This paper examines the questions teachers can consider and the decisions they can make when planning web-based instruction. This examination of the planning process focuses on pedagogical considerations, which range from identifying teaching objectives and anticipating how using the web will affect learning to implementing web applications to best suit students needs. A description of the considerations taken into account during the planning and development of an online peer review system is used as a case study to illustrate the planning process.
When the World Wide Web is introduced into an educational context, it changes the learning process. This change may occur in the structure and/or focus of learning, in the interaction between participants, in the nature of the content and in the roles of learners and teachers. Khan (1998) provides a comprehensive list of features of web-based instruction and their potential benefits. However the challenge of planning web-based teaching is that many of these features also have potential drawbacks. For example, if students conduct research on a given topic via the web rather than in a library, they may come across information that is strongly biased or simply inaccurate. Without guidance, inexperienced students may take the information at face value and gain an erroneous impression of the subject. The same features of the web–the unreliability of information and the abundance of diverse points of view–could be used as an advantage, with learners identifying and evaluating disparate opinions and thus developing their critical thinking skills. The key to success in web-based teaching often lies in the planning stages, when teachers can anticipate the changes that could occur in the learning process and then decide how to best take advantage of the potential benefits associated with these changes while minimising the drawbacks.
This paper reports on the decisions made during the planning stages of a web-based learning project–an online peer review system in a creative writing course. The considerations described cover the entire planning process from the initial review of teaching objectives to the design of the site itself. The success of the system in meeting the learning objectives is evaluated and further issues that arose during the course concerning the use of the web are examined.
1.1 Description of the course
Creative Writing, LS1885, is an English language elective offered to students in the College of Higher Vocational Studies at City University of Hong Kong. The course is intended for ESL students who have not formally studied literature or creative writing in any language at any time in their education. This paper focuses on the 1999-2000 academic year, in which 34 students completed the course. The duration of the course was one semester (14 weeks), with a one-hour lecture and a two-hour tutorial held each week.
1.2 Logistical considerations
This paper mainly deals with the pedagogical considerations regarding how using the web affects the learning process. Logistical considerations, however, are also of great importance when planning web-based teaching. These include what the teacher needs to do to get the site up and running, maintain it, monitor its use and deal with copyright issues. Whether teachers have access to technical support can be an important factor in determining what can be accomplished. One option for teachers is to apply for a grant with which to employ the necessary technical staff. Ken Keobke’s Lotus and Rose site was created in such a manner.
As developing web-based materials often involves a considerable investment of time, teachers should carefully consider how much time they can spare and how long they will be responsible for a given course before committing themselves to a web-based learning project.
The LS1185 site was designed and created by the course coordinator (the author of this paper), with staff from the Web Teaching Support Services (WTSS) team of City University of Hong Kong providing assistance by creating an account with the courseware provider, registering students and arranging for a student helper to develop an interactive story programme.
1.3 Pedagogical considerations
A creative writing course designed to motivate students by offering challenging tasks, as LS1185 is, would differ greatly in terms of content, types of activity and feedback from one that is set up to reduce anxiety by creating a comfortable learning environment. Differences would also apply to the way the web is used in the course. If teachers are aware of their aims and goals, they may better able to make planning decisions based on the following considerations.
Identifying potential for web-based learning
During the initial planning stages, the main question teachers should ask themselves is how using the web will enrich student learning. This can be done by considering how using the web would alter the learning process and by evaluating the potential advantages and disadvantages of this change with reference to the teaching aims and objectives.
Regarding LS1185, the peer review and feedback component of the course was identified as one major area that could possibly benefit from a web-based approach. When the course ran in the previous academic year (1998-1999), students had been asked to distribute copies of their drafts to members of their peer review group (either via e-mail or by hand), write comments on the works written by the other group members and then discuss these comments in greater detail in class. Based on the comments received during this feedback session, students would try to improve their own compositions. The objectives of using this peer feedback system were:
- to help students improve their creative writing techniques,
- to help students improve their English language speaking and writing skills through the use of the target language,
- to ensure that students have a particular readership in mind when they write (in this case, their peer reviewers),
- to improve students interpersonal and critical thinking skills as they learn to give constructive comments and also respond appropriately to suggestions made by their peers.
