Agroecosystems site


Using the Web to Promote Collaborative Learning
and Academic Critique

David G. Patriquin, Professor of Biology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, N.S., Canada B3H 4J1 (

Paper accompanying a presentation at the Atlantic Universities' Teaching Showcase, 24 Oct, 1998 at Mount Saint Vincent University. Published in Atlantic Universities Teaching Showcase 1998 Proceedings (Edited by Jane Gordon and Denise Novo), Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax, N.S., pp 181-192.




Web based communication provides new venues for collaborative learning and academic critique. Twenty-six students in a one-semester class on Agroecosystems learned introductory level skills needed to prepare and handle Web documents in four Computer Learning Lab sessions. That enabled them to write term papers on Topics in Agroecosystems as Web pages; each page included an Overview and sections with Key Facts and Figures, Important Terms, Useful Literature, Useful Links and Citations. Clarity and conciseness of communication, critical use of terms and evaluation of sites on the Web for credibility and consistency through time were emphasized. Information and discussion accumulated through the semester on a bulletin board provided material for an Agroecosystems Home Page and other pages. The Topics pages were posted on the students' Public Directories on the Internet Services computer and linked through the Agroecosystems Home Page which was located in the instructor's Public Directory. This arrangement permitted a peer review process, which took place within groups of 4-6 students. When assignments became due, they were copied onto the instructor's directory. Each page was evaluated by 10 students, by the instructor, and by one of three "external" reviewers. Marks included an individual component and a group component. The group component was the average mark for all pages by members of the group multiplied by a Peer Assessment Factor, which factors in different levels of involvement in groups activities. Students expressed a high level of satisfaction with the approach, and appreciated that it gave them new skills.



The Web is quickly becoming a major venue of communication, greatly increasing accessibility, and speed of communication. It is also changing the style in which we communicate and accordingly, the way we organize our thoughts. Hence, it is important that academics become involved in a creative way in the development of the Web for professional and academic communication, and for teaching.

In the fall of 1997, I began to organize materials for a new, spring semester class on Agroecosystems, and to explore ways in which the Web might be used to foster a collaborative learning approach (Millis, 1995) and academic critique. By academic critique I refer to the evaluation of prose, arguments and evidence according to the norms of established disciplines. I am probably typical of many science professors, who use computers for number crunching and preparing figures and text for publications, but have had little experience working in computer based multimedia venues. I viewed the Web, not as a panacea for education, but as offering significant possibilities for improving and coordinating curriculum, and for facilitating active learning approaches. I began to learn basic multimedia skills 4 months before giving the class, and developed the format of the class as I began to understand the mechanics of multimedia.

We used the Web for several purposes: (i) WebCT (Web Course Tools ) was used to post class materials, provide individual access to marks and to carry on discussions via an electronic Bulletin Board; (ii) each of five class groups was required to prepare and post a report on a class problem-solving exercise; (iii) we began construction of a Web site on Agroecosystems which incorporated Web pages prepared by individual students on Topics in Agroecosystems. This paper reports on the Web site exercise.


The challenges and benefits of the Web medium

The Web provides access to vast quantities of information. I considered that the main challenge in constructing a Web site in an academic learning context is not to reproduce this information, or even to collate it, but rather to screen it , make some synthesis of it, and organize access according to the purpose and to present the results in a form that is interesting, accurate, useful, concise and conforms to principles of good Web design (Phillips, 1998; Waters, 1996). An emphasis on synthesis of materials and format should encourage development of higher order learning skills (Cyrs, 1994). The hypertext/links concept especially lends itself to integrative thinking. The exercise of applying academic standards to Web communication in itself should foster critical thinking, beginning with a consideration of what we mean by "academic standards".

Following are some of the other benefits I anticipated from the use of Web tools, Web access and the Web site exercise:

Below, I outline how the Web site exercise was conducted. Links listed under Section 5 provide more details, mostly in the form of documents that were used in the class. I hope that this description can be useful to others making similar efforts. It was only a first step. I anticipate improving on the approach year by year as I learn more about the venue, gain experience in the classroom, receive feedback, new tools become available, and I become familiar with other, similar approaches.



