Perspectives on Teaching Geography Through Information and Communication Technology
Robert Bednarz (Texas A&M University, USA), David Rich (Macquarie University, Australia) and Geoffrey Robinson (University of Leicester, UK)
This contribution explores some of the experiences of and issues arising in the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in Geography teaching. It is important not to conflate the use of ICT with inter-institutional collaboration in teaching (whether or not that collaboration is international): the two can and do occur independently of one another. However, the use of ICT can profoundly alter teaching and learning, and can likewise raise new opportunities and issues in collaboration.
The discussion first provides a sketch of uses of ICT in teaching and learning, summarises the potential benefits and canvasses issues that need to be considered. The second section considers inter-institutional collaboration in ICT-based teaching, again reviewing potential benefits and issues. Next, it considers what additional benefits and problems there might be in extending such collaboration to the international level. Finally, the contribution ends by posing some challenging questions about the extent of our knowledge of the impact of ICT on student learning. While our intention is to illuminate the specific case of Geography, discussion attempts to draw on experiences from other disciplines where relevant: discipline-based collaborative networks are potentially very valuable, but we need to be wary of being confined by them.
1 Geography Teaching and ICT
There is a long history of using computers to assist teaching in Geography as in other disciplines, but over the last decade there has been an explosive growth in the range, sophistication, penetration rate and potential implications. This is partly due to the rapid rise in computer power and fall in computing costs and particularly since the rapid emergence of the Internet. It is salutary to note that the World-Wide Web became readily accessible only from 1993 after the appearance of Mosaic, the first big browser, rapidly followed by the transmission of pictures and the founding of Netscape. Some, at least, argue that ICT in general and the Web in particular raise the possibility of fundamentally changing teaching and learning across higher education (e.g. Rich et al, 1997), although so far the impacts are extremely uneven. A challenging task remains to ensure that the technological tail of increasing capacity does not wag the dog of educational need and good pedagogy (Castleford, 1998).
Already, though, there is a wide range of uses, and more are being explored. The Internet can be used by staff to support efficient course administration (e.g., there are many useful tools in delivery platforms such as WebCT) and to assist students to manage their learning. It can assist in achieving many features of flexible delivery, including student choice in the time, place and pace of study. While often-important motivations, these dimensions are not explored further. Instead, we emphasise the use of the Internet to support a variety of teaching and learning tasks, including:
- Distributing information that could be conveyed in other ways: e.g., a course syllabus is available electronically instead of on paper, or photos appear on a website instead of being shown in class;
- Giving access to information storehouses: e.g., the Internet can be used as an online library giving access to information sources and databases. (The CTIGGM website has a GeoInformation Gateway that links to many useful sources - see also CTIGGM, 1999. A US site Electronic Resources for Geography is another frequently updated large set of categorised resources about geography);
- Providing alternative means of communication (e.g., email, bulletin boards, chat rooms, desktop videoconferencing) for both administrative and instructional purposes;
- Delivering formative and summative assessment tasks: this is a rapidly growing field in the UK. (The commercial product QuestionMark has wide usage, being the chosen package in perhaps two-thirds of all those Higher Education Institutions that are using Computer Aided Assessment. Developed primarily as a Windows-based version, their relatively new product Perception is Web based. Many non-commercial development projects have received central funding: e.g. Castle whose struggle to advance its generic package to the functional level of the commercial product exemplifies the cost and effectiveness issues faced when adopting a particular suite of software; others have been custom made for particular disciplines, e.g. the multi-institutional Triads project, largely devoted to the Earth Sciences);
- Supporting online course and staff evaluation exercises;
- Delivering materials in multiple media that would be difficult to transmit by other means: e.g., a text explanation can be supplemented with pictures, sounds, video clips, links to other sites, simulations. (CD-ROMs are widely used for storing and distributing large data sets of numerical, graphical or cartographic information: for example, Wilson et al's (1993) AusWatch which provides satellite imagery and other data to assist the study of landcover change);
- Giving students active, hands-on, interactive experience in analysing information or solving problems: e.g., a student acquires data, processes it, makes a map, and develops a presentation. (An excellent example, available on CD-ROM, is Exploring the Nardoo (University of Wollongong, 1996), a virtual inland river environment where research questions can be explored and environmental management strategies simulated);
- Allowing students to work collaboratively (e.g., students at different universities work on a common research problem). A well-developed example is the 'Middle East Politics Simulation' developed at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, wherein students participate in role-playing exercises conducted using the Internet or by videoconferencing. Groups of Political Science students in Australia, New Zealand and the United States play the role of prominent leaders in the Middle East, USA or Europe, attempting to resolve a specific political, social, economic or environmental issue, after carrying out research to identify the background, interests and agenda of their particular character. In other cases, the simulation has been modified to involve scenario building between groups of Political and Environmental Science students, for example in exploring conflicts over water allocation in the Middle East. For discussions, see Alexander & Blight (1996, pp. 23-26); Alexander et al (1998).
