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:

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:


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 informal peer-advisor

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.

Technology Tools 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 board.

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:

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.

Lessons Learned/Recommendations 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 learning environments.

Further information about SERN can be found at its web site - http://sern.ucalgary.ca/ .

Additional information about these courses, including examples of student coursework, is available from the course pages at SERN: http://sern.ucalgary.ca/courses/SENG/611/F98/
http://sern.ucalgary.ca/courses/SENG/609.04/W99/ .
References are also available.

For more information, please contact: Michele Jacobsen E-mail: dmjacobs@ucalgary.ca
Rob Kremer E-mail: kremer@cpsc.ucalgary.ca and
Mildred Shaw E-mail: mildred@cpsc.ucalgary.ca

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