The English Studies Program at the University of Wollongong, with support from staff in the library and Learning Development, has linked together a series of learning support tools for use in their 100-level subjects. These tools - an online research and citation skills assessment task and an essay and quiz writing study guide - harness the world wide web as a means of augmenting and enhancing student learning at an undergraduate level. Each of these tools is flexibly delivered, student centred and curriculum integrated.
This project is part of a broader initiative in the English Studies Program to develop an even more secure support infrastructure for undergraduate students as they approach their assessment tasks, and to guarantee concrete follow-up on assignments early in the students' course of study. The early results of our evaluation and the anecdotal evidence we have received indicates the effectiveness of these projects and their value to our students as they develop generic skills. In addition, the administrative benefits of this project make a significant contribution to an efficient teaching environment.
This paper provides an overview of these tools, explains the rationale behind their design and argues for the very powerful benefits of integrating and implementing them into undergraduate subjects.
While it is tempting to enthusiastically embrace these new technologies and explore their potential for developing whiz-bang teaching and impressive, interactive formats for subject material, it is worth considering the significant warnings that have emerged in the literature on technology in higher education. There is a consistent and considered body of research warning against "the belief that technology is a panacea or that computers are universal change agents" (Privateer, 1999, 62). Indeed, the rapid pace of change that is seeing technological obsolescence shrink further every day, should serve as a constant reminder that the technology should never come first. Indeed, as Miller observes, a reliance on new technologies for teaching does not save money but in fact only adds to the cost of instruction (Miller, 1995, 602). And as anyone who has been involved in the development of flexibly delivered subjects or computer aided learning tools will tell you, the investment of money in these projects is only outweighed by the investment of time. It would and should be sheer madness to invest such valuable time and money into projects whose technological specificity renders them obsolete in the matter of a few years. Indeed, beyond the rationale that technology should not come first, it is vital to remember that sound pedagogical practice must be the driving force behind any adoption of technology for teaching or any adaptation of teaching to accommodate technology.
But those scholars who warn against technological utopianism (Miller, 1995, 601) rarely draw negative conclusions. Instead, this body of research encourages tertiary teachers to recognise that technology is instigating a pedagogical shift. Indeed, much of the case-study research written by teachers who have built technology into their teaching, speaks in terms of 'epiphanies' and 'discovery' (Alley, 1996, 49) as teachers are forced to reflect upon and reevaluate their teaching practice. These feelings speak for the personal experience of countless teachers who have, whether by choice or circumstance, become rigorously self-reflective of their teaching due to the introduction of computer technology in tertiary education. Almost without exception, the literature indicates that the outcome of this reflective teaching is the adoption of teaching philosophies that subscribe to what Barr and Tagg refer to as the 'learning paradigm'. In contrast to the 'instruction paradigm' that they argue has long dominated tertiary education, the learning paradigm is one where the purpose of the teacher, and by inference the institution for which they work, "is not to transfer knowledge but to create environments and experiences that bring students to discover and construct knowledge for themselves, to make students members of communities of learners that make discoveries and solve problems" (Barr and Tagg, 1995, 15). This paradigmatic shift is embodied in current higher education teaching research that promotes and explores teaching practices that develop students' lifelong learning skills in higher education, producing graduates with the appropriate skills and motivation to remain flexible, adaptive and open to continued learning throughout their professional lives.
Lifelong learning as a concept is not new to education, yet its acceptance into the mainstream culture of teaching and the recognition of its role as central to undergraduate education has only become a reality in the last decade. This wider acceptance has been instigated by a number of factors throughout the 1990s. In particular, some important influences have been: the explosion of the information technology industry; the continuing shift to an information society; globalisation, increasing student diversity; and the ongoing demands from the professional sphere to produce flexible and dynamic graduates who can continuously learn, adapt to and participate in a workforce constantly changing as a result of the information age (Candy, 1994, 31-37). As Whitehead (cited in Miller, 1995, 4) argues on this latter point, given the dynamic and ever-changing nature of many professions in the information age, the aim of education should be "mental cultivation" as opposed to "knowledge accumulation", preparing graduates with the skills and motivation to continuously learn and change throughout their professional lives.
This acceptance and recognition of the 'learning paradigm' and the commitment to developing students' lifelong learning skills is evident in the recent shifts in institutional policy in the higher education sector. The University of Wollongong's Learning and Teaching Strategic Plan 1997 - 2005 outlines nine attributes of a University of Wollongong graduate that, for the majority, reflect the principles of lifelong learning skills. Of the nine graduate attributes, at least two encompass information literacy and tertiary literacy skills, both of which are seen as key to the development of students' lifelong learning skills (Candy, 1995; Ewan, 1997) and are the focus of the online tools to be discussed in this paper.