Broadly, the Internet has been used most commonly for tasks 1 and 2, although there are numerous examples of types 3, 4 and 5. The real challenge is to undertake tasks 6, 7 and 8 effectively, so that the real potential of the technology may be exploited.
1.2 Potential Benefits
- Resource savings are possible in some circumstances: automating repetitive, labour-intensive activities such as skills training can save staff time; use of email for staff-student contact (especially on administrative matters) can save student time (in finding busy academics), allow staff to manage contacts (dealing with messages at less-busy times) and allow broadcasts of urgent messages or new information; virtual field trips (e.g. the Bosnia Virtual Field Trip) can offer improved preparation before real field visits, allowing them to be shorter and produce the same or greater benefits, or can provide a partial substitute for them. (CTIGGM's GeoInformation Gateway links with several virtual field trips, including West's exemplary personal directory, and there are many projects developing virtual field courses, including The Virtual Field Course.)
- Access to an enhanced range of information resources: compared with a conventional library, an online virtual library offers timeliness (constant updating of information), multiplicity (many users can access a resource simultaneously) and variety/balance (multiple web sites can be used to represent contrasting views e.g. on an environmental issue).
- Redevelopment of courses to make extensive use of ICT often encourages a more explicit attention to good pedagogy, although (perhaps unfortunately) it does not require it.
- Use of ICT can facilitate enhanced student learning, by supporting and encouraging the adoption of contemporary good practice: e.g.
- Asynchronous virtual/online tutorials can produce educational benefits quite different from conventional tutorials and for different groups: there is evidence that they benefit less assertive or more reflective students, facilitate deeper interaction and generate active participation by student groups marginalised by other methods (e.g. Harasim et al, 1995).
- Electronic communications can support enhanced collaborative learning (Johnson & Johnson, 1996).
Increased use of ICT in teaching and learning also raises a wide variety of issues - technical, pedagogic, industrial, financial and strategic. For example:
- Effective use of ICT on any significant scale requires new teaching methods, and a generally greater awareness of good practice: simply 'putting my course on the web' is not enough - and often proves disappointing to both staff and students.
- It often requires a further breakdown of the traditional 'private' nature of teaching (this is already changing for other reasons), which is stressful for some staff.
- There is a need for much more active staff-development programs, especially in the face of the profound lack of knowledge of good pedagogy (let alone the issues raised by new technologies) amongst most academics.
- There is a need for much greater teaching support (and/or a wider range of non-teaching skills from the staff), e.g. technical support, web developers, etc.
- Substantial investment may be required in hardware and software.
- Some types of courseware are expensive to develop (though many facilities such as email and bulletin boards can be implemented cheaply).
- Substantial reworking of capital and recurrent budgets is therefore likely to be necessary.
- There may well be a need for student training programs and help-desk facilities.
- There are access and equity issues for students: e.g. are some groups marginalised by the reliance on expensive technology?
- Rewards and incentives to encourage staff to invest substantial time and effort to initial developments: appointment and promotion processes need to give more emphasis to teaching than has been traditional in many universities/systems.
- Copyright: many practices accepted with older media (especially print) are unacceptable or illegal in a digital environment. There may be greater expense or inconvenience in securing copyright clearance or some resources may simply not be available; international differences in law can make life very difficult with a global technology such as the Internet; perhaps the biggest problem is the real uncertainty about many aspects to the law.
- Intellectual property and moral rights: who owns teaching materials developed for a class? what rights do the originators have, even if materials are owned by institutions?
- How can teaching loads be equitably managed, especially when there is unequal involvement in ICT-based teaching, or given the greater capital investment of time often required?