Students often did not give comments to their peers in a timely manner, sometimes not until after the final drafts had been submitted. Moreover, students appeared reluctant to comment on each other’s work face-to-face. In their peer review comments, the students tended to state only what they had liked, avoiding both explicit criticism and constructive suggestion. Another weakness involved the language used for discussions, with spoken comments often being given in Cantonese when the tutor was perceived to be out of earshot.
The benefits and disadvantages of using the web for the peer feedback were considered with regard to the following aspects of communication:
Lack of a shared physical space
With online communication, the comments would most likely be written to someone who is not nearby, thus making it possible to avoid the confrontational and potentially embarrassing aspects of face-to-face critiquing. However, students would get fewer opportunities to speak in the target language and to develop their interpersonal skills in the context of face-to-face communication. Another potential drawback would be the absence of non-verbal clues (e.g., intonation and facial expressions), which could increase the chance of misunderstandings. Emotion in written web-based communication is limited to using explicit statements or, more typically, emoticons (symbols used to represent facial expressions). In addition, removing the communication from the classroom could motivate students by making the communication more accessible and spontaneous and, because students need to set aside their own time, by giving it a sense of greater importance (Hexel, de Marcellus and Bernoulli, 1998).
That it generally takes longer to write than to speak could be a benefit in that it could lead to students making more carefully considered comments. A possible drawback is that it would simply take students more time to complete the task. With electronic bulletin board forums, there is also a delay between the time messages are posted and the time they are received. Hammond (1999) points out that the inability of participants to interrupt bulletin board messages can be a benefit in that students can express themselves without fear of being cut off, and a drawback in that it does not allow them to interrupt others (e.g., to clarify a misunderstanding).
Directness of tone
The very direct writing approach commonly found in messages posted in chatrooms and electronic bulletin board forums, could encourage a franker discussion of views, though there could be an increased risk of students writing inflammatory comments.
Comments posted on the web can be saved and stored. Students would have the convenience of being able to refer to previous correspondence at any time. As Gray (2000) notes, online writing workshops “accumulate wisdom . . . , [whereas] face to face events have to be reinvented each time.” In addition, having work posted online is a form of publishing. The knowledge that others can read their work can give writers a greater sense of authorship (and an increased awareness for who they are writing for). Having the comments online would also make it easier for the tutors to assess participation in the peer review process. One possible drawback of this permanence, as noted by Hammond (1999), would be the possible embarrassment of having mistakes on view for long periods of time.
Levels of privacy
Using the web, participants’ comments could be monitored without the intrusion of someone standing nearby. As well, the level of privacy can be easily controlled from only permitting one-on-one communication to allowing all students to view each other’s comments. The web also offers the chance for participants to communicate anonymously, which could encourage participants to be frank in their comments, but which could also lead to an increased risk of students posting antagonistic messages.
Using the web would encourage the students to restrict their communication to English, as many find typing English words easier than typing Chinese characters. In addition, the students’ awareness that their online comments could be saved and assessed by the tutor would also promote the use of the target language.
The above anticipated benefits and drawbacks were evaluated with reference to the objectives for using the peer review system. It was thought that using a web-based approach could lead to franker, more meaningful and ultimately more helpful discussions that would help students develop their creative writing skills. The opportunity to practise using English overall would likely increase but with fewer opportunities for speaking. As other tutorial tasks in the course involved group discussion activities, the decrease in speaking practice was not considered a serious drawback.
Once concern involved the objective relating to interpersonal skills. As almost all of the students on the course would be doing creative writing for the first time and would have had very little, if any, experience with peer feedback approaches, the danger of damage to the students’ self-esteem by careless or disrespectful online comments was a drawback that was carefully considered.
Another area of concern was whether the students would participate actively. As Hammond (1999) points out: “online participation is problematic because there is a significant threshold in terms of confidence and technical competence to cross before many learners take part” (p.365), particularly among those students that he identifies as being either quiet learners or non-participants.
Though a number of potential drawbacks with using the web were identified, it was thought that the advantages would outweigh the disadvantages and that the peer review process was one element of the course that would benefit from a web-based approach if the interaction amongst students was carefully monitored and attempts were made to promote participation.
