Offering a distance learning course on surveying: A case study

Silvia Dewiyanti, Distance and Flexible Learning Support Centre

In engineering subjects such as Geomatics, students need to understand the context of learning and apply their knowledge to the real work of a surveyor. Thus, learning materials should represent realistic situations.

At the University of the South Pacific (USP), GM101: Introduction to Geomaticsis offered as an on-campus and distance learning course. We have to provide distance learners with the same learning materials as face-to-face (on campus) students. Therefore the learning materials are designed to accommodate the needs of both types of students by using various media such as print, video and a web-based learning environment.

In this paper, issues in designing, developing and delivering learning materials for the Geomatics course will be discussed. Then, how distance learning students use the learning materials will be analysed. Findings from this study recommend several issues to be considered in delivering the Geomatics distance course including periodic evaluation, lecturer involvement, learning skills and sufficient facilities.

Keywords: Geomatics education; online learning; web-based learning; distance education; technology; ICT; multimedia.

Author names - Title of article


Serving twelve different countries in South Pacific region, the University of the South Pacific (USP) is responsible for providing a quality tertiary education to all students scattered in various locations. One of challenges is to develop course materials that can be used for both on-campus and distance students.

One example of a course offered as an on-campus and distance learning is GM101: Introduction to Geomatics. We have to provide distance learners with the same learning materials as face-to-face (on campus) students. Therefore the learning materials are designed to accommodate the needs of both types of students by using various media such as print, video and a web-based learning environment.

Little is known about how face-to-face students and distance students use these media to facilitate their learning, particularly, the use of media to facilitate Geomatics learning, which includes the collection, analysis, management, and presentation of geographic information relating to land and property. Moreover, research on Geomatics education is very limited in the Pacific region (Curley, 2005). The purpose of this paper is to report how distance students use print, video and a web-based learning environment to facilitate their learning.

An explorative study was carried on the Geomatics distance course. This study is to address our main research question: “What are the crucial aspects in developing learning materials for a distance surveying course?”

In designing this course, three issues were considered.

The first issue is how to represent learning materials in realistic situations and reflect current industry practice. In engineering subjects such as land surveying students need to understand the context of learning and apply their knowledge as in real surveyors' work.

The major emphasis in this course is to give students an overview about land surveying principles and equipment. Thus, course materials should address traditional surveying techniques such as steel band taping to advance surveying technology such as total stations. The second issue then is to determine how to cover a wide range of information and at the same time to identify specific information that needs to be taught.

The third issue is how to ensure distance learners no longer feel alone but part of a community of students. Many educational experts agree that learning is best achieved in social settings rather than in individual setting. Furthermore, nowadays, the focus of learning is shifted from acquiring information and knowledge to sharing and creating it from people across time and distance.

The three issues mentioned above are used in designing the course materials in terms of selecting media. According to Kozma (1991) an optimal selection of media can deliver instruction effectively and efficiently in a way that positively affects students' performance. It is also assumed that certain media can motivate students to learn. Gagne, et al. (2005) suggests that the choice of media is determined based on the target audience, the content to be learned and the availability of technologies.

In this course, three different media (print, video and a web-based learning environment) are integrated as a part of the course structure.


The web based learning environment is chosen to tackle the second and third issue. A web based learning environment has flexibility in delivering the latest information that emerges during the course. Moreover, the features of web based learning environments have opened up opportunities for students to discuss topics with each other by using online tools such as discussion forum. That kind of tool allows students to create or construct knowledge by attempting to bring meaning to new information and to integrate this knowledge with their prior experience in their communication with others.

We have two reasons in using web as a learning medium for our students. First, we want to engage our students, both on-campus and distance, in one learning environment. Second, we want to provide activities that shift the control of learning from the teacher to the student. The latter reason is inline with the principle of student-centred learning (Naidu, 2006).

In this course, a course website is set up by using WebCT. It was used for organising course materials, communications and evaluations. In this paper the terms course website and WebCT are used interchangeably.


The Web is an excellent vehicle to convey data in various forms. However, the Web is not necessarily a good replacement for printed content when it comes to textual data. Furthermore, placing large amounts of text online is to be discouraged, as reading from a monitor screen can be hard on the eyes. Print is a better medium for conveying large amounts of information (Gagne, 1995). Moreover, print is also the most used and familiar instructional medium for distance learning. In this course, the readings are printed in the course book which also functions as the text book.


