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Managing Subjects Using the Internet
Paul Darbyshire and Andrew Wenn
Department of Information Systems
Victoria University of Technology
The demand placed on academic staff has always been an hotly debated issue and there can be no denying that these demands have increased over the past few years. In the case of Victoria University of Technology, a multi-campus University with the campuses located over a wide geographical area, these demands can different and challenging. The Department of Information Systems has many subjects which are taught cross-campus. These subjects often have a single coordinator who is responsible for the management tasks that were often regarded as demanding enough when associated with single campus delivery. The problems which inevitably arise with these day to day activities become magnified when multiple campus locations become involved. Over the past two years we have been making an attempt at doing this "smarter", and thus trying to reduce the burden of these mundane activities, by using the WWW as a tool for the dissemination of material and the collection of assignment work. This paper describes the experiences we have had and the techniques we have devised using the WWW to help in multi-campus subject management.
When discussing or setting up cyber-classrooms for studying or learning from the Internet, or World Wide Web (WWW), the traditional paradigms of Computer Aided Learning (CAL) don't seem to quite fit. At the risk of introducing yet even more acronym's, we have decided to introduce Web Based Learning (WBL) as a more appropriate term.
WBL systems can be used to deliver distance education courses, or even to complement existing classroom based courses. Yet, in order to successfully implement a WBL system we believe that it must be backed up by an efficient Web Based Learning Administration (WBLA) system.
Some of the problems mentioned previously (Darbyshire and Wenn, in press) include, timely distribution of lecture notes, making assignments available at the same time over multiple campuses, collection of assignment work at due date and times from multiple campus pick-up points, and simultaneous publication of ad-hoc notices to students distributed over a wide geographical area. Most of these problems are just normal administrative problems associated with lecturing, except that some are magnified due to the multi-campus nature of the University. What we present in this paper are the WBLA components we have developed which will be used to support the work we have begun on a WBL system (Darbyshire and Wenn, 1997; Darbyshire and Wenn, in press).
Subject Management Issues
Following Byrnes et al (1995) a reasonable collection of components which would compose a WBLA system are:
At this stage, we have implemented WWW based components to help with all but the first of these points. These are standard subject related tasks, whether or not the subject is taught or managed by electronic means. To manage a subject via the Internet requires shifting from manual or manual/software based techniques to methods employing the use of Web based techniques.
The advantages of using Web based techniques to manage a subject are twofold. The Web is an excellent instructional tool and using the Web to manage that instruction is a natural extension. More importantly, the WWW is now controlled by standards. If you can manage aspects of a subject from one computer connected to the Web via an intricate set of Web pages, then you can perform the same functions from any computer in the world, which has a Web connection and browser. Thus a subject coordinator is not frustrated by differing machines with different capabilities and software requirements.
When shifting to a WBLA system, Security and Privacy issues take on a new dimension. In fact we found these two factors to be of major concern to the students we were expecting to use the system, and this led to some initial nervousness. From the subject coordinator's perspective, security of the WBLA data base is important since all details of students marks and assignment submission dates are stored within. From the students perspective, most of the concern was over the safety of their submitted assignment, and more importantly to them, its safe and reliable delivery to the subject coordinator by the WBLA system.
While Security began as one of our major priorities, the Privacy concern was raised early by students. There was no concern from the student's perspective about receiving their marks online from the Web, but they were concerned that only they should have access to their marks. To this end we have implemented a password mechanism which is tied into most functions of the WBLA system. In order to perform functions such as submitting assignments and checking marks, the student needs to supply their password, which is resident in the WBLA data base.
The WBLA system was designed to operate in a multi-campus environment, and as such will involve a good many students dispersed over a wide geographical area. In order to meet one of its design criteria, "to alleviate pressure from the subject coordinator", the WBLA system was designed to be user driven. That is, apart from some initial setup of basic data such as administrators, subjects, campus locations etc., most other data is entered by the students themselves, except for assignment marks of course. The next section outlines the support mechanisms we have developed to implement the WBLA system.
In order to address the issue of Security, we decided to physically split the functions of WBL from WBLA. As shown in Figure 2, all Web pages containing learning material and subject information was left on the Unix servers. The WBLA data base and some pages specifically controlling access to the data bases were placed on a Windows NT server, running NT Server 4.0, IIS 2 and Cold Fusion 3.0. Cold Fusion is a product which allows special scripts to be constructed which contain normal HTML statements as well as special commands to facilitate access to ODBC data bases such as Microsoft Access.
By placing the WBLA system on an NT server, we have far more control over the security associated with the WBLA data base and submitted assignments. By also placing the scripts used by the subject coordinator into a special directory with general Web page access removed, we can add another layer to security to those functions with direct access to the WBLA data base. If needs dictate, we could further restrict access to these scripts to specific IP addresses, but this would decrease the flexibility of the system.
