Online Guided Learning
School of Informatics and Multimedia Technology
University of North London
London N7 8DB, UK
Tel: +44 171 753 3188
* Manuscript received 5 Feb. 99; revised 14 Apr. 99
Computer networking is an important and popular subject in the computer science curriculum. It is a core subject for a number of undergraduate degrees at the University of North London and is also taught to postgraduate students who are undertaking a conversion MSc in computing.
The authors shared the teaching of both MSc and BSc modules and noticed that the difference in size of the two classes (around 100 undergraduates compared to around 20 MSc students) made for a much less satisfying experience for the students in the larger class. This was also the experience in a previous module where a new delivery scheme was implemented in order to solve some of the problems encountered with large classes (Jones, 1994); this module was transformed by the use of paper-based open learning materials. It was decided to introduce a similar scheme in the delivery of the Computer Networks but it was thought appropriate to create electronic, networked-based materials for this particular module.
The Learner's Need
There are a number of good texts available for the student of (e.g. Freer, 1996; Peterson and Davie, 1996; Tanenbaum, 1996). However, their very comprehensiveness, and consequent size, can be intimidating to the prospective student: the thought of ploughing through a 500-page volume, unaided, is a daunting prospect. It is for this reason that some form of guidance is required.
The guidance, discussed here, is based on the division of the subject into a number of topics, and for each of these topics, the provision of learning materials based on open learning principles (which in this context means the provision of a package learning material that students can work through on their own and at their own pace). Open learning material tend to have certain characteristics, for example, their tone is generally friendly and learning objectives are provided.
Learning objectives help the learner to understand exactly what is expected of them and what skills and knowledge they will be expected to have gained after their study. They also provide foci of attention for the student, who can then, more easily, extract the information required from a text.
The Materials Produced
We decided to use Stallings (1997) as a course text; this is large and comprehensive, and the whole book could not be covered in a module that extended to only a single semester. The module, therefore, covered only a subset of the topics covered in the course text.
A number of topics were selected from the book and online Study Guides were produced for each in the form of web pages. These guides would allow the students to study independently (and in their own time), and would be supported by an introductory lecture on each topic. In addition a mailing list was set up to encourage asynchronous communication between students and lecturers.
The set of study guides for the course was preceded by an introductory web page that gave the broad learning objectives for the course as a whole and provided a weekly schedule with links to the appropriate study guide. (The complete set of guides and supporting material can be found at http://www.unl.ac.uk/simt/units/co210/co210.htm). Each study guide was designed to have four sections: a Lecture Description (in fact, an introduction to the topic), Learning Objectives, a reading list and an assignment; these sections are described below using one of the topics from the course as an example.
This introduction gave the students an overview of the topic that would be elaborated in the lecture. It allowed the students to gauge their familiarity with the topic and to decide whether they needed to attend the lecture or not. (Some students already had industrial experience and were familiar with some of the topics included in the module.)
So, for example, in week 2 of the course, the topic for study was Data Encoding and the Data Communications Interface and the introductory text explained the topic thus:
"In order for data to be transmitted successfully over digital and analogue signals, there must be an agreement by the parties involved in the transfer of the data on the form in which the data is represented. The first topic of this lecture deals with the ways in which digital data is represented when using digital data communication paths (e.g. in Local Area Networks) and analogue communication paths (e.g. voice telephone lines).
Second, the subject of interfacing to Data Communications Equipment is covered with particular reference to V.24 (the typical interface to the public telephone system) and ISDN."
In formulating learning objectives, a number of questions need to be addressed:
The number of learning objectives was limited to around six. This seems to be a reasonable number for students to cope with at any one time and fits in with the number of 'chunks' of information that people can deal with, simultaneously (Miller, 1956).
There were exactly six learning objectives for week two:
If a student felt comfortable with these and was able to do what was specified in the objectives, they could be confident that their knowledge was sufficient to be able to pass the exam.
