Plants, Pathogens, and People: Extending the Classroom to the Web
by Bertram C. Bruce, Heather Dowd, Darin M. Eastburn & Cleora J. D'Arcy - 2005
Plants, Pathogens, and People is a Web site promoting agricultural awareness via multimedia lectures about plant diseases and online lab activities in which students investigate phenomena. The use of the site in large-enrollment classes for 6-plus years affords a well-documented case of Web-enhanced instruction. Qualitative and quantitative data on student perceptions of the site, their learning, and the relation of the Web site to the course as a whole provide insights into both the benefits and the challenges of Web-based teaching and learning. Students rate the site as an enhancement to their learning, but there are differential responses to various components of the site, which provide a fuller picture of how students see Web-based learning relating to their overall educational experience.
The use of the Web in college courses has evolved from being an experiment into an occasional resource and now a norm. Scholarly and popular media reports, which once highlighted any use of the Web for teaching, now focus on implementation issues such as training, cost/benefit analysis, or instructional effectiveness (see, for example, Campus Computing Project, 2003). It can be argued that in major universities in the United States, all courses now use the Web, since instructors create course materials using Web resources; course information is in the Web-based timetable and catalog; the complete syllabus is often Web-based; the instructors address and phone are available through the Web phonebook; students use the Web to obtain additional information for coursework; they check out library books related to the course through the Web; and they freely use e-mail to contact other students or the professor regarding the course (Bruce, 1997).
As with many such changes, those involved may have experienced, but not had the opportunity to reflect on, the way their practices and beliefs changed. Through development and evaluation work on a site called Plants, Pathogens, and People (PPP), we have been able to observe how Web-based teaching has come to occupy an increasingly central role in a large-enrollment course. The site has now been used in classes for 6 years. This experience has provided one of the longest-lived and most thoroughly documented cases of Web-enhanced instruction. During the entire life of the Web site we have collected both qualitative and quantitative data on student perceptions of the site, their learning, and the relation of the Web site to the course as a whole. These data provide insights into both the benefits and the challenges of Web-based teaching and learning, pointing to three major findings.
First, across various measures on the overall site, the lectures, and the labs, students rate the site as an enhancement to their learning. These measures show that students value the detail, the information organization, the visual representations, the learner control, and the interactivity that the Web affords. Their quantitative assessments are complemented by comments they provided detailing exactly which aspects make a difference.
Second, although the success of the site is encouraging, what may be more valuable to others undertaking similar projects is a set of findings about differential responses to various components of the site. Related to that is a fuller picture of how students see Web-based learning relating to their overall educational experience. Overall, the results argue for making the site more supportive of an inquiry approach to teaching and learning.
A third result is a better understanding of the development process. The project is now in its 7th year, and the cycle of design, build, test has been repeated many times. In the development, we see an analogy to the inquiry process that the site seeks to foster for students, as they learn about plants, pathogens, and people.
RATIONALE FOR THE COURSE AND WEB SITE
The primary goal of the Plants, Pathogens, and People course is to introduce students in nonagricultural curricula to the issues in todays agriculture that affect their daily lives. Its premise is that educated citizens need to understand issues such as the development of genetically modified organisms, pesticide use, food safety, and the preservation of species and the environment. In the course, examples from the field of plant pathology are used to explore these and other issues. The relations among plants, plant pathogens, and humans have had enormous consequences throughout history. An understanding of these relations could be considered a key aspect of knowledge for citizens in a democratic society, especially as questions about food production, genetically modified organisms, famine, disease, globalization, and trade become more visible to the public. Moreover, learning how to address these issues requires students to develop the kind of interdisciplinary thinking that they need to employ in many other arenas.
PPP is a Web site intended to support the course and to encourage student inquiry into these topics. It promotes agricultural awareness through online lectures about the diseases of plants, what causes them, how much damage they do, and how they affect people. The site also discusses issues in agriculture that affect our daily lives. There are online lab activities in which students can investigate phenomena for themselves and learn about the techniques and challenges of scientific inquiry. Based on the research on the original site (Plants, Pathogens, & People, 1998), a major upgrade (Plants, Pathogens, and People, 2003) was recently implemented.