- How can a critical awareness of the impact of ICT on teaching and of the 'message' contained in ICT-based resources be inculcated (see O'Tuathail and McCormack, 1998)?
- There is also a range of strategic issues for university executives and departmental heads: e.g. how can resources be best deployed? can program-level developments be achieved, rather than the isolated beacons of good practice resulting from the efforts of individual enthusiastic innovators and early adopters? might there be competitive advantages for some departments in resisting the incursions of ICT?
2 Inter-institutional Collaboration in ICT-based Geography Teaching
2.1 What Does Collaboration Involve?
There is a range of possibilities, including:
- Formal and informal networking to share ideas, information and experiences.
- Joint development of teaching resources (e.g. GeographyCal). Reciprocal development and use of resources: department X develops a module in A, department Y develops module B, and they each agree to make it available to the other.
- Student interaction across departments, e.g. joint field trips, joint investigation of a particular issue, designed to improve educational outcomes.
- Shared courses, e.g. a staff member teaches a course in two or more departments, perhaps simultaneously, e.g. because of a lack of appropriate expertise in one of them.
- Buying in material for all or part of a course, though perhaps with local tutorial support (exemplified by widespread use of NCGIA materials).
- Developing an index, database or clearing house of teaching-and-learning resources (e.g., CTIGGM, GDN, UniServe Science Geography, Robinson & Castleford, 1996).
2.2 Potential Benefits
There are many reasons for developing inter-institutional collaboration in teaching and learning, and many potential benefits. These include:
- Improved solutions to educational problems: many issues and problems transcend departmental and institutional boundaries, and appropriate solutions may be found more readily by bringing together people with different perspectives and experience.
- Cumulative development of good practice: instead of every staff member or department 'reinventing the wheel', we can learn from the mistakes and successes of others in developing new pedagogic practices and technical methods.
- Enhanced educational experiences and learning outcomes: for example, student interaction with others from different backgrounds and perspectives can be challenging and constructive; resource material developed across several institutional or sub-disciplinary environments may be much richer than that developed purely 'in-house'.
- Wider curriculum: by drawing on learning resources, expertise or whole courses developed elsewhere, it is possible for departments to offer a broader curriculum than might be possible from their own staff resources.
- Maintain academically viable programs: by sharing learning resources, staff or courses across several departments, it may be possible to maintain high-quality academic programs offering adequate diversity and program choices when small enrolments and high costs might make this otherwise difficult; in extreme cases, this might offer the prospect of small, threatened departments surviving.
- Shared capital costs: given the costs of developing some forms of ICT-based teaching, especially the more complex multimedia packages, the ability to amortise development costs across a larger student body provided by several departments is potentially critical in assessing the economic viability of a project.
- Peer networks: a key foundation for continued successful collaboration on any scale is the development of peer networks to support the exchange of ideas and information. Geography is relatively well served in this respect in Britain and to a perhaps lesser extent in the USA; experience in Australia is somewhat less satisfactory. Development of such networks is a slow, sometimes unrewarding process.
- Peer collaboration: observation suggests that most successful collaborative development of courses or learning materials is based on close cooperation between academic and support staff involved in the project at the planning and operational levels (see Robinson et al, 1998). Few collaborative development projects (as opposed to those where one party agrees to buy resources from another) succeed when there is an attempt to 'impose' collaboration top-down.
- Institutional structures: while the driving force for collaboration is often at the grassroots level, appropriate supporting institutional arrangements are crucial. For example, will departments as a whole overcome the 'not invented here' syndrome and accept resources and ideas from outside? Will collaborative projects be institutionalised within departmental structures, or will they be left essentially marginal to mainstream activities, and thus doomed to probable failure? Will faculties and universities provide necessary funding, and agree to recognise resource materials and courses developed elsewhere?
- Project management arrangements: development projects require carefully developed and agreed timelines, outcomes, budgets and management structures, without which collaborations are likely to founder. This is even more necessary to ensure the successful completion of collaborative projects, and to avoid potentially serious disagreements.
- Ownership of resources: resources and courses developed within one institution are governed by that institution's policy on intellectual property rights (though such policy is in many places unsatisfactory). Added complexities arise in negotiating the ownership of resources developed across several institutions, particularly when funding comes from yet another party and perhaps carries specific implications for product ownership.
