Educational Technology & Society 3(4) 2000
ISSN 1436-4522

The Learning Tutor: A Web based Authoring System to Support Distance Tutoring

Maria Chiara Pettenati
Research Assistant
Department of Electronics and Telecommunications
University of Florence
V. S. Marta, 3 50139 Florence, Italy
pettenati@achille.det.unifi.it
Tel. +39 055 4796370
Fax: +39 055 488883

Omar Abou Khaled
Associate Professor
Department of Computer Science
University of Fribourg
Bd. de Pérolles 80, CP 32 - 1705 Fribourg, Switzerland
Omar.Aboukhaled@eif.ch
Tel: +41 26 429 65
Fax: +41 26 429 66 00

Christine Vanoirbeek
Assistant Professor
Department of Computer Science (DI-LITH)
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL)
IN Ecublens, 1015 Lausanne, Switzerland
vanoirbeek@di.epfl.ch
Tel: +41 21 693 2575
Fax: +41 21 6935278

Dino Giuli
Full Professor and Head
Department of Electronics and Telecommunications
University of Florence
V. S. Marta, 3 50139 Florence, Italy
giuli@det.unifi.it
Tel. +39 055 4796370
Fax: +39 055 488883

 

ABSTRACT

In distance learning contexts, such as those are being widely promoted and developed with the extensive use of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) some important issues have to be carefully addressed, in order to make education more effective and available. Distant students have to face sound organizational problems concerning the working time-management and the regulation of all the learning process. These are far more complex at a distance because of the difficulties to understand and objectively evaluate how the study is progressing in term of knowledge and competence acquisition, both for the students themselves and for the teacher who is supposed to adjust the teaching process in case of need. Moreover, the absence of clear indication for the student of the relative level of importance of each piece of information available comes to be another key issue in distance education. This paper describes a Web-based authoring system, the Learning Tutor, conceived to cover these issues. The environment is composed by several interconnected authoring systems: “The Course Description, the Guiding Thread and the Agenda”, “The Work Plan and Themes Reviewer”, and “The Quizzes self-evaluation facility”. This model of combined tools aims at providing the suitable support for organization, work and time management in distance learning processes using well documented mastery learning principles.

Keywords: Distance Learning, Web-based Authoring Tools, Tutoring Facilities


Introduction

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) offer sound support for a modern distance teaching practices bringing up many well known advantages. In a context where teaching, tutoring, mentoring and monitoring, are carried on with new technologies, students are generally free to decide where, when and how to study, self-evaluate, collaborate and exchange material. Such facilities however often force the student to face sound organizational problems. Specialized time-management programs are sometimes proposed as appropriate way to deal with such issues (Campbell, 1996). One's personal capacities to organize oneself, to manage one's time and to control stress and anxiety generally appear as crucial determinants for the success or the failure of such an enterprise (Moore and Kearsley, 1996; Pintrich and Garcia, 1994). Another relevant issue in distance learning, is the regulation of all the learning process. Between two set-up virtual or face to face meeting points, a teacher/tutor can hardly find out how students are progressing and the kind of difficulties they are encountering. At the other end, students can hardly evaluate if they are doing correctly, if they are behind or in time with their study etc.  Such doubts and insecurities often appear as unfortunate consequences of the freedom gained in such environments (Zahnd et al., 1998). Yet another problem making learning harder in many distant learning environments is the absence of clear indication for the student of the relative level of importance of each information or content available in the course. In regular classes, many markings of the importance of a specific point are highlighted by the teacher, through his/her gesture, vocal inflexion, time spent on the topic, etc. In the absence of direct teaching, i.e. when the material is only presented in a written form, all these indications get lost. Understanding how much effort is needed to dedicate to a given point becomes then much harder, since there is simply no relation between the length of a sentence or of a paragraph and its importance in a context.

Before the availability of appropriate technology based tutoring environments, the issues addressed above for distance learning courses where only partially solved by a combination of traditional and new techniques. To mention and example, in the distance courses run at the Engineering school of Fribourg (http://www.eif.ch), some documents were prepared with the support of the Educational Department. They were either produced by the teacher and used by the students (the course program and description, and the self-evaluation quizzes) or filled in by the students and used by themselves and by the tutors (the individual work plan). These documents were neither dynamical nor interactive, but they somehow served to support class organization. The work plans, for instance, were filled in at the beginning of the courses and never redefined, although the tutors often noticed, during the scheduled distance learning sessions (for instance video conference) or the whole-class meetings, that most students were noticeably behind the point where they had expected to be at the onset of the course. Self-evaluation quizzes also did not help the tutor to monitor students' progress; tutors could only understand what problems students had faced when questions were raised through e-mail or on a dedicated forum.

