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An evaluation of the provision of professional development courses to teachers via the Internet

Stephen R. Kessell
Science and Mathematics Education Centre
Curtin University
In first semester 1998, Curtin University's Science and Mathematics Education Centre (SMEC) trialed a new (to us) method of providing professional development to teachers by offering a course totally via the Internet. The course, Teaching Year 11 - 12 Information Systems, attracted 21 Perth teachers (as well as 14 enrolled postgraduate students). Formative and summative evaluations were conducted by: The formative evaluation prompted several minor changes to the course's content (but not organisation), the addition of a "How to Write a Report" module, and the provision of several modules as self-contained "downloads" (which teachers then made available to their students on their own school's Intranet). The summative evaluation prompted SMEC to provide three additional courses in this format during second semester.

This paper describes the rationale, development and presentation of the course in some detail, examines the steep learning curve for lecturers producing online courses, and considers the advantages of providing multimedia to school students through professional development courses for their teachers.


Major changes have been made to the secondary computing / IT syllabi in Western Australia over the past two years, creating an urgent need for professional development opportunities for secondary computing teachers. These changes represent a move away from computer programming per se, and a more realistic appraisal of what competencies and skills are deemed appropriate — even essential — for young adults living in the so-called information age. Concurrently, there

… appears to be a fair amount of confusion, amongst parents, students and even some teachers, between what I call "educational computing" — using computers, digital information and the Internet to teach a wide range of subjects — and "computer education" — the teaching of how computers and networks operate, personal computing skills, information systems design and analysis, and programming. The rush to get more computers into schools, and improve students' access to them, can easily ignore the basic issue of how this technology can be used to improve educational outcomes. I think there still is much uncertainty about how best we can incorporate the suite of information technology (IT) tools across the curriculum — how to do more than "to be seen to" make small, superficial and/or cosmetic changes which incorporate IT, or to provide every student with x minutes access per week (Kessell 1997b).

The situation has been exacerbated by two other developments. The first was the release of a draft Curriculum Framework, by the Interim Curriculum Council in 1997 (followed by the release of the final Curriculum Framework, by the Curriculum Council in 1998). The Curriculum Framework sets out what all students should know, value and be able to do as a result of the programs they undertake in schools in Western Australia from kindergarten through to year 12. Its fundamental purpose is to provide a structure around which schools can build curriculum. It is neither a curriculum nor a syllabus, but a framework to direct the provision of learning opportunities for students attending government or non-government schools or home schooling. It is aimed at giving schools and teachers flexibility and ownership over curriculum in a dynamic and rapidly changing world environment. In my view, a major feature of this initiative is that… it addresses what students should know… and be able to do. It does not prescribe the ways schools deliver the curriculum (Curriculum Council of W.A. 1998a).

The second development was the state government's announcement, in early 1998, of approximately $ 100 million to be spent, over three years, on upgrading computing facilities in public schools. The emphasis was on the purchase of hardware, and appeared to neglect such essential issues as technical support, teacher professional development and educational software, a deficiency that has been criticised strongly by the Educational Computing Association of Western Australia (A. Wilson, personal communication, May 1998).

All of these changes have increased the pressure on secondary computing teachers to upgrade, or at least keep current, their technical and professional skills.

The new Year 11 - 12 Computing Curriculum

Over the period 1997-99, the "old" Year 11 Applied Computing, and Year 12 TEE Computing subjects, progressively have been replaced by four (4) new Year 11 computing subjects:

and four (4) new Year 12 subjects:

(Curriculum Council 1998c).

Year 12 Information Systems is the new TEE subject (3 hour central examination); the other seven subjects are / will be assessed via prescribed sets of "outcomes".

Year 12 Information Systems is a radical departure from the old TEE subject (which was almost totally computer programming). It includes five interrelated modules:

the first four of which were virtually ignored in the old syllabus (Curriculum Council 1998b). I believe it represents a very significant improvement over the old syllabus, in that it teaches a range of issues and skills appropriate to both intelligent users of computing / telecommunications systems, and provides the ideal background for students planning tertiary study in the broad IT area.

