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Teaching and Learning on the World Wide Web

Shirley Alexander, Institute for Interactive Multimedia, University of Technology, Sydney, PO Box 123, Broadway NSW 2007, Australia. Phone +61 2 330 2480 Fax: +61 2 330 2217 Email:Ý 
Keywords: WorldWideWeb, LearningÝ 


In a talk he gave to the Association of American Publishers Higher Education Division, Bill Geoghegan of IBM posed an interesting question - "Why do exciting new applications of information technology with apparently great potential to improve learning and teaching seem to begin with a roar and....then stall and fade?".

This paper puts forward one simple explanation for this phenomenon: that many adopters of new technologies such as the World Wide Web have as their primary focus, the features of the new technology. These features are then used to provide a learning experience that is often essentially the same as that provided using existing technologies and, (if evaluative studies are carried out at all) there is surprise when the expected learning gains are not realised.

It is argued that instead of focusing on the features of the technology, the most important question is "What do I want my students to learn?". It is only when this question has been considered, along with other questions such as "what is known about the way students learn this" that the features of a number of strategies (both technological and non-technological) should be considered as to their suitability in helping students to learn this topic/concept.

Evolution of Educational Technologies

There are few legends as relevant for the technophiles who eagerly embrace new technologies as the following. In Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates tells his friend Phaedrus a story of the god Theuth who came to show King Thamus of Upper Egypt some of his inventions such as number, calculations, draughts and dice, and writing.

Thamus inquired into the use of each of them, and as Theuth went through them expressed approval or disapproval, according as he judged Theuth's claims to be well or ill founded...When it came to writing, Theuth declared: 'Here is an accomplishment, my lord the king, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom.' 'Theuth, my paragon of inventors,' replied the king, 'the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practise it. So it is in this case; you, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your offspring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for collection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.'

Since the invention of writing there has been a continued passing parade of new technologies, each of which it is claimed has the potential to 'revolutionise learning'. These technologies are released in a flurry of excitement but often end in disappointment when evaluation studies fail to reveal the much anticipated improvement in learning. One such technology was the introduction of computers to learning.

Completion of the first business computer in 1951 heralded a wave of new applications for computers, including the use of a UNIVAC computer by Walter Cronkite to predict the outcome of a presidential election in 1952. Educationalists responded quickly to the perceived potential for using computers in education and the dream of the 50s was that college classrooms would be connected to computers which would serve as: patient tutors, scrupulous examiners and tireless schedulers of instruction. Further, it was expected that the benefits to students would include the freedom to follow their own paths of learning, at their own pace at a time convenient to them, with richer materials to work with and automatic measurement of their progress. They would have access not only to the computers but to teachers who would now be able to work individually with students since there was now less drudgery and repetition in their work and they would have access to more accurate appraisal and documentation of student progress (Kulik, Bangert & Williams, 1983).

Early evaluations studies of Computer Based Instruction (CBI) began to appear by the late 1960s and early 1970s, which in general supported the effectiveness of computer-based teaching as a supplement to conventional instruction. CBI was reported to reduce time required to learn and to be effective for teaching mathematics and a number of other disciplines (Kulik, Kulik & Cohen,1980).

In late 70s however, a major evaluation of two systems, PLATO (an education network providing access to a central library of lessons) and TICCIT (a system supporting lessons displayed on a colour-television screen connected to the student's keyboard and a local computer), found that neither had reached the potential so long claimed.

A number of media comparison studies were produced in the 1980s which were typically based around a review of a scientific research paradigm ie students were randomised into control and treatment groups and were taught using conventional methods and computer assistance respectively. Both groups were given pre and post tests and any resulting differences in learning gains attributed to Computer Based Instruction. In an analysis of a large quantity of these studies a number of effects were reported including the fact that students using CBI achieved results which were on average between about a quarter and a third of a standard deviation higher than those for the control group (Kulik, Kulik & Cohen,1980 and Kulik, Bangert & Williams, 1983). One interesting and rarely discussed effect reported in the earlier paper however, was that the learning gains reported above virtually disappeared when the same instructor taught both the control group and the experimental group (ie designed the CBI program).

Clark (1983), in a review of a number of similar studies questioned the methods of instruction used in the 'experiments' and suggested that CBI authors have simply computerised methods of programmed instruction rather than capitalising on the possible 'added value' of using computers. It seems surprisingly obvious that there is no reason to expect the quality of learning to improve if we simply transfer a learning experience from one medium to another.

Not to be discouraged by the 'roar, stumble and fade' of Computer Based Instruction, the last few years have seen the promises of multimedia draw yet another enthusiastic crowd and yet more unqualified predictions.