The class was a one semester (12 week) class, with two 1 hour lectures and one 2 hour session in a Computer Learning Lab each week. There were 26 students, mostly in the third or fourth year of a BSc or BA degree. The class was intended to serve as an introduction to agricultural systems for students who otherwise have little exposure to agriculture either practically or academically, which is typical of most students in urban, non-agricultural universities in Canada. A survey revealed that two out of the 26 students had worked as farm hands, and two others had worked as student employees with government agricultural services.

Although most of the students had conducted exercises with spread-sheets and math on the computer, all had used word processors, and most knew how to browse the Web, only one had a working knowledge of HTML prior to the class. Ravi Gunoo, a fourth year Computing Student, assisted in the Learning Lab sessions. In four of these sessions, there was some formal instruction in the mechanics of preparation and handling of Web documents; others provided scheduled time for individuals and groups to work on their assignments.

For the Web site and other class activities, students were organized into groups of 5 or 6. This number was chosen to ensure that the minimum number with dropouts would be 4. A survey was conducted to determine how much variation there was in relevant skills, and students were assigned to groups in a way that distributed these skills more or less equally.


The Web exercises

In the first Web exercise, students were introduced to HTML and to the concept of using the Web to integrate class activities by preparing "who-I-am" pages which were linked to each other via a "who-We-are" page. A source code template was provided for the who-I-am page in which students could simply substitute the pertinent information, or they could alter it, making use of an HTML tag type editor if they wished (we used HTML Assistant Pro for the PC or Page Spinner for the Mac). Students were not encouraged to use wysiwyg (what you see is what you get) editors such as Netscape Composer (or even informed about them) as I wanted them to at least be familiar with if not conversant with, HTML. Each page included a photo of the student taken in class with a digital camera, or obtained by scanning a photographic print provided by the student. Out of this initial exercise, students learned:

The second exercise was to prepare a group report on class problem-solving sessions. Additionally, some students prepared short reports in HTML on specific topics that arose in class. (These exercises are not further elaborated on here).

Finally, students prepared the Special Topic Reports which are included at the site as "Agroecosystem Topics". A common, simple format was adopted for the Special Topics reports; it included a photograph, a Table of Contents, an Overview and sections with Key Facts and Figures, Important Terms, Useful Literature, Useful Links and Citations. Guidelines were given for each of these sections; the emphasis was on limited but well chosen and clearly presented material. The common, simple format helped to

On the other hand, we decided to allow any format for the who-I-am pages, which provided an outlet for experimentation.

Each group was responsible for peer review of group members' Web pages.

It had been intended that the groups would be responsible for assembling the Home Page and other pages, exclusive of the Special Topics, that are included on the Agroecosystems site. However, because of time constraints, I did that, using materials accumulated by students on a Bulletin Board over the course of the semester. (Time constraints were greater than would normally be expected because of some initial difficulties with hardware and scheduling of computer labs, and unplanned closure of the University for 8 days).


Posting Web documents

Initially, HTML documents were forwarded to me by e-mail , and I posted them in a Public Directory on my IS (Internet Server) account, or on the class WebCT site. After the first drafts of the Special Topics assignments were submitted, I edited pages as necessary for format, and posted them with links to a draft Agroecosystems Home Page, all in my Public Directory.

At this stage I thought that it would be more efficient if students could post their Special Topics on Public Directories in their own accounts, and we would link them via the Home Page on my account. This was not considered initially because students would have to learn how to use UNIX commands to set up Public Directories and make the appropriate Directory Access Permissions. (That is not complicated in itself, but complications can result if errors are made in assigning permissions). As it was considered too much of a diversion at this stage to deal with this aspect, Ravi Gunoo wrote a simple program that a student could run to create a public directory on his or her UNIX account, place identified files in that directory, and make the appropriate access permissions. (Alternatively, the network administrator might be asked to set up the directories with fixed access permissions). Once this was done, corrections that students made to their Pages could be made instantly available to other members of the group, the instructor, and others.


Final deadlines, and assessment

When the Special Topics became due (1700 h, April 23), I "froze" them by copying the documents on the students account and placing the copies in my own Public Directory.