2. The planning process
2.1 Exploring possibilities
Teachers should be aware of the many possibilities for incorporating web-based learning into their courses that already exist. They can refer to published research and they can explore sites with similar educational objectives to see what is being already being done by their peers. They can also consider whether applications used for other types of sites can be adapted for their purposes. For example, a programme for calculating virtual investments could be used in a business course or as part of a simulation in an English course. Teachers can also take advantage of the expertise around them: colleagues who are already using the web in their teaching, computer support staff (if available) and students. Teachers can decide whether the relevant web-based applications could be used or adapted for their own purposes. Ideally, teachers should try out the potentially useful applications to identify possible strengths and weaknesses.
Before the start of the course, the course coordinator had already participated in an online peer review system using an electronic bulletin board forum. The forum was started by the moderator, Lawrence Gray, in 1997 as part of the The Hong Kong Writer’s Circle workshop. This bulletin board forum now operates as part of the Dimsum magazine site with a change of URL and software.
After personal experience with the system and discussions with other participants, it was observed that the messages from reviewers were polite without exception. Though there was often some annoyance at being criticised or misunderstood, the comments and suggestions proved to be useful at helping one’s writing skills improve.
To encourage participants in the workshop to submit reviews, writers were required to submit three peer reviews before being allowed to post one of their own works for others to comment on. One minor problem regarding the Writer’s Circle bulletin board programme was that it was difficult to post poetry as the programme ignored single line breaks.
The Hong Kong Writer’s Circle site used a form system for posting reviews in which comments were divided into categories (e.g., originality, style, characterisation). The reviewers tended to take a flexible approach, focusing on one or two categories for each review while saying very little about other aspects. Thus, it was decided that the use of CGI- scripted forms would not be necessary for the LS1185 system.
After consultations with staff of the Web Teaching Support Services (WTSS) at City University of Hong Kong, it was decided that the bulletin board system offered by the WebCT courseware system could be used because it allows great control over levels of privacy and forum groupings. It also allows poetry to be posted with the intended line breaks (providing that the ‘don’t wrap’ function is selected before the message is posted).
The WebCT platform also offered tracking and search functions that would allow the tutors to monitor student participation and compile the entries posted by individual students. In addition, as the service would be covered by the university’s contract with the courseware provider, there would be no additional costs.
Another option would have been to use a computer conferencing system, or online chatroom, in which communication is conducted in real time. For a discussion of the benefits of such systems, refer to Trentin (1998). It was felt, however, that an asynchronous approach would give the students greater flexibility. As Lee (1999) notes, this approach would allow students to participate at their own pace.
2.2 Profiling students
When planning how to incorporate web-based learning into course, teachers need to consider the end-user, the students, in terms of:
- The total number of students,
- Their age and level of maturity,
- Their experience using computers,
- Their attitudes toward computers and technology, studies in general and the specific content of the course,
- Their field of study (i.e., whether the course an out-of-discipline elective, a language requirement, a core course, etc.).
As the participants in the creative writing course would most likely be second and third year diploma level students at an institution where most first year courses require at least basic word-processing skills and where vital information such as course grades are distributed via e-mail, it was assumed that most students would have had computer experience. However, many of the students would not have had experience using the WebCT system. Therefore, it was decided to hold part of the first tutorial in a computer laboratory so that students could gain hands-on experience using the software.
Because the cohort was relatively small for a college course, it was thought that problems using the online peer review system or problems with the content or tone of the posted comments could be handled by speaking to individual students. As the course was an elective, it was expected that most students would have an interest in the subject matter, and would consequently be more willing to take on the extra workload created by using the computer frequently to write and post comments.
2.3 Determining the role of web-based learning
The teacher also needs to consider how important the use of the web will be to the course as a whole and how it will be integrated with the usual day-to-day learning.
If the web is to be an essential element, the course may be either completely web-based or fully integrated with the classroom learning.
If the importance of the web in the course is deemed to be somewhere on the continuum from peripheral to important, web-based learning can complement (e.g., pre-teaching preparation), reinforce (e.g., virtual laboratory experiments similar to ones in class), or supplement (e.g., additional information for more complete understanding) the existing learning process. Simply warehousing information (e.g., storing and distributing lecture/tutorial notes), should be considered to be of peripheral importance only.
