The intervention – Webfuse design 1996-1999

The previous couple of posts (one and two) described the context in which the Webfuse e-learning system was designed. This focused primarily on the context at CQU up to 1996 or so. These posts form the definition of the problem which Webfuse was meant to address.

This post begins a description of the intervention undertaken to address this problem. i.e. the early design of Webfuse. This post introduces the Intervention section, explains why it was decided to build another system and then outlines the design guidelines that underpinned Webfuse.

Intervention

As described in the previous section, the problem to be addressed during 1996 was the development of a system, processes and resources to support the use of web-based learning in all of the courses offered by the Department of Mathematics and Computing (M&C) at Central Queensland University (CQU). The same system was also expected to support the operation of the organisational website for the Faculty of Applied Science to which M&C belonged. This section offers a description of the design and implementation of the intervention intended to address this problem.

The description starts with an explanation (Section 4.3.1) of why it was felt to build a CQU specific system rather than use one of the already existing systems. Next, the design guidelines established at the start of the intervention are explained (Section 4.3.2). Following is a detailed description (Section 4.3.3) of the overall design and implementation details of the resulting system – Webfuse – using the design guidelines as an organising structure. A part of the design and implementation section will be a summary of the functionality for e-learning provided by Webfuse during 1996 through 1999.

Why build another system?

By 1996, when this work commenced, there were already a number of existing systems offering support for web-based learning. Many of these systems themselves originated as solutions that arose at other universities for this exact problem. Still others were adaptations of CML-based systems to the Interent. For example, Web Educational Support Tools (WEST) was developed at the University College Dublin and during 1996 was being used at the University of Western Sydney (Nepean) (Pennell, 1996). The World-Wide Web Course Tool (WebCT) was developed at the University of British Columbia (Goldberg et al., 1996) and went on to be a successful commercial product used at many universities throughout the world. The decision to engage in the design and construction of a unique system at CQU could be seen as an example of the not invented here phenomenon resulting the reinvention of the wheel (Simon, 1991, p. 130). Which had been recognised as a growing problem with the development of multimedia learning resources (Bryant, 1998; Zelmer, 1996). This section explains how the mix of a number of different factors led to the decision to build another system.

The most obvious factor was the background and discipline mix with the Department of Mathematics and Computing. The computing, or information technology, side of the department included staff with interests and expertise in software development. Some of these staff, including the author, had a history of research interests in the Internet and the application of information technology to learning (Carter et al., 1995; Jones, 1994, 1995). In addition it was thought that the M&C context offered the chance of unique perspectives around e-learning based on a combination of on-campus, distance and international students and a student population with significantly greater computing expertise and access to technology (Jones & Buchanan, 1996). This was backed up existing experience that had already, within a limited time frame, identified features, approaches and ideas that had not yet been implemented in existing systems (Jones & Buchanan, 1996).

This belief that there were still discoveries to be made was based on the perception that the online learning environment was still fairly youthful and that there were new insights to be gained. In 1997, a year after this work commenced, Macpherson et al (1997) identified that experience in teaching and learning online continued to be fragmentary and that few teaching staff had the knowledge to fully assess the implications of online learning or realistically determine possible future applications. The same authors (Macpherson et al., 1997) discovered through experienced one such limitation with WEST (Pennell, 1996), one of the existing systems. The strictly sequential and linear course structure embedded in the system design required the designers to discover ways to subvert it in order to support the nonlinear design approach they were committed to (Macpherson et al., 1997).

For these reasons, it was felt that the design, implementation and use of another online learning environment within the M&C context would, as well as providing support for online learning by M&C staff and students, provide an opportunity to experiment with new services, enable a comparison to be drawn between different systems, identify mistakes to avoid and practices to replicate and hopefully identify unique possibilities for e-learning (Jones & Buchanan, 1996). Lastly, a key guideline for the design of Webfuse was to be “do not reinvent the wheel” (Jones & Buchanan, 1996).

Design guidelines

Design of a system, Webfuse, to support learning and teaching within the Department of Mathematics and Computing (M&C) and the broader website for the Faculty of Applied Science commenced in mid-1996. The design guidelines underpinning Webfuse and the associate rationale were outlined in publications written at the time (Jones & Buchanan, 1996; McCormack & Jones, 1997) and others reflecting back on that design after the fact (Gregor et al., 1999; Jones, 1999a, 1999b; Jones & Gregor, 2004, 2006). This section provides an overview of those design guidelines while the following section (Section 4.3.3) explains how those guidelines were implemented through the design and implementation of Webfuse.

