Website Usage in a Computer Science Course given in a Distance Learning Environment
The Open University of Israel (OUI) is an institution of higher learning with an open admission policy which is based solely on distance learning and self-study. The teaching methods practiced at the OUI combine traditional and web-based distance education.
This paper will elaborate on the web-based distance education which is practiced in the Computer Science (CS) department at the OUI.
We describe a typical CS course website. We present some facts and figures regarding the use of a typical CS course website, including: the average number of pages requested per day, the most popular pages in the website, some data regarding the use of the discussion group, the use of the web-based assignment submission system, website use per student and results of a survey checking student satisfaction from the course website.
Distance education, online learning, course website, online student participation, discussion group.
There are many universities all over the world that offer distance education programs for off campus students in addition to their face to face mode of education. The Open University of Israel (OUI) is an institution of higher learning with open admission which is based solely on distance education. This combination of Universities which are both open and based primarily on distance education is not very common. A thorough description of such universities can be found in Guri-Rosenblit's book (Guri-Rosenblit, 1999). The OUI offers a variety of undergraduate programs and several graduate programs. A detailed description of the different undergraduate and graduate programs can be found in the OUI Website (The OUI Website).
The OUI is similar to other universities in its pursuit of excellence and its commitment to superior scientific and scholastic standards. However, it differs in that it is open to all those who wish to study towards a Bachelor's degree. Enrolment does not require matriculation or any other achievement exam or certificate from another educational institution. Though applicants are not required to provide proof of prior scholastic achievements, their academic achievements are the key to their success at the OUI. In contrast to the open admissions policy for undergraduate studies, admission to graduate studies is contingent on fulfilment of certain requirements (Benaya, Lerner & Zur, 2004), (Benaya & Zur, 2004).
The teaching methods practiced in the OUI combine two modes of distance education: written materials which are sent to the students at their homes and web-based teaching. In the past decade, the OUI has supplemented its traditional distance education with course websites since the demand for educational web-based learning is increasing in distance education learning communities (Gal-Ezer & Lupo, 2002). Both modes of education are based on many years of experience practiced at the OUI in the undergraduate and graduate programs.
The various aspects of distance education developed by the OUI, along with the university's open admission policy, aim to open the world of higher education to all, irrespective of age, sex, place of residence or occupation, in order to enable every individual to realize his or her academic ability. The distance education practiced at the OUI enables students located throughout the country, to pursue their higher education without leaving their home towns. For example, in the course "Introduction to Computer Science", 60% of the students are located in the general vicinity of the OUI and 40% of the students are located in peripheral areas of the country.
The following sections will describe both the traditional and web-based distance education followed by some findings regarding the use of a typical CS course website.
Distance education and self-study practiced at the OUI provide conditions that meet the constraints of individuals who work, raise a family, manage a household or serve in the military. The method is not space or time dependent as it is not based on a central campus where lecturers and students gather.
Courses offered by the OUI are fundamentally different from courses offered at other universities. The customary image of a course - a classroom with a teacher on the podium facing a group of students - does not apply to the OUI, or only partially. A course at the OUI is first and foremost a printed scholarly or scientific work: one or more volumes written and produced or especially selected for OUI students. Thus, learning at the OUI is first of all a self-study process based on written materials and not on sitting and listening to lectures.
The following components describe all aspects of traditional distance education based on written material.
Course Material - Some of the course books are especially adapted to self-study. Guiding questions, exercises and self-assessment questions are integrated into the material. Some of the advanced courses are based on existing textbooks. In these cases, a detailed study guide containing the self-study tools characteristic of the OUI textbooks accompanies the text.
Face to Face Tutorials - Each course includes an optional face-to-face component in the form of small group tutorials led by a tutor. The sessions are held at the OUI study centers dispersed throughout the country. The tutorial sessions do not constitute the core of the course. Students who wish to turn their homes into a personal campus can do so with utmost success due to the distance learning method practiced in the OUI.
Assignments and Exams - Assignments are an additional component of OUI courses. Students must submit assignments, exercises or other types of tasks during the semester according to a predefined schedule. The assignments are submitted by mail or via the Internet. Students receive a grade and feedback on each assignment. Students must also pass the final examination of the course, held at study centers near their homes.
Course Staff - Each course has a course coordinator who is responsible for the academic and administrative planning and the implementation of all course activities, including the web-based ones (described below). The coordinators and tutors are those who provide the contact between the student and the OUI. Students may consult with coordinators and tutors concerning any question which troubles them - academic or administrative. The coordinators and tutors accompany the students throughout the courses, are attentive to their problems and do their best to solve them.
The OUI also makes use of advanced technologies to improve its distance teaching, which provide a wealth of learning materials and continuous contact with faculty and other students in the course. All the courses at the OUI have course websites on the internet which provide an interactive learning environment. The websites include, among other things, additional materials, links to databases and Internet sites related to the course material, as well as individual and group communication between students and tutors, and among the students themselves.
