A Virtual Seminar for Real Learning

I would divide distance education via the World Wide Web into three categories, each of which incorporates the previous category: The Web can be used as an electronic textbook to disseminate information for users to read (my own personal Web site is a good example); as an electronic textbook with quizzes, which also fosters interactions between the user and the machine, typically in the form of multiple-choice or true/false tests; and as an electronic conference, which goes beyond the electronic textbook to foster interactions between users and teachers. Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses, and I have had the opportunity to use all three. Almost all of the Web can be used as an electronic textbook, including many sites that were never designed with an educational purpose in mind.

I have experience in both classroom teaching and electronic conferencing, and I have been directing the Teaching Research Ethics Workshop (TRE) at Indiana University, Bloomington, for 7 years. Participants in the TRE workshop are typically researchers, faculty members, and administrators who are responsible for teaching students or overseeing research. When the project began, most of the participants signed on in response to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) requirement that all training grant recipients receive training in the responsible conduct of research. A shift has been apparent, though, and each year more people take it because they want to incorporate ethics into their teaching of research--not just because they have to.

Forty-five researchers and faculty members come to Bloomington for the annual 4-day workshop. Participating in the workshop is a wonderful experience, but organizing it takes a lot of work and is very expensive. And while many attendees would like a longer workshop, most cannot spare the time.

These facts made me think that a Web-based seminar might be an answer to the time problem. So in addition to putting on the TRE workshop, we decided to develop a separate electronic conference to allow users to work more or less at their own pace from the comfort of their homes, offices, or labs. My familiarity with TRE helped me shape an NIH grant proposal entitled "Scientists and Subjects" (SAS)--an online seminar on the ethics of research with human subjects, now in its second year of funding. Our goal for this new program is to provide in-depth and customized education in ethical issues that arise in research conducted with human subjects, such as informed consent, genetics research, and in the study of vulnerable populations. (If you are interested in seeking funding for a similar project, you can find out more about our project here.)

While there may be instances where useful skills can be developed through interaction with only a machine, I believe ethical reasoning--including research ethics--is best taught through interaction with other people. My experience teaching undergraduates using electronic conferencing made it clear to me that face-to-face meetings are essential if the electronic portion of the seminar is to succeed. This concept and practice is central to our new SAS project. For this reason we invite our enrollees to an intensive 2-day retreat to build rapport and trust, identify key issues of ethical concern, and introduce the format of the Web-based portion of the seminar.

We tell them that electronic conferencing is like being in a classroom, except that instead of sitting at a table, you sit at your computer; and instead of talking, you type. When I used pen-and-paper logbooks (some people call them journals) in a previous undergraduate course, I saw that my students did not appreciate how much they learned from maintaining the logbooks; they were universally condemned by my students in their evaluations of the course. When I switched to using electronic conferencing for assignments instead of paper logbooks, however, every student--including those I knew did not like the course--praised it as one of the course's most useful aspects. It's the only element of any course I have ever taught that got unanimous praise.

I cannot fully account for the difference between the paper and electronic logbooks, but I suspect that it has to do with (a) the fact that students read each other's entries and saw how much their colleagues progressed, and (b) the fact that I naturally respond at greater length when I type than when I scribble in the margins. Furthermore, in giving feedback to my students through electronic conferencing, I responded to their ideas--not to their written (typed!) grammar or spelling mistakes.

Electronic conferencing also made it easier for me to check entries and make comments much more frequently. I also did not have to carry a stack of logbooks to my office every couple of weeks and plow through a huge pile of entries all at once. Consequently, my students didn't have to wait half a week between handing in their logbooks and getting my feedback. Without exception, my students recognized that this online method of learning helped to improve their writing and critical thinking skills.

Another reason I believe the electronic logbooks worked so well was because I provided extensive, frequent feedback to my students; and insofar as using the computer enhanced these two aspects of the assignment, the learning experience was improved. Using the electronic conference did not save time for me or for my students; thinking and writing still take time--even when the writing is done on a computer.

This is true of the SAS project as well. Even with a small group (we have nine participants this year, but the SAS program can accommodate 15 seminar members), the seminar takes up a lot of my time. Unlike the creation of electronic textbooks, where you create the module and then walk away and leave the learning to the students, with electronic conferencing you have to work with your students all the time. This is one reason our SAS seminar works well with a small group but will not work well for a large group.

Many people think of Web-based training as a way to reach hundreds of people with minimal effort. That doesn't work with the electronic conferencing model. If your goal is compliance (e.g., making sure people understand the regulations in human subjects protection), then an electronic textbook with quizzes might work (see indiana.edu/~rcr for a site I helped to develop for Indiana University). But I have not seen an example of a textbook or a Web site that successfully challenges people to think in different ways, to examine the shortcomings of the way they currently think, or to improve their moral reasoning ability. In my experience, improving ability in ethical thinking requires a lot of give-and-take between real people.

For these reasons we feel that SAS seminar members receive an education that they would be hard pressed to find and fit into their schedules if delivered any other way.