Evaluating the Value and Effectiveness of Internet-Based Learning

Yuri Quintana <yquint@julian.uwo.ca>
Graduate School of Library and Information Science
University of Western Ontario
London, Ontario, Canada, N6G 1H1
Tel.: +1 519 679 2111 ext. 8500
Fax: +1 519 661 3506


A variety of technologies are currently being used to deliver education on the Internet which include the use of the World Wide Web (WWW) for online lecture notes, newsgroups for collaborative discussions and class announcements, e-mail correspondence between students and instructors, interactive video over the Internet for remote participation in classes and discussions, and virtual reality for exploring three dimensional scenes. This paper reviews existing Internet-based technologies and implementations for education. The paper also describes how the the individual learning styles of students need to be matched with the appropriate technology.

1.0 Introduction

The Internet is increasingly being used for the delivery of educational material and distance education. Internet-based learning allows students to learn at their own pace, access the information at a time that is convenient for them, and provides education to remote students that otherwise would not be able to travel to a classroom.

Some courses available on the Internet are delivered as a formal course with regular meeting times and places. Other courses follow a self-directed or student centered approach allowing students to learn at a time and pace that is convenient to them. Some institutions offer courses in a wide range of disciplines and topics that can lead to a diplomas or degrees.

Others Internet sites offer informal education at no charge on topics in the humanities and science. Examples of science topics on the World Wide Web include an interactive frog dissection [99] interactive periodic table of the elements [99], interactive medical tutorial on the spinal cord [99], and an interactive text book on chemistry, mathematics, and physics [99].

Examples of topics in the humanities on the World Wide Web include learning languages such as Gaelic [99] and English [99], a graphical view and commentary of the Dead Sea Scrolls [99], Beowulf an English eleventh century masterpiece manuscript, [99], and an educational site on archaeology [99].

A variety of technologies are currently being used to deliver education on the Internet. These technologies include the use of the World Wide Web (WWW) for online lecture notes, newsgroups for collaborative discussions and class announcements, e-mail correspondence between students and instructors, interactive video over the Internet for remote participation in classes and discussions, and virtual reality for exploring three dimensional scenes. Multimedia is increasingly being used in online education to enhance the learning process.

A critical question that needs to be asked is ``how effective are Internet-based learning methods?''. This paper describes current examples of Internet-based learning and analyzes the benefits and limitations to the student and the institution. Individual learning styles are described with examples of appropriate Internet technologies to support each style of learning. A summary of evaluations of these technologies is then given. The paper concludes with suggestions on how to choose appropriate technologies for Internet-based education.

2.0 Education on the Internet

The Open University [99] has 200,000 people studying with 132,000 taking undergraduate level courses while another 10,000 are registered for postgraduate degrees . There are professional development programmes in management , education , health and social welfare , manufacturing and computer applications. There are no entry requirements for the majority of its courses. Courses are delivered to the students in their own homes or places of work by computer, the Internet, surface mail, and via national BBC broadcasts.

CyberEd Dartmouth [99] is World Wide Web based system that offers full-credit University from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Division of Continuing Education. While traditional resources such as textbooks are used, students also draw on the extensive resources already available on the Internet. Class material and assignments are posted on the World Wide Web at a site open only to those students taking the course. Students submit assignments that can be posted to the Web for others in the class to view.

International University College (IUC) [99] offers a Master of Arts in Business Communication Program. The primary way students communicate with teaching faculty, administrative staff, and other students, is through e-mail. IUC uses mailing list managers (listservs) to enable course discussions, and these listserv discussions are an important portion of the course grade. Students submit written assignments to teaching faculty through e-mail, and assignments are returned with comments and suggestions in the same fashion. Listservs allow students to discuss group projects with other members of the class, and to send questions or comments to teaching faculty or classmates.

