Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

Masters of Engineering Thesis Proposal

Online Education Through Shared Resources

Randall Graebner


With the growth of the internet has come a growth in the demand for online education. In the past, professors created web sites for their own classes. Many of these web sites contained similar features including homework management capabilities and discussion forums. The goal of this thesis is to develop a system that integrates all of these features into one system. The system will make it easy for faculty to manage and deliver course information. The design is based on idea that it is possible to enhance the student's learning experience by providing significant new capabilities to all involved.

Supervised by Philip Greenspun


The 1990's have witnessed a phenomenal growth in the popularity of the internet and online communities. Much of this has resulted from a dramatic increase in both computing power and internet bandwidth. This surge has prompted educators from all over to try to find effective ways to use the internet in educating others.

The traditional classroom offers the ideal situation for most learning because of its flexibility. It lends itself to multimedia presentations; it accommodates discussions; and it fosters a sense of community. In a classroom environment, students can work individually or in a group; information can be shared in the form of a lecture or group discussion; students can learn from both the teacher and each other; teaching tools can be added and removed as needed; and finally, teachers can easily monitor all of the actions made by students and teaching assistants [Bar94, Pau92b].

Although a traditional classroom offers a great deal of flexibility, the internet has the potential to offer more. A web-based learning environment can be more flexible than a traditional classroom setting for two reasons. First, people can participate no matter where they are in the world. Second, the web allows for asynchronous learning. It allows students to participate in the learning process at a time convenient for them instead of requiring all of the students to be in the same place at the same time [Goo96].

In order for the internet to surpass the classroom as a teaching tool, it must provide all the flexibility of a classroom while exploiting its ability to teach asynchronously and encourage participation. This can be accomplished in two separate, but similar ways. First, a class can use the internet to supplement in-class teaching. This approach takes advantage of the flexibility of the traditional classroom setting while using the internet as a collaboration tool. Professors are able to distribute course materials through the web, and they are also able to maintain discussion forums related to the course material. Second, a professor can choose to teach a course entirely over the internet. The challenge in doing this is that most, if not all, of the content provided will be asynchronous thus loosing most traditional classroom features [Ell97]. However, with the help of collaboration tools, it is possible for students, on average, to learn more through this virtual class than through the traditional classroom setting [Sch96].

A web-based learning environment in the form of a course web site can replace the traditional, physical classroom only if the site provides most of the features available to a teacher using a physical classroom. A virtual class must allow students to work individually as well as in groups. In addition, it must provide the ability for presentations to be given in both lecture and discussion formats. Next, it must allow for materials to be prepared in private, distributed to everyone, and, potentially, removed. Finally, a virtual class must posses the ability for real time discussions and collaboration between the students and teachers [Rav87].

Numerous studies have shown that the ability to collaborate is the key to allowing the web to enhance the student's learning experience [Woo97]. Without collaboration, the web becomes nothing more than an easily accessible file storage system. The web presents the perfect environment for collaboration as it allows students to communicate with each other both in real time through chat rooms and audio streaming and asynchronously through bulletin boards and file storage systems. English teachers, for example, have found that a collaborative writing environment provides an effective means of encouraging students to write more and to learn from one another through critiquing each other's writings. In addition, teachers from a wide variety of areas have found that web-based discussions can lead to greater participation in class discussions by all students involved [Hil90, Mor95, Cli90].

Not only does the internet provide a means for collaboration, but it also provides a way for teachers to transparently use all of the information provided throughout the World Wide Web. Instructors can place their own teaching materials on line and link them to other resources throughout the world. From a student's perspective, the information is valid whether it is provided by the professor or one of his colleagues thousands of miles away. Thus, using the web allows students easy access to material published by experts in their particular field [Pau90].

Problem Statement

The problem rests in the fact that no matter how useful or innovative a web site is, people are not going to use it unless it has two characteristics. First, it must be easy to use. A user is not going to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to use the site and, as a result, if the information is not presented in a clear manner, then the user will simply leave and never return. However, making it easy to use is not good enough. The web site must also provide users with significant new capabilities that have the potential to make their lives easier.

