Learning Java Internationally Using WebCT

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Distance education occurs when instructors and students are away from each other by physical distance, and technology (i.e., voice, video, data, etc.) is used to bridge the instructional gap (Gottschalk 1995). Research comparing distance education to traditional classroom instruction shows that teaching at a distance can be as effective as traditional instruction. When the method and technologies used are appropriate to the instructional tasks, there is student-to-student interaction, as well as timely teacher-to-student feedback (Verduin and Clark; Willis).

The Java course described in the following article was developed as a joint project involving the Center for Newly Independent States Studies (CNISS) at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA) and Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU) in Russia. The CNISS director had the overall responsibility for project management. The CSULA faculty developed the course material and provided help to students. The EDE coordinator, part of the TPU faculty, was responsible for supervising student work in Russia. This was our second attempt in providing Information Systems-related courses in Russia using distance education (Slusky, Yampolsky, Partow and Dubina 1997).

Introduction to OOP using Java

At the present, the subject of the course "Java Programming" is quite popular. There is an enormous need for people trained in this programming language. Object Oriented Programming (OOP) demands new techniques for program development and Java has gained the reputation of being painful to learn. For us to indicate that the course was covering a challenging subject and trying to teach it using a new medium would be even more of a challenge.

The Course: What happened?

The subject matter of the course was to be studied by going through a chapter of lecture material and asking questions from the instructor. Early on, students were asked to work on a project that became an integral part of the class. The students' backgrounds were quite diversified, which mirrors the diversity of the Web itself. Projects were introduced to accomplish the need of the more advanced students.

The decision to use an HTML-based textbook was made early on by the course instructor. The benefits of a hypertext document versus a traditional textbook document will not be discussed here. However, the ease with which students can access a glossary of Java terms, read comments on a particular piece of code, or download the source of a program lets students concentrate on understanding the material. This integration of all the information required by students is very popular and demonstrates the power of Web technology.

The Web was used to provide the following information:

Telnet and e-mail were also used as communication tools. Course testing was conducted in person under the supervision of the EDE coordinator to guarantee dependable evaluations.

Distance Learning using Web-based Tools

Students can now access the course material using WebCT. WebCT is a program that facilitates the creation of Web-based courses. It is a client/server application, which allows users to access the program (residing on a server) through use of a client (in this case, a Web browser). This provides a great deal of flexibility. Students and instructors can use WebCT without installing any new software. All the students need is a browser capable of handling frames, such as Netscape (version 2 or higher), or Microsoft Internet Explorer (version 4 or higher). WebCT makes any modification to the course accessible to students instantaneously, and provides the following features:

  • An interface allowing the design of the course presentation (color, page layout, banner, etc.).
  • A set of educational components to promote learning, communication and collaboration.
  • A set of administrative components to help the instructor in the management and continuous improvement of the course.

CNISS is also employing WebCT for its Distance Learning program with Russian universities. The main capabilities of the system are described below:

(Please also see the CNISS Web site at http://curriculum.calstatela.edu:8900/public/CNISS/index.html for general information about CNISS courses.)

Course Design and Maintenance

The instructional materials are placed on WebCT and organized by topics.

Good page design for online instructional materials directly affects the performance of students.

Colors, background image, hyperlinks and bookmarks can all be factors contributing to the efficiency of learning, comfort and reading speed. For the background, consider colors that will not affect quality of printed reports. Some students may not know how to turn the color off for their printers to remove background color on the paper. Background images should generally be avoided.

At the same time, colors are very important for pictures and other foreground images. The psychological effect of colors and images on a reader is a well-known and much researched factor. An instructor is advised to maintain and constantly update a library of visual images for the Web (GIF and JPG) that is applicable to his topic and the style of presentation.

The vast majority of students access Distance Learning resources from home computers. For them, a hyperlink causes a significant slowdown in reading. Furthermore, unnecessary hyperlinks disintegrate the flow of the printed text. We suggest using hyperlinks only for linking components that are not critical for the uninterrupted flow of the reading material in the printed form. Bookmarks placed along the sections and subsections of the material together with return bookmarks are very helpful for text manipulation on the screen and do not affect the composition of the text in the printed form.

Counters (number of homepage visitors) placed at critical pages help a student to compare activity between various segments of the course.

Editing HTML course text files may sometimes be a slow process that includes multiple uploading and downloading of files. At the same time, effective course maintenance requires frequent course material updates. Small editing of text files usually can be done directly on the Web. If updates or additions involve many files, these files can be compressed on the client machine, uploaded to the server machine and unzipped there.

The audio and video clips associated with the text are powerful features of Distance Learning courses, partially compensating the lack of direct personal interaction between students and instructor. These clips can be easily added, replaced or removed. A spoken audio presentation by an instructor at the beginning of a course segment creates a personality impression often lasting throughout the entire segment.

Online Testing

Online tests are placed on the Web and administered - verified against the key answers, tabulated and summarized - automatically. Although the test questions can be selected from a database, setting the test questions for online exams is an elaborate, time consuming procedure. It is particularly appropriate for quizzes that do not change too often. The mid-term and final exams must be unique from one online class to another and are better to be administered in a split way: students submit their answers online, and an examiner verifies and grades answers off-line.