The University of Paisley Online Education WWW Server [99] provides degree courses from accredited universities aimed at working professionals. The courses can lead degrees such as a B.Sc. in Health Studies, M.B.A. in Marketing, M.Sc. in Computer Aided Engineering and M.B.A. in Total Quality Management. Each online education student is supplied with an advanced personal computer, a high-speed modem and a printer, which are delivered and set up in the student's home. Students interact with tutors by connecting to the Electronic Campus on Internet. Some students that are frequent travelers use notebook computers that allows them to continue studying anywhere. Courses materials are pre-loaded in the computer and consist of notes in hypertext, together with a suite of general Windows software for word-processing, graphics, analysis and communication. Students engage in live teleconferencing; closed and open discussion forums; and electronic mail (E-Mail) through which students send their assignments to their tutors for marking, and receive them back with any relevant comments. An on-line library on the Internet is also available.

City University's EDROADS (Education Resource and Online Academic Degree System) [99] offers more than 80 programs at the undergraduate and graduate level that cover a variety of academic fields such as business management and technology to humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, counseling and teacher preparation. A Master of Business Administration and Master of Education degree programs are also offered. Students enrolled in courses at EDROADS can engage in "live" dialogue with other students, instructors, and special guests using Live Forums. Students can enter forums as observers or as active participants. Live forums are held at three levels. PROGRAM forums are open to all students pursuing a particular degree and consist of scheduled, moderated discussions that may include guest speakers. The number of students that can actively participate is limited and they need to sign up in advance. The number of students who may observe is not limited. Students who miss a scheduled forum can download discussion notes from the Online Document Center. COURSE-SPECIFIC Live Forums, or Study Groups, are open only to students enrolled in a particular course. These forums allow students to participate in focused discussions about course content and assignments. Instructors can hold study group discussions for groups students. STUDENT Forums provide an opportunity for students to chat with each other about general topics in the Student Lounge.

Athena University [99], which is administered by the Virtual Online University, Inc. [99], provides liberal arts education to students in as inexpensive and accessible a manner as possible over the Internet. Athena has developed a Virtual Educational Environment (VEE) that can be accessed from anywhere on the globe via the Internet. Students in VEE can collaborate, debate, and interact with fellow students and instructors. VEE uses a technology called MOO, where MOO stands for MUD Object Oriented, and MUD stands for Multi-User Dungeons. In a MOO, students encounter other people who talk by typing, listen by reading. Students can encounter objects, find out properties about objects, and manipulate objects in a highly interactive environment. Examples of objects that students can construct include "things" like historical periods, atomic processes, Latin phrases and sentences or any dynamic process that responds to input on the part of the student.

Mind Extension University (ME/U) [99] offers college credit courses in co-operation with thirty affiliated universities such as The George Washington University, California State University. Courses are delivered using various methods such as the Internet, bulletin boards, cable television, satellite distribution, computer software, audio tape or video tape.

University Online [99] provides assistance to educational institutions and corporate campuses that wish to put their learning programs online. UOL provides electronic access to a vast library of interactive online courses available on the World Wide Web in business, technology, sciences, language arts, and basic skills.

Additional examples of education on the Internet can be found in the Appendix and in [3].

3.0 Benefits and limitations of Internet-based education

Internet delivery of education provides many benefits and limitations to both the student and the educational institution. Some of the benefits of Internet-based courses to the student include:

However, not all students are suited for Internet-based education. Below are some problems, difficulties and limitations of Internet-based courses for the student.

There are also benefits and limitations in providing Internet-based courses to the institution and instructor. Below are some of the benefits of Internet-based education to the institution.

Despite these benefits, organizations and professors may still resist changing from existing methods of teaching to Internet delivery. Below are some of the disadvantages of Internet-based courses.

4.0 Learning styles

The Internet has provided an opportunity to introduce new ways for supporting individual learning styles for students and created new paradigms for instruction [8,10]. It has been argued [12] that connecting schools to Internet is not enough to change the quality of education, but rather what is needed is a change from emphasizing accumulation of knowledge, to new ways of communicating and assisting students to learn. Some of the changes occurring to education as a result of new technologies include:

  1. A shift from classroom lectures to computer networked access to educational resources (enabled with hypermedia and the WWW).
  2. A shift from student as a passive recipient of education to a self-directed student learning.
  3. A shift from individual learning to team learning and group discussion.
  4. A shift from homogenous and stable educational content to fast-changing content presented in a wide range of formats.

