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The Virtual School of Biodiversity – a belated update

by Gray A. Williams

It is a source of some embarrassment that I last reported on the Virtual School of Biodiversity in Issue 20 of Porcupine! (VSB: two years ago and when we had been awarded a UGC grant! If you recall, the VSB was a joint project between the Department of Ecology & Biodiversity (DEB) at The University of Hong Kong and the School of Biological Sciences (now the School of Life and Environmental Sciences!), The University of Nottingham. It was launched in 1998 and, as I reported in December 1998 (Porcupine! Volume 18), aimed to "create an innovative and resourceful learning environment on the World Wide Web and to use it to deliver co-operative teaching and high quality distributed learning – at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels – to institutions, organizations and individuals all over the world". So, in its three year’s existence - has it done that? Below I highlight, generically, the areas where we have been most involved. For those of you who would like more detail contact the current Hong Kong manager, Dr Benny Chan (

Teaching Materials

The VSB has continued to produce a series of modules for teaching, using the Scholars Desktop, a Windows based delivery system (Fig. 1). To date, modules have been co-authored between staff at DEB and Nottingham, including outside collaborators from the Natural History Museum, and Universities in the UK and Europe. Many of these modules are being used in undergraduate and postgraduate courses run at HKU, these include modules on fungi, algae, fish, spatial patterns of diversity, etc. This method of delivery has been successful but, being CD-based, it is now slightly dated and cumbersome. To replace this, efforts have been devoted to a new XML-based web delivery system called WHURLE (Web-based Hierarchical Universal Reactive Learning Environment – which is impressive sounding by anyone’s standards!). This system is under construction and hopefully will be ready for use in early 2002.

Learning Support Centres

A major initiative has been the development of Learning Support Centres for all the undergraduate courses taught by DEB. (LSCs; Fig. 2; see These LSCs act as guidance and resource centres for students where they can access information on general study principles, career information, news updates and a whole range of general ecology-related information, but also specific material for each course (lecture timetables, chat groups, practical schedules, reading lists etc). Most of these resources are freely available on the web and staff have added sites which they have found useful so that students can also have access to this information. This makes use of the huge potential of the web, but also ensures - through staff vetting - that only quality-assured sites are used. In fact, one aspect of the LSCs is teaching students how to quality check sites themselves to be responsible users of the web and not to just "surf" aimlessly.

Courses – Biodiversity and How humans evolved

Two courses have been taught based on modules authored using the Scholars Desktop, ‘How humans evolved’ (by Prof Dudgeon to 2nd and 3rd year students as an elective) and ‘Biodiversity’ (jointly run between Nottingham staff and DEB staff as a core course in the Environmental Life Science theme). These courses focused on students driving their own learning experiences, at their own pace and in their own time, but also included a number of timetabled events such as seminars and practical workshops. The Biodiversity course also involved students in HKU and Nottingham linking up to produce joint-projects, the abstracts of which were published on the web. These two courses met with mixed responses from students, some of whom enjoyed the opportunity to work in their own style whereas others were a little overawed by the experience. Running a course jointly between two institutions half-way across the globe also posed its own series of unique problems, both practically (running exams at the same time!) and culturally (for example timetabling between Chinese New Year at HKU and Easter Vacation in the UK) which added to the novelty value. Student assessment of the courses were solicited in a large scale programme directed by educational specialists in HK and the UK and the outcomes of these assessments are being used to fine-tune these courses for this academic year.

Other collaborations/Projects

The VSB has also been involved in a series of other collaborations, for example to produce a Virtual Lecture (with Dr Ian Hart in CAUT, HKU); a Rocky Shore Sampling Unit and Virtual Microscope (with G. Mitcheson and students in the Computer Science Department), a Virtual Scrapbook, and has also developed LSCs for school seminars and for the Hong Kong Society of Accountants to show the transferable nature of this medium. We have also initiated collaborations and held discussions with other possible members, most notably the University of Oslo, Peking University, the National University of Singapore and the University of Copenhagen.

Conferences/Seminars/Papers etc

Throughout the course of the VSB, we have been involved in producing papers about our work, giving talks to visiting Chancellors/Rectors/dignitaries and giving a number of conference presentations. The most notable being as panel presentations at the 10th International World Wide Web Conference and the 8th Association for Learning Technology Conference 2001 (ALTC-2001). The VSB has also been highlighted in the University’s Bulletin, Faculty Review etc etc as well as in the press. As mentioned in the last Porcupine! we were also the inaugural winners of the HKU IT in Education Awards.

So this all seems like a project that has achieved a great deal, and it has! The recent assessment from the UGC, for example, stated that "this is a very well conducted project… making valuable contributions to enhancing the interest and effectiveness of student learning at the tertiary level". The VSB has, however, failed at one level, and that is in securing long term funding. It is a source of great disappointment that institutions and the private sector make a great deal of noise about teaching innovations, e-learning and the importance of the environment in the coming decades, but that there is very little genuine support in terms of hard cash. The VSB is a model that DOES work, we have the evidence for that, however it is a model that still requires staff-costs and time commitments. Many people are still either seduced by the idea of computer based teaching replacing traditional lectures, or appalled by this idea, and often fail to see the reality of the situation. Computer based teaching is simply another means of augmenting the teaching process. Used in a sensible manner it is a valuable addition to the arsenal of resources that a teacher utilizes but, like all modes of teaching, requires a great deal of time and effort. Hopefully the time is approaching when funding bodies will realize this and stop paying lip-service to students’ education but invest in providing the best possible education, which will be one in which computer mediated teaching will play a role. Be assured, when that day comes, The Virtual School of Biodiversity will be a major influence in the direction that computer-based education develops.

Fig. 1. Interface of the multimedia courseware ‘Scholar’s Desktop’.

Fig. 2. Interface of the web-based Learning Support Centres which provide support to access the web resources concerning general educational aspects (‘Study Skills’, "News Room’, ‘Jobs and Career’, ‘Web Search’ and ‘Virtual Library’) and all courses offered in DEB (a Learning Support Centre in the course Coastal Ecology is shown as an example).




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