I should note that, during the period 1987-76, in which I was the Undergraduate Course Controller in Curtin's School of Computing, we found that students who had studied Year 12 TEE Computing were not necessarily advantaged; in fact, we did not encourage prospective computing science students to study TEE computing. In contrast, the new Information Systems syllabus provides an ideal grounding for those pursuing further study in the IT area, and in fact includes material that is not usually taught until the second year of the computing science degree. As I noted last year:

I see these changes in the teaching of computing at the u pper secondary level as tremendous. Previously, students entering a tertiary computing degree from TER computing studies exhibited a very shallow and superficial understanding of how systems are developed and used. They frequently were "gun programmers" (albeit with a lot of bad habits), but often failed to grasp what is really involved in designing, developing, implementing, maintaining and using information systems. After perhaps four semesters of study, and completion of about 8 or 10 units in programming, databases, software engineering, applied mathematics and "computer foundations" study, they began to see "what it's all about". Students studying these new information systems subjects at secondary level will, in my view, have a much better foundation for tertiary study in computing. Those who do not go on to study computing further will have a much better grounding in the use and limitations of information and its processing in a wide range of fields (Kessell 1997a).
However, it is fair to say that many teachers were daunted by the prospect of teaching this new, highly technical subject, especially if their IT qualifications and/or training was weak or possibly out of date (Kessell 1997b).The (then chair) of the Information Systems Syllabus Committee strongly encouraged us to offer professional development to these teachers (R Ward, personal communication, July 1997).

The provision of professional development for Information Systems teachers

My first attempt to address these needs was to offer a non-credit, PD course called "Information Systems for Teachers" during second semester 1997. It was, in my view, a disaster, for several reasons (which are now obvious in hindsight):

The class of 20 teachers had a very wide range of IT / computing skills and knowledge (or lack thereof);

The class was lecture / tutorial based, without the opportunity for hands-on work (due to SMEC's lack of a computing laboratory); and

Many teachers found it extremely difficult to attend late afternoon classes on campus. (Kessell 1997b)

In first semester 1998, we changed our approach completely, by offering a new course which was:
Aimed specifically at teachers of the new year 11 and 12 Information Systems syllabi;

Targeted at teachers who possessed already a "reasonably strong" background in computing;

Offered in its entirety over the World Wide Web; and

Available for either non-credit PD or credit towards a MSc or professional doctorate.

The subject was SMEC 708: Educational Technology and Computing (aka Teaching Year 11 — 12 Information Systems).This was the first time it had been taught by SMEC, and it was the first SMEC course to be taught totally over the WWW.The course attracted 35 students (14 enrolled post-graduate students and 21 Perth teachers), 30 of whom completed the course.

Structure and content of the subject

The course includes nine somewhat overlapping modules and is designed to be completed over a 14-week semester. The modules are:
Introduction: Trends in IT Education and Curricula (and includes material on computers across the curriculum, "wired schools", and conpulsory laptop programs)

Teaching Computing, Information Systems and Information Technology: Multiple Goals for Multiple Audiences

Using, Representing and Modelling Information

Computer Architecture and Telecommunications

Programming in a Procedural Language

Database Design, Implementation and Management

Information Systems Design, Construction and Use: The Basics of Systems Analysis and Software Engineering

The Internet as a Teaching Tool and Resource (including material on how teachers can construct their own WWW pages and other multimedia teaching materials)

Social Impacts of Information Technology (dependence on technology, safety, equity, inappropriate materials on networks, ethical, moral, legal issues).

The course covers virtually every aspect of the year 11 and 12 Information Systems syllabi, and includes a considerable additional suite of materials on computing in schools, computing across the curriculum, pedagogy, development of teaching materials, and the use of networked multimedia.In short, it is a very gutsy course, not for the faint of heart.As discussed below, it has been very well received by more than 90 % of the participants, and has been praised by the current chair of the Information Systems Syllabus Committee (K. Lego, personal communication, July 1998).

Delivery via the World Wide Web

Perhaps the most significant feature of the course was its delivery entirely and exclusively via the WWW, a decision that was not made lightly. It was prompted by several considerations:

All but one of the enrolled-for-credit students resided outside of Western Australia;

The plethora of appropriate materials available over the WWW;

The difficulties experience previously by teachers being unable to attend weekly classes on campus; and

The assumption that computing teachers would be comfortable with electronic course delivery.

Having decided to make it web-based, we decided to make it ENTIRELY web-based: no paper, no traditional readers, no traditional textbook. An (optional) weekly workshop/tutorial was offered; its purpose was to allow local students to clarify content / understanding, but primarily to network and compare notes with colleagues. These sessions were not used to convey the course's content.

In total, I placed about 500 pages of instructional material on the WWW site, with hyperlinks to perhaps another 30 sites of required reading (and perhaps 500 sites of "optional — for further information — useful links" etc.).

Formal evaluation (discussed below) showed that this delivery method was preferred by all but one of the students (and he detested it!).

A steep learning curve for the instructor

While I appreciated that developing a new course entirely on the WWW would be difficult, I underestimated the work involved. I have used the WWW for years, but had never before written a web course. My original estimate was that, to prepare a "traditional" version of such a new course, would probably take about 100 hours; I doubled this estimate for a web course (and my first venture writing one). My estimate was conservative — it actually required about 450 hours to implement.

There are several reasons for this, all of which are fairly obvious in hindsight.