Clark and Craig (1991) responded to these claims with a survey of multimedia and interactive videodisc research, drawing a number of conclusions including "multiple media, including videodisc technology, are not the factors that influence learning; the measured learning gains in studies of the instructional uses of multiple media are most likely due to instructional methods...".

And now the latest in this long line of learning technologies is the World Wide Web. The greatest potential of the Web however, lies in the fact that we have a chance to learn from the lessons of the previous faded technologies, and an opportunity to develop new learning experiences for students which have not been possible before.

The New Media

In looking for explanations for the failure of technologies in the past, the words of Marshall McLuhan, are illuminating:

'Had the Schoolmen with their complex oral culture understood the Gutenberg technology, they could have created a new synthesis of written and oral education, instead of bowing out of the picture and allowing the merely visual page to take over the educational enterprise. The oral Schoolmen did not meet the new visual challenge of print, and the resulting expansion or explosion of Gutenberg technology was in many respects an impoverishment of the culture...' (p71).

Have we been guilty of failing to meet the new challenge put forward by the availability of technology (including computers) in education? Have we simply transferred teaching and learning in a form already used in the classroom to a computer, expected magical improvements in learning only to be disappointed at the results, and discouraged when the critics of technology point to its failures.

In the February, 1995 edition of Wired, Barry Diller wrote

'What's driving this stampede to electronic publishing? ...When cable TV arrived, people said "This is the end of the networks"..movies survived television, and radio is hardly extinct. To worry about displacement is futile, and to base plans on it is wasteful.'....Of course, that doesn't mean you shouldn't explore new technologies...It does mean you have to do so in a way that's got more stuff in it, more content, not just repackaging. Taking a movie and turning it in to a videogame is repackaging. Taking a bestseller and putting it on tape is repackaging. Taking magazine articles and slapping them online, word for word, - that's repackaging. Telephones were not just telegraphs with voice. Computers weren't just calculators with keyboards. We have to resist media imperialism - the tendency to colonise, to define new technologies in terms of the old... Redefine, don't repackage. Redefining the mission of your ventures is slow, brain-bending work.....A new medium can empower and liberate you, if you let it. But if you try and colonise it - if you try to cram your magazine through a phone jack and call yourself interactive - you'll get nowhere. Because you will not have thought through what it means to be interactive.'

The message for publishers of electronic magazines is the same as that for all educational developers, regardless of the kind of media they are using. The application of new technologies or media should not be in terms of other media such as print, video or oral traditions. While we should certainly explore the features of new media as part of an on-going process of being aware of the capabilities of various media, we should also spend equal amounts of time thinking about what our students need to learn, what we know about helping them to learn and then and only then, develop strategies to make it possible for them to learn. In evaluating a number of possible learning strategies we should decide to use technologies such as multimedia or the World-Wide-Web only when that use provides new opportunities for students to learn - to visualise, to understand, to see complex relationships in ways that are not possible using any other media.

What do we want our students to learn? Although this is usually addressed at the level of subject or course aims and objectives, it is important to reflect first of all on the kind of graduates we want to see from the university system.

What is the purpose of higher education?

The increase in both prominence of and funding for vocational education has led to much debate about the "value added" of higher education. What distinguishes university graduates from those of TAFE and other providers?

At the institution level many universities are now developing documents which outline 'graduate profiles', while at the national level, The Aulich Report (June, 1990) reported on the qualities which graduates from Australia's higher education institutions should possess:

  1. They should be highly competent in the sciences and the arts underlying the practice of their professions.
  2. They should have a sound understanding of the society in which they are going to practise - its history, cultural traditions, social structure, and social mix.
  3. They should possess a capacity to look at problems from a number of different perspectives, to analyse, to gather evidence, to synthesise, and to be flexible, creative thinkers.
  4. They need to develop a capacity for `lifelong learning' to enable them to keep abreast of the world of rapid change in which they will practise.
  5. They must be good communicators, orally and in writing

There are some key phrases in these statements: to have a sound understanding, to analyse, to gather evidence, to synthesise, to be flexible, creative thinkers and good communicators. Each of these phrases implies that students need to be able to do more than access information - they need to be able to do something with that information. They need to develop wisdom and not just its appearance.

If these are the qualities we want our graduates to possess, how might we use these ideas when deciding "What do I want my students to learn?".

The term learning however, is understood differently and it is important to be aware of the variation its meaning between individuals since understanding of learning has a significant impact on the selection of teaching strategies.


One of the most widely reported studies is that of Saljo (1979), who carried out an interview study of what individuals understood by learning. From this interview data he developed five categories:

  1. Learning as a quantitative increase in knowledge. Learning is acquiring information or 'knowing a lot'.
  2. Learning as memorising. Learning is storing information that can be reproduced.
  3. Learning as acquiring facts, skills and methods that can be retained and used as necessary.
  4. Learning as making sense or abstracting meaning. Learning involves relating parts of the subject matter to each other and to the real world.
  5. Learning as interpreting and understanding reality in a different way. Learning involves comprehending the world by reinterpreting knowledge.

