Internet Column 6

Not Surfing But Drowning?: Report on the first attempt at delivering a new module "Business Applications of the Internet".


Andrew Lymer

The University of Birmingham

(a.m.lymer@bham.ac.uk)

&

Liza Pybus

Nottingham Trent University

(FIS3PYBUSEJ@ntu.ac.uk)

I mentioned in the previous column that it was my intention to publish details of Internet related courses or course elements as I discovered them. This column describes what is, to my knowledge, is one of the first such courses of its type in the U.K. i.e. one that was specifically designed to promote an awareness of the web for undergraduate Business students (the only other I am aware of was reported in Sangster & Mulligan 1996). Much of the text is taken from Liza Pybus' paper to the recent Scottish Area Group conference in Aberdeen in which she describes the aims and objectives of the course, gives details of its first running and highlights the problems the course leaders had to overcome to bring it to a successful first conclusion. It provides an interesting model to start from for those who may be thinking of introducing at least an element of the Internet into their courses. I am interested in hearing from anyone who knows of other such courses for undergraduates or postgraduates that can be described in future columns.

This paper title was chosen to give the message that this is not necessarily an example of best practice but more of an experiment that could have failed. It was also chosen to indicate that the module was not so much about using the Internet as a research medium as about students acquiring the skills to develop their own Web site.

Background

Nottingham Business school has 8 different undergraduate degree routes with a yearly intake of approximately 600 undergraduates. In common with many other universities, the degree structure is now fully modularised and divided into two semesters. The 1st year of undergraduate study is virtually the same for all students, in the second year their courses become more specialised. The "Business Applications of the Internet" module discussed in this paper falls into this category - a 2nd year option running in the 2nd semester which was offered to students on any of the Business School BA courses. This module has only run once so far, from February to June 1996.

Until this coming academic year the first year course did not attempt to formally introduce the Internet to students which meant that the safest assumption was that students taking this module had no previous Internet experience. Due to both staff and computing resource constraints the number of students allowed to take this option was restricted to 3 seminar groups (60 students).

Module Aims

The module aims were as follows:

To provide broad Internet understanding & awareness

To develop understanding of opportunities for commercial exploitation of the Internet

To introduce the Internet as a research resource

To give an opportunity to acquire HTML & Web design skills

To develop creative, teamwork and writing skills.

Assessment

The assessment of this course was entirely group based and divided into 4 parts which were all linked to the development of a Web page project. Below are some details of the divisions and designated weightings, shown in the order they were completed.

Component Weighting

Design proposal 20%

Web page development 40%

Presentation of pages 10%

Final report 30%

Barriers before the module started

Before the module could run a number of barriers needed to be overcome. The highly practical nature of the module and the assessment through group work were subjects of discussion at quality assurance boards. Eventually the need to have a module of this nature as part of the business school portfolio was established and it was recognised that assessment within groups would provide the students with a greater pool of skills and allow more realistically sized project to be attempted.

The other difficulties to be overcome included the persuasion of Computing Services to install relevant software for student access (both HTML editors and packages for manipulation of graphics), setting up group student accounts which allowed access to our Web server, thinking through the protection of pages while students were undertaking work and finding suitable projects for students to work on.

Projects

It was an aim of the course that projects would be realistic, have the scope to develop into a comprehensive site presence and have an enthusiastic client requiring the work. The projects were mainly internal to the university and were either requested after advertising at cross-university events or suggested to people working in areas where it was thought there could be a need. Eventually 15 projects were found to match the number of groups and ranged from Student Advice Centres to a site for the Green Business Network. Brief details of each of the projects were published and after a few days a sign-up list was attached to a notice board at an advertised time and projects were chosen on a first come-first served basis. The first projects to go were the ones associated with the Student's Union and the one completely external project for Sankey's Garden Products.

Contact time/Programme

The traditional model of the weekly 1 hour seminar and 1 hour lecture was not suitable for this course. In order to make best use of our time the 3 seminar groups were converted into 2 larger groups, making it possible to have two hour work shop sessions when required. The majority of taught sessions were workshop based which were supported by two members of staff. Lectures were spread throughout the semester and included one external speaker from a local small business who is currently developing commercial Web pages (see http://www.mandis.co.uk/sovereign/ for an example).

Each workshop had a total of 30 students. This made it essential to use material that would encourage independent learning. Therefore, a lot of development effort was put into producing tutorial workbooks. Each workshop session commenced with a short briefing time and then quickly launched into a hands-on time. In addition some use was made of the Netskills materials to cover some ground (http://www.netskills.ac.uk/). Students were encouraged to work in groups from a very early stage to create more self support and therefore cut down on the number of questions.

In addition to classroom contact all students were obliged to join a discussion list and undertake to read their mail at least once a day. This facilitated the publishing of questions and answers associated with Web page development and allowed for administration announcements without needing to use physical notice-boards.

Problems during the course

The module was extremely popular. Demand far exceeded the number of places available. Students' contact with their client did not always work out as intended: some clients had a change of heart about the need for Web resources once the projects got going, some students left making the first contact until quite late in the day. In one case a new project had to be found for students to work on half-way through the course. There were also the inevitable software/hardware problems associated with using new products in a lab.

The End Result

By the end of the module all students developed pages of some worth and, in some cases, there were very pleased clients who will use the pages virtually as they stand. These pages will need a bit of 'tweaking' before going live however, and so are not yet available for public viewing.

It is worth reflecting on why some projects worked better than others. In general it was down to one or a mixture of the following factors:

Lessons learnt/Ideas for Next Time

It was clear from the way in which students were able to work and project outcomes that it was not a good idea to let students run with projects that were not requested. It will therefore be a clear priority to make sure keen clients are obtained next time. The group that worked on the only external project seemed to take their work very seriously it is certainly the intention to find more external projects for next time. The session given by our external speaker was particularly useful and well appreciated . Consequently, more than one external speaker will be included next time if possible.

Many students left a lot of work on the Web pages until the last minute and so more deadlines will be set to help discipline students' project development next time. It will be important to keep the materials and software up to date, so it will be difficult to reuse many of our tutorials and lecture notes again as they stand, however a wealth of resources are available on the Web and it is the intention to browse thoroughly before developing too many of our own aids.

The First Class conferencing system has recently been installed in our computer rooms and so it is the intention to substitute use of this package in place of the E-mail discussion list.

Conclusions

This module involves a lot of effort - finding projects, developing materials and keeping up to date with Internet developments however, it is a popular option and so it will run again. It was useful for personal development of HTML skills, but how soon will these be obsolete?

So far the only feedback from students has been on an informal basis, the general consensus being that it was not an easy option but was very interesting and gave them chance to develop some useful skills (two students out of the group managed to acquire their current placement jobs on the basis of their newly acquired skills).

In the end no-one drowned !

References :

Sangster, A & C. Mulligan (1996), 'The Integration of the WorldWideWeb into an Accounting Course' , paper presented at the 7th Annual CTI-AFM Conference, Brighton, April.


This article appeared in ACCOUNT Vol. 8, No. 2 (Autumn 1996) p7-9

It is likely that some of the details given in the article will become dated over time.
Please notify the author (a.m.lymer@bham.ac.uk) if you spot any of these changes and he will update the information where appropriate.

This page was created and is maintained by its author - Andrew Lymer: University of Birmingham.

Last amended: November 1996