One of the most prominent trends in distance education is the emergence of Open Learning, which has been defined as ``a student centered approach to education which removes all barriers to access while providing a high degree of learner autonotmy'' [9]. The Internet supports the open learning concept by providing students with the ability to connect to educational resources when it is convenient for them, and allowing students to explore the educational resources in an order that suits their needs. In an open learning environment the teacher no longer serves as the keeper of knowledge. Instead the teacher acts as a tutor, facilitator, and resource to assist in the student's learning process [2].

Each student has individual preferred patterns or methods for learning which need to be recognized and supported with the appropriate learning technologies. Some example of learning styles or instruction include:

  1. Visual or Spatial Learning - The ability or preference to learning information using graphical images and 3D models of objects. Internet technologies that support this type of learning include the World Wide Web and all its images, and 3D modelling languages such as VRML (Virtual Reality Modelling Language).
  2. Musical and Sound Learning - The ability or preference to use of music and sound to understand educational material. Internet technologies that support this type of learning include downloadable sound files on WWW and real time on-demand audio.
  3. Intra-Personal Learning - The ability or preference to learn by encouraging or requiring students to understand their own feelings, interests, goals, etc.. Internet technologies that support this type of learning are interactive questionaires on WWW or downloadable multimedia applications (also known as applets).
  4. Inter-Personal Learning - The ability or preference to learn by discussing with others. Internet technologies that support this type of learning include text, audio and video conferencing, e-mail, discussion mailing lists, newsgroups.
  5. Linguistic-Based Learning - The ability or preference to learn by understanding words and language and reading. Internet technologies that support this type of learning include gopher, lynx (a text-based WWW browser).
  6. Mathematics-Based Learning - The ability or preference to learn by understanding mathematics. Internet technologies that support this type of learning include new formatting methods that can be used to display mathematical equations on the WWW.

5.0 Evaluating the effectiveness of distance learning technologies

Previous studies on the effectiveness of specific systems have shown mixed results. Some studies have shown no significant differences between classroom and distance education and high overall levels of satisfaction from students [11,6], while others have reported significant problems with student isolation and lack of facial communication [15]

Any distance education course could be evaluated with the following criteria

  1. Accessibility - What type of bandwith is required to properly view the content? How much will it cost to access the system? How difficult will it be for students to install the appropriate hardware and software?
  2. Communication - How well can a student communicate with the instructor or other class mates? What limitations are there on communication as a result of the communications medium chosen? How effectively can be feedback be given? How isolated do students feel?
  3. Content - What types of content can be delivered? How can interactivity and multimedia be used?
  4. Flexible - How easy is it to re-use previous educational modules? How much flexibility is there for students to view the information at their own pace and in their own chosen order?

One of major problems with Internet-based learning is the isolation that students feel from their instructors and ineffective methods for dialog. E-mail communication helps to some extent but lacks the visual cues and facial expressions that convey messages of understanding, or lack of comprehension, of questions and responses between the student and instructor. Group discussions on newsgroups provide students a chance to compose their thoughts, but lack some of the dynamics on classroom discussions and favour students that are comfortable with e-mail and newsgroups. Low cost interactive video over the Internet provides students with some of the dynamics of a classroom discussion but lack methods to moderate or facilitate discussions. Real time interactive video solves many of the above problems but raises the cost of the system to such a high level that it limits those that can access the system. Thus, type of interaction needed by the students will determine which technology is most suited.

E-mail has been effectively used by groups of students in Hawaii and Dallas to collaborate on solving complex business problems [14]. In another case, listservs were used by students to discuss gender issues for a class project [1]. Students reported in the final feedback of the course that they felt they had a free exchange of ideas that enhanced their learning of the topic. However, others have found that the use of e-mail by students not to be as effective. Tsikalas [13] found to be only one quarter of all messages were found to be related to course work and the remaining messages were social in nature.

Newsgroups and Bulletin Board Services (BBS) have also been used to complement video lectures [7]. A survey of 117 students showed that 97 percent of students agreed that discussion groups improved communications among students, and 82 percent felt that the discussion groups helped students assume the role of teacher themselves. In another case study using discussion groups, 47 percent of students reported that courses which combined electronic discussion groups with occasional face-to-face discussion meetings improved communications and learning [6].