According to Ramsden (1992) conceptions four and five are qualitatively different from the first three which imply a less complex view of what learning consists of, ie learning is something external to the learner. Conceptions four and five emphasise the internal or personal aspect of learning: learning is something that you do in order to understand the real world, rather than something done by someone or something to the learner.

In addition to the number of different understandings of the concept of learning, students have also been shown to adopt different approaches to learning (although there is obviously a clear relationship between the two). Two distinct approaches to learning - deep and surface, have been identified across a range of learning tasks. Students who engage in a learning task with the intention of understanding or seeking meaning are said to be adopting a deep approach, while those who engage in a task with the intention of memorising information are said to be adopting a surface approach. The effect of different approaches has been demonstrated by numerous studies relating outcomes of learning to approach adopted. Not surprisingly, surface approaches are associated with poor learning outcomes and lower course grades, while deep approaches are associated with higher quality learning outcomes and higher course grades (Entwistle and Ramsden, 1983 and Watkins 1983).

If we agree with the researchers and practitioners in the field of student learning that understanding of subjects (rather than memorising of formulae or textbook paragraphs) is of crucial importance in learning in higher education, then it is important to think about the kind of learning strategies that can be adopted to encourage this approach.

Teaching and Learning Strategies

Biggs and Telfer (1987) suggest that the following kinds of teaching foster deep approaches: an appropriate motivational context, a high degree of learning activity; interaction with others, both peers and teachers, and a well-structured knowledge base.

Laurillard (1993) discusses a number of key aspects of learning that can be used in any discussion about teaching strategies. These aspects are:

APPREHENDING STRUCTURE. Students construct meaning as they read, listen, act and reflect on the subject content. However, as Laurillard points out "Meaning is given through structure"(p51) and it is therefore essential that students are able to interpret the structure of any discourse before they can construct the meaning that we have previously seen to be so crucial to understanding. Students adopting the surface approach mentioned earlier would fail to do this, as they focus on memorising a number of phrases and points for later reproduction.

INTEGRATING PARTS. Students need to be able to integrate the signs of knowledge such as language, symbols, diagrams with what is signified by them.

ACTING ON THE WORLD. There are few teachers who attempt to teach without asking students to do something, whether it be laboratory sessions or essay writing. Students are asked to engage in some form of activity which, when integrated with other activities mentioned here, assist in understanding of content.

USING FEEDBACK. Actions such as those mentioned above are futile for student learning, unless feedback on individual actions is available.

REFLECTING ON GOALS-ACTION-FEEDBACK. Learners interpret and understand reality as they make links between each of the above aspects by reflecting on the goals of learning, actions taken, and the results of those actions.

The challenge for educational developers is to use this knowledge of learning together with an understanding of the features of the WWW, to design learning experiences which promote a deep approach to learning so that 'what' students learn is a deep understanding of the subject content, the ability to analyse and synthesise data and information, and the development of creative thinking and good communication skills. There are a number of features of the WorldWideWeb that determine the way in which it might be used for teaching and learning.


A major feature of the WWW is the potential for developers to create links between text and other media not only within an individual document but also between documents residing on any computers in the world which have access to the Web.

One approach to using these features for teaching/learning is to create documents which contain hypertext/ hypermedia links which the learner follows in a sequence which is often unique to the individual learner. The provision of this kind of facility has been claimed to have a number of advantages to learning.

Kearsley(1988) wrote "writers have emphasized that hypertext matches human cognition; in particular the organisation of memory as a semantic network in which concepts are linked together by associations".

Jonassen(1988) adds to this "Because hypertext is a node-link system based upon semantic structures [as opposed to a sequential access system] hypermedia can map fairly directly the structure of knowledge representing it".

However, the extent to which it is possible for students to acquire the original author's structure and map it on to their own existing structures is questionable. Learners develop individual interpretations of information and hence construct their own meaning. Since it is rare for two people to construct the same 'semantic structure' it is therefore unreasonable to expect that a learner could easily adopt the author's structure and meaning.

A second approach to the use of hypertext programs is to take advantage of the interactivity, a capability which it is claimed provides a useful strategy for active learning. Laurillard(1993) has a different opinion:

'Hypertext, accessing a text database, is not interactive, because there is no intrinsic feedback on the user's actions: the information in the system does not change as a consequence of the user's actions on it; it only changes if they change the system itself, by changing the information or the links directly. So it is no more interactive than writing in the margins of a book, or editing the book yourself, or annotating it with your own references to another point in the an educational medium, enabling students to develop their academic understanding, it has little to offer'.