As the peer review process was already an integral part of the creative writing course, having this process online would make using the web itself an essential and fully integrated part of the course. To reflect this importance and to encourage full participation, it was decided to make participation in the online peer review process a component of the assessment of three of the four assignments on the course.
2.4 Determining the implementation process
The teacher should also consider how the web-based components of a course will be implemented. For example, will everything be done at once or implemented in stages? If the implementation is to be carried out in stages, the teacher needs to decide how the development would be structured, that is, which applications would be used first. Another option to consider is the possibility of a pilot run with a limited number of students.
Regarding LS1185, The introduction of the online peer review system would be one step in a gradual implementation of web-based applications. Learning materials, links and good examples of student writing had already been posted online when the course ran the previous academic year. Future plans include making the input offered online more interactive with a long-term goal of conducting the entire course online.
2.5 Anticipating patterns of student use
Once the teacher has decided to use a web-based application and has determined how it is to be integrated within the learning process as a whole, the next step is to consider how the students will actually use it. The teacher should consider:
- Who will use it (all the students, most or some?),
- When they will use it (regularly or during specific times of the semester?),
- How often they will use it,
- How long they will stay (sometimes referred to as a site’s stickiness),
- Where they will log on from,
- What they will do with the information (View, download and/or print it?),
- How and with whom they will communicate (In real-time or with a time delay? With fellow students and/or teachers? Privately or openly?),
- Whether they will create content of their own (e.g., HTML documents, PowerPoint files, etc.).
As the web would be an integral part of the course, all the students were expected to use the peer review system regularly (at least once per week) throughout the semester. As the students would have to visit the site frequently, a rich resource centre of information, links and readings could be created to encourage them to spend more time exploring the site. As the students were expected to visit frequently, the tutorial notes and lecture notes would be posted for them to view and print out.
As students only had to meet deadlines rather than use the computer at a specified times, it was expected that many students would log on from home. Though all students would be able to use the terminals on campus, those with home computers and internet accounts would have slightly more convenience, being able to work whenever they pleased.
2.6 Organising the web-site
Teachers should consider how the web content can be organised and presented to best suit student needs? For example, the decision whether learners should go through the materials in a linear or non-linear manner will help determine the overall organisation of the site.
During the design of the main LS1185 site, the content pages were divided into self-contained zones for poetry, prose and drama, each with tutorial notes, lecture notes, links, online activities, readings and guidelines for critiquing. This reflected the structural division within the course itself while giving while giving students the freedom to explore relevant links and readings on their own. To ensure ease of navigation, the site was designed with the use of consistent backgrounds, colours, fonts, and icons. The WebCT bulletin board system, however, could not be redesigned to match the content pages of the site.
2.7 Determining the role of the teacher
If the web is to be used for communication or if students will post their own work, teachers should consider what level of control they will assume. This decision will depend on:
- The aims of the course,
- Views on censorship and freedom of expression,
- The desire to maintain a positive learning atmosphere.
Bulletin board forums are often managed by a moderator who guides the discussion and, if necessary, maintains discipline. Discussing the moderator’s role, Gray (2000) states that “each online forum develops its own culture and it is up to the moderator to try and make sure this is as useful as it can be.”
Because participation in the online peer review system was mandatory, it was decided that a higher degree of control over communication would be required. In the real world, when online discussions become confrontational, participants can opt to leave the site and never return. To maintain a positive learning environment, it was decided that all student communication on the bulletin board would be monitored and appropriate action would be taken if abusive comments were posted.
3. Post-course Reflection
The end of course evaluations submitted by the students were generally very positive, and the course was selected by the Web Teaching Support Services team as a web-course exemplar.
3.1 Quantity and quality of feedback
The level of participation in the online peer review system was very high. A total of 1,699 messages were posted during the 14-week semester. Many of these messages were in private forums reserved for individual writing groups. On average, each student posted 42 messages and read 669 messages, with the most active student posting 186 messages and reading 1,275 messages.
