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Using the Web and E-mail as substitutes for traditional university teaching methods: student and staff experiences

Newlands, David and Ward, Melanie

Department of Economics,University of Aberdeen,Edward Wright Building,
Dunbar Street,Aberdeen AB24 3QY.E-mail: and

David Newlands is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at Aberdeen University. He was the lecturer and the tutor on the course discussed in this paper.

Melanie Ward is a Research Assistant in Economics at Aberdeen University.


This paper discusses the advantages and disadvantages of using the Web and E-mail in university teaching. It is based on the results of an experiment in which each of the elements of a traditional course at Aberdeen University was replaced with a computer based alternative. The results suggest that use of the Web and E-mail can yield benefits to students' learning. On the other hand, potential problems were identified, notably inadequate access to computers and loss of contact with staff and with other students. The new technologies are relatively cost effective although the potential cost savings are often overstated.

Keywords: undergraduates; universities; World Wide Web; E-mail; computer assisted learning; student experiences; staff experiences

1. Introduction

Recent years have seen a surge of interest in the use of new technologies in higher education. In the UK and elsewhere, most universities now invest heavily in the provision of new technologies such as the Web and E-mail to students and staff. Many universities now provide their students with 24 hour computer access, including custom built computer rooms with swipe card access. Two hundred and three higher education institutions and teaching hospitals in the UK are already connected to the Joint Academic Network (JANET) and its successor SuperJANET (Labour Party, 1998). Computer use is set to rise further with the opening up of competition in the provision of telecommunications in the UK market over the next two years and the European Union's moves towards an "information society" encompassing the use of on line services and electronic commerce and the convergence of telecommunications, audio-visual, publishing and information technologies (European Commission, 1998).

New ways of using technologies are starting to emerge in response to the ever increasing pressure on the efficient use of time by teaching staff. New technologies offer opportunities for cheaper and potentially more effective teaching and learning than traditional teaching methods while also demanding less staff time. Advances in the accessibility of these technologies means that they are now open to use by non computer specialists. Use is no longer restricted to distance learning courses (Jones, Kirkup and Kirkwood 1992; Lovie, McLean and Newlands 1996). More and more campus based courses employ E-mail discussion groups and integrate information on the Web into tutorials, assignments, and back up material for lectures (Active Learning, 1995). While use of these new technologies is spreading rapidly, there is a dearth of systematic studies of their impact on students, staff and institutions.

This paper seeks to identify the advantages and disadvantages of the use of the Web and E-mail in university undergraduate teaching. It includes a systematic analysis of the student experience and some self reflection of the staff experience. The paper is based on the results of an experiment in the use of the Web and E-mail to replace each of the different elements of a traditional course at Aberdeen University with a computer based alternative.

The structure of the paper is as follows. Firstly the experiment itself is described in section 2. Sections 3 to 5 then seek to provide a systematic assessment of the student experience, to discuss the experiment from the staff viewpoint and to consider some aspects of the development of a more fully computer integrated learning environment. Finally, section 6 presents the key conclusions.

2. The Web and E-mail experiment

The experiment was conducted in 1997 with a group of (28) Economics students who had chosen to study Regional and Urban Economics as one of their Honours options. It involved the replacement of each of the components of a traditional teaching system with a computer based alternative and was an extension of an earlier experiment in the use of the World Wide Web in undergraduate teaching undertaken in 1996 (Newlands and Ward, 1996). The four course components consisted of the administration of the course, lectures, seminars and the submission of work. Both the Web and E-mail were used as a means of course administration. Lectures were replaced by Web materials from weeks 6 to 8 of the (twelve week) semester. This equated to nine traditional lectures, or one quarter of the course. Electronic seminars were conducted in weeks 6, 8 and 10 of the semester and one of two course assessed essays was submitted electronically. At the end of the experiment, the students completed two questionnaires, one about their experiences of the experiment, the other about their views as to the advantages and disadvantages of a fully computer integrated learning environment. The response rate to the two questionnaires was 93 per cent. Only the key results are discussed in this paper but the full questionnaire results are available on request.

