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1 Design of a Web-Based Education Environment Session 12a3 Thomas G. Cleaver and Robert L. Toole Department of Electrical Engineering University of Louisville Louisville, KY Abstract - Delivery of online education requires a robust environment for development of Web-based courses. Although commercial solutions for online course management exist, many universities choose to develop their own environments. The engineering school of the University of Louisville has developed such an environment. At the minimum, any online education system requires a Web server equipped with a database. Due to the authors familiarity with the PC, Windows NT Server and Access 97 were used. The database is used to store student names, user IDs, passwords, addresses, and grades. It also holds pointers to Web pages, arranged by course. Active Server Pages are used to communicate with the database, so that user HTML can be generated on the fly. Using the above as a baseline, the RAISE (Remote Asynchronous Instruction in Science and Engineering) environment was developed that provides such features as course registration, password-protected logins, announcements, calendar, gradebook, class notes, syllabi, threaded conferences, interactive tutorials, and automated tools for creating online courses. This manuscript describes the design process and discusses those elements of the environment that are most and least effective in educational delivery, particularly with respect to using the environment as an adjunct to existing lecture-based engineering classes. The focus is on practical ideas and methods for design of online education environments. Introduction A university has three choices for selection of an online education environment: rent, buy, or build. That is, a university can choose to use an existing commercial service, purchase a software suite, or design its own environment. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. Commercial services are, perhaps, the easiest way to get into online education [1, 2, 3, 4]. These services frequently use their own web servers for storage of all course materials and student records. They provide system administration for setting up and maintaining courses, and software tools for instructors to use to create courseware. These services often provide training in the use of their software tools. These are very valuable assets, and will save the instructor a lot of time. The disadvantages are cost and flexibility. The commercial service typically sets up fees either on a per-student basis, or through a contract with the university. This can be expensive and, unless the administration of the university is committed to online education, may be impracticable for the instructor to arrange. The inflexibility issue arises because the instructor must use the format of the online service. Also, if a desired feature, say an online chat room, is not in the suite of features the service provides, it may be impossible for the instructor to include it. Several commercial organizations and universities have developed their own online learning environments and tools, and make them available to others [5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12]. Some of these are distributed for free, while others are available for purchase. Frequently the instructor must be prepared to install and maintain the environment selected. Again, the problem of flexibility arises as the available learning environments may not meet all of the instructor s needs. For maximum flexibility, the instructor may choose to design and build a learning environment using the servers available and targeted at the specific needs of the students. This approach is frequently the least expensive, but it requires the highest resources in terms of the instructor s time. Also, this approach has the highest technical risk; it may not be possible to meet design requirements within reasonable time frames. The authors chose the third approach. It was decided to design and implement a learning environment that would serve students in engineering and science. It was called RAISE (Remote Asynchronous Instruction in Science and Engineering). This asynchronous learning network (ALN) would be designed not as a mechanism for delivering standalone distance education courses, but as an adjunct to faceto-face lecture-based classes. This paper describes the process of building the ALN, and which features of the ALN were most useful. 12a3-1

