Computers & Geosciences, Volume 24, Number 5, 1998

Roger J Suthren
Senior Lecturer in Geology
Oxford Brookes University
Oxford, OX3 0BP

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

Web-based learning: getting students involved


One concern expressed about the proliferation of virtual learning environments has been the loss of face-to-face contact between students and teachers. Over the last year or so my experience has been the opposite of this. I have involved small groups of final-year students in writing web pages for our courses, and have found this to be an excellent way to get to know students better.

We started last year by using the Web as an alternative form of presentation to essays or written reports. The topic was Volcanic Hazards <>, and each student worked on an individual volcano. Students were enthusiastic about the idea that their work would be available to the world at large, rather than gathering dust on a shelf, or being consigned to the waste bin. A year later, some of last year's graduates are contacting me to ask if they can modify their web pages.

There are two ways to encourage students to write web pages. One is to pay them, and this has worked successfully in several geoscience departments. The other way is to give them course credit for their work. We run an Advanced Studies module in the third term of the final year, where small groups of students work together, usually on a research topic chosen by the faculty member working with that group. Groups meet weekly, and they are given training in research methods. I saw this as the best vehicle for enabling students to research and present their work using the Internet.

This year I asked the 8 students in my group to write web pages, which could be used directly in our courses. They had a free choice of topics, and these ranged from trilobites, through radar imagery, to drilling technology, and in level from first year to final year. At least half of the 1998 Web Pages <> are ready to use to support our teaching, and the rest will be used after modification. Once again, there was great enthusiasm from the students in writing their web pages and in making them interactive. I was impressed both with the information provided, and the web page design. I gave no encouragement to use backgrounds, animated gifs, or fancy fonts, but all of these appeared, and most were successful. I still think there's a lot to be said for black Times Roman on a white background, but my students don't share that view!

Using a basic html editor (Netscape Composer) proved less problematical for beginners than was our experience last year when using a more sophisticated authoring package (HoTMetaL Pro). Some students prefer to write their text in a familiar word processor, and paste it into the html editor.

In both the 1997 and 1998 groups, no one had previous experience of html authoring, but they soon picked it up. On the basis of the limited experience gained, one of last year's graduates is now working as an Intranet developer for a major international bank. It appears that by training students in the basics of web page authoring, we are providing them with a useful transferable skill.

There have been some problems, too. In 1997, students knew they were responsible for copyright clearance for each image they used, but they had not always obtained it. In 1998, this aspect was explicitly assessed, and evidence had to be provided, usually in the form of an e-mail message from the copyright owner. This worked well. We've found that most website owners are happy for their images to be used for educational purposes, so long as suitable acknowledgment is made. Getting permission to reproduce images from published books and periodicals tends to be much more difficult, and it is sometimes easier for students to draw their own graphics.

This year, members gave live presentations to the group to demonstrate how their web site worked. To get students to think critically about others' web pages, and to appreciate the importance of peer review as part of the scientific process, I asked them each to review two of their colleagues' pages in first draft, and then assessed their reviews. This led to considerable improvement in the final drafts, on which 50% of the assessment was based.

In conclusion, getting students involved in writing course-based web pages has been a success, and I plan to repeat it next year. They bring new ideas for content and design, which I would not have thought of, and their enthusiasm brings a lot of enjoyment to the teaching and learning process. One of my short-term aims is to provide a web page for each of our taught modules. Web pages written by students for course credit will help us to turn the Module List.