2.1 Course administration and communication with students

Course administration for Honours courses traditionally operates through notes posted on a notice board located in the heart of the Economics Department. In addition, lecturers and tutors regularly communicate any news or course changes during their formal contact with students in teaching hours. During the course of this experiment, contact was maintained with all students electronically. Bulletins informing students of any organisational changes to the course or of any relevant news items were posted on a "notice board" on the title page of a Web site devoted to the course. In addition, particularly important information was sent to each student by E-mail (using the Simeon system).

2.2 Electronic lectures

In the experiment, traditional lectures were replaced by a series of scripted notes which were posted on the course Web site. This use of the Web is different from earlier forms of computer based learning which has principally consisted of the use of the computer for tutorial programmes, simulation exercises or data analysis, rather than as a vehicle for the transmission of information (O'Shea and Self 1983; Jones, Kirkup and Kirkwood, 1992). The scripts posted on the Web varied in length since, unlike traditional lectures, there is no time limit which determines the exact length of a computerised "lecture". Generally the aim was to provide students with at least as much material as they would have received in a traditional lecture. Certain principles of good practice in the writing of hypertexts were followed (Scrimshaw 1991). Information was presented in manageable portions that dealt with one idea or topic. Each document contained hyperlinks with others. The attempt was made to ensure that movement between the "lectures", the administrative "notice board" and other Web sites on regional and urban economic issues was simple and consistent.

2.3 Electronic seminars

Traditional small group face to face seminars were replaced by electronic seminars conducted by electronic mail. The students usually meeting together as a traditional seminar group now had their E-mail addresses, together with the E-mail address of the tutor, formed into a message or discussion group (using the Simeon system). Seminars commenced on a Monday morning, when the tutor E-mailed a seminar question to each message group. Each student was then required to read the question in his/her own time and make at least two contributions during the course of the seminar, which no longer took place over a one hour period but ran for the course of a week. Students "returned" the message to each of their group members complete with their added comments. The discussion therefore grew from the seminar question with each student retaining a full record of the discussion as it built up.

2.4 Electronic submission of assessed work

Traditionally, a student brings his/her (word processed) essay to the Economics Department and submits it in person. However, in this experiment, students were asked to write or convert their second course essay into Microsoft Word 6.0 and then submit it as an attachment to an E-mail message to the lecturer/tutor.

3. The student experience

One of the main aims of the experiment was to assess students' experiences of the use of computers in course provision and to study their behaviour in this new learning environment. If computer assisted learning is to become more widespread still in higher education it is important that student opinions are sought and acted on in course design and provision. Of the students undertaking the experiment, all had some previous experience of the use of computers. All had used computers for word processing and almost all had used spreadsheets before. A smaller proportion of the students had used computer based statistics packages or databases.

3.1 Experience of course administration

Students were asked which system, E-mail or the Web "notice board", was the better as a means of communicating information about the course. Three quarters preferred E-mail perhaps because the Web "notice board" puts the onus on students to search for any communications.

3.2 Experience of the Web lectures

Students in our experiment accessed the Web materials at various times, of day and night. The vast majority felt that the quality of the Web materials was at least as good as their own notes from traditional lectures. These results would seem to confirm the benefits of using the Web in allowing students to work at their own pace and in providing richer learning materials.

Closer analysis of student behaviour however yields some less positive results. Forty per cent of the students printed out notes without reading them and only one quarter used the hypertext links provided or went in search of additional information for themselves. Those students who did take the trouble to search the Web for relevant material did not think that the search process was too time consuming but few found relevant information which was of use to them. It appears that the students were reluctant to explore the Web and take charge of their own learning and were instead more concerned with producing a paper copy of the Web materials. This was perhaps a natural response for students accustomed to study within a traditional university teaching environment. Three weeks of electronic lectures may not have been a long enough period for students to invest the effort needed to change their learning behaviour so as to reap the best rewards from the new system. Perhaps as a consequence of this, three quarters of the students felt at the end of the experiment that the Web should only be used as a back up to traditional lectures.

