A Learning Centered Approach to Education Using Hypermedia and the Internet

Ramu Kannan (rkannan@coe.coppin.umd.edu)
Department of Management Science and Economics
Coppin State College

Alberto M. Bento (abento@ubmail.ubalt.edu)
Merrick School of Business
University of Baltimore

1. Introduction

Education in the USA is undergoing a major paradigm shift with the emphasis transferring from teaching towards learning. Learning is no longer considered as a mimetic process where knowledge is merely transferred or distributed to the students. It is now viewed as a transformational process whereby students acquire facts, principles, and theories as conceptual tools for reasoning and problem solving in meaningful contexts.

Major reasons for this paradigm shift include the perceived failure of the current educational system and also the change in the demography of the students. Adult students now constitute 83% of the college students as compared to 28% in 1970 (DOE). This is especially true in business schools where most students have a part-time/full-time job or have had some prior work experience. These students expect the instructor to be a facilitator for learning rather than a transferor of knowledge from "one vessel to another."

Recent studies indicate that electronically mediated classes are more learner-oriented than teacher- centered. Through the use of multimedia tools, the responsibility for learning is shifted to the student and the instructor facilitates the learning by acting as a coach, resource guide, and companion in learning. This attitude shift makes the student more proactive rather than reactive. Studies have also shown that learning is enhanced when students have extensive interaction with each other and with the instructor (Gomez). This requires a network of media that allows and encourages two-way communication before, during and after class. The classroom should also be capable of supporting multiple "vehicles of expression" (multimedia) which the students and instructor can use to interact.

The main purpose of this paper will be to discuss how IT, and particularly hypermedia and the World Wide Web can be effectively used in the classroom to achieve the goals of the constructionist-based learning theories. After a brief review of learning theories, it discusses the enhancements that IT has made to the classroom, with particular emphasis on hypermedia and the Web. Ways of assessing the success of IT in contribution towards the achievement of these goals will also be discussed.

2. Learning Theories

Various learning theories have been advocated in the education literature over the past century. According to the objectivist model of learning, which is based on Skinner's stimulus-response theory, the role of teaching is to transfer knowledge from the teacher to the learner. The instructor controls the material and the pace of learning. This model has been challenged by constructionist theoreticians.

The constructionist model is learner-centered. The student must control the pace of learning. The teacher acts as a moderator who facilitates the process of learning. Students learn better when they are allowed to discover things by themselves rather than being told what to learn. Variations of the constructionist theory include the collaborative theory of learning, and the cognitive information processing model of learning.

Constructionism-based theories see the classroom as a place where teacher and students construct knowledge and negotiate meanings together (Edwards & Mercer 1989, Pea 1994). The school is perceived as a knowledge building community (Scardamedia & Bereiter 1991) and a community of learners (Brown 1992). Learning is also treated as a collaborative and cooperative process where students constantly interact with the teachers and other students. Discussion and information sharing nurture the learning process, as different views of the subject result in new, shared knowledge (Whipple 1987, Leidner & Jarvenpaa 1995). Learning takes place in the context of real-time discourse (Pea, 1994).

Constructionism-based theories are very popular and have triggered a paradigm shift in the education process towards a student-centered learning approach.

3. Role of Information Technology

Information technology plays a key role in transforming the classroom. Newer IT devices have been added to the classroom to automate the process of teaching/learning. Such devices include instructor consoles, computers for students, interactive software, and so on. Interactive video networks (IVN) have also been installed in many institutions of higher learning. IVN's facilitate distance education as they allow instructors to interact with students at remote sites using television monitors, microphones, and display devices.

The newest classroom technologies which can be effectively mobilized in enhancing the learning process include hypermedia and the World Wide Web -- the focus of this paper.

Hypertext based software allows instructors to provide links between documents that have a common theme. Users of a hypertext document can click on specially marked phrases in a document and link to other documents. Hypermedia has taken hypertext to another dimension. A hypermedia based document can link to other documents which may contain, in addition to text, sounds, pictures, and even full motion video. Such software will allow the instructor to use multiple media while teaching in the classroom. Hypermedia based software like Netscape are available at a nominal price (or free of charge) to academics.

The instructor can use hypermedia based software to explain the interconnections among the topics covered in a lecture, and to naturally and quickly switch from one medium to another. Students can also use this software to make presentations.

Other Internet technologies have also enhanced the interaction between the students and the teacher and also among the students by providing e-mail facilities, Internet chat relays, and listservers. These technologies have an even more important role to play due to the growth of distance education. Students enrolled in distance education classes can use these communication technologies to improve interaction with others.

4. Links to World Wide Web Sites

According to a study published by the National Education Association, the education system in America portrays the classroom as an island on which the teacher, a group of students, standardized textbooks, and other limited resources exist in isolation. "The education process is focused inward on the resources that exist within the classroom and the activities that occur there" (NEA).

There exist islands of knowledge on the "information superhighways" of this world. These islands of knowledge contain a rich and broad range of resources that can enrich the learning experience of students. Accessing these islands of knowledge is no longer a difficult task, thanks to the Internet and the resources therein.

The World Wide Web (WWW) provides access to a vast array of useful information related to almost any subject matter. For example, ISWORLD at http://www.isworld.org/isworld.html is a WWW site that represents a junction for many information systems related resources. Course outlines, cases, research papers, excerpts from journal articles, software tools, conference proceedings, calls for papers, descriptions of IS programs, working papers, and proposals for collaborative effort are some of the resources that can be accessed at ISWORLD.