2 Resources Needed for an ALN The primary focus in the development of RAISE has been to provide an easy to use, browser independent system for supplying dynamic, data-driven information. In general, we've found that the majority of the content used in online learning environments, whether as a supplement to a course or content related to an entire course, has been essentially static. To create a richer and more useful online system requires the use of programs running on a server that can dynamically generate Web pages based on user interaction and information stored on the server. Unfortunately, without detailed knowledge of Web servers and database systems, most people are limited to such static content, which in general, must be regularly maintained in order to be useful. Consequently, one of the main goals in the development of RAISE has been to design a system that easily incorporates new and existing Web content, both static and dynamic, into a common, easy-to-use framework. One of the first things considered in the design of RAISE was the choice of the hardware architecture, the Web server software, and a database management system (DBMS). In the early design phase of the system, January, 1997, there were two dominant technologies being used to dynamically generate web content. They were Common Gateway Interface (CGI) compiled programs and Microsoft's Active Server Pages. While both technologies were capable of providing server-side processing, the mechanisms used in CGI programs to pass information around on the server (such as the use of environment variables, text-based command-line arguments, etc.), are difficult to maintain and scale. Additionally, the requirement of recompiling CGI applications for changes or additions to the system was not very appealing. Microsoft has developed a different architecture for providing server-side processing called Active Server Pages [13]. This architecture allows web designers to incorporate server-side scripts directly into HTML documents. The Active Server Page (ASP) consists of standard HTML tags along with inline server script tags containing code that is executed on the server. When a user requests an ASP page, the server processes the file, from top to bottom, executing any scripts, and then sends the results back to the user's browser as HTML. The most appealing aspect of ASP is its mechanisms for interfacing with various database management systems. With less than 10 lines of scripting code, we were able to query information from a database and present this information in a standard HTML format readable by any Web browser. The choice of ASP technology for on-the-fly HTML generation made it necessary to use an operating system compatible with ASPs. This precluded the use of UNIX, and suggested the use of a Microsoft operating system. Microsoft Windows NT Server Version 4.0 met our requirements, and Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) was chosen as Web server software. This is currently running on a Compaq PC with a 200 Mhz Pentium processor and 48 MB of RAM. When deciding on the database management system to be used for storing course content, Microsoft Access 97 was chosen. Initially, it was thought that a larger database management system, such as Oracle, Sybase, or Microsoft SQL Server, would be required to service multiple simultaneous database requests. Nevertheless, it was found that Microsoft Access is capable of handling the small to medium group of users our system was initially designed for. Ultimately, Microsoft Access 97 was picked due to our previous choice of the Microsoft operating system, and due to its low cost and relatively low maintenance. Online Features The online features listed below are typical of a full-featured ALN, but they are not necessarily exhaustive. Many ALNs contain a subset of these features. Security: RAISE was designed to accommodate multiple online courses capable of handling multiple, simultaneous users. As with any large online system, the immediate need for security arises. RAISE provides security on a course-by-course basis controlled by the instructor hosting the course. In order for a student to use the RAISE system, a student must first create an account with RAISE through a simple registration process. The registration process consists of gathering basic information about the student, such as a name, address, phone, address, and a password, and then generating an account that the student will use for all courses hosted by RAISE. Once a user obtains an account with RAISE, the student may then proceed to register for one or more courses hosted on the system. After a student registers for a course, the professor hosting the course is responsible for validating the account giving the student access to the course material. Calendar: This feature provides a way for the instructor to schedule quiz, test, and homework due dates. The student can access the entire calendar, but the student will also receive reminders of upcoming assignments due. Announcements: This works like the calendar but the announcement list is not accessible by the student. Instead, any current announcements are automatically displayed to the student, until the announcements expire. Syllabus: This is a standard syllabus, consisting of information such as the instructor s name, office hours, and grading policy. It is a standard HTML page. Gradebook: The gradebook allows the instructor to enter each student s grades online in tabular form, much like a spreadsheet. Statistics (high, low, mean, and standard deviation) are available for each quiz, homework, etc. Sums for each type of exercise, e.g. the sum of all quizzes, are available for ease in grading. Each student can view his own grades online. 12a3-2