The site was designed primarily for use in conjunction with an introductory, college-level plant pathology class but has since been conceived as one that could supplement high school or college-level courses in biology, history, geography, and other subjects, as well as be a resource for any user of the Web. Currently, there are modules for three diseases and associated issues: crown gall, Dutch elm disease, and late blight. As development on the site has progressed, it not only has been refined but has morphed into a form that is more supportive of inquiry-based learning.
The course was designed about 10 years ago to attract students from across the university. It fulfills general education requirements in natural science and advanced composition. In any given semester there are likely to be students from seven or eight different colleges of the university, from disciplines as disparate as architecture, history, and microbiology. The students are typically sophomores, juniors, and seniors, because most freshmen are still completing a prerequisite composition course.
Realizing that students have different learning styles, instructors were interested in providing information in a variety of formats. Initially they produced two videotapes, one on late blight and the Irish potato famine (Eastburn & DArcy, 1996) and one on the impact of Dutch elm disease on the American elm (Eastburn, DArcy, & McKee, 2000). While seeking funding for additional videotape projects, they also began to think more about materials to promote active, inquiry-based learning and to take advantage of the Internet as a tool for learning.
Developing a Web site for the course that would be more than an online repository for the course syllabus or lecture notes would address several issues. Students could explore the information at their own pace and obtain more detail on aspects of special interest. They could also access information in different formats (text, images, activities) to accommodate different styles of learning. Web-based laboratory exercises would allow students to become more familiar with experimentation and the scientific process. In short, the Web site would foster more active learning.
FEATURES OF THE SITE
The original concept for the project had not been a Web site at all, but instead a series of short videos on various aspects of plant pathology. Early in the process it was proposed to make those videos available on CD-ROMs, which would be more interactive. Before this was implemented, however, there was a switch to the Web. By then the design had moved very far from the original conception of a video series, but it still carried its history.
The original metaphor of the Web site was a virtual university, with classrooms, laboratories, and library materials. Most of the information was organized in terms of modules, each containing six lectures and three online laboratory activities. The Web site thus mirrored the structure of the traditional classroom, in which modules were defined in terms of content delivery; even the labs were more like demonstrations than true opportunities to experiment. Early project work focused on efforts to make the lectures as engaging as possible. They told stories, which, we later learned, were valued by many of the students, but they fell short of the possibilities the Web affords for interactivity and multiple paths for learning.
The site now opens with
On this site you can explore the interactions among plants, the diseases that harm them, and the people (like you!) who depend upon them. Here you can find resources on the biology, the history, the economic importance, and other aspects of plant diseases. You can do activities in the laboratory or the field to see how different forces of nature or actions of people affect the course of plant diseases. And you can have a dialogue with other people to learn how to use this site more effectively and to make it even better. So, come and explore the world of PLANTS, PATHOGENS, and PEOPLE!
Icons (see Figure 1) guide users to various resources, including
a microscope to view microscopic specimens
a slide projector to see various slides
maps with close-ups of where and when events occur
a dictionary with definitions of key words and concepts
a calculator for use in the laboratory
Within activities the site now includes several simulations and virtual laboratories. For example, one lab invites students to explore the question How do tree spacing and planting patterns affect the spread of Dutch elm disease? This can be done in either a guided exploration or user-directed exploration mode.
As the site developed, the emphasis on exploration, open-ended activities, and dialogue increased. Thus, lectures as a central organizing principle gave way to resources that could be accessed along multiple paths. Much of the data reported here derive from early versions of the site in which lectures and lab demonstrations predominated. We present these data in order to show how student responses changed as the site evolved to become more supportive of inquiry-based learning.
AN INQUIRY APPROACH
One way to conceptualize student reactions to the site is in terms of an inquiry cycle (cf. Dewey, 1933), as shown in Figure 2. The cycle represents in idealized form the process whereby a learner encounters a difficulty or question, investigates ideas related to it, engages in creative activity to answer it, collaborates with others through dialogue, and reflects on the experience. Changes to the site to promote greater learner control of information access, more individualized pace and timing, and multiple paths to information meant more support for the learner in the inquiry process. As we show below, many of the negative aspects the students noted early on can be explained in terms of the ways certain features did not support their inquiries.
