Academic Exchange Quarterly Winter 2001    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 5, Issue 4



A Case Evaluation

in Internet Assisted Laboratory Teaching


Garry Crawford, Sheffield Hallam University, UK


Crawford is a lecturer in Social and Cultural Studies in Sport and has conducted several pieces of evaluative and market research on both educational and industrial institutions.



This paper presents the preliminary findings from an evaluation conducted on the implementation of Internet assisted teaching of fluid mechanical engineering laboratory sessions on a university degree programme.  It compares the particular merits of laboratory sessions in which students receive instruction from Internet based presentations compared with those who received instruction from 'traditional' tutor led sessions, through a process of questionnaire based surveys and direct observations.  The paper concludes that Internet assisted sessions allow students to easily repeat experimental instructions and provide late or absent students the opportunity to easily catch up with missed work.  However, students still appear more likely to ask staff for assistance than rely on the Internet resources for information, and the Internet based programme, as applied here, has encountered some practical difficulties that have greatly reduced its effectiveness as a teaching aid.


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This paper is a single case evaluation of the implementation of Internet assisted learning into the teaching of degree level fluid mechanical engineering laboratory sessions at one British university. 


The initial impetus for implementing Internet assisted learning within laboratory sessions arose out of a number of difficulties that had been observed during the 'traditional' tutor led teaching of these laboratory sessions.  These included that student often spent a considerable amount of time waiting for assistance from a member of staff, late or absent students had difficulty catching up with work, and that many students had little understanding of the experimental, theoretical or report requirements of the work they were undertaking.  It was hoped that the placing of computer terminals with access to Internet based resources containing experimental and background details in the laboratory would help remove many of these difficulties encountered with tutor led sessions.  Though in the sessions under evaluation here, these computers based resources could only be accessed in the laboratory, by placing these on the Internet it is intended that future students will be able to access this from terminals outside of the laboratory at their own convenience.


This evaluation draws direct comparison between what will be referred to as Internet assisted sessions and traditional tutor led sessions.  The typical format of a tutor led session is that a tutor will start each laboratory session by briefly addressing the whole class.  Students are then split into groups (usually four groups of two or three students) who move over to their apparatus.  The tutor (and sometimes a member of support staff) will visit each group in turn, providing help and specific information on the experiments.


In an Internet assisted sessions students are split into small groups upon arriving at the session and directed to computer terminals with headphones.  The students then listen to an Internet based presentation involving directions, theory and report requirements of the experiment(s).  After listening to this presentation students then move over to their apparatus and begin the experiments.  Again members of staff are on hand to assist students and offer guidance on the experiments.

Evaluation Criterion

It was decided that the most suitable criterion for the evaluation of the Internet assisted learning programme were those factors that were initially perceived as being advantageous with this type of session.  These were that the Internet assisted sessions would provide:

o         Clearer introduction to the laboratory topic

o         More efficient use of laboratory time

o         Students arriving late can catch up easily

o         Ability to revisit instructions and information so that students can clarify misunderstandings

o         Clearer focus on report requirements

o        Absent students can pick-up the detail of missed work in subsequent sessions


Additionally the piloting stage of this evaluation process raised the issues of whether the students understood the theoretical background to the work they were doing, and if they understood how to precisely undertake the experiments.  Consequently, these two criteria were added to the evaluation process.


The Evaluation Process

For comparative purposes it was decided to compare students from the same year groups undertaking laboratory sessions either with instruction using the Internet based resources or a traditional tutor based introduction. 


The number of laboratory sessions undertaken by students throughout the year is limited and it was decided that the researcher would visit as many sessions as time allowed throughout the year.  A total of eight laboratory sessions were studied; five of these were Internet assisted sessions, and three tutor led.  This provided an overall sample of eighty-five students.


It was decided to use two primary methods of evaluation to triangulate the data gathered; these were a questionnaire based survey and non-participant observations by the researcher.  Questionnaires were selected as these allow a sizable sample and body of quantitative data to be gathered in a short space of time, while observations allow for more depth and qualitative understanding of the students' experiences of the sessions (May, 1993).


First, a simple questionnaire based upon the eight outcomes (given above) was constructed and distributed to students, comparing students in Internet assisted sessions with those who received a tutor led laboratory session.


Second, the researcher was present at all eight laboratory sessions to observe and record the behaviour of students receiving both the Internet assisted and tutor led laboratory sessions.  The role of the researcher was primarily as a non-participant observer, though throughout the observations process the researcher would often ask the students ad hoc questions relating to their understanding of the experiments and their views on the delivery of the session.


