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Three generations of online assignment management

David Jones

Department of Mathematics and Computing


Bruce Jamieson

Information Technology Division

Central Queensland University, Rockhampton



There are a number of problems with traditional assignment management schemes that can be addressed by online assignment management using the Internet, email and the World-Wide Web. This paper reports on three years experience at Central Queensland University (CQU) with three different online assignment management systems. This experience has shown that online assignment management can address many of the problems associated with traditional methods, provide reductions in both marking and turn-around time and provide a number of new benefits. However, it has also demonstrated the importance of automation, appropriate training, reliable and appropriate technology, modifications in practice and administrative support in order to achieve significant benefits.


The resource intensive nature of assessment can often decrease the quality of the feedback provided to students (Oliver and Mitchell, 1996). Providing timely, meaningful feedback on student progress is essential and can influence student results. Problems associated with traditional assignment management approaches contribute significantly to assignment turnaround time while much of the process of performing assessment is mechanical, repetitious and a perfect candidate for the application of information technology. It is the combination of these factors that is driving interest in online assignment management systems by many educators and institutions throughout the world.

This paper describes experience at CQU with three generations of online assignment management over the last three years by on-campus and distance computing students. The paper starts by describing the problems associated with the traditional form of assignment management. The next section describes in some detail the experience of using each of the three online assignment management systems. In closing the paper describes the next generation system to be used at CQU.

Problems with Traditional Methods

The move to an online assignment management system at CQU was driven by a number of problems with the traditional approach including

availability of markers
Central Queensland does not have a large computing industry that means that most CQU computing graduates move to capital cities to work. This means that the pool of qualified markers, especially for advanced level computing subjects, is very small.

Three Online Methods

Online assignment management systems have been used within the Department of Mathematics and Computing at CQU since 1995, mainly in two advanced level computing units. The following section describes in detail the experience of using three different generations of the system. Due to space limits only three of the six semesters which have used online submission will be described. An overview of these semesters is shown in Table 1.



Student Numbers



Manual email

85321, Systems Administration,

first half 1995

77 total

57 distance


Automated email

85349, Operating Systems,

second half 1995

174 total

109 distance


automated Web

85321, Systems Administration,

first half 1997

116 total

73 distance


Table 1. Summary of 3 semesters of online assignment management

Manual Email

The first online assignment submission system was entirely manual, email-based and used by distance students only. The submission process consisted of the following steps

  1. Student emails assignment to the lecturer.
  2. Lecturer manually acknowledges receipt, saves the assignment and forwards a copy to the marker.
  3. The marker marks the assignment and returns it to the student with a copy going to the lecturer for archival purposes.

In 1995 widespread use of the Internet was still rare and relatively primitive. For example 80% of assignments submitted using email were sent using text-based email programs with only 20% using graphical user interface (GUI) based tools such as Pegasus. Table 2 provides an overview of the performance of this approach.


As can been seen in Table 2 the turn-around time on assignments was far from good. The major cause of this was problems with the marker being unavailable due to personal reasons at important times during the semester. This influenced turnaround times for both online and traditional assignment management systems.


This initial foray into online assignment management led to the following observations


Submitted online

Turn-around time in days

min average max



9 33 46



0 30 33



2 12 26



14 25 39

Table 2. Results of manual email assignment management

Automated Email Submission

While not a great success the first attempt did provide some promise of the benefits that a suitable system combined with appropriate support could offer. The next online assignment management system was entirely automated, using Perl scripts, but still relied on email for assignment submission. The process was:

  1. Student sends the assignment to an email address using a specific format for the subject line of the email message.
  2. A Perl script saves the assignment in an archive, forwards a copy to the marker, updates a results Web page (Figure 1) to indicate receipt and sends an acknowledgment back to the student.
  3. Once marked the marker returns the assignment to the student with a copy going to another email address.
  4. At this other email address a Perl script saves the marked assignment in an archive and updates the results Web page (Figure 1).

This process was used in the second half of 1995 and the first half of 1996. Table 3 provides a summary of the results from the first use of the system in 1995. Other changes from the manual online assignment management system included a new marker and the fact that all the online assignments were submitted using GUI email programs such as Eudora or Pegasus.

Figure 1. Results sheet automatically generated



Submitted online

Turn-around time in days

min average max



0 9 31



0 9 19

Table 3 Results of automated email system, 2nd semester 1995

It should be noted that assignments submitted before the due date were not marked until the due date. This contributes somewhat to the turn-around times listed in Table 3.


Observations from the first use of this automated email system included

Automated Web Management

The advent of the file upload capability for Web browsers (introduced in Netscape version 2.0) led to the development of a completely Web-based assignment management system. This system has been used since the second semester of 1996. Table 4 provides a summary of the systems use during the first semester of 1997.


With this system assignment management consisted of the following steps

  1. Student connects to a specific Web page, enters their student number and chooses the assignment to submit.
  2. The system presents a page specific to the assignment that contains specific instructions and the correct number of file upload elements.
  3. Student selects the location of the assignment files on their local computer and hits submit.
  4. The files are placed onto the Web server (in a secure area) and the student sees a page that lists the size of the assignment files on the server (used by the student to ensure safe uploading).
  5. A password protected Web page provides the marker with access to all student assignments.
  6. After downloading an assignment, comments and marks are entered via another Web page.
  7. Assignments are returned via another Web page.

Like the email system this system uses Perl scripts and maintains a results page similar to Figure 1.


During the use of this system and number of observations were made including:


Submitted online

Turn-around time in days

min average max



1 2 7



0 17 30



0 5 14

Table 4. Results of automated Web system, 1st semester 1997

The Next Generation

The system used at CQU is undergoing further development and expansion including

The system being used and under development at CQU is part of Webfuse ( A freely available system for creating and maintaining Web sites which runs on both UNIX and Windows NT/95 servers.


As many expect, online assignment management makes it possible to reduce assignment turn-around time, can reduce the time taken to mark individual assignments and provide the opportunity to implement a number of new approaches to assessment. However achieving this is not a straight forward process and cannot be achieved without appropriate technical, training, and administrative support. It is important to note that the technical difficulties associated with online assignment management are simple in comparison to the organisational and administrative changes necessary.


Brian Oliver, Geoffrey Mitchell (1996), Setting the PASE - The Value of Computer Aided Assessment, Proceedings of the First Australasian Conference on Computer Science Education, John Rosenberg (editor), pp 103-110

Blaine Price, Marian Petre, (1997), Teaching Programming through Paperless Assignments: an empirical evaluation of instructor feedback, Proceedings of Integrating Technology into Computer Science Education, SIGCSE Bulletin, 29(3), Gordon Davies (editor), September 1997, pp 94-99


(c) David Jones and Bruce Jamieson


The author(s) assign to ASCILITE and educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The author(s) also grant a non-exclusive licence to ASCILITE to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the ASCILITE 97 conference papers, and for the documents to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.


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