(Submitted to the Journal of Interactive Learning Research)


Nov 5, 2013 (3 years ago)


Using the Web as a Tool to Support Student Research Tasks

Adam O. Horvath and Lucio Teles

Simon Fraser University

(Submitted to the Journal of Interactive Learning Research)


This is a report on a small
scale trial of Computer Mediated Education
(CME): Sixteen
naive students were offered a Web
based supplement to regular classroom
instruction. The paper relates student responses and experience with special emphasis
on novice users’ response to web
based assignments, discussion forums, and

search and
retrieval tasks.


mediated education (CME) is a recently introduced mode of teaching and
learning that uses the World Wide Web to facilitate peer interaction and access to
information. CME can be conceptualized at two bas
ic levels. The first level focuses on
the Web and Internet as efficient and economical tools for information dissemination
and retrieval.

The second level, however, emphasizes electronic networking and
collaboration as the primary educational use of the We

Most instructional material used today is based on the first of these conceptualizations
and takes advantage of its obvious benefits. The availability of the electronic network
provides an extremely fast and seamless “highway” linking the instructor to
an ever
widening segment of the potential audience and rapidly increasing sources of digitized
information. Students can access and retrieve information following their own schedule
and pace. Information can be stored in a convenient format, and course mat
erial can be
segmented into “user friendly” and sequenced “chapters.” A variety of high quality
textual and multimedia enrichment (e.g., images and sound) can be provided at far less
cost and effort per user than traditional “hard copy” versions of the sam
e resources.
Moreover, relatively long and complex texts can easily be updated and cross
referenced, which makes it simpler to provide the learner with up
date resource

At the second level of conceptualization the Web is used to support knowl
building through collaborative learning and group tasks (Harasim, Hiltz, Teles, &
Turoff, 1995). The students are located in various cities or countries and learn at times
most convenient to them, linked by the Web. They not only acquire but also buil
knowledge through active input and problem
solving strategies. Computer
learning environments may be well suited for knowledge building through exploration,
solving, peer collaboration, and cognitive scaffolding (Scardamalia & Bereiter,

1994). In these environments students might be stimulated to take more active roles in
searching for information and to seek comments and support from experts, mentors,
and online peers.

To understand the second level of conceptualization, i.e., electroni
c networking and
collaboration, it helps to put the current electronic revolution in a long
perspective. Throughout history technologies have emerged and revolutionized
education. The earliest example, the development of writing, shifted the scope and

content of hitherto oral culture. This new technology, on one hand, created the
possibility of generating permanent and replicable information. On the other hand, it
provided a socio/cultural “opportunity” for a whole new class of artisans: writers who
re producers but not disseminators of text as opposed to storytellers of previous
generations who combined these functions. Separating the functions created
unimagined opportunities for each field and shaped the content and the process of

se, the development of the printing press in the fifteen century opened the doors
for the dissemination of knowledge to a far broader strata of the population, but it also
brought a greater range of cultural and scientific objects within the grasp of the l
This enlargement, in turn, brought together hitherto sequestered knowledge fragments
(e.g., the works of Hellenic philosophers, Arabic mathematicians) for the learners of the
age. Importantly, each of these revolutions augmented the possible modali
ties of
instruction and created new ways of learning: both for the “old culture” (i.e., that which
was already created) and for new material (i.e., material that was available as a result of
opportunities inherent in the new technology). Historically, thes
e core technological
innovations also created several new “supporting technologies” (e.g., the availability of
a wide range of written texts generated the technological opportunity to develop
libraries and catalogues) and generated new niches for “experts”

in these technologies
(e.g., librarians).