MUDs [4] have also been used in at the Athena University's Virtual Educational Environment (VEE). While some users of MUDs have found it extremely engaging, it is not clear if MUDs do improve the effectiveness of learning.

Interactive video has been used to deliver lectures to students, allow students to ask questions to the instructor remotely, and for class members to discuss topics. In an experiment [5] comparing high (2 Mbps) and low bandwith (384 Kbps) interactive video, students reported that the quality of sound was more important than the quality of video. Student also felt that smaller group video conferences were preferred over large classroom lectures transmitted to remote users. The most important concerns expressed by the students were the clarity and appropriateness of instructional material shared over the video link, and the ability of the instructor using them. Their conclusion was that the "effectiveness of a delivery system is unlikely to be constant over settings and applications''. Thus, the needs of the students and the course content should be key considerations in choosing a delivery method.

6.0 Conclusions

This paper has show the widespread use and availability of Internet-based education. The main advantages to the student are the flexibility to pursue education at personally convenient times and to progress in the course material at the student's own pace. However, the feeling of isolation, lack of motivation, or lack of support and feedback can lead students to drop out. The main advantages of Internet-based education for the institution providing courses is the ability to re-use lecture materials, provide links to externally stored resources materials on the Internet, and a potential source of new revenues. However, the development of Internet-based courses takes an initial investment of time and money, and may not be well suited to all existing instructors.

A review of technologies and student learning styles showed that no one technology is suited for all students and all courses. Technologies should be chosen to support the types of students expected and their learning styles. The chosen technologies should also support the type of content to be shared with students and the expected learning outcomes.

In the future, access to educational resources on the Internet may be seriously affected by the cost of Internet access, and the cost of the computer hardware and software needed to access the Internet. New improvements to hardware and software may create more effective learning environments but the cost of such systems may limit those that can have access to it. In some cases those that need the education the most are those who are least able to afford it. Public libraries could play a key role, if properly funded, to provide no-cost access to Internet-based education in the future.

7.0 References

[1] Robert M. Bender, "Creating Communities on the Internet: Electronic Discussion List in the Classroom'', Computers in Libraries, Vol. 15, No.5, May 1995, pp. 38-43.

[2] N. Butcher. "The concept of Open Learning in South Africa'', Open Learning and Educational Technology, Vol. 25, pp. 197-204.

[3] Jill H. Elsworth, Education on the Internet, Sams Publishing, 1994.

[4] Remy Evard. "Collaborative Networked Communication: MUDs as System Tools'', Proceedings of the Seventh Systems Administration Conference (LISA VII), Monterrey, CA, November 1993, pp. 1-8.

[5] B.C. Hansford and R.A. Baker "Evaluation of Cross-Campus Interactive Video Teaching Trial'', Distance Education, Vol. 11, No. 2, 1990, pp. 287-307.

[6] Starr Roxanne Hiltz, "Evaluating the Virtual Classroom'', In Online Education - Perspectives on a New Environment, Edited by Linda M. Harasim, New York, NY: Praeger, 1990, pp. 133-183.

[7] Gary Kearsley, William Lynch, and David Wizer. "The Effectiveness and Impact of Online Learning in Graduate Education'', Educational Technology, November-December 1995, pp. 37-42.

[8] Gary Marchionini and Hermann Maurer. "The Roles of Digital Libraries in Teaching and Learning'', Communication of the ACM, April 1995, Vol. 38, No. 4, pp. 67-75.

[9] Leigh Maxwell. "Integrating Open Learning and Distance Education'', Educational Technology, November-December 1995, pp. 43-48.

[10] Andy Reinhardt. "New Ways to Learn'', Byte, March 1995, pp. 50- 72.

[11] Mary Lynn Rice-Lively. "Wired Warp and Woof: An Ethnographic Study of a Networking Class'', Internet Research, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Winter), pp. 20-35.

[12] Elliot Soloway, "Beware, Techies, Bearing Gifts'', Communication of the ACM, January 1995, Vol. 38, No. 1, pp. 17-24.

