Colloquium - Wiley Online Library

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British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, 2004. ... 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, ...
British Journal of Educational Technology

Vol 35 No 3 2004

369–375

Colloquium

A web-based tool for dissertation writing Rosanne Strachan, Rowena Murray and Hilary Grierson Rosanne Strachan, Graphics/Photography Manager of Learning Services, University of Strathclyde, is involved in all aspects of design for teaching and learning. Rowena Murray, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Academic Practice, is responsible for staff and educational development, with research interest in academic writing. Hilary Grierson is Course Tutor for the Postgraduate Computer Aided Building Design Course, Department of Architecture and Building Science. Address for correspondence: Rosanne Strachan, Learning Services, University of Strathclyde, 155 George Street, Glasgow G1 1RD, Scotland. Email: [email protected]

Abstract Online web tools are becoming an important and accessible means of supporting learning in higher education. Student writing is central to teaching and learning (Lillis, 2001). This paper describes an online tool designed to support dissertation writing. By combining three types of online space— instructional material, a writing space and planning templates—this tool aimed to provide a holistic approach to writing and writing development. This paper demonstrates how the tool was used in an academic course in order to address certain teaching and learning problems identified by the course tutor. Student feedback suggests that while further development is needed, the tool was still useful. This paper raises awareness of the complex array of issues involved in dissertation writing and provides insights into solutions to writing problems. While we designed what we considered to be a web-based tool for dissertation writing, we argue that the writing space and planning templates go some way towards creating an environment for the development of learning (Häkkinen, 2002).

Introduction The dissertation is a new type of writing task for students and places new demands on both students and staff. Without knowledge of how to approach and manage this task, dissertation writing can create anxiety and stress for each group. However, with a few basic guidelines it need not be as intimidating as students often find it (Hampson, 1994). A multidisciplinary team at the University of Strathclyde, consisting of experts in the fields of writing, audio visual design, distance learning and learning technology, col© British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, 2004. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.

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laborated on producing a web-based tool for dissertation writing. The tool was piloted with a group of postgraduate architecture students and their feedback analysed and changes made to fine-tune the tool to their needs. The course tutor then embedded the tool in the coursework.

Why generic web tools? There was potential for such a tool within the MSc course in Computer Aided Building Design (CABD). The tutor identified specific student needs: • Students had reported difficulties in starting their writing • Students found dissertation writing a difficult process—a monolithic task, different from their usual assessment methods Experience of previous cohorts of MScCABD students had shown that they tended to struggle or did not complete their dissertations due to a number of factors observed by the course tutor: • • • • •

Not structuring and planning work Being unclear as to what is expected Being unsure about dissertation writing process Not having enough time Not having, or not adhering to, a timetable

In addition, other potential advantages of the web-based tool were identified: • Students had to be able to access support material when they needed to, often from off campus, to suit their family or part-time work commitments • Students whose first language is not English could take their time to study the information provided, without feeling pressured This type of technology allows tutors to do some things they could not otherwise do. Normally there is no time in the curriculum for the teaching of writing, even when a need for such teaching has been identified. Moreover, there is usually limited scope for monitoring students’ progress during the distinct stages of the dissertation writing process. Finally, within the context of this specific course, the tutor’s structured approach to dissertation writing could be supported by a tool that in some ways replicated her stages. The dissertation writing tool The structure is included in the web site to let students and tutors see the site as a whole. The planning templates were seen as a key section, as students often have problems planning the whole dissertation process. Online delivery allows for the use of video. In this instance, video is used to illustrate experiences of both tutor and student with which users can identify. © British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, 2004.

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Figure 1: Structure of the web site

The tool can be individualised by students for their own writing processes (Herrington, 1985). Tutors can also use it as part of the induction process and actively to teach students the process of writing up their first research project. It might save tutors time spent dealing with problems that could have been resolved at an earlier stage (Thow and Murray, 2001). Evaluation An evaluation questionnaire was administered in mid-June 2002, during the writing period, to 13 students undertaking the dissertation. It consisted of 10 questions © British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, 2004.

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Figure 2: Templates for weekly and monthly planning

© British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, 2004.

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Figure 3: Writing space within the tool

covering frequency of use, time spent reviewing/browsing material, point of access, technical problems, ease of navigation around the site, appearance and functionality, usefulness of different sections, completion of tasks within the site, overall help provided by the site, and suggestions for improvements. A focus group was run with six students after the dissertations had been submitted. Perspectives of the students and tutor are summarised below. Student perspective Students reported that they used the site ‘once’ or ‘occasionally’. They did not use the site throughout the entire dissertation process. However, all students who had looked at the site, and those students who used it, found it to be useful. One student printed off all of the pages—everything that might be needed or sounded interesting—and downloaded the writing tool for future use. Technical problems were experienced by 50% of the students, and solutions have since been provided. © British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, 2004.

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Tutor perspective Two key topics were raised: (a) the educational impact of the site and (b) the students’ ability to plan their dissertations using the tool. The web site reinforced a structured approach. The table of contents gave students a feel for the organisation of a dissertation and the structuring of the writing process (Gottlieb, 1994; Murray 2002), which enabled them to focus on the creative aspect of the writing itself. Clear guidelines were offered for dissertation writing, providing students with a support framework. It has been shown that knowing what is to be done also builds confidence and facilitates the start of the process. Planning templates proved most useful. The templates offered support to students’ writing and reinforced the need for timetabling. An outline of the stages of the writing process enabled students to break the dissertation down into manageable parts. Conclusion The web site reduced the number of students not completing their dissertations in time. Those who adopted the web site methods to develop their dissertation have enjoyed the process and seen the benefits of structuring and planning. A key advantage is that the web site offers access anytime, anywhere, and can provide the student with the benefit of mixed media. Finally, as the course tutor suggested, in order for this tool to become embedded in the course it would need to be integrated into the dissertation writing processes. References would have to be made to the tool at key stages, and these would need to be defined and monitored (Nikolova and Collis, 1998; Van den Brande, 1993). The tool achieved the key aims, but improvements could be made to maximise its educational impact. At this stage we hope that other tutors will adopt the tool in their work with students and we welcome feedback on its impact in a wider range of contexts. References Häkkinen P (2002) Challenges for design of computer-based learning environments British Journal of Educational Technology 33, 4, 461–469. Gottlieb N (1994) Supervising the writing of a thesis in Zuber-Skerrit O and Ryan Y (eds) Quality in postgraduate education Kogan Page, London, 110–119. Hampson L (1994) How’s your dissertation going?: students share the rough reality of dissertation and project work Unit for Innovation in Higher Education, Lancaster University. Herrington A J (1985) Writing in academic settings: a study of the contexts for writing in two college chemical engineering courses Research in the Teaching of English 19, 4, 331–361. Lillis T M (2001) Student writing: access, regulation, desire Routledge, London. © British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, 2004.

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Murray R (2002) How to write a thesis Open University Press, Buckingham. Nikolova I and Collis B (1998) Flexible learning and design of instruction British Journal of Educational Technology 29, 1, 59–72. Thow M K and Murray R (2001) Facilitating student writing during project supervision: a practical approach Physiotherapy 87, 3, 134–139. Van den Brande L (1993) Flexible and distance learning John Wiley, Chichester.

© British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, 2004.