Further, the Strategic Plan provides guidelines and strategies for ensuring that students acquire these skills, thus encouraging teaching practices that make the shift away from traditional modes of delivery towards more flexible, problem-based, developmental and student-centered approaches. Both the Strategic Plan and the Information Literacy Policy clearly indicate that the integration of information and tertiary literacies into subject curriculum is necessary to ensure that students acquire these skills. The validity of this type of curriculum development, involving collaboration between academic staff and learning and teaching developers, has become more visible in Higher Education teaching and learning circles as the most effective and efficient way of providing skills instruction (Merten, Murray & Quinlan, 1995; Skillen et al, 1998; Skillen & Mahoney, 1997).
Beyond the important considerations of self-reflexive teaching and students' development of generic skills and graduate attributes, it is of fundamental importance that teaching and learning tools contribute to skills and knowledges that are of specific relevance to the students' field of inquiry. To this end curriculum integration is the driving force behind the development of these tools. By designing these tools to focus on the research and composition requirements of a specific assessment task, these tools are intricately woven into the content and learning objectives of the subject in which they are used. By moving beyond the limitations of generic or 'bolt on' assistance, these tools are rendered more attractive to and therefore more effective for students by their immediate and obvious relevance. In addition, the technology is chosen for its flexibility, utility and, ultimately, its capacity to realise these teaching and learning objectives. Indeed, this level of curriculum integration is only made possible by the flexibility and automation offered by web based technology. For the students, a web based learning environment offers the important benefits of flexibility in terms of time and space. Students are able to work at their own pace and at a time that suits them, individually or in groups, on campus or from home. The support offered by these tools means that they have the opportunity to focus on their own specific needs, that they can return for further assistance at any time and that they are provided immediate feedback and encouragement.
Thus, the design, development and integration of the Research and Citations Skills Assessment Task, which enhances students' information literacy skills, and the online Study Guide, which is designed to support and enhance students' tertiary literacy skills, embody shifts on three levels. At the pedagogical level, they embody a shift towards the 'learning paradigm' and the promotion of lifelong learning skills; and at the institutional level, they encourage important innovations in meeting the objectives of teaching policy, and provide models for other academics making the shift themselves. At the practical level, they harness the benefits of computer technology without being driven, compromised or limited by it. For the staff in the English Studies Program, the development of these tools provides the opportunity to explore the capacity of educational technologies to offer interactive and student-centered learning environments that augment face-to-face classes, adding value to the students' learning experiences.
The Research and Citation Skills Assessment Task takes the form of a printable worksheet and a multiple-choice quiz that is electronically graded. The test takes the form of a partially-known citation search that uncovers a series of carefully selected secondary resources that are of specific use to students as they prepare to write their essays.
As suggested above this encourages students to adopt a positive learning objective when completing the task as it assists them in realising tangible outcomes that are immediately relevant and useful for other assessment tasks. The task requires students to find and then gather the bibliographic data of four secondary sources. To complete these tasks, students need to make use of the online library catalogue, Journal Search, two electronic databases (one citation only and one full text) and the World Wide Web. Having gathered the bibliographic data, they then need to reconfigure it into a citation that conforms to the required style: in the case of English, the New MLA. Together the individual activities offer students a self-paced tour through library resources, many of which are underused by undergraduate students, and particularly by those in their first year of university study. The user-friendly theme continues in the grading environment where students enter the results recorded on their work sheet into a multiple-choice, electronically graded test. At this point, students have immediate access to their results and are free to check incorrect answers and resubmit the quiz until they achieve a pass mark. The quiz environment deliberately avoids any associations with timed, 'do-or-die' examinations and even encourages students to collaborate in the completion of the task.
The assessment task has been developed in conjunction with staff from the University of Wollongong Library, Jacqui Burchill, Craig Littler, Catriona McGurk and more recently Jenny Maley. This collaboration has ensured that students were exposed to accurate, up-to-date and relevant library research experience and that their activities did not put any unnecessary strain on library resources. As a result of this consultation, students are not required to go outside the normal operating procedures of the library and there is no additional work for library staff. In fact, the kind of assistance that would routinely be available to students from the library information desk is anticipated and built into the worksheets as a series of hints.
