Thesis Proposal: The Online Education System

By Aileen Tang
Thesis Advisor: Professor Hal Abelson
Supervised by: Philip Greenspun

I. Abstract

The Online Education System is a database-backed Web service for the purposes of teaching and learning. It creates online communities of people and provides the appropriate tools for them to perform their roles, whether they are professors, students, teaching assistants, course administrators, or class secretaries. The MIT Sloan School of Management plans to adopt the education system as a replacement for their current system, The Virtual Campus. As a result, the education system's first release will be a customized adaptation for the Sloan School that includes a personalized portal page, a searchable file archive, and a system for managing and administrating classes. The system creates online communities of faculty, students, staff, and alumni at Sloan and provides mechanisms for interaction and collaboration among members of these communities.

II. Introduction

Over the past decade, we have witnessed an ongoing information revolution brought about by the Internet. We have learned to harness the Internet for more efficient communication and ubiquitous information. These benefits have enabled us to bring many aspects of our lives online. In media and broadcasting we have sites like http://cnn.com; in finance and trading we have http://www.etrade.com; in business and commerce we have http://www.amazon.com. But we have not seen a major impact of the Internet in the field of education. Granted, people have developed services that host classes online or supplement the traditional classroom experience, and many courses have their own homepages to distribute class material and announcements. But we are missing a centralized, integrated system for online education that is extensible and customizable enough to be adopted by classes taught both at institutions and by individuals.

The goal of the Online Education System is to provide a set of new capabilities that enhances the traditional classroom experience. By applying the benefits of the Internet to teaching and learning, the system helps the teaching staff perform their duties more efficiently and enhances the students' learning experiences by making a wider range of resources readily accessible. The education system models the classroom as a database-backed Web service, where members of each class belong to well-defined groups of users. As a result, these user communities can remotely interact with other users, have asynchronous access to information, and manage their individual roles/contributions as a community member. What does this translate to the system's application to education? Students can obtain help from the teaching staff remotely during online office hours. They can share knowledge and help answer each other's questions when the teaching assistant is not available. The teaching staff can collaboratively develop course materials and distribute them via a centralized mechanism. Instead of collecting student grades from many TAs, each maintaining his/her records differently, professors have immediate access to all student data in a single format, managed by one database. Finally, all users have access to a reliable archive of all news, announcements, and activities that are relevant to them.

III. Related Work

Command

Command is a Web-based course management and delivery system developed at MIT in conjunction with industry partners like Intel, IBM, and Lotus. It models after the traditional course homepage, which provides a repository for course documents and information. As a result, Command is heavy on course information management and delivery but does not provide enough functionality for collaboration. The system has poor usability by not being very user-centered. For example, the calendar, a high-demand and useful feature, is buried three levels deep. Command does not provide support for grades and student evaluation; the user interface has low customizability. There is a lack of file versioning, which is important for collaborative course development. Defining course material to just lectures, assignments, and readings, along with the lack of support for grades assessment, limits the system to traditional classroom courses on academic topics. In addition, the system does not provide enough ability for professors to develop course material, manage course staff, and keep track of user stats.

In summary, Command is a collection of what we currently have as course homepages in one central place but without integration/communication among them. The system is not user-centered, i.e. take advantage of knowing the user's identity and displaying the information that is catered to his/her roles.

Educational Fusion

The Educational Fusion project, headed by Professor Seth Teller, takes place in the MIT Computer Graphics Group. The research focuses on interactive and collaborative algorithm visualization. The technology is aimed at helping students interactively develop algorithms online and to visualize their algorithm's output. Although the project has a specific target at learning and applications in a technical area like computer graphics, we might be able to integrate their technology to enhance the online teaching/collaborative experience. But the project is generally different from ours, which provides collaborative education Web service, whereas Educational Fusion focuses on developing technology in the specific area of interactive visualization.

Blackboard.com

Bloackboard.com has the system that is closest to what our project is trying to achieve. In addition to the ability to administer classes and develop course materials online, it provides a variety of tools for both synchronous and asynchronous collaboration and communication. The asynchronous collaboration tools include bulletin boards, announcements postings, email, and audio/visual media files. The synchronous collaboration tools include chat rooms and virtual white boards. Blackboard.com also provides other functionalities like a calendar for time management and electronic blackboard for note taking.

The advantage about Blackboard.com is it provides a pretty complete set of services to host and develop course material online and tools to help students collaborate both with the teaching staff and among themselves. However, users of the system do not appear to take full advantage of these collaboration tools because they are not easily accessible. Once you log into the class Web page, it takes 3 more levels to access the virtual chat, for example. In order for students to collaborate online rather than through more conventional ways such as telephone, face-to-face, or even email, collaboration tools must be readily accessible within the class site. They should be closely coupled with other features of the system where students most likely would need collaboration, and these can include assignments, team projects, and exams.