In addition to the courses' websites the CS Department also offers a central home page which includes general information regarding the CS department and links to the websites of the CS courses. It is important to emphasize that these technologies do not replace the written study materials which constitute the core of the course, but expand and enrich them. The incorporation of web-based teaching methods is fully adapted to the written study material.
The following list describes the interactive learning and administrative elements contained in each course website:
Discussion group - Providing for group interaction among all participants in the course: students, tutors and course coordinators. The students post questions and comments regarding the course material, the exercises and the exam. It has been shown that effective online discussions are considered to support good online learning, they facilitate exchange of information among students and enable tutor intervention when necessary (Mazzolini & Maddison, 2003), (Wallace & Wallace, 2001). On many occasions the students respond to each others questions and the discussion takes place. Student to student interaction encourages students to feel that they are part of an online learning community (Mazzolini & Maddison, 2003). The course tutors and coordinator follow and contribute to these discussions.
Learning materials - Including: electronic presentation of the course' materials such as tutorial lecture notes, links to additional materials and to data-sources on the internet, exercises and sample exams. The course staff can upload material to the website throughout the semester.
Course bulletin board - The bulletin board appears in the main page of the course website. It is used mostly by the course coordinator for announcing schedule changes, important notices and special events.
Website management tools - The website includes a personal activity schedule which is a tool that gives the student a monthly view in the form of a calendar. This view shows all activities related to the course, such as the learning material which has to be covered on every week, exercise submission dates, class tutorial dates and exam dates. In addition, a personal notebook tool is available. This tool allows the student to personalize the website by grouping together pointers to selected items and activities such as an important comment in the discussion group, or a particularly helpful example or exercise solution, etc.
Course staff and List of fellow students - The course website contains office hours and e-mails of the course staff and a list of e-mails of students who wish to be in contact with other students in the course. This list is extremely important because it enables contact between students who are spread out throughout the country. Email is an important means of communication in the distance learning environment. Wallace (Wallace & Wallace, 2001) states that students are less hesitant to use email than the teachers, however when the teachers learn to control the students' expectations for immediate response, email becomes a popular tool.
Web-based assignment submission system - A fully integrated system used by students, tutors, course coordinator and administration. The students submit their assignments by the required deadline. Late assignments are accepted but marked automatically as late. The tutors download the assignments, grade them and then upload the corrected assignments back in to the system. The Students receive, through the system, the graded assignments including the tutors' remarks. The grades are automatically updated in the students' records so the tutor does not need to manually submit grades at the end of the semester. The course coordinator can enter the system at any time and monitor the status both of students and tutors regarding assignment submission and grading. The course coordinator also has access to the original and graded assignments.
The following section presents some findings regarding the students' usage of a typical CS course website.
The OUI students, as mentioned above, are located all over the country, therefore the use of the courses' website is a major factor in their learning process. We checked the website usage habits of a group of 187 students who were enrolled in the fall semester of 2005 in the course "Advanced Programming in Java". The semester started in mid September and lasted until mid January. The exam period followed the semester and lasted one month.
We noticed that the average use of the website per month was relatively constant throughout the semester although the middle of semester was a bit more active. The average number of pages requested per day was about 600.
We checked which pages of the course website were most frequently used by the students. We divided the course website into the following categories: (1) Discussion group; (2) Course materials such as exercises, example exams, software installation guide and course schedule; (3) Additional materials such as lecture notes and class examples; (4) Links to relevant data sources on the internet; (5) Course bulletin board; (6) other pages including: student list, staff list, website management tools and web-based assignment submission system.
The following graph shows the number of requests for pages in each of these categories throughout the semester:
One can see from the graph that the pages of the discussion group were most popular, they accounted for about 50% of the activity in the course website.
The "Others" category (17%) included the web-based assignment submission system which was widely preferred both by students and tutors. The use of the system was not mandatory for either tutors or students. The students could hand in their exercises directly to the tutors in the face to face tutorials or send the exercises by regular mail to the tutors. Four out of five tutors agreed to use the system and therefore it was offered to the students in their groups (161 students out of 187). We found that 68% of the students who were allowed to use the system did in fact send at least one of their assignments via the system.
The course material (6%) and additional material (5%) were used at about the same extent. The course material is available to the students as part of the package which is sent to them in the beginning of the semester and some of the additional materials is available to the students from the face to face tutorials.
The web links category (1%) was hardly used. This can be explained by the fact that this category contains references to additional websites, which are related to the course materials but are considered as further reading materials.
Since we found that the discussion group was the most popular item in the course website we decided to look at it more closely. We found that about 50% of the students enrolled in the course (90 out of 181) participated at least once in the discussion group. This of course does not take into account the students who participated as silent observers.
