aDepartment of Computer Science,
University of Strathclyde, Scotland UK, G1 1XH
bCenter for Educational Systems,
University of Strathclyde, Scotland UK, G4 0LN
In an attempt to facilitate deep learning Clyde Virtual University [Whittington98] has moved on from the "traditional" delivery of online course material [Starr97] to the construction of task-based educational environments designed to take advantage of developing Web techniques.
Having consulted closely with academic content providers throughout each module's development it became clear that the creation of task-based virtual learning environments was seen to be both the most innovative and useful way forward. At a time when student numbers are increasing and resources and funding diminishing the creation of these virtual environments is seen to offer students the ability to apply their knowledge to scenarios that they may otherwise have been unable to experience.
The virtual community which will form the basis of the online Family and Lifespan module is based on a model previously used at Glasgow University. Clydetown is a typical Scottish city made up of varying social and economic districts. Before undertaking three case studies the students will be introduced to the physical environment of Clydetown through maps, photographic street scenes and a complete set of social, economic and environmental statistics. Each of the characters of the case studies will be introduced though detailed case notes, genograms and photographs. Professional actors have been employed to portray each of the key characters relating their dilemmas via digitised video and audio. These clips will introduce more personal and emotive issues that, while complicating the cases, will hopefully make the students address the ambiguities and inconsistencies which they will encounter in real case work.
In Scotland most Social Work undergraduates and postgraduates are mature students who often have little experience of using computers. By creating the online Family and Lifespan module we hope to be able to encourage students to develop their own IT skills in a stimulating and relevant environment. The module will primarily be used for group work so students will be able to discuss their responses to the case studies with their fellow students and tutors while they access the material online.
In collaboration with the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde and Glasgow School of Art, CVU's Product Design Engineering project aims to introduce students to the kind of remote design environment which is already in use in the commercial and industrial sector. In June 1997 a pilot project know as ICON (Institutional Collaboration Over Networks) was hosted by CVU to assess the feasibility of implementing remote and collaborative Internet based design projects for students. A wide range of packages were provided to facilitate this project including: Netscape Communicator, BSCW (an online shared workspace), video conferencing software, shared whiteboards, real-time audio and Java chat, email and a variety of graphics and modelling packages. All the students responded extremely positively to the pilot project despite many initial technical problems.
The project was deemed by all concerned to have been an enormous success and CVU is now developing the concept further with the creation of the Clyde Virtual Design Studio (CVDS). This is a general purpose online design environment which will support a range of collaborative projects both within and across departments. Although Clyde VDS is still in its preliminary stages of development it is already being used by teams of third year students for assessed collaborative design projects.
In an attempt to create an innovative environment to stimulate the students' interest, CVU has created a three dimensional suite of offices using VRML. Although the integration of VRML with Java has made it possible to create exhilarating interactive worlds, the virtual HRM offices have been kept fairly simple. The aim is to enhance the students learning experience without unnecessarily distracting them from their academic tasks. The students' "virtual placement" at VHRMCo should help them to develop the key HRM skills, such as decision making, advising and researching. The VHRMCo will also act as a flexible educational environment that can be used to encourage different forms of learning from independent study and remote learning to tutorial based group work.
The team approach CVU staff have a complimentary set of skills encompassing programming, design and educational technology. To create these virtual environments they have also worked closely with groups of academics from each subject area. It is unlikely these virtual environments would have been so successful without the collaboration of a highly skilled team working with dedicated and enthusiastic academics.
Keep the end user in mind Delivering complex educational material to students who are barely computer literate can be very difficult. Educational modules must be designed in such a way that they are simple and engaging to use while at the same time delivering their educational content in a clear, concise format. The user interfaces we design are tested with real students as early in the development cycle as possible.
Think about the end user's environment There's no point delivering Java enhanced Web pages to users with five year old equipment. It is not a good idea to adopt leading edge technology just for the sake of it.
CVU's projects have shown that it is possible to develop learning environments in a wide range of disciplines where staff and students can interact with each other and with various learning resources to help gain a much deeper understanding of their particular subject.
Starr97 R.M. Starr, Delivering instruction on the World Wide Web: Overview and basic design principles, Educational Technology, pp. 715, MayJune 1997.