Data Warehousing and Decision Support Tales from a Virtual Classroom

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1 To appear in Data Warehousing and Decision Support - Tales from a Virtual Classroom, in Best Practices in Computer Enhanced Teaching and Learning, D. G. Brown, Ed. Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest University Press, 2000 Data Warehousing and Decision Support Tales from a Virtual Classroom Joachim Hammer Dept. of Computer & Information Science & Engineering University of Florida Data Warehousing and Decision Support is a graduate level seminar intended for students and professionals who are interested in gaining a thorough understanding of the underlying theories and principles of data warehousing and online analytical processing. Given the explosion of online information sources, most notably the World Wide Web (Web), the topic of information management in general and data warehousing in specific has been receiving a lot of attention from the academic community as well as industry. In this seminar, we examine the problems, principles, techniques, and mechanisms to support information management using the data warehousing approach. We explore the current state-of-the-art in both data warehousing and decision support by studying the relevant literature and surveying selected products from industry. For most students, this course is their first opportunity to get hands-on experience with data warehouse software and related tools. The decision to offer this seminar as part of the University s distance education program was influenced by several factors: Given the heightened interest in the area of data warehousing and industry s insatiable demand for data warehousing specialists, we wanted to find an alternative delivery mechanism for our course in order to provide training to a much broader audience than to traditional students on campus alone. For example, we are targeting computer professionals in related fields who cannot attend classes on campus due to their daily job schedules or location but who are interested in learning more about this exciting, new area. By opening our classroom to professionals, traditional students can benefit from their working experience and knowledge of real-world problems. On the other hand, the computer professionals can benefit by learning a new technology, which can help them advance their careers. A large portion of the course is dedicated to researching and learning about the state-of-the-art warehousing technology in both academia and industry. Given the wealth of information on the Web, this task is best accomplished by guiding students to relevant online resources and letting them share their newfound knowledge and experience with the rest of the class. In fact, the material is still so new and changing so rapidly that there are no good textbooks available yet. Thus, a virtual classroom, which provides not only the tools for conducting Web explorations but also encourages

2 their seamless integration into the daily learning process and allows students to communicate and share their results whenever the need arises for as long as necessary seemed like an ideal setting. About a year ago, when we told our chairman the plan for a new course on data warehousing, he encouraged us to develop it for use in the distance education program. At the time, our home department, the Department of Computer and Information Science and Engineering was still evaluating the best possible long-term strategies for entering distance education and in need of a case study. Rather than experiment with one of the existing, high-enrollment, core courses, it made sense to start with a new, smaller course which can be designed from the ground up to fit into the new program. The desire to deliver courses to geographically distributed students has been around for many years although with limited success. The early approaches usually focused on delivering course contents via tapes or closed circuit TV which was costly and limited the involvement of the remote students in the class. On the other hand, it required only minor adjustments in the way the material was taught and presented. Recently, the transformation of the internet from a network supporting data exchange among scientists to a high-speed, high-bandwidth delivery medium for general-purpose information has been revolutionizing the way we conduct many interactive tasks, including distance education [2]. However, this new internet-mediated, collaborative learning approach involves significant changes in the way we teach students. In the next sections, we describe how these changes are reflected in the design of our course and what our experience has been now that we have reached the halfway point of the semester. 1. Course Design The design of our virtual classroom was driven by the following requirements: Asynchronous, place-independent delivery of the core material using an electronic, multi-media enriched, format. Encourage the use of the Web as a valuable source of information to enhance the material presented in the lectures. Emphasize collaboration among students as an important form of learning. For example, team projects, students helping each other, etc. Enable multiple forms of communication with support for easy integration of multi-media information. For example, private communication among students and instructor, real-time questionand-answer sessions, long-running, asynchronous discussion threads. Encourage the presentation of different perspectives on topics presented in class to reinforce the learning process. 2

