Presented at the Research and Development in Computer Assisted Learning On-line Conference held on Jan 12, 2005
Updated May 28, 2007
Effects of the Internet on University Teaching
by Chi Nguyen
The growing number of online reference materials provided by academic, technical and commercial sources is creating opportunities and imposing challenges to teaching at all levels of education. This paper explores some of the effects that free Internet reference materials have on teaching technology related units to university students. The paper suggests that online reference resources will force rapid integration of new information into courses, create opportunity for lecturers to provide editorial value to students using Internet resources, and encourage universities to participate in the open source technology community. This is a working paper that is intended to provoke feedback and initiate further research to collect, analyse and describe best practices for integrating the Internet with university teaching. Although the examples refer to technology related units, readers are encouraged to draw similar parallels across a number of subjects.
The Search Engine Effect
Florida Gulf Coast University is an example that provides free online tutorials for Microsoft Office applications. Their website can be found by using search engines such as Google, Yahoo or MSN. The ability of any given student to find specific reference websites depends on their:
- Preference for a search engine.
- Skill with using advanced search features.
- Choice of search keywords.
- The particular day and time which they are using the search engine.
Given the large number of variables, it's not surprising that students will likely encounter different results even when starting with the same objective.
The skill for using search engines increases in importance as more online reference materials become available and more students rely on search engines for navigating the Internet. There is a lack of research and analysis regarding the:
- Average skill level of university students for using search engines.
- Minimum skill level required for students to compete at university.
- Potential for skill with using search engines to distort student performance.
- Role of universities and lecturers in addressing and managing the above issues.
An alternative to search engines are specialised Internet portals such as the Resource Discovery Network (RDN). In their own words, the RDN is the UK's free national gateway to Internet resources for the learning, teaching and research community. The service currently links to more than 80,000 resources via a series of subject-based information gateways ... In contrast to search engines, the RDN gathers resources which are carefully selected by subject specialists in our partner institutions. You can search and browse through the resources, and be confident that your results will connect you to Web sites relevant to learning, teaching and research in your subject area. The immediate difference from search engines are the focus on education and use of subject specialists to select resources.
It's possible that the success of portals such as RDN may actually reduce their usefulness to university students. As portals become popular and successful, they attempt to include a larger number of Internet resources. At some point, they become so large that they require a similar degree of skill as required for using the advanced search features of search engines.
The only certainty about the search engine effect is that it will continue to impact a wider number of university courses and disciplines.
The Encyclopedia Effect
Wikipedia is a notable example of increasingly popular collaborative online reference websites. In essence, Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia that anyone may contribute and edit information. It relies on public review, majority consensus and community policies to maintain information accuracy and resolve differences in opinions. Although the goals of these collaborative online reference websites are admirable, they suffer problems that are similar to traditional hard bound encyclopedia volumes:
- Browsing an encyclopedia is not a typical pastime for university students whether in printed or online formats.
- The actual content of encyclopedia information, whether in printed or online formats, often does not match the specific requirements of university students. For example, encyclopedia entries are not likely to contain learning tutorials.
Trade and technical organisations will often have websites that provide access to all publications and specifications that they publish or manage. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) are two well known organisations in the Internet industry. Their websites provide complete access to a large number of specification documents that are widely used and critical to the operation and usage of the Internet. However, simply having access to these specification documents provides little value to university students. These specification documents are usually subject to interpretation by each organisation and product that choose to use or comply with those specifications. As such, it's more important for students to identify and analyse the context associated with the practical usage of specifications published by technical organisations such as the IETF and W3C.
Encyclopedic resources emphasize the importance of having information in the right format and context in order for university students to fully use and exploit.
The Innovation Challenge
The rapid pace of information dissemination via the Internet is affecting both university students and lecturers. As students have access to more quality information, they will need to reconcile information gleaned from the Internet with information taught by lecturers. If lecturers are not able to help students clearly reconcile these differences, it has the potential to undermine the enthusiasm of students and the authority of lecturers. Taken positively, this should be an opportunity for both students and lecturers to confront their own beliefs and opinions relative to the new ideas and information found on the Internet (OECD, 1996). Over time, positive interaction between students and lecturers should benefit the university by effectively integrating new information into units and courses.