Webfuse will be a web publishing tool

The problem definition required Webfuse to not only provide online learning services to the students and staff of M&C, but it also had to support the website for the Faculty of Applied Science (and later the Faculty of Informatics and Communication). This meant that from the start Webfuse was envisaged as a Web publishing tool. That is, a system that helps people create and maintain Web pages and Web sites. Webfuse was designed as a general Web publishing tool that also provided a number of specific tools and facilities to support the creation and maintenance of Web-based classrooms (McCormack & Jones, 1997, p. 362).

This is somewhat different to most of the other e-learning systems available at that time. Systems such TopClass and WebCT were designed only for learning and teaching. A consequence of this design was that these systems had a more pre-defined purpose and structure and a subsequent lack of flexibility. As a more general web publishing tool, capable of supporting an organisational website, Webfuse had to satisfy a broader set of requirements.

Webfuse will be an integrated online learning environment

It was intended that Webfuse would be a totally integrated online learning environment in that it should provide all of the features and systems required by both students and teachers using a consistent and easy-to-use interface (Jones & Buchanan, 1996). An integrated online learning environment encapsulates a set of tools, systems, procedures and documentation that supports any and all parts of the learning and teaching experience. The implication was that students and teachers could perform all necessary tasks, regardless of technology, via Webfuse.

As part of this e-learning was seen as more than converting lecture overheads and other course resources into HTML and placing them on the Web (Jones & Buchanan, 1996). An integrated online learning environment should provide support for tasks including, but not limited to, assignment submission, automated (self-)assessment, evaluation and both synchronous and asynchronous communication. As an integrated online learning environment Webfuse also had to provide appropriate support for non-Web e-learning. For example, by 1996 M&C was making increasing use of course mailing lists as a means of communication. Rather than require the use of mailing lists to cease, Webfuse should integrate with this use and preferably provide additional functionality.

Webfuse will be eclectic, yet integrated

The majority, if not all, of the e-learning systems available in 1996 were tightly integrated systems produced and supported by a single vendor. All additions and modifications to these systems had to be made by the single vendor. While the tightly, integrated nature of these tools meant they were reasonably easy to install, manage and use with the supplied documentation. It also meant that they were less than responsive to new developments from either the broader online community or the local context.

It was recognised from the start of the Webfuse project that it would not be possible for M&C to provide all the necessary human resources to build and maintain a Web authoring tool (Jones, 1999b). A tightly integrated structure with M&C providing all tools would not be possible. M&C would run the risk of either retaining an out of date system because it was too expensive to replace, or having to throw away the investment in a system because it had not kept up with change (Jones & Buchanan, 1996). This was seen as a significant problem because of recent experience with the difficulty CQU and other institutions faced in moving from text-based, computer-mediated communications systems to the more recent Internet system, and also because on-going and rapid change was seen as a key characteristic of the Internet (Jones & Buchanan, 1996). In addition it was recognised that the broader community using the Web would be better able to develop a range of tools, such as web-based discussion or interactive chat systems and that it would be more efficient for M&C to re-use those systems, rather than reinvent the wheel.

Consequently, the focus of the integrated online learning environment would be on providing the infrastructure necessary to integrate existing and yet to be developed Internet and e-learning tools developed by the broader community (Jones & Buchanan, 1996). The M&C OLE would provide the management infrastructure and consistent interface to combine existing tools such as WWW servers, online quizzes, assignment submission, discussion forums and others into a single integrated whole (Jones & Buchanan, 1996). While some components would be developed specifically for the local context, the emphasis should be on integrating existing tools into the OLE (Jones & Buchanan, 1996).

Webfuse will be flexible and support diversity

From the start, an ability to handle the diversity and continual change inherent in web-based learning (Jones, 2004) was seen as the key requirement of any web-based learning system. Freedom of choice, for both staff and students, was seen as one of the important advantages provided by e-learning (Jones & Buchanan, 1996). This was in part a reaction to the necessary consistency inherent in large-scale print-based distance education. This need for consistency created a number of problems and issues due to the diversity present in the disciplines, courses, academics and students within the department (Jones, 1996a; Jones & Buchanan, 1996). Less than user-friendly consistency had also previously extended to requiring students to have and to use specific computer platforms while studying at CQU. Flexibility and the ability to change was also seen as important since one purpose of Webfuse was to enable research and experimentation with forms of e-learning. It was important that the design of Webfuse was not frozen before experience gained in using the system was able to inform on-going change.