Each page was evaluated by 10 students, by the Instructor, and by one of three "external" reviewers. Students had 5 days to make their evaluations; they examined papers via the Web - in some cases after they had left the campus - and submitted their evaluations by e-mail.

The external examiners included two individuals at other institutions and one at Dalhousie. Each assessed 8 student topics plus two others which served as "reference pages". The latter were assessed by all 3 externals; the results were used to calculate correction factors which were applied to reduce differences between the examiners' grading levels.

A composite mark for each student was calculated as: (avg. mark assigned by students, + adjusted external's mark + Instructor's mark)/3. The final mark received by the student was made up of an individual component and a group component, the weighting having been pre-assigned at the beginning of class according to an "Individually Weighted Marking Scheme". The group component was the average mark for all pages by members of a group multiplied by PAF (Peer Assessment Factor). Students submitted their Peer Assessments at the same time that they submitted their assessments of the ten Topics Pages.

More details on these marking schemes are available at the links identified in Section 5, below. I was introduced to the weighted marking and peer assessment concepts by Phil O'Hara (Academic Computing, Dalhousie University) and Norm Cameron (Dept. of Economics, University of Manitoba) respectively, in teaching workshops held at Dalhousie University in the fall of 1997. Students expressed a high degree of satisfaction with the weighted marking scheme. Use of PAF effectively alleviated a concern about group projects that students expressed in the first class, namely that "some do all of the work".



Difficulties that we had were related mostly to technical limitations beyond our immediate control such as loss of time due to unplanned closure of the University, and to some initial hardware limitations in the computer lab and classroom, which the University has since addressed. In spite of those difficulties, students expressed a high level of satisfaction with the project, and appreciated that it gave them new skills.

There were two hardware limitations. (i) The Computer Learning Lab in which we started out was equipped with pre-Pentium-100 level computers and servers and could not handle 20+ students running Netscape 3 without crashing frequently (Netscape 4 was the current version). We lost a total of 2 weeks of lab time at the beginning of class rearranging schedules so that we could have access to Pentium 100 and 200 level machines, and could use the most recent versions of browsers. (ii) I had planned on regular use of a laptop-projection system in the classroom with Web access via an ethernet connection. In this case, the facilities were available, but not before the class began, and it took more of the class time to get the system up-and running than we could afford in one hour class periods. This problem was resolved for the last three weeks of term, when it was most needed. Unfortunately, we then lost two weeks of lectures and labs due to a faculty strike/University lockout.

The hardware limitations, which are being addressed by the University, can be viewed as growing pains. Until recently, Biology students (and most other students in Arts and Sciences) have used computers mainly for word processing, number crunching and e-mail. These needs have been met fairly adequately by some heavy investments initially and a not-too-rapid turnover rate. With the advent of the WWW, the demands for connectivity, memory and speed have increased quickly as new versions of programs have become more powerful, and more user-friendly, and more people have got into the act. At the same time, cost of computers that can handle such programs has been going down quickly, so the issue for a period has been one of "when is the best time to get into the act?".

Typically, those who forsee the potential of the new technologies press for getting into it sooner while those managing budgets consider that "we could wait a while and be better off". There are tradeoffs both ways, and different strategies can be successful. This was apparently the first undergraduate class outside of computer sciences to attempt to use the Web in this way, and it was inevitable there would be difficulties. The approach was to anticipate problems, consider them to be a normal component of any new computer based exercise, as possible to involve students in resolving them, and finally, to allow some flexibility in schedules and expectations.

We were able to extend the deadline for submission of drafts and final papers, however, we lost 2/3 of the time that had been allotted for whole class discussion and group-based peer review of initial drafts of the Agroecosystems Topics papers. That process was intended to (i) facilitate students' learning from their colleaguesà work, (ii) familiarize students with the process of peer review of publications, (iii) stimulate critical discussion of concepts that were to be elaborated on at the Web site, (iv) result in all or most papers being brought to an acceptable standard for publication on the Web by the end of term. We were able to touch upon (i) and (ii), but we were not able to progress very far with (iii), nor to bring all papers up to an acceptable level within class time. However, these appear to be realistic goals with the experience now behind us and improved facilities. (Agroecosystem Topics posted initially are those that required little or no editing as submitted; students are being given the opportunity to edit others).

