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The Webbing of the Grad Dip Comp


Andrew Marriott

School of Computing, Curtin University of Technology

A hyperlinked version of this document is available as or as PostScript via


The Graduate Diploma in Computing was planned to be offered online in 1997. It would offer substantial, quality material to students. This material would be in the form of detailed lecture notes, tutorials, practicals, assignments, past examination papers example programs, interactive applets and links to other forms of appropriate online information such as libraries, online databases, archive sites, mailing lists and anonymous ftp computer sites. Subsequently, the pages would be upgraded to be sufficient to be used as stand alone Distance Learning courseware.

The Research group within our School at Curtin is concerned with producing quality material for a global audience in a structured manner, analysing the results of using the Web as a learning mechanism, applying these results to the next generation of course notes and reporting on the problems encountered and solved. We are no longer concerned with "just putting course notes onto the Web" but with all the problems of using electronic publishing to promote effective learning.

Beyond the standard problems of Distance Learning, the electronic publishing of courses poses many new problems for lecturers and universities. This paper looks at the Webbing of the Grad Dip as a case study to detail these problems and presents some solutions garnered from three years of Web-based publishing.


The WWW was originally developed to allow information sharing within internationally dispersed teams, and the dissemination of information by support groups. It is currently the most advanced information system deployed on the Internet, and embraces within its data model most information in previous networked information systems. In fact, the Web is an architecture which will also embrace any future advances in technology, including new networks, protocols, object types and data formats. Its arrival presented new opportunities in distance learning: the ability to deliver text, images, sound, movies and software to any site meant that lectures, tutorials, seminars and practicals could be conducted in a format that was more informative than in a straight text situation (Ng and Marriott 1994a).

In 1994, a set of Web-based electronic course notes were created and introduced into a computer graphics curriculum at Curtin University to obtain students' attitudes and perceptions towards electronic tuition. Their survey responses were analysed and used to further improve the course (Ng and Marriott 1996a). The results of this and later studies supported the work published in this area re determining the effectiveness of multi-media hyperlinked learning (WWW95 1995a; WWW95 1995b). This is to be expected as sound educational practices were followed in implementation. The Computer Graphics course developed in 1994 is now used at approximately 48000 sites throughout the world.

Similar work in course development for the Web is now being reported at Web conferences - this is to be expected given its ability to provide quality information. Quality work is being done (NCSA 1994a; Altas and Eustace 1995a; von Konsky 1996a; Eklund 1995a), however, many are re-inventing the wheel, most is uncoordinated and little of the knowledge gained is being re- used. Much of the material being produced is just straight linear transcriptions of course notes with little extra information or richness being added - a simple electronic page turner! Very little analysis of the effects of the new media is being done and few are concerned with the media's effectiveness at helping students in "learning".

Beyond the standard problems of Distance Learning, the electronic publishing of courses poses many new problems for lecturers and universities:

Some of these problems have already received attention by researchers (Marriott and Ng 1996a; Marriott, von Konsky, and Ng 1997a) while others need further discussion.


Some immediate problems that we have faced with the Webbing the Grad Dip also have general relevance for those embarking on Web publishing.

Lecturer Reluctance.

We have found that many lecturers are reluctant or wary of putting their units online. This would seem to be based upon:

  1. If my material is available online, then anyone in the world could pinch it!

This is similar to the problem of producing a text book but with the modern problem of the direct availability of the computer readable information of the Web pages. Even worse is that the Web author gets little financial or career rewards for their initiative. However, it is important to realise that the Web has always been a source of free information. Copright law still exists to protect people from being exploited.

  1. Have I used any copyright material in my courses? I can't remember!
    This obviously relates to the above problem - where did a "young" lecturer first get the material for lectures produced 5 - 10 years ago? Where did that diagram come from?
    Of importance is that the copyright laws that give flexibility to lecturers who photocopy other's material to give to students as handouts do not allow for the publishing of other's material on the Web.
    The chasing down of the "source" of one's material is time consuming and again receives little reward.
  2. The quality of my material is being judged by the entire world!
    Correct. A common myth leveled at online journals is that they lack peer reviewing whereas the entire Web can review the articles and very easily voice their opinions via news groups or discussion lists.
    The "quality" of material should be important to every academic - the days of handing out brief hand-written points as lecture material are gone - we are now providing a service to paying customers.
    However the effort involved in producing "quality" Web units is non-trivial and if the lecturer receives no kudos, then there is little incentive.
  3. What is in it for me?
    Putting units online goes beyond the (current) academic teaching expectations. However little financial or career rewards are available to a concerned lecturer. There is no equivalent of a Research Performance Index for teaching which could provide funds for further development of units, conference registration, etc. Academics within our School have been told that their tenure and/or career promotions depends upon publications not teaching. Although the money for the Webbing of the Grad Dip project was granted given that our School was to provide continuing support, the Head of School has said that the course is not to be offered online nor are units from it allowed to be even offered as short courses! No kudos nor financial reward for the School.
    So what is the incentive for a lecturer to put units online? A systemic change must occur in applying University policy re teaching if we want to see lecturers getting more involved in teaching initiatives.

