UniServe*Science News, Vol. 5, November 1996

Geography Teaching and the Internet

David Rich and Andy Pitman, School of Earth Sciences, Macquarie University

Recent explosive growth of the World Wide Web (the Web) means that the Internet has the potential to become a major vehicle for teaching. Increasingly, the Internet is not something out there to be surfed, and the Web not merely a forum for advertising or offering information. The Web is a powerful means of presenting and delivering course content and facilitating communication between staff and students.

The Web has many advantages over other elements of information technology (IT), including simplicity for the user, cross-platform operability and generic status: students do not need to learn, nor lecturers to support, many different software packages. The basics of establishing Web pages in hypertext markup language (HTML) are straightforward, yet the Web has the power and flexibility to meet many educational demands. For example, Web-based communications systems are quickly making proprietary computer-aided communications packages seem expensive and redundant, while the Web provides a means delivering interactive multimedia (IMM) content in vastly more cost-effective manner than specialist commercial software.

In GEOS114 Global Crises: Technology and Survival, a large (400+ students) first-year interdisciplinary Geography/Environmental Studies course unit at Macquarie University, we have experimented with several types of computer-assisted learning since the early 1990s. By using the Web we are now able to link these elements under a common interface, add others, and increase ease of use. The IT-based elements are tightly linked to lectures and a textbook written by the GEOS114 team (Aplin 1995) in a way designed to maximise their educational impact (Laurillard 1993). In 1996, we have used the following Web-based components.

* Text and graphics, including course information, lecture support material, news and advice. Some of this duplicates hard-copy written material, but with the important addition of updates and colour graphics. It is feasible to include the full text of lectures, and in many respects it would be more efficient to do so. With some special exceptions, we have chosen not to: the strong feedback we have had is that most students prefer the security and human contact of the lecture (on audio tape for distance/external students) rather than being given access to the notes. Students who miss lectures probably wouldnít read them either!

* A variety of practical exercises supporting skills formation and conceptual development. Some involve simulation exercises with the underlying code written in C++ or Fortran, but delivered via the Web interface.

* A multiple choice quiz, originally written in C++ but now converted to a Web environment, increasing its useability and flexibility. This is a means of encouraging regular work by students, monitoring their individual and collective progress, and providing feedback to individuals.

* An Internet Collection, providing quarantined access to Internet sites of particular relevance to this course unit. The resource is especially valuable in fields where the scientific understanding is advancing and policy development occurring rapidly (it is much more up-to-date than any hard copy library can hope to be) and to represent the multiple viewpoints there are in many environmental issues. We have not allowed unfettered Internet access, both to save students time and to reduce demand on network links.

* An email system allowing one-to-one communication between staff and students, and broadcast messages from staff to all students. Student-to-student links could be provided readily, but we do not offer email links to those not involved in GEOS114. This facility has been heavily used, and the enhanced communication has been valued by staff and students alike. While time-consuming for staff to deal with messages, they can be batched - unlike telephone calls or knocks at the door!

* A bulletin board system that supports group discussion, hypotheticals and, potentially, electronic tutorials. This asynchronous communication has advantages over conventional tutorials, including students ability to participate at a time convenient to them and to reflect on their contribution before making it. Potentially at least, this can empower the less assertive student, allowing them to make more a more effective contribution than in class (Harasim et al. 1995).

* Two IMM packages, on Forests of Australia and Atmospheric Crises. The former has been under development for several years using Authorware Professional, but can be launched on-campus from the Web (off-campus users have a CD-ROM version, the package being too large to run effectively on-line at current network speeds). This provides a polished interface and many valuable facilities. The second package has been developed in HTML and associated scripts. While the interface is less elegant, the result is satisfactory and development costs are substantially less.

All these components except the quiz and the Forests of Australia package can be viewed at our web site which is found at www.es.mq.edu.au/courses/GEOS114/. Some elements are still experimental, with further development needed (for example, in enhancing the bulletin board system). Detailed evaluations will assist this. However, it is already clear that the students, especially the 80+ accessing the material from off-campus, welcome the time and place-flexibility this mode of learning offers.

While substantial public money (via CAUT funds and Macquarie University Teaching Development Grants) and staff time have been invested in the two IMM packages, other components of GEOS114 have been developed with only modest investment. The Web has catalysed IT-based teaching development by removing many hardware and software constraints. It provides a means of achieving many of the touted benefits of IT in teaching and learning, much more economically than was previously possible. It offers an attractive way forward in our attempts to maintain teaching quality in a time of declining resources and to meet changing patterns of demand, particularly for more flexible learning opportunities. In a time of declining numbers of students interested in science, these are important considerations.

David Rich and Andy Pitman




Aplin, G., Mitchell, P., Cleugh, H., Pitman, A and Rich, D. (1995) Global Environmental Crises: An Australian Perspective, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Harasim, L., Hiltz, S.R., Teles, L. and Turoff, M. (1995) Learning Networks: A Field Guide to Teaching and Learning Online, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

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

A screen shot from the web site.