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(This article appears in the TLTP newsletter, no.11 (1998) p.15)
Stephen W. Draper
Department of Psychology
University of Glasgow
Glasgow G12 8QQ U.K.
WWW URL: http://www.psy.gla.ac.uk/~steve
This article is a personal interpretation of the most interesting features to emerge from the MANTCHI project. It is personal because the project is only now (in April 1998) approaching the end of its classroom trials and evaluations of the tutorial materials it has developed, and we are still reflecting on and debating what the main lessons of this work are. It is limited to a few features of the work because of space limitations here.
The MANTCHI project, involving four HEIs in central Scotland, was funded by SHEFC under phase 2 of the UMI initiative. (For explanations of acronyms, see the glossary. For further information on the project and also links to other bodies mentioned, see the main website cited below.) It set out to explore the delivery of tutorial material in the subject area of HCI over the internet, and particularly the MANs. Typically this material would be an exercise designed by another site and backed up by a remote expert, who might give a video conference tutorial or give feedback on submitted student work. In some cases students on different courses, as well as the teachers, interacted.
With hindsight, the most important feature of the project may be that it has been based on true reciprocal collaborative teaching. All of the four sites have authored material, and all four have received (delivered) material authored by other sites. Although originally planned simply as a fair way of dividing up the work, it has kept all project members crucially aware not just of the problems of authoring, but of what it is like to be delivering to one's own students (in real, for-credit courses) material that others have authored: a true users' perspective. This may be a unique feature. Certainly many TLTP projects have been characterised by teams of authors who develop material and then go around wondering why so few other people want to use their wonderful material, even though they themselves would never use anyone else's. Although we can only claim credit for evolving a good practice rather than for principled project planning, MANTCHI has in effect built users of HE teaching material further into the design team by having each authoring site deliver material "not created here". The nearest to this situation that we are aware of is the EUROMET project, where although only some of their sites are authoring units, all are expected to use units authored by other sites.
In MANTCHI, we call the units of material thus exchanged "ATOMs" (Autonomous Teaching Object in Mantchi). Their typical size is one week's work on a module (say approximately eight hours work for a student). This was chosen because it is a typical unit for planning courses. Small units of exchange are very important. (EUROMET originally aimed for even smaller units: 15 minutes of learner time.) Firstly, even apart from the powerful forces of idiosyncratic preference in a deliverer, different situations in different HEIs and courses require different materials. Small units increase the chances of being able to use some of what is on offer from elsewhere. Secondly, it is much easier in practice to introduce a few ATOMs on an existing course than to redesign the whole course. Thirdly, most deliverers will want to try out only one or two ATOMs to see if it is going to work out before committing to greater use.
Another benefit of reciprocal arrangements is that it reflects the basic structural fact of HE that experts are distributed across the country (or indeed the world), each with their specialism; yet all are required to deliver relatively general courses. Exchanging material matches this distribution of expertise, while avoiding difficult accounting issues that would be raised if the effort became seriously asymmetrical. The internet is making such exchange ever easier without the time penalties of travelling, although teaching puts potentially serious demands on bandwidth (increasing current traffic, which is largely researcher to researcher, roughly by a factor of the staff:student ratio).
Is a reciprocal exchange of ATOMs the wave of the future? Will my teaching in the future consist of delivering a few mini-topics that I am national expert on to 10 different sites, while delivering local courses made up largely of taking remote contributions? Perhaps not. After taking an ATOM from a remote expert once or twice, I will probably now feel expert enough to deliver it myself without further external support. If that is the pattern that emerges, then much reciprocal collaborative teaching will be viewed as professional development rather than as permenent dependence on other HEIs. But, at least in subjects such as HCI which change rapidly, this may be an important support to teachers in their struggle to keep up to date in what they deliver.
Steve Draper, Glasgow, April 1998.
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