Educators take an interactive approach

Two entrants made the cut in this years' Computerworld Excellence Awards Use of IT in Education (Tertiary and Commercial) category

Better than a lecture — that was the verdict of 42 students when asked about the PC-based training package being used in an international marketing course at the University of Waikato.

The self-paced course was produced using the Ectus interactive media framework, which grew out of the university's own research. The university is one of the two finalists in our Computerworld Excellence Awards' Use of IT in Education (Tertiary and Commercial) awards, along with Rapid Results, which also runs an interactive, PC-based course, but for commercial training.

The popularity of some university courses has resulted in lecturing resources being over-stretched. This has seen graduate teaching practice "degenerate" from the desired small interactive group discussion to “large lecture theatre ‘sage-on-the-stage’ performances [and] passive data transmission,” says Waikato University in its entry.

Part of the university's answer to the problem is being provided by using PC-based, self-paced education based on Ectus, its internally-developed interactive framework. This combines videoconferencing and a video and slide lecture presentation. It also includes what is called “asynchronous collaboration” capability, meaning students can engage in discussion by posting messages to the system without having to be there at the same time.

The results of this style of teaching have also been measured exhaustively, using student surveys and objective measurement of student interaction with the material, including the frequency of message posting.

“All participants engaged in online conversation (some to a greater extent than others), creating a range of ongoing discussions, including a number of special interest discussion threads which would not have occurred at all in the [live] context,” says the university.

Students rated the course highly for its opportunity to interact with one another and with the lecturer. Topping their list of course pluses was its flexibility when it came to the times they could engage in learning. The interface is complex, but a live introductory instruction session helps overcome this problem, says the university.

There has been some conflict with existing technology as the university uses RealPlayer as its campus-wide streaming solution. Because of this, and for various other institutional and technical reasons, the interactive lectures don't fully exploit the potential of Ectus and offer streaming video only in the RealVideo format. This means students without RealPlayer on their home computer have to install the necessary software first. However, students have still been positive about the Ectus-based courses.

“Not only did the introduction of a new delivery platform reverse a distinctly negative impression of the summer school graduate course, it was also overwhelmingly approved of by the students who participated in the course. The student recommendation was that this form of delivery should replace traditional lecture delivery by a vote of 42 in favour, three opposed,” says the university.

The second finalist, Rapid Results, has also developed interactive, PC-based instruction material, but for commercial training. The Rapid Results course has also been designed to address the problem of the limits of classroom instruction — these being, in this case, the limits of in-house training resources and the small amount of time staff can afford to be away from their jobs.

The Auckland-based company has devised a number of course modules for contact centre staff, some dealing with skills needed specifically in the workplace and others more general life skills. The aim was to reproduce classroom courses run by the Electrotechnology Training Organisation (ETITO).

“This training delivery-style helps the student to understand a principle, check the knowledge and practise it, as well as apply [to] it to their own working environment,” says Rapid Results' general manager, Derek Good.

A platform from was chosen to build the courses because of the variety of modes of interaction provided. These include pop-ups and mouse-over-icon changes. The system was christened iContact.

A survey at the close of each training module is also included with the courses to sample students' reactions. This has helped Rapid Results provide the platform provider with feedback, allowing the latter to enhance its system. Rapid Results ran a beta test site for four months with 20 organisations, both to get feedback and to test the robustness of the system.

Although the system works well in the view of trainees, “a certain level of apathy in the New Zealand market has meant a slower than expected take-up rate,” Good says. "[But] we have companies using the system [and] expect it to grow rapidly.”

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