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Ross F. Collins*

Using the Web for Class Discussions: APilot Study

Volume 10, 1997




Introduction
Many teachers will remember (as very young children, of course) the introduction of the filmstrip in the classroom in the early 60s. Touted as a technical revolution in learning, educators scrambled to secure projectors and good instructional presentations.
A few years passed, and the excitement ebbed. Filmstrips didn’t quite disappear, but they became a somewhat staid tool for teachers, not much more exciting than the blackboard.

Is the Web the filmstrip of the 90s? We can’t be sure yet. Internet’s World Wide Web is so new to education it hardly existed even 24 months ago. Today the technology is part of nearly every educator’s discussion, and the scramble now is to work up a class-based Home Page, assign Web-based research or papers, or teach actual Web-page development.
To find out just how effective these new ideas will become in the next millennium’s classroom, it’s wise to start with some test projects. Pilot projects involving actual classes can help us test the technology for pitfalls, and help us learn how to best apply it to specific courses, such as those in communication. I try every fall to designate classes for a pilot project involving new technology, and keep watch over the results. This means producing class surveys and other materials. As a pilot project for fall semester 1996, I chose as one goal the concept of a Web-based discussion group.


The Project
On-line discussion groups are not so new, but those based on the ease of Web technology haven’t been around long. Last fall North Dakota State University subscribed as a trial to discussion group software called BigMouth Lion, one of several Web-based discussion group packages available. Students could log onto this discussion group, scroll to classes and topics set up as file folders, keyboard a comment, edit that comment, and post it to the folder. They even had the opportunity to show their mood with smiley faces, scowley faces, or other tiny icons.

I chose this discussion group option for two classes. Understanding Media, MCOM 112, is a relatively large class (77 students) generally interested in a broad survey of the mass media. About two thirds are mass communication majors, and the vast majority are freshmen and sophomores. Mass Media Ethics, MCOM 431/631, is a somewhat smaller class (41 students) of mostly juniors and seniors, nearly all of them mass communication majors. One graduate student also registered for the class.

This gave me a good cross-section of students at both upper and lower levels of instruction, and a fairly large sample for more useful study results. (Graduate representation, obviously, was too low to measure in this case.) All students were assumed to know nothing about Internet Web-based techniques, and were given a handout describing basic Web-knowledge and ways to get onto the class discussion group page. (See a sample in the appendix below.) I also gave a 15-minute introduction to the Web-based discussion page during a lecture early in the semester.

Because I’ve found NDSU students, especially at the freshman/sophomore levels, to be generally reticent in class, I added attractions to tease them onto the class discussion page. First, to encourage them to at least have a look, I posted weekly “lecture synopses,” three- to four-paragraph condensations of the week’s material. These were designed for review, though students who missed class could at least get an idea from the Web. Sometimes I ended the synopses with a question to stimulate discussion. In addition, the younger students were required to take weekly in-class quizzes. Material from these quizzes became part of larger exams. To encourage quiz review, I added each quiz (but not the answers) to the discussion page a week or so after it was graded. Students could review for exams through the discussion group. For icing, I offered students a few extra credit points for posting comments to the group. Lastly, I emphasized that the discussion group would be driven primarily by student comments. I would only rarely add my two cents, usually in answer to a direct question. I did this to save myself time from repeated log-ins, but also to encourage students to take ownership of the discussion without the censoring influence of continual faculty surveillance.


The Survey and Results
Both classes were surveyed a couple weeks before semester’s end. Students were asked how often they consulted the page, why, whether they posted a comment, why or why not, and if the discussion group option should be offered again. Five-selection multiple choice answers were offered; multiple responses were possible to some of the questions. Students were also invited to comment on their answers. (Percentages below are rounded to nearest whole.)

In the lower-level (MCOM 112) class, 54 percent completed the survey. In the upper-level (MCOM 431/631) class, 79 percent completed the survey. At the end of term I counted the number of students who actually posted comments to the discussion page. In MCOM 112, 77 total postings represented 29 percent of students enrolled. In MCOM 431/631, 21 total postings represented 30 percent of students enrolled.

While the majority of students did not post comments, a majority did report they looked at the discussion page. About 71 percent of MCOM 112 students reported looking at least once during the semester, compared with 60 percent of MCOM 431/631 students. Of those, however, only 7 percent and 12 percent looked at least once a week. Nearly one-third (29 percent) of the younger students didn’t consult the page at all; 41 percent of the older students did not consult the page.

Those who did take a look at the page were interested for a variety of reasons. MCOM 112 students reported primarily (51 percent) that they wanted to review the lecture synopses; another 29 percent want to see what other students were posting, 24 percent wanted to add their own comments, and nearly half (43 percent) thought the extra credit opportunity was worth shooting for. About one fifth (21 percent) were curious about the new technology. Upper class students found somewhat similar motivations: 44 percent wanted to review the synopses, 18 percent wanted to see other students’ comments, 15 percent wanted to add their own, 32 percent wanted the extra credit, and 15 percent were curious about the technology. (10 percent and 5 percent respectively choose “other”; multiple choices to this question were possible.)