To achieve the desired levels of flexibility and support for diversity a number of guidelines were adopted. These included (Jones & Buchanan, 1996):

  1. do not specifically support any one educational theory;
    There is a large variety of possible learning theories with different theories being more appropriate depending on the context and individuals involved (Leidner & Jarvenpaa, 1995). Rather than seek to embody the principles of a single learning theory, Wefuse should enable individual academics to use those theories they deem most suitable, and also handle change in preferred learning theories as experience and knowledge expand.
  2. platform independence and standards; and
    In an era of diverse and changing computer platforms placing artifical constrains on the computer platforms that could use Webfuse was seen as unnecessarily restrictive. Dependence on a single or limited number of platforms would restrict choice, limit the number of people that can use the system, and could influence future use of the system as platforms become dated. It was intended that the M&C OLE would use platform independent technologies such as scripting languages and broadly accepted standards.
  3. provide the tools, not the rules.
    Computer systems, unlike human organizations, are rigid and incapable of adaptation on their own and consequently tend to better support the regularities than the particularities of a situation (Harris & Henderson, 1999). For an activity like learning and teaching that is characterised by diversity, rigid computer systems that expect consistent, regular practices are less than appropriate. Strict procedures leave little room for the unique characteristics of individual disciplines, courses, academics and students (Jones & Buchanan, 1996). Where possible, Webfuse should aim to provide the tools to assist in the development of Web-based classrooms, but have sufficient flexibility to enable staff and students to adapt these tools to their personal situation (Jones & Buchanan, 1996).

Webfuse will seek to encourage adoption

In 1996, it was recognised that “if you build it, they will come” is not an approach likely to work within an academic environment where staff development and improvements in learning and teaching has been described as “herding cats” (Jones & Buchanan, 1996). It was recognised that once the system is built staff must be: encouraged to use the system, convinced of the system’s usefulness, and provided with appropriate training and documentation (Jones & Buchanan, 1996). Design guidelines intended to help encourage use of the system included (Jones & Buchanan, 1996):

  • consistent interface;
    The eclectic, yet integrated guideline requires that Webfuse have a consistent interface and system metaphor for all tools. This should help ease-of-use and subsequently adoption.
  • increased sense of control and ownership;
    One rationale for requiring Webfuse to support diversity and flexibility was so that staff and students could adapt the system to their needs and subsequently encourage a greater sense of control and ownership.
  • minimise new skills; and
    Even in 1996, the students and staff with M&C brought existing experience with computers, software and the Internet. For example, many students already had email accounts and associated email programs. Academics were already using mailing lists and other aspects of the Internet. Rather than reinvent the wheel and force these people to learn new skills and tools, Webfuse should leverage these existing skills, software and processes to minimise the need for new skills and reduce workload.
  • automate.
    Where possible the system should automate those tasks possible while maintaining a balance with other guidelines. This would include both support or administrative services specific to the Web (e.g. HTML validation and link checking) and other higher level tasks such as creating an initial course website.

References

Bryant, S. (1998). Overcoming the ‘Not Invented Here’ Syndrome – Experience with Sourcing Education Multimedia Developed Elsewhere. Paper presented at the Proceedings of ASCILITE’98.

Carter, B., Lockwood, J., O’Kelly, S., Parry, C., Atkinson, S., Manderson, T., et al. (1995). CQ-PAN: Putting schools into cyberspace. Paper presented at the Information On-Line and On-Disk’95, Sydney.

Goldberg, M., Salari, S., & Swoboda, P. (1996). World-Wide Web – Course Tool: An environment for building WWW-based courses. Computer Networks and ISDN Systems, 28, 1219-1231.

Gregor, S., Jones, D., Lynch, T., & Plummer, A. A. (1999). Web information systems development: some neglected aspects. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the International Business Association Conference, Cancun, Mexico.

Harris, J., & Henderson, A. (1999). A better mythology for system design. Paper presented at the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems: the CHI is the limit, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Jones, D. (1994). A workstation in every home! Paper presented at the Asia Pacific Information Technology in Education Conference, Brisbane.

Jones, D. (1995). 1000 users on a 486. Paper presented at the SAGE-AU’95, Wollongong.

Jones, D. (1996). Computing by distance education: Problems and solutions. Paper presented at the Integrating Technology into Computer Science Education.