In order to allow the web site to provide its users with new capabilities, this thesis will attempt to answer the general questions "How can a web site make life easier for both the student and the teacher?" and "What significant new capabilities can an educational web site offer?" These questions can be broken down into four subcategories. First, the thesis must determine what new significant capabilities the web site will offer the professor. If professors do not use the site, then no one else will either. If professors do not provide the initial content for the site or if they do not tell the Teaching Assistants (TAs) and students that they should use the site, then nobody will access the sight. Second, this thesis must determine how a class web site can make life easier for students. Obviously, if the students do not use the site, then it does not serve its purpose. Third, this thesis should make life easier for the TAs. The system must be built in such a way that reporting grades and giving online help will be a simple task that is more efficient than current methods. Finally, in order for an entire department or school to use the system, the thesis must find a way for the collection of class web sites to make life easy for department administrators.

My answer, the explication and defense of which will form the substance of this thesis, is that the most powerful way to enhance the learning and teaching experiences is through online communities and collaboration. This thesis must present a system such that the user would rather post a question to the bulletin board or chat room or ask the on duty TA than simply emailing the TA and waiting for the answer. This thesis will show that an online community will save time for both the student and the teacher. For instance, if a student has a question and posts it to the bulletin board, then not only can any of the many TAs answer the question but so can any of the students. Thus, the length of time the student must wait for an answer potentially decreases. Second, if one student has a question, then more than likely another student has the same question. If there is a bulletin board in place, the student can potentially save time by simply looking up the question and answer instead of having to email the TA and wait for a response. The TAs saves time because they only have to answer the question once.

Related Work

In today's world of the internet and distance learning, it comes to no surprise that there are currently software packages available that do anything from trying to host multiple class web sites all on one server to simply providing the lecture notes for every class. While each of these packages is useful in their own way, none of them have been able to create a single, collaborative system to manage and deliver course information.

Course Management and Delivery (COMMAND) is a system created by MIT in conjunction with Microsoft, Intel, IBM and Lotus [Cou98]. The system was designed to support an unlimited number of courses in developing course content and delivery as well as class administration via the World Wide Web.

Instructors, when setting up the course web page, select the features they wish to use including course documents, class notes, class directory, calendar, discussion forums, group formation, and a homework management system. One positive aspect of the homework management system is that it allows the instructor to access any homework assignment submitted by a particular student. The assignment can then be forwarded to another professor for review or it can be graded and released to the student.

COMMAND is an elaborate system that greatly simplifies life for the professor. However, it is lacking in several major areas. First, it does not provide the students with any new capabilities. While it does provide bulletin boards and chat rooms, it does not provide an easy way for a student to access this information. If students want to see the most recent posting to a bulletin board, then they will have to go through five pages before they see whether or not anything new has been posted. The same is true if a student wants to see an assignment or wants to find lecture notes.

Aside from the poor usability, COMMAND does not provide a way to relate courses with each other. Thus, even if the same subject is taught from one semester to another, COMMAND has no way of knowing that. The system treats classes as two separate entities. Finally, it is not possible to access a class home page unless you are a registered student in the class. While it is definitely true that some pages should require security, the professor should have the option to make pages available to the public. If non-registered students so desire, they should be able to use web pages from the current semester to select classes for the next semester. However, COMMAND does not allow this, as a student needs a user name and password to access any of the pages.

In contrast to COMMAND, stand web sites such as cater completely to the student. That site offers free lecture notes from classes in addition to a plethora of online resources ranging a career services center to encyclopedias. While this type of site is convenient for the student, it does not provide any benefits to the professors or teaching staff. Additionally, since it is not affiliated with any particular school, it does not provide the most simple collaboration tools such as bulletin boards and chat rooms.