Of those in the intro-level class who explained why they did not consult the on-line page, nearly half choose “no time”; 10 percent could not understand system and instructions, and 5 percent could not gain access to a computer. Some 40 percent chose “other.” In the upper-level class, 58 percent had no time for the process; 5 percent could not understand the system, but no one complained of access problems. More than one third (37 percent) answered “other.”

Concerning satisfaction with the concept of Web-based on-line discussions among those who did log on at least once, More than one third (38 percent) of the 112 students responded that technological problems made access frustrating; 8 percent said the on-line study material was not useful, and another 8 percent said the discussions were not useful. Nearly half (46 percent) answered “other.” The 431/631 students complained of technical problems as well (42 percent) but another 42 percent said they had no time—in contrast, not one student in the 112 class who did consult the discussion page cited this as a problem. About 17 percent answered “other.”
Would students like to see a discussion page offered again? Overwhelmingly yes: 95 percent of the 112 students, 97 percent of the 431/631 students.

Written comments on the survey can help us understand the “other” so often chosen under actual questions. Many students wanted “better instructions” or said, “Make directions easier to understand.” In fact, more than one third of the written comments by 112 students expressed frustration with the system. Several claimed they must be just “computer illiterate.” Of upper-class students, one fourth complained about the technology.

Other suggestions included “Offer hints on tests to get more participation, make it mandatory to go on-line.” “Encourage students to use it by offering different incentives or posting some assignments. Also, pose questions that people can really debate about, not just ones that lean toward one obvious answer.” “Have each of group of colleagues go on the Web page and start a discussion with each other. Then other groups can join in and hopefully a major discussion will occur.”
A number of students at both levels liked the idea, even if they didn’t use it: “Even though I did not use it I think it was still helpful to know that it was there.” “I think it is a really good idea, I just know many never take the time to figure out how to do it.” “It sounds great. I wish I would’ve used it.”


Discussion and Conclusions
Students overwhelmingly support the idea of computer-based technology in the classroom. The findings of this pilot study support findings of other pilot projects I’ve tried, including e-mail quizzes, and a web-based term paper. Participation, however, lags behind enthusiasm. Why? Results of this study indicate the primary reason is lack of time, especially at the upper-class level. Another common complaint was lack of instruction: students wanted more in-class demonstrations and perhaps a field trip to the computer center. Students at both the upper and lower levels offered similar responses in this area and generally to survey questions, with the exception of usage: beginning students both used the technology more, and used it more often, than upper-level students. This may reflect the greater demands on the time of juniors and seniors. It might be assumed that younger students are more comfortable with computer technology and therefore more likely to use it, but comments indicating technology struggles were actually less at the upper levels than at the intro levels.

Not part of the survey but worth noting is the commitment the instructor also must make to introduce new technology into a class. I came to this study fairly familiar with Web concepts, but still had to spend some time learning the discussion group software. In addition, I needed to prepare the handout, and count student posts at the end to award extra credit. Most time-consuming, however, was the preparation and posting of lecture synopses, questions and old quizzes. This alone perhaps consumed a couple hours a week, and the guide, learning curve, and extra credit tallying two days at least. Of course, after initial material has been prepared, the time commitments are reduced.

Some student suggestions for improvement were helpful: communication between a designated colleague could encourage innovative Web-based teamwork. My discussion-stimulating questions could have been more stimulating; it’s hard to think up questions that really excite students. In fact, media-related topics most discussed on-line included music and movie reviews and related topics of pop culture. For those who worry the system will be misused, not one student posted profanity or otherwise inappropriate comments. Perhaps because they needed to include their names for the extra credit.

While I disagree that students ought to be forced to log on to a discussion group, perhaps I could have made it more appealing by including more assignments and classroom news, quizzes, or other extra credit opportunities. I could also have enclosed URLs pointing to other resources. This software offered the opportunity to include links, though no one tried that. Then, this would have given me as instructor a greater presence in the group, something I hoped to avoid, and would have taken more of my time. Also seemingly necessary is at least a couple hours’ worth of class time to demonstrate the technology.
I’ll likely make this a permanent part of at least my larger, lower-level class. Students like it. But is it revolutionary? I could have given out the lecture synopses and old quizzes in the classroom. And on-line discussions weren’t terribly lively or insightful. So far, the revolution is still incubating.


Appendix: Class Handout, Joining class web-based services
(by Ross Collins, NDSU Department of Communication, Fall 1996)
E-mail: rcollins@badlands.nodak.edu
Web page: http://www.ndsu.nodak.edu/instruct/wwwinstr/personnel/
rosscollins/rosscollins.html

The Web: Getting Into Netscape
Netscape is one of many “web browsers,” a computer program designed to find and transmit information from other computers to the one you’re using. The computers must be linked in an Internet-accessible network, and must have programs installed which allow them to create “packets” transmittable over the Internet. SLIP and PPP accounts, available through NDSU, and a modem let you do this on your home computer through the telephone. Or you can use a computer on campus.

