"Distance Learning for Computer Information Students: What Works, What Doesn't"
As the World Wide Web becomes one form of the classroom of the future, the challenges of teaching in a technical curriculum have become apparent. At Purdue University Calumet, we began our journey into web-based instruction during the Summer, 1996 semester by offering 2 courses. We have expanded our course offerings to include all of the courses in our Associate Degree, and have just gotten that degree approved by the Indiana Commission for Higher Education as an on-line degree. Many issues have arisen along the way, such as on-line office hours for contact with the students, who owns the material that is created and presented on the web, on-line testing, laboratory assignments and connections to computer equipment on-campus. We have addressed these challenges by testing new types of software for creating web-based courses, through the creation of a users-group for those faculty and staff teaching over the web, through a web site designed to help faculty with problems that come up with their web courses, and through seminars offered about distance learning. Our next step is to offer our Bachelor Degrees on-line and we know that new problems will inevitably arise. The challenge is to overcome these obstacles and offer the courses to a worldwide audience.
At Purdue University Calumet, we began our distance learning program by offering two CIS courses during the Summer, 1996 semester as a pilot project. The courses were CIS 204 (Introduction to Computer-Based Systems ) and CIS 286 (Computer Operating Systems I). Although the courses were not a complete success due to many technical problems, advising problems, and our inexperience at offering such classes, we continued the program and have become very successful. Through our experiences in these first two classes, we were able to modify our method of course presentation, overcome various technical obstacles that both the instructors and students encountered, and switch to a more user-friendly method of offering the classes, both from an instructor and a student viewpoint.
This paper presents the obstacles that we found are unique to CIS courses as well as those that are universal among all classes. The methods we used for course delivery and the software we have found that worked is also presented. Finally, our current on-line degree and future plans are outlined.
Initial Course Challenges
Since we were novices at offering distance learning courses and since our campus had not yet bought into this idea, the Information Systems and Computer Programming (ISCP) faculty took it upon themselves to write HTML code for distance learning course delivery. At that time, none of the faculty had experience doing this, although I had created the home pages for the department and the campus had a semi-standard on how the pages should look with Purdue Calumet logos and colors. A team of graduate students helped to create the home pages for both CIS 204 and CIS 286.
The students learn Microsoft Office products in CIS 204, so access to the software was inconsistent. Some students had the software at home, others needed to come to campus to use it. Within the last year, Purdue has signed an agreement with Microsoft to allow us to make copies of the Microsoft Office software for distribution to faculty, staff and students. The software is sold in the campus bookstore for $5.00 per copy (only one copy is allowed per person) to cover the cost of creating the CDs. The major problem with CIS 204 was the lack of computer experience exhibited by the students. This is an introductory course for both CIS majors and non-majors. In hindsight, it was not the best course to offer as an initial distance learning course, but we had hoped for the best. Better advising and easier access to course software has improved the retention rate in this class.
CIS 286 had its own set of problems. The laboratory assignments for this class involve running labs on three different operating systems that reside on computers on campus: a VAX ALPHA, an HP UNIX machine and an IBM AS/400. None of these operating systems can run on a students home computer. We did find software to allow the students to access this software, Net Term from Intersoft International, Inc. Some problems still exist with this software in that it does not do a very good job of terminal emulation, and thus many of the keys on the PC keyboard do not map correctly to a terminal that would be directly attached to a specific computer. But, the students were able to do their labs and be successful in the course.
Introduction of Web Course in a Box
In 1998, Web Course in a Box (WCB) was introduced to our campus. The main purpose was to provide the non-technical faculty with a method to use the Web to enhance their courses and to develop more distance learning courses. Many of the ISCP faculty and a few faculty in other departments continue to use HTML rather than WCB. There is currently no mandate to use one form or the other. Support for the WCB product is done through the Faculty Instructional Technology Services (FITS) lab and they will also help faculty with HTML problems. Some departments are using FrontPage from Microsoft for development of their web pages as well.
One of the most important thing that faculty need to realize in distance learning courses is the importance of communication with the students. Whether they are CIS students or English students, lack of communication with the instructor is the fastest way to turn students off to distance learning. One thing that we emphasize with our instructors is to let the students know how often e-mail will be answered, if there are chat sessions available, where announcements about course changes will be, and telephone numbers for contact. I also post on-line office hours so the students know they can get immediate responses to questions at a certain time of the week. Whether a faculty member is using WCB or HTML, communication is one of the things that will make the course a success.
Development of On-Line Associate Degree in CIS
As more and more CIS courses were converted to an on-line format, it was determined that we could offer our existing Associate Degree on-line with the addition of just a few courses. The A.S. degree consists of the following CIS courses:
CIS 210 PC Technology
CIS 215 Structured Program Development
CIS 216 Visual Programming
CIS 240 Introduction to Networks
CIS 252 Systems Analysis and Design
CIS 253 Applied Database Techniques
CIS 262 C Programming
CIS 263 JAVA Programming
CIS 265 COBOL Programming
CIS 286 Computer Operating Systems I
In addition to these courses, the students are required to take courses in Speech, English Composition, Algebra & Trigonometry, Technical Report Writing, Linear Algebra & Linear Programming, Natural Science, Social Science, Accounting, Statistics, and Humanities.
All of the CIS courses except COBOL have been offered on-line at lease once. We have a commitment to offer each of these courses on-line at least once per year so any student interested in pursuing this degree on-line can do so at a reasonable pace. The courses other than CIS are not all offered from our campus on-line.
The CIS courses generally use textbooks that include software necessary to do any lab work, so the student can install the software on their home computer and they do not need to come to campus to run the labs. For instance, CIS 240, Introduction to Networks uses Visio for creating networks and the textbook used includes Visio.
The AS in CIS was approved as a distance learning degree by the Commission for Higher Education in the State of Indiana in December 1999. The State of Indiana is very committed to providing access to higher education for residents of the state who do not live near a university, and thus any on-line degree that is properly documented is readily accepted by this Commission for approval.
The Next Step B.S. Degree
The next step in our evolution of distance learning will be to offer our BS degree on-line. We have three options, but some courses do not lend themselves to on-line courses at this time. The option that most likely will be the first candidate as an on-line degree will be the B.S.
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