There were over 1000 messages in the discussion group during the semester. We noticed that when the tutors did not respond promptly to students' questions, the discussion among the students was very active, on the other hand prompt response by tutors was appreciated by students but it cut off their discussion. It has been found that tutor intervention is both valuable but at the same time inhibits students' interaction (Mazzolini & Maddison, 2003), (Platoff & Pratt, 2001), therefore, our staff is careful not to overdo their participation. More than 80% of the items posted in the discussion group were posted by students either as questions, comments or as responses to other students. The other 20% of the messages were posted by the course staff.
We were wondering what percentage of students take advantage of the course website. We want to reemphasize that the use of the course website is not mandatory and its main purpose is to provide supplementary course materials and support for the distance education practiced at the OUI.
We checked the number of pages requested each month by the 50 most active students in that month. We summed the number of requests of these students throughout the semester. We found that 72% of the students (130 students out of 181) enrolled in the course were relatively active at least in one month of the semester. The rest of the students (28%) exhibited a very low level of activity or were not active at all. We divided these students into four equal groups according to their level of activity: starting from group1 which consisted of the 25% of the most active students, down to group 4 which consisted of the 25% of the least active students.
Figure 2. presents the number of requests, throughout the semester, of each of the groups described above.
Looking at the graph one can see that a small percentage (25%) of students are extremely active in the course website while the others exhibited a low level of activity. Furthermore, 50% of the activity is performed by 12% of the students, while more than half of the students (55%) account for only 10% of the activity.
While analyzing the data of the 50 most active students, we also noticed that some of them use the website steadily throughout the semester while others do not. Some of the students have one peak of activity during the semester. For example, some of them are especially active in the first month of the semester while others are more active during the month of February which was the month of the final exam.
A survey checking the students' satisfaction from the course website was given to the students who claimed they used the website. Sixty two students responded to this survey. The students were asked to what extent they were satisfied from the course website. 56% of the students claimed they were very satisfied, 37% claimed they were satisfied to a medium extent and 7% claimed they were not satisfied at all.
The students were asked how often they visited the website: 23% of the students said they visited the website several times a week; 40% of the students said they visited the website once a week; 26% visited once or twice a month and 11% visited only once or twice a semester.
In the survey they were also asked to evaluate the contribution of the course website to their studies. The following is a list of questions followed by their answers:
- To what extent did the course website contribute to the clarification of the course material? (45% very much, 37% to a medium extent).
- To what extent did the course website enable getting help from the course staff? (71% very much, 20% to a medium extent).
- To what extent was the course website organized well? (55% very much, 28% to a medium extent).
- To what extent did the course website help with the course material? (44% very much, 35% to a medium extent).
- To what extent did the course website enable getting fast response to questions which arose while studying the material? (69% very much, 19% to a medium extent).
- To what extent did the course website act as a supplement to the face to face meetings? (44% very much, 35% to a medium extent).
We can notice from the list above that the students rate highly the fact that the course website facilitates getting help from the course staff and enables getting fast response to questions which arise while studying the course material. On the other hand, we can see that many students value the face to face meetings and do not feel that the website can completely replace this component.
The main findings from our research include:
The discussion group was the main activity performed by the students in the course website.
More than 80% of the messages posted in the discussion group were posted by students. This shows the strength of the discussion group as a medium of interaction between students providing a learners support group.
50% of the activity in the Website is performed by 12% of the students.
56% of the students claimed they were very satisfied from the course Website.
70% of the students were very satisfied with the fast response to questions which arise while studying the course materials.
There is a lot more to learn about the students' usage habits of the course websites. We are planning to continue our research in order to learn more about the following issues:
We would like to check the content of the messages in the discussion group, to categorize the messages into topics. This will help us better understand the difficulties with the course material encountered by the students.
We would like to check whether there is a correlation between the level of activity in the discussion group and the success in the course and whether the content of the messages affects the success?
We want to check the distribution of messages in the discussion group among the students who participate in the discussions. That is we would like to check if most of the messages are attributed to a small number of students or whether they are distributed evenly among the students.
How can we generate more student interest in other sections of the course website such as supplementary learning materials?
- Benaya, T., Lerner, A. and Zur, E. (2004). MSc Program – Towards Open Admission. The 18th AAOU Annual conference.
- Benaya, T. and Zur, E. (2004). Can Students Improve their Undergraduate Achievements and Get Accepted to Graduate School? ITiSCE 2004 - The 9th Annual Conference on Innovation and Technology in Computer Science Education.
- Gal-Ezer, J. and Lupo, D. (2002). Integrating internet tools into traditional CS distance education: Students' attitudes. Computers & Education 38, 4, 319-329.
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- Mazzolini, M. and Maddison, S. (2003). Sage, guide or ghost? The effect of instructor intervention on student participation in online discussion forums. Computers & Education 40, 3, 237-253.
- Paloff, R. M. and Pratt, K. (2001). Lessons from the cyberspace classroom - the realities of online teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Wallace, F. L. and Wallace, S. R. (2001). Electronic office hours: a component of distance learning. Computers & Education 37, 3-4, 195-209.
- The OUI Website: http://www-e.openu.ac.il/