Open Eye: On course for the future

Feedback from a ground-breaking OU course is shaping the next generation of on-line education, Yvonne Cook reports
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In 1996, the Open University tried one of its boldest experiments yet. Its new technology foundation course, Living With Technology, was launched to link up to 4,500 students, scattered across the country and abroad, into one electronic community communicating through their personal computers.

It was the first time the University - or anyone else - had attempted computer-mediated teaching on such a large scale. The technical implications of successfully maintaining the network - including a telephone helpline for students unable to make their equipment work - were huge. Nearly half the students on the first presentation of the course were new to computing.

But it worked. Living With Technology is now among of the university's largest-population courses and has introduced thousands to the advantages of personal computers and computer-mediated communication (CMC). It is due to run until the year 2000, when the rapid advance of new technology will presumably necessitate its replacement.

But the lessons learned now about the nature of electronic teaching and communication will influence the courses of the future.

Living With Technology course chair Dr Dick Morris has been writing OU technology courses for more than 20 years. He finds the possibilities opened up by CMC exciting:

"The old model of distance education was the open loop. We write course material, send it to the student, the student writes a TMA (tutor-marked- assignments) and sends it to the tutor. We, the course team, get little direct feedback.

"With computer-mediated communication the students can talk to one another and to their tutor, without the restrictions imposed by geography. But they can also communicate directly with the course team. And the course team can supply materials on line in response to students. Our hope was to get more interaction with students - to close the loop."

Although it provides students with the necessary computing skills, Living With Technology is not a computing course - it is an introduction to the mathematical, scientific and engineering principles that underlie the successful use of all sorts of technological systems, from food production to heating.

Says Dick: "The fact that the course is about technology is in a way irrelevant. Computing is a tool for all disciplines. Like the telephone, television and video recorder, it's another medium by which people can gain education."

Students on Living With Technology still use printed learning materials and are supported by a personal tutor who marks their assignments in the OU's traditional way. But each student also has a personal computer and modem which provides them with a personal e-mail address and access to the electronic conferencing network, known as FirstClass. Messages posted on FirstClass conferences may in theory be read by the entire student, tutor and course team population.

Students can send and read messages at whatever time suits them. The technology has the potential to end one of the distance-education's student's greatest bugbears - isolation.

But when technology is taken up by human beings, the results are never predictable. Dick Morris knows that well. "It is a totally novel way of communicating, and we are only just learning how to use it. The nearest analogy is being in a crowded room in which each person shouts, and everyone in the room can hear them - but at different times."

Such communication power brings its problems. It is wonderful for students to be able to discuss with one another the assignment they're all currently working on, but not if someone gives too much information away to too many others.

"If anyone actually posts the answer to a question on the FirstClass network, that question is immediately zero-rated, so no one gets any marks for it," says Dick.

Another problem was the formation of cliques - groups attending summer school who had already bonded electronically and had the potential to exclude other students who were not part of their group. "In the first year we had a problem with such a clique but the tutor at that summer school was a very strong personality, and he dealt with it brilliantly."

Electronic communication is governed by a university code of conduct, under which every conference is monitored. Anyone posting sexist, racist or otherwise offensive material would be barred from conferencing.

Because it is new, the ground rules for electronic communication are still being evolved, says Dick. "Students react to electronic communication in different ways. Some make every message sound like an official memo. Others seems to regard it as an arena where they can write anything, and do, without regard to the social niceties."

The university has produced a `netiquette' guide to help make students more aware of the potential impact of their communication style.

Whatever problems have been thrown up appear to be more than outweighed by the advantages. Students using the system have almost universally said that being able to share their experiences with others in this way has made them more motivated and in some cases, kept them from dropping out of the course. Those more than usually isolated - for example by geographical remoteness or physical mobility problems - have benefited most from the empathy and support of their fellows.

But what has really surprised the course planners is that, while all the students are using the electronic conferencing system to a certain extent, for example to download essential course material, only a minority are choosing to use it extensively. The message seems to be that people's use of new technology is discriminating - they take from it what they perceive suits their own needs and situation.

Course planners have to ensure that their use of new technology does not actually pose an obstacle to students. One of the reasons why conferencing was not a compulsory requirement before 1996 was the fear that many students would be excluded from the course because they could not afford the necessary equipment.

This has also been an argument against using snazzier graphics and audio communication systems which would require higher-spec equipment. As personal computer power expands the possibilities are growing, but cost is still an area of concern, particularly as it appears to have a disproportionate effect on women.

The proportion of women on the former technology foundation course had risen to around 27 percent by the late `80s, but dropped in 1996 when the computer requirement came in, and is currently around 24 percent - still higher than the average for technology courses.

But, just as colour TV and home video recorders have become commonplace household accessories within the lifetime of the Open University, so more and more people will have access to information and communications technology within the next decade, opening up the possibilities for the course planners.

For the year 2000, course teams are working on three shorter courses to replace Living With Technology. One - You, Your Computer And The Net - will be entirely electronic; the others will use a mix of teaching media, students being offered different options.