Student Reluctance.

Given that online units are leveraged from current units offered on a semester basis, with fixed tutorials, assessment, examinations, etc, many potential students are questioning the "flexibility" of our supposed flexible online delivery. Some typical responses to our information about our online units:

Am I up the creek without a paddle?Online units must spell out all resources needed - in our case we have to be very aware of the software requirements for a unit and whether or not they will be available at a reasonable price to the distant student.

The units must also be taken part time in an order specified by us so that:

  • they synchronise with the current units being taught

This puts a un-necessary throttle on the online student.Suppose that I have a work history that has given me the necessary knowledge to wip though your basic computer science courses within a short period of time, or that my job requires me to do extensive travel, such that it requires a longer period of time to complete the course. It would seem that the only resource that the school need supply once the course is on-line is that of a grader of tests, so I fail to understand the requirement to have this binding relationship between physical and virtual courses.

  • the units are properly available online: i.e. they have the "quality" that you would expect from a University course.

Hummm. While I would applaud that a course be of the correct quality, it also needs to be available 'absolutely', to ensure a student can get that ever-so-important degree. Suppose that I were to start this journey, pluck down my monies, and get about 3/4th the way through only to discover that a required course has been pulled off the net because it is not of sufficent quality. Is the school up to the challenge of ensuring that the school resources will be available to ensure a virtual student can complete the criteria?

The first point is valid given the constraints of University life but there is no inherent reason why a unit taken online could not be taken at any time and at any upper-bounded pace. Lecturer inconvenience could be alleviate by financial reward.

In general, students will also bear the cost of final examination assessment if they cannot attend Curtin University's examination venue.

Huh? I fail to see why a virtual student should be assessed a fee to take the same test as a physical student. When you consider that you are free to structure the online test, you are free to also create a automated grading system, that in the end would require less facilty attention then that of grading a paper 'manually'.

How flexible can we make the assessment system? Most units rely on examinations for various reasons to assess a student. I cannot see this changing for online students.

In summary, the potential student concluded:

  • I believe that the course requirements are vague enough to cause me to wonder if at some point in the future I might be roadblocked by some required resource necessary for me to complete the program. As this involves a significant investment on my part, I must minimize my risk on the way into such an educational endevor by making my selections where I can see a clear path through the endevor to the prize at the far sidea degree).
  • The courses, I believe, are not sufficently virtual at this time, but are still tied to the physical learning environment. Course time frames are rigid, and can not be either collapsed, nor expanded, to meet the needs of the virtual student. Additionally, I believe that most of the course material would not be available on the WWW, but instead would consist of physical text book material, or other material that could be.
  • Costs. The price of such a degree does not reflect the costs in the same way that a physical student would expect. The virtual student would require less, perhaps no, facalty buildings, no heat, much less electricity, etc, then a physical student. Although there is a up-front cost for building the courseware, this courseware can be amoritized over thousands of students. Additionally, once built, the courseware could be sold or licensed to other educational institutions or even the commercial marketplace. In short, the cost of education to the virtual student should be much lower then that of a physical student.

There needs to be systemic change in the unversity to be able to remove these hurdles.

Quality of Translation.

Experience has shown that it is better to develop material in some source form other than HTML. However, the quality of translation from source into HTML is currently very poor. Given that most lecturers will want to continue to use their preferred word processor and that they will probably also want to produce printed notes for internal student notes, the options available to them are quite limited.

It is likely that the majority of users will prefer Word but this has serious quality problems when used as an automatic HTML converter. This is suprising given that it is an internal conversion and has all available formatting information available to it.

The Powerpoint translator has been used favourably by lecturers within our School and would seem to offer a good balance of ease of use, flexible output and compact translation.

This author uses the Unix Groff system which can typeset and output a source document in plain text format, PostScript for printing or as a series of HTML pages. Although it is not suggested that this is appropriate for all users, Groff's ability to define macros and to have conditional layout commands gives it a flexibility and a quality of output for all devices which is hard to beat.