RESEARCH ON WEB-BASED LEARNING
Web-based instruction is now becoming so common that we will soon cease to note it, just as we no longer remark that e-mail is used in relation to a course. As the technology becomes more prevalent, it necessarily becomes less visible (Bruce & Hogan, 1998). Repositories of online courses and programs show the diverse ways that the Web is being used as a medium for learning today (Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction, 2003; Sloan Consortium, 2003).
There is now a small, but rapidly growing, body of research literature on the effectiveness of Web-based courses. But defining the boundaries of the term Web-based course is a challenge. Some courses use Web technology but provide highly restricted information spaces; others use the full resources of the Web quite liberally. Some use the Web as an enhancement to standard course materials, while others use it as the course content per se. Some courses are in face-to-face mode with computer technology as a supplement; other courses are now delivered entirely online, or mostly so, but with one or more face-to-face meetings.
Despite these differences, a number of common themes have emerged. Not surprisingly, ease of use and perceived functionality are keys to significant use and valuing of Web resources (Slem & Schultz, 1998). Generally, students appear to like the Web as a course tool, but unambiguous effects on learning are difficult to see. An early meta-analysis (Kulik, 1994) found better long-term retention and more positive attitudes towards computers. In one much-cited study, Schutte (1996) did find that a virtual class scored an average of 20% higher on examinations than the traditional class. Moreover, the virtual class had significantly higher perceived peer contact, and time spent on class work, but a perception of more flexibility, understanding of the material and greater affect toward math, at semester end.
However, data showing such an effect, or the lack thereof, need to be interpreted cautiously. Well-known problems such as population selection, the Hawthorne effect, teacher bias, and match of assessment to curriculum and instruction make it difficult to say with much certainty whether Web-based courses improve on traditional modes of teaching or fall short.
As a consequence, researchers have employed a variety of measures to broaden the evaluation of Web-based instruction. Khan (1997), for example, suggests employing user testimonials; measures of the volume of activity; logs of self-reported activity by users; analysis of discourse or conversations; comparison of what is planned, developed, and implemented; surveys of users; feedback from users; and case studies of individual users. Other researchers have investigated the social environment that makes online learning possible and the factors that make it more or less successful (Bruce, 2003; Kazmer, 2000).
We had many questions about the site and how it would be perceived and used by the students. We also wanted to be open to the unexpected reactions of students and to assessing our own experiences in the process. Our major questions then were the following:
1. How did students rate learning with the site in comparison with other modes of learning, such the classroom, lectures, labs, and textbook? More specifically, did they consider the online lectures to be interesting, informative, organized, and with the right amount of detail? Also, were the online lab activities easy to navigate, interesting, and informative? Did they allow thorough investigation of phenomena?
2. What themes emerged in student comments about their experiences learning using the Web? How did they perceive and use the Web materials?
3. What was the experience of the developers? What did we learn about the development process?
The Web site has been used in Plant Pathology 100 since the fall of 1997. Data from evaluations of the first 6 semesters are reported here. During this time, the site covered two main topicslate blight and Dutch elm diseasebut the latter was not available until fall 1999. Each of the modules was divided into six lectures and three online lab activities. Virtually all of the students in the course (approximately 500 over the 6 semesters) filled out online evaluation forms for each lecture and lab activity as well as an overall site evaluation as a course activity.
The Web forms ask a variety of questions, some of which require Likert-scale responses and others that invite open-ended responses (see Appendix A). We distinguished between the lectures and the labs because they called for different sorts of learning activities. Our central question overall was whether students viewed the site as better, worse, or the same as other modes of learning. We also wanted to know how they compared it with other course Web sites. Our major question for the lectures was whether students would see it as useful as a traditional lecture. We also wanted their judgments about the interest level, informativeness, organization, and detail. Because the labs involved a greater level of interactivity, a key question was the ease of navigation. Another related to the possibility for thorough investigation of the dynamic properties of a phenomenon, such as the effects of close planting of crops on disease dissemination. We also asked many of the same questions regarding level of interest, informativeness, and organization.
