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Saturday, July 25, 1998 Published at 10:16 GMT 11:16 UK


Net teaching: More than a substitute

Not feasible for some courses [Photos courtesy University of New Mexico]

There is more to studying over the Internet than a technological solution to geographical separation: it can be a virtue in itself. Part of a series by BBC News Online's Gary Eason.

The Web provides an opportunity to pull together the sort of student numbers that are needed to justify a course but which would be unlikely to occur in any one teaching centre. In other words, without it, the course would not exist.

[ image: It's a big country]
It's a big country
For example, most law schools in the United States could never justify a seminar on taxation in Indian Country. But according to Professor Scott Taylor of the University of New Mexico Law School in Albuquerque, many have one or two students who would very much like to take such a course.

For a number of years he has used the Internet to overcome the problem. Students spend the first third of the term or semester reading up on case law, sharing the work by writing and circulating notes on leading cases for each other.

They then tackle issues arising from the cases, working in groups of two or four, e-mailing their conclusions around the other students. Occasional class meetings reinforce the work.

"The success of my seminar depended largely on quick feedback to the students," Professor Taylor said by e-mail.

"This impressed all of the students because they were not used to a professor giving them written comments within a day or two. They also appreciated being able to ask questions and to get quick answers.

[ image: Scott Taylor: Looking for the ideal mix]
Scott Taylor: Looking for the ideal mix
"As a teacher, I was able to accomplish this quick feedback because I would go through my e-mail every night and write responses immediately."

This much is common to this form of teaching. But the 1996 intake of five students turned up another advantage.

"E-mail also facilitated a certain degree of intellectual intimacy because communication took place at a fairly pure level without some of the interference one gets from body language, facial expressions, environment - the alien turf of a law professor's office - tone of voice, etc."

This proved to be particularly important because, as it turned out, four of the five were relatively shy people who were uncomfortable talking directly to a person of authority.

"In contrast with the intimidating experience of a face-to-face experience with a 'professor', all of the students quickly found that e-mail provided an easy way to communicate. I think I helped the situation by making sure that my e-mail to each student was professional and courteous."

Jury out

Much-quoted research by Jerald G. Schutte of California State University - The New Intellectual Superhighway or Just Another Traffic Jam? - said that social statistics students taught virtually on the Web did 20% better in exams than a control group taught in a traditional classroom.

He suggests that a big reason was that, ironically, the Web students got in touch with each other and collaborated more, over-compensating for the lack of normal classroom interaction.

Others have criticised the way the study was carried out. There is an ongoing debate about whether distance learning of any sort is any better or worse than classroom-based studies.

[ image: Social interaction suffers - but not everyone minds that]
Social interaction suffers - but not everyone minds that
Professor Taylor in New Mexico does see clear benefits. He plans to run the law seminar again next year, after a year as a visiting professor at a different university. He will be trying something new.

"By then, I should be able to use real time audio/video. This will allow us to form a virtual seminar in which the far-flung students can cross-communicate. I expect that the audio/video will bring back some of the communication constraints that e-mail avoided.

Although this appears to be an improvement it might cut across the benefits he has found.

"Audio/video will cut down on the amount of written communication (being replaced with oral speech), will create scheduling problems, and will probably cut down on the amount of one-on-one communication," he said.

He then intends to compare the two experiences to see if he can come up with an ideal mix of technologies.

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