Push-of-a-button quality translation from source into printed and Webbed material is needed if serious online courses are to be developed. The source material system must also allow for a wide variety of material such as outlined below to be translated appropriately.

Unit Components.

Those using the Web should take advantages of its potential not just use it as an electronic page turner. The Web pages should contain multi and hyper media information as well as buttons or links for:

Email form to contact author.

General information page for the course outline, lecture schedule,prerequisite units.

Online Assignment Page.

Online Tutorials Page.

Online Practicals Page.

An online Reading list.

Contents page.

Search Engine page.

An interactive Java page.

Online executable examples plus source code.

A feedback and comments form.

Message of the Day page.

An FAQ page: students' queries and lecturer's reply.

The interactive Java examples have proved to be very effective in facilitating learning and are part of our "intelligent" Web pages project.

Fig. 1 : Hyperspace navigation

Another research project within our School is looking at the complex tasks shown in the figure below where a software agent monitors the hyperspace navigation of a student or scouts ahead to evaluate linked information pages and suggests other links to a keen student or presents supplementary information to a student who was seen to be struggling. This system can also implement level of presentation methods.

An extension of the "scouting ahead" system would be in the form of a personal assistant agent who actively looks for online information which matches the users current research profile. This could be as simple as using the Harvest Search Engine for keyword searches to using a Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) (Deerwester et al 1990a) system to construct a vector space of terms from existing documents to match against candidate documents. An Autonomous Document Classification System is described in Clack et al (1997a) .

If online units are simple transcriptions of (hand) written notes, then students will correctly choose to go elsewhere. If students are given the facilities to learn in a non-linear, self- paced, hyperlinked manner, then they will see and experience the benefits and choose this online course.


The majority of the Graduate Diploma units are online in various stages as of October 1997. All of the eight core units will be online by the end of the year. Many units such as Computer Programming 501, Computer Programming 502, Information Technology 501 and Geographic Information Systems 501 will be ready for Distance Education purposes. The development of the remaining units to this level is very dependant upon the attitude that the University takes towards these and other initiatives and how it supports them.

However, given that there is active opposition in our School to these units being used for teaching and short courses, the future does not look bright for further development work in this area. This is sad given the University's push into flexible delivery of material and its desire to increase its share of and its income from the global education market.


Altas and Eustace 1995a.

Irfan Altas and Ken Eustace, "A Balancing Act for Distance Education: Mathematics", International Asia Pacific Rim World Wide Web Conference '95, (18-21 Sept 1995).

Clack et al 1997a.

C. Clack, J. Farringdon, P. Lidwell, and T. Yu, "Autonomous Document Classification for Business", Proceedings of First International Conference on Autonomous Agents, (February 1997).

Deerwester et al 1990a.

S. Deerwester, S. T. Dumais, G. W. Furnas, J. K. Landaver, and Harshman R., "Indexing by Latent Semantic Analysis", Journal of the American Society for Information Science 41(6) pp. 391--407 (1990).

Eklund 1995a.

John Eklund, "Cognitive models for structuring hypermedia and implications for learning from the world-wide web", pp. 111--116 in Proceedings of First Australian World Wide Web Conference, (1995).

Marriott and Ng 1996a.

A. Marriott and J. Ng, "JAGI - Journal of Australasian Graphics Imagery", Symposium on Australian Electronic Publishing, (30 May 1996).

Marriott, von Konsky, and Ng 1997a.

A. Marriott, Brian von Konsky, and Joanne Ng, "Education on the line...", Third Hong Kong Web Symposium: Publishing on the line..., (7-10 May 1997).

NCSA 1994a.

NCSA, The Second International WWW Conference '94: Mosaic and the Web. October 1994.

Ng and Marriott 1994a.

J. Ng and A. Marriott, "World Wide Web based Distance Learning", International Networking: Education, Training and Change '94, (Sept, 1994).

Ng and Marriott 1996a.

J. Ng and A. Marriott, "A Survey of users of a Web-based Computer Graphics Course", IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications - special edition on Computer Graphics Education., (1996).

von Konsky 1996a.

B. von Konsky, "Using the World Wide Web as a Delivery Mechanism for Distributed Educational Multimedia", pp. 203--212 in Proceedings of Third Interactive Multimedia Symposium, Perth, Western Australia (January 1996).

WWW95 1995a.

WWW95, The Third International World-Wide Web Conference. Technology, Tools and Applications. April 1995.

WWW95 1995b.

WWW95, Fourth International World Wide Web Conference. The Web Revolution. December 1995.


(c) Andrew Marriott


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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