THE type of undergraduate teaching I most enjoyed was introductory lectures to large classes. “The roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd!” And you would have had to carry me out in a coffin rather than get me to agree to use a computer to deliver what I regard as the antithesis of the lecture — that abomination known as a PowerPoint presentation. So it may seem paradoxical that I am also an enthusiast for using software (at least my own) in teaching. My philosophy on the matter is straightforward: in introductory lectures I select the relevant material from the enormous volume in the text books, emphasize the most important ideas, explain the most difficult concepts, and express my enthusiasm for the science that I find beautiful. The student is relatively passive — he has to be: 200 people cannot be active in a 50 minute period. It is after the lecture that the student should become active, consulting books, participating in small-group discussions, or working in the laboratory. And it is here that self-teaching software can also play a part, although the main role of the type of software I have written is to help the student reinforce essential but unattractive material he has typically learned elsewhere.
‘The Glasgow Metabolism Suite’ is a collection of programs to help the user revise (US review) some aspects of metabolic pathways and the integration of the pathways in different tissues under various physiological conditions. The essence of the programs is interaction with the pathways in their entirety, tracing the flux of metabolites or answering questions about the individual steps. Their psychology is not to subject the user to pressure, to allow him to learn by trial and error, and to avoid inappropriate and synthetic judgement on completion. The original version was written in ‘SuperCard’ for the now defunct classic Mac OS, but the current manifestation is a cross-platform web-based Java applet.
I will be happy to make this software freely available to teachers, on application. It needs to be mounted on a web server and some institutional customization will be required, but any university or college IT support service should be able to do this. I add a note of warning, however. Your students will not use the software unless it is associated with the carrot/stick of an examination. If you are not prepared to court the short-term unpopularity that this may engender, don’t waste your time setting the software up. However if it helps you produce numerate, employable graduates, one day they may even thank you.