A number of ways have been devised to transmit information from other computers to yours, including electronic mail, Gopher, FTP, Telnet, and World Wide Web. The last one, nicknamed “The Web,” has become most popular because, one, it’s easy, and two, it can transmit pictures as well as text. It can also call up other transmitting technologies as necessary to retrieve documents. Netscape is designed to read information coded using Web protocol, or HyperText Markup Language (HTML).

Millions of pieces of information are available on the Web, accessed through “Home Pages.” A Home Page is a sort of master directory for each source, giving you “links” to other information you may be interested in. For instance, if you call up my Home Page, you’ll find topics labeled “Resumé,” “Travel with Ross,” “A collection of class syllabi,” “History and scholarship,” etc. To see what each contains, you simply click the little pointing hand on the underlined words. Normally an underlined colored word on the Web indicates a link, and may occur anywhere in text as well as on lists. This brings you to the material. To back up, you choose “back” from the choices at top.

How do you find interesting Home Pages? If you know the URL (Uniform Resource Locator), you can just choose “Open Location” and type it in.

My home page URL is at the top of this sheet. URL for the NDSU Spectrum’s new on-line version is: http://spectrum.ndsu.nodak.edu. (Note: the periods at the end of sentences are not part of URLs.)

Otherwise, you can get directories of information available through Yahoo! (http://Yahoo.com) or other finding aids. NDSU’s Home Page (http://ndsu.nodak.edu/) has links to some of these.

Below are specific directions to merge onto the Information Superhighway from NDSU:

1. Go to a campus cluster site that has computers connected to the network. PCs (IBM compatible) must have Windows loaded. The windows system is native to Macintoshes. (If you are using your own computer, ignore this and go to the next step.)
2. On a PC, from the Program Manager, double-click on the “Comm” icon.
3. In the “Comm” window, double-click on the Netscape icon. (Note the blue/black “N.”)
Macintosh users: double-click on the Communication icon, and on Netscape icon, or “NDUS Net Server,” also a Netscape icon.
4. You’re now in Netscape, and ready to call up a Home Page. Some Netscape programs in the cluster may automatically call up the North Dakota State University system’s Home Page.
5. To call up a new page, click on the “Open button near the top center of the Netscape window, or choose “Open Location” from File pull-down menu.
6. Type the URL into the window. You don’t really need the http:// part; it just tells Netscape you’re asking for a HyperText Transport Protocol document, which it assumes anyway. Press Return or Enter.
If all the information of a particular page cannot be displayed on the screen at one time, use the Netscape window scroll bars to move up and/or down the page.
If you want to quit loading a Home Page before it’s finished, probably because you’re working at peak hours and it’s taking forever, click on the Stop button at upper right.
Exiting Home Page or Netscape
To exit a Home Page, click on the small close box at upper left.
To quit Netscape, go to the File menu and choose Exit.

Joining the class discussion
In addition to class home pages, I’ll set up class discussions using a new Web-based software called, somewhat whimsically, Big Mouth Lion. These discussion groups give you the opportunity to address questions to me and to the whole group at the same time, or to include your own observations. Each week (I hope) I’ll post a synopsis of that week’s lecture material for you to review, and ask a question designed to stimulate discussion. You’ll get extra credit for comments you post to the group, as long as you sign your name to them.

To join:
1. open Netscape, and call up NDSU’s Big Mouth Lion Home Page:
http://www.cc.ndsu.nodak.edu/wwwinstr/tools/conference/
2. Read the introductory information, and log in. You don’t have to use your name as a log in, but it’s a lot less confusing for me to give you extra credit if you do.
3. Fill out the form as specified for a new user. Write down your log in handle so you can quickly join the forum in the future.
4. Preview/submit the information. You can’t submit the info unless you have the required boxed filled out, and check the “Looks Good” box.
5. Choose: “Go to topic outline.”
6. Scroll down the topics to Understanding Media. Click on “Discussion Contents” to read other comments, or click on “Expand all comments.” It’s really pretty easy and intuitive. Add comments by clicking on that opportunity. The software will even check your spelling and—tee-hee—replace naughty words with some kind of #@*!! Don’t forget to sign your name if you want credit!
As you can see, it’s possible to create a new discussion under a topic heading, or even create a new topic. For this class, however, it’s confusing if you start a new topic—best to create new discussions or add new comments under the Understanding Media topic.
Questions?
NDSU’s help desk for sorting out computer problems is on the second floor of the IACC, or call 231-8685.

* Ross F. Collins is an associate professor of communication at North Dakota State University, Fargo.