One learning objective that needs to be acquired at the end of the course is the skill in using surveying equipment. We chose video because this instructional format combines words and pictures that can model skills for students and give them clear demonstrations of proficient performance (Mayer, 2001).



Distance students (22 males and 14 females) who enrolled in GM101 participated in this study. This course ran for 17 weeks from the 2 nd week of February to the 2 nd week of June including a one week mid-semester break. When distance students enrolled in this course, they received a set of course materials consisting of an Introduction and Assignment booklet, a course book and a DVD. All students were given the opportunity to complete the questionnaire, which was administered in week 8. These students came from four different countries in the Pacific region, namely Fiji, Tonga, Tuvalu and Niue.



For this study, three dependent measures were reviewed: (1) learning outcomes, (2) students' opinion on learning media, and (3) interaction with the course website.

Learning outcomes were measured by using the mid-semester test and final exam scores. The mid-semester test comprised 20 multiple choice questions. The score ranged from 10 to 0. The final exam comprised 10 essay questions, from which students needed to answer only five questions. The first three questions were compulsory and students chose two from the rest of the questions. The highest score for the final exam was 100 and the lowest score was 0.

Students' opinion on learning media was measured by a questionnaire that was developed by Hunter (2003). The questionnaire consists of a series of questions divided into five categories. The first category obtains information on the use of the course book and the video. The second category asks questions about factors that prevented students using WebCT effectively. The third category obtains information about the students' computer skills. The fourth and fifth categories, respectively, deal with the benefits of having WebCT and using the discussion forum. This questionnaire was administered to all students.

Interaction with the course website was based on statistics collected by the WebCT course management system. While students were logged into the course website, WebCT collected the number of times students moved from section to section in the site or participated within various areas of the course site. We particularly reviewed five particular interactions, namely (a) total visits/accesses to the course website, (b) posting discussion messages, (c) reading discussion messages, (d) reading lecture notes, and (e) reading previous exams.



Learning outcomes

The average score for the mid-semester test was 5.94 ( n = 34, SD = 1.575). Two students did not sit on the mid-semester test. The average score for the final exam was 59.14 ( n = 28 , SD = 19.24). Six students did not attend the final examination. No significant difference was found between male and female students either on the mid-semester test or the final exam.


Students' opinion on learning media

Thirty-two out of thirty six students responded to the survey.


All respondents received the video. Twenty nine out of 32 students watched the video. Table 1 shows students' opinion on the video.

Table 1: Student's opinion on the video


Easy to understand


Difficult to understand


Helped me to understand the course


Helped me to understand the practical



Most respondents indicated that the video was easy to understand and helped them to understand the course.


All respondents had the course book and read it. Table 2 presents the frequency of how students read the course book.

Table 2: Reading the course book



I read each unit after the lecture

I read the book just before the mid-semester test
I read only a few units
I read only the units that I find interesting
I read only if I need more information


They seemed to read the course book when they need more information.


U sing WebCT

The reasons why students did not access WebCT are presented in Table 3.


Table 3: Using WebCT


I didn't know where to find a computer I could use


I went to the computer lab, but it was full


I had to share a computer with someone else


I was at a computer but couldn't get WebCT to work


I like to print the items from WebCT, but it is too hard to get to a working printer


I don't feel comfortable using WebCT


Results of the survey indicate that half the students had problems accessing the computer either in Laucala campus or in other centres. Furthermore, students also noted the limited access to the printer. Interestingly, only two students felt uncomfortable using WebCT. It might indicate that most students do not have a problem using WebCT.


Computer skills

Table 4 shows how students rate their computer skills.

Table 4: Computer Skills


I'm not very good with a computer, so it was hard for me to use WebCT


Even though I don't think of myself as being good with a computer, I was able to use WebCT


I'm good with computers, but I found WebCT hard to use


I'm good with computers, so using WebCT was not a problem



With respect to student's computer skills, one third of students showed their confidence in using WebCT with their limited knowledge of using computers and another one third had no problem in using WebCT. These findings support the previous finding which indicated that only a few students had problems in using WebCT.


Benefits of having WebCT

Students' opinions on the benefits of having WebCT are presented in Table 5.