The last area of online education comes from companies like Distance Education Technology and Consulting Corporation (DETAC) and LearnLinc [Wil97, Ell97]. DETAC produces "virtual classrooms that operate through synchronous internet delivery." This type of technology is a great way to emulate a classroom. However, these systems fail because instead of using the internet to build a community of students, they are simply trying to emulate the learning environment of the traditional classroom. They do not provide bulletin boards and chat rooms that can save large amounts of time. Additionally, because of low bandwidths, they do not provide all of the flexibility of a regular classroom. Thus, until technology vastly improves and bandwidths increase, this technology will never do as good of a job teaching as can be done by a professor in a classroom full of students.

Thesis Project

This goal of this thesis is to build a system that fosters learning through online collaboration. The system will allow professors to supplement traditional lectures with online information and collaboration. In addition, it will have all of the features necessary for a professor to teach a class entirely through the web site. Not only will the system meet these basic requirements, but the system will also allow multiple class web sites to run on the same server thus allowing a department to easily collect aggregate data about its classes. It will also attempt to significantly reduce the time required for professors to prepare assignments and communicate with their teaching assistants. In addition, it will attempt to provide TAs with an easy way to interact with multiple students at once. Finally, the system will provide tools that will make it easy for students to get help with classes at any time during the day.

High Level Design

User-friendliness will be the main concern of this thesis. I do not assume that the user has any previous experience using the world wide web. I assume four types of users, each with their own desired functionality. First, there are departmental users. They want to see data concerning subjects, classes, and students. Second, professors want the ability to easily upload lecture notes, assignments, and other handouts. In addition, they want the ability to report grades and monitor the progress of students and teaching assistants. Third, teaching assistants want an easy way to help students and report grades. Finally, students want an easy way to access information for all of the classes.

The system will be divided into three main sections; the department, the subject, and the class. Each web server will have the capability to host multiple departments. A department consists of multiple subjects and a subject can be shared by multiple departments. In addition, subjects have class instances. Classes represent instances of a subject as it is possible for the same class to be offered during two consecutive semesters. While the same material is being taught, the professor will not want to have the same home page. Instead, they would rather have different home pages for the different classes that can all draw from one universal subject.

Hosting the web sites for multiple departments on the same server has definite advantages. First, it allows for cross-departmental statistics to be gathered about subjects, classes, and students. Second, this allows professors to see when his students have tests and other assignments due. Also, it allows the students to view all of the classes using the same web based system. Finally, hosting all of the departments on the same server allows departments to easily share data.

Features to Promote Collaboration

Collaboration is essential to any successful online teaching system. Without collaboration, the system would simply be an elaborate file system. The interactivity and sense of community created by the collaboration tools are what make this system different from other systems currently available. The system will provide multiple bulletin boards for questions and announcements, and it will provide chat rooms for students to facilitate real time discussions outside of class. In addition, this system will provide a virtual white board that will allow students to quickly and easily communicate pictures, equations, and graphs to students and TAs that are not physically in the same location.

The collaboration will benefit both the students and the TAs. It will help the students by affording them the opportunity to receive help from the TA even though the TA may not explicitly having office hours. Collaboration tools benefit the TA because they will be able to help multiple students at once. In addition, the virtual white board will make it significantly easier to communicate diagrams and equations.

Significant New Capabilities for Students

There will be a vast amount of information within this system that students will want to access and every student will find different information important. The easiest way to give every student what he or she wants is to allow every student to have his or her own customizable portal page. Thus, students will be able to determine what information they would like to see displayed on the main page. Some students will always want to see a list of their assignments for the next month while other students will only want to see upcoming tests while still other students will be more interested in stock quotes and sports scores. Thus, by allowing each student to customize his or her own portal page, the system is allowing itself to be transformed into a personalized learning environment created by the student.

While the portal system helps the students become comfortable with the site, a customizable coaching system will be able to send the student email reminders about tests and homework assignments. These reminders could tell the user that they have an assignment due in two days or it could provide the student with tips on how to do well in their upcoming test. In addition, it could send links to the proper URLs so that the student would know where to find the corresponding materials.

Now that the students know when an assignment is due, they want to be able to turn it in without having to walk all the way across campus to drop it in a box. Therefore, the system will provide a way for students to turn their assignments in online. In addition, students will be able to easily see their grades and how they compare to everyone else in the class.

