Computers & Geosciences, Volume 22, Number 8 October, 1996

Warren D. Huff
Department of Geology
University of Cincinnati
P.O. Box 210013
Cincinnati, OH 45221-0013 Phone: (513) 556-3731
Fax: (513) 556-6931
WWW Home Page

John C. Butler
Department of Geosciences
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204

Comments From the Associate Editor

In the ANON column appearing in Computers&Geosciences, 1996, No. 5, I wrote about my concept of using Internet-based resources in teaching. A recent survey ( of United States and Canadian Geosciences Departments distributing course materials via the Internet found more than 200 courses distributed by more than 70 departments. Professor Warren Huff from the Department of Geology at the University of Cincinnati is the Director of Undergraduate Studies with some interesting comments.

Pedagogy And The Web

The rapid expansion of routine access to the World Wide Web via the Internet in recent years offers both new possibilities as well as new challenges for educational application. In geology, the new possibilities arise from the incredible range of information resources in the earth sciences which can be accessed, and the challenges presented concern how to use this technology in ways that improve rather than simply replace more conventional ways of learning.

Why use the Internet? Web/Internet technology while already commonplace in some learning environments is still quite new in others. The reaction from instructors typically ranges from suspicion and resistance on one hand, to full incorporation of web sites into both undergraduate and graduate curricula on the other (see, for example, The World Lecture Hall or Fieldtrips). The range of reactions stems largely from the seductive nature of web technology and, for some, the fear that it is nothing more than a passive substitute for intellectual engagement. While the sheer entertainment value of it is apparent to the casual observer, and thus needs no elaboration, it is equally clear that this powerful source of information can serve as an important adjunct to existing modes of information transfer. Students can access and review assigned course material any time they have a computer connection, whether in a lab, a dorm room, or at home. Thus, learning by reading, the standard method of self-paced teaching, can be expanded to include images, tutorials, source texts, and databases which have been incorporated into the curriculum in a planned fashion by the instructor.

Who will arrange the Internet material? Teachers, professors and instructors at all levels are the principal guides for all assigned course materials. Thus, they must play a key role in designing a home page or web site for student use. Until recently this would have been a rather arduous task requiring a fairly high degree of computer literacy and a thorough familiarity with html, the hypertext markup language commonly used on the web. However, software products have recently begun to appear for both Windows and Macintosh platforms which make the seamless incorporation of text and image files into single html documents quite a straightforward matter and no more difficult that using a standard word processor. Those instructors not willing to undergo the initially steep learning curve common to all new software will likely find capable and willing graduate or undergraduate students to do the job for them. More formalized support arrangements are appearing as earth science departments begin to include webmaster as a separate part-time or full-time staff position whose principal duties are to assist instructors in the design and construction of web sites. A novel version of this is to offer extra credit to students in a course who can design and build web documents.

What background is required? Faculty members with modest or limited computer skills are able to maintain a suitable home page with some technical assistance, while more highly skilled computer users can exercise their creative energies through unique page designs. Moreover, the number of self-help tutorials for the newcomer is increasing constantly. Many schools are beginning to recognize enhancement of faculty computer skills as a valid and even necessary form of faculty development, and have created short courses, learning centers, and consultant services to assist faculty in the learning process. Student computer skills must also be carefully considered. Having an assignment on a home page is quite different from the casual web-surfing practiced only by those who are so motivated. Thus, faculty must take care to insure that all students in a class have some minimal level of instruction in using the most common web browsers. Depending upon available facilities, this might range from in-class demonstrations to reserving a campus computer lab at the beginning of each term for basic instruction. Another strategy is to identify students in a class who are competent web users as tutors for other students.

How will the web affect teaching? Perhaps the greatest advantage to be realized from incorporating web sites into course curricula is the release of the instructor from a heavy reliance on the role of information-giver. In turn, the instructor can serve more as a facilitator; a discussion leader whose chief function is to develop critical thinking and oral and written expression skills in students. Large-enrollment courses may be the chief benefactors of this change, and instructors of such courses will need to think seriously about how to facilitate more direct student engagement in the learning process. This might be accomplished either through enhanced coordination of laboratory or discussion group activities, or by restructuring the size of lecture classes to permit more student-teacher interaction. Some states have already announced plans to develop more remote-learning courses based on Internet access coupled with periodic group meetings at the regional scale. This concept is modeled after the highly successful Open University in Great Britain, but with the addition of a strong web component. The work load for faculty will, of necessity, increase in the short run. But once a home page has been developed and tested, and classroom procedures have been modified to incorporate the new technology the time demands on instructors should not be fundamentally different from the present. Developing web sites must not be viewed as a way to release instructors from the pursuit of successful teaching, however, but rather as an adjunct resource designed to improve the overall effectiveness, and therefore quality, of teaching.

What are the hazards associated with web page development? The biggest pedagogical hazard is that a home page will become an unstructured information source which at once overwhelms and entertains, but does little to develop understanding or motivate and encourage further study. Instructor behavior and classroom procedure need to be reexamined and modified to insure that students become more, rather than less, actively involved in the learning process. There are conceivable physical hazards that might also emerge, particularly those ailments commonly associated with extended computer use. These include carpel tunnel syndrome as well as eye and back strain. Such hazards can be mitigated through proper attention to lighting, choice of furniture, and periodic alternation of non-repetitive types of physical activity.

   Since January 27, 1997

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