Philippa Martyr, 'The Philosopher's Stone': Paper for Virtual Histories, Real Time Challenges Seminar

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© Electronic Journal of Australian and New Zealand History

The Philosopher’s Stone: meditations upon on-line course delivery in the university

Dr P J Martyr

Tasmanian School of Nursing

University of Tasmania

Launceston 7250

I wrote in a 1998 review of Jenny Gregory’s CD database Traces of the Past that:

Many historians and teachers of history express surprise, hesitation and fear when confronted with new technologies for the delivery of learning. Some believe that such developments will render them obsolete; others feel that students will become mere drones parked in front of flickering screens.

What still disturbs me, I suppose, is the prospect that historians will be too late to involve themselves more closely in the decisions currently being made about history and the information revolution.

They will be forced instead to work within parameters established by those outside the discipline, working in other disciplines which are using these technologies much more enthusiastically, such as medicine.

At the recent Apple University Consortium Conference in 1998, which I attended and gave a presentation on my own experiences of on-line teaching in nursing, I found not entirely to my surprise that there were many discipline-based presentations from outside the humanities.

What did concern me is that the theme of the conference was ‘Flexible Learning: the myths and realities’.

There were no papers from those teaching history. There were two from the general area of communication studies, and this is about as good as it got. Most of them were from the sciences and from medicine.

I was instrumental in the development of on-line teaching at the Tasmanian School of Nursing, where I work, and I have been the chief – in fact, the only – instructional designer and web programmer at the school, as well as working as a full-time member of the academic staff.

Over the past two and a half years, from early 1997 onwards, I have seen a lot of things go horribly wrong in on-line teaching, for a number of reasons.

I have also been able to see things go right – I have seen on-line teaching work well in the humanities area, and this background has contributed substantially to this paper.

I have called this paper the Philosopher’s Stone, because this to me summarises the chief illusion about the electronic delivery of course material, in the humanities and elsewhere.

The Philosopher’s Stone was the mythical alchemical product that would change lead and other base metals into gold.

I think that in many ways, on-line course delivery is seen as having similar properties in the university.

It can transform the dullest student into a genius; the most unmotivated class into a group of self-directed learners; the overcrowded tutorial room into a streamlined and whisper-quiet computer laboratory; the bloated staffing budget into a sleek two or three academics tapping away at their keyboards, teaching virtual classes.

Like the Philosopher’s Stone, these are dreams, and not reality, and attempts to discover it are ultimately futile and often result in explosions of one kind or another.

I have identified four aspects of the modern Philosopher’s Stone which I would like to present today:

  1. Are we asking that on-line delivery replace face to face teaching?
  2. Just how much access do our students have to appropriate hardware and software?
  3. Student levels of computer knowledge and portable computer skills
  4. The realities of poor facilities and under-equipping

My experiences of on-line course delivery are based in nursing, where I teach.

I am an amphibian: I am a historian who works and teaches in a school of nursing, and I teach humanities-based subjects there.

I have been researching student perceptions of on-line course delivery, and so I will be discussing my own experiences and the results of my research, here today.

Most of my findings are directly applicable to history students, particularly those in tertiary institutions, but where I feel that comparisons may be odious, I have clarified my argument.

In a way, the place where I work is a good representative of the problems that many of you will be facing:

we are a school which has in the last six years lost almost half its teaching staff to budget cutbacks, voluntary redundancies and early retirements, none of whom have been replaced.

We have seven hundred students, and twenty-five staff.

We have four separate School campuses, three of which are each about 200km from each other.

We have a considerable debt.

We do not have the money for innovations inside the School, and anything that may be expensive – such as on-line teaching – has to be funded through internal or external grants.

As the School is under-equipped and under-resourced in the first place, it is extremely difficult to obtain grant money, although recently we have been moderately successful.

The first part of the Philosopher’s Stone I would like to address is the question:

Are we asking that on-line delivery replace face to face teaching?

I think that the short answer should be no.

But it was, for a while there, yes, especially where I worked.

Computer Assisted Learning (CAL) has a poor track record in nursing and nurse education.

There are many reasons for this: the unwillingness to use programs developed by other institutions, and the “cottage industry” nature of much of the work done.

There has also been a general lack of commitment from the managerial level, who have failed to make the necessary investments and support their staff in the development and use of CAL materials.

The TSON decided to make the move into on-line learning at the end of 1996.

The selected experimental, pilot unit was called Perspectives on Ageing, a Year 2 level semester-long unit on the sociology and politics of aged care.

It was clear from the outset that this transition was going to be difficult. There were several key factors that hindered the committee set up to design the course:

  • A complete lack of experience in on-line learning

  • A general lack of experience in WWW use, and a corresponding lack of awareness of the potential of this form of technology
  • A strong opposition from some members of the teaching team to the use of technology for teaching, because of concerns about economic rationalism and subsequent loss of teaching staff
  • Confusion about how the internet could be used for effective teaching

One of my chief concerns as a member of that committee was that we actually had no real idea of why we were even attempting to enter this area.