Jones, D. (1999a). Solving some problems with university education: Part II. Paper presented at the Ausweb’99, Balina, Australia.

Jones, D. (1999b). Webfuse: An integrated, eclectic web authoring tool. Paper presented at the Proceedings of EdMedia’99, World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia & Telecommunications, Seattle.

Jones, D. (2004). The conceptualisation of e-learning: Lessons and implications. Best practice in university learning and teaching: Learning from our Challenges.  Theme issue of Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development, 1(1), 47-55.

Jones, D., & Buchanan, R. (1996). The design of an integrated online learning environment. Paper presented at the Proceedings of ASCILITE’96, Adelaide.

Jones, D., & Gregor, S. (2004). An information systems design theory for e-learning. Paper presented at the Managing New Wave Information Systems: Enterprise, Government and Society, Proceedings of the 15th Australasian Conference on Information Systems, Hobart, Tasmania.

Jones, D., & Gregor, S. (2006). The formulation of an Information Systems Design Theory for E-Learning. Paper presented at the First International Conference on Design Science Research in Information Systems and Technology, Claremont, CA.

Leidner, D., & Jarvenpaa, S. (1995). The use of information technology to enhance management school education: A theoretical view. MIS Quarterly, 19(3), 265-291.

Macpherson, C., Bennett, S., & Priest, A.-M. (1997). The DDCE Online Learning Project. Paper presented at the ASCILITE’97, Perth.

McCormack, C., & Jones, D. (1997). Building a Web-Based Education System. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Pennell, R. (1996). Managing online learning. Paper presented at the AUSWEB’96. from http://ausweb.scu.edu.au/aw96/educn/pennell/index.htm.

Simon, H. (1991). Bounded rationality and organizational learning. Organization Science, 2(1), 125-134.

Zelmer, A. C. L. (1996). The more things change…memoirs of a computer-based educator. Paper presented at the ASCILITE’96, Perth.

Use of “e-learning” @ CQU up to 1996 (or so)

The following is the next completed (to a rough first draft stage) section of chapter 4 of my thesis. It follows on from a post from yesterday that started defining the problem being faced. This section completes the definition of this problem by giving a broad summary of the use of “e-learning” at CQU up until 1996.

Apologies to all those folk at CQU whose work I have not referenced. If you are such a person, please let me know what I’ve missed and I’ll add your work in. You should be able to see a bias towards work from the Department of Mathematics and Computing which was the organisational unit I belonged to back then.

Use of e-learning

In defining e-learning, this thesis draws on the OECD (2005) definition in which e-learning is “the use of information and communications technology to enhance and/or support learning in tertiary education”. By 1996 there was a long history at CQU of individual experimenting with e-learning (Buchanan & Farrands, 1995; Chernich, Jamieson, & Jones, 1995; Clayton, Farrands, & Kennedy, 1990; Philip Farrands & Cranston, 1993; Phillip Farrands & Lynch, 1996; Gregor & Cuskelly, 1994; Jones, 1994, 1996b; Dave Oliver, 1985, 1994; Zelmer & Pace, 1994). The limitations, problems and lessons learned from these experiments contributed to the understanding and definition of the problem to be solved. This section offers a brief overview of this work, using the broadest possible definition of e-learning, to illustrate this contribution. The previous work is divided along the lines of the technologies used and includes: audio and video; multimedia and computer simulations; and computer-mediated communication and the Internet.

Audio and video

For much of its existence the nature of learning and teaching at CQU has been characterised by significant geographic distance between individual students and the teaching staff. Given the established expectation of learning and teaching involving face-to-face interactions this geographic distance has created significant disquiet amongst both students and staff. As a consequence CQU has a history of fairly significant usage and experimentation with various technologies intended to provide students with audio and video and in some way re-create the face-to-face learning experience.

For distance education students audio teleconferencing and telephone tutorials have been used to provide better access and support (Davison, 1996). For many distance education students the telephone remained the main form of interaction with academic staff. The importance of this medium led to a variety of hotline services, first provided by the central distance education division and subsequently by at least one academic department, that provided a managed approach to answering student queries (Jones, 1996a). By the mid-1990s, the installation of an institutional telephone voicemail system enable some academics to create short lectures and responses to study questions on the voicemail system that students could access as the need arose (Davison, 1996).

