Teaching on the WWW: Assignment Focus and
School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
Washington State University
Pullman, WA 99164-2752
Abstract: Seventeen students completed a course in which no
face-to-face meetings and no paper exchanged hand. All information was
shared either on the WWW or by email. In the first few weeks,
extensive email dialogue occurred about the method of learning but
after that the students focused exclusively on the content of the
course. The first readings and exercises gave the students much
freedom of choice but that proved too much freedom for the students.
They preferred the assignment to be highly focused. The automatic
indexing of email by the Hypermail program needed to be augmented with
manual indexing by the teacher. This indexing and generally managing
the email was the most time consuming aspect of the teaching, but in
the end this was less demanding on the teacher than would have been a
traditional course. The students rated the course as an above-average
Keywords: Internet, educational applications, groupware,
human-computer interaction, distance education, WWW, email, classroom
The information superhighway is helping change the education
marketplace [Rada et al 96]. Many people accept this statement but
many debate its particulars [Massy and Zemsky 95]. The traditional
goals of higher education are to improve the quality of education, to
increase access for students, and to lower the per student costs. What
is the impact of technology on these factors [Ehrmann 95]?
Many experiments in technology and education have looked at the impact
on quality. For instance, researchers have studied the impact of
collaborative learning supported by networked computers in the
classroom and seen benefits to student-student interaction mediated by
the computer [Rushton et al 93].
The information superhighway can reach people who would otherwise find
access to education too costly. Education at a distance has been
occurring for many years and can be managed, for instance, entirely by
paper mail. The information superhighway allows us to engage new
experiences in geographically distributed learning.
Various institutions have been teaching extensively with the internet
for years. For instance, at New Jersey Institute of Technology degrees
are available for students who work at a distance [NJIT 96]. The
teachers have found that a combination of
videotaped lectures and internet interaction works better than
internet alone [Hiltz 95]. Hiltz has used a proprietary internet
application to support her educational program. Positive results have
been presented with various specialized learning programs that operate
across computer networks [Rada et al 93], [Brailsford and Davies 95].
We rely exclusively on the WWW and email support for the effort. We do
use some public domain software applications atop the WWW but nothing
else. We then ask how should a teacher manage such an educational
set-up and how will the students respond. We are not inventing new
technology. The simple application of existing technology is often
better than the complex application of new technology when moving an
organization into virtual mode [Rada 95a]. This generalization should
apply to moving a course into virtual mode.
We present the results of one particular course in one university. We
only indirectly have inferences to make about entire curricula.
2 The Course Main Attributes
Our course was titled "The Virtual University" and classified as a
computer science graduate course. It was taught at Washington State
University in the spring of 1996 [Rada 96]. To enroll students needed
to demonstrate a familiarity with the internet but there were no other
prerequisites. Lectures were not held but instead students
communicated with one another and the teacher on the internet. All
course reading material was available on the WWW and all student work
was submitted on the internet.
This was the first offering of this course under this title and the
first time this teacher (or these students) had participated in a
course without face-to-face scheduled meetings. The teacher has been
for 10 years teaching courses in which all reading material and
exercises were stored on a computer network, and students submitted
their work that way -- but those courses did have scheduled meetings.
The logical progression of topics was from definition of a virtual
university to tools and methods in virtual universities and finally to
small and large applications in the public and private
sector. Students were also expected to work in teams on substantial
The intention in such a course is that the professor operates as the
"guide on the side" rather than the "sage on the stage". The
professor should guide the students to a library of reading material
and suggest exercises. The students should select the reading of
greatest interest to them, do the exercises, and extensively
communicate with one another electronically. The professor's major
responsibility should become that of mediating the discussion so that
it leads to the greatest insights for the students.
Fifteen students were enrolled in the course. They held various
positions in the university:
- Four worked full-time for the Office of Institutional Research
- One worked full-time for the Corporate Relations Office.
- Five were graduate students in Computer Science.
- Two were undergraduates in Computer Science.
- Two were graduate students in Education.
- One was a graduate student in Architecture.
All the students held their major position at the Washington State
University main campus in Pullman.
The home page of the Virtual University course was dominated by three
images: one pointed to the classroom, one to the teacher, and one to
the library for the course [see Figure 1].
Figure 1: This is the largest part of the Home Page of the Virtual
University Course [Rada 96]. Each of these icons could be selected to
take the reader to the appropriate section of the course.
Each of the three icons corresponded to an important source of course information:
- From the "Class" Icon the student was taken to
various indices of the class discussion as reflected in the email
- From the "Teacher" Icon the student was taken to
various documents and lists related to the administration of the
course, such as the contact information for the teacher and students,
records of assessments of students, and announcements about the
operation of the course.