The motivation seems to have been that on-line learning was what was being done now, and we had to do it too.

More concretely, it was perceived that there was ‘gold in them thar hills’ – that there would be money available if we could draw up grant applications and get onto the CAL bandwagon.

There were other concerns.

Our student computer lab was poorly equipped, and we had no real idea of how many of our students actually had internet access.

Until we found this out, there seemed little point in continuing.

Nonetheless, under some pointed encouragement from our administrative authorities, we continued.

In other words, we had the managerial support in the form of a directive, but no investment in facilities and practical assistance.

Ultimately, our “transition” turned out to be no more than putting the course guide on the WWW, with very little in the way of computer-based learning activities.

The server which the TSON was running off at the time did not have sufficient support to allow password-controlled folders, so the material had to be public and thus insecure.

This made staff unwilling to put lecture material on the WWW site.

Nor did the staff feel confident to run majordomo-based closed e-mail lists as electronic tutorials, so we ran the unit with face-to-face tutorials, and a backup of electronic lists where the students and staff could discuss issues if they felt like it.

The full gravity of the disaster was not really felt until the following semester.

We designed a second unit for on-line delivery, a similar sociology unit called Child and Adolescent Health, which we were going to try teaching as a purely electronic unit.

The students – who had already endured the confused and meandering electronic teaching of the first semester – rebelled, and submitted a petition asking that they be given an option as to how they would undertake the unit, whether face to face or electronically.

This unit was a far greater success, though, as I had learnt from many of the first semester’s mistakes.

Offering students a choice of how they study has been crucial to the success of our on-line teaching program.

We let them self-select into either electronic or face to face modes of learning, and I find that about 20% of the class will choose electronic delivery.

Flexible learning has to be just that – you have to be prepared to be flexible in giving students a choice.

Students find it incongruous that they should have attend a tutorial in a computer lab, on their own, when the year previously, they could have gone upstairs and attended a face to face tutorial in the same building, which they clearly perceived as a better quality learning experience.

So, I think the answer to the question should be no.

We should not be asking that electronic learning replace conventional modes of delivery.

But I do think we should be asking that it augment it; that it be truly flexible learning, where students have a choice.

The marvellous potential for distance education delivery cannot be overlooked; here is an area where on-line learning can really shine.

But it, too, runs in to problems. For example, in the Bachelor of Nursing, we only offer on-line units to students who can already come to campus.

I feel this is poor targetting, and that we should actually be designing on-line courses which can reach registered nurses who want to upgrade their qualifications, while not being able to attend a campus.

For history-teaching, too, you must ask yourselves whether your target audience – those with no campus access but with internet access – is large or small, or even if it exists.

This brings me to my second aspect of the Philosopher’s Stone:

Just how much access do our students have to appropriate hardware and software?

Does anyone here have any idea how many of their students own computers?

Or how many have access to computers via a parent, partner, friend or housemate?

What do they use those computers for? Word-processing – the ‘glorified typewriter’ option – or are they using the Internet, or both? Or are they playing games?

How good are those computers? What is the average modem speed for your students’ computers?

These are questions you should be asking if you are planning to use on-line delivery effectively.

Too often, we focus on the convenience of the department or school offering the courses, without really studying the student body to whom this form of delivery is being offered.

For example, graphics-heavy courseware is not going to work for a student body with 14.4bps modems.

One of the things we didn’t think to ask our nursing students, before we introduced on-line learning in 1997, was whether our students could actually use these courses from home or not.

We knew they could come in and use a campus computer lab, but how productive is that, really, given the resentment it generated?

There is a vague idea that students all owned computers, which may actually be quite far from the reality in many parts of Australia, especially in low socio-economic status areas.

In 1998, I conducted a mailout survey of all students enrolled in Bachelor of Nursing units. I got about a 40% response rate.

I’ve only recently found time to process the data, and my preliminary findings are that the students most likely to own a computer are the mature-age students.

They are far more likely to own PCs than Macintoshes.

Overall, the levels of access among survey respondents were quite high, and there were also high levels of internet access.

But there needs to be ongoing investigation into this question, if we are to deliver courses on-line effectively.

The third aspect of the Philosopher’s Stone, directly related to this, is:

Student levels of knowledge and portable computer skills

We actually insist that our pre-registration students – students who have never undergone any formal nursing training before now – enrol in a first-year level semester-long unit called Computing Practice.

We do not, however, ask our post-registration students – the registered and enrolled nurses – to do this.

