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Teaching with the Web

Lessons for Using the Web in the Classroom

In January 1996, the University of Oregon's College of Arts and Sciences committed $1,800 to fund a project for development of Web technology innovation in classroom teaching.  This report provides an evaluation of the results of the project.

The funds were used to hire one research assistant, Patricia Wolff, for Fall term 1996 to develop Web-based components for my PS477/577: International Environmental Politics course which was offered in Winter term 1997. My overall assessment is that the project was very successful at identifying the strengths, weaknesses, and pitfalls of using the Web in the classroom. Equally important, I have made considerable efforts to publicize these results around the University community so that others can learn from the successes and failures. The memo which follows describes the technology components incorporated in the course with their costs and benefits, an overall assessment of lessons from the project, and the efforts I have made to publicize those results. Two appendices are attached: the results of a student evaluation of the technology components of the course, and an interview elaborating on the course which I conducted with Georgeanne Cooper for publication in the Teaching Effectiveness Program's newsletter, Lizard.

Technology components developed for the course
The course developed and used several different components. Some were more innovative than others. The results of the project are most visible on the course home page at and each component is described below. The description, if needed, of each component is followed by a brief assessment of its costs and benefits. A more general comparative assessment of the various components is provided at the end of this report.

oProfessor output: These components used the Web to distribute information generated by the professor to students.

    • Syllabus: Posted at beginning of term. This was very low cost to post and probably had the benefit of allowing me to avoid having to keep extra copies of the syllabus handy throughout the term.
    • Lecture Notes: Posted at beginning of week for upcoming lectures. I used an HTML conversion program for my typed lecture notes which kept time involved low. Only 23% of the students did not download any lecture notes and students felt that lecture notes on-line was by far the most beneficial web component of the course. One cost to consider here is that providing lecture notes imposes a heavy printing load on printers at the computer labs around campus.
    • Assignment Due Dates: Posted at beginning of term. As with the syllabus, this had low cost but few benefits as well.
    • Instructions & Handouts: Guidance on how to write papers, make a Web Page, etc. Posted as appropriate during term. These were also low cost for the GTF and myself to produce and several handouts that were not worth xeroxing for all students could be made available for those interested to download.
    • Class news: Reminders, and other late-breaking news could be posted here. This didn't involve much effort once I devised a "form" for making additions to the page. However, it was not clear that this was a very reliable way of communicating information to students, since one could not be sure whether or how often students visited the course page, let alone this part of that page.

oInteractive elements: These components allowed students to interact with the professor and other students more than would be possible without the Web.

    • Interactive instructional games: With William Harbaugh's assistance, we provided a real-time, interactive simulation that clearly demonstrated the dynamics that produce the Tragedy of the Commons. This involved an incredibly excessive amount of programming to make it work and clearly was not worth the investment. That said, however, the student both enjoyed and learned from the experience of the simulation. The game was exciting and clearly showed in real-time why fish stocks are overfished and other similar problems.
    • Research prospectuses on MOTET: Students posted their research prospectuses. Each student could read what other students were researching. In all the components using MOTET (a pre-packaged web-based bulletin-board conferencing system), there was little development effort required, though students often were frustrated while learning the system. Posting research prospectuses early in the term did not prove especially useful, but could have been made moreso if I had been more aggressive about grouping them according to similar subject matter and urged students to collaborate more.
    • Feedback on prospectuses on MOTET: Each student was required to provide feedback to two other students on how to improve their paper, based on their prospectus. Having each student get feedback from two classmates was helpful. This required no extra work on my part and yet provided additional input for revising their work. I believe this use of the Web and MOTET could be particularly useful if I had provided more guidance and review of student comments.
    • Posting weekly discussion questions on MOTET: Each student was assigned a week for which they had to post one question to serve as the basis for the weekly in-class discussion. This was perhaps the "best-value" use of the web since it involved no cost to me but had large benefits. Indeed, it reduced my teaching effort since I did not have to generate weekly discussion questions while it ensured that discussions followed student interest rather than professor-imposed directions. Class discussions were particularly lively, in large part because they were student-initiated. This would have been much more difficult to do without the Web.
    • Student developed web pages: Students could write an issue-specific web page related to the course in lieu of the midterm exam. This required the GTF and myself to develop a specific assignment and fairly specific instructions on how to develop a web page. Only three students chose this over the midterm, perhaps because it required as much intellectual work as well as the trouble of writing a Web page. Finding the proper balance between encouraging students to put their own presence on the web which requires certain technical (and time-consuming) skills and ensuring it has intellectual content was tough. Perhaps a better model would have been to allow students to do a web page instead of the midterm but give them 5 or 10 extra credit points not available to those doing the midterm as an incentive for undertaking the assignment.
    • On-line discussion on MOTET: Several web-page conferences were set up to allow unmonitored discussion on course-related topics. I did not expend any effort on monitoring these discussions and they, not surprisingly, did not provide much value. I did not seek but believe one could seek a balance between being more involved but not intruding into such discussions. When I looked at the discussions they were quite spotty in quality which made them difficult to read. Other professors have seemed to have more luck than I with this model of web use.
    • Ask questions of professor on MOTET: A web-page conference allowed students to post questions for the professor and be responded to on-line. Students made no use of this option at all. Students who had questions usually emailed them to me. Answers relevant to all students I copied into the News section of the course page.

