Economics Network CHEER Virtual Edition

Volume 13, Issue 1, 1998

Stagestruck: A Report on ASCILITE 98

Ros O'Leary
University of Bristol

ASCILITE 98 (Australasian Society for Computers in Tertiary Education's 15th annual conference) presented a striking and packed 3 day programme involving issues ranging from evaluation, design, development through to implementation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a continent of such vast physical size and disparate population there seemed to be a comprehensive coverage of technologies used for distance education. This didn't mean campus-based potentials and issues were minimised - quite the contrary. The conference as a whole examined many cutting-edge technologies already being used in Australian (and other countries') education that can provide innovative, flexible and deep learning at any institution.

Sydney Opera House

A particularly noticeable piece of multimedia presented at the conference was Stagestruck, developed at the Faculty of Education, University of Wollongong (by the same design team that created 'Exploring the Nardoo' - see the LTSS website for a notes from the LTSS seminar last year on the package).

Stagestruck is a virtual learning environment designed for drama students which allows them to explore a virtual theatre, the Sydney Opera House. Students can navigate around the Opera House collecting information and developing their own performance. Information about Australian performing arts can be found backstage where key people (eg the stage manager, conductor) outline their roles, and performing arts personalities detail their own experiences. The tutorial rooms and performance stage provide the learner with tools to create their own performance, ranging from set design, sound, performance and performer actions. Students can produce their own performance scripts, choose costumes and even change the intonation and speed of lines spoken.

The package is both highly sophisticated and based soundly on a constructivist learning framework. The learners are provided with the information and tools to actively construct their own performances, expressing their own ideas and interpretations. In practice the package has also proved great fun for students.

Stagestruck also won an award at the conference for 'exemplary use of electronic technologies in teaching and learning in tertiary education'.

Web technologies in practice

One particular theme that seemed to run throughout the conference was that of using the latest web technologies in education. On-line discussion groups, announcements, course materials and assessment were all facilities considered important for teaching and learning on the web and many examples of them being used were presented at the conference.

Role Play

An interesting and successful use of discussion boards (threaded discussions that take place on-line simply by filling in an on-line form to add the next thread) was researched by Freeman and Capper of the University of Technology, Sydney. They used the web package TopClass to explore asynchronous anonymous role play.

Students were each privately assigned the role of a specific and significant character in the current securities markets (eg politicians, judges, regulators etc) and asked to research their individual role. The students then had to respond to staff generated press release with public messages to the whole group (via the discussion board) and privately between individuals (via e-mail). The students were made aware that their on-line debate was being assessed.

What the role play facilitated was a different and deeper approach to learning about the securities market. Students were highly motivated and deeply involved in the task. The anonymity, which would not have been possible without the web, allowed the students to be uninhibited with their responses, and noticeably reduced effects of gender, ethnicity and language proficiency.

WebTeach and coffee shops

Group interactions on the web are also being supported at the University of New South Wales where the Professional Development Centre has developed their own web package, WebTeach. WebTeach facilitates a whole range of on-line group work, primarily for off-campus students, such as discussion, brainstorming and quizzes. The motivation behind the package was not to use the web simply to publish course content or student instructions, but to use it much more fully and deeply to more closely reflect face-to-face teacher/learner and learner/learner interactions.

A WebTeach group page consists of three sections: a notice board, a seminar room and a coffee shop. Only teachers can post notices or start activities in the seminar room, but anyone can begin a conversation in the coffee shop. Notices, seminar activities and coffee shop conversations are added to the page simply by filling out a form at its foot. The seminar room is the only area that is assessed and within it a teacher can start a brainstorm (an anonymous list), pose a question (all students answer; other students answers are only revealed when the student has submitted her own), start a discussion and set tasks.

The package has been found to be simple and easy to use for both teachers and students and so far, has been successfully used by several Philosophy groups for distance teaching, a group of general medical practitioners and some French undergraduate groups.

TopClass: an institutional approach

The system that facilitated Freeman's and Capper's role play is TopClass: this web-based learning tool has been made available to the entire University of Technology, Sydney. After evaluating many of the current tools available to facilitate teaching using the web, representatives of each Faculty at the university chose TopClass, which allows the following facilities:

The University has concentrated on using the communication features of TopClass - announcements, discussions, private emails, debates, simulations and role play, and with great success. Amongst the lessons learned so far are that TopClass has proved to be simple and easy to use and has provide a useful student/teacher communication framework. It was concluded, however, after experiencing problems integrating TopClass into existing systems that available web-based learning tools are still in their relative infancy and only after more development will any one package be able to meet all the needs of an institution.

The TeleTOP project

The TeleTOP project at the University of Twente, the Netherlands is another project using web-based technologies to enhance teaching and learning. Using a Lotus Notes server and a Domino database the University developed their own system (being unable to find a system on the market to meet all their requirements). The motivation for the project was to offer education from the whole institution in a more flexible way, in particular allowing non-campus based students to participate in their learning in the same way as local students.

Teachers were presented with a whole menu of tools to use in their teaching. All of them chose the news (up-to-date information), roster (study materials, assignments etc), course information (course descriptions, assigned texts etc) and email. Among the other tools commonly chosen were the quizzmaster, chat facility, discussion area, collaborative workspace, multimedia resources and presentation workspace.

The project has been running in full since September 1998 and has been extremely successful in terms of ease of use (for teachers and students - no HTML knowledge required) and 'extending' the teacher by providing them with the facility to add extra opportunities for student reflection, for communication, for student contribution of additional learning resources, and for peer evaluation and peer evaluation. The project is currently being formatively evaluated externally.

References and further information:

'Exploring the Nardoo'
notes from LTSS seminar last year on the package.

Rob Wright, John Helberg and Barry Harper, Interactive Multimedia Unit, Faculty of Education, University of Wollongong, Australia.

Barry Harper is a keynote speaker at the ALT-C 99 conference being held at the University of Bristol, during September 1999 (see for details)

Lindsay Hewson and Chris Hughes, Professional Development Centre, University of New South Wales, Australia

TopClass at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia:
James Sawyer and Shirley Alexander, Institute for Interactive Multimedia at the University of Technology

TeleTOP project:
Prof. Dr Betty Collis, Faculty of Education Science and Technology, University of Twente, The Netherlands

Learning shell providers:

Learning Space
FirstClass Collaborative Classroom
CourseInfo [now trading as BlackBoard - Web Editor]
Web Course in a Box
Toolbook Librarian [now trading as, Inc. - Web Editor]
eCollege (formerly Real Education)
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