Computers & Geosciences, Volume 25, Number 6, 1999

Another Node On the interNet

David McConnell
University of Akron
Akron, Ohio 45004

John C. Butler
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204

Web-based instruction: A personal view

First, a caveat. All my academic experience has been in state universities where I have taught several versions of introductory geology courses. These courses have more similarities than differences and the student audience has been relatively uniform in terms of size (100-200 students) and academic level (mostly freshmen). This column addresses issues associated with teaching these courses.

We have all reflected on the way we would teach our ideal course if only we had sufficient time and resources. But anyone who has had to balance teaching with research and administration roles (especially those striving toward tenure) realizes just how far we fall short of that perfect course. We may seek to improve the classroom experience by showing slides and videos, or by delivering lectures using laptops but it all comes back to the same general idea; I talk, you write it down, I'll ask you about it later. Evolving trends in education coupled with the versatility of the Web may offer an alternative to traditional chalk-and-talk style lectures.

My experience with web-based instruction began several years ago when I started using a laptop computer and presentation software (Astound, PowerPoint) to build and deliver lectures for an Environmental Geology course. At first I would load the lectures onto computers in our department computer lab (20 PCs) for students to review and/or print. Later it became possible to place the presentations on a course website (http://www. Soon after that I began to create separate web pages with more detailed notes that went beyond the simplified presentations. Before long I was enthralled with the possibilities of this technology and was scanning images and searching the web for support materials. The rapid expansion of web resources has allowed the development of more sophisticated web pages for lectures and the addition of quizzes and homework exercises to a recently developed Natural Science Geology course.

New learning strategies

Instructors are giving more attention to teaching methods that promote group learning strategies during large lecture classes (S.J. Reynolds & S.M. Peacock, Journal of Geoscience Education, 1998, v.46, p.421-426). This is often coupled with more direct involvement of students in acquiring and analyzing information. These methods have proved their worth in lab and recitation classes but have been considered impractical in big classes where supervision is difficult. Recent analyses have shown that such instructional styles can be successfully adapted for large lecture sections (D. Ebert-May, C. Brewer, & S. Allred, Bioscience, 1997, v.47, p.601-607). These techniques encourage students to think for themselves and analyze relevant data but come at the expense of lecture content as discussion replaces the delivery of information. Consequently, group learning is often viewed as focussing on depth rather than breadth.

The future?

Group learning strategies combined with web-based educational environments can foster student participation during lecture periods and encourage the discovery of information outside of class. Students can therefore assume more responsibility for their own learning and more flexibility in choosing when to learn. The role instructors may change in these situations, from an authority dispensing information to a guide directing students to uncover knowledge for themselves. Methods of assessment may also change to emphasize exercises (homework) keyed to lecture topics and to reduce the significance of exams.

However, for web-based learning to become routine the educational materials must first become accessible. Butler (Computers & Geosciences, 1997, v.23, p.521-31) has pointed out that the use of the Web is often limited to a small proportion of instructors in each department. Even among this group the quality of the web materials ranges from detailed lecture notes to lists of links and a syllabus. Department-wide efforts to integrate web-based educational resources such as those developed at the University of British Columbia ( are still the exception. Thoroughly integrating the Web into classroom instruction is time consuming and requires substantial effort due to the amorphous structure of the information resources. If this technology is to realize its full potential, the raw information of the Web must be set in a systematic organizational structure that can readily be integrated into a typical undergraduate course.

I believe that this leads us to an inevitable future in which there will be a series of web sites that will aim to support instruction in specific courses; think of them as electronic textbooks. These sites will provide access to information much like current books but they have the potential to have much greater breadth and depth, as there will no page limit. Furthermore, they can be as current as last week's events as they can be updated without waiting for a three-year print cycle. Effective web sites will be accessible to instructors and students alike and will allow for the customization of learning as each instructor (or student) picks and chooses which material to study.

David McConnell is developing The Good Earth, a web-based instructional resource for Environmental Geology courses. --