3 In addition to these non-traditional requirements, we also see the need for more basic instructional activities such as: Student assessment and grading. Mechanisms for uploading and storing information and for sharing those documents with other class members. Generic network tools such as , newsgroups, computer and video conferencing don not satisfy all of the above requirements and impose significant user overhead because they were not specifically designed to support educational activities. Based on the advice from the staff in the Office of Instructional Resources (OIR), we chose WebCT as the platform on which to develop the course. WebCT is a Web-based, integrated course management system, which features a closed classroom community with private user logins to limit access to resources to enrolled students only, a virtual classroom space with links to all of the available tools and resources, a variety of shared and private file spaces for storing lectures materials, group projects, home pages, bulletin boards, online (typed) chat with automatic recording, class , grading and student assessment tools such as a gradebook, quiz generation and administration, student progress tracking, as well as a variety of system administration and file management tools (e.g., to create and manage accounts, to upload documents, to backup course). In order to participate in the course, students need a computer with a soundcard, a Web browser, and a 28.8kb or better modem plus the appropriate connection to the Internet. The virtual classroom is represented as an interconnected set of Web pages which can only be accessed by registered students (ID and password necessary). Lecture material is provided in the form of voice-annotated slide presentations, which can be downloaded to the local computer and viewed in a multi-media player which is freely available for installation. In the presentations, sound and pictures are synchronized allowing easy searching as well as random access to desired slides. We decided against digitizing videotaped lectures which would increase bandwidth requirements for download connections and require us to find alternative dissemination methods. Furthermore, after viewing videotaped lectures from other courses in a Web browser, we realized that not enough value is added (e.g., low picture quality, jerky movements) to justify the significant increase in bandwidth. The same is true for our online chat sessions in which the communication is in typed form rather than through spoken word. 3

4 2. Course Activities Among the new approaches used in our seminar are the following: Viewing of lecture material. The lecture material is divided into seven course modules which correspond to the different topics areas that this course covers. Each module contains a number of units, which contain the technical content of the module. Each unit is a voice-annotated slide presentation, which takes approximately 15 to 30 minutes to view. We have designed a viewing schedule which specifies for each week which units are to be viewed. However, it is up to the students to decide the exact time and day when they want to view the lectures. Bi-weekly chat sessions. The purpose of the chat sessions is to provide students with a real-time question-and-answer session for lecture related material. Each chat lasts 60 min. and is moderated by a team of students in ordered to keep the discussions focused. Given the relatively short period of time, we encourage students to post follow-up questions or issues and concerns not directly related to the lectures on the bulletin board. Chat sessions are coordinated with the lecture schedule and typically focus on no more then one or two units. Before each chat session, the moderators post the discussion topic on the bulletin board (see below) so that students can prepare in advance. Chat sessions are automatically recorded and the transcripts are posted on the bulletin board. Bulletin board discussions. The bulletin board, and to some extent (see below), serve as the glue that holds together our virtual classroom community whenever students are not actively engaged in realtime discussions (e.g., chat room). As such, it is meant to provide a forum for long-running discussion threads on all class-related topics. We have divided the bulletin board space into the following topic areas: MAIN (general discussions and class announcements), HELP (questions regarding the usage of WebCT tools and computers), HOMEWORK (questions regarding homeworks), PROJECT (project related questions), MODULE1 MODULE7 (questions specifically related to the content in any of the modules as well as the relevant chat sessions), and ARCHIVE (storage for terminated discussion threads which are not frequently used). Homeworks and exams. Both serve as important measures for student progress and are completed by each student individually. There are four homework assignments and two written exams. For each homework, the best two or three submissions are published on the bulletin board and serve as useful references. In addition, they provide an added incentive for students to provide quality work. Exams are take-home exams. The exam questions will be posted on the bulletin board at a pre-defined time; answers will be submitted to the instructor via course . The format of written work is flexible: HTML is encouraged but we accept regular text documents as well as documents formatted using various word processing systems. 4

5 Team project. The team project is another attempt to stimulate the collaborative learning aspect of the course. In the beginning of the semester, students form teams of two or three members and pick from a list of pre-defined topic areas. The project progresses along a set of milestones which represent dues dates for the individual deliverables: First, there is the exact specification of the topic. Second, a project plan which outlines the final deliverable as well as concrete ideas of how to complete the project. Finally, the project deliverable which is presented to the rest of the class on a set of Web pages which are posted in the project space for each team. Projects are judged by other teams as well as the instructor. Although contents and correctness are important, teams must also pay attention to the presentation aspect and are encouraged to be as creative as the tools in WebCT allow them to be. Online bibliography. This is an ordered index of Web resources (e.g., White papers, reports, project and product home pages) that we have put together to supplement the lecture material. The bibliography serves as a jumping board for students into the Web while at the same time providing some guidance as to where to start the investigation of a specific topic. Without this guidance, the Web is too unstructured and confusing to be used as an electronic library by our students. Resources on the online bibliography are referenced in the electronic reading list that accompanies the course modules. Communication via . Class enables private communication between class members. It is also very effective for notifying students of last minute changes in the course schedule and for targeting specific subgroups of students. On the other hand, given its private nature, limits the audience of the message (unless it is sent to whole class) and we discourage its use for discussing technical questions. 3. Measured Results One of the side-effects of constantly stressing the importance of communication among class members was the fact that students quickly become much more comfortable in expressing their opinions about technical material as well as the course itself. So far, the feedback we have received from students was very positive. Most importantly, students commented on the fact that being able to read other students questions as well as the corresponding answers (e.g., on the bulletin board, in the transcripts of chat sessions) helped them understand and master the material better and faster. Students also commented that there is a much stronger feeling of belonging to a team with the same goals since there is a clearly defined class space with room to express opinions and receive help. Finally, students also like the fact that they can decide when and where to listen to the lectures (assuming proper computer access) and that the course is more fun than many others they have taken, probably because of its novel approach to learning. On the negative side, students regretted the fact that face-to-face meetings are limited, and that they spend relatively more time and effort on this course relative to other classes since written communication is much more labor-intensive and slower than spoken word. 5