All questions are subdivided into categories and types. The most typical question types are multiple choice (including true/false questions), matching, short answer, and paragraph questions. The score values are assigned for all questions and may differ from one question to another. The correctness value of the answer is automatically calculated for multiple choice questions. Short answer questions require the exact answer text. Open-ended paragraph questions do not require a pre-set answer, can be easily changed and are particularly effective for small classes, but they require manual grading.

Usually questions are created manually off-line and then uploaded in a batch to the Web.

Answers are arranged in sequence and each answer has a specified correctness value (score). That flexibility allows you to designate one or more correct answers with different weight (the correctness score).

An instructor can maintain statistics for frequencies of responses for multiple choice questions. That helps to identify areas of misconception for students, to focus the answers better and to replace inactive answers with new ones.

Once created, online tests can be effectively administrated. An instructor can limit or keep open the date, time and duration of the test available online to students. The earned score for each question can be withheld or released to the student at the completion of each question. With pre-set test duration and the marks for correct answers released to a student in real-time, the student is also tested on his/her ability to organize himself for the task and to apply active learning throughout the test process.

Online testing is very effective for international Distance Learning environments where all contacts between a student and instructor are in electronic form. Through limits set on the time and duration of tests, CNISS instructors can remotely control and maintain test quality. Collected statistics add verification to the established quality assurance procedures.

Communications

An instructor can direct communication with students via a bulletin board, private mail, whiteboard, chat and student's tips. Among them, a student tip displayed at the login time is the best active tool to draw students' attention to a short announcement. All student tips remain stored and available to a student. A bulletin board is a passive tool to disseminate messages. The board messages can be grouped by a discussion subject and can be public or privileged (private) for a specific group of students (e.g., members of a specific course project).

The internal private mail system serves as a communication tool for direct person to person messages. To participate in the mail system, a student will have a folder for all received messages and another folder for all sent messages.

The course calendar helps the instructor and the student to summarize information about timing of various course events. It is also a good course-planning tool for the instructor and the students.

The chat tool is indispensable for real-time written communication among several participants. It can be used for interactive, tutorial-type sessions and for discussions. Chat has also been successfully used in the past for interactive sessions with older, non-Web-based bulletin board systems. With contemporary Web-based systems, an instructor can participate in several discussions at the same time ("visit" several chat rooms).

An online graphics tool - whiteboard - adds real-time graphics capability to interactive chat sessions. A Web-based graphics tool has capabilities close to the basic capabilities of standalone Windows-based graphics tools. All participants of the discussion can share and modify graphics drawn by a Web-based graphics tool.If desired, the content of the instructional materials on the Web can be formatted and downloaded into CD-ROM.

Conclusion

Students who elected to participate in the Java course had comparable computer experience with our regular, inclass students. Each student studied individually and had individual assignments. At the same time, spoken interactions among students and written communications between students and the instructor were encouraged. Instructors' written comments on the completed (or in progress) student assignments were very instrumental for student learning. In addition, the subject of the course - Java - had many other useful references on the Web. Overall, the students demonstrated excellent performance in projects and exams, which led us to conclude that software topics are well suited for international training using Web-based distance learning systems like WebCT.

Sensible distance education programs start with detail planning and a focused understanding of course requirements and student needs. There is no secret to the way effective distance education courses evolve.

They develop through the diligent work and tireless efforts of several individuals and organizations. Successful distance education programs depend on the unwavering efforts of students, faculty, facilitators, support staff, and administrators (Slusky, Yampolsky, Partow and Dubina 1997).

 

 

Ludwig Slusky, Ph.D., is director of Center for Newly Independent States Studies (CNISS) and professor of Information Systems at California State University, Los Angeles, since 1985. Previously he taught at the University of Northern Colorado and University of Denver. In 1994, he spent one semester in Russia as a Fulbright Scholar. His area of expertise includes databases and distance learning. He has administered the Distance Learning program at CNISS using the Internet for students in Russia. He is also a member of International Academy of Informatics, a member of International Editorial Board of "Gearings and Transmissions" and a member of various professional groups. Among his scientific papers, there are two books of cases in database design, manuscripts on Computer-Aided Software Engineering (CASE), articles and presentations on CASE, databases, and distance learning.

E-mail: lslusky@calstatela.edu

 

Parviz Partow, Ph.D., is a professor of Information Systems in the School of Business and Economics at California State University, Los Angeles. His research interests are in the areas of distance learning, programming and artificial intelligence. Professor Partow is a frequent contributor to academic and practitioner journals.

E-mail: ppartow@calstatela.edu

 

 


References

Gottschalk, Tania H. 1995. "Distance Education: An Overview", http://www.uidaho.edu/evo/dist1.html, October.

Perron, Daniel. 1998. "Learning on the WWW", http://www.nca.uiuc/SDG/IT94/Proceedings/Educ/perron/perron.html.

Slusky, Ludwig, V.Z. Yampolsky, P. Partow, and G. Dubina. 1997. "Pilot Project in International Electronic Distance Education in Russia," T.H.E. Journal, Volume 24, No. 6, pp. 61-66, January.

Verduin, J. R., and T. A. Clark. 1991. Distance Education: The Foundation of Effective Practice, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Willis, B. 1993. Distance Education: A Practical Guide, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.

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