Lancaster University

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Professor Mick Short tests the value of the web in teaching and learning

11/10/2000 13:54:45

The value of the web in teaching will be put to the test with a study using a £50,000 cash fellowship from the Institute for Learning and Teaching.

Professor of English Language and Literature Mick Short was one of only 20 academics across all subjects chosen from 95 UK Universities to be awarded a fellowship.

Professor Short will use the fellowship funding on a teaching project which will develop a web version of a stylistics course he already teaches. He will then test it out to see whether students prefer traditional or web-based learning and which is most effective in terms of their learning.

He explained that to date relatively little work has gone into testing the effectiveness of web-based learning.

"My main area of specialism is Stylistic Analysis, where I try to understand how readers get, via the reading process, from the words on the page to their understanding of texts, and how texts affect them", he explained:

"Because the approach I teach is analytical and difficult, I have always had to work hard to capture and keep student interest. This led to the development of a 'teaching and learning can be fun' strategy, as a way of keeping student interest strong until they become 'hooked' on the more analytical and intellectual aspects of the work they are involved in."

"For example, when I teach about sound symbolism (e.g. onomatopoeia) in poetry I find that the length of time required to explain it tends to mean that students 'see' sound symbolism in contexts where it does not really exist. I keep the fact that most sounds are arbitrary in relation to word meaning in their minds by having a plastic, air-filled 'Arbitrariness Hammer' which I wield around the lecture theatre when reminding them of the importance of arbitrariness. My students enjoy the slapstick element of the lecture, but, more seriously, it is a good example of the use of the appropriate use of fun, because it effectively underlines the point being taught."

Testing the usefulness of the materials and student responses to them will be achieved by comparing two student groups, those who wish to access the course by traditional means and those who wish to access it by the web. Comparisons will be made in terms of student response in the form of questionnaires and interviews and through a statistical comparison of the coursework assessment and examination achievements of the sub-groups.

After the pilot experiment the teaching materials will be made accessible through the internet so that researchers at other institutions can reproduce the experiment and the results can be compared with those in Lancaster.

Based in the department of Linguistics and Modern English Language, rated 4 for research and with the highest score in the country for Linguistics teaching (23/24), Professor Short is a keen advocate of innovative and effective teaching methods, disseminating his approach to teaching through team-teaching, workshops and a series of publications and international conference presentations.

Although keen to develop a friendly and fun working relationship with students Professor Short expects them to work and think hard and to cope with a high level of analytical work. He says part of this 'bargain' is that he must listen carefully to what they say, to respond accurately to their questions and concerns and structure activities to make learning as straightforward as it can be.

The web based project stems from his interest in using technology to aid learning and teaching. Professor Short video-tapes his lectures and workshops making them available in the department, so that it is possible for students to 'revisit' lectures for consolidation or revision purposes and to catch up on lectures they miss through illness. He has also experimented with email discussion groups.