There is a lack of both research and ideas on how universities may mitigate the risks associated with the process of reconciling and integrating new information:
- Insufficient time in lectures or tutorials for long discussions.
- Insufficient time for lecturers to continually update their unit syllabus and lectures.
- Lecturers that are used to simply dispensing information may lack the skills to engage students in a manner that encourages students to explore new ideas and take intellectual risks.
Traditionally, innovation comes slowly through academic or professional channels and universities have time to filter and integrate the innovation into courses and units. Today, the Internet makes it possible for innovation to quickly reach universities through Internet savvy students. Universities and lecturers that can successfully adapt will benefit their students and attract new students with courses that reflect current innovations and units that encourage student contributions.
Think Global, Act Local
A central theme of this paper is that universities and lecturers must become active members of the global Internet community in a distinctively local manner. Lecturers should use the Internet to be aware of developments in their discipline on a wider geographic scale. At the same time, they should analyse the new information to act locally for improving their lectures and student learning experiences.
Universities need policies that support, encourage and reward lecturers for developing innovative methods of integrating the Internet with their teaching. Having easily accessible unit lectures and academic work online would encourage a culture of peer review amongst departmental staff members and possibly even with students. Professional academic journals have relied on peer reviews to maintain quality standards. This experience suggests that the Internet could act as a conduit for peer review of unit lectures and coursework within a department, faculty or university. A culture of peer review would increase the quality of lecture content and lecturer knowledge.
Traditionally, lecturers prescribed the scope of a unit by indicating the required text books or reference books for each unit. The Internet provides an opportunity for lecturers to enhance the student learning experience by expanding this editorial responsibility. Lecturers could provide significant value to students by maintaining a list of online reference materials for their particular units. This would require lecturers to:
- Regularly search for new and better online materials.
- Review the list for accuracy and relevance to the units.
- Add their own comments and advice to help students more effectively use reference materials on the list.
Edited lists would reduce the need for students to have specialised skills at using search engines and reduce students wasting time trying to use encyclopedic online resources that are not in a suitable format for their needs. Universities need a policy that recognises, encourages and rewards the additional editorial work as valued research contributions.
The open source technology community provides an opportunity for universities to gain additional technology skills, possibly more intellectual properties, and enhanced technical credibility and reputation. Universities need to experiment with different ways to join and contribute to open source projects. They should encourage local involvement of both students and lecturers. On an experimental basis, universities may consider allocating a portion of their marketing budget towards funding open source activities by students and lecturers. The money would be considered as an investment in their students, lecturers and reputation. Furthermore, successful open source activities may contribute to an entrepreneurial culture at the universities and generate commercial spin-off companies.
Universities that establish a successful brand on the Internet will likely attract more students, commercial projects and research funding. An open source project sponsored by a university may become a popular product and attract commercial projects and research funding for derivative projects.
The Internet presents a strategic opportunity for universities to enhance the quality of their academic culture and student experience. The personal website of a particular unit lecturer, the edited list of online reference materials for a particular unit or participation in a university sponsored open source project may be a key difference between taking a course at one university as compared to another university. The improved quality of the university will increase the value of every degree received by students and their own career prospects.
At the same time, universities need to experiment and formulate plans to mitigate the risk of having students with a wide variation in skills with using search engines. Students are assessed for their skills and knowledge of the unit materials. What if a student has the skill to use search engines to find valuable online reference materials that other students can't find? By taking no action, are lecturers in effect punishing students who lack skill at using search engines? More research is needed to sufficiently assess the scale of this risk and find ideas for managing it.
Universities that successfully participate in the global Internet community and successfully foster a local culture based on peer review and rapid innovation will establish a strategic advantage in the competition for students, ideas and funding.
OECD (1996). Adult learning in a new technological era
. Paris, France: OECD Proceedings.