Distance Education Learning in
Two Software Engineering Grad Courses
Michele Jacobsen, Rob Kremer and Mildred Shaw
Computer networks have always been used to enhance and extend the learning
environment in the Software Engineering Research Network (SERN) graduate
program at the University of Calgary. All supporting course materials are
available to students through the web and the E-mail list server provides a
forum for students to communicate with instructors and each other outside
normal classroom or office hours. Students submit assignments on the web,
and instructors use E-mail and the web for distributing class
outlines, supplementary notes, handouts, and instructions.
We are in the process of making the MSc program available to students using
web-based networking tools while maintaining current levels of interaction
and participation. First steps have included developing and offering parallel
sections of selected courses. One section of SENG 611, a compulsory course
in Requirements Engineering was delivered on campus, and the other delivered
at a distance using facilities provided by WebCT. SENG 609.04, an optional
course in Software Design Patterns, was offered as a distance education
course, supported with WebCT and weekly chats using NetMeeting.
Students increasingly see themselves as contributors to on-line knowledge,
rather than merely 'taking a course.' Graduates continue to visit the
listservers because they have come across an interesting idea or technology
they wish to share, or because they wish to raise a question that might be
answered within the class.
One of SERN's goals is to increase access to the MSc program, which is in
high demand. A distance model will provide increased
access to non-traditional students who work full time, have industry
experience, and often work internationally.
In support of the Campus Alberta initiative (Advanced Education and Career
Development, 1998), a system-wide initiative that will build upon all Alberta
institutions' strengths and foster collaboration, this distance project
will provide opportunities for all Alberta graduate students to access
courses in masters programs.
Computer mediated distance methods offer several learning advantages to
students that go beyond 'any time, anywhere' access:
- learning about networks and computers
- interaction and contact with experts
- increased self-reliance
- developing independent learning approaches
Although an initial increase in resources is needed to research, develop and
implement a distance model, many have found this approach to be cost-effective
in the long run.
We conducted our first distance education experiments with graduate rather
than undergraduate students: classes are smaller, graduate students are more
independent in their approach to learning, and, as a result, tend to be more
forgiving of the fits and starts that accompany changed learning environments.
Thus, although on-line course delivery approaches and software tools were
novel, we deliberately chose a group that would adapt better to this kind of
experimental course delivery. It is important to note that all of our graduate
students were local, and had convenient access to the instructor and other
students at all times.
Instructional Design and Delivery of Two Graduate Courses
Although these courses lent themselves to on-line delivery, several
components required modification. To meet student needs in the concurrent
local and distance sections of the first course, instructor workload
increased. Additional time was spent on:
- 'repurposing' existing course web pages for use within WebCT -
resources had to be expanded on in order to address content gaps that would
normally be filled with a conventional lecture and in-class discussion
- creating detailed web materials for the distance group - instructions
for assignments and hands-on lab activities had to be made much more explicit
to account for the absence of face-to-face explanations, and the in-class
'hands on' exercises that were an important part of these courses were
redesigned to accommodate the distance model
- locating and organizing on-line references and links to additional
- reading and replying to a substantial number of E-mail inquiries
- installing, learning, and deploying new real-time discussion tools -
Microsoft's NetMeeting was used to simulate face-to-face class discussions in
the second course.
Time spent on fielding E-mail and telephone inquiries from distance students
was over and above the time required for conventional classroom instruction.
The courses would not have been possible without additional support. Post-
doctoral research fellows provided assistance and support with the repurposing
of course content for distance delivery, as well as evaluating the learning
environments. The post doctoral research fellow also investigated features of
WebCT, adapting WebCT scripts as needed, and coordinating with WebCT
developers. Additionally, a graduate student repurposed the original Web
notes for the second course, posted these in WebCT, and participated as an
A network manager was available at all times to address technical concerns,
breakdowns and failures, and to install and implement new software. While
these first experiments with distance courses demanded a large infusion of
time and expertise, we anticipate future offerings of the courses will require
less time and effort.
Learned lessons and hands-on experience with distance education has provided
insight into refining and improving the processes.
For example, students in the first experiment felt somehow disadvantaged no
matter which group they were in. Local students felt that allocating
attention to creating a lecture summary reduced their opportunity to fully
participate in the classroom discussion. Distance students felt they were
missing vital information by not being present for classroom discussions and
the face-to-face contact with instructors. Finally, both local and distance
students perceived that they spent more time per week on course-related
activities, although the average time spent by each group per week was not
significantly different. It was decided to minimize perceived equity problems
by offering only a distance section of the second course.
For the Design Patterns course, only the first and last lectures were face-to
-face. The course was project-based; students 'presented' their projects
on the web, then led Web-based discussions about their work. NetMeeting, a
conferencing tool with video, audio, and application sharing features, was
used to experiment with real-time, synchronous class discussions at
designated 'lecture times'. In the final lecture, students presented
and discussed their work in a conference-like setting.