During each technological revolution, there were those who feared the impact of the
change as well as those who predicted the immediate obsolescence of the past and
salvation resulting from the new invention. If h
istory is a guide, neither Armageddon or
salvation is likely to flow from advances in technology: the new invention does not
obviate or replace the tools or modes of learning. Rather, it changes the context and
extends the scope of education by its unique
aspects. Writing has not entirely displaced
discourse or storytelling; nor did the printing press or the typewriter eliminated
handwriting! People still prefer to write some things (e.g., notes, intimate, and
spontaneous communications) by hand. But long a
go it became evident that the printed
word is uniquely suited for larger scale distribution of text in a more permanent,
portable, and compact fashion.

Technological innovation shifts the focus and extends an existing domain, creates a new
field, and usual
ly results in a more refined application of both. Thus, the educational
impacts of innovations tend to shift domains and focus technologies more narrowly
rather than to replace one technology with the other. As a result, a broad vision of the
electronic cl
assroom at present involves both identifying the unique attributes and
dimensions of cyberspace and appreciating the pedagogical limits imposed as humans
grapple with the “old” and “new” knowledge.

It has been noted that students no longer go to universiti
es just to acquire a finite body
of knowledge; they now want to “learn how to learn,” how to renew themselves
continuously intellectually in order to keep pace with the demands that will be placed
on the knowledge worker of the twenty first century. It is
predicted that for a person to
remain gainfully employed in the emerging knowledge economy an equivalent of 30
credit hours will be required every seven years (Lick, 1996).

The World Wide Web technology is uniquely suited to help students to become active
learners, constantly renewing and expanding their knowledge. In higher education, one
of the most common uses of the Web is to support student research needs. A wide
variety of databases containing resources and pointers provide access to available
tion on vast areas of human knowledge. In online databases there are
summaries of articles and books, full articles and magazines, peer
reviewed journals,
reports, and statistical information. Through mailing lists, home pages, and other Web
sites, student
s can contact peers and experts to obtain even more information.
Knowledge is synthesized through a network of ideas, data sources, information, and
interpretation that is interconnected through sustainable exchange with others
(Hawkins, 1993).

As universi
ty libraries obtain online databases and pointers to other instructional
resources, more and more instructors expect students to conduct online research to
support their course assignments and to prepare class presentations and papers.

The Project

We emb
edded this research project in an upper level education course (Education 425,
Counseling Techniques for the Classroom Teacher). Having a fully functioning course
as “host” for CME research provided a naturalistic environment for our investigation.
Our goa
l was to explore a broad range of instructional possibilities as well as the
psychological, educational, and technological challenges the computer
naive student
might encounter in a CME environment. Thus, it was important to ensure that the
students had al
l the resources of a campus
based course to fall back on. On the other
hand, because the students were only encouraged, not compelled, to use the electronic
environment, the observations we made and the interpretations we offer are only
indications rather
than firm conclusions of how students might react to a CME

The Questions

As educators we wanted to know: What are the specific and unique capabilities of this
new media? What problems and potential benefits may there be in breaking through
he traditional three
dimensional learning space and extending it by using high speed
information technology? What specific educational goals can be best fostered through
the technological features of the World Wide Web? How do learners react to this “cyber


The Constraints

Importantly, we did not assume that visually appealing, high
tech, or even content
material is necessarily “better” than traditionally presented content. Our research is
grounded in the assumption that the general noti
ons of what is good education (i.e.,
intellectual and cultural enrichment, development of critical thinking, etc.) have not
changed over the past millennia and thus that these fundamental values are valid in
evaluating the impact of education in “cyberspac
e” as well. In addition, we realize that
we are in the midst of a continually evolving technology and that consequently, not all
end users will have access to the highest level of the available hardware and software
resources. In light of this fact, our in
terest focused on tools that are most likely to be
available in the “real world” to the kind of post
secondary students we serve rather
than on the high end of the technological spectrum that is available in our laboratories

(or may not) be on the
desktop of the next generation of students. Lastly, we
are interested in the psychological factors that affect “computer naive” students, since it
seems obvious that we must be able to bridge the technological gap for them if we are
to build a practical un
iversity that will be open to the broad range of students rather
than one that caters to the technological elite.