The Sample

A total of 85 students completed questionnaires and were observed during this evaluation process.  No conscious decision was made to obtain an equal or varied number of year groups, instead the researcher simply attended as many sessions as was possible to obtain a sizeable sample.  Of these 85 students 62.4% of these were in degree year zero (foundation year), and the remaining 37.6% were in degree year two.

Of the 85 students, 63.5% were seen in Internet assisted laboratory sessions, with the remaining 36.5% in tutor led sessions.  There were two main reasons for this.  First, the onus was on trying to observe as many laboratory sessions in the second semester as possible, rather than purposively selecting a balanced number of students in both Internet and tutor led sessions.  Second, in relation to the observations it was more important to see Internet assisted sessions, as it was these under evaluation.


Student's Responses

This section provides the findings from the questionnaire based survey and the observations undertaken during this evaluation.  The questionnaire provided students with eight statements and asked them to rate these along a likert-scale on the basis of whether they strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree or strongly disagree with each of these.  What are presented here are frequency tables of how students answered each question (all eighty-five students answered every question). 


Introduction was clear?

Statement one asked students if "The introduction to the laboratory session was clear".  As table 1 shows, very few students strongly agreed with this statement for either Internet or tutor led sessions.  However, it is evident that far more students agreed with this statement for tutor led than Internet led assisted sessions.  This would seem to indicate that there is some difficulty with the clarity of the Internet assisted programme.  This may be attributed to the sound quality of the Internet based presentation, as during the observation of sessions many students expressed difficulty hearing the presentation.

See issue’s website   <>.


It is also apparent that there was a considerable disparity in the amount of information students were given in Internet assisted and tutor led sessions.  In tutor led sessions the member of staff would often give students very little theoretical background to the experiment; concentrating mainly on the key points of the experiment, before quickly moving on to the next group.  Conversely, students who used the Internet received very detailed background information.  However, they did not appear to pay a great deal of attention to this and on two occasion (out of the five observed Internet assisted sessions observed) students skipped through this section very quickly.


Starting laboratory work quickly

Statement two addressed the question of whether students felt that they could start laboratory work quickly.  The majority of students in both tutor and Internet assisted sessions stated that they either agreed or strongly agreed with this statement - indicating that in both types of sessions most students felt that they could quickly start experiments.  However, this appeared stronger for tutor led sessions, and moreover, almost a quarter (24.1%) of students in Internet assisted sessions disagreed with this statement.     See issue’s website   <>.


A possible explanation for this is that many of the students listened to the whole Internet based presentation in one sitting, while in the tutor led sessions students received this information in smaller snippets throughout the session.  As Setzer (1989) suggests, one potential limitation of many computer based learning packages is that they can often be time consuming and excessively repetitive, and this would appear to be the case in this situation.


In the Internet assisted sessions student usually spent around 20 minutes at the beginning of the session with the computer before moving onto the experiment.  This was considerably longer than the period of instruction received in the tutor led sessions where most students usually received about 10 minutes of instruction at the beginning of the session.  However, in tutors led sessions the tutors (usually two) visited each group in turn starting them off on the experiment, and in each observed tutor led session it was about 20 minutes into the session before all groups had begun the experiment.  Therefore, in tutor led sessions many students spent over 10 minutes waiting for a member of staff before beginning the experiment.


Late students can catch up work?

The third statement asked if students felt that if they arrived late they would be able to catch up with the work they had missed.  This was an area where the students clearly felt that the Internet assisted sessions had an advantage over traditional tutor led sessions - with 83% of respondents in Internet assisted sessions either agreeing or strongly agreeing with this statement.

See issue’s website   <>.


This was upheld by the researcher's observations of these sessions.  Late students in tutor led sessions had often missed the tutor's introduction and had to rely on being told what to do by their fellow students.  In Internet assisted sessions there was always at least one computer terminal free that late students could use.


Instructions could be repeated

The fourth statement asked students if they thought experimental instructions could be easily repeated in their session.  Again this is an area where the Internet assisted sessions performed very well.  55.6% of respondents from Internet assisted sessions strongly agreed that instruction could be repeated.  This again was also evident from observations as students often returned to the computer terminal to revisit information and most frequently the report requirements were viewed again towards the end of the session.  Hence, as Setzer (1989) argues, one clear advantage of this type of computer based teaching programme is that they allow students to progress at their own pace. 