3.3 Experience of the electronic seminars

Student behaviour in the electronic seminars was more encouraging. The students adapted well to the electronic seminar system, even in such a short experimental period. During the first computer seminar, over half of the students recorded that they read the seminar question and made an immediate response. A third monitored the development of the discussion and other students' contributions before contributing themselves and the remainder of the students said that they printed the question, went away, and returned later to make their point. During the course of the seminar series, students' behaviour shifted more towards the monitoring of the contribution of others before giving their own. By the time of the last seminar, a majority of students were monitoring the development of the discussion before contributing themselves, while only a third were giving an immediate response to the question. This change in behaviour might be attributable to the different seminar topics and questions being asked. More likely, however, it reflects the students' adaptation to their new environment as they became more receptive to consideration of the developing argument.

Almost one third of students found the anonymity of computerised seminars an incentive to contribute more than they would have in a traditional seminar system. Just two students felt they contributed less. However, asked whether electronic seminars provided more, less or the same information as traditional seminars, opinion was spread with about one third of students replying to each of the three options.

3.4 Experience of submitting assessed work

Electronic submission of the second course essay involved one third of students in changing their normal working practice in order to meet the requirement that all essays were submitted in Microsoft Word 6.0 format. Students had to convert their essay into this format and were provided with detailed information sheets on how to do so. Typically, all that was involved were some relatively simple file conversion and transfer procedures. Only one individual had to use a scanner to convert his essay. Students were also provided with instruction sheets on how to submit their essays as an E-mail attachment. Students seem to have adapted well to electronic submission, experiencing few major problems. The problems that were experienced were usually the result of the system being busy and students not getting their "receive receipts" within the time period expected.

3.5 Student expenditure of time and money

The students spent on average just under three hours per week at the computer in taking part in the experiment. This compares with one hour per week ordinarily spend on the Web and a further one hour ordinarily spent using E-mail. However, there was a considerable time saving given the nine hours which would normally have been spent in lectures and the three hours spent in seminars.

The average financial expenditure was just over £3 in printing the Web materials and £1.25 in printing the electronic seminar discussions. To put this into perspective, students taking the Regional and Urban Economics course were all expected to purchase a textbook costing £20.

4. The staff experience

The experience of the earlier experiment conducted by the authors in 1996 suggested that the transition from a traditional to a computer based system may involve considerable investment of time by lecturers/tutors new to the Web, in the acquisition of new skills and the preparation of Web materials. The choice of format for the presentation of information in this later experiment was therefore heavily influenced by what would limit these demands on the "average" lecturer, perhaps reasonably computer literate but with little or no prior experience of posting information on the Web. Although the posting of material on the Web is not necessarily difficult, the learning of the most effective techniques and procedures and the preparation of materials can be time consuming. This is especially true the more complicated or interactive is the Web site or the more effort is put into making it visually attractive. A simple design of Web site was used in this experiment.

In setting up the electronic seminars, the major effort involved was in devising appropriate "rules of the game" by which to conduct the seminars. These included "technical" instructions on how to make a contribution and send a message to other members of the group. Students were asked to contribute at least once in the first half of the week and at least once in the second half. A minimum and maximum length of contribution was also stipulated, to ensure that all students contributed at least something, but that no one student dominated the discussion. Students were asked to limit themselves to consideration of just one or two of the discussion points identified by the tutor at any one time so as to promote a more detailed discussion.

It was found that in the electronic seminars a wider range of students contributed than in a traditional system, perhaps due to the greater anonymity of an electronic system. Moreover, the discussion within each seminar group became one of student to student interaction to a greater extent and more rapidly than in face to face seminars. The electronic seminars thus appeared to promote greater student control over the development of the seminar discussion.

