Instructional and Web-Based Technologies in Higher Education:
What Skills and Techniques Are Necessary?

by

Steven Schafersman
CyberComputing Consultants
Midland, Texas

The modern availability of powerful personal computers and high-bandwith networks has finally required higher education to examine its methods of instruction--methods that have remained essentially unchanged for centuries. Despite predictions, the invention of television and personal computers--while making tasks easier--did not revolutionize educational instruction, especially at colleges and universites, which have retained the traditional methods of lecture, note-taking, reading and writing assignments, and laboratory training in the education of students. These extremely conservative pedagogical methods, while undoubtedly effective for some students, have not been effective for many others, and are now now being challenged by new instructional and learning technologies that use personal computers connected to networks, the Internet, powerful yet easy-to-use software applications, and the server-client metaphor. These technologies claim with considerable evidence that--finally--higher education instructional methods will be changed for the better. Is this claim valid?

I believe the answer is emphatically yes. As is widely recognized, students must become knowledge workers to succeed in the modern world. Knowledge workers have critical thinking skills, have learned how to learn, and presumably have developed the habit of continuous learning. Learning technologies will play an obviously important role in this vision, since they will be the primary means of an individual's continuous learning in the future. This vision is sometimes criticized with the observation that a university's true purpose should be to turn out educated, cultured, and well-rounded graduates, not mere knowledge workers to feed the corporate world. While there is certainly nothing wrong with this traditional purpose (except its incompleteness), and I would certainly endorse such a purpose, nevertheless, the criticism itself is invalid because it fails to recognize the force and role that technology, especially computer and network technology, has become in modern society.

Computers and networks are now having the same effect on human culture that the invention of movable type did in the fifteenth century. The printing press changed that world, and right now the new technology of powerful personal computers and an international network is changing ours. Whether universities and faculties like it or not, our society and culture will be revolutionized by these new and pervasive technologies, and our students must understand them and use them, or else be dominated by them. Early in the next century, the computer network will be the major conduit through which we will conduct our lives; it will be the central nervous system of our culture and political landscape. Increasingly, commerce, education, government, religion, and entertainment will develop and depend upon computer networks and their multimedia-interactive-hypertextual products, until this realm of communication pervades every aspect of every person's life.

Some individuals make the mistake in believing that the computer is only a tool or technique that humans may use. It is this, of course, but much more: computers and their networks are a medium--cyberspace--within which we will increasingly work, research, educate, recreate, and emote. The point is simple: learning to be a knowledge worker isn't just advisable in promoting one's employment opportunities--in fact, one's entire future existence, livelihood, culture, success, self-esteem, and place in a knowledge society will depend on understanding technology and mastering the skills of a knowledge worker. I recognize this and want to play a role in preparing our students for this world.

I have wide experience with the introduction and use of instructional technologies in the university classroom. I have learned what works and what doesn't, since I have also seen mistakes made in the implementation of computers and instructional software. Much early courseware (instructional software) was poorly conceived and did little to promote learning, and an enormous amount of computer hardware--quickly obsolete--was purchased to support this software. Early users did not distinguish between wants and needs: institutions purchased equipment and software applications because they wanted them, not because they really needed them to achieve well-thought-out educational goals. Much of this early courseware used repetition and drill to impart instruction; later multimedia software presented information in a manner indistinguishable from an illustrated lecture (but without the professor). Requiring that (1) students buy computers, (2) faculty use presentation software, and (3) a network be constructed to deliver instructional materials--using such inappropriate courseware--will not be cost-effective or ultimately successful in improving instruction and learning. The reason is simple: such instructional materials are no better, and frequently not as good as, traditional methods of instruction using chalk and blackboard or transparencies and overhead projector--when the professor is present to ask and answer questions and interact in other ways with students.

Evidence derived from research shows that student learning improves when they are obliged to interact with the topic they are learning. Such active learning--as contrasted with the often passive learning of lectures and other authority-to-student methods--can be increased with the proper use of interactive, multimedia courseware that has been competently designed and constructed. Such instructional software naturally uses graphics, sound, video, and hypertext in addition to text--that is, it is a form of multimedia--but it is much more than just that. The additional content is something that only someone with knowledge of both the discipline and effective teaching methods can provide: the interaction and feedback necessary to make the multimedia courseware effective as a learning tool.