6 In addition to the explicit feedback that we received, we also noticed the following positive side effects. Due to the increased practice, some students are able to improve their written communication skills significantly during the course of the semester. Furthermore, students were a lot more willing to share their opinions and knowledge with the rest of the class than in traditional classrooms where the physical presence of the other students is sometimes intimidating. 4. Lessons Learned Overall, our experience with the class has been very positive and showed that our initial course design put us on the right track. However, as with everything untried, some mistakes were made. Here is short list of things that we would do differently next time or had to change during the course of the semester: More structure in chat sessions. After the first several chat sessions, we noticed that attendance was dropping and some students were getting frustrated with the results of the discussions which became increasingly unfocused. As a result, we implemented a set of guidelines and procedures that govern how students can request the chat floor and make themselves heard, what the role of the moderator is, how to prepare for a chat session, and what the expected outcomes are. In addition, in order to increase the students stake in the chat, for each session, we selected different teams of two students who moderate the discussion (rather than the instructor as we initially planned). We expect that this approach will work better since it is an excellent chance for students to take an active leadership role in class. Moderators are also required to post the topics to be discussed in advance on the bulletin board. After each chat session, the moderators will summarize the outcome and continue to moderate any follow-up discussions on the bulletin board. Download center for different course materials. In the beginning, lecture material was available for download exclusively in the form of voice-annotated presentations. Both the audio part and the presentation were encoded as one inseparable presentation file. This worked well for viewing lectures but made it inconvenient when trying to reference individual presentation slides without audio (e.g., for example during a chat session). Thus, we created a download center where lecture material is available in a variety of different formats for downloading, including notes, notes and graphics with no audio, etc. Greater reward for participation in conversations. When setting up the course assessment policies in the beginning of the semester, student participation counted for 10% of the total grade. However, we have since realized that the effort that many students are putting into the discussion sessions, the bulletin board communication as well as far exceeds 10% of their total invested effort. Thus, an allocation of 20% for course participation is probably closer to the reality. On the 6

7 other hand, as a positive side-effect to relying on written word and transcripts, we realized that measuring course participation is a lot easier than in a traditional course where most of the communication is transient. Completion of lecture material before the start of the course. Most of the course design including layout, course schedule, reading list and lecture presentations was completed before the beginning of the course. The only thing left to do was the recording of our narration for the individual lectures. This is being done as the course is progressing. The drawback of this approach is that we cannot release all of the lecture slides to the students in advance, preventing them from working ahead if they so desire. Furthermore, it prevented us from releasing all of the course materials to the students at the beginning of the semester on CD-ROM which would have reduced the students dependency on a relatively high-speed download connection. Obviously, designing and teaching a course is work in progress. After completing the first semester of the WebCT version of Data Warehousing and Decision Support, we plan to make another assessment of the course. We will report our findings to our department and other communities in the hope that many more educators will discover this new form of teaching that we and many others continue to explore [1]. Contact Information Joachim Hammer, Assistant Professor Dept. of Computer and Information Science and Engineering University of Florida Gainesville, FL Instructor Home Page: Course Home Page: References (Send mail to instructor for guest login and password.) [1] L. Harasim, A Framework for Online Learning: The Virtual-U, in IEEE Computer, vol. 32, 1999, pp [2] M. A. Vouk, D. L. Bitzer, and R. L. Klevans, Workflow and End-User Quality of Service Issues in Web-Based Education, IEEE Transactions on Knowledge and Data Engineering, 11:4, pp ,

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