Although these questions were needed for the evaluation, our approach to our analysis of the student comments was primarily based on grounded theory (Glaser, 1992; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). We were interested in seeing which ideas, problems, or themes emerged from the student comments. Using the constant comparison method, we compared data set to data set, and later, data set to emerging theory. Seven major themes emerged out of this process, as well as several surprises in the data.
Our results are organized in terms of the quantitative and qualitative evaluations of the site by the students.
STUDENTS QUANTITATIVE EVALUATION OF THE SITE
Three of the questions students answered in the online form pertained to the overall site evaluation. Students were asked to compare learning with the site to other modes of learning, such as classroom, lecture, lab, and textbook. They were also asked to compare this site to other sites and to rate its overall informativeness. The results are shown in Table 1.
These results indicate that the students saw little overall difference between learning with the site and learning using other modes. They also rated the site as informative and better than other course sites. A total of 77% rated the site as informative or very informative. Similarly, 62% rated it as better than other course Web sites.
When we look in more detail at the lectures and the labs we see a similar pattern. Table 2 shows the data for the evaluations of the lectures. The subsample sizes here are larger than for the site as a whole, because they aggregate ratings for different lectures across the two modules. These results show that students rated the Web site as a full Likert scale point above the midpoint toward the best end of the scale.
Looking at the labs (Table 3), we see similar results. (The subsample sizes are somewhat smaller because students did not complete as many labs as they did lectures, and some did not fill out the Web form.)
As we saw with the results for the lectures and for the overall site, the results for the labs are encouraging. For navigation, level of interest, in-formativeness, organization, and the ability to investigate phenomena, there was 0.5 or more Likert scale difference from the scale midpoint (3). Most students gave positive ratings to the labs on every dimension.
STUDENTS QUALITATIVE EVALUATION OF THE LECTURES
In addition to the quantitative responses, students shared copious comments on different aspects of the site. Whereas the quantitative results essentially tell us that the students rated the site favorably, they tell us little about how they perceived it, what use they made of it, and how they would like to see it improved. We analyzed student responses, first in terms of the questions as they were stated, and second in terms of themes that emerged from repeated readings. Seven themes emerge from a detailed analysis of the comments: learner control of information access, learner control of pace and timing, redundancy, personality of the instructor, active engagement, learning through dialogue, and opportunities for inquiry.
Learner Control of Information Access
Many students compared the in-class and online lectures in terms of the amount of information and the manner in which it was presented. They saw the value of learner control of the learning process on the Web:
The web format is a little easier than traditional lecture, because at any time the user can look up a definition or see a slide, which makes it easier for people with different learning styles to understand a concept.
I actually like the Web format for this lecture better than that of the class lecture because I can visualize the subject material better when the diagrams are present in the lecture.
I liked the Web format of this particular lecture better because it goes more into depth with the information on the potato plant structure. In the class lecture this information was not presented.
I could skim through and get what I needed, and not what I didnt.
Students generally rated the information on the site as easy to find and understand. They noted the value of the links to the online glossary and often identified specific content that was helpful:
The presentation of Berkeley and Lindleys debates, deBarys findings, and Kochs postulate provided an organization that was easy to follow.
Students also commented on the level of detail and its appropriateness for their learning goals:
There was a lot of detail, but you kind of have to get into detail to describe the whole infection process. Good job of choosing what to explain and what to go further into detail on.
An important point here is that students view the Web site as accommodating different learning styles. The incorporation of pictures affords instant visualization and perhaps better understanding. Other comments note that a Web site can go into greater depth and the user can skim to find the information needed.
