Use of the World Wide Web in Introductory Computer Programming

On June 19th, 1996, Dianne Hagan, lecturer in the Software Development Department at Monash, Caulfield Campus, presented under the title "Use of the World Wide Web in Introductory Computer Programming".

Dianne began by explaining that her presentation would be assisted by their Webmaster Jason Lowder, a Ph.D. student and Andy Marks, a programmer in the department.

As an introduction Dianne outlined how the Faculty of Computing and Information Technology had a problem with 1st Year Programming. The students' general perceptions of computing were that they would make a lot of money from it but the programming part was difficult, time consuming, uninteresting and had the "computer nerd" label attached. They felt that it was unneccessary to write code in order to be a computer professional. In addressing this general problem of the perception of the course and therefore the teaching of it, a collaborative approach was taken between the Departments of Software Development and Computer Science, and the Education faculty. Education staff members Ian McDonald and Ian Mitchell gave advice which culminated in the redesign and restructuring of the subject SFT1101. The Web was used to monitor the changes and gain feedback, e.g. by surveying students and offering other facilities for feedback. Detailed email messages gave more extensive feedback.

The aims were to increase student interest and motivation and to improve their learning. The subject therefore had to be rewarding, challenging, relevant and fun. One way to do this was to use the World Wide Web. There were two aspects of Web use: the subject Home Page (http://www.sd.monash.edu.au/~sft1101) and student assignments.

Jason Lowder detailed the central part of his Ph.D. on Multimedia. His objectives when setting up the Web site were:

Jason showed how versatile the WWW was by displaying the Netscape screen and stepping through the menu. There were discussion exercises and lab exercises. These were helpful if students missed a tutorial, and they could access this at home if they had Netscape2. One idea was to provide a set of places where tutorial groups could display their work, e.g. one exercise for tutorials was "Suggest an analogy for a function". Jason had set up a form listing the Code, Author, Email address for contact and comments. This was password protected so that tutorial groups could not change each others' work.

Again, from the menu, lectures were displayed. Access was available to the Powerpoint files that Dianne presented. A lecturer can upload a file onto the computer so students can read it straight away. Netscape uses the Powerpoint viewer, so they can read the lecture notes without printing them out. It is also possible to download as another option. Files can be saved and taken home and also copies of the Powerpoint of viewer. A summary of all topics to be covered, and pre-reading, are listed.

A staff list came out effectively, as did a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions list). There were items listed here such as how to see your tutor. Students could make anonymous comments and ask questions, look at comments received and make sure that no address of the questioner had been attached. It was indeed anonymous.

Other menu items described were Program Support (a system whereby tutors are rostered to provide a help service), timetables of lectures and tutorials, Help, Cool Sites (exploring the WWW), and Newsgroup. Newsgroup never seemed to take off, as most students seemed to prefer email and anonymous feedback.

A couple of problems were found in developing this system. The frame design was confusing to students. More areas will be amalgamated to avoid confusion. The Web server occasionally crashed. There was the installation of a new server. Home users had problems too and "became vocal after a while". It was advantageous that assignments could be printed out or viewed at home. Students didn't want to download everything, but liked some hardcopy to scribble on.

Andy Marks explained that some assignments dealt with HTML. Students had to write a program that would output HTML. Andy's outlook on the WWW was in using it as a motivational tool. He discussed how it was visually appealing and increasingly popular outside of computing and therefore relevant to students. The WWW is also easy for future students or programmers to use and helps borderline students to become motivated. On explaining the introduction of the HTML assignment, Andy showed how it was made attractive graphically, but the heavily graphical emphasis was used with limited success by students who enjoyed ownership of their work rather than copying code that would help with graphical display. By using the WWW, it is possible to give easily understood code to students and their assignments look attractive. The WWW was an integral part of assignments, whereas traditionally output in first year programming had been in the form of text files. The output was a set of HTML documents linked together, and could be used to archive students' own exercises.

Listeners expressed that they would be looking forward to the Education survey form results after this implementation of Web technology.


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