The actual production of HyperText Markup Language (html, the language of the web), is very tedious, even using modern editors and composers. Every "new" (to me) exercise — incorporating graphics, sound, voice, video — had a frustrating learning curve, even though I had spent the previous ten years teaching computing science.

While a great deal of relevant material is available online for linking to a new course, its very volume, and variable quality, make the search and selection much more tedious than one would encounter with paper media.

The inability to includes printed sources, due to copyright restrictions, excludes material than can be incorporated legally into a paper reader. [NB The Commonwealth government has announced legislation to rectify this problem, but the change has not yet be enacted.]

In summary, I'm glad I didn't know what I was getting into at the time!I am also very grateful that the learning curve is behind me; my creation of three new WWW courses this semester has been much easier.

Evaluation of the course

Both formative and summative evaluations have been conducted (and are ongoing, as the course is being offered again this semester).

Evaluation instruments and methods included:

The weekly feedback centred mainly on "how should I present this", "can you provide more details / examples", "I don't understand this — where can I find help", and especially "can you add some material on {such and such}". Perhaps because the course covered all aspects of the new secondary syllabi, most recommendations were for "fine tuning", and especially for more teaching examples. Five students invited me to come into their own classrooms to present one or more specific topics.

The online end of course questionnaire was completed by 15 of the 30 students who finished the course. It included 43 questions (36 multiple choice and 7 "please write comments"). The questions addressed many issues, including:

Had they studied via the WWW previously? Was it preferable to "paper"? Was it preferable to attending classes? Were the optional workshops useful?

Questions about specific content, modules, examples, difficulty level, breadth, depth, workload, etc.

Design / quality / inclusiveness of the WWW site and its links.

Utility of online, downloadable teaching materials (which they could use in their own classrooms). Should some be removed? Should others be added?

Should it be taught again? With what changes? Best features / worse features? Should other courses be offered in this format? etc.

Only one student had studied previously via the WWW (and that was only part of a course).All but one preferred a WWW course to attending weekly classes.One of the 15 would have preferred a traditional paper-based course; three were not sure, and the rest preferred the WWW over paper.Most Perth-based students would have preferred to attend more of the weekly workshops but were unable to do so, due to the press of other duties.Perceived benefits of the weekly workshops included (in order of importance):

To the question "Was the balance, amongst technical content, how to teach, and current issues, right?", 11 said Yes, 4 were not sure, and nobody said No. To the question "Without turning it into a course on constructivism, the lecturer attempted to reinforce… a constructivist teaching paradigm… Was he successful?", 11 said Yes, one said No, and three were no sure.

Everyone agreed that the balance between a "bare bones but fast to load" website, vs. striking graphics (at the expense of loading time), was about right. When asked if the students were able to use / adapt the teaching examples in their own classrooms, 14 said Yes and one said No. When asked about the emphasis on recent changes to the Western Australia computing syllabi during the first two weeks of the course, (not surprisingly) the W.A. teachers thought it was great and the interstate / overseas teachers didn't.

Questions about the inclusion / emphasis / depth of specific modules produced an agreement rate which ranged between 82 and 100 percent, depending on the module. All students found the online hyperlinked reading, and the "useful links page", to be useful.

All students stated that the course should be taught again, in more or less its present form. All but one thought a similar course, aimed at year 8 — 10 computing teachers, should be offered. Similarly, all but one thought another course, aimed at secondary science teachers' use of multimedia, should also be offered. All but one thought more of SMEC's courses should be offer entirely over the WWW.

Several issues stood out in the "please write comments / suggestions" questions.

Most teachers found the flexibility to study in their own time, plus the vast range of linked online material, to be a major benefit.

Several noted that they did not have time to do justice to all the optional material. [NB This led to my extending their access for an additional semester.]

More online, downloadable teaching examples, exercises and modules were desired. [One added: But that means we have to get our act together.]

Eight of the 15 respondents chose to answer the last (optional) question: Please add any further comments about this course, or any related issues, that you deem appropriate. All made highly positive comments:
Great course -- thank you very much. (You also showed us just how much work is involved on setting up a quality course on the Internet)

I thoroughly enjoyed this unit. The material was interesting, the assignments flexible, the assignment turnaround from Steve was excellent. If all the SMEC units are as well presented and carried out as this one I can see myself having a great time learning.

Thank you, Steve, for your efforts on behalf of computing teachers.

Thank to Steve K for his venture — it is only the beginning

I enjoyed the course. I could see that Steve spent 100s of hours putting it together.

I did not see the lecturer at all but I liked his way in teaching very much. Simply, because I am very busy but his interesting stories about the teaching points attracted me to study all the topics of the subject. He must be a great teacher with a great sense of humour.

Great work Steve!

Rapid action contingency arrangements necessary when student's system fails!!