- From the "Library" Icon the student was taken to the weekly readings and also the
The "Library" Icon pointed to 15 topics. Each topic was associated with reading
material and an assignment. The course information was updated on a weekly basis
but the home page remained basically the same.
3 First Weeks
The first weeks of the course were very different administratively
speaking from the later weeks of the 15-week course. At the beginning,
much of the attention was on the method and tools of the course rather
than on the content itself. The teacher also learned through the first
few weeks that the students appreciated more focus in their
assignments than he first expected.
3.1 Coordination Focus
From the students' perspective, the course beginning was dominated by
needing to understand how such a course would run. In the first weeks
of the course the email discussion was often about the medium and
method of the course.
We have summarized the email discussion (recall the class discussion
was essentially by email) by categorizing email into two broad
- a coordination topic of how people work together in the course and
- a content topic of the actual content of the course.
Within the Coordination Topic we further divided the email into
several subtopics as follows:
- The "Outside Mail" subtopic indicates email that came from
those outside the university who asked about participating in the
- The "Methods" subtopic includes the method of running
the course. For instance, the discussion about whether or not to have
face-to-face meetings of the students is classified as a "Methods"
- The "Reading Technical Issues" subtopic concerns
technical issues about how to read the material for the course. For
instance, asking how to download the WWW reading assignments onto
one's local hard disk is a "Reading Technical Issue".
"Email Technical Issues" subtopic addresses email tools. For
instance, asking for an email alias that includes all the email
addresses of students in the course is an email technical issue.
- The "Personal Introduction" subtopic arises when someone introduces
himself or herself.
- And the "Email other Information" topic indicates other relevant
information in the world about the coordination of such virtual-mode
The number of emails in each subtopic by frequency indicates the
greatest frequency (18) occurs in the subtopic of "Methods" [see
Figure 2]. If one groups the subtopics on "Technical" issues, then
their frequency is 12. Thus, how the class should run and how to use
the tools are the most frequent concerns (30 of 48 messages) of the
students within the broad "Coordination" topic.
Coordination Email Frequency by Subtopic
Figure 2: This graph shows the frequency of email on each of the 6
In the first weeks of class, two students expended considerable effort
in trying to arrange face-to-face meetings with the other students in
the course. The professor and these two students did meet twice and
invited all other students to join, but no other students came to
these arranged meetings. In the later part of the semester no further
efforts were made to arrange face-to-face meetings of the students.
In the last weeks of the course administrative discussion largely
disappeared, and the focus of the email was on the content of the
course. This is made clear by the chart of "Coordination" email by
week [see Figure 3]. All but one of the "Coordination" topic
discussions occurred in the first 5 weeks of the course.
Coordination Email by Topic and Week
Figure 3: This chart shows the frequency of email from students on
each of the Coordination subtopics by week. No Coordination email from
students was recorded after week 9. "Read Tech Iss" is short for
"Reading Technology Issues". "Wk n" is short for "Week n".
3.2 Content Focus
The teacher had initially created weekly assignments that were based
on a largish collection of WWW readings. The teacher assumed that
students would pick and choose from the readings those that they found
most interesting. The assignment each week was to then write a short
essay to reflect what the student had learned in the readings. For
example, the first week library pointed to the following 4 readings
(directly copied from the course WWW site):
- A well-conceived and delivered discussion of the information superhighway and
education can be found at http://edweb.cnidr.org:90./. This is Andy Carvin's
EdWeb site supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
- A brief review of a few luminaries, then what's happening at a few universities in
narrative, then non-university is at
- A talk entitled "how to empower students" was presented at WSU leadership
conference. The focus is on Quality versus Quantity. See
- The beginning discussions for a Virtual University of the Western States indicate
further some of the current dynamic.
The student was expected to write a short essay about what he/she had
learned relative to the reading and the topic of the week.
However, students were confused with the large selection of reading
material. The students and teacher agreed on a modified approach in
which each week's assignment included a small set of required, primary
reading and a larger set of optional, secondary reading. For instance,
the topic of Week 10 was "Coordination," and the presentation on the
WWW for that week lists
- Primary Reading,
- Assignment, and
- Optional Reading.
The primary reading asks the student to "Visit two sites that describe
first a WWW conferencing system and then a WWW workflow management
system.." It continues by pointing to two specific documents, one
about San Francisco State's Web Conferencing System and the other
about Action Technologies Workflow Management Coalition. The
assignment then said:
"Compare and contrast the features of the Conferencing on the Web
system with the Workflow system. Then suggest how each system
might be used in our class. What would be the pros and cons for our
class of using either or both of these systems?"
