Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences
||A Computer-supported Independent Study Module
||Marketing Academic Group, Middlesex University Business School, The Burroughs,
Hendon, London, NW4 4BT, UK
||+44 (0)181 5819
||+44 (0)181 202 1539
At Middlesex University, a semester-long module in Environmental Monitoring Technologies was introduced in the second semester of the 1994-95 academic year. Because there were too many existing modules, it had to be added to the department's course portfolio as an independent study module. There would be no formal teaching; instead, computer-based work would be a major part of the students' learning experience.
Because of the considerable time needed to create effective tutorial courseware, it was decided not to deliver the module content by computer (for example, by developing interactive tutorial software). Instead, it was decided to present information to students using conventional printed materials, and to help them understand and absorb that material by requiring them to undertake practical exercises on the computer. In other words, the computer would be used for what it is usually best at doing: providing a laboratory for student practical work involving the active exploration of information.
Some two dozen 'study units' were created, each dealing with a clearly-defined topic, each including some essential reading and practical exercises, and each requiring between one and four hours of student time to complete. The laboratory element includes a considerable amount of computer-based image processing, and involves students downloading satellite data using a roof-mounted receiver. The assessment is entirely by coursework, and includes a class presentation and two written reports.
The main learning strategy adopted to encourage active learning was the inclusion of a number of questions in each study unit, and empty 'boxes' in which students were required to provide their observations, interpretations and answers. In order to ensure that they did not skim through the material, students were issued with one study unit at a time by the laboratory technician, and could only get the next unit when all boxes had been satisfactorily completed.
The following lessons can be drawn from running this module over the past five semesters:
- Independent study, supported by computer work, can deliver a number of benefits for students. The main ones reported by our students are flexibility of study (in particular, the ability to fit work on this particular module around other course commitments), and the ability to work at one's own pace. Other advantages reported include: variety in patterns of study across a student's entire course; experience in time management and self motivation; and (for some) a greater enjoyment of the learning process.
- Computers do not have to be used in a tutorial mode in order to provide valuable support for independent study. Indeed, their use for data interpretation and analysis exercises can often provide greater scope for active learning by students.
- A module of this kind, which is based on specialist image processing and GIS facilities, and which requires students to make regular use of computers throughout the semester, could not be run without adequate technician support. Preferably, the technician should have some experience of the subject matter being studied.
- Students can easily feel 'cast adrift' when taking an independent study module, even where there is a supportive laboratory technician on hand. So it is important for the tutor to keep in regular touch with them. However, this requires multiple visits to the computer laboratory because, due to the independent-study nature of the module, there will rarely be more than two or three students working in the laboratory at any one time. Email facilities can also be used to reduce the sense of isolation, but face-to-face contact is also very important.
- A considerable amount of thought must be devoted to providing formative feedback to students as they work through resource materials on an independent study module of this kind. Where computer software is not used to deliver information and check student responses (as in this case), it is essential that some other method be used, to prevent students feeling that they do not know whether they are on the right track. In our case, we were fortunate to have a technician who was expert in the study matter of the module. Elsewhere, module tutors may have to arrange regular meetings with students to go through their completed exercise material with them. A third alternative is for staff to provide individual feedback using email facilities. The underlying problem for us was that the module was implemented on the basis of a minimal allocation of tutor hours, so there was little scope on the work programme for providing regular student feedback. This issue is still the most problematic for independent study modules, particularly where (as in our case) they are introduced as an 'efficient' form of course delivery.
- Students will often work together on their computer-based practical work, despite the label 'independent study'. In general, study collaboration is encouraged, both as a way of mitigating the loneliness factor, and also for improving the learning process. However, it is discouraged during the preparation of assessed work (although this is not very easy to enforce in practice) because our assessment tests individual student understanding of the course material. Although some form of group assessment might be attractive in these circumstances, it can be difficult to implement in an independent study module where students have limited contact with one another. Again, email might be a solution to this particular problem.
- Independent study can expand the choice of modules available to students, and they can usually be offered in both semesters of the teaching year, without a significant increase in teaching hours for staff. However, the up-front cost of developing such modules must be underwritten by the department, the institution, or by a nationally funded project, and the considerable amount of staff time needed to get such modules up and running must be recognised in some way. More importantly, the 'savings' in staff time must not be completely allocated to other activities. In particular, some of the hours freed up by transferring learning to computer-based materials should be allocated to staff so they can communicate regularly with their students during the learning process. The worst form of student independence, which must be avoided at all costs, is that form which is a flimsy camouflage for student aloneness.
Shepherd, I.D.H. (1996) The Self-Study Approach to Course Delivery: developing a computer-supported Geography module, GeoCal, 14, pp.6-9.
Computer based work
This is one of the case studies which appears in the GDN Guide "Teaching and Learning Geography with Information and Communication Technologies"
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