The ASTER project - Assisting Small-group Teaching through Electronic Resources

The ASTER Project was funded by the English higher education funding council, through the Teaching and Learning Technology Programme. It ran from 1998 to 2002. ASTER explored how electronic resources were being used to support tutorial, seminar and workshop teaching across a range of disciplines in UK universities. Surveys and case studies were undertaken to gather information about current and recent practice, and reports on these are available from the ASTER Website. ASTER was a collaboration between the universities of York (lead site), Oxford and Surrey, and University College Northampton.

In 1999, ASTER undertook a series of surveys in UK higher education institutions to identify good practice in the use of new technologies for small-group teaching. We were interested in the tools and resources being used, and the contextual factors which determine the success or otherwise of implementing new technologies in teaching and learning. Another key issue was to identify disciplinary differences, and to explore why these came about. A questionnaire was sent out by email to thousands of academics in Britain and beyond; 40 academics were interviewed by telephone; 32 case studies were carried out in 1999 and 2001. The case studies cover a range of subjects: archaeology, art, chemistry, classics, engineering, english, mathematics, physics, psychology, theology. The case studies and reports from the surveys are available from the ASTER Web site.

Findings show that a range of C&IT tools is being used before, within, and after classes, to support and enhance dialogue between students and tutors. Moreover, there are disciplinary differences in the choice of tools used to support teaching and learning. While some digital resources act as a medium through which dialogue occurs (communication tools such as email, chat and discussion lists), the majority of the ASTER case studies document indirect support. Computer-mediated communication, and the communications features of virtual learning environments, directly support dialogue, and are popular in the arts, humanities, and psychology, though ASTER found minimal use by physicists and chemists. Multimedia tutorials (often providing introductions to subjects) and simulations, where available, can ensure that students have sufficient skills to continue with the course - thus they are popular in physics and engineering, covering mathematics; language drillers are used to support vocabulary acquisition and grammar, but not widely used in English literature or fine art, for example. The ASTER survey found that students were directed to multimedia tutorials for independent study, freeing up face-to-face meetings for more advanced discussion. Finally, preparatory readings may be accessed via the Web, through a Virtual Learning Environment, or on CD-ROM. Such resources offer limited support for dialogue, though they are popular in the arts, humanities and psychology (and presumably the social sciences); limited use was made of such resources to support undergraduate teaching in the physical sciences.

These differences in the use of new technologies to support small-group teaching are a result of several interconnecting factors. An obvious reason is that the subject content of any resource needs to fit the course being taught, and digital resources are not currently available to cover all university courses! However, we found that other factors are at play. Discussion classes are vital to support students' acquisition of subject expertise and jargon, and to engage in academic discourse, both verbal and written. However, opportunities for discussion between students and tutors are reliant on the balance of teaching methods used (lectures, practicals, seminars etc.), and class size, both of which vary between disciplines and institutions. Electronic tools can support discussion, mediating between individuals, though previous experience in using tools either for research or teaching by students and tutors influences their perception of the value of these tools.

The ASTER project attempts to pull together these areas of research in teaching practice and the use of new technologies. While the ASTER survey has not been able to gather information on teaching practices across entire institutions, or nationally for all departments in a given subject area, it has nevertheless revealed differences in teaching practices between disciplines. These differences are not clear cut; the number of ASTER case studies is relatively small, and our findings cannot be taken as representative of UK higher education as a whole.

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>Last updated: Wed Aug 21 2002

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