Article

UniServe Science News Volume 8 November 1997










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The BioNet Project: Beyond Writing Courseware

Andrew Booth, a.g.booth@leeds.ac.uk, University of Leeds, J R Aiton, University of St Andrews, F Bowser-Riley, University of Aberdeen, and J R Maber, University of Leeds

In the United Kingdom, the development of information technology (IT)-based teaching has been supported by two centrally funded initiatives - the Computers in Teaching Initiative (CTI) in the late 1980s and, more recently, the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme (TLTP). The BioNet TLTP project was conceived by individuals who had been active in the early phase of CTI. They had produced teaching material that had won external awards, but they had found that courseware production is relatively easy compared with the much more difficult task of changing courses and attitudes in order to get it used. They saw in TLTP the means of using the funding councils' money to lever the required changes into place. Furthermore, the requirement for consortium-based projects gave the opportunity for the experience that they had gained to be transferred to staff at other sites who were just starting to introduce IT-based teaching. The objectives of the project can be summarized as follows: (i) the integration of IT-based teaching material into our mainstream timetabled courses; (ii) producing and quantifying the institutional change necessary to allow this to occur; (iii) training a cadre of academics who can author, re-author and maintain the IT-based courseware without the need for specialist programmers; and (iv) to leave behind something of worth that can be continued after the end of external funding.

The project, funded for 3 years from October 1992, had a part-time director, 18 full members and 5 affiliate members. The membership represents 17 U.K. universities. Full members actively implemented the project in their departments and received partial salary support, consumables and travel/workshop expenses. Affiliate members were those who were not in a position to implement the project from October 1992 (usually due to lack of equipment), but kept a watching brief with the aim of fully joining the project when possible. They received expenses only. In October 1993, two affiliate sites became full members, and a third affiliate changed to full membership in October 1994. All sites had at least one member of academic staff who was responsible for implementing the BioNet project in his/her department and acting as contact person. Most full members used their partial salary allocation to support a further resource person with responsibility for IT-based teaching. One site used the allocation to free the contact academic from some departmental duties so that she could concentrate on BioNet-related activities. Another site used its salary allocation to provide postgraduate demonstrator support for BioNet-supported IT-based teaching. The consumables allocation to each full member allowed the purchase/upgrading of software etc. (It is much easier to get IT-based teaching going if you are not perceived as a drain on departmental funds.) The project was run by a management committee consisting of the director and representatives of the three lead sites (Leeds, Aberdeen and St. Andrews). Day-to-day communication within the project took place via a Mailbase electronic mail list.

Training academic staff to author, re-author and maintain IT-based courseware was an important aspect of the BioNet project.

Each year we held a main workshop at St. Andrews. Open to members and non-members, these were always well-attended. Topics covered included an introduction to ToolBook and HyperCard, animation techniques, and teaching resources and the Internet. The consequence of these workshops is that, although software production was never a main objective of the BioNet project, a considerable amount of teaching material has been accumulated. Some of this material pre-dates TLTP, but much has been produced by our members in response to educational need in their courses and those of others.

All of this material has been made freely available so that others can modify it to their own local requirements. To achieve this, we initially set up an archive of this material which could be accessed by file transfer protocol (FTP). However, we became increasingly concerned that simply making material available may be counter-productive in some cases. The context in which the material is meant to be used is very important. For example, it can be disastrous if teachers try to use as a self-taught tutorial a simulation program intended for use in supervised practical classes. On the FTP server, most of the courseware items were accompanied by descriptive text files, but there could be no guarantee that the users would read them. We published (on paper) the contexts of our material in our Directory and Software Compendium in 1993 and distributed it widely, but we really wanted to find a way in which the context could be delivered with the software it described. For this reason we decided to use the World Wide Web as our preferred delivery system.

The URL of our home page is http://www.leeds.ac.uk/bionet.html

On this server we mounted our Software Compendium. Organized by subject area, each entry is accompanied by at least one page of context and a further page giving technical details. A simple hypertext link allows the FTP server to be accessed and the software item to be downloaded. In addition we are now exploring ways in which the Web can be used as a teaching resource in its own right.

Despite the large amount of material in our software archive, software production was simply a by-product of the BioNet project. Our real deliverables were defined in terms of the amount of IT-based teaching material incorporated into our courses. Our measure of this was the Directed Information Technology Time (DITT). DITT is defined as the number of hours within the timetable of a course that have been replaced by IT-based teaching. It does not take into account the number of students involved, the number of staff involved or any circussing (repetition) arrangements. It does not include any non-timetabled activities. It is therefore a very conservative estimate of the IT-based teaching going on in any course, but its strict definition precludes the spin-doctoring that could happen if multipliers were allowed for staff or student numbers. Nonetheless, in order for IT-based teaching to be timetabled it must replace conventionally taught material, and hence DITT gives a good measure of institutional change.