This paper presents an authoring system conceived to overcome these major problems of distance learning programs, using well documented mastery learning principles (Bloom, 1979). The tool, namely the Learning Tutor, is implemented as several complementary and interconnected Web-based tools: the “Course Description, Guiding Thread and Agenda”, the “Work Plan and Themes Reviewer”, and the “Quizzes”.

These tools have been developed in the framework of the environment MEDIT (Multimedia Environment for Distributed Interactive Teaching; http://medit.epfl.ch:4444) (Karacapilidis et al., 2000), for the project CR2000.  MEDIT is an authoring system for the creation and management of Web based courses, offering complementary support to traditional teaching. The environment offers a series of adapted tools for different services, from the management of the virtual space for the creation of multiple courses, with rights of access for instructors, and students, to the course content representation, exercises delivery and communication and collaboration.

The Learning Tutor offers the possibility to teachers, to easily describe their course content and to provide to students a “Guiding Thread” illustrating the learning objectives, the time which is estimated to be required to achieve these objectives, and the exercises related to each learning phase. The tutor can then propose an Agenda facility to help the scheduling of meetings and class happenings.

On the other side, students can realize an individual Work Plan to organize their working time and set-up their timetable. Once students have completed and/or mastered the themes treated in the course, they can display it for the tutor and/or other students through an appropriate authoring system.

The Quizzes are a self-evaluation facility for Multiple Choice Questions test. Many WBT authoring system implement such a facility, because this is the easiest way to support self and supervised evaluation.

The originality of the Learning Tutor environment lays in its conception grounded on underlying pedagogical theories and strictly linked to the course design and objectives (Rueger et al., 1999), to create a series of interconnected tutoring services.

The papers is organized as follows: in the first section the main issues of Learning Tutor’s functionalities and modeling for the distance learning context are addressed. In the following sections the authoring system is presented and illustrated in details for each component. In the last sections the main conclusions are summarized and the future developments and evaluation are outlined.

 

Main issues in distance tutoring

In a distance learning context, the role of a learning tutor/mentor/assistant rises in importance because of the increased difficulty in organizing the individual working activity and the lack of control in the assessment in the self evaluation, as highlighted in the Introduction. For this reason it is worth mentioning some of the most important tutoring activities in order to be able to implement the right strategy within a Web-based authoring system to support distance learning.

Tutoring activities can be organized in four main axes: design, organization and co-ordination, learning process support, monitoring and evaluation. For each of these domain, many crucial activities can be further addressed to cover all the general distant teaching needs. However, in the sequel, we will address just some of the tutoring issues, which have been used to sustain the development of the “Learning Tutor”.

  1. Design
    • Participation in the definition of learning objectives
    • Participation in the definition of learning contents.
  2. Organization and co-ordination
    • Proposition and co-ordination of school and company learning path, calendar and timetable
    • Co-ordination of activities and actions for the different people involved in the path
    • Promotion and management of  co-ordination meetings
  3. Learning process support
    • Laying out training contract with students
    • Identifying further information and training needs and proposing individual study/research solutions
    • Facilitating teaching communications flows
  4. Monitoring and evaluation
    • Making learning monitoring and evaluation tools available and monitoring compilation
    • Monitoring overall project advance
    • Supporting student self-evaluation processes
    • Completing intermediate and final evaluation reports and/or cards.

In the Design phase of the learning process, a clear and detailed description of the course objectives with the expectations of the teacher appropriately specified, contributes to guide learners in their approach to the material (Bloom, 1984). Such descriptions can also make easier for the teacher to derive specific test items for each objective. Taking tests, students can eventually check whether they have reached the mastery level expected for each learning objective.