Learner Control of Pace
When sitting in a traditional lecture, students have little control over the pace. Even if the instructor is perceptive and works at a comfortable pace for the class as a whole, some students would rather move faster or slower. Being able to move through the Web site at ones own pace was generally seen as a positive aspect of the Web-based learning environment. With the Web format, students can reread something they did not quite understand, skip well-understood concepts, and spend more time where needed:
I always prefer web based formats, because I can go at my own pace and review material I didnt understand.
The web format is nice because you are able to take the links to find out the definitions of some terms. It is also self-paced which can make understanding easier.
At times, all the diagrams in class are gone over too quickly for us non-bioaficionados. With the web format, you can really take your time to go through each process in depth. I also really like how the information is broken into small, mini-lessons, instead of one long one.
This subject is something I was interested in during lecture, yet grateful that Dr. DArcy did not go into lengthy detail. It is nice to read it on my own time, and not have to listen to uninterested students sigh all around me.
Another facet of the Web site is the lab activities. Initially, we thought that pace would be less an issue in comparing online labs and traditional labs, since a student can control the pace in either. However, several students also mentioned pace as one of the benefits of online labs:
I think I learned a bit more from this site than I would in a normal lab, though, because you can take things at your own pace and experiment a bit more.
I could take my time and do them whenever I wanted as opposed to working in a lab at set lab hours.
I like the web format better because you can take things at your own pace and spend as much or as little time on any particular part of the lab as you like. This is more beneficial to my style of learning.
By controlling the time of learning, students were also able to control the pace. That is, they could devote a larger block of time and thus extend the learning session. Students also mentioned the opportunity to take time to explore various aspects of the labs online. The could change variables more than once and see the outcomes fairly quickly or redo an experiment to verify their results.
Rich Information Resources
The students who used the PPP site were concurrently enrolled in Plant Pathology 100. Therefore, much of the information presented on the Web site had already been seen and heard during in-class lectures. Many students commented on this redundancy of information. Some looked at the redundancy as helpful for learning; for example:
The lectures help me to review the things I might not have understood completely in class. Sometimes I cant always absorb the information from class right away. The lectures let me look at what I want, and when I have time to.
I remember this information from lecture, but it is an excellent way of reviewing what was said in lecture. It is nice to have them both. If you miss something, hopefully you will probably see it the second time through.
I learned a lot in lecture before I looked up this site. Most of the information was review. One good thing about it was that it better clarifies something I did a bad job of note taking in class.
But some saw the same redundancy as boring and unnecessary, or questioned the value of learning from the Web content:
It would have been more interesting if we were learning about a disease that we did not learn in class. All of the information in this website was already presented to us in our class setting.
It is worth noting here that a factor such as the degree of overlap between the in-class activities and the Web resources had a major effect on students responses, yet it is one that is rarely considered explicitly in evaluations of online courses.
Although students valued the fact that the Web site incorporates graphics, images, sound, video, and interactive elements, they also recognized the importance of comparable multimedia elements in the classroom. In comments supporting an in-class lecture, many students emphasized the personality of the instructor:
This web (site) is a useful tool in studying, but it will never replace a good lecturer. You remember more if the lecturer for example, gets more excited about a subject, or makes a joke, or adds her two cents.
Computers will never replace that, but I think they are an awesome tool. Its just the facts (in a web format lecture). You dont get the extra little stories the teacher adds during the lecture.
Overall they (the lectures) are very interesting, but I am ready for some coffee, now. The computer cant compare with Dr. DArcys enthusiasm.
Its much easier to skip around and miss sometimes important facts when youre going through a Web lecture and sort of zoning out. In traditional lectures, the instructor can keep you interested, and can put clear emphasis on important ideas.
Some praised the Web site even though they still favored in-class lectures:
The detail and informal story-telling quality of this (web format) lecture made it much closer to that of a traditional lecture (at least in plant pathology). Although I still believe that the web format is inferior to a live discussion, this lecture came closer to reaching that status.
I think this website is better than other course websites because it is easy to acquire information and help. Many other websites are not helpful in this area. Also, of all the websites for my classes the lectures and labs in this site are much more informative than any other website that I have accessed.