It is reasonable to expect that within a few years, most students entering university, or after one year of university, will be familiar with most of the technical tools that we had to acquire during the course of this class; that most will have home access to the Web (approximately 1/3 of the students had access to the Web outside of the university), and that there will good classroom Web access and computer projection, i.e. that most of the technical challenges that we encountered will be challenges no more. Students will also expect to make more use of Web-based tools in universities. Thus the principle challenge will be to use the Web to do things that were not possible before and to improve existing methodologies, while maintaining and improving as possible the levels of interaction between students, and between students and instructors.


The revised Web site

The Agroecosystems Web site developed during the semester was revised and posted Oct 22, 1998 at a new URL ( It includes 5 of the 26 individually prepared Agroecosystems Topics, those being ones that required little editing and that most closely met requested format and content. Information from other Topics pages was incorporated in other pages on the Agroecosystems site. The page on SI units was prepared as an assignment by an individual student in relation to class problem-solving sessions.

Only one of the 26 students in the class had prior experience preparing Web documents. None of these students whose Topics pages are posted on the revised site had prior experience preparing Web pages, thus these pages illustrate what can be accomplished in technical terms after mastering introductory level HTML skills.


What's ahead

The revised site will provide a resource of factual material for the next class. However, it is the process of preparing these pages that is the most important from the learning perspective, and that provides benefits for collaborative learning and academic critique. The class will be asked to critique the existing site in regard to both detail and form, to update links and key facts, add new functions or activities to the site (e.g. discussion groups, databases, interactive exercises), and to pursue new topics and statistical research related to the subject matter. Topics pages will be updated or archived after 2 years. Thus the site will have both cumulative (through archiving) and dynamic features. As much as possible the site will be a product of individual and collaborative student endeavors. I hope to extend collaborative interactions beyond our class and University, at both the student and Instructor levels.



The URL for the revised AGROECOSYSTEMS Web site is

The documents listed below can be accessed from

Most are documents that were used in the class.

  • Guidelines for the Who We Are Exercise
  • Guidelines for Special Topics/ Web Page
  • Photos for Reports
  • Links Formatting
  • Stats on student background/Assigning students to groups
  • Guidelines for groups
  • Assessment
  • Individually weighted marking scheme
  • Mark Statistics for Special Topics Web Pages
  • Students' comments on the class
  • Post-class update to students
The following documents describe other class activities. There were varying degrees of success with these activities.
  • Web Page Advertisement for the Class
  • Objectives of Class
  • Outline of Class Activities


Cyrs, T.E. 1994. Essential Skills for College Teaching: An Instructional Systems Approach. New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, NM.

Millis, B.J. 1995. Introducing faculty to cooperative learning. In Teaching Improvement Practices. Successful Strategies for Higher Education. Edited by W.A. Wright and Associates. Anker Publishing Co., Inc. Boton, Massachussetts.

Phillips, L.A. 1998/ Using HTML 4. Que/Macmillan Computer Publishing, Indianapolis.

Waters, C. 1996. Web Concept and Design. New Riders Publishing, Indianapolis.



Developing this class required expenditures in hardware, software and time that went beyond those normally allotted for teaching. Partial funding for new hardware and software was provided through a departmental equipment fund. The University's Student Employment Program provided 5 h assistance per week for two semesters. In the first semester Carlos Freya, a Graduate student in Computing Science, assisted in setting up hardware and software and taught me the basics of working in HTML and with WebCT. In the second semester, Ravi Gunoo, in his final year of a Computing Science degree, assisted in the Computer Learning Labs, and prepared HTML reference documents for the class. Both students made innovative suggestions and expanded my horizons. I was introduced to many of the concepts and techniques that I applied in this class in workshops sponsored by OIDT (Office of Instructional Development and Technology) and Academic Computing at Dalhousie University. I am particularly grateful to Alan Wright and Carol O'Neil of the former and Phil O'Hara of the latter for their encouragement, feedback and day to day support when needed. Personnel at the Help desk of the University Computing Services got me out of many jams. Anne Mills and Tom MacRae (Dept. of Biology) and Ron Tetreault (Dept. of English) provided helpful feedback on a draft of the manuscript.