- Maintenance of learning resources and courses: while it is often feasible to secure funds to develop new ICT-based learning resources, it is in many cases crucial to develop arrangements to staff and fund ongoing maintenance and updating. There are many cases of where high-quality resources gradually decline in value because these arrangements are not in place.
- Recognition/rewards: teaching excellence and innovation still tend to be less well-rewarded than research contributions (Jenkins, 1997). Collaborative work is often regarded less favourably than individual efforts, except perhaps when individual contributions can be very clearly identified. More generally, there need to be much more active mechanisms for encouraging and rewarding teaching contributions of all kinds, as recognised by initiatives stemming from the recent UK National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (Dearing, 1997) and its Australian counterpart, the 'West Report' (Higher Education Financing and Policy Review Committee, 1997). Of particular note is the Higher Education Funding Council for England's establishment, after extensive consultation (HEFCE, 1998) of the Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund (TQEF), to reward achieved excellence and to support the development and enhancement of learning and teaching.
- Technical standards: while it is easy to prepare a simple web page, there are numerous issues to consider with respect to compliance with approved html standards, browser requirements, download times, use of plug-ins, disabilities standards and the like. Equally, there are broader issues with respect to meta-tagging (to facilitate searching and identification of relevant electronic resources) and a whole variety of higher-level technical standards. While individual courses may successfully operate without adhering to such standards and guidelines, compliance becomes critical as collaboration and re-use become more important. Currently, probably the major endeavour in this regard is the US-based international Instructional Management Systems (IMS) project initiated by EDUCAUSE. A related development in the UK, as part of an electronic-library project, is the establishment of a network of subject-based information gateways (JISC, 1998). The initiative aims to set meta standards and interoperability over all disciplines. The initial proposal referred to comparable developments in Australia as well as Europe and USA, and writes of mirroring on common standards to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort. Although not directly aimed at teaching and learning the project is dealing with similar issues of library and data resources and could well become a model for international as well as national collaborations.
3 Towards International Collaboration
3.1 What Might International Collaboration Involve?
Many of the potential forms of and mechanisms to achieve collaboration remain the same whether it occurs internationally or within national boundaries, although some of the impediments may be more substantial and the issues arising more complex. In an international context, some modes of collaboration do appear to be especially attractive:
- Development of formal and informal networks to distribute ideas and information on good educational and technical practice. A useful example is the discussion "Learning strategies then and now: same or different?" moderated by David Merrill, at the IFETS web site, a forum that aims to bring together the developers of educational systems, and the educators who implement and manage such systems.
- Cross-cultural teaching and learning: ICT can underpin rich communication among staff and students from all parts of the world, through the speedy exchange of text, sound, pictures and video, supporting the exchange of ideas and information but, perhaps more importantly, providing access to alternative perspectives and viewpoints that may challenge beliefs that are unchallenged in a domestic environment. Already, there are some successful projects that involve international role playing in real-time, which are popular and effective pedagogic tools, as exemplified by the Middle East Simulation referred to in Section 1.1.
- Cross-cultural research may be easier to undertake, in an era of tightening funds for international travel, when colleagues in different countries are able to share electronic resources, ideas, data and results almost instantly. Given the widely claimed links between research and teaching, such research may well enhance the researcher's teaching programs.
- A potent form of collaboration, already extensively used, involves allowing students from one country to study in another - for a term, semester or year - and to receive credit towards their degree in the home university. Such arrangements can bring huge educational and personal benefits to those involved. One possible ICT-based extension might be to encourage individuals from the same home institution to communicate electronically during their studies abroad, perhaps reflecting on their ongoing experiences and engaging in some form of collaborative learning enterprise.
- Development of learning resources: there are often substantial barriers to the adoption of course materials of any kind developed in another country, and these may well be serious impediments to the successful collaborative development and adoption of resources across international boundaries. However, there do seem to be some prospects of joint development of resources that actively exploit some of these apparent impediments - for example, the different perspectives, cultural expectations or scientific understandings - to provide enriched and deeper understanding. Effectively, projects that ignore such problems will fail, while those celebrating and exploiting them may tap a rich vein of potential educational returns.