Here students were given the minimum reading that was required from the course text as well as that which could be safely left unread. The aim was to allow the students to study independently. During the introductory lecture, they would be given an overview of the topic, and this overview, along with the learning objectives from the study guide, would provide a mental framework around which they could organise the new information and knowledge that they had gained from independent study.
In addition and where available, Internet resources were included in the study guide. These would allow students direct access to resources for research and in-depth reading about, for example the latest communications protocol standards. Also, where the course text was felt to be lacking in depth or breadth, additional notes were written and placed on the University’s Web site.
In week two there were no Internet resources specified as the course text covered the topic well enough without the need for further resources. So for this week only the specific reading from the course text was given.
Every topic had an associated assignment through which students could gain a small amount of credit towards their overall grade. It was not the intention for these to replace the formal assessments nor did they test the student in any great depth. In order to make a reasonable attempt at the assignment, however, the students need to undertake the required reading and this, of course, was the main reason for setting them.
In this example week, the assignment was an exercise from the course text (this was a typical assignment as these examples directly related to the reading that needed to be done).
The complete study guide for Week 2: Data Encoding and Data Communications Interface can be seen at http://legacy.unl.ac.uk/simt/units/co210/wk2.htm and can also be accessed from the main URL given above.
As a result of the structure of the modular degree system, all computing units are timetabled as two, two-hour periods each week. One of these periods is intended to be a lecture and the other a tutorial and/or practical session.
For this delivery, the lecture was reduced in scope: the aim of the lecture was to give an introduction to and an overview of the topic rather than to cover it in its entirety. Furthermore, the lab sessions provided students opportunity to work unsupervised on their assignments. Lecturers were still available to students but they did not ‘patrol’ the lab areas as before.
It was considered that after the first week, a remedial lecture should precede the introductory lecture. The aim of this would have been to address any questions that students might have had, after having studied the previous week's topic. However, previous experience (Jones, 1994) suggested that this did not work well as students did not, in fact, ask questions during this time. Instead, an informal session of questions and answers was undertaken at the beginning of each lecture period and students were encouraged to submit questions via electronic mailing list. This worked quite well and, as was hoped, on occasions, some students were confident enough to contribute towards their colleagues’ problems both during face-to-face sessions as well as electronically.
The results of this trial were quite encouraging in that the examination results were very similar to those of the previous year when the unit was taught more conventionally and those studying the module were positive about the changes.
In response to a questionnaire given at the end of the course, it was clear that a large majority used the Web site and thought it was either ‘helpful’ or ‘essential’. Also, most subscribed to the mailing list and, again, a majority of students found it ‘helpful’.
In contrast to a previous course, most students found the web site for the module to be ‘easy to navigate’. This suggests that the addition of a ‘guided tour’ that was built into the site helped the students in subsequent use of the site (Wright and Jones, 1997).
One of the benefits of this mode of teaching (with particular reference to the use of a mailing list) was that less time was spent in answering questions from students who would drop in to the lecturer's office. These questions were either dealt with during the lecture period or via the mailing list. This was beneficial to both staff and students: from the lecturers’ point of view, they were not continually interrupted when trying to concentrate on other work, they could schedule when to deal with the questions, and from the students' point of view, they did not have to seek the lecturers out and probably got a swifter response to their questions than they would have otherwise.
This more student-centred and web-based approach to teaching seems to work at least as well as a conventional one, in terms of the examination results obtained by students, and it certainly does not seem to detract from the student learning experience, (indeed, students seemed very happy with the new arrangements).
A guided learning approach requires rather more efforts in the preparation of materials than a more conventional approach but this is mostly a 'one-off' task, and time saved by the lecturer using this mode of delivery can offset the time required for maintenance of the materials.
The use of hypermedia for the production of learning materials may never totally replace printed paper and, indeed, perhaps it should not. Paper is an extremely flexible medium and our combination of web-based materials and conventional books seems to have worked well. However, the authors hope that the introduction of online resources will continue to enhance the effectiveness of teaching and learning (indeed we are exploring the use of these materials in the acquisition of transferable skills). For this reason, the development of web-based resources will continue with the aim of providing better learning materials for students and better feedback for teaching staff.