The FROG Project


Supporting a large-class programming course with Intranet tools

Web-based Intranet technology has great potential to aid the learning process, especially as staff/student ratios rise. For example, it could provide new ways for students to interact with tutors and each other. We conducted a small pilot study designed to explore the use of Intranet communication technologies to enhance learning on a large-class (200) programming course with a low staff/student ratio. The 25 participants of the study were a mixture of HND and BSc Computing students together with students studying other degrees but taking programming as an option. They were split into small (5 member), mixed ability groups and given access to different communication technologies: structured email; newsgroups; and live 'talk' discussion. Tutors could contribute to discussions and answer questions. All groups had access to web-based, interactive questionnaires on the lecture topics. These questions were later part of a class test.

We originally intended investigating the impact of the different communication technologies and how they affected the attitudes of the students to their learning. However, the study raised more fundamental problems which we investigated further. The students made only minimal use of any of the communication technologies (although they made great use of the online questionnaires). At the end of the trial, we therefore interviewed the students concerned to find out the reasons for this lack of use. The main findings were: The self-assessment questionnaires were considered very valuable. Most students expressed the strong belief that the facilities could be extremely beneficial in appropriate conditions. As anticipated, network limitations (speed, reliability and accessibility from outside the University) and other usability difficulties were seriously detrimental to activity. Groups need to be much bigger to make participation worthwhile. The immediacy offered by chat was considered valuable - students want to discuss their problems with someone now, not post a query and wait 24 hours for a reply. Some students viewed chat as an alternative to a seminar, with privileged tutor access, rather than as a way to discuss problems with a peer. One student proposed that there should be private "student only" chat groups where they could discuss things without being watched over by a lecturer. Students in one group commented on the need to know who other participants in the group are, both to put a name to a face and continue discussions offline. The medium is seen as a complement to, not independent from, their other means of interaction. One student commented on the need for students' questions to be phrased clearly, rather than being vague statements of problems. Electronic communication does not facilitate the negotiation of meanings to reach a common understanding. There are real limits to its usefulness in helping people grapple with poorly understood difficulties that they cannot articulate clearly.

In summary, technological support needs to be useful and usable. It needs to 'fit in' with the ways that students work, being accessible from the places they choose to work and complementing other ways of interacting with tutors and peers, rather than representing an 'alternative reality'.

Publications

Supporting a Large-class Programming Course with Intranet Tools
P. Curzon, A. Blandford, M. Jones, G. Marsden and M. Smith Proceedings of the 5th Annual Conference on the Teaching of Computing, Page 270, August 1997, CTC Dublin University.
The poster and abstract associated with the above paper are available in rtf format.