These hints have the added benefit of potentially reducing library anxiety in students, particularly high-achieving students who have been found to "perceive asking for help as failure" (Jiao and Onwuegbuzie, 1997, 3; see also Kuhlthau, 1996, and Keefer, 1998). Central to these hints are a number of resources that have been developed in the library to assist undergraduate students in their research, including the user friendly and incredibly comprehensive Online Database Tutorial developed by Craig Littler. These hints are augmented with a regular "Going from here" box that encourages students to continue using the particular tool to conduct further research by altering the keywords and/or varying the Boolean operators. The collaboration also enabled the task to augment usefully the skills learned in the compulsory information literacy exercise (ILIP) which is completed by all new students at the University of Wollongong.
The aim of this type of approach is to ensure that all students attain equitable access to the knowledge and skills required within their discipline, particularly those studying 'off campus', or at a distance. Thus, the development of online and print-based Study Guides for subjects being delivered flexibly has become an important aspect of this service offered to academic staff.
In 1999, Gerry Turcotte, approached Learning Development to discuss issues with the development of students' tertiary literacy skills in a first year subject. A pilot program was trailed in the Spring Session of the same year. This pilot program involved the development of an online Study Guide that provided students with models of student essays that had been annotated to highlight the literacy skills evident in good academic writing. Explanations and further examples also supported these models and annotations. This was supplemental to print-based materials and an essay writing lecture that was given in the lunch hour after the subject lecture, focussing on essay writing skills, models of good examples of their previous essay and planning for their following essay. The attendance was average, but by no means bad, and the interest was enthusiastic. However, it was still not reaching the majority of students, and it was felt that the information should go on the subject website for everyone to access.
The Study Guide had its own icon on the ENGL113 web page where students were expected to access both administrative and content-based information about the subject. However, apart from verbal recommendation there was no infrastructure or guidance for students within the subject to locate and use the Study Guide, and thus, it had little impact on the majority of students within the subject.
Module One: A Guide to Essay Writing in the English Studies Program represents the initial stage of development where students are expected to seek and find the necessary information on the essay writing process. This module was adapted from a print based resource (Pass, 1999) already circulating in the department. An effective resource, it provides students with guidelines on analysing the essay question, developing an argument, using evidence from various sources, presentation requirements, and some basic 'dos and don'ts' of essay writing within the discipline. This module provides generic information on essay writing, but illustrates each stage of the process using a case example from the discipline. By placing the information into such a context, it is intended that the ideas conveyed are made concrete to students (see example Mod1).
Module Two: Example Essays and Feedback on the Assessment Criteria represents the second stage of development where students obtain model examples and explanation and examples of their essay feedback. The Example Essays are student essays annotated to indicate the linguistic and structural features which constitute 'good writing' in this discipline. The Feedback on the Assessment Criteria is linked to the essay marking criteria that provides students with explicit feedback on their strengths and weaknesses. This module's structure mirrors the essay marking criteria; thus when students receive feedback from their first essay, they are directed to the aspects of the Study guide relevant to their needs. It also provides links to other online writing, academic literacy and language tools (see example Mod2-2).
Module Three: Common Errors represents the third stage of development where students seek further information on general skills and common errors. This is a bank of common mistakes that also mirrors the major categories of the marking criteria: Analysis, Argument, Research and Expression. Each of these categories has a number of issues that the lecturer is able to refer students to in the marking process. In essence, it is a module where students can access detailed information on issues such as sentence structure, punctuation and citation.
These skills are by no means limited to students studying English. The potential for this suite of tools to be useful to subjects outside the English Studies Program, and even outside the Faculty, was recognised with the award of a Educational Strategic Development Fund Grant in 2000. As a result of this funding these tools are in the process of adaptation for easy incorporation into first year subjects in other disciplines. To facilitate this adaptation, the tools are being developed into a series of downloadable templates. This encourages other teachers to redeploy, in consultation with Learning Development and Library staff, the sound and effective suite of learning tools into their own subject without having to reinvent the wheel.
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|Contact details: Cath Ellis, University of Wollongong|
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Please cite as: Ellis, C. and Percy, A. (2001). Building online essay writing support tools. In L. Richardson and J. Lidstone (Eds), Flexible Learning for a Flexible Society, 239-250. Proceedings of ASET-HERDSA 2000 Conference, Toowoomba, Qld, 2-5 July 2000. ASET and HERDSA. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/aset-herdsa2000/procs/ellis-c.html