The optional reading pointed to four other sites for further, related
materials. Students much prefered the focused reading and assignment
of the 10 th week over the relatively diffuse reading and assignment
of the 1 st week.
In the middle of the course, the level and nature of the activity
changed. Students had sensed the freedom of the course and were not
reliably doing their homeworks punctually. Also the amount of email
that had been received and archived at the course address had grown to
such an extent that the initial simple indexing scheme was no longer
4.1 Enforcing Pace
The difficulty for the teacher revolved around the monitoring of the student work as
reflected in the electronic mail. Traditional courses involve physical meetings and a
clear sense of pace. The teacher only applied gentle pressure to students to complete
their submissions within fixed weekly time frames, and many students took advantage
of this freedom to make their contributions at varying intervals after (or at times
before) the announced due date.
In the first two weeks most students submitted their homework on time
[see Figure 4]. In the middle of the course this was less often the
case. Near the end of the course students appreciated better that all
work had to be submitted in order to get as much credit as possible
and they then submitted work that might have been overdue by
weeks. The teacher did not enforce strictly a penalty for lateness and
this approach contributed to the tardiness of the submissions. A
teacher could enforce stiff penalties on late submitters; the impact
of such an approach should be tested in future runnings of such a
Further explanation for the data in the Figure 4 addresses the blips
and the lowering numbering of submissions per topic. The blips in the
5 th , 10 th , and 15 th week are partly due to the heightened
importance of those works to the student grade. The reduced total
number of submissions is due to the emphasis on submitting work by
team and the formation of some teams only later in the semester (and
subsequently submitting just one work per team).
Homework Submissins by Week and Topic
Figure 4: This chart shows the submissions of homeworks by week
and by topic. Over one hundred submissions were made.
4.2 Archiving Discussion Meaningfully
Students were required to submit their exercise solutions to the
course via email. The email address was connected to a program that
archived the mail on the WWW. The program to do this is called
Hypermail [EIT 95] and has been found useful in other collaborative
projects [Cutkosky et al 96].
However, the automatic archiving by Hypermail did not seem to provide
enough structure to focus the attention of the course participants on
timely issues as they arose. Hypermail automatically indexes email by
its sender-assigned subject, the userid of the sender, and the
date. As the subject headings that senders used were not rigorously
controlled, the Hypermail index proved largely useful as a date and
author index but not as a subject index.
The teacher broadcasted messages to the students every few days. These
transmissions collected the comments of the teacher on the student
submissions since the previous teacher broadcast. Organizing these
teacher comments and the student submissions so that they corresponded
with the weekly list of topics was an additional maintenance task for
the teacher. Such maintenance work might be done effectively by a
teaching assistant. Also more sophisticated computing environments
could automate some of this maintenance effort.
5 Final Evaluation
In the end, what did the students think of the course? Did the teacher want to repeat
the experience in another course?
5.1 Student Perception
The standard university evaluation form by which students rate
teachers was placed onto the WWW. Students answered anonymously. Seven
students in the course completed this optional course evaluation.
The questions on the evaluation ask the student to rate on a scale
from 1 to 5 each of 26 different attributes of the course. 5 means an
excellent course in that attribute whereas 1 means a very poor
course. Across all answers and the 7 students, the average reply was
4.63. The average score across courses in the school is much closer to
The three questions scoring highest were:
- The instructor was enthusiastic.
- The instructor was courteous to you.
- Questions were encouraged.
The three lowest scoring questions were:
- Instructor feedback was prompt and beneficial in enabling the student to meet the
- I feel that I have learned the material presented.
- The responsibilities of the student were clearly defined.
with scores of 4.00, 4.29, and 4.29, respectively. Overall, the students were satisfied
with the course.
5.2 Teacher Perception
The teacher felt that the students had learned. The student grades
were high as is usual for a graduate course in computer science, with
the average being a low 4 on a 1 to 5 scale (where 5 is best).
In terms of teacher time, the initial weeks of the course were more
time consuming than other courses might have been. The teacher needed
to design the WWW format for the course and develop the syllabus and
reading materials. Furthermore, as the course started and students had
many questions about the method, the time spent in both covering these
method questions and dealing with the content was enough to make the
teacher believe that a traditionally taught course would have been
less demanding of the teacher's time.