The WBLA data base is implemented in Microsoft Access, but is accessed as an ODBC data base via embedded SQL commands in Cold Fusion scripts. The structure of the WBLA data base is shown in Figure 1 below. The administrator's table contains a list of administrators able to access the WBLA special functions, and include all subject coordinators using the WBLA system. Each administrator has two passwords, their own user password, used to enter marks and perform other functions, and another, maintenance, password which is used to register the students. The reason for the dual passwords is to be able to keep the system user driven. The maintenance password is given to students in the first tutorial, where they register themselves, and then later changed by an administrator. It cannot be changed except with the use of the administrators personal password. By only temporarily granting access to the maintenance password we stop the registration of bogus people into the WBLA data base. Students who for whatever reason miss this first registration session can only be added by the subject coordinator.
Figure 1 Structure and Interaction of WBL/WBLA systems
Figure 2 Structure of the WBLA Data Base
During the registration process, the student supplies their desired password to the system. This is then used by the WBLA system to verify identity for all functions concerned with assignment submission and obtaining access to results. Once registered, the student has control of subject enrollment, assignment submission, marks viewing, and checking the assignment submission data bank. The enrollment is just a process where a student picks the subjects they are using through the WBLA system, and is used as a check when viewing marks or submitting assignments the correct subject is chosen.
We now look at three aspects of subject management as implemented by our WBLA system.
Assignment collection, marking and redistribution is one of the most onerous tasks associated with subject coordination, particularly in a multiple campus situation when trying to maintain common due dates. This is the area where we hoped the WBLA system would aid coordination the most. If we look at all the specific activities involved in preparing, distributing and collecting assignments, there are quite a number of activities where a WBLA system could alleviate the pressure on the subject lecturer. Figure 3 shows most of the major activities of the assignment life cycle, identified by (Byrnes et al, 1995). The activities with a tick beside them are those activities where we use the WBL/WBLA systems to facilitate the specific activity. As can be seen in Figure 3, there are some repetitive tasks that arise mainly due to late assignments and work that requires a remark.
Figure 3 Assignment activities
One of the things that the WBLA system is able to do well is collect assignments from students and record the submission dates and times. By using this system we can set common dates and times for collection, and not be perceived as giving advantage or disadvantage to one group or another. This can be administered by a single person on one campus. Students must supply their password and have enrolled themselves in the particular subject before they can submit an assignment using this facility, Figure 4.
Figure 4 WBLA assignment submission form
Since recommendations concerning forms based uploading of files have not been implemented in the HTML standard as yet (Nebel and Masinter, 1995), it is at this point that special scripts need to be written to accept non-text based files. By accepting a binary file, this gives both the student and the subject coordinator the flexibility to submit and accept a file of any type, though typically these will be Microsoft Word format. Where multiple files are involved, the students can use a compression package such as WinZip to effectively create a single file for submission over the Web.
Once submitted, the submission time and date is recorded, the file is stored in a subject specific directory, and the student is given immediate feedback as to assignment submission. It is the immediate feedback in the form of a list of students who have submitted assignments and the dates, that has helped the WBLA system gain acceptance. Submission by email attachment was difficult at best, and often there was a significant delay before the student was informed that submission was successful. When working with partners, the WBLA data base can also be interrogated at any time to check that the partner has made successful submission. Multiple submissions are facilitated by the WBLA system automatically choosing a unique file name for the assignment should a previous one with the same name be detected, this is also saved in the WBLA data base.
Students marks are stored in a table governed by enrollment and assignment-header records in the WBLA data base as depicted in Figure 1. These marks can be queried at any time by a student from any computer with a Web browser. In order to successfully query a mark for a particular assignment the correct password must be supplied for the student whose mark is being queried. Thus no one can query a students mark except the particular student in question. With this mechanism in place we were able to provide some degree of privacy for students and allay some initial fears.
When a mark is successfully queried, the student is presented with the mark obtained, what the assignment was marked out of, and what the assignment is worth in terms of overall percentage. In response to frequent requests, the subject highest, lowest and average mark for that particular assignment are also displayed. It is envisaged that later developments will include the storage of final exam marks in this data base.
Since the data base is a standard Microsoft Access one, reports can easily be prepared to help with final subject mark collation and campus breakdowns. The marks are entered into this data base by the subject coordinator via a set of Web pages in the WBLA system as shown in Figure 2. The subject coordinator can move from one campus to another, or home, and have full access to the record keeping facility of the WBLA system without having to worry about taking spreadsheets or database tables with them, they only need access to a standard Web browser.
