feedback and use this response to lead into the next question. Questions take the form of text, identifying a part of a diagram or image, or positioning an object in a particular location. Feedback comes in the form of text, presentation of an image, animation, sound or a QuickTime movie. We are making extensive use of 3-D models and images of real biological objects.

Each tutorial is divided into topics. Navigational tools (which are built into version 3.0 of Authorware Professional) are provided to enable the student to move both within and between topics and to jump to related topics in a different tutorial. A glossary of terms (another in-built feature of Authorware Professional v3.0) is permanently accessible from the menu bar.

By the end of 1996 we aim to have finalized a number of tutorials which cover the core areas of Cell Biology, Metabolism, Reproduction (including Genetics and Developmental Biology) and Evolution in our First Year Biology Syllabus. These will be made available in two forms: a `full' version incorporating all of the tutorials on one CD-ROM to enable easy cross-navigation between tutorials; and a `light' version, minus the QuickTime movies and some of the colour graphics, which will be distributed in compressed form on floppy disks.

Paul Whitington

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