The courses employed several technological tools to facilitate on-line
delivery: WebCT, E-mail, a listserver, and Microsoft NetMeeting. Although the
course material already existed as web pages, WebCT was chosen as the web-
based software tool to disseminate course related information. WebCT offers
encapsulation and paths through the existing course content, student
presentation areas for groups, individual tools for note-making, and a chat
facility for real-time on-line discussions. It should be noted that the
WebCT E-mail and chat facilities were not used for either course; an external,
publicly accessible listserver was used, instead. WebCT was the preferred
choice for a number of reasons, including free testing of WebCT with full
functionality, inexpensive licenses, a large customer base, proximity of
developers, ease of access via common Web browsers, and ease of customization.
An extensive evaluation of WebCTs features is available on-line (Jacobsen,
Wijngaards, Kremer, Shaw and Gaines, 1999).
SERN courses have been developed within an open architecture philosophy and
the belief that there should be public access to past and present course
materials and student work. Inherent to the design of WebCT (and most web-
based distance education tools) is a closed architecture philosophy - courses
are password protected, and course information is not easily accessible to
the general public. The Software Engineering courses share a common listserver
that allow students to enjoy input from students in other courses, former
students and industry partners who subscribe to the list. An advantage of the
listserver is that each message is delivered to subscribers, as opposed to the
student having to seek out the postings of others by accessing a separate web
page 'discussion list', threaded discussion or newsgroup, or bulletin
Microsoft NetMeeting was used as a substitute for face-to-face class
discussions. Instructors and students participated in weekly discussions
about course topics using NetMeeting on a local server.
The potential of this on-line discussion environment was not fully realized
in this course. It seems possible to refine and improve the use of NetMeeting
for interactive, real-time discussions for an on-line course by establishing
discussion rules, appointing weekly student moderators, and upgrading software.
The SERN listserver proved to be an important communications element in both
courses. Instructors were observers on the listserver, rather than active
and directive moderators, except when students appeared to be involved in a
non-productive debate or required expert advice.
There are some drawbacks to the current implementation of the listserver when
comparing it to computer-mediated conferencing software. Messages are not
currently archived for review and revisiting. Transcripts of each NetMeeting
discussion could be saved as an archival record. As the listserver discussions
are not threaded, the large number of messages per day can be time consuming
as it is difficult to follow and participate in every thread/topic. Future
refinements will include upgrading the listserver software to facilitate
threading and archiving of messages.
Evaluation of Distance Learning Environments
The evaluation goals in this project were to describe the nature of the
educational experiences and outcomes in the distance learning environments:
in the first instance, to compare the distance learning environment to the
traditional classroom, and determine those conditions associated with what
worked well and what did not. To that end, students were asked to submit
weekly learning logs in which they recorded:
- reflections on the outcomes of each lecture/sessions
- notes on what worked particularly well, and what did not
- time spent on various course-related tasks
The learning logs proved to be a rich data source from which students could
conduct a comprehensive review and analysis of their personal learning
experience. Open-ended questions provided an opportunity for students to
highlight any ideas, concerns, problems, or suggestions which they
considered of relevance to teaching and learning at a distance. Students
reported spending 0.5 to 1.0 hours over the week writing their learning log.
The weekly learning logs enabled instructors to learn about problems,
omissions, concerns, and student needs as they occurred, rather than waiting
to find out from an end of course evaluation. As a result of the weekly
feedback, we were able to refine and improve the course materials, respond
to technical difficulties, and address concerns immediately.
Mechanisms and support systems need to be developed to allow for cyclical
and iterative development and assessment of distance learning environments.
Tolerance has to be built into the system for time lags, unexpected barriers,
and longer course development periods. Even in the best of circumstances,
teachers and students need high levels of support, training, and appropriate
access to technology.
Instructors, assistants, technical, design and support personel spent a
significant amount of time on the distance courses. Therefore, it is
recommended that more instructor/design time be allocated for initial
distance course offerings. Technical support will be needed if the instructor
is not completely familiar with the tools used for on-line course delivery.
Computer networking can open up possibilities for teaching and learning at a
distance. Care should be taken to make sure that the chosen technology fits
the core values and goals of the program, and not the other way around.
Distance students often require very explicit, well-organized, and well-
indexed web materials and resources. It is important to carefully structure
the entire course before it starts and to be faithful to that structure
throughout the course to provide distance students with a stable context in
which to learn. By contrast, SERN's graduate courses offer flexibility to
change course material and follow 'excursions', as dictated by student
interests, experiences, and current situations, is favored over rigid
structure. This constructivist approach puts the subject and the student at
the center, and may be at odds with the need for more structure in a distance
model. This is worrisome because the more open-ended and responsive approach
is highly valued by both students and instructors. We are currently
investigating instructional strategies that provide a balance between
carefully structured and defined course design, and responsive, flexible
Further information about SERN can be found at its web site -
Additional information about these courses, including examples of student coursework, is available from the course pages at SERN:
References are also available.
For more information, please contact:
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