During the early 1990s conditions became conducive to more widespread consideration of audiographics (Rehn & Towers, 1994). Ellis, Debreceny and Crago (1996) define audiographics as the linking of educational sites into a distributed classroom to provide a combination of audio, over a telephone line, and graphics, shared by computers linked by modems. During the mid-1990s there was some encouragement and use at CQU (Crock & Andrews, 1997; Thompson, Winterfield, & Flanders, 1998) thought there were some problems with the preparedness of students and staff and the accessibility and cost of the required technology. The use of audiographics at CQU mirrored the broader context and it largely disappeared with the increasing availability of the Web (Rowe & Ellis, 2008).

During the early 1990s, audio cassettes were used in a first year programming course, primarily for distance education students, to provide an example tutorial sessions between lecturer and student (Jones, 1996a). Tutored Video Instruction (TVI) was a more organised approach to the use of recording media to capture face-to-face interaction, in this case video-tapes-tapes, aimed primarily at students on CQU’s regional campuses. The identification that school leavers, the primary students at the regional campuses, did not have the independent learning skills to study successfully from predominantly print-based distance education materials was a major reason for the adoption of TVI (T. Andrews & Klease, 1998). TVI was first experimented with in 1983 and used more broadly thereafter (McConachie et al., 2006) TVI involved the production of videotapes of regular classroom lectures at the main delivery campus and the physical distribution of these tapes to non-delivery campuses at which they were played for students while in the presence of a tutor (T. Andrews & Klease, 1998). TVI was first experimented with at CQU in 1983 with broader use to follow. Some conclusions about TVI were generally positive (Appleton, Dekkers, & Sharma, 1989). However, this only worked if the TVI was not used simply to watch the tape, but instead was used as a stimulus for discussion by students and interaction with the tutor (T. Andrews & Klease, 1998).

The ability to provide a more interactive learning experience across campuses became possible in 1992, when interactive video-conferencing facilities were introduced at CQU using a ‘rollabout’ system in which all the technology was located on a trolley that could be wheeled in and out of rooms as required (Luck, 2009). In 1996, to address attrition and in order to become a true regional institution students were able to complete the second and third years of some degress at the non-Rockhampton regional campuses (David Oliver & Van Dyke, 2004). The interactive videoconferencing facilities were significantly expanded to support the necessary multi-campus teaching of advanced courses (Luck, 1999).

Multimedia and computer aided learning

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, in keeping with the broader history of technology-mediated learning (insert cross reference to chapter 2), a number of CQU-based projects were experimenting with computer-mediated and computer-assisted learning (CML/CAL). Zelmer and Pace (1994) report on such work in disciplines including biology, chemistry, mathematics and health science. By the mid to late 1990s the rise of multimedia capable personal computers increased interest, especially given improving audio and video capabilities. By this time the CQU distance education centre had created an Interactive Multimedia Unit that included instructional designers (Macpherson & Smith, 1998). The unit provided assistance in the production of multimedia resources to supplement traditional distance education resources (e.g. Stewart & Cardnell, 1998) and the development of multimedia training materials for external clients (Bennett & Reilly, 1998). While some useful multimedia resources were developed, there remained problems around this approach including inadequate development tools, incompatible computer platforms, large development costs and concerns about equity and access (Zelmer, 1995; Zelmer & Pace, 1994). By the mid-1990s, with growing recognition of the benefits of the World-Wide Web, such personal computer based applications were no longer considered state of the art (Zelmer, 1995).

The nature of print-based distance education is such that approaches often used to help students understand difficult concepts, such as live demonstrations, are not possible. CQU staff, especially those within M&C have developed a number of computer aided learning packages to address these problems and assist student learning (Jones, 1996a) with concepts such as calculus (Clayton et al., 1990), procedures and parameter passing (Buchanan & Farrands, 1995) and the internals of operating systems and the operation of concurrent programming (Chernich et al., 1995; Chernich & Jones, 1994). Even with the use of computing project students the development of quality computer-aided learning tools still requires considerable resources in providing suitable documentation and the integration of the tools into teaching (Jones, 1996a).

Computer-mediated communications and the Internet

Australian universities are linked to each other and the broader Internet through the Australian Academic and Research network (AARNET) which was introduced in June 1990 (McCann, Christmass, Nicholson, & Stuparich, 1998, p. 4). Until this time the use of e-learning was limited to dial up terminal access to mainframe computers. As early as 1985 the university provided access to mainframe computers for information technology students via dial up terminals (Dave Oliver, 1985). Difficulties associated with this practice arose from the poor quality of telephone exchanges and the high cost of telephone connections due to the distances involved (Dave Oliver, 1985). In the early 1990s the cost of these connections was addressed by the formation of the Australian Distance Education Network (ADEnet) as a way to provide low cost computer communications capabilities for distance education students from anywhere in Australia (Atkinson & Castro, 1991).

