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An Experiment with Student-Centered Learning

In a spring 2001 study at Zayed University, located in the United Arab Emirates, we experimented with using laptops to make classroom instruction more student-centered. When students were surveyed about this instructional approach at the end of the course, although they liked the design elements of the course materials, most still would have preferred a teacher-centered lecture course. This finding underscores the value that students place on traditional classroom interaction, an element that is not readily available in distance education.

Zayed University was founded in 1998 as an Emirati women's institution that would provide student-centered learning using technology in small classes. All students and faculty at this university have laptops. All classrooms have high-speed broadband access (10-100Mbps) to the campus intranet and the Internet, as well as VGA projectors. Faculty integrate the use of technology into their teaching by displaying computer-generated lecture materials and designing classroom activities around student laptops.

A Departure from
the Lecture Format

Even with ubiquitous laptops, it is still challenging to attempt to move away from traditional teacher-centered teaching to student-centered learning. Traditional lectures, where the instructor determines the content and delivery, are exceptionally teacher-centered, so we sought a means to replace them with self-paced materials that students could access with their laptops during regularly scheduled classes.

Students could then progress at their own speed, pausing to look up definitions of words as necessary. (Although classes are taught in English, most of the students speak Arabic as their first language.) They could also follow links to supplemental information, according to their interests. Since the materials would be introduced in a classroom setting, students could choose to study either individually, with a partner, or in groups. They would even be permitted to use alternative means to cover the objectives to suit their learning styles.

Freed from the usual lecturing responsibilities, the instructor could act as a facilitator, observing student progress and providing guidance where needed. He or she could circulate through the classroom, answering questions and providing individualized attention, watch for problematic points, and provide explanations to the entire class. The instructor could also challenge individual students who were capable of more advanced work, encourage experimentation, and suggest leads for personal research.

For this experiment, we chose a topic suitable for independent study, HTML and JavaScript programming, since students would come to the course with widely varying levels of programming experience. The material is presented in a linear format, but with optional links to more detailed materials for enrichment. This informed the students about the general plan of study, but did not straightjacket them into one way to cover the material.

Designing Self-Paced Materials

We considered various software packages for preparing the self-paced materials, and selected Microsoft PowerPoint. Although this software is typically used for preparing presentations, its multimedia authoring capabilities proved to be more than adequate for our task. It provides complete layout control, easily scripted multimedia animations, and full linking capabilities, as well as full-screen display. Other multimedia authoring software would have required an additional investment of money or time, but PowerPoint was already available on our laptops and familiar to both the authors and the students. HTML was not used because it d'es not readily provide the layout or animation capabilities required.

With these goals in mind, 18 self-paced lessons covering the course objectives were written by the course instructor. Every lesson contained about 12 slides, each of which presented one chunk of information in three to ten sentences. The amount of text was purposely limited to avoid overwhelming students with text-filled screens, as found in many Web-based self-study programs. Sentences appeared on a slide one at a time, with an explanatory image enhanced by animated circles, arrows, or brackets to draw attention to relevant details. Students controlled the pace of the lessons by clicking to begin the animations.

As students began to use the lessons, we noticed that they often had trouble recognizing the end of a slide and so went on to a new slide before they were ready. To solve this problem, navigational arrows linking to previous and next slides were added to every slide. When the final animation is complete, the end of the slide is signaled by the changing colors of the navigational arrows and an audible chime. Another click takes the user to a new slide.

At the conclusion of the course, students were surveyed about the design features of the self-access presentations, as well as the self-paced approach to programming instruction. Most students were very positive about the design elements of the materials; the animations, links, and navigational arrows were all rated favorably. Sounds, however, were much less popular; in fact, a considerable number of students found them to be annoying.

The Students' Choice: Implications
for Distance Learning

What was most surprising was the response to the overall instructional approach. Though the students found the design of the materials quite satisfactory, given a choice, only 42 percent would have spent their class time using these materials; 52 percent would have attended traditional lectures instead. This led us to reconsider using self-paced materials.

Why would students prefer listening to lectures? Although students generally like to use their computers in class, interacting with computers for an entire session may be monotonous or fatiguing, especially if considerable reading is involved. Students reported that they took advantage of opportunities to collaborate when using the self-paced materials and almost never let questions go unanswered. Nevertheless, they still may have lacked confidence in their ability to teach themselves effectively. On a deeper level, when students attend a class, they assume that the classroom experience will have certain unique attributes. They expect to be engaged in activities that cannot be performed elsewhere or independently. They look forward to hearing unscripted lectures, with discussions that address their particular interests. They want to hear an instructor create novel analogies or use contextual humor to make a point. Self-study materials, no matter how well-designed, limit users to canned content, which may dilute their appeal to students.

These survey results have serious implications for online distance learning. Although many distance learning programs allow students to interact with other students and the instructor, this medium of communication is generally made available with text rather than sound, and so the reading load can become unacceptably heavy. An even greater concern is that the content of a distance course, whether presented by video, text, or multimedia, must be scripted, and thus will lack the spontaneity and responsiveness of a true classroom experience. Therefore, we would expect students to choose online distance education only when traditional classroom learning is not available.

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