Maintaining reasonable communication channels between our students has become a matter of some concern. There are two aspects to communication we see as important. Firstly, being able to communicate to all groups over all campuses while not being perceived to favour one group over another (Darbyshire and Wenn, in press). Secondly, students will invariably reach a point where they need to see someone and we need to maintain an avenue of help even when the lecturer is not available on that particular campus. To highlight the importance of the second, this semester one of the authors lectures and coordinates a subject over two campuses, however, due to a particular set of circumstances, is only on one of the campuses for four hours, all of which time is spent in face-to-face teaching. We have implemented several measures to cope with these situations.
Firstly, for personal communication, all students are encouraged to use email to contact us. This does have some problems associated with it, but they are being addressed by teaching email usage in earlier semesters. Next, we have also implemented, as part of the WBLA system, two bulletin boards (not shown in Figure 1). The first bulletin board is used solely by the subject coordinator to post announcements, links to Web sites, hints for assignments, and files to download.
This staff bulletin board is introduced in the first lecture and tutorial, and its frequent use is encouraged. By posting announcements to this bulletin board, we can effectively reach all students on all campuses within a short time period. This helps avoid costly delays which cannot be tolerated in a 13 week semester, and will be further exacerbated by the proposed introduction of a 10 week semester.
The second bulletin board is designed for student use. One thing we try to make clear to students is that during the semester they should make use of all resources at their disposal. One of the greatest resources the university has is its own students. Where one student has a problem, another may have a solution. A student who has passed a subject at one campus may be able to help a student who is doing that subject at another, and vice versa. To foster this interaction, we have implemented a student bulletin board for each subject that is part of the WBL system.
Figure 5 Posting to Student Bulletin Board
Using this bulletin board students, who have not necessarily met, can post messages for each other, across different campuses. To avoid the obvious problems of the odd student leaving abusive and bogus messages we have tied the registration ID and password the student bulletin board system, Figure 5. To leave a message the student must supply their ID and password used during registration, and the text of the message. When another student displays the message, the first name of the student leaving the message is displayed along with the message. In this system, the student's ID is stored along with the message, thus undesirable messages can easily be tracked and the offending student dealt with.
To date, the use of the student bulletin board system has been disappointing. However, we feel that the usage rate will increase over time when Web Based Learning becomes more common place.
To gauge the student response to and acceptance of the WBLA system, a mini-survey was taken of students over the two campuses and subjects where this system was trialled. Six questions were asked concerning the use and security of the WBLA system. Students could respond by circling a number from one to five. One being the best positive response and five being the worst negative result.
The Questions asked were ...
The averaged results of the forty-six responses (representing 80% of students) are shown below in Figure 6.
Figure 6 Averaged responses to mini survey
As can be seen, the overall response and acceptance of the WBLA system from the students' perspective was excellent. However, the larger figures for Questions 3 (1.87), 5 (1.93) and 6 (1.89) highlights student concern over the security of their assignments and marks on the Web. The response to Question 5 shows that there is some concern about using the Web to submit assignments in a timely manner. This was probably exacerbated by the amount of downtime experienced during the semester due to the change of internet carriers.
Responses to Question 4 highlights the fact that students need to obtain immediate feedback from the system as to whether their assignment has been successfully received. This is one of the advantages we believe the WBLA system provides over the use of email attachments for assignments submission.
Believing that one of the requirements for successful teaching across multiple campuses is a good subject administration infrastructure, we set out to implement a secure, flexible easily accessible system that used the ubiquitous WWW. The system we developed meshes seamlessly with our existing WBL one (Darbyshire and Wenn, 1997; Darbyshire and Wenn in press) and has gained a measure of student acceptance. There is scope for additional development in that we need to alter it so that it can be used for subjects where there are multiple tutors (many of whom are sessionals) on multiple campuses and assignments are automatically forwarded to them as well as to the central data base. Work needs to be done to foster use of the student bulletin boards to enhance the learning process.
Byrnes, R., Lo, B., and Dimbleby, J., (1995), "Flexible Assignment Submission in Distance learning", WCCE'95.
Darbyshire, P. and Wenn, A., (in press), "Experiences with using the WWW as a multi-campus instructional aid", Proceedings of the Teaching Matters Symposium 1996,Victoria University.
Darbyshire, P. and Wenn, A., (1997), "Central Point Cyber Classroom", http://westgate.vut.edu.au/~cp/
Hart, G., (Summer 1996), "Creating an Online Teaching Space", Australian Journal of Educational Technology, Vol 12 No. 2.
Nebel, E. and Masinter, L., (1995), "RFC 1867 Form-based File Upload in HTML", http://sunsite.auc.dk/RFC/rfc/rfc1867.html, accessed 15/10/97
(c) Paul Darbyshire and Andrew Wenn
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