I think that both lectures are a very effective tool, but I think they work better when used together in a class. The material stated in the lecture is understood better when a student can access that same lecture on the web.
A danger in Web-based learning is that it can relegate the learner to a recipient role. The very richness of the content obscures the fact that most learning grows out of the learners active engagement. Ironically, the traditional lecture, often derided as passive learning, provided for students an opportunity for active involvement through writing. Many students commented on learning by listening and writing versus reading lectures online:
I learn by hearing and seeing. This website is good for review, but as for learning from it without attending lecture, it is a bad idea.
Some of the information is easier to understand when I actually hear it being explained to me instead of just reading it.
I tend to learn much better from hearing the lecture and from my own notes that I take. I am generally not a big fan of web-based learning material, but as sites go, this one was different and definitely more fun and interesting than other class sites Ive had in the past.
Learning Through Dialogue
Several students compared the online lectures with the in-class lectures in terms of the opportunities to interact with an instructor. Students wondered what to do when they had questions on the Web site. With the online lectures, students missed the instructors personalized presentation, which can be modified based on students questions. Their comments recall Platos complaints (in Phaedrus) that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence.
Is there an email address on this page? In lecture I can raise my hand, but what do I do when I have a question here?
It was nice to have the information all written out, but I also like being in the classroom and able to ask questions if I wanted. I like dealing with people, so this is a little strange.
Once again, the web is a useful tool, but I prefer the traditional lecture. I think that without guidance on the web it would be very easy to get hung up on, for example, a diagram, when in class, you can judge the importance by how much time the instructor spends explaining it. You cannot get those clues from a website.
This lecture was informative but if I ever had any questions I would feel that I would be lost in the dark because of not being able to ask a question and get a direct answer.
Opportunities for Inquiry
Students saw the virtual labs as a new way to investigate phenomena:
The web format allows one to get results that would have taken months as quick as a click of the mouse. I had fun!
Its so much easier, quicker, and convenient. The results can be seen in a matter of seconds. Although in a traditional lab, it would be more fun because it is more hands on, but it would just take too much time.
But they did not consider the novel approach to be entirely positive:
Even if it is much quicker and less trouble in this internet lab, it would be difficult to replace the subtle variations in a traditional lab. Also, learning in a traditional lab makes us capable of using different techniques that would be necessary if we liked to try new experiments to find things no one has searched for before.
Many students emphasized the value of having labs that were true opportunities for inquiry, rather than simply being demonstrations:
This lab was interesting because of being able to/experiment/with spreading Dutch elm disease myself. [The students use of the slashes indicates that the experiment is virtual, through the simulation program.]
This lab was a little more interesting than the previous two labs because we are allowed to make our own decision on how we vary temperature and moisture.
It would be interesting to have more [growth] chambers so that we could try all the combinations.
When asked to compare the Web-based and traditional lecture formats on the Web response surveys, the quantitative analysis tells us that the average response was about 3, where 1 is Web format better and 5 is Web format worse. These results indicate that the students saw little overall difference between learning with the site and learning using other modes. But this result needs to be interpreted in light of the many specific differences that individual students identified in their open-ended comments. After analyzing the students comments, we saw that the conclusion of no difference obscures much of the richness of their experience.
Seven main themes emerged in the students comments:
1. The Web allows learner control of information access. Students can experience online labs at any time and from any location. This was usually seen as a good thing, but some saw the negative side that it is easier to skip around on the Web site and miss important ideas, whereas a lecturer can put clear emphasis on them.
2. The Web also provides greater learner control of pace of learning. Students can repeat activities, linger over them, or skip parts they already know.
3. The Web holds rich information resources. Instructors can easily add examples, elaborations, extensions, and qualifications, which cannot be included in other media because of space limitations. This results in redundancy, within the site and between the site and the in-class experiences.
4. Multimedia possibilities are expanded. It is becoming relatively routine now to incorporate video, audio, animations, and a variety of graphical formats. But the personality of the instructor is hard to replicate. The Web site did not replace a good teacher who is excited about the material and adds humor and stories.