3 Class Notes: A course is broken into segments, typically covering a week s work. For each segment there is an online lesson consisting of textbook reading assignment, homework assignment, summary of important ideas, and links. These lesson pages are ASP pages rather than HTML pages, but their content is mostly static; there is little need to generate on-the-fly HTML. Interactive Tutorials: One of the links in each lesson is to an interactive tutorial. Each tutorial is a progressive set of HTML pages that teaches a single concept, or gives the student practice with problem solving. Each page of a tutorial presents the student with a single question. When the student enters an answer, JavaScript checks the answer, and provides a hint if the answer is wrong. The instructor includes any number of hints. If the student fails to answer correctly, even after all the hints are given, the correct answer is displayed. Interested individuals are invited to download a template of the tutorial at htm. Conference: A threaded public conference (forum) is available to the students and the instructor. Its purpose is to allow student-student and student-instructor interaction outside of class. The user can begin a topic, or respond to an existing topic. All users have access to all posts. The instructor may delete selected posts. Automated Quizzes and Homeworks: This module would allow students to take quizzes online and submit answers to homework. In both cases, the student would be instantly graded and would be provided with feedback. This module is still in the design stages. Course Creation Tools: Again, one of the main goals in the design of RAISE has been to provide a common framework for providing dynamic, data-driven content in a Web environment, without requiring the users or administrators to have extensive knowledge of Web servers and database management systems. RAISE accomplishes this through the use of an automated course creation and configuration tool. From the perspective of a professor hosting a course, basic knowledge of HTML is the only skill required to start hosting a rich, dynamic online course. In most cases this is not usually a problem due to the wide availability of HTML generation tools. For most, general knowledge of a word processor program that exports to HTML is the only tool required to use RAISE. RAISE basically provides the framework to encapsulate existing Web content along with security, user forums, grade books, calendars, announcements and so on. Every aspect of the online course environment is completely configurable through the use of the course configuration tool. This tool is a presented to the professor, for a specific course, through a Web browser using a series of simple questions. Should a professor choose not to include a grade book or message forum for a specific class, this option is easily turned off. RAISE was designed to be flexible enough also to accommodate the creation of new areas, or sections, within a course. Such sections could include tutorials, labs, or virtually anything a professor would like to define. As of this writing, this module is currently under development, but is not yet deployed. features such as a whiteboard, streaming video, or online chat may be included in an ALN. They are not included in RAISE because we consider them more important for distance education courses, rather than as an adjunct to face-to-face classes. Integration and Structure Users enter RAISE through the homepage, as shown in Figure 1. At this point, a fully registered and approved student will select Enter Classroom. Next, the student will enter USERID and password, select a class, and click the Submit button. This will take the user to the homepage for the class, EE 220 in Figure1. This page will display information such as dates for upcoming quizzes and homework and notification if the user has had a response to a Forum post. The student may navigate among Syllabus, Grades (the student s own grades, plus class statistics), Lessons (class notes), Forum, and Calendar. If a student selects Lessons, he will be allowed to navigate among the various weekly lessons (14, in the case of EE 220, Network Analysis I). The student can read the class notes associated with the selected lesson, print out the homework problems, and activate links to ancillary material, including the interactive tutorial. Effectiveness in Education The ALN has been analyzed to determine how well its various features work. Student feedback, student performance, and anecdotal evidence have been used in this analysis. Overall, the ALN works well, and is easy to use for both instructors and students. The structure is intuitive. The Announcements, Calendar, and Gradebook modules are serviceable and valuable. The Registration and Login modules work well and assure that only an approved student has access to course materials and the student s grades. The Syllabus and Class Notes modules are essential, if mundane, parts of an ALN. They provide basic information that the student needs. The Conference module (Forum) worked as it was intended, but was used infrequently by the students. Feedback indicated that students preferred face-to-face interaction to leaving online posts. They found the former faster and easier. It is our conclusion that an online conference is of limited value in support of small lecture-based classes. Nevertheless, off- 12a3-3

4 campus students and students in large classes may rely on the online conference. The interactive tutorials were popular with the students who used them. But a significant problem with the tutorials in particular, and the entire ALN in general, was lack of tracking. With the present system, there is no way to tell which, or even if, students access which modules. Therefore, use of the ALN cannot be required, and no online activities can be graded. At the present, we are working on a correction of this serious flaw. The absence of automated quizzes and homework is also a serious problem. We expect that the addition of this module would greatly improve the value of the ALN. Another issue, not to be ignored, is that designing and building an online learning environment, no matter how good it might be, does not guarantee that other instructors will wish to use it. RAISE Home About Register Student Handbook Student Services Academic Programs Enter Classroom Student Login/in Class Selection Instructor Login/ Class Selection Classes Classes EE 220 Student Home EE 220 Instructor Home Syllabus Forum Course Manager Students Calendar Calendar Lesson 1 Grades Forum Manager Gradebook Announcements Lessons Tutorial 1 Figure 1. RAISE Structure Conclusions The RAISE ALN is now in use, and is a successful adjunct to the teaching of face-to-face engineering classes [14]. Nevertheless, the ALN has several flaws, the most notable of which are the lack of tracking and the absence of an online testing module. References a3-4

5 Swafford, Michael, et al, Mallard: Asynchronous Learning in Two Engineering Courses, FIE 96 Frontiers in Education Conference, Nov Raineri, Deanna M., Mehrtens, Bradley G., and Hubler, Alfred W., CyberProf - An Intelligent Human-Computer Interface for Interactive Instruction on the World Wide Web, Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, Vol. 1, Issue 2 - August, Barker, D. Steven, CHARLIE: A Computer- Manager Homework, Assignment and Response, Learning and Instruction Environment, FIE 97 Frontiers in Education Conference, Nov ver.asp a3-5

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