IT costs keep Web tools from head of the class

While a survey reports educators’ increasing enthusiasm for Web-based teaching tools, a university faculty association director warns that benefits of e-learning are often over-hyped.

North American business and educational publisher McGraw-Hill

Ryerson released a study measuring the importance of computer technology on post-secondary student success on Tuesday. The study, consisting of the combined findings of three annual surveys the company conducted among more than 2,000 Canadian and U.S. educators, reports that the vast majority now see Web-based teaching tools as more important than traditional aids like books. Ninety one per cent of those surveyed ranked them as “”very”” or “”extremely”” important.

The survey began as a general survey of what university and college faculty saw as directly contributing to student success and was meant to be a tool for the publisher to use in its product development strategy. The results, however, turned it into a de-facto technology probe, says McGraw-Hill Ryerson Canada director of partnerships and business development Joe Saundercook.

“”We knew that e-learning was big. But it became obvious that we had to make it the focal point,”” he says.

Web-based educational tools are a valuable resource for both students and teachers, agrees Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations president and McMaster University professor of political science Henry Jacek. The students appreciate the flexibility and access they allow, while educators say they allow them more time to concentrate on lecturing and interaction with students, he says. But there is a very good reason technology in the classroom has not been the revolutionary tool everyone would like it to be: Money.

“”It often means you have to have personnel at the university who can devote their time to creating these Web sites, adding material and making sure they’re functioning properly. You also need to educate the students on how to access these sites and use them effectively,”” he says. “”We can’t get these tools fast enough because we just don’t have the money to hire the personnel. It’s unfortunate.””

Jacek says that online tools are most helpful when dealing with large-sized classes where instructor-student interaction is limited. In such instances, he says, putting additional information online can be very helpful to the student.

“”Of course it’s not a substitute for talking to the professor,”” he says.

Trying to make technology such a substitute is where using technology in the classroom becomes problematic, says Canadian Association of University Teachers executive director James Turk.

“”There’s a lot of evidence to show that online education is not particularly useful,”” he says. “”One piece of evidence is the reported high drop out rates from strictly online classes. All the anecdotes I’ve heard, they’re dramatically higher (than regular courses).””

Turk says online materials work well when used in conjunction with more traditional teaching materials, even in distance education, but students need some interaction with their instructors to remain interested in their course-load — something Web sites alone can’t provide.

“”Retention in face to face classes is also much higher than in online classes,”” Turk says.

Turk also points out that the budget concerns are very real when dealing with online education and says that even when considering IT as an additional teaching tool, it makes education much more expensive.

However access — traditionally the touted barrier to online learning — has become a non-issue for students, Saundercook says.

“”Our study has not gone there, but I viewed some recent results of another study that showed that access is not the great divide between the haves and have nots some might think it is,”” he says. “”It’s no different than accessing library materials.””

The focus for McGraw-Hill Ryerson in the coming years will be delivering some of the information students need online, with a couple of pilot projects already underway at Canadian colleges, Saundercook says.

“”There is no interest at this point for putting a 1,000-page textbook online,”” he says, “”but we’re working towards having some of the content available on Pocket PCs, for example.””

The study also points to a great need among teachers for training on how to best incorporate technology into their curricula, Saundercook says.

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