Surfing and distance dialoguing: an electronic education pilot project
AEJNE Volume 3 - No.2 March,1998.
Kathryn L. Roberts, Amy Zelmer, Janet Schmitzer, Leonie Williams, Adrian Jackson, Jillian Brammer and Bruce Young
Note: Roberts, Schmitzer and Jackson were at Northern Territory University, while Zelmer, Williams, Brammer and Young were at Central Queensland University.
Surfing and distance dialoguing: an electronic
education pilot project
This nursing education project involved the introduction
of selected computing skills to senior undergraduate student
nurses in two universities. The aim of this project was to
enhance the computer skills of senior undergraduate nursing
students with regard to communicating with other nursing
students using electronic mail and retrieving information by
means of surfing the Internet. Students were encouraged by
means of an assigned assessment to communicate by electronic
mail with a 'penpal' at the other university and also to
acquire information from the Internet using search engines.
Results suggested that while the students found the skills
useful and the opportunity to 'talk' to other nurses in
other countries by e-mail valuable, they did not perceive
that they gained much useful or relevant information for
their assignment. They also indicated that they had needed
considerably more support than they had received. However,
they recommended that future students be taught these
skills. Problems with setting up and implementing the
project, in particular communication problems, were
identified. It was concluded that future projects should be
carried out but that more teaching resources should be
devoted to providing backup tuition for the project and that
more attention be given to communication between project
development and implementation personnel.
Comments from members of the OCC-L also indicate that distance education is now being carried out using e-mail rather than 'snail mail' to deliver course materials, submit assignments and return marked assignments. Teachers and students are dialoguing via e-mail using programs such as 'First Class' that allow e-mail conferencing for class discussions in real time.
The 'virtual classroom' is now being developed in which students can access the 'Virtual Nursing College' <http://www.langara.bc.ca/vnc/> or the "Virtual Hospital" <http://indy.radiology.uiowa.edu/Beyond/Beyond.html> by means of search engines such as "Lycos" on Netscape.
The present project involved the introduction of selected computing skills to undergraduate student nurses. The aim of this project was to enhance the computer skills of senior undergraduate nursing students. Specific techniques were communicating with other nursing students using electronic mail and retrieving information by means of surfing the Internet.
Four students at CQU were 'penpalled' with four students at NTU for the purposes of completing an assignment. The others were free to search the Internet as they wished for the purpose of collecting information for the assignment, without necessarily communicating directly with the students at the other university. The assignment was originally intended to be the same in both institutions but communication problems between staff resulted in the students at NTU doing an assignment on education of an Aboriginal client with renal problems, while the topic selected for CQU was to compare clients from two cultures other than the Anglo-Australian culture (Brammer et al 1995). These assignments were intended to encourage the 'penpal' students to get information by e-mail exchange with the students at the other university.
In addition, all students at the Northern Territory University were given the opportunity to use the computers to acquire information through the Internet. E-mail accounts were set up for the students. At NTU, two Apple computers and a printer were made available for student use for the project, purchased by an equity grant from the Northern Territory University. These were housed in a dedicated computer room and students on this project were given priority in their use. At CQQ, all students had access to a student lab with several Macintosh computers with network connections.
Students in both universities were given tutorials in using e-mail by the lecturers involved in the project. They were shown how to join lists such as the student nurse net and Nursenet. NTU students were also taught how to use the gopher and Mosaic, a web browser program for the Internet. Ongoing assistance was provided as required.
Several problems were encountered in setting up the project which have been detailed elsewhere (Brammer et al. 1995). It was intended that in keeping with the spirit of the project, that the details of setting up the project would be handled through e-mail. However, there were problems with the mail server, and e-mail communication between lecturers in the period of setting up the project was not adequate. In the end, we resulted to teleconferencing to iron out the difficulties. Other problems that arose were that the equipment was late in arriving at NTU, and the students were allowed to select their own 'pen pals' which delayed the project. The actual implementation of the project was affected by staffing redistribution.
At the end of the project, students were given a questionnaire to complete. Thirty questionnaires were distributed, and 22 were returned, a return rate of 73%. Eight of the respondents had undertaken the 'penpal' experience. Twelve respondents were from NTU and ten from CQU.
The questionnaire data called for simple responses for
the data concerning previous experience and usage of the
computer. For the data about the amount of information
gained by the use of the different techniques and the
relevance of the material obtained for use in the
assignment, students were asked to rate their response on a
Likert-type scale. Responses were counted as follows: none =
0, a little = one, a moderate amount = 2 and a lot = 3. The
mean for each answer was calculated.