5. Rather than being simply readers as they investigate the medium, students can learn through writing as well. They can respond through e-mail and bulletin boards or use Web forms; they can create Web content.
6. Active engagement, which is encouraged through interactive features such as dynamic simulations, online laboratories, and point-and-click interfaces, promises greater opportunities for learners to explore and create. But this also occurs in the classroom when students can write and ask questions.
7. The Web provides opportunities for inquiry and exploring phenomena in depth. Material on the Web is hyperlinked, both within a document to show connections of concepts and between one document and another. A consequence is that learners can more easily move from one idea to another.
These themes provide evidence that the Web site was accomplishing at least some of its goals. They also justified our effort to make the site more supportive of inquiry-based learning. The site design had grown out of an earlier project to produce documentary-style videos, which by themselves would not have allowed opportunities for learner control, inquiry, dialogue, and active engagement.
As the site developed, we learned from student reactions and from our own analyses. We increasingly saw the value in moving the site to become more supportive of an inquiry approach to teaching and learning. We began to modify the labs to allow various modes of investigation, to link to other Web resources, and to provide more dialogue and interaction features.
The site continues to develop in ways that are more compatible with an inquiry view of learning. One change to the lab activities was to add the function of user-directed exploration to the existing option of guided exploration. Another was to implement both student and instructor discussion forums. Yet another was to break with the earlier lecture organization to a more richly hyperlinked structure that supports greater learner control of information access. This has included efforts to connect the material created especially for the course with the far greater, though less organized, resources of the Web.
The Plants, Pathogens, and People project is becoming a community inquiry laboratory (or iLab; Community Inquiry Laboratory, 2004; see also Benson & Bruce, 2001; Bruce & Bishop, 2003) in both a technical sense and a conceptual one. From the technical perspective, we have used the iLabs software to create a PPP Web space (http://inquiry.uiuc.edu/cil/ppp.cil), which is a more flexible system for communication, collaboration, and content management (Schneider, Frete, & Synteta, 2002). More important than the Web space per se is the concept that the site is now a place where members of a community come together to develop shared capacity and work on common problems. Community emphasizes support for collaborative activity and for creating knowledge that is connected to peoples values, history, and lived experiences. Inquiry points to support for open-ended, democratic, participatory engagement. Laboratory indicates a space and resources to bring theory and action together in an experimental and critical manner (Bruce & Bishop, 2003).
SURPRISES IN THE DATA
On the whole, the student ratings and comments were in line with what we expected. Students rated the Web-based course resources as valuable for their learning and a good addition to the course. More specifically, we saw confirmation of the benefits others had seen for the Web as a learning medium. It allowed elaborations and extensions that enhanced the course. Hyperlinks highlighted connections across concepts. The visual and interactive features provided greater opportunities for students to explore and create. But some of the findings were less predictable.
Stories Versus Multimedia
For example, a widely held assumption is that a virtue of face-to-face communication is the ability to tell stories. In contrast, the Web is seen as a medium ideal for animations and images. Considering the two media in that way, a somewhat surprising response appeared. Some students found that the stories on the Web site provided a narrative hook for them:
I thought that the story format of the first few pages, along with the illustrations, made the story of late blight interesting.
Others thought the face-to-face lectures provided the animations and images we often associate with the Web:
Web format a little boring whereas lecture is more animated and has more pictures/slides.
A virtue of a longitudinal study such as this one is that the findings are not dependent on idiosyncratic effects of a particular month, semester, or year. Moreover, we can observe trends in the data over time. One surprise that emerged was that the overall site ratings dropped slightly from semester to semester, even as detailed comments reported more significant benefits to learning. This was a bit disturbing, because we were convinced that the site as a whole was getting better. At a minimum, developers were fixing bugs, improving content, speeding up page load times, and cleaning up the design.