Similar sites are available for every major area in the business curriculum, such as the International Accounting Network (http://www.scu.edu.au/anet/raw.html), the WWW Virtual Library: Finance and Investments (http://www.cob.ohio-state.edu/dept/fin/overview.htm). Access to such resources will expand the horizons of both instructors and students. It will encourage an open exchange of ideas with people with similar interests around the world. Instructors need not "reinvent the wheel" while designing new courses or modifying existing courses.

5. Course Management on the Web

Presently, the course syllabus and handouts provided to the student are static in nature. Once distributed, these documents cannot be changed or modified, and also lack depth. The topics to be covered may be listed in the course outline, but including descriptions makes the document lengthy and thus is rarely done. This makes the course devoid of the requisite flexibility. The costs of duplicating handouts, syllabi, and assignments have proven to be a burden. Sometimes logistical factors prevent a student from receiving an assignment in time.

When course materials are placed on the Web, students can select a topic in the course outline and look at the description of a topic, and required reading assignments. Students can select the exam schedule and look at the topics included for that exam. Assignments and projects can be made available on-line on the WWW. Students can access class materials at anytime and from anyplace (via a computer), save or print handouts, assignments, etc.

Instructors can easily change schedules in these on-line documents and inform the students via e-mail. Students can also submit assignments, projects and take-home exams electronically. Alternatively, all the handouts and the hypermedia software can be provided to the students on disk and they can browse the course materials off-line at their convenience.

Traditional course materials were rendered unusable when the software package in which they were created became obsolete. For example, a handout prepared using an old business graphics software cannot be used anymore because it is no longer available in the office or classroom. Instructors also face problems when the software package that they use at home is not available in the office.

Web course materials are software and hardware independent. Instructors can re-use handouts and presentation materials that were created with old or incompatible software, by converting them from the original format straight to a format that can be used on the Web, like for example GIF files. Browser software can be used across computer platforms.

6. Developing course home pages

A course home page is comprised of syllabus, assignments, projects and exams, readings and references, class presentation charts and student handouts. See examples at http://worf.ubalt.edu/~abento/index.shtml#courses. For a repository of information systems courses visit ISWorld at http://www.cba.bgsu.edu/amis/smagal/isedu/ .

The development of course home pages is incremental, along with the course development and/or re-development during the semester/ quarter.

6.1 Syllabus development

Create the syllabus in a word processor, as usual, and have it converted automatically to HTML. At the time of this writing Wordperfect 6.0 and above, Microsoft Word 6.0 and above, and Lotus Word Pro 96 allow you to do so. There is no need to learn any commands in HTML (the markup language pages are written for the Web). References available on-line can be connected directly to the syllabus.

This allows the use of tables, bold, italic, centering, bullets, etc, as in regular wordprocessing. In addition, it is possible to create hypermedia links still in the word processor. Some limitations will happen, however, related to margins, indentation and justification (demonstration at conference). For an introduction to page development using HTML see http://worf.ubalt.edu/~abento/html/essential.html .

6.2 Assignments, projects, exams development and linking

Create the assignments, projects and exam in the same way as the syllabus -- use a word processor and export/publish in HTML format. Once the assignments, etc, are created they need to be linked to the syllabus. There are two ways to do it: (a) open the original syllabus word processor file and add the links to the new class materials, or (b) use a HTML editor (see http://worf.ubalt.edu/~abento/software.html) and add the link to the syllabus html file (demonstration at conference).

6.3 class presentation charts and handouts development

Class presentation charts and handouts can be the same. Once the class presentation charts are created it is up to the students to print the class handouts directly from the Web at their own discretion.

Of course, class presentation charts can be created using a word processor just like the syllabus, assignments etc. Most faculty members prefer, however, to create the charts using a business presentation graphics package, such as Freelance, Powerpoint, Harvard Graphics. These packages can be used to create graphical files in gif format to be used on the Web. Old versions of these packages allow conversion chart by chart, not the whole presentation. The recent (Windows 95) version of Freelance, Powerpoint, and others allow the automatic conversion of the whole presentation, i.e. a class meeting (demonstration at conference).

Therefore, no knowledge of HTML is required to publish class presentation charts on the Web. Linking these charts to the syllabus can be done, again, by either editing the syllabus word processor or html files.

Old class presentation charts can be re-used to publish on the Web, either by exporting chart by chart, or importing to a newer version of a business graphics presentation package and exporting the whole presentation, as discussed before.

6.4 Organization and updating

Once developed, course materials need to be stored (uploaded) to a directory that a Web server in your institution can read. Many system administrators assign a special directory (WWW or similar name) in faculty accounts from which the institution's Web server can read. This directory is later referred as server.name.edu/~account/ . Sub-directories can be created in this special directory for each course home page. For example, a course MIS300 can be housed in a sub-directory 300 of the special directory (WWW), and its address would be: http://server.name.edu/~account/MIS300/

The syllabus and assignments can be saved (uploaded) directly to this directory. Class presentation charts, however, should be stored in sub-directories of the course page sub-directory to facilitate their future updating (replacement by new charts), otherwise finding a particular chart among 100 others from a previous semester/quarter will be difficult. These class session subdirectories can be named just by a number, such as 1, 2, etc, or a class session name. For example session 10 of the MIS300 course could be stored at http://server.name.edu/~account/MIS300/10/ .


available on request.

Acknowledgement: This work was funded by the Coppin State College-University of Baltimore Collaborative Program.

This page is maintained by Al Bento who can be reached at abento@ubmail.ubalt.edu. This page was last updated on May 22, 1996. Although we will attempt to keep this information accurate, we can not guarantee the accuracy of the information provided.