Computers & Geosciences, Volume 25, Number 9, 1999

John W. F Waldron
Geology Department
Saint Mary's University
Halifax Nova Scotia Canada B3H 3C3

John C. Butler
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204

From the Associate Editor

I was impresssed with John Waldron's web pages the first time I found them. I knew that he had taught an online course and asked that he share some of his observations with the readers. I know that there is a lot of talk and some action around the globe about online courses in general and about geosciences courses in particular. The conclusion of his editorial will appear in the next issue.

Experiences teaching an introductory geology course on the web..Part I

Having just completed a year of teaching a course via the world-wide web, I'm at a point where I can sit back (for a few minutes) and think about the year's experiences. This is an opportunity to consider what went well, what could have been done differently, and to regroup for next year's teaching.

Saint Mary's University has historically been a small, undergraduate-oriented institution. More recently, the university has grown so that the student body now numbers about 8 000. The Faculty of Science remains small, however, and retains its predominantly undergraduate focus; the only graduate programs are in disciplines such as Astronomy, where there is no other university offering the subject in the province. In the geology department, there is a strong tradition of research, but our graduate students study at neighboring Dalhousie University. Distance education has been a relatively small part of the university's operations, handled through the Division of Continuing Education.

In the fall of 1997, an initiative from the Canadian federal government, known as the 'Notemakers' project, reached the Division of Continuing Education. This initiative called for consortia of universities to propose groups of courses that would be offered via the world-wide web. The Notemakers project would provide resources in the form of salaries for youth workers to be hired as assistants, and also for faculty release from other teaching commitments while the course was developed. Memos were circulated, requesting input from faculty interested in developing web-based instruction. This was the point at which I became interested, having just set up web pages for two of my other courses, and having dabbled in the preparation of animations of geologic processes for in-class presentation. These had always produced positive feedback from my students, so I thought that it would be an interesting challenge to try to present a large part of a course this way.

The structure of the Notemakers program favored introductory courses, because one of its aims was to provide courses that might smooth the transition to university of students at distant locations. Accordingly, we decided to present our course entitled The Earth, Atlantic Canada Perspective via the web. This is a fairly traditional introduction to Earth Science, aimed primarily at non-science majors. The course has no lab section, and has normally been taught in two or three lecture classes, totaling 3 hours per week, by a number of different faculty members. Many of the students in these classes have been majoring in commerce and arts subjects, and have taken 'The Earth' to fulfil their requirements for science credits, or perhaps as part of a minor in Geology. Motivating and inspiring these classes, in the absence of hands-on laboratory classes and field trips, has been a challenge. The course has also been given in the summer session, compressed into 6 weeks of evening classes. The students taking the summer session course, in contrast to those in the regular semesters, have generally been highly motivated, older students, taking time off from work because of a genuine desire to learn about the Earth and their environment. The academic-year course seemed ideal for an entirely fresh approach. At the same time, a faculty member in Astronomy, who already had an extensive set of on-line course notes for a comparable course for non-science majors entitled "Life in the Universe", decided to prepare a fully web-based version of that course.

On the negative side, "The Earth: Atlantic Canada Perspective" was a full-year course, in contrast to the one-semester courses favored by the other participants in the Notemakers consortium, including the Astronomy course. This meant double the amount of development, and also that students unsure about committing themselves to web courses were less likely choose our class. Another factor that turned out to be a major source of difficulty was the tight timeline imposed by the Notemakers funding conditions. The support was awarded with effect from the beginning of January 1998, and development of the course was supposed to be complete in a three month period by the end of March. Testing of the course materials was to take place in the summer, and courses had to begin delivery in September 1998. This meant that all the decisions on software and the hiring of assistants had to be completed in a very tight timeframe in the fall of 1997, so that development could begin at the start of 1998.

We hired several student assistants with varied backgrounds in web development, editing, and computer graphics. The assistants were capable web page designers but we were unable to find, at the short notice available, students with geology experience. This proved to be a major limitation as the development progressed, because it meant that many graphics and some portions of text had to go through a repetitive cycle of revision and review. Another early decision was to use a the program WebCT developed at the University of British Columbia (but recently acquired by Universal Learning Technologies) as a vehicle for development and delivery, because it seemed to offer the best combination of flexibility and capability for a modest cost, and because (unlike some options) it did not require us to relinquish any control over content to an outside organization.