The comments given by students to their peers tended to be more timely, more detailed and ultimately more helpful than had been observed in the previous year’s classes. As noted by Lee (2000), who recently conducted a study of the LS1185 peer review writing system, the comments given by reviewers were direct and frank and made use of a wide range of strategies for critiquing that included questions, suggestions, agreements, disagreements, praises, criticisms, colloquial Cantonese and emoticons. As the comments tended to honest and direct, students had to learn to deal with criticism–to decide what comments were justified, what comments were the result of misunderstandings and what comments were simply not relevant and then act accordingly. In a bulletin board entry, one student commented on value of the online poetry workshop:
“I like the interactive approach of this workshop very much, it allows us to give comments and receive comments from our tutor and groupmates at virtually any time convenient to us! (Thanks to the modern technology!). On the other hand, this workshop serves as a good opportunity for us to learn from criticism, which helps us to improve in rewriting better versions of our poems.”
Many of the other students, however, held more ambiguous opinions. They grudgingly acknowledged the benefits of the online peer review system, but complained about the heavy workload and admitted feeling uncomfortable commenting on the works of others given their own lack of expertise. The amount of written comments also led to an increased workload for both the students and course coordinator. The students commented on the heavy workload informally and in the course evaluation. The course coordinator responded by making participation in the peer review system optional for the last assignment and by removing a component of one of the other assignments.
When the peer review system was made optional, few students took advantage of it. This reluctance to use the peer review system when not required suggests that many of the students would prefer a more expedient approach of submitting one draft for assessment without having to endure the rigours of writing preliminary drafts and commenting on each other’s work (particularly near the end of the semester when students tend to be busier than usual). In the course evaluation at the end of the semester, however, most students indicated that the online forum should continue to be used.
There were difficulties getting some groups going at the beginning of the semester. Initially the students were divided into groups with four to five people in each group. Each group had its own private forum that could only be accessed by tutors or group members. One tutor (the course coordinator) gave comments on all drafts soon after they were posted, while the other tutor adopted a more student-oriented approach and did not comment on initial drafts. The groups from the class in which feedback was given early became active in the online peer review system soon after the start of the course. Three of the four groups from the other class had difficulty getting started
Various measures were taken to increase student participation in the less active groups, including merging two groups to form a larger one, thus increasing the number of active communicative learners (Hammond, 1999) who could initiate discussions. Eventually, the coordinator started giving comments to both tutorial groups in order to model the type of feedback students were expected to produce. These comments likely influenced not only the format, but also the content of some of the feedback given by students. However, it was thought that receiving teacher-influenced feedback would still be better than receiving minimal amounts of completely original feedback.
After the reorganisation of groups and posted feedback from the course coordinator, participation in the less active groups increased. It appears that a critical mass of active students is necessary for a forum to work and that if a teachers expect frequent participation from students, they should themselves be active participants. Only one student did not actively participate in the online peer review system, but this student was noted to have serious attendance problems in several other courses.
Different ways of grouping students were attempted during the semester. At the end of the semester, when students were asked which one they preferred, almost all chose having relatively small peer review groups in which the group members were required to provide feedback to a specific number of members in their own group. However, many students also stated that they wanted the freedom to be able to read and post messages in all groups if they so desired.
3.2 Promotion of English language use
The sheer quantity of messages is evidence of the substantial language use generated by the online peer review system. All comments were posted in English, with the exception of one message containing a favourite Chinese poem posted by one of the students along with her English language translation.
One potential drawback regarding the language used during the peer review process, however, was the informality of some of the written comments. The writing sometimes included sentence fragments, slang and even romanisations of Cantonese slang (e.g. Gai Yau, which literally meaning add oil, or more figuratively, work hard and try your best) and transliterations (e.g. to bomb the page, which means something like to be overly verbose or to do too much). It was expected that the students would gain practice using standard English when writing the stories, so the use of informal English was permitted in the comments.
3.3 Ease of assessment
As had been anticipated, student participation in the writing workshop was much easier to assess than had been the case with the face-to-face discussions . Not only were all the comments readily accessible, but the tutors could also see when the comments were posted as well as how they related to previous and subsequent comments. The transparency of the process allowed tutors to identify early on students who were not actively participating in discussion groups so that appropriate action could be taken.
3.4 Ability to accommodate different kinds of learners
A benefit that had not been anticipated was that the web-based approach could accommodate different types of learners. One student was deaf and unable to lip-read English. With the online system, there were no obstacles to her participation. In the end, she received one of the highest grades on the course. Another student taking the course had failed the previous year, mainly because of a lack of participation. However, this student also thrived using the online system and received an ‘A’ grade, as the system allowed her to actively participate during the early morning hours she preferred. Thus the online system could benefit students who otherwise may have been hindered by physical handicaps or alternative lifestyles.