In summary, features that students like most about the Internet format included:

Features that students like least about the Internet format included:

The most interesting, and I believe the most valuable, outcome of the course and its evaluation was unintended. Early in the course, I made the offhand comment at one of the weekly workshops: If any of you would like me to come into your classroom and observe what you're doing, I'd be happy to visit. Five immediately took me up on the offer (and more followed later).

What I intended to be one or two brief visits to each school, as an observer, turned into something quite different. Three teachers immediately asked "How would you present {such and such}" {each had a different such-and-such}; this led to some joint planning of lessons, teaching examples, online exercises… This soon led to my teaching (over a period of from four to 10 classes) different components of the syllabus [for example, How To Write a Report at Scotch College, Designing an Information System at Rossmoyne Senior High School, Social Issues of IT at Newman College, etc.]. As an experiment, I then placed these "teaching modules" on the web site. Other teachers starting evaluating / trialing / using them in their own classes, not only in Perth, but interstate and overseas.

I found the experience — which is ongoing and growing rapidly — to be invaluable; it showed me very clearly wher e secondary students were having problems, where their textbooks let them down, and where teachers needed additional instructional resources. It was also a challenge (I last taught high school as a relief teacher in 1973) and it was a great deal of fun! In hindsight, I believe the most valuable outcome of the course was the development of this network of lecturer and teachers — trying out new ideas, sharing them around, finding out what works and doesn't work. We are now (August 1998) at the point where several self-contained teaching modules are available for all to use: the only requirement I impose is that the teachers give me feedback. This approach and interaction has also been applauded by the Information Systems Syllabus Committee. The use of the WWW to deliver the course makes this, as well as instant updating, possible; we never could have accomplished this with paper-based materials.

Conclusion and outlook

I am not quite sure where all of this is going. Quite to my surprise, my use of the WWW for course delivery — a medium that some might see as isolating and reducing contact amongst lecturer and students — has done a great deal to promote collaborate curriculum development and delivery. I can think of no other way in which a scenario like this could transpire:
School X in Perth asks me to develop and teach a module on {such-and-such}.

One week later, I have written new teaching materials which are now on that school's intranet.

Immediately after trialing the material for 5 days in School X, I revise it and place it on the WWW for other to try.

Within a month, it has been used in five different schools, in Western Australia, Tasmania, and Canada… Teachers are sharing their experiences… The material has been revised… Then along comes a request from School Y to develop and present a module on…

None of this was planned or anticipated — it just happened.

Because of the success of this course in first semester, it is being repeated now. I have also developed three more courses which are being taught over the WWW this semester (the first two of them exclusively over the WWW) (Kessell 1998):

Teaching Year 8 - 10 Computing and Information Technology

Using Multimedia and the Internet in Secondary Science Education

Information Technology, Science and Society

Like the Teaching Year 11 — 12 Information Systems audience, the students are a mix of enrolled SMEC graduate students and teachers (from every Australian state, New Zealand, Canada and the USA) involved for non-credit PD.

While it is still "early days", I am now developing online, downloadable modules as we go, encouraging the participating teachers to trial them, give me feedback, and share their own materials with the other participants.With a bit of luck, I think we can develop a fair range of useful materials, which will be available to all, over the next year or two.

Literature cited

Curriculum Council of Western Australia (1997). Draft Curriculum Framework for Kindergarten to Year 12 Education in Western Australia. http://www.curriculum.wa.edu.au/

Curriculum Council of Western Australia (1998a). Curriculum Framework for Kindergarten to Year 12 Education in Western Australia. http://www.curriculum.wa.edu.au/

Curriculum Council of Western Australia (1998b). Information Systems (Year 12) Syllabus (E238). http://www.curriculum.wa.edu.au/

Curriculum Council of Western Australia (1998c). Technology and Enterprise Area: Syllabus Manuals and Common Assessment Tasks Booklets. http://www.curriculum.wa.edu.au/

Kessell, S.R.(1997a). Improving science students' problem solving skills. Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum'97. Notre Dame University, Fremantle: http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1997/kessell.html

Kessell, S.R. (1997b). Staff development in computing and information systems literacy: Computing as a tool, not an end in itself. Gender and Science and Technology Association -- International Organisation for Science and Technology Education Australasian Joint Regional Conference. Curtin University of Technology, Perth.

Kessell, S.R. (1998). National Key Centre for School Science and Mathematics: Professional Development Courses for Secondary Teachers. http://www.smec.curtin.edu.au/

Author: Stephen R. Kessell, Science and Mathematics Education Centre, Curtin University, GPO Box U1987, Perth, Western Australia 6845

Please cite as: Kessell, S. R. (1998). An evaluation of the provision of professional development courses to teachers via the Internet. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1998. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/1998/kessell.html

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