Another improvement that we hope to achieve over Blackboard.com is integration. Blackboard.com hosts many disjoint classes that do not share data among each other. However, a student (especially one at a university) is highly likely to take more than 1 class, and a powerful education system should be able to host all of his/her classes via one Web service. This Web service should be capable of integrating information from all of his/her classes and display it in a useful way. For example, the system should display assignment due dates, upcoming exams, and team meetings for all classes that a student is taking in one single calendar. The student should also be able to view news and announcements for all of his/her classes via one page rather than having to logging into the homepage of each class.

Finally, our system is a module that can be adopted and customized as a single Web service by any institution or individual. Essentially, someone who wishes to host a site that gives lessons on composing MIDI can install the education module and run his own Web service. This differs from the Blackboard.com model because each class is now running under its own service rather than off of the standard service of Blackboard.com. Especially for universities and academic departments, having the system install as a single service is an important advantage because of the ability to customize and fully integrate into the university's existing system. Instead of accessing class sites on blackboard.com, students can log onto sloan.mit.edu, for example. The system is therefore more powerful because we can fully integrate existing department data like student registration and faculty contact information with class-specific data generated by our system.

IV. The Architecture

The Education Module will be built in the TCL language on top of the Arsdigita Community System (ACS), which runs on AOLServer backed by an Oracle database. ACS started as a set of tools Philip Greenspun wrote to build his Web site, http://photo.net. Later, the ACS was extended into a package of open source modules for building database-backed Web services that provide collaboration and user tracking tools quickly and easily.

Currently ACS modules range from organizing traditional Web communities and fostering online collaboration to hosting E-commerce services and tracking customer behavior. It has also recently expanded to include online polls and file system management and continues to grow with new modules in each release. The education system represents a new venture for the ACS from a general community/collaboration tool or the too specific E-commerce application into a system with new educational focus. The Online Education System will harness existing tools in the ACS to create applications of the system's current capabilities in education and extend it with more specific functionalities that are unique to education, like the administration of online classes, new tools for academic collaboration and mechanism for effective Web-based teaching.

V. Design Details

The Online Education System's purpose is to provide functionalities to manage and administer classes online. It should have the following components and capabilities:

User Administration

Users of the system all have specific roles (e.g. professor, student, and teaching assistant) and can perform appropriate actions depending upon their roles. The system manages all information relevant to each role, so it knows the teaching assistants' office hours and the students' account information. Each user can be a member of groups such as classes, departments, and teams. With respect to that membership, the user has appropriate permissions to access bulletin boards, new announcements, grades, and handouts of his/her classes. Since the system is user-centric, it takes advantage of its knowledge of the user's identity and provides the user with efficient and comprehensive access to information that is relevant to him/her.

The system also manages user information so they can be accessed easily. For example, the professor can find out which students are doing well or badly in the class, who has been most actively helping other students on bulletin boards and in chat rooms, and schedules of other teach staff so he/she can schedule meetings at a time that the most people can attend. On the other hand, students can easily lookup information about other students, their interests, and availability as potential teammates. At the department level, a Sloan School adminisrator can view reports that show, for example, how much time a teaching assistant has spent online helping students and how student enrollment varies in a particular class over time. A student's academic advisor can also have access to detailed information about the student's performance in a particular class.

Content Management and Distribution

The system comes with a file storage system that organizes and serves all course material and student assignment submissions. These can include multimedia lecture demos, problem set handouts, research papers, and student projects. The interface for uploading and distributing these files should be easy to use and come with the appropriate permissions control to support the following scenerio:

A week before the quiz, the professor uploads a draft solution to the quiz and notifies the teaching staff to proof read and comment on it. A teaching assistant downloads the solution, corrects some typos, and uploads the modified version. Later, a recitation instructor downloads what is the updated version and adds an alternative solution to one of the problems. After the quiz is administered, the professor goes back, changes the permissions on the solutions file to make it viewable by students in the class.

The system also serves as a central place for the development, distribution, and submission of assignments. The professor should be able to upload an assignment and set its due date. The student should be able to upload his/her solutions to the assignment before the due date, and the teaching assistant can download the student's submission, grade it, and enter an evaluation of the student's assignment into the database.

Collaboration and Coaching

The traditional classroom experience encompasses two important components: collaboration among classmates and coaching by the instructor. Our system hopes to not only imitate but also enhance the educational experience beyond the classroom.