We wanted to examine what happens to students and educators when they have to
teach and learn and conduct (re)search effectivel
y in an electronically enriched learning
environment. Our project tried to explore the limits and challenges of a “teaching
space” that was potentially far richer than the traditional classroom, but where the
instructor did not have the customary means to
guide and control the learner’s
intellectual environment.

Two levels of conceptualization were outlined at the beginning of this paper, the Web
as an efficient tool for information dissemination and retrieval and the Web as a means
for electronic networkin
g and collaboration. First we will focus on the level one: access
to information.

The unique aspect of cyberspace environment is that physical distance (i.e., where an
item is located) is practically irrelevant. Moreover, within this environment, informati
has became truly “democratic”: anyone with access to a computer can have access to all
of the available information, instantly. The original portfolio or the minutes
old data
from the Mars rover are no longer the exclusive domain of the academic scholar
, the
traditional pyramidal access to knowledge has been made flat. While early access such
bounty is not without its own problems, it does remove the traditional practical
boundaries to what we can find out.

Not coincidentally, the idea of the Web origina
ted in a research laboratory (CERN), and
initially it was viewed as a research application. The important notion here is that the
user can create a path, starting with a concept embedded in the original text, ant then
progress in directions and dimensions
that cannot be predicted by the original author. It
is a search driven by the curiosity of the student and bounded by the depth of
information out in cyberspace.

The Design

Our research used a naturalistic design; the primary objective was to provide the

students with an computer
enriched learning environment. The instructor [A.O.H]
made systematic observations on behaviour related to our research questions and made
extended but unstructured notes in a course journal after each class. Since the project
s not based on a quasi
experimental design (Campbell & Stanley, 1996) no claims
will be made for generalizability beyond the context of the research. Although some
behaviours were measured quantitatively (such as number of sites visited and timing of
in events), no numerical data will be reported. The course was divided into 13
units corresponding to the number of 4
hour classes scheduled for the term. Two
classes were canceled (statutory holiday and illness), and on two occasions technical
problems pr
evented the use of the computer lab. Thus the data was gathered over nine
sessions. The students used Macintosh computers connected to a remote server via
Ethernet. All the material was served on the Web using MacHTTP (v2.01) server. All 16
students were u
sing Netscape Navigator as a browser.


Four observations were planned:

1. Solving virtual problems

We were interested in quantifying the computer
naive mature students’ attention span
for “on
task activities.” The class was presented with a

minute introduction to the
use of a computer as a “web
browser” using live overheads and hands
on practice. For
the next two sessions, the instructor kept note of the length of time novice users would
stay on task to resolve problems (real or percei
ved) when the computer did not perform
as they expected.


a. Over half of the students would stop interacting with the computer as soon as
they were faced with an “unexpected response” or the computer did not respond
when they anticipated a r
esponse. Typically, the student “froze” with obvious
discomfort and prefaced a request for assistance with an “apology.” (The
students had been previously assured that computers are not always tractable, or
“smart,” and that all users, including “experts,”

will need to ask for assistance
one time or another).

b. Those students who tried to stay on task (use one of the strategies suggested in
the introductory lecture) made, on average, two to three attempts to resolve the
problem. Beyond these creative trial
s, there was strong a tendency to keep trying
the same non
effective solution rather than to apply a trial and error method or
develop a logical problem
solving strategy.

c. The further along in the session a student encountered the first problem, the

likely he or she was to engage in multiple attempts at solution. However, it
also appears to be the case that the further along this “first crisis” occurred, the
more emotionally the student reacted.

2. Direct stimulus assignment

We used the computer to

deliver an interactive assignment requiring: a) understanding
a relatively complex sequential set of instructions; b) retrieving and using (in the correct
sequence) of stimulus material; and c) interacting with a fellow student to complete the
task. (i.e.
, the students had to alternate working with the computer and interacting with
a colleague.