However, after the 5 th week the questions about method from the
students stopped. Also by then the WWW site had stabilized and the
teacher found that the course required significantly less time than a
traditional course. In the last part of the semester the most time
consuming task for the teacher was
- the indexing of the email into logical categories so that the students and teacher
could see the logical connections among the various contributions to the course,
- the assessing of student submissions so that students would get feedback about their progress.
Efforts to get students to do the structuring and the assessing
themselves have met with mixed results over the years [Rada
95b]. While tools could be built to facilitate the semiautomatic
structuring of student submissions and student-student self
assessment, the student naturally expects the expert teacher to do
some of this. In the traditional university lecture, the teacher may
have relatively little interaction with students but the students
might still feel that their work is somehow well in step with that of
the teacher. In contrast a no-lecture course requires other methods of
generating a sense of course cohesiveness. In the end, whether or not
a course costs more or less for the teacher to give on the WWW versus
in a lecture hall must depend
on many specific factors of the teacher, the students, and the way the teacher and
The course went through at least two distinct phases. In the beginning
the students were very much concerned with how such a course would
operate. The teacher was extremely busy both assuring the students
that they could learn without attending lectures and providing them a
worthwhile learning experience. Later the students' concern with
method disappeared and the teacher spent less time on the course.
In the beginning, the teacher was lax in enforcing late submission
penalties. This led some students to submit their work very late and
to lose some of the pace that is important in a course.
Many students worked full time and could not practically go to
lectures at fixed times during the day. The course offered access to
these students in a way that traditional lecture courses would not
have. This is the primary benefit of a course taught over the internet
that does not require any face-to-face meetings. Students could have
easily participated from anywhere in the world.
The toolset used for the course was basically the WWW and email. The
WWW tools included forms for collecting input on the course
evaluation. Hypermail was one add-on that proved enormously
helpful. We were not attempting to be minimalist in our use of
software but felt the main challenge was the organization of
information and the interaction among participants.
In a future edition of this course the teacher would like several
changes. On the technical side, the teacher would like a database
management system connected to the WWW and functions to further
automate the tracking of student performance as reflected in the
records of the database. On the administrative side, the teacher would
like to have more students enrolled from distant places -- students
who truly could not come to lectures in one town.
This course had already proven a success under the conditions in which
it was offered. New markets of students could be reached with this
virtual mode for educational delivery. The methods and tools are not
difficult to fashion. The challenge is to put together the appropriate
group of students, teachers, and administrators.
[Brailsford and Davies 95] T J Brailsford and P.M. Davies
"Collaborative Learning on Networks", CAL '95, Cambridge, April 1995
[Cutkosky et al 96] Mark R. Cutkosky, Jay M.Tennebaum, Jay Glicksman,
"Madefast: an exercise in collaborative engineering over the Internet"
Communications of the ACM,
Sept. http://www.madefast.org/mf/ACM_paper.html (1996)
[Ehrmann 95] Stephen Ehrmann, "Asking the Right Questions: What Does
Research Tell Us About Technology and Higher Learning?" Change: The
Magazine of Higher Learning, XXVII: 2 pp 20-27, March/April (1995)
[EIT 95] EIT "Hypermail"
[Hiltz 95] Starr Roxanne Hiltz "Impacts of college-level courses via
Asynchronous Learning Networks: Focus on Students" Sloan Conference on
Asynchronous Learning Networks, Philadelphia, October 1995,
[Massy and Zemsky 95] William F. Massy and Robert Zemsky "Using IT to
Enhance Academic Productivity" Interuniversity Communications Council,
Inc., http://educom.edu/program/nlii/keydocs/massy.html, (1995)
[NJIT 96] New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), "BA in
Information Systems via Distance Learning",
[Rada et al 93] Roy Rada, Sharon Acquah, Beverly Baker, Phillip Ramsey
"Collaborative Learning and the MUCH System", Computers and Education,
20, 3, pp. 225-233, (1993)
[Rada 95a] "Interactive Media" Springer-Verlag, New York (1995)
[Rada 95b] "Developing Educational Hypermedia: Coordination and Reuse"
Ablex Publishing, Norwood, New Jersey (1995)
[Rada 96] Roy Rada "Virtual University Course" taught spring 1996 at
Washington State University as Computer Science 580 and available at
[Rada et al 96] Roy Rada, Jim Rimpau, Curtis Bowman, Jerry Gordon, Tom
Henderson, Todd Sansom "WWW Activity and the Virtual University"
Educational Technology and Management to appear (1996)
[Rushton et al 93] Chris Rushton, Phillip Ramsey, Roy Rada "Peer
Assessment in a Collaborative Hypermedia Environment: A Case Study",
Journal of Computer-Based Instruction, 20, 3, pp. 75-80, (1993)