After having done all of this hard work, students will want to have an easy way to see what they have done throughout their years in school. Thus, the system will provide the ability for the students to create a portfolio of their work. Students will be able to select assignments and projects that they have turned in over the years. They can then make this work world readable so that prospective employers will be able to easily see samples of the their work.

Significant New Capabilities for Teaching Assistants

Not only will this system make life easier for the students but it will also decrease the burden placed on the teaching assistants (TAs). Not only do the students benefit from the online turn-in forms but so do the TAs. Online turn-in means that TAs (and graders) can access the students' answers from anywhere. This means that TAs will no longer have to worry about carrying around large stacks of papers that need to be graded. In addition, online turn-in facilitates online grading. TAs will be able to grade and comment on assignments online. This means that both the TA and the student will have access to the comments left by the TA. This is convenient because it will provide convenient records for the TA. At the end of the semester, the TA can easily view all of the comments related to a student's assignment. Along these same lines, a TA will be able to make private comments about a student. For instance, if a student participated a lot in class or attended office hours then the TA will be able to record this fact for later reference. This is convenient because not only will the TA have a list of all of his comments about students, but other TAs and professors in the class will also be able to view these comments. This means that it will be easy for TAs and professors to easily track the performance of individual students and the class as a whole. This type of evaluation process could help significantly during grading meetings.

In addition to this evaluation process, the system will prove convenient for the TAs because it will allow them to post announcements to all students. It will also provide an up to date list of students. This beneficial because TAs will not have to worry about who is or is not still in the class. In addition, when they send out email to the class, they will not be emailing students that have dropped the class. Finally, TAs will be able to group individuals into teams. This is convenient for team projects. Thus, TAs will be able to store information and comments about the team within the system.

Significant New Capabilities for Professors

Professors will not only be able to enjoy the list of features available to the TA, but they will have their own additional list of features. First, the system will provide an easy mechanism to issue and update assignments. In addition, because multiple classes will be running off of the same server, professors will be able look at the schedules of all of the students in the class. This can be advantageous if the professor wants to schedule a make-up exam or a review session. In addition to this, professors will be able to monitor the TAs. That is, professors will be able to see how often their TAs post answers to bulletin boards and how much they participate in chat rooms. Finally, professors will be able to see how long it takes a grader to grade a problem set, and they will be able to easily view grades by recitation or tutorial.

Significant New Capabilities for Departments

This system will benefit the department in several different ways. First, departments will easily be able to obtain grades for all of the students. This is convenient in the case where the academic advisor wants to check on the students. Instead of having to contact each professor, he can simply look at the student's grades within the system. This will be convenient for warning students that they are in danger of failing before it is too late.

Departments will have abilities similar to professors in that they will be able to form reports on TAs. This information could be useful to a department if they are trying to decide whether or not to let this student instruct again the following term. In addition, the system will lend itself to easy distribution of class surveys. Built in surveys can save a significant amount of time on the part of the department. Finally, this system will provide the departments the ability to share data with other systems. This would be convenient, for instance, if the department needs to obtain biographic information about its students or if it wants to send all of the final grades to the registrar's office.

Resources and Time Frame

The web site will be implemented using the TCL programming language using AOLServer as the web server. It will use Oracle as the database, and it will be running on the UNIX operating system. Finally, it will be use the ArsDigita Community System as a code base.

In December, a skeleton system will be in place. This includes the ability to create departments, subjects, and classes. In addition, it will allow a professor to upload documents for the course and issue and grade assignments. During January, a bulk of the work will be done. The basic classroom emulation software will be completed. In addition, the ability for the teacher to monitor student/TA interaction will be in place. Ninety percent of the functionality should be in place by the end of January. From February until May, a class at MIT will be using the software, and bugs will be fixed and making enhancements so that the system will be easier to use. By March, the system will be fully implemented and tested. From this point on, there will be only two types of changes made. One type of change will be to clean up the code. The other type of change is enhancement requests submitted by the class using the system and the MIT Sloan School of Management, who will be the systems first large user. The final thesis paper will be written and revised during the months of March, April, and May.


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