From the staff viewpoint, conducting the administration of the course via E-mail and the Web "notice board" and receiving the electronically submitted essays all went smoothly. This was as expected since the E-mail addresses of all the students were already on the system in order to hold electronic seminars while we were accessing the Web regularly to post the lecture materials.

5. Future use of the Web, E-mail and other computer technologies

5.1 The advantages and disadvantage of a computer based system

The second of the two questionnaires issued to the students taking part in the experiment asked them to consider the potential advantages and disadvantages of a computer based system and to rank each list (on a scale from 1 to 5 where 1 constituted "not important" and 5 "very important").

As can be seen from Figure 1 which shows the average value attached to each potential advantage, the students identified the most important advantages of a computer based system as the greater choice of when to study, a more flexible pace of learning and better learning resources. Improved computer literacy, more "one to one" support and increased self reliance were also seen as important.

Figure 2 shows the average values attached to each potential disadvantage. The most serious disadvantages of a computer based system were felt to be inadequate access to computers, loss of contact with staff, loss of contact with other students and technical frustrations. Less significant, although still of importance, were reduced motivation, poorer learning resources and an alienating learning experience.

Finally, the students were asked to balance the advantages and disadvantages of learning within a computer based system compared to traditional face to face methods. Opinion was very spread but more students (43 per cent of the total) thought a computer based system would be "worse" or "much worse" than the current system than thought it would be "better" or "much better".

5.2 Will certain types of student be disadvantaged?

It has been argued that certain types of student might be disadvantaged under a more computer based system. We tested the hypotheses that those who are less confident in the use of computers would be disadvantaged and that women would suffer by comparison with men (Fann, 1989; Kirkup, 1989). The students' opinion as to the balance of advantages and disadvantages of a computer based system were correlated with their self reported computer competence and with their gender. However, neither correlation was significant. Previous research has suggested that it might also be interesting to investigate age and native language to see if there are any positive or negative effects of computer based methods on mature students or non native speakers. Unfortunately, the numbers of students in these categories were too small to systematically test these hypotheses although in the student comments some non native speakers did suggest that they found the scripted lecture notes beneficial.

5.3 Possible cost savings

A major factor in the spread of computer assisted learning has been its assumed cost effectiveness. The evidence is broadly supportive of this assumption (Henry, 1994; Newlands, McLean and Lovie, 1998). However, possible cost savings may be exaggerated, for a number of reasons. In a fully electronic system, demands upon universities' computer provision would be considerable. In our modest experiment, the time spent by students at the computer increased and concern was expressed at the possible inadequate access to computers and technical frustrations of a computer based system. Issues of access have also been noted elsewhere as being a source of concern to students (Kirkwood, 1988).

Earlier reference to the costs to the student of accessing Web materials and participating in E-mail seminars suggested that these were relatively modest. However, if universities were to pass more of the real costs of computer provision - the costs of hardware, software, Internet access and so on - on to the student, the situation could be drastically different.

A further factor which may limit potential cost savings is that students may seek to compensate for reduced staff contact in formal lectures and seminars by increased contact with staff at other times. The transition from a traditional to a computer based system may also involve considerable investment of time by staff in the acquisition of new skills and in the preparation of Web materials. Indeed, due to the rapid pace of advance in such technologies, there may be repeated demands on staff time.

6. Conclusions

The experiment discussed in this paper suggests that use of the Web and E-mail can yield benefits to students' learning. The students involved identified a number of gains, notably greater choice of when to study, a more flexible pace of learning and better learning resources. On the other hand, the students anticipated various disadvantages of a more fully integrated computer system, including problems of inadequate access to computers, loss of contact with staff, loss of contact with other students and technical frustrations.

In time, students adapt their learning behaviour and strategies to new technologies and there was evidence of this even within the short timespan of this experiment. Another encouraging result was that these new technologies do not appear to systematically disadvantage particular types of student. The technologies are also cost effective although, for a number of reasons, there is the danger of overstating the potential cost savings.


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This document was added to the Education-line database 08 May 1998