oResearch related resources: These components improved the resources available to students for writing their assigned final 10 page paper.

    • On-line bibliographies: links to extensive bibliographies of environmental issues helped students get started on paper assignments. This was added midway through the term and would have been far more useful if I had been able to identify these on-line bibliographies prior to students beginning their work. Since these were simply links to other people's bibliographies, they were low cost to include.
    • On-line databases: links to databases of environmental, social, and legal variables across countries and over time helped students find information to analyze. Discovering the number of sources for real data on environmental problems was one of the more exciting but unexpected benefits of this term. Again, I discovered only midway through the term, but the students I directed to the various data sources found them immensely useful. In future, this can help point students toward areas where data for analysis is available, avoiding the frustrations they often face when they are interested in studying an environmental problem on which there simply is not any data.

Lessons from the project
Using the web in the course has suggested three major lessons to me:

    1. Get interactive! The most exciting, innovative, and useful parts of bringing the web into a course are the possibilities it opens up for communication from the students to the professor and from students to other students. Having students run a simulation (which could even be done asynchronously outside of class), comment on each others paper prospectuses, and provide questions for in-class discussion were exciting elements of the class that improved the quality of teaching while, especially in the latter two cases, reducing my teaching effort. In other classes, I have used web-based surveys to tally views on foreign policy and had students develop large collective databases with each student entering only 2 or 3 pieces of data (100-150 pieces of data with a 50 person class). Using the webs for forms of interaction that would be too time-consuming if done in class can be quite valuable.
    2. Minimize costs! This might seem obvious, but the best use of technology comes when the technology component becomes invisible. Find a good converter from your normal word processing program to HTML is crucial, and most new programs have an HTML-save option. MOTET proved an invaluable resource - its a web-based conference/bulletin-board type program that is a bit difficult for students to learn, but makes many of the interactive options easy to manage. Its a less-than-perfect program but the fact that it allowed students to comment on prospectuses, post discussion questions, and have online discussions with almost no setup effort on the part of me or the GTF made it worth it. Finding ways to update your pages quickly is crucial - writing HTML tags, uploading and downloading files, etc. can quickly take up more time than the benefits they provide. If you can't post the syllabus, lecture notes, new assignments, handouts, etc. easily, then you will soon become a victim of web burnout and won't use it at all in the class. Whether through small CGI scripts or in some other fashion, talk with others to find out how best to organize and update your web page easily.
    3. Integrating is more important than requiring! Every student met the requirement to post their paper prospectus and their weekly discussion question. Many students failed to fulfill the requirement to post in the on-line discussion conferences. The former were integrated into and discussed regularly in class - the latter were not discussed at all. If you want students to use the web, they must believe that it is an integral and important part of the class. Otherwise they, not surprisingly and indeed appropriately, ignore it.
    4. Do a few things well! Part of the problem was systemic - I attempted to do too much and some things were bound to fail. I would strongly advice doing three or four main elements and making sure you do those things well, and make them a priority in the class. Whichever of the many options you use, the more time dedicated to each one, the more likely they are to succeed. I spread myself too thin in the web components of this course.

In conclusion, the project has helped immensely in clarifying and refining my ideas about how the web can be used in the classroom. I hope that disseminating the results will help others avoid some of the pitfalls and duplicate some of the successes of this project, thereby helping the project provide benefits that far exceed the funds dedicated and that the project will continue paying educational dividends both at the University of Oregon and elsewhere for a long time to come.
Let me conclude by expressing my appreciation to the College of Arts and Sciences and to Joe Stone in particular for helping fund this project and to Patricia Wolff, Terri Heath, JQ Johnson, Cathleen Leue, Lucy Lynch, and Georgeanne Cooper for helping me implement it.