The relative importance of each piece of content can then easily be captured by the students by looking at the taxonomic level of the behaviors they are expected to master or whether or not it is involved in a test-item. Moreover, the teacher can indicate how long he/she considers one should normally be studying a given subject to adequately master the concept. The required studying time, of course, indicative, since each student has a personal background, given aptitudes and learning style, but this information can be crucial to set-up a personal working time table allowing a better organization of time available compared to the objectives to attain. This issue covers partially some of the activities related to the tutoring in the Organization and co-ordination and in the Learning process support phases.

In such a self-regulated environment, the Monitoring and evaluation phase, play a fundamental role due to the continuos need to track the progress and guide learners in the right direction for an effective knowledge and skills acquisition.

The self-evaluation tests can indeed also serve as regulators of the learning process indicating to students what is already mastered and what still needs much work. The feedback of such a test can be both qualitative and quantitative, directing the student back to the insufficiently mastered paragraphs of the course, towards further explanations or new exercises, according to the way the test has been developed by the teacher.

Basing on the critical issues described above, we implemented a Web-based authoring system, supporting a series of functionnalities covering some of tutors’ and students’ needs.

 

The Learning Tutor interaction environment

What has been highlighted in the previous paragraph, lead to the realization of a Web-based platform on which several authoring systems implementing various interconnected tools conceived to easily support the tutoring phases as described in the previous paragraph.

As it is shown in figure 1, the learning process enabled by the interconnected services can be described as follows: teacher uses the authoring system to create an accurate description of the course content, and then creates a Guiding Thread (named the “Fil rouge” in the available version of the software tool) to describe the main objectives to be achieved during the course, related to the time (in terms of hours) estimated by the teacher to accomplish this task.

Teacher can then create a course Agenda, where he/she can describe the happenings during the course progress, to allow students in a proper organization of learning and evaluation.

In the Learning Tutor environment, teacher can then see the list of the student enrolled in the course, the state of their progress (the creation of Work Plans, the student's performance at each self-evaluation tests). On the other side, students can create a personal Work Plan -basing on the Guiding Thread proposed by the teacher, can use the self-evaluation facility, and use the Agenda to automatically book their place to the available meetings. The system supports an automatic update of the students’ Work Plan each time their performance at a self-evaluation test can show that mastery of the related objective has been attained.

This course adaptation should lead a student to adjust the time initially foreseen for the accomplishment of a learning objective.

Such a procedure allows the learning actors to benefit from the advantages of self-regulated learning, i.e. freedom and control from the part of student, without the major drawback of loosing direct feedback over students' progress, which, in the case of distance learning, could dramatically drive to students' drop-out. All authoring systems provided in the Learning Tutor, have been developed to cover the needs of the authors in a Web-based environment and are intended to help authors, without computer science skills, in managing educational material. Therefore they offer edition, publication, management and access features to the information space.

The relationship, between Learning Tutor Tools with the interaction properties between actors and services, are illustrated in figure 1.


Figure 1. The Learning Tutor Interaction Environment


The Learning Tutor services

For each authoring system in the Learning Tutor environment we will highlight the services and functionnalities offered for both actors involved in the learning process.

 

The Course Description, the Guiding Thread and the Agenda

Teacher features: Teacher uses the authoring system, to create a detailed course description (see figure 2), in terms of:

  • Goals
  • Contents
  • Period
  • Exam date
  • Credits accorded at the end of the course:
  • Requirements
  • Course language
  • Institute
  • Supervisor(s)
  • Course URL

 


Figure 2.  Course Description Authoring System

 

Then the system supports the author in the creation of the Guiding Thread, containing the lists of objectives to be attained by the student during the course progress and the estimated time required for this achievement (see figure 3). The objectives of the course, can be further described by (see figure 4):

  • A title
  • A summary
  • The estimate of required time
  • Many specific objectives with a further
    • Description
    • Content
    • Related exercises

 


Figure 3. Guiding Thread (Fil Rouge) Authoring System

 


Figure 4. Objectives description

 

Teacher can then create a course Agenda (see figure 5), where he/she can describe the happenings during the course progress, described (see figure 6) in terms of:

  • Date and time of meetings
  • Moderator
  • Contact number
  • Type of meeting (video conference, traditional meetings, etc.)
  • Number of students allowed for the meeting
  • Availability of places (according to the up-dated state of students booking)

 


Figure 5. The Agenda Authoring System

 


Figure 6. The Meeting Authoring System

 

Student features: Students can mainly access to the information proposed by the teacher with these systems. The information here is somehow “static” and serves as a guide for the student, in order to properly organize their working time using the Work Plan authoring system described in the sequel. The only interaction that students have with these services is the automatic reservation of their participation to the happenings proposed by the teacher or the tutor.