The largest component of preparation was a set of course notes in the form of web pages. We decided early, and also for compliance with the guidelines from the 'Notemakers' project, that the course would comprise a series of 'modules,' each roughly equivalent to about a week's lecture content. In all, we prepared eighteen modules, covering the principles of Earth Science and the geological history of the region that provides the focus of the course - Atlantic Canada. To differentiate the modules from a simple textbook, our aim was to make them as interactive as possible, and to provide illustration by animation and other interactive features when we could.

We also had a need for many still photographs and diagrams. Fortunately, I had made photo-CDs of a great many of my favorite color slides, for an earlier project. We incorporated many of these in the pages we produced. We still had a need for diagrams, and this is where I discovered that producing large numbers of diagrams can be a time-consuming task. We proposed to use the same introductory geology textbook that we had used for classroom-based versions of the class, and the publisher had always been very generous with beautiful color overhead projector overlays and color slides for anyone who adopted the textbook for a class. Accordingly, we requested permission from our publisher's representative to use about a hundred textbook diagrams on what was to be a password-protected site, accessible only by registered students. Our representative thought this permission should be easy to obtain: after all, the web diagrams would have resolutions (mostly 320 by 240 pixels) far inferior to the overlays and slides that the publisher so freely gave out.

We waited and waited, however, and after many months of enquiries we finally received a legal document giving us permission to scan and use textbook diagrams, but only if we paid the publisher $128 ($1 per diagram) for the privilege! We also had to sign to the effect that we would not modify the diagrams. Anyone who has ever tried to scan a color diagram from a textbook will know that this is a practical impossibility: scans of pictures that are made of colored dots inevitably generate unpleasant artifacts which must be fixed up, and the writing on printed diagrams is always too small to reproduce well on normal size monitors. So we held our noses and paid the fee, and then our student assistants spent many months adjusting and editing scanned diagrams - trying not to push the limits of 'no alteration' too far - so that they would be suitable for web presentation. I too spent many hours checking them, sending them back to fix spelling mistakes, and adjusting the positions of labels when the editing process (carried out by non-geologists) had reduced the clarity of the labeling.

The most frustrating incident in the whole process occurred about ten days before the start of classes, when packages arrived from the US office of the publisher. In addition to the usual free overlays, slides and support materials, the package contained a CD-ROM with over five hundred diagrams directly from the textbook, all at an appropriate resolution for the web, and with the labels fully adjusted for viewing on a computer screen. Apparently our Canadian publisher's agent was unaware that the parent organization in the US was preparing this, and the US organization was unaware that we had spent months duplicating their effort.

Web coursewares, including WebCT, pay a great deal of attention to testing. There are many provisions for multiple-choice tests that mark themselves. It is possible to password-protect the tests so that students can only take the test at a particular time, and it is possible to randomly select multiple-choice questions from question-sets, so that each student gets a different set of questions. However, there is no absolute way to ensure that the student at a remote terminal is alone, or to determine what textbooks or other materials the student has available while taking the test. So the decision was made early that conventional tests would contribute only a small proportion of the total mark for the course, and that assignments and projects, in which students would take on different tasks, would be heavily weighted in the students' grades.

Accordingly, we set up assignments on approximately a weekly basis. We tried to be innovative in designing the assignments. The aim was to compensate for the rather impersonal experience of receiving 'lectures' through a computer screen, by giving the students hands-on activities that would be more engaging than those in the traditional lecture-room class. The first assignment required the students to go out in the field in their neighborhood, find a rock outcrop and describe it. This was an instructive experience for me. As a field geologist, I have known how to distinguish an 'outcrop' from 'float' for as long as I can remember. I have always taught my students how to do this by taking them to outcrops and hoping they would absorb the distinction in a rather subjective way; writing down the step-by-step instructions on the web page was a new and different experience for me.

Later assignments involved some samples, and we provided each student with a kit of rock and mineral samples, together with the usual hardness testing materials, dilute acid, etc. These were to be mailed out to the students, or picked up from the University. A stern note was enclosed with the samples indicating that marks would be withheld if the kit was not returned at the end of the course!

We also assumed that all the students would have access to a printer, and provided some assignments that required the students to print a diagram or model, cut it out, and paste it together in a specific way. For example, the plate tectonics assignment involved a map of the Atlantic Ocean shaded according to the age of the ocean floor based on the magnetic anomaly patterns. The students were required to print this out, cut out successive strips of young ocean floor, reassemble the continents into their positions at various times in the past, and then answer some questions based on the results. (We had to make some adjustments to the map so that the assignment would work on a flat surface, of course, but these were relatively minor because of the fortunate circumstance that most of the poles of rotation for plates around the North Atlantic are close to the north pole.)

To be continued.