See issue’s website   <>.


In tutor led sessions 58.1% of respondents agreed that instructions could be repeated if required.  Presumably, this is due to the tutor and members of support staff being available to answer questions throughout the session.  Staff were also available during the Internet assisted sessions, but the computers added a second source of information, and one that was always readily available to students.


This appeared a real practical advantage with the Internet assisted sessions.  In all of the Internet assisted sessions observed, students frequently returned to the computer terminals for more help.  However, in both types of session it was evident that students preferred to ask members of staff for assistance when available.  As Brunt (1997) suggests adult students learn easier by talking to a real person.  But, when staff were not available the Internet added a second source of help and information that was not available in the tutor led sessions.


Understanding of report requirements

Though slightly more respondents in Internet assisted sessions suggested that they strongly agreed that they understood the report requirements of the session, far more respondents in tutor led sessions stated that they agreed that they understood the report requirements.

See issue’s website   <>.


Though, students in Internet assisted sessions had an additional source of information (the computers) than those in tutor led sessions, these findings may suggest that students generally felt more assured by receiving all their information from a tutor.


Absent students can catch up work

Statement six asked students if they thought that "this form of introduction allows absent students the opportunity to obtain details of the session that they missed".  It appears that respondents to this question largely agreed that the Internet assisted sessions did allow absent students to catch up with missed work, with 85.2% of respondents in Internet assisted sessions stating that they either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement.

See issue’s website   <>.


In particular, some students stated that placing the information on the Internet (so that this could be accessed at any time) will be a great advantage with catching up with work and writing of reports.  And as Underwood (1994) argues, providing students with greater flexibility and control of their education can often benefit their process of cognitive learning. 


Understanding of theoretical background

Statement seven asked students if they understood the theoretical background of the experiment they were undertaking.  As table 7 shows, the students' answers appear more favourable for tutor led sessions.  In both types of session more respondents suggested that they understood the theoretical background than those who stated that they did not, but this divide was more favourable for tutor led sessions.

See issue’s website   <>.


However, in tutor led sessions students actually received less theoretical background, so one possibility is that the Internet assisted sessions provided too much theory and the students quickly lost interest in this or were overwhelmed with information.

Understanding of how to perform experiment

Statement eight asked respondents if they understood how to undertake the session's experiments.  Again the results appear to favour tutor led sessions.  This maybe because in tutor led sessions a member of staff was always present and was able to show students directly how undertake the experiments.  From observations of tutor led sessions, it is apparent that very few students knew how to undertake the experiment upon arriving at their apparatus, and waited for a member of staff to show them.  Likewise, with the Internet assisted sessions the students often required additional help from a member of staff after listening to the presentation.  One possible explanation for these findings is that the students may have seen this as a detriment of the Internet based programme (that they still needed to ask for help) while with tutor led sessions this was an accepted part of the process.

See issue’s website   <>.



This evaluation of the implementation of Internet assisted sessions into the teaching of fluid mechanical laboratories suggests that this has met some of its initial aims. The computer terminals provided an extra source of information for the students, allowed late or absent students to catch up with work, and for all students to receive information together and quickly at the start of the session.


However, the Internet assisted sessions (as implemented in this case) did have certain limitations.  Most notable of these were practical difficulties with the sound quality of the presentations and the excessive time spent by students using the programme.  Furthermore, even though the Internet assisted sessions provided students with far more background and theoretical information than tutor led sessions, students did not feel that they had necessarily benefited from this.


This short case evaluation would appear to suggest that in the teaching of engineering laboratory sessions the Internet based resources need to be viewed as a teaching aid and an additional source of information for the students, and not as replacing the duties of teaching and support staff.  The computers did not replace the personal guidance and assistance that staff member could supply, but they did reduce the time students normally would have wasted waiting for assistance from a member of staff, and consequently helped reduce some pressure on staff.



Brunt, J. M. (1997) 'Can You Put Your Arm Around a Student on the Internet', J. Fields (eds.) Electronic Pathways (NIACE: Leicester).

May, T. (1993) Social Research: Issues, Methods and Process (OUP: Buckingham).

Setzer, V. (1989) Computers in Education (Floris Books: Southampton).

Underwood, J. (1994) 'Where Are We Now and Where Are We Going?', J. Underwood (eds.) Computer Based Learning: Potential into Practice (David Fulton: London).