3.5 Ease of use
To ensure that students could navigate through the web-site, an hour in the first tutorial was set aside for a familiarisation task that took the form of an information treasure hunt. Students were given a list of items of information to find and tasks to perform. They were also asked to post introductory messages about themselves to the members of their initial peer review groups.
During the semester, only two students appeared to have difficulty using the bulletin board peer review system. They tended to post prose messages in the format intended for poetry (and vice versa) and occasionally reported being unable to post messages.
3.6 Modelling of learning behaviour
Another benefit of the online system was that it allowed good learning behaviour to be modelled. Students could not only see their peers’ final products, but they could also witness the entire working process. Thus, they could see what students were doing more than was required. They could see how often these students participated, when they participated, the thoughtfulness of the comments they wrote, their positive attitude toward the subject and their continuous striving for improvement. With these models of good learning behaviour to follow, students had the opportunity to assess and improve upon their own learning behaviour.
Similarly, the learning behaviour of the weaker students–the lack of effort, poor work, late submission of work, the relative shallowness of their peer review comments–as well as the critical comments from other students on both their work and their attitude–was there for everyone to see throughout the course. This public display of mediocrity may have been a humiliating experience for some students. If they were younger and more emotionally vulnerable, a one-on-one private peer review system may have been more appropriate. It was felt, however, that the tertiary level students taking LS1185 would have had the maturity to deal with any unpleasant realisations arising from self-made comparisons of their own learning behaviour with that of their peers. There could even be positive consequences if students were able to identify their own weaknesses and work on eliminating them
3.7 Problems with plagiarism
Five cases of plagiarism were found during the semester, despite repeated warnings against copying and assignment requirements that were set to minimise the potential for the offence (e.g., restricting the setting of the stories to Hong Kong). Two of the cases were clearly the result of students making use of the web to copy-and-paste text from online material. Fortunately, all five cases were caught early on in the drafting process. Given the relatively large proportion of students willing to cheat and the ease with which students can use the web to plagiarise, teachers need to equip themselves with the skills necessary to conduct online searches for sources of plagiarism.
3.8 Problems with antagonistic messages
As had been feared, there was a problem with interpersonal relationships among the students. One student unintentionally antagonised the others with his forceful, negative and not particularly insightful comments that were often posted in duplicate or triplicate. After several warnings not to duplicate messages and to respond to his peers’ work more positively went unheeded, he was asked not to participate in the peer review process. It had been decided from the outset of the course that minimising tension and confrontation in the writing workshop would be given priority over an individual’s right to free speech. Fortunately, there was only the one case. With a larger cohort of students though, the potential for disruptive behavior would increase.
The use of the online peer review system was successful not because of its frequent use, but because it helped enrich the learning environment. The success of the online peer review system was largely due to the careful pre-course planning. The anticipated benefits (more helpful feedback, substantial use of the target language) and drawbacks (difficulties ensuring participation, students commenting in an antagonistic manner) did in fact materialise. As the potential drawbacks had been identified ahead of time, decisions made during the planning stages and action taken during the course managed to minimise their effects.
Not all benefits and drawbacks, however, had been anticipated. These included the ability to accommodate different kinds of learners, the modelling of good learner behaviour and the potential risk of humiliation. Thus, using the web can be viewed as being as much a learning experience for teachers as it is for students. Careful pre-course planning, active intervention in the learning process and post-course reflection upon the challenges faced can help teachers better understand how to steer the power of the World Wide Web to achieve their teaching aims. To attempt web-based teaching is to embark on a voyage of continuous learning.
- Gray, L. (2000) E-mail to the author, 18 April 2000
- Hammond, M. (1999) Issues associated with communication in online forums: the case of the communicative learner.
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- Lee, K.T. (1999) Students perceptions and reactions to flexible learning on the WWW, In R. Bradbeer (ed.), Current Practice in Multimedia. City University of Hong Kong Press, 105-113.
- Lee, W. (2000) On-line conferencing in ESL writing
- Conference paper presented at the 35th RELC International Seminar, Singapore 17-19 April, 2000
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