The students' previous knowledge was almost exclusively restricted to non-Internet computer operations. Four had no previous experience with computers at all; eleven had word processing only; five had experience with a data base, two had experience with a spreadsheet, one had experience with a statistics package, and only one had experience with e-mail.
The time spent on the computer averaged from one hour to six or more hours, with a mean of 2.5 hours per week. Just over half (n=7) of the NTU students felt that they had not been adequately briefed for the project, while five NTU students and all of the CQU students thought they had. There were problems with the penpal communication. The clinical practice days for the students at both universities were scheduled in such a way that they were almost never at the university at the same time, which resulted in delays in answering messages (Zelmer et al 1994).
Students accessed a variety of countries overseas on e-mail, with North America the most common site. Almost everyone accessed the United States (n=11), with over half (n=7) accessing Canada, three accessing the United Kingdom, and one each accessing Holland, Finland and New Zealand. Four students accessed Australia.
The e-mail function yielded the most information (mean = 1.2; maximum score = 3) and was seen as most relevant (mean = 0.9). The gopher was second most used (mean = 1.1) and relevant (mean = 0.8). The File Transfer Protocol was used little (mean = 0.5) and hardly seen as relevant (mean = 0.4) as was Mosaic (relevance mean = 0.3; utility mean = 0.6). These results suggest that the students perceived that the most useful function was e-mail and even that was seen as yielding from little to moderate useful information.
The same results were found for the adequacy of the amount of support received during the project as for adequacy of briefing. Seven students felt that they had not received enough support in the form of back-up tuition as and when they needed it.
Despite the tentative use and low relevance of the material, students felt that they had learned a great deal. They liked being able to correspond with nurses in other countries. One commented that she learned 'what nursing and nurse education in America is like'. They appreciated the opportunity to overcome fear of computers and their increased knowledge about computers, one student commenting that 'it is a great tool to work from to get 'quick and easy' access to information from various resources throughout the world'. They appreciated the opportunity to learn about nursing issues. One student commented that it 'encourages pride in the profession'. Another saw the possibilities for practice and commented 'there needs to be extension of the net to hospitals which would allow greater discussion and interaction between nurses in the field'. Fewer than half (n=10) felt that the skills would be useful to them as a registered nurse, but half of them commented that it would be useful for further study or research. Only three mentioned its use in keeping knowledge updated for practice.
All students agreed that future nursing students should
be taught the skills learnt in this project, particularly
e-mail. Negative experiences were the perceived lack of
tuition and support, technical difficulties in communicating
with the other university, lack of time, and lack of
It was disappointing that the students did not perceive the material they received as very useful or very relevant. However, this project did result in the forging of networks between students in two Universities which are at a great distance from each other. Furthermore, it led to a certain degree of international communication on established electronic network lists, thus promoting in the students an understanding of Nursing on a global basis and links with colleagues around the world. It also promoted skills of retrieving information from the Internet. The students were positive about the skills they had learned and the opportunity to interact with other nurses in faraway places. These increased computer skills will probably represent the lasting value from the project.
It appears that the electronic form of education requires a considerable extra investment of time on the part of the lecturers to train the students in the basic skills required. We should be aiming for centralised resources in the university, ideally in the library, that are dedicated to use of the Internet, with help available at all times.
The difficulties which the CQU and NTU students encountered seem to be relatively common with student and instructor use of electronic media, as evidenced by the material on the OCC-L. In future projects, it is recommended that students be given more tuition and encouraged to use the electronic mail and search engines for general usage. While this will require extra effort in terms of teaching input, it is crucial in this electronic age that nursing students are given appropriate information-finding techniques and the opportunity to have their lives enriched by communication with colleagues around the globe.
The technical and communication problems are likely to be a normal part of the process of learning to use a new technology and should be anticipated. It is recommended that any academics considering embarking upon a similar project take account of the need for explicitly defined guidelines, clear communication between the staff who are setting up and implementing the project both within and between universities, and the need to provide adequate ongoing support for students.
In conclusion, this project was worthwhile despite its
difficulties. We are confident that the skills learned by
the staff and students will enhance their personal and
professional development in this world of accelerating
Brammer J, Young B, Stewart S. 1995 Nursing Students On-Line: practical experiences. Proceedings of the 1995 annual conference of the Higher Education and Research Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA) Higher Education: Blending tradition and technology.
Zelmer A, Roberts, K, Williams, L, Schmitzer, J, Brammer, J, Young, B, and Jackson A. (1994). Using AARNet to broaden the scope of nursing education. Paper presented at the International Networking Conference Education, Training and Change. Perth, Australia, September.
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