CAUT Report

UniServe Science News Volume 7 July 1997

Paul Whitington
Dept of Zoology, University of New England

Interactive Multimedia Computer Tutorials in Basic Biology

Paul Whitington

The aim of this project was to develop a series of interactive computer tutorials for use by first year biology students to assist them in grasping fundamental concepts in Introductory Biology. These tutorials sought to address four major learning difficulties faced by students:
  • the problem of synthesizing knowledge from different and apparently disparate areas;
  • the problem of recognising the unifying, basic concepts that underpin the subject;
  • the problem of understanding the spatial organization of complex three-dimensional objects, including grasping the spatial relationships between objects within and between different levels of biological organizations; and
  • the problem of understanding how such spatial relationships change in time and the functional significance of such change.
We sought to integrate the tutorials within two large first year biology units at the University of New England: an internal unit, serving around 250 students; and an external unit, serving around 100 students. These tutorials were not intended as a primary mode of presentation of the material, rather as a supplementary learning aid for reinforcement and revision of material presented in lectures and practicals. Since the topics covered in these tutorials represent core material in virtually all introductory biology courses, they should have wide applicability in the Australian and overseas higher education sector.

Strong emphasis was given to several design features when developing the tutorials:

  • step-wise development of concepts;
  • an attractive, easy-to-use interface;
  • high level of interactivity;
  • use of graphics, animations and digitized video to explain structural relationships and their change in time; and
  • flexible navigational tools.
We feel that the combination of these features sets these tutorials apart from other computer assisted learning tools in this area. The program Authorware Professional was chosen for authoring because of its ability to provide a high level of interactivity with relatively easy programming. This program has the added advantage of offering cross-platform (Macintosh and Windows) support.

We have completed development of five tutorials -- Cell Membranes, Cellular Respiration, Reproduction, Genes and Inheritance and Gene Expression. These tutorials have been used in general student computer laboratories at the University of New England and by external students on home computers during first semester, 1996. Evaluation of the tutorials, using a variety of methods, has shown the overall students' learning experience to be very positive. They appear to be using the programs as intended. Many report that they enjoyed using the programs and requested similar programs covering other topics in their unit. A large majority felt that the programs had substantially increased their understanding of the topic. Whilst it is difficult to obtain hard evidence to support this perception, students appeared to perform somewhat better in examination questions that tested specific issues covered in the tutorials.

Our experience during the project has highlighted a central problem associated with this mode of teaching: namely, the medium, given current programming tools, is relatively inflexible compared to conventional tutorials. For example, step-wise development of material, often used to increase conceptual understanding, may lack the flexibility required to accommodate different student needs and ability levels. One is also constrained in the types of questions and responses that can be directed to students in the tutorials: only questions that elicit short, predictable answers can be chosen. Despite these perceived limitations, we believe that this teaching tool is a valuable one.

Multimedia authoring is an extraordinarily time-intensive process. We seriously underestimated the development time required for these tutorials and would be much more modest in our aims in any future proposal.

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UniServe Science News Volume 7 July 1997

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