This is a persuasive argument - that the provision of hypertext/hypermedia links in documents simply enable the learner to follow paths that are pre-determined by the author and that this activity is not useful either for apprehending structure, or for providing action and feedback on the world. In the words of Diller this is simply 're-packaging' - taking an existing book (with or without pictures) and simply adding hypertext or hypermedia links. In fact, when these links involve images on the existing narrow bandwidth networks, the time taken to load images is much greater and a good deal more frustrating for the learner than simply turning pages in a book.

A third approach to the use of hypertext/hypermedia links on the Web is to encourage learners to become collaborative authors. Opportunities are provided for learners to contribute to the construction of documents on the Web by attaching their own data in the form of written or oral commentaries, still or moving images, or alternative links which are then also available for other learners to read/follow. Learners thus become aware of the variations in interpretation and construction of meaning among a range of people and construct an individual meaning as they review evidence, arguments and a range of structures. Thus by apprehending structure, integrating parts, acting on the world and using reflection, learners develop an individual interpretation of reality. This also encourages development of the desired qualities of graduates referred to earlier: the ability to analyse, to gather evidence and to synthesise.

An example of this strategy is the Australia Street Archive [HREF 1]where "Readers become collaborative authors as they contribute their own individual interpretations, annotations and meaning construction on all aspects of the archive including issues raised by residents of the houses and streets, or on some of the commentaries provided by the discipline experts".

A fourth approach is to use a range of Internet services so that an integrated learning experience is provided. This is the approach adopted by the JASON project [HREF 2]. This project was founded by Robert Ballard, the discoverer of the RMS Titanic in response to thousands of enquiries about his discovery. The project provides "a curriculum which is specially developed to highlight the science, technology, engineering and social studies of an annual electronic field trip".Learners participate in these electronic field trips "mounted in a remote part of the world and broadcast in real-time, using state-of-the-art technology, to a network of educational, research and cultural institutions in the United States. The 1995 expedition took students on a voyage to the volcanoes, observatories and unique environments of Hawaii where they had an opportunity to work alongside scientists, engineers and technicians at the expedition site as they studied the effects of new species on the fragile environment, conducted experiments on volcanoes in an attempt to understand how the earth was formed and compared these volcanoes to those on Mars, Venus and Io. Students used the Internet to communicate with one another and with the experts as they discussed a variety of expedition issues. They were also able to operate robot mechanisms to take samples from active flowing lava and observe via computer the actual infra-red imagery from a NSAS observatory facility. In the process of participating in this expedition, they learned about technology in its context of use, rather than as a separate subject isolated from actual use.

The learning strategies adopted here fit very well with Biggs and Telfer's comments about the importance of appropriate motivational contexts, a high degree of learning activity; interaction with others, both peers and teachers, and a well-structured knowledge base.

Laurillard's ideas about apprehending structure, integrating parts, action, feedback and reflection are well provided for in the Jason project as students collaborate with their peers as well as world experts in a variety of discipline areas. Through Internet, they are provided with an opportunity to act on the world (by operating robot mechanisms to take samples from active flowing lava), they receive feedback on those actions, and reflection is encouraged through the use of on-line journals. And, finally, this is a learning opportunity that would not be possible any other way!


There is a great deal of research available to WWW developers, not only about the way people learn and the strategies that promote the kind of learning we value, but also on the lessons learned by earlier technology developers. If we use this knowledge to inform our practice, the students of today can look forward to new learning experiences which will not only provide them with an education, but a capacity for life-long learning as well.


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Clark R.E.(1983) 'Reconsidering Research on Learning from Media' Review off Educational Research, 4, p445-459

Entwistle, N. and Ramsden, P. (1983) Understanding Student Learning, London: Croom Helm.

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Jonassen, D.H. (1988) Designing Structured Hypertext, and Structuring Access to Hypertext, Educational Technology, November, 28(11), 13-16.

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McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. Massachusetts: First MIT Press Edition.

Perry W G(1988) 'Different Worlds in the Same Classroom' in P Ramsden (ed) Improving Learning: New Perspectives, London: Kogan Page.

Plato. Phaedrus and Letters VII and VIII. New York: Penguin Books, 1973.

Ramsden, P. (1992) Learning to Teach in Higher Education Routledge: London.

Saljo, R. (1979) `Learning in the learner's perpective. Some common-sense conceptions', Reports from the Institute of Education, University of Gothenburg, 76.

Watkins, D.A. (1983) 'Depth of processing and the quality of learning outcomes', Instructional Science 12:49-58.

Hypertext References

Ý"> - Australia Street Archive On The World Wide Web


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