Liz McDowel

  • The 1,000 page text book versus surfing the Web: lecturers, electronic information and student learning

    Liz McDowell, University of Northumbria

    It is often claimed that the availability of information, especially in electronic forms (e.g the Web, electronic journals, online data-sets) offers new opportunities for learning. However, there are many questions to be asked about how, under what circumstances and with what effects the electronic information environment contributes to learning. There has been considerable interest in information literacy (Bruce & Candy, 2000) and the development of students' capacities to access, manage and use information. Some research has established the links between students' approaches to learning and their use of information resources in academic work (Limberg, 1999) and others have investigated the difficulties that students experience in becoming independent information users (Macdonald, Heap & Mason, 2001).

    Many lecturers are well aware of the potential implications of the electronic information environment, especially since many of them wrestle with information problems and opportunities personally in their role as researchers. However they face dilemmas in the complex process of adjusting their teaching to accommodate or take advantage of electronic information. This seminar builds on earlier research (McDowell, 2002) which shows how lecturers view the electronic information environment in relation to their teaching. It is based on a qualitative interview study which encouraged 15 lecturers in a range of subjects to think reflectively about how their undergraduate teaching is changing in the context of the electronic information environment. At this time, there would not appear to be a radical departure from previous ways of working. Lecturers encounter new practical problems, but still face many of the same issues which university educators have always faced. However, some of the key issues which seem to be in the foreground are those which are at the heart of academic learning with questions being raised about the nature of knowledge and what it means to be knowledgeable. The kinds of dilemmas raised in interviews by lecturers include:

      " When, how and to what extent should students should be controlled or guided towards the information that they need?
    • At what stage can students be expected to exercise independent judgment?
    • How can opportunities for more authentic learning which have opened up be used?
    • When they are used, is learning different, requiring changes in criteria and standards?
    • How can an appropriate balance be found between breadth and depth in learning?

    The seminar discussion will use these issues as a starting point to consider how what we already know about student learning can shed light on lecturers' dilemmas and suggest some ways forward.


    Bruce, C. & Candy, P. (2000) (eds) Information literacy around the world: advances in programs and research. Riverina, Charles Sturt University Press
    Limberg, L. (1999) Three conceptions of information-seeking and use in T.D. Wilson & D. K. Allen (eds) Explaining the contexts of information behaviour. Cambridge, Taylor Graham
    Macdonald, J., Heap, N. & Mason, R. (2001) Have I learnt it? Evaluating skills for resource-based study using electronic resources. British Journal of Educational Technology, 32 (4) pp. 419-434
    McDowell, L (2002) Electronic information resources in undergraduate education: an exploratory study of opportunities for student learning and independence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 33(2) pp. 255-266