Multimedia lecture presentations with colorful graphics, sound, video, and hypertext are good as far as they go, but the addition of interactive study questions, self-assessment quizzes with feedback, and hypertextual/multimedia virtual field trips, allow them to become the exemplary vehicles with which to deliver educational content. Needless to say, such presentations must be totally Web-based--this is the most important aspect for several reasons:

I have investigated and extensively used two second-generation academic courseware packages, Blackboard at Miami University (Oxford, OH) and WebCT at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin (Odessa, TX), to build web-based and web-enhanced courses. Originally, I wanted to see what capabilities these courseware packages possessed. In addition to providing pre-built "CourseSites" that one can construct almost automatically by filling in blanks, Blackboard and WebCT provide many other functions that fill a real need for faculty who want to use instructional technology. For example, they provide modules for traditional email, threaded discussion lists (similar to Usenet), real-time chat and whiteboard (similar to web-based chat and video-conferencing), course calendar, announcements, messaging, and file exchange (similar to email listserv), assessment tools, gradebook, database reporting, student tracking, and course statistics (similar to web-served database and spreadsheet applications).

Although I formerly used standard commercial software applications (Dreamweaver, FrontPage, Photoshop, FTP clients, Eudora, etc.) to design and build instructional websites and email to communicate with students, I now strongly advocate using the packaged courseware applications, because they provide threaded course discussions, which are absolutely essential for a distance education course, plus many other important modules and capabilities. I recognize the convenience and usefulness of a package that provides all of these capabilities for a faculty member. It would take a great deal of effort on anyone's part to develop similar functions and services for classroom use using available software. Also, if all faculty use the same package, students will have a common visual experience and graphical user interface with their course materials. So I endorse such second-generation academic packages, and plan to use some parts of them in all my own courses in the future.

The newest generation of Macintosh computers, the G3s and G4s, are appropriately equipped with the necessary features to be used in a multimedia-rich learning environment. They have ethernet connections built-in, have huge hard drives and extremely fast processors and busses, and use Firewire as their high-speed serial connection. These items are all very important, because today we want to use exclusively digital video (DV), not analog video, to create streaming video clips for the web. Filming and editing in analog video using specialized equipment, and then converting to DV, is time-consuming and not cost-effective. Today, all filming should be done using the new DV cameras made by Canon or Sony, the files downloaded to the hard disk using Firewire, and the digital editing done in Adobe Premier right on the computer. It is also easy to get good still-frames from the video using this method. Analog video should not be used today for any potential distance course content; it is expensive and time-consuming to have to convert this later to digital formats. The same is true for photographs: it is better today to just take any photographs you need using high-resolution digital cameras rather than scan in traditional photographs.

Most of the best multimedia software made by Adobe, Macromedia, and others is available for both Macintosh and Wintel platforms. Graphic still, animated, and 3D image software is today well-established, and is widely available for both Mac and Wintel, but no Wintel PC computer is currently ready to process DV by Firewire except at enormous expense. There is a company named ProMax (www.promax.com) that specializes in equipping classrooms and labs with video-editing computers and software. Needless to say, the resources of a web-based multimedia classroom/laboratory will be very important for teaching students and faculty how to develop web-based instructional materials to use for distance education on the Internet.

Research tells us that student learning and retention improve when

The ultimate goal of a learning technology program should be to create a situation in which the important critical thinking skills and discipline content are imparted to students by hypermedia courseware, so that the university professor or instructor can use the valuable class time to interact with students, ask and answer questions, offer and deliver personal help, and generally motivate and encourage students to learn on their own. Students will be the knowledge workers of the future, so the instructor must enable them to learn to learn and think critically for themselves. I am confident that hypertext/multimedia educational courseware, designed using instructional methods validated by research, and built and delivered by the new computer/network/Web-based technologies, will finally be the solution that improves higher education and makes such instruction more successful, efficient, cost-effective, and useful to society. These goals may be high, but they can be reached through careful study, planning, and cooperation.


Steven Schafersman is president of CyberComputing Consultants.
Last updated: 4 September 2002