[13] Kallen Tsikalas. "Internet-based Learning? Mostly students use the Net to socialize'', Electronic Learning, Vol. 14, No. 7, April 1995, pg. 14.

[14] Rosemary H. Wild and Mary Anne Winniford, "Remote Collaboration Among Students Using E-mail'', Computers and Education, Vol. 21, No. 3, Great Britain: Pergamon Press Ltd., pp. 193-203.

[15] Linda L. Woolcot. "The Distance Teacher as Reflective Practioner'', Educational Technology, Vol. 35, No. 1, January/February, pp. 39-43.

Appendix 1 - Educational Resources on the WWW

Degree and diploma granting sites

[16] The Open University, "OU supported open learning'', Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, 1996, http://www.open.ac.uk/

[17] University of Massachusetts, "CyberEd - Dartmouth Division of Continuing Education'', 1996, http://www.umassd.edu/cybered/tdistlearninghome.html

[18] International University College (IUC). http://www.iuc.com/

[19] The University of Paisley, "Open and Distance Learning Programmes'' Paisley, Scotland, 1996, http://www.online.edu/campus/

[20] City University, "EDROADS (Education Resource and Online Academic Degree System'', `996, http://hal.cityu.edu/inroads/text.htp

[21] Jones International Ltd, "Mind Extension University (ME/U)'', http://www.meu.edu/

[22] Athena University. - http://www.athena.edu/Athena-Home.html

[23] Virtual University Online - http://www.athena.edu/VOU-Home.html

[24] University Online - http://uol.com/


[25] Gaelic Language Reader - Nancy Stenson's Workbook for beginners in Irish Gaelic, http://nexus.BrockU.CA/rogawa/gaelic/stensn00.html

[26] The Virtual English Language Center, The Comenius Group. http://www.comenius.com/

[27] Library of Congress, "Scrolls from the Dead Sea The Ancient Library of Qumran and Modern Scholarship'', Washington, DC, 1996, http://sunsite.unc.edu/expo/deadsea.scrolls.exhibit/intro.html

[28] Kevin S. Kiernan, "The Electronic Beowulf Project'' http://portico.bl.uk/access/beowulf/electronic-beowulf.html

[29] Society for American Archaeology, "ArchNet serves as the World Wide Web Virtual Library for Archaeology'', 1996, http://spirit.lib.uconn.edu/ArchNet/ArchNet.html

Interactive science

[30] Mable Kinzie et.al, "The Interactive Frog Dissection'', 1996, http://curry.edschool.Virginia.EDU/go/frog/

[31] University of Pennsylvania, "The Interactive Textbook - An Interdisciplinary Course in Chemistry, Mathematics, and Physics'', http://dept.physics.upenn.edu/courses/gladney/mathphys/Contents.html

[32] Periodic Table of the Elements, Chemical Science and Technology Division, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, NM, 1996, http://mwanal.lanl.gov/CST/imagemap/periodic/periodic.html

[33] University of Wisconsin, Department of Anatomy, "Global Brain-Stem project'' http://www.anatomy.wisc.edu/bs/text/bs/bs.htm.

[34] University of Wisconsin, Department of Anatomy, "Global Spinal Cord project'' - http://www.anatomy.wisc.edu/sc/text/sc/sc.htm.


[35] Global Network Academy - http://uu-gna.mit.edu:8001/gna-catalog/catalogview

[36] Star Schools - http://www.fwl.org/edtech/starschools.html

[37] Athena University, "Educational Resources'' - http://www.athena.edu/Links/index.html

[38] Pacific Bell, "Learning Applications - A Library of Internet-Based Instruction'', 1996. http://www.kn.pacbell.com/wired/bluewebn/

[39] Yahoo Inc. "Education : Alternative :Distance Learning'', 1996, http://www.yahoo.com/Education/Alternative/Distance_Learning/

[40] Yahoo Inc. "Education :On-line Teaching and Learning'', 1996, http://www.yahoo.com/Education/On_line_Teaching_and_Learning/

[41] Yahoo Inc. "Education :Databases'', 1996, http://www.yahoo.com/Education/Databases/

[42] Tim Kilby. "Web-Training Information Center'', 1996 http://www.clark.net/pub/nractive/alttrain.html