Via the online education system, a student should be able to interact with other students through both asynchronous and synchronous collaboration. Asynchronous collaboration is a more traditional concept in Web-based communities, where users interact with each other through non-real-time forms of communication. Asynchronous collaboration is widespread today via online question and answer forums (e.g. bulletin boards) and email forms. Synchronous collaboration, on the other hand, is gaining more presence as real-time interaction becomes more crucial in the way people are using the Internet today. For our system, synchronous collaboration means students can interact with other students or the class instructor in real-time via a Web browser. A chat forum allows students to discuss an assignment with other students or ask a teaching assistant on duty to explain a concept. A Java-based white board program further enhances synchronous collaboration by allowing exchange of ideas using a real-time drawing program. Offering students the ability to communicate without being limited to the standard character set on a keyboard is especially useful for class material that involve more than just prose, such as complex equations, drawings, or algorithms.

An indelible aspect of the classroom experience is coaching. An instructor should follow a student's progress closely, remind the student if he/she is falling behind, and give detailed feedback about his/her current performance. The online education system hopes to make coaching more efficient for the instructor and more ubiquitous and effective for the student. The system can send periodic reminders to the student about their progress on a term project. It should be able to coach students about where they should be in the class readings so they do not fall behind. It should automatically issue warning flags (cc'd to his/her academic advisor) to the student who is in danger of failing the class. Generally, we are trying to build a system that is the most responsible instructor who infallibly tracks each student's individual progress and knows to devote more attention to students who are falling behind.

The Portal: a Customizable View of the System

The portal, as an entry point to the system, is a page that our users would want to visit several times a day. Our users should be willing to use this page as a centralized management location for their academic (extensively) and (to a lesser degree but as much as possible) non-academic life. The portal imitates the features and benefits of My Yahoo: Some basic pre-packaged content for the portal includes stock quotes, current weather, news headlines, and other system integrated information such as class calendar, bulletin boards, recent news, announcements, assignments, and projects. The portal will be as closely integrated with the system as possible, which means that a student will see a calendar that is automatically populated with important dates from his/her classes and any relevant new announcements made since he/she last logged in.

VI. Division of Labor

This thesis is a collaborative effort between myself and Randall Graebner. Generally, we have worked and will work together to complete the tasks. Our collaborative efforts include data modeling, designing and coding the administrative and user pages in the main class system, communicating with Sloan about project requirements, and bug fixes. We mainly focused individual efforts on integrating ACS modules into our project and updating them as necessary to satisfy our project requirements. So far, we have worked on the file system module (Randy) and the portal module (Aileen). We still need to integrate the updated bboard, chat, user group, and news modules to our system, and the division of such duties will be further documented in the final thesis write-up.

VII. Schedule

Beginning Spring term 2000, we will release the system with basic functionalities of class hosting/management and collaboration to a class at MIT, 6.916 Software Engineering of Innovative Web Services. Our system will be used by approximately 60 students in the class and a collaborative staff of two lecturers and several teaching assistants. Based on feedback from members of 6.916, we will continue making usability improvements and feature enhancements. In addition, the module's customization for Sloan School will be tested for their own requirements. Al Essa, our project contact at Sloan, will submit a testing plan to us that includes at least one short-term class and significant amount of sample data for usability and scalability testing.

  1. December 15, 1999 - Site administration
    1. Defining and adding departments, classes, and subjects
    2. Management of user information
    3. Setting up the portal
  2. January 6, 2000 - Class administration
    1. Adding/downloading/submitting assignments/class handouts
    2. Grades and student/team evaluations
    3. Textbooks
    4. Managing/updating class and user properties
    5. Dividing students into teams
  3. January 31, 2000 - User pages; more class administration
    1. Students to view information about class, other students, and instructors
    2. Integrating the news module
    3. Ways to spam people in the class
    4. Students to view feedback on their assignments
    5. Students to view information about their teams
    6. Allow professors to create bulletin boards and chat rooms for a class
    7. Portal
  4. February 1, 2000 - Launch beta version for Spring term classes
    1. 6.916
    2. bootcamp
    3. maybe a Sloan class or two
  5. March 1, 2000 - Grades and security
    1. Security and permissions
    2. More functionality with grades
      1. viewing students by their grades
      2. for students to view their grades
      3. automatically flag students who are in trouble
      4. generate grade statistics for class
  6. April 15, 2000 - Refining the user experience
    1. Get user feedback and refine the user interface
    2. Make system easier to use
    3. Add more functionality for synchronous collaboration (Java white board)
    4. Make additional improvements as necessary

VIII. Bibliography


aileen@mit.edu