Most students found this assignment enjoyable and challenging. Interest was
high and well maintained throughout the task. Although the instructions w
relatively complex, the “on task loyalty” was high. Students helped each other
with the technical challenges of managing the computer. Only one out of the
seven pairs of students copied the stimulus to paper; the rest were willing to
work with the obje
ct on screen. The quality and quantity of the responses to the
assignment compared favourably to the ones submitted by students completing
the assignment in the regular class environment.

3. Exploring the “virtual library”

We observed the students’ behav
iour in response to an assignment involving a semi
structured, open
ended search task using the facilities and resources available on the
Internet. The students were assigned a topic to research. Two structural aids were
provided by the instructor (on line
): a link to a search engine (WebCrawler) with
instructions on its use and a group of “jump off points” (clickable URLS relevant to the
general topic of the research).


We had hypothesized that the full potential of online instruction invol
ves the use
of the unique capabilities of the Web: linked text and massive searchable content.
We organized this task to begin to gauge students’ reaction to these capabilities.
The focus of our observation was the frequency and quality of students search
activities. How many links did they explore? Did they get off track (distracted)?
Were they able to get back on track? Were they able to make some positive
qualitative decisions during their explorations?

Two sources of data were evaluated: the log of site
s visited and the students’
reports (both verbal and written). The former was scanned for quantity and
quality of web
based references. On average, students visited four sites (not
counting the “jump off point”) over approximately 25 minutes. On task
iour was high; very little off task or distracting behaviour was observed.
About half of the students ended up on sites that were not even remotely related
to the topic; however, this was the first experience of a linked text search for
many, and the level

of excitement and enthusiasm was high. Each student
managed to “hit” at least two relevant links in the course of their search. All but
two students made explicit reference(s) to web
based information subsequently
in their write
up of this assignment. Abo
ut 40 per cent of students provided
evidence that they had used the Web search facilities to research topics, on their
own initiative, for other assignments.

4. The virtual community

The students were provided with structured material online covering the

“Gender Role Stereotyping.” After the content was covered, students were instructed
(online) to join a real time online conference with their classmates to discuss the topic.


Eleven of the 12 students present made contributions to t
he discussion. The
range of contributions were from 1 to 6. Most items were short (single sentence)
and fairly superficial. There were several factors limiting the validity of this trial:
the situation was highly artificial; the students were actually sitt
ing next to each
other; most anticipated having a coffee and chat after class; and, last but not least,
as a result of some technical problems, the class was running quite late.

In addition to the planned observations, we were also able to collect some da
ta on
students preference/tolerance for on
screen versus hard
copy (printed) content.

Paper versus Screen


Students tended to print out course material longer than 350 words. Chunking
the content up into small, logically linked pages did not
seem to change this
behaviour. About half way through the course, we provided some disincentive
to printing (students had to pay for it). This strategy did not alter the student’s
behaviour in a significant way. Informal debriefing suggests three reasons f
this behaviour:

• “This is important. I’d like to


• “I want to refer to it later” (i.e., put it in my note book for reference).

• Reading it on screen is
“not the same.”

It seems that this issue may have significant implications for course des
ign and
management. In this small scale experiment, however, we were not able to
discover whether the preference for printed material was related to one of the
issues reported above, to the student’s lack of experience with computer
work, to the stud
ent’s ownership of a computer (i.e., if it made a difference if the
student had the option of storing the material on the hard drive), to the type of
material presented, or to a combination of factors.

Summary and Conclusions

Our observations of mature,
but computer
naive students’ interaction with computer
mediated instruction support the following tentative conclusions:

• As it has been noted in the literature, initial encounter with CME will generate
quite high initial levels of anxiety. Presence of pe
ers and an instructor/consultant
is no substitute for intuitive interface design.