We measured the amounts of supervised and unsupervised DITT in both tutorial-type teaching and practical class-type teaching. Each BioNet member was asked to supply DITT figures covering the academic year 1991/2 (before TLTP) through to academic year 1994/5. From the information provided on 80 courses, we calculated:

IT Intensity = total DITT/total timetabled teaching time x 100%
Staff Efficiency Gain = total unsupervised DITT/total timetabled teaching time x 100%
Flexible Learning Time = total supervised DITT/total timetabled teaching time x 100%

The results are summarized below. The overall IT intensity approximately doubled during the first year of the BioNet project (1992/3), and the rate of increase was maintained into the academic year 1994/5. Since the estimate of IT intensity only applies to timetabled teaching, the increase reflected a switch from conventionally taught material and clearly represented a considerable change in the pattern of teaching. The proportion of unsupervised DITT within this total ran at about 50% and was reflected as a steady increase in staff efficiency throughout the period of the project. The staff hours saved were based on a simple saving in contact time arising from the unsupervised DITT within the timetabled course hours. This saving in contact time also reduced the didactic course content and released an equal amount of individual undergraduate time for self-paced learning. The average class size increased during the period of the project, and there is no doubt that the application of IT-based teaching was an important factor in our members' ability to cope with increasing student numbers. For those who like rather meaningless large numbers, if we calculate John Slater's 'bum-seat hours', in the 80 courses for which we have data, the number increased 7-fold from 49,000 before the project started to 345,600 in 1994/5.

Summary of timetabled IT-based activity within 80 courses taught by BioNet members
SessionAverage
class size
DITT (h)IT
intensity
Flexible
Learning
Time
Staff
Efficiency
Gain
Staff
hours
saved
Average
c.p.u.
per class
1991/2647604.4%2.4%2.0%34444
1992/37116038.5%4.3%4.2%79758
1993/487246312.2%6.0%6.2%125762
1994/5108319416.5%8.1%8.4%161974

Provision of computing equipment has been a major influence throughout the project. As set out in our original proposal, we had hoped to achieve an overall IT intensity of 20% by the end of the project. In retrospect, this was probably over-optimistic, since it assumed that adequate numbers of personal computers would be available. In fact, at many sites, adequate facilities were slow in coming. In their reports, our members were asked to indicate how many computers their students had access to. The result is included in the table above. Note that the figures do not represent exclusive access, but simply the availability of the equipment. As TLTP started, some institutions responded by providing increased numbers of machines, and this is reflected in the increase in 1991/2 to 1992/3. However, this rate of increase did not continue through the second year of the project and only took off again in the third year, probably in response to the increased number of undergraduates.

Summative evaluation of the project was carried out via the DITT survey detailed above. Courseware evaluation was delegated to each site. As IT-based teaching material was introduced, it was subject to departmental evaluation procedures. At some sites, evaluation was conducted internally using student questionnaires. At others, evaluators from outside the department were brought in. Formative evaluation of the project was carried out by the project's full time Evaluation Officer. On behalf of the management committee, he carried out an evaluation of the operation of the project at each site, paying particular attention to local factors that affect the success or otherwise of the project. His reports showed how important is the modest funding that each site receives in terms of giving the contact person 'leverage' when negotiating changes in courses.

We identified several factors that have aided our members in integrating IT-based teaching into their courses. These can be summarized in the following advice:

  1. Only use IT-based courseware to meet clearly identified educational need in actual courses, not simply because the technology is available.

  2. If suitable material already exists - use it. Use electronic mailing lists and news lists to enquire if anyone knows of existing material. If a standard productivity package such as a spreadsheet can be used, it represents a much more efficient use of your time (and your colleagues') than designing material from scratch. Only write new courseware as a last resort.

  3. If you have no alternative to producing new courseware, then it should be easily re-authorable using simple authoring tools. Re-authorable software can get past the 'not invented here' problem and will allow the material to be updated to include new knowledge. It should be produced by the person who is initially going to use it. Enthusiasm and knowledge of the subject are much more important than programming ability. Do not delegate to someone less familiar with the subject material. Hence there has been no BioNet funding for teams of programmers. Share the load, by collaborating with others if they are interested, but do not design by external committee. It should be short: no more than 20 minutes running time. Do not attempt to produce complete courses. Multimedia production is slower than the development pace of most subjects in higher education. The larger the piece of multimedia you try to produce, the more likely it is to be out of date or superficial. It is much easier to integrate several short pieces of IT-based material into courses than a few large ones.

  4. The courseware should not require hardware other than that readily available. There is no point acquiring or producing sophisticated multimedia courseware if you don't have the hardware to run it now with meaningful numbers of students.

  5. The IT-based material must be incorporated into mainstream timetabled courses and should be included in the same evaluation procedures as conventional teaching material. If you simply 'make it available' or imply that it is 'remedial', neither your students nor your colleagues will take it seriously and you will have effected little or no long-term change. If you have successfully integrated IT-based teaching into your courses, make sure that it is evaluated alongside conventional teaching. Don't subject it to different procedures that make it look 'special' - it isn't.

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UniServe Science News Volume 8 November 1997

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