The ever increasing presence and influence of computers and allied technology in higher education may be considered by some lecturers as beneficial to their teaching, by others as an unnecessary evil and by the majority, perhaps, as falling somewhere along a continuum between these two points. Notwithstanding the individual lecturer's level of 'approval', the future direction of technological development will no doubt have a considerable impact on academia in general.
Attracting in excess of 2000 delegates from all continents, CHI 2000 could be considered as the most influential of HCI gatherings for this year. Indeed, the presence of many of the major corporate 'players' bears this out. Microsoft, IBM, Hewlett Packard, NCR, Sun Microsystems, Philips, Motorola and six major publishing houses were represented. CHI (Computer-Human Interaction) spans a wide range of topics, including user interface software, interactive systems, intelligent user interfaces, computer-supported cooperative work, creativity and cognition, reality environments and universal usability. Whilst many of these fields, covered in a variety of formats (papers, presentations, workshops, discussions, demonstrations and posters), may be limited in their direct influence and interest to the academic community, there were some aspects of the conference that can be considered of relevance to the lecturer.
"We can reliably build 'second generation' intelligent computer tutors that are approximately half as effective as human tutors". As an opening comment for one paper this was somewhat against the optimistic view of the inherent benefits of technology espoused by many. This is possibly explained by the researcher being a cognitive psychologist (apparently the only one present with the exception of myself) rather than a computer scientist. The research focused on assessing the merits of interface enhancements designed to improve the effectiveness of computer-based tutoring. Animated feedback was shown to have no impact on the effort needed to attain 'mastery' of the problems presented, but this tool did produce significant gains in test performance, as measured by levels of accuracy and percentage of students who reached the highest grade. Sub goal scaffolding, the provision of support for learning progression, was, in contrast, found to produce a reliable reduction in the number of worked practice problems required to reach 'mastery', but did not improve levels of accuracy or the percentage of students reaching the top grade.
The use of animated characters providing feedback and providing feedback together with performance monitoring was reported in another paper. It was found that students became more anxious and their task performance decreased with the introduction of the feedback character and this effect was even greater with the feedback/monitoring character. These effects were found for both groups used, however the effects were stronger for the group containing students who were assessed as believing their success was controlled more by external influences than their own actions.
These reflected a number of aspects of education. Included were reports on a UK pilot project studying the practicalities of distance education via videoconferencing, science teaching through the Web, bridging reality and virtuality in vocational training. In addition, one poster focused on the evaluation criteria for scaffolding in learner-centred tools and another on comparisons between the quality of conceptual knowledge acquisition through computer versus printed presentation (the writer's own submission).
Of all the presentational formats, especially where education was concerned, the discussion groups were perhaps, the most productive. Two such groups, not attended by the writer, focused on 'Including users with disabilities' and 'Collaborative information retrieval'.
A well-balanced mix of teachers, lecturers and designers and suppliers of computer-based educational material attended the discussion entitled 'HCI in Education'. Initial discussion revealed a lack of satisfaction from both of the two naturally formed 'opponents': educationalists and producers. The emphasis of the developers could largely be summarised as looking to provide products that serve the widest possible academic community, have a high level of usability and are economically viable. In addition they considered that teachers underestimated the complexity of the processes and amount of time involved in producing computer-based material. The educationalists felt that whilst the usability of the product was important, what was essential was the quality of the material, the level of learning achievable and the degree to which a product could be modified, customised and/or integrated in order to suit individual curricula requirements. By the end of the session a greater understanding of the needs and limitations on both 'sides' was achieved and the need for greater and continuing consultation was acknowledged and sought.
Entitled albeit somewhat reluctantly by the organisers "'Learnability' testing in learner- centred design", this group was also productive. The discussion focused on ways in which academic staff could assess the various merits of computer-based learning material, not just usability (although its importance in the learning environment was widely accepted), but the 'educational validity' (the writer's preferred term for learnability) of the material and the manner of its instruction. Usability for a particular application can be determined fairly readily and such a quantified outcome is not usually open to great variation in interpretation or to much argument. The assessment of the 'educational validity' of a course is a complex process for the more traditional methods, let alone for computer-based material where additional factors need to be evaluated. Accept where knowledge acquisition is the sole (or main) pedagogic objective, there was a general consensus against the use of standard pre and post testing where the emphasis of the results tends to be on memory recall. Various alternative methods for quantifying knowledge application (levels of conceptual, problem solving skills) were discussed, along with the need for such assessment to be carried out longitudinally in order to fully account for skills learned. Interest in this topic was high and as a result an international mailing list for future discussions and a Web site have been proposed.
CHI 2000 provided a large arena for the presentation and discussion of technological advances in relation to human factors. Educational issues could not be considered at the forefront, as evidenced by the low overall coverage in the presentations (and possibly also in the allocation of rooms), nevertheless there was sufficient dialogue between the various parties involved with computer-based learning material, to give hope for a greater level of consultation and understanding in future developments.