Nethowto

The online course Nethowto evolved from a F2F credit course offered by the Faulty of Education at the University of Alberta. The course is delivered exclusively online with no F2F interaction. Students work independently on the course and are allowed to control their own schedule. Even though the course does follow the traditional fall, winter, spring and summers session scheduling, students are allowed to start the course in one session and complete it on another. The original course was developed in 1995 to instruct students in all aspects of Internet use and communication.

While still in development (June – August, 1995), it became obvious to Montgomerie and Harapnuik that, as proponents of alternative methods of instruction, and as purported experts on the use of the Internet in education and library and information science, they should ‘walk-the-talk’ and develop the course in such a way that it could be delivered completely over the Internet in an asynchronous mode (Montgomerie & Harapnuik, 1996, 1997).

Nethowto (initially a graduate level course) was delivered for the first time in a F2F mode during September-December 1995. A number of Web pages were developed to support this delivery. The course was offered a second time during January – April 1996, again in a F2F mode. While the course was being delivered, students were asked to provide feedback on what they thought would make the course more amenable to use by distance students. This input resulted in the constant revision of the Web pages and during the second offering of the course, a few students who could not attend the lectures were encouraged to still take the course and to rely on the new Web pages. These students were also encouraged to communicate with the instructors by telephone or electronic mail (Montgomerie & Harapnuik, 1996, 1997).

The course was expanded and revised to accommodate undergraduate students and Nethowto was delivered completely and exclusively over the Internet for the first time over the period of May-August, 1996 with over 100 students enrolled in both graduate and undergraduate levels of the course. During the pilot testing of the initial F2F/web-based course and the delivery of the first exclusively online version of the course, the developers had started noticing some aspects of the systematic approach that had worked in the F2F setting that did not work over the Web. Due to the complexity of the information that was being dealt with in the course, the unstructured nature of the content of the course (the Internet) and the extensive use of hyperlinks, the linear structure and general approach imposed by systematic instructional design seemed to have limitations.

While there may be some debate as to whether instructional systems design (ISD) results in linear instruction, one of the founders of ISD, Walter Dick confirmed that: “…the model remains basically a systems model, that is, the output of one step is the input for the next step. Ultimately there must be a connection between the boxes, a consistency in the flow, from box to box” (1996, p. 62). Willis (1995) confirmed that the systems approach is sequential and linear and further criticized the ISD model. Wilson (1993) stated that ISD model in its present form is not appropriate for the times because its orientation, methods and research base are behaviorist. Even advocates of ISD like Reigeluth and Nelson (1997) recognize that there are fundamental problems with ISD and that if the model is to survive it must move toward a user-centered approach that stresses initiative, teamwork, diversity and thinking skills.

The literature and experience confirmed that a more flexible and open approach was required. After reviewing the learning theory literature, I focused on a number of approaches within the category of constructivist learning theories to see if they could be effectively applied to what we were doing in the online course.

Because the online students were learning about the Internet while they were using the Internet, the constructivist emphasis of knowledge being constructed as the result of activities, learning occurring within a context, and meaning making in the mind of the knower, confirmed that constructivist learning theories were a natural fit (Jonassen, 1990, 1991, 1997; Jonassen, Peck &Wilson, 1999; Kearsley, 1997; Strommen & Lincoln, 1997). To prevent students from being isolated and to foster a collaborative environment, a web-based conferencing system was added to the course and students were required to help each other out with assignments and discuss current topics. This emphasis on social/community learning corresponded with Vygotsky’s (1978) theories on social learning and also reflected the positive aspects of cooperative learning. The course collaborative component provided students with the opportunity to share their experiences and assist each other in dealing with the explosive growth of the Internet and the subsequent continual changes in the tools used to access the Internet.

Many Internet programs that students in the Nethowto course needed to use (and to learn to use) were evolving so rapidly that it was not uncommon for step-by-step tutorials to be obsolete as soon as we made them available. I quickly found that even slightest changes in the programs made the step-by-step tutorials more of a hindrance then a help. If what students saw on their desktop was even slightly different then what was in the tutorial they became frustrated and simply stopped. In response to this problem, I sought out ways to encourage students to use their prior knowledge and experience with computers and software. In addition, I sought out strategies to encourage students to learn by experimenting with the software.

This investigation revealed that many aspects of Bruner’s discovery learning could be used to encourage students to become more self reliant learners and adapt more easily to the changes in software that they were continually facing in their use of the Internet. Aspects from other constructivist approaches also seemed to apply to the development and delivery of Nethowto. For example, Sticht’s (1975) emphasis in the functional context approach of making learning relevant to the experience of the learner and Vygotsky’s (1978) social learning theory which stresses that social interaction is a critical component of situated learning because learners become involved in a “community of practice” and adopt the beliefs and behaviors of that community, had significant roles to play in the design of the course and, ultimately, the formation and evolution of the inquisitivist approach.

In 1997, the third year the Nethowto course was delivered and the second year it was delivered exclusively online, the minimalist approach was researched and even though it was originally designed as an approach for document design, components of its rubric seemed very appropriate to, and were applied to, Nethowto. During this time it became apparent that even though minimalism satisfied many of the instructional design needs of Nethowto, two areas (fear removal and social interaction) were not addressed and needed to be included. As a result, inquisitivism was formalized in 1998 (Harapnuik, 1998).

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