We have two hypotheses about why this effect occurred, if indeed it represents a real trend. One is that over the several years of the working Web site, there has been a major growth in Web use and hence, familiarity with the benefits of a Web site. For example, Nielsen//NetRatings (2002) report 11 hours per month of Web usage in June 2002 for households that had access to the Internet. They estimate that over 166 million Americans now have such access and nearly 105 million use it actively. Other studies cite different figures, but all show a rapid growth in number of users and time spent online. Perhaps the students see the site less as a novelty, and although it has improved, they see it as standing out less among the vast array of sites now available? Or was there an effect in the 1st semester or two of use in which students felt they were pioneers, boldly exploring a new medium?
Greater Interest, but Less Navigable
Several other effects were informative to the site design. For example, in the progression from simple to complex lab activities, students rated all the labs as increasingly more interesting and informative, but also more difficult to navigate. This was especially true for the late blight labs. In those, Lab 1 looks at the effects of temperature and rainfall. In Lab 2, an additional factor of a resistant and susceptible host is added to the experiment, and in Lab 3, the additional factors of fungicides and fungicide-resistant pathogens are added. So there is more to think about in the later labs. The same is true for the Dutch elm disease labs, but to a lesser degree. Thus, there is a tradeoff between navigability and level of interest.
The increasing use of the Internet in every conceivable endeavor suggests that students today need to have opportunities to develop a facility for taking advantage of the richness therein and to cope with the complexities, ambiguities, and general messiness it also presents. That facility can be described simply as the capacity for lifelong learning. Conveniently, not only does the Internet heighten the need, but it also provides a means for developing that capacity. The ample resources, multimedia, hypertext, interactive features, and writing elements for both students and teachers provide a rich environment for inquiry-based learning.
We are continuing to develop the site and the course. In addition to the overall goals of expanding the content and providing more opportunities for inquiry-based learning, we are also interested in seeing how the materials can be used in other settings, including in other college courses, in high schools, in science centers, and by ordinary citizens.
Questions focused on the site as a whole:
1. How many times have you used the Plants, Pathogens, and People site? (choose one) 1. once, 2. two times, 3. three times, 4. four times, 5. five or more visits
2. How would you compare learning with this site to other modes, such as classroom, lecture, lab, or reading a textbook? (choose one) 1. much better . . . 3. about the same . . . 5. much worse
3. How do you evaluate this site? (choose one) 1. better than most course websites . . . 3. average . . . 5. worse
4. How informative was this site? (choose one) 1. very informative . . . 5. very little
5. Would you like to see other sites similar to this one? (choose one) 1. yes, 2. no
6. What one suggestion would you make to improve this site?
7. Are you (choose one) 1. a student in Plants, Pathogens, and People (Univ. of Illinois)? 2. a student in another course? 3. a visitor from the Plants Pathology Internet Guide Book? 4. just browsing?
Questions about the online lectures:
1. Was the information in this lecture (choose one) 1. very interesting . . . 5. boring?
2. Was the information in this lecture (choose one) 1. highly informative . . . 5. nothing new?
3. Was the information in this lecture (choose one) 1. very well organized . . . 5. very disorganized?
4. Was there enough detail? (choose one) 1. not enough . . . 3. just right . . . 5. too much
5. How would you compare what you learned here to what you would have learned in a traditional lecture? (choose one) 1. Web format much better . . . 5. Web format much worse
Questions about the online labs:
1. Do you find this lab to be easy to navigate? (choose one) 1. very easy . . . 5. very difficult
2. Was the information in this lab (choose one) 1. very interesting . . . 5. boring?
3. Was the information in this lab (choose one) 1. highly informative . . . 5. nothing new?
4. Was the information in this lab (choose one) 1. very well organized . . . 5. very disorganized?
5. Were you able to investigate the phenomena? (choose one) 1. thoroughly . . . 5. not very well
6. How would you compare what you learned here to what you would have learned in a traditional lab? (choose one) 1. Web format much better . . . 5. Web format much worse
This research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation under grant no. 9952464 and in part by the University of Illinois through both an Educational Technologies Board Grant and a Course Development Grant. We would like to thank Othman Alothman and Iman Alghazao, then graduate students in the College of Education, for their contributions to the data collection; the UIUC Web Technology Group for their work on the Web site; and Lanny Arvan for helpful comments on an earlier draft.
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