3.2 Potential Benefits
The greatest benefits of international collaboration appear to lie in two broad areas:
- Cumulative improvement of teaching methods: the ability to build collectively on individual and shared experiences in developing new approaches to teaching and learning is enhanced with larger, international peer networks.
- Enhancement of education: most importantly, exposure of students to cross-cultural perspectives, particularly through the creative use of ICT-based communications, can substantially enrich students' awareness and understanding, and willingness constructively to challenge viewpoints that are commonly taken for granted in their home environment.
Many of the issues to be confronted parallel those raised in domestic cooperation. However, there are some additional matters, or new twists, to be considered:
- Differing legal environments: both copyright and intellectual property regimes differ internationally, and account needs to be taken of this in developing and sharing course material.
- Funding: if collaboration can occur with little or minimal cost, international cooperation can and does occur. However, there are few mechanisms available to support projects requiring significant spending; in fact, some funding agencies actively discourage international ventures.
- Language: English is currently the preferred language of the Internet, but language differences are certainly an impediment to some potential collaborations.
- Intellectual dependence: traditional instructional materials have most commonly emanated from a small number of nations, and have been used with greater or lesser difficulty in different contexts. There remain significant challenges in ensuring that ICT-based collaboration is sensitive to cultural differences, and draws on the intellectual resources of all parties, rather than repeating a neo-colonial pattern of intellectual dominance and dependence.
Perhaps the most important reflections concern the general paucity of educational and pedagogical underpinnings of the developments made in the use of ICT to teach Geography.
There are any number of evaluations of using ICT in learning situations (e.g. Castleford & Robinson, 1998) and the MCLI site provides more than 675 (and growing) generic examples of teaching and learning on the web. But, just like itself, the Internet's use in teaching and learning is anarchic and informed by very little in the way of pedagogic guidelines based on research into its effectiveness:
- Does technology make a difference in student learning? It is very difficult to find convincing evidence and Clark (1994) went so far as to state that technology has no effect. To make his point, he proposed a 'replaceability test'. In essence, he asserted that virtually any effect on learning attributed to a specific technology can be produced by other technologies or media so that the effect must be the result of the instructional method or technique, not the technology per se. He did allow that some media or technologies are much more efficient than others in delivering content.
- Can we isolate the effect of technology? From Clark's rather narrow view of things, his argument might have been defensible in the past. Today, however, the computer has capabilities that cannot be 'replaced' by those of other technologies. Whether or not Clark is correct, however, evidence concerning the impact of technology on learning is hard to find. One of the problems that bedevils many research designs is the difficulty of isolating the effect of the technology. As Kozma (1994, p11) wrote in reply to Clark, "In a good design, media and methods are inexorably confounded". Other researchers have also pointed out that when instructors introduce technology, they often restructure their course, making it difficult to attribute changes in student accomplishment to the technology. Indeed, arguably, a real benefit of the process of introducing ICT is that those involved are often challenged by a whole series of additional questions relating to, for example, the explicit identification of different learning styles, desired learning outcomes and a range of issues associated with good pedagogy. Such matters have not always been adequately confronted in a higher-education system where teaching has been a rather insular process carried out by untrained teachers. On these grounds, perhaps, any substantial change - whether or not ICT-based - including learning to collaborate effectively in teaching development and delivery may bring worthwhile benefits.
- Can basic research in education/learning guide good practice in ICT? There is little in the way of guidance, especially with respect to the Internet and WWW, about what techniques are best suited to convey various types of content or to perform various instructional tasks. Two attempts are noteworthy. Jonassen et al (1997) argues that the multi-media, non-linear approach facilitated by the Web fits well with the cognitive flexibility approach and reports on a couple of successful applications. (Exploring the Nardoo, referred to in Section 1.1, is a good example of this approach.) In an earlier work Park & Hannafin (1993) try to develop a framework linking psychological research findings to pedagogical foundations and technological principles. The product of this effort is 20 "principles and implications for the design of interactive multimedia."
- How do students actually use ICT media in their learning? This should be a fertile field of work into the needs of students and how these can be catered for in a learning environment. Goodyear (1998) explores the pedagogical and educational implications of the learning-environment approach in a seminal paper that reviews 40 years or so of ICT developments in the UK. This could provide a generic springboard for subject-based international collaborative research.
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