UniServe*Science News, Vol. 5, November 1996

The Place of Information Technology in University Science Teaching in Australia

Ian Johnston is the Director of UniServe*Science

We at UniServe*Science have always seen it as part of our brief to gather information about what our clients are doing with IT in their teaching. In the past year we have conducted two broad surveys. In the first, we asked all our departmental contacts, by email, a number of open-ended questions. We got responses from 63%. Some months later, we interviewed by telephone contact persons in all 33 of the university physics departments in the country to get more detailed information. We hope to do the same thing with the other disciplines soon. Nevertheless it is worth reporting here what we have found out so far.

The first observation to emerge was that there is a fair degree of what might be termed general 'IT literacy'. Some 80% of all responding science departments claim they make 'significant' use of IT in their regular teaching programs. Roughly 40% claim that they have active developers within their teaching staff who have produced significant outcomes. These numbers are more or less uniform over the science disciplines (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Science departments using and developing IT for teaching.

Figure 2. Science departments using Computer Aided Learning in first year teaching.

To get a feeling for the range of IT usage hidden in these figures, it is useful to categorize the responses. There have been many attempts over recent years to classify the various kinds of teaching software - Laurillard, for example, identifies at least nine independent categories (Laurillard 1993). In this context, however, it is more useful to concentrate on the use to which the software is put, rather than the software itself, and there are three readily identifiable categories of use of IT (usually, though not exclusively, computers) in science teaching programs.

* Pedagogical mode: The computer is used by students on their own as an integral part of the process of learning. This use includes: CAL packages, computer managed instruction, 'pre-lab' packages and any pre-programmed use of hypermedia textbooks/encyclopedias and the like.

* Expository mode: The computer is used by the teacher during lectures as a teaching aid or resource. This use includes: computer presentations (PowerPoint and the like); resource compilations on CD or laser disk; in-class computer moderated demonstrations; one-off animations or simulations.

* Apprentice mode: The student, under guidance from the instructor, learns to use the computer in the manner in which they might use it in their profession. This use includes: statistical packages; model builders; data loggers; some 'dry labs'; simulations; programming languages; symbolic maths packages.

It goes without saying that there is overlap between these categories, and individual software packages may be used in more than one mode. Nevertheless the categorizations are worth making.

Pedagogical usage

Responses to the first survey show that the fractions (expressed as a percentage) of the various science departments who make significant formal use of IT in their first year teaching (Figure 2).

The total numbers are small but, clearly, two of the sciences (biology and chemistry) use significantly more IT in the pedagogical mode in first year teaching, than do the others. One might hazard that the reason for this lies in the pressures of increasing student numbers, and cuts in government funding. Or it might be that increased community concerns about student safety in anything to do with blood or hazardous chemicals, use of animals for experimentation, and availability of suitable specimens for laboratory work, have all made courses with 'wet' labs more difficult and expensive to run.

Figure 3. Physics departments using CAL in first year teaching

The same question was explored more thoroughly of physics departments in the second survey. The average number of non-laboratory teaching periods in mainstream courses which involved the pedagogical use of IT was estimated and is displayed in Figure 3 as a plot of the fraction of teaching time against department. For example, a department which give three lectures a week and one tutorial session during which students experienced computer managed problem solving, would rate 0.25. A weighted average mean figure for all Australian university physics departments was calculated by multiplying the fraction by the number of first year students in each department, summing and dividing by the total.

There were only four departments for whom the fraction of teaching time involving CAL was significantly different from zero. Of these, three were using it for problem practice or assignment marking. Only the remaining one uses software packages to teach students new material. The conclusion seems to be that physicists do not trust the computer to teach their subject. By extrapolation the other sciences do not trust it much more.

Figure 4. Science departments using IT as teaching aids.

Expository usage

This mode of use shows rather unexpected fluctuations (Figure 4). What is most interesting here is that two disciplines stand out as using IT in this mode almost twice as much as the others. Perhaps this reflects the fact that both chemists and physicists think of theirs as a particularly pictorial branch of study, and have always had a tradition of using demonstrations during lectures. The closer look at these numbers over all physics departments again shows a very large variation from university to university (Figure 5).

The mean fraction of teaching which uses this kind of teaching (0.21) is very different from the fraction of departments who consider their use of such teaching enhancement 'significant' (53%, Figure 4). This may reflect the fact that such use of IT is very time-consuming, and even a relatively small amount of such use requires what is judged to be a significant amount of effort. It may also reflect a reluctance to devote too much time to an unproved method of teaching.

Apprentice usage

The fraction of departments who use computers in their teaching of students in 'apprentice' or 'professional' mode, particularly in second and third years is quite remarkably uniform across the disciplines, all being between 25 and 30%.

When this question was asked no distinction was made between teaching students to use the computer 'professionally' in lecture based courses, and doing it in experimental laboratories. In the physics survey this distinction was drawn. The number of departments which teach 'professional' use of computers in lecture-based courses is quite small, and are not presented here. Departments which teach 'professional' use of computers in teaching laboratories are shown in Figure 6.

The numbers are reasonably large and remain significant across universities. By and large, those in charge of physics teaching laboratories have been swift to bring the benefits of computers as data loggers and analyzers and controllers to the experiments their students perform. Given the cross-discipline uniformity, it is tempting to suppose that the same is true of all science disciplines.

Consequences forTertiary Science Teaching

Right now, the biggest effect of IT on university physics teaching, and presumably all science teaching, has been in the 'apprentice' or 'pre-professional' mode and most of that has been in teaching laboratories. For many academics, that is where the most interesting intellectual challenge is, and that kind of use is here to stay.

On the other hand the other relatively big use of IT, the expository mode, may not last. There are already indications that its use is being questioned, both for pedagogical and for budgetary reasons (Casanova and Casanova 1991). It is an expensive proposition for ordinary universities to provide facilities to enable instructors to mount an all singing/all dancing multimedia show for small classes of students. For departments with funding problems, such luxuries might prove well beyond their means.

The big challenge however must be in the pedagogical use of IT. Physics is exceptionally slow in this usage, but the other disciplines are not too far ahead. This is unfortunate. The idea that no parts of our subject can be taught perfectly adequately by computer is surely short-sighted. There is a lot of research being done into how to teach science better. We probably already have the knowledge and the insight to enable us to construct well-focused and successful teaching packages. It cannot be long before the big software firms will realize there is money to be made in writing tertiary software. If we do not do the job, they will do it for us. Ask yourself this question. Who do you want to be teaching your students in the 21st century: you or Bill Gates?

Ian Johnston



Laurillard, D. (1993) Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology, Routledge, London & NY.

Casanova, J. and Casanova, S.L. (1991) 'Computer as Electronic Blackboard: Remodelling the Organic Chemistry Lecture', EduCom Review, 26 (1)38.

Figure 5: Physics departments using IT in expository mode in teaching.

Figure 6: Physics departments using computers in teaching labs.