I think this is a mistake, because I have found from my own research that it is the mature-age student (which RNs usually are) who is the most motivated and self-directed learner in the on-line environment.

If we could guarantee their computer skills, we could have a fantastic opportunity to deliver post-registration courses almost exclusively via the internet.

Can you say the same for history students in the tertiary education system?

Can you actually vouch for their computer skills?

Should we be asking this of our students, or not?

In nursing, I can argue that computers are becoming a more and more significant part of patient care; that nursing informatics is a rapidly growing area, and that these skills are essential.

I believe that the acquisition of up-to-date and portable computer skills – not tied to a particular brand of software or hardware – might be just as essential for history students, and future historians.

But is this recognised by the faculty?

I think it should be recognised, given the vast increase in WWW-based document collections, electronic journals, searchable library databases, and on-line publishing.

These skills are advantageous to a history department, both for staff and students: they make the research process more streamlined; they can also augment publication rates for those willing and able to use refereed on-line journals.

Without recommending a blanket introduction of mandatory semester-long computing units for all tertiary history students, I do think that departments considering flexible delivery should investigate short courses in computer skills.

Many students do see university as a place where they can finally learn how to use a computer properly as part of their other work.

You can give them this opportunity, and I think you will find that they will be quite grateful to you for it.

If your local Information Technology service on campus offers free short courses in e-mail and net use, perhaps you should recommend that your students take them. It will cost you nothing, and it may pay dividends.

The fourth and final aspect of the Philosopher’s Stone is:

The realities of poor facilities and under-equipping

These, to me, consist largely of unrealistic expectations from superiors about what on-line learning can and can’t do, and the corresponding uneven and inconsistent approaches taken by institutions to funding IT support and development.

This effectively brings me back to my first point in this paper: the idea that on-line learning can make silk purses out of sow’s ears; that we can simply sack all the academics now and let the computers take over.

My own institution unfortunately provided an excellent example of this when one week they announced a firm commitment to information technology development, and the next week slashed the IT department support staff, which threw a lot of services into chaos.

Things have improved – the University of Tasmania recently won a national award for the high quality performance of the IT Services Help Desk.

The School of Nursing decided to introduce on-line learning at a time when our own computer laboratory was very poorly equipped, with barely functioning Mac LC IIs, and the staff computers were equally poor quality.

Within about a year, all these had been upgraded substantially, but it was quite a long year for some of us.

For staff to deliver on-line teaching effectively, they don’t just need an e-mail account.

They need hardware which is sufficiently powerful to load web pages quickly and with a minimum of fuss.

They also need some good, reliable, and on-the-ground technical support.

Unfortunately in the humanities, computer support can be an area where administration decides to skimp on the costs a little.

I’m sure you are all familiar with history departments where, if your computer starts misbehaving, you actually have to lie in wait for the faculty technical support officer as he (for it is usually a he) is coming out of the lavatory, and then leap.

So you need at least the promise of firm commitment to technical support.

Then there are our own mistakes.

We recently experimented with the on-line teaching program TopClass at the School of Nursing.

I was very proud; I got a $5000 internal teaching grant to buy it. But this was a major mistake on my part.

Effectively, I fell victim to the ‘yours is bigger than mine’ syndrome: that a ready-made program would somehow be inherently superior to the on-line teaching materials I had developed.

I found instead that it was complex and unwieldy, and that I lacked the sufficient ground support which I really needed to get it implemented.

After two weeks of trying to get it to function effectively and to look good, I abandoned it and wrote my own on-line teaching pages in a day, to everyone’s considerable relief.

In conclusion, then, I suppose that I could say that flexible course delivery via the internet is, in history and humanities teaching, not the answer to all our problems.

It is very useful, and it can be a valuable augmentation to face to face teaching.

It can work very well as distance or off-campus education.

It can also significantly augment research, and even start off a researcher on a productive real-time trip to an archive collection or library, thus saving valuable research time and dollars.

It can speed up the dissemination of knowledge via on-line journals.

It has a lot to offer historians, both in teaching and in research.

But there are many things that may stand in your way as you make this move, and I hope I have been able to offer some useful advice on pitfalls to avoid.


P J Martyr, Review of Traces of the Past, Electronic Journal of Australian and New Zealand History

P J Martyr. 1998. Teaching a Bachelor of Nursing unit on-line: some experiences and results. Australian Electronic Journal of Nursing Education, 3(2). p

P J Martyr. 1998. My brain hurts: experiences in flexible course delivery at the Tasmanian School of Nursing, 1997-1998, Flexible Learning: Exploring the Myths and Realities. Proceedings, Apple University Consortium Conference, University of Melbourne, September 1998.

Murray, P. 1998. ‘Can we effectively use networks (telematics) to deliver distance education to enhance patient care?’, Nursing Standard OnLine, vol 12, no 17, January 14.