WebCT Asia Pacific Conference
Australia (March 22-24)
|The WebCT Asia Pacific
conference took place in Adelaide last week. Participants and presenters
came from all over Australia, with a sprinkling of persons from New
Zealand, Japan, Singapore, and one person from South Africa. There
was also a large contingent of people from WebCT itself, principal
among them the creator of WebCT, Murray Goldberg.
While many of the presentations
had WebCT as their focus, many presentations had online teaching and learning
in general as their theme, and as such there was plenty of useful input
for someone who had little or no experience of WebCT.
The conference was kicked
off with an entertaining address from Ron Oliver from Edith
Cowan University in WA. Ron is well known internationally in online
circles and is a sometime colleague of Professor Tom Reeves from
the University of Georgia, who many Australians know from his visit
here in 1999.
Ron focused on the web
as a teaching tool, and stressed that "great tools do not a great
teacher make." Contrary to what many believe - that online learners
are condemned by the medium to isolation - he argued that the Internet
supplies a ready made vehicle for collaborative learning. Tools
like WebCT however need to be in the hands of skilled facilitators
to enable students to get the most out of them.
It was refreshing to learn
that Ron is still very much involved in teaching, as is Murray Goldberg.
Many conference participants were surprised to learn that people like
Ron and Murray, despite their research responsibilties and international
profile, are still teaching and clearly have a passion for it.
Jarboe, vice president of WebCT marketing, remarked in his closing
address that the WebCT team had been very pleasantly surprised at
what people in this region were doing with WebCT, and at the fact
that several institutions in the R-12 sector (schools) were using
WebCT. Steve Smith from Tasmania illustrated a case in point.
Steve teaches primary school music and embeds music files into his
WebCT delivered instructional materials to aid students listening.
In another presentation Shoji Kajita from Nagoya University
demonstrated state of the art MPEG video operating within WebCT, and
his talk on internationalising WebCT for use in Japan was further
evidence of the spread of this product around the planet.
Jarboe, vice president of WebCT marketing
WebCT staff presented at the conference. Glen Low, Director
of Educational Technology and Development, refreshingly focused more
on the pedagogy of online learning rather than the technology per
se. He referred to various aspects of online education such as fading
(where the teacher slowly recedes into the background as the student
comes more to the fore) and cognitive apprenticeship - what we may
know better as shadowing an expert. Something else gleaned from Glen
Low's two presentations is the fact that so many of the problems instructors
can have with WebCT are the result of web technology itself, not WebCT
Peter Higgs from Tasmania
spoke on the LearnScope project undertaken in Tasmania last year which
took a top down approach. Top down in as much that the project participants
were managers. The success of this project was such that now it is managers
who are hassling Peter and colleagues to get more material online! He
also told of a network of online access centres across the state which
are licensed to offer online materials and offer on site support for learners
- a model that other states might well consider adopting.
who started it all!
Goldberg's address was undoubtedly a highlight. Though Murray
himself didn't say it, it is easy to see his passion for teaching
and learning. It is indeed a remarkable story that he and colleague
Sasan Salari embarked on the task of creating an effective
delivery tool to make life easier for their students, and almost by
accident the resulting product, WebCT, spread across the globe with
zero marketing! Most of Murray's engaging talk focused on research
he had undertaken to test the effectiveness of online learning. The
conclusions of his research are clear: a combination of face to face
and online delivery is the best of both worlds for students and produces
the best results. In his research students who had access to both
forms of delivery outperformed students who had access to only one
or the other mode of teaching. What became clear too was the student
management and tracking features of WebCT provide instant data for
Peter Love from Macquarie
University talked about what drove academic staff at Macquarie to turn
to online learning. Lack of sufficient computer labs, a desire to standardize
resources within departments were two compelling factors in the move to
online learning at Macquarie. They found further that as both staff and
students learnt of the successes of early adopters, the spill over effect
to others has created its own momentum and demand for further online offerings.
Another factor in operation too was the superb nature of many resources
on the web (something Ron Oliver also referred to) such as interactive
simulations. Other interesting hallmarks of the Macquarie program are
the deal with the London School of Economics to provide round the clock
student/helpdesk support, and their strategy of placing the student feedback
instrument on the welcome page of modules to increase the number of student
An interesting strategy used
by Parviz Doulai of Wollongong University to induce a professional
development program for staff was simply to publicise data relating to
existing online courses at the university. This data is produced automatically
by WebCT's student tracking features. Focusing particularly on the bulletin
board features, this data is compelling evidence of the amount of student-
to-student and staff-to-student online communication. Together with this
information went an invitation to staff to contact Parviz if they were
interested in any professional development in online teaching . He received
30 replies in the first day. Thus began Wollongong University's professional
development program in online teaching!
Linda Selby from the
Auckland College of Education in New Zealand discussed how technology
of the past has failed to live up to its expectations, and posed the question
as to whether the web would be any different. (TV was hailed as a threat
to teachers; why don't we have telephones in classrooms?) Her institution
chose WebCT because they believed it didn't require a high level of expertise
and you can select or reject from its range of available tools. Their
professional development project used the buddy system where teachers
pair up with students in school and results of the program showed an increase
in problem solving skills from students.
keynote address on the final morning detailed the phenomenal rise
of WebCT, and shared the company’s vision of the future. Despite the
frequently cited lack of take up of online education, he showed data
that indicates that teaching staff worldwide are steadily increasing
their uptake of technology, in the use of email and web resources.
singing the praises of WebCT to Michelle Lamberston (WebCT
Other data on display showed
that the profile of the average university student in the US is changing
- the student body is getting older, and only 40% of them buy new text
books. Enter book publishers into the online arena. WebCT now has deals
with several book publishers who provide ready made 'courselets' based
on their textbooks. This echoed a theme across the conference that it
is not necessary to have complete pre-packaged content on the web before
you can run an online course. Neil Strong (SA TAFE) referred to
it as 'contentless teaching'. The material already exists out there on
the web runs the argument. You just need your students to have access
to it, get them to analyse it, and provide the tools for online interaction.
Other trends emerging from
the conference referred to by Stephen Fisher (Northpoint TAFE,
QLD), and Neil Strong on the final day were:
- Online Learning communities
are becoming more popular (Another of the WebCT visitors, Karen
Gage, introduced the e-Learning communities that WebCT is
now hosting on its webct.com site.)
- There is an increased
sharing of resources
and Karen Gage at final panel session
WebCT has copped its
fair share of criticism. However what seems to be evident from this
conference is that WebCT has evolved out of a desire by its creators
to improve learning for students, and not from any overt profit
motive. Some of its technological deficiencies are the fault of
web technology, not the software itself. While many have considered
its design inelegant and non-instinctive for developers, conference
demonstrations of the new version 3.0 to be released in July show
an entirely different, more user friendly interface, and more attractive
WebCT is now used in approximately
1400 institutions in 55 countries across the globe, and in the Asia Pacific
region alone many have already produced impressive resources using it
as their delivery platform, and have plotted their online future with
WebCT in mind. And from what I've seen over the last few days, I'd say
that is a wise decision.
the lunch time entertainment.....
the happy TAFE campers at the conference....