Table 5: Benefits of having WebCT

WebCT wasn't really necessary. It was possible to do the course without ever looking at it 2

WebCT was an easy way to get the lecture notes


I learned a lot from what the other students wrote on the discussion forum


I use discussion forum a lot


I found the quiz/self-test to be very useful


Knowing WebCT will help me in my future as a USP student


Regarding benefits of having WebCT, half the students agreed that WebCT was useful to get the lecture notes easily. Furthermore, they agreed that they learnt from the messages on the discussion forum.


Using WebCT discussio n forum

Students' opinions on using the discussion forum are presented in Table 6.


Table 6 : Using discussion forum


I never saw the point of using it


No one ever put anything useful on there


I liked reading it, but not posting messages


I don't feel comfortable sharing my thoughts with people I don't know


I like the discussion board because I can think about what I am going to write before I write it


I wish it didn't have to be in English


I don't like typing so it is hard to use


It takes too much time to use


It makes me feel connected to other students in the course


Although a few students did not see the point of using the discussion forum, half of the students agreed that the use of the discussion forum makes them feel connected to other students. This finding indicated that students need to interact with other students.


Interaction with the course website

Frequency, mean and standard deviation of interactions with the course website are summarised in Table 7.

Table 7: Interaction with the course website




Total WebCT accesses




Posting messages




Reading messages




Reading lecture notes




Reading previous exam papers




Most of the students accessed the course website. However, four out of 36 students had never accessed it. Lecture notes were the most frequently accessed item by students followed by previous exam papers. Students tended to read messages rather than posting messages.

Two thirds of the students had never posted messages on the discussion forum and one third of the students had never read messages on the discussion forum. These results show a lack of awareness of students regarding the functions of the discussion forum.



This explorative study aims to review how distance learners in the Geomatics course use their course materials. This course uses to blended course format that is often recommended in the literature.

An online learning environment might afford a positive learning experience for multiple student learning styles. For example, the nature of this environment allows students to explore and discover information throughout the website. On the other hand, the linear nature of print materials stimulates students to learn in an organised way.

Students read the course book in various ways. They tended to read the book when they needed more information on the course topic. Students seemed to appreciate the use of the movie to present the course content. Several students expressed their preference for watching DVD instead of reading the course book.

The frequency of course website access indicated the involvement of students and how they interacted with their peers. Most students accessed the course website to get additional information such as lecture notes and previous exam papers. However, few students never accessed the course web. Perhaps these students felt uneasy using the Web as a medium of delivery. Other possible reasons are lack of computing skills or lack of access to computers.

In general, USP distance students showed a positive appreciation of `non-print media' such as the course website and video. This finding indicates that students appreciate the use of technology to deliver the course. A study by Williams (2001) also found that USP students prefer to use computers and multimedia rather than a course book for their study.

Finally, this study suggests additional issues that need to be considered in designing and developing distance learning materials.

  • Periodic evaluation. Course content must be subjected to periodic evaluation for effective learning. The best evaluators for instructional materials are its learners. In this type of evaluation, instructional designers and course co-ordinators should collaborate together.
  • Learning skills. Taking classes at a distance may pose new challenges for students in terms of studying, time management and autonomy (Moore, 1998). Skills such as communication, time-management and searching information are needed for distance students. These learning skills can make students more comfortable interacting with their peers and with the learning media. Moreover, students may resist new technology because it is seen as `experimental' (Laurillard, 1993). They need to be comfortable with the technology and be prepared to take more responsibility for their learning process.

  • Sufficient facilities . Make sure that there are sufficient facilities, e.g. internet access and computer that can be used to support their learning. Mentioning the technology requirements at the beginning of the course would be useful for students so they know in advance what skills they would be expected to perform throughout the course.


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Kozma, R.B. (1991). Learning with media. Review of Educational Research , 61(2), 179-212.

Mayer, R. E. (2001). Multimedia Learning . New York: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, E. B. (2001). Crossing Borders: Women and ICTs in Open and Distance Learning in the South Pacific . The University of the South Pacific.

Moore, M.G. (1989). Three types of interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education 3(2), 1-6.

Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking University Teaching , 2 nd ed. London: Routledge Falmer.

Hunter, C (2003). WebCT evaluation . Distance and Flexible Learning Support Centre, University of the South Pacific.

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