 

The Work Plan and the Themes Review

Student features: Students access the Guiding Thread proposed by the teacher, and edit their own working plan, by introducing the time they intend to dedicate (possibly will be able to spare) each week for the study of this course. They compare it to the time requested to master each learning objective, and can foresee at what pace they will then proceed through the course content. Thus the Work Plan is foreseen to be realized in two versions: the first one is realized one time at the beginning of the course and serves as a “proposition” based on estimates on available time. The second version is the “dynamic” one which is continually up-dated both automatically (based on the tests taken) and by the students themselves. The dynamic Work Plan contains several information, describing for each week of course progress: the time actually dedicated to the study, and the automatic recalculation of the subjects that should have been mastered. Moreover, there is a space, reserved for the comments. Each time that the expected working time differs from the actual time dedicated to the study, a check on the initial Work Plan is made, in order to verify if the global time foreseen is enough for the accomplishment of the course objectives planned by the teacher in the Guiding Thread.


Figure 7. The Dynamic Work Plan

 

Another feature of the Work Plan is the possibility to edit the Themes Review, where students indicate, for each course objective, if the themes have been completed or even mastered (see figure 8). The difference between these two situation depends on the successful accomplishment of the related self-evaluation test. Eventually, students can decide if their Themes Review can be accessible also to other students.

Teacher’s features: Teachers can view students’ initial Work Plan only if this functionnality is enabled by the students themselves, for privacy concern. The work plan not only proves to be useful at the beginning of a course, anytime during the course, students can then check their progression through the material by looking at the work plan. If they notice that they could not allocate the expected time and that therefore they have run behind schedule, the work plan re-organization should lead them to compensate this lack over the following weeks. If the filled-in work plans of the students are handed over to the tutor, the latter can presume what each student should be working on when he eventually makes contact with them at appropriate points during the course.

Teachers can finally review the themes that have been accomplished (studied) or mastered (certified by the self-evaluation facility) by the students through the apposite window – Class Progress - only if the students allow it through an access permission management (see figure 9 where the access can be locked or unlocked).


Figure 8. Themes Review

 


Figure 9. Class Progress


The Quiz

This self-evaluation facility is developed with the purpose to support students in understanding their degree of mastering of the course content. The aim is not to give a graded evaluation and the tests results are not visible by default, to the teacher or the tutor.

Even if the structure of this environment is the classic one of the Multiple Choice Questions tests already implemented in many of the available Web-based training authoring systems, the difference here is the pedagogical theory laying behind the implementation of features and functionalities as described in the sequel.

Teacher features: The authoring system, supports the remote management of questions and answers (see fig. 10). The questions can be of four different types: Checkbox, Radio button, Select and Free text. Teacher can also integrate automatic links to the course content, in order to provide students with a feedback to the theory, or supplementary material in case of a wrong answer. Questions are stored and classified in a database. Each question contains several information to be used by the teacher during the authoring phase concerning the difficulty level (easy, medium, hard) and the category of the question as shown in figure 10. Answer can then be edited according to the selected type and a reference URL can be specified as a pointer in case of wrong answer. The authoring system supports the automatic insertion of images, links and mathematical formulae, as shown in figure 11.


Figure 10. The Question editor

 


Figure 11. The Answer editor

 

To generate quizzes, the system provides two simple methods; a random and a selective method. The random method allows the teacher to define the number of the questions in the test, and difficulty level for each questions category, and the quiz is automatically generated from the database of available questions. In the selective method the teacher can easily pick out the questions from each list of categories, and include them into the test.

Student features: each quiz contains a description of objectives for the student to attain. Students can answer each question affecting an uncertainty level, (sure, not sure) as shown in figure 12, which will give students a feedback on the level of knowledge acquisition, once the results are collected. Up to now, the system provides only a score available for students, while the teacher can only track the success of the whole class.