• Problems with the computer tend to generate high levels of frustration and
anxiety and elevated levels of non
constructive, repetitive “problem
behaviour.” It appea
red to us that students’ difficulties were caused not only by
the lack of the requisite skills to diagnose the problem or by the lack of
“computer knowledge/skills” to solve the problem but, importantly, by the
elevated level of anxiety which blocked ratio
nal as opposed to affectively
motivated behaviour. We also frequently noted that students tended to feel
embarrassment and or shame in response to these problems and tended to
antropomorphise the computer and assign negative emotions to it (“computers
t like me,” “it does not want to listen to me”) to take personal blame for the
malfunction, making negative self
statements: “I am stupid with computers," “I
probably broke it,” “I always screw it up,” and so forth. It seems that these
reactions may be a s
ignificant impediment for at least some students using CME,
and they deserve careful investigation under more controlled conditions.

Our experience suggests that:

• practice activities related to the use of the computer and the CME software
should be built

into the CME interface;

• the user interface should be highly consistent across units and across platforms
throughout the material;

• emergency procedures (e.g., how to reboot or exit the software, etc.) should be
provided at the VERY BEGINNING of the CME

package, both online and in
copy format.

Students response was most positive when the computer responded predictably and
promptly. It appears that the first units of instruction ought to minimize load time, even
at the expense of other positive instr
uctional values. Students began to show signs of
distraction or anxious behaviours after about 15 seconds of computer inactivity in the
first few sessions, though their tolerance improved marginally in subsequent sessions.

There is a subtle relation betwee
n content, length, and media of presentation. It appears
to us that until computers become wireless and totally portable, material that is
“factual” (i.e., discrete information, logical arguments, and the like) and/or longer than
350 words per block will h
ave to be made available as hard copy in addition to the
online format. Material that is designed for “one time use” (such as a stimulus for an
assignment) pr designed as a “lead
through” or search is more readily accepted as an
screen presentation.

Most s
tudents responded well to the notion of a virtual community; ideas such as
forums or discussion groups appear to be a vital “functionality” of this environment.
Based on our classroom observation, even students who had ample of face
opportunities e
njoyed these activities and were willing to invest considerable energy
using the Web pages provided for the purpose. On the other hand, once the focus was
lost (i.e., the discussion moved into tangential directions), the “virtual community”
rapidly fragmen
ted into dyads and triads. As it is labour
intensive to moderate group
discussions closely, we see this issue as a concern for CME.

The most exciting aspect of our learning trial was the utilization of the linked text
environment for research. Although the

possibility of “getting lost in cyberspace” is
high, the overall educational impact of the technology was positive. Students were
excited and motivated to discover that a variety of their own topics of interest were
shared by a broad and often knowledgeab
le community. This fact in itself, in addition
to the value of the resource retrieved, was clearly perceived as an asset. Many students
had limited computer experience but they had used database searches previously and
so were familiar with the concept of
keywords and Boolean operators. This background
was a significant help in the utilization of search engines. Getting lost and feeling
overwhelmed by material were the two most serious drawbacks of these exercises.
Some of these problems might be mitigated
by structuring or confining the research to a
greater degree. However, it seem to us that a great deal of the overarching intellectual
benefit might be forfeited in the process.

A number of students voluntarily reported that they continued to use the Web a
s a
research tool in connection with their work (teaching) as well as in other academic
contexts. These students told us that they found a “Library in Space” and discovered
not only information but intellectual adventure as well. We feel this is the most
ncouraging of all of our findings.


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Learning Networks: A Field
Guide to Teaching and Learning Online.

Cambridge: MIT Press.

Hawkins, J. (1993, May). Technology and the Organization of
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Horvath, A. (1997).
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Study Guide,
Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University, B.C., Canada.

Lick, D. (1996, April). Ivory Towers and Ivy
Covered Walls will Yield
to Online
The Christian Science Monitor.

Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (1994). Computer support for knowledge
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The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3
(3), 265


Stanley, D. T., & Stanley, J. C. (1966).
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for research.

Chicago: Rand McNally.

Teles, L. & Duxbury, N (1991).
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Faculty of Education,
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ERIC ED 348 988

We would like to thank our colleague Jane Cowan for he
r editing suggestions.