The results of the taken tests are displayed as a the list of answers organized for their correctness and certainty level (see fig. 13). The wrong answers are then linked to the related course materials (theory, exercises, etc.).


Figure 12. Quizzes student interface

 


Figure 13. Quizzes answers


Conclusion

In this paper we have presented a Web-based tutoring environment, the Learning Tutor, conceived to support teacher and student in the management and organization of learning activities when education is carried on at a distance.

Basing on literature review and on direct experience we evidenced that the major drawbacks of the autonomous distance learning are the complexity in time management and in working organization as well as the lack of contact and feedback with the tutors who are not always aware of the degree of progress of the class.

Therefore our aim was to develop a technical solution to face these issues, and grounding the development on sound pedagogical theory. The result is Web-based authoring system including many services:

  • The Course Description, the Guiding Thread (Fil Rouge) and the Agenda; to support teacher in setting up a detailed course plan with specific objectives and related evaluation material as well as a precise meetings and happenings schedule.
  • The Work Plan and the Themes Review; to support students in working time management and self-awareness about the mastery level of the course content.
  • The Quizzes; to support student in self-evaluation and subjects deepening.

Our main belief is that the Web can provide an unique vehicle to support distance education practices, addressing all crucial issues such as the possibility to loose class contacts, the difficulty in assessing progress and mastery of educational content and the working time organizational difficulties.

A preliminary evaluation of this environment has been carried out for under-graduate distance Telecommunications courses at the University of Fribourg under the supervision of the Educational Department. First results of this essay have shown the interest to promote a wider use of the Learning Tutor environment in order to be able to perform a more accurate evaluation.

A wider use of the Learning Tutor is also planned on post-graduated Telecommunications courses of the Italian National inter-university Consortium (CNIT) during Fall 2000.  Twenty Telecommunications courses are currently being set up to be entirely delivered at a distance starting from October 2000. Teachers and students will be able to access synchronous and asynchronous facilities to cover all course needs. In particular the Learning Tutor will be integrated in an extended web based training environment, to support the course progress development. The whole environment will function as a support for the individual learning activities aside the synchronous learning events, and will offer all Learning Tutor functionalities, as well as course material publishing, communication facilities and  the possibility to remotely drive simulations. First results of the use of the Learning Tutor as a learning regulator, will be available by spring 2000.

From the use of these system both in Switzerland for under-graduated courses, and in Italy for post-graduated courses, we expect to control in a large part one of the most crucial drawbacks of distance education, namely students’ drop out because of the lack of possibilities to monitor their own learning. This issue has always been a major concern in distance education courses, ever since their first applications implemented through snail mail documents delivery.

Nowadays we witness this concern in the widespread diffusion of online tutoring services such as the Italian one CEPU (http://www.cepuweb.it/tutor/tutoronline.html) conceived to support university students in their exam preparation. Their main goal is clearly to provide an efficient support to the instructional process through the definition of the working plan, the periodic evaluation of the knowledge and skill acquisition, and the support to the individual working organization. Despite the clearness of addressed themes, the technology behind – such as Web sites and other features - is not yet organized in consistent and efficient structure and services such as those we tried to achieve with the Learning Tutor.

Although developed for distance education, the Learning Tutor tools, as we hypothesize, might also contribute to improve in some respect the quality of traditional, face to face courses, since they urge the teacher to better specify their expectations and help students to acquire useful skills to actively control and regulate their learning.

Of course not all these issues addressed in the introduction have been totally fulfilled with the complete solutions, but they have been major concern in the present state of the Learning Tutor and in outlining future goals.

 

Technical implementation details

Learning Tutor is an open, object oriented, and client /server architecture based on neutral and interoperable technologies. This approach allows its use on all platforms (UNIX, LINUX, PC) and ensures a minimal load on the server side. The documents management (creation, modification and storage) is realized with Perl scripts using the CGI (Common Gateway Interface) approach. Interfaces are implemented using HTML, DHTML and Javascript thus guaranteeing a full compatibility with IExplorer and Netscape browsers.

 

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to acknowledge the fundamental contribution of the Educational Department of the University of Fribourg team, Prof. Jean-Luc Gurtner, Jean Zahnd, and Daniele Rueger for the important support in the pedagogical conception of this system. The authors thank the four reviewers for their valuable comments and suggestions on the first draft of this paper.

 

References

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