The main form of computer-mediated communication used by staff and students was still provided by institutional main-frame computers through text-based email and discussion forums such as bulletin boards and Usenet newsgroups. Oliver (1994) reports on the use of Usenet newsgroups as forums for discussion about a collection of readings in a software engineering course in 1990 and 1991. Gregor and Cuskelly (1994) report on the use of similar technologies within a postgraduate information systems course. While experiencing high levels of participation there remained significant usability were problems with learning the primitive software and low amounts of social student/student and student/instructor interaction (Gregor & Cuskelly, 1994).

Throughout the early 1990s the application of computer-mediated communication moved away from a host-centric approach towards a more Internet and distributed approach increased. The use of Internet mailing lists with M&C commenced in 1992, with 13 courses having a course mailing list in 1995 (Jones, 1995) and 22 courses in the first semester of 1996 (Jones, 1996a). Other applications included use of email for individual student/teacher communication, use of email for automated assignment submission (Jones & Jamieson, 1997), and starting in 1994 the use of the World-Wide web for the distribution of learning material. By 1995, the Department of Maths and Computing had 11 courses with a web presence. By 1996 at least three of these courses were making significant use of “hand-coded” web sites to distribute course material including the institution’s first fully online course (Jones, 1996b).

The rise of the Internet and commercial Internet Services Providers (ISP) during the mid-1990s both reduced the cost of such access and helped improve the ease-of-use. However, for some CQU students, asking them to use this technology represented a misunderstanding of their reality with the necessary costs of having a computer and using an ISP being equivalent to the deposit on a reasonable care the subsequent higher purchase repayments (Davison, 1996). For some, this and other work was seen by some as indicating that CQU was evolving into a fourth generation university through the incorporation of interactive multimedia and computer-mediated communication technologies (Crock & Andrews, 1997).

There remained, however, the issue of widespread staff adoption and use. By 1996, many CQU academics used no more than the written word for distanced education, with some making little or no attempt to utilise other existing technologies such as teleconferencing, audio-cassettes or even pictures within study materials (Davison, 1996). It was also observed that although pockets of expertise existed at CQU, and there had been some useful dabbling in online delivery, the majority of academics and administrators had little or no idea of what this new approach to teaching was all about (Macpherson, Bennett, & Priest, 1997). This was in line with the broader recognition that it was difficult for educators that lack technical background to create sophisticated WWW-based courses (Goldberg, Salari, & Swoboda, 1996).

It was recognised within M&C that the Web and online learning offered one approach that could address problems with existing teaching media and methods, improve the overall learning experience of the students, and possibly expand the student base (Jones & Buchanan, 1996). However, given the difficulties and time-consuming nature of web-based learning, it was believed that for web-based learning to become widespread within M&C it would be necessary to implement appropriate tools, automated systems, procedures, documentation and training to reduce the burden (Jones & Buchanan, 1996). This was the problem set for the author when he was given teaching relief for the second half of 1996. The task was to lead the development of a system, processes and resources to support the use of web-based learning in all of the department’s courses (Jones & Buchanan, 1996). From the perspective of M&C it was expected that the resulting system would enable the use of online learning in all department courses and provide M&C with a distinct advantage over its competitors (Jones & Buchanan, 1996). As an additional requirement it was expected that the same system would be used to provide the organistional website for the Faculty of Applied Science, the broader faculty to which M&C belonged.

References

Andrews, T., & Klease, G. (1998). Challenges of multisite video conferencing: The development of an alternative teaching/learning model. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 14(2), 88-97.

Appleton, A., Dekkers, J., & Sharma, R. (1989). Improved teaching excellence by using tutored video instruction: an Australian case study. Paper presented at the 11th EAIR Forum.

Atkinson, R., & Castro, A. (1991). The ADEnet project: Improving computer communications for distance education students. Paper presented at the Quality in Distance Education: ASPESA Forum 91, Bathurst, NSW: Australia.

Bennett, S., & Reilly, P. (1998). Using interactive multimedia to improve operator training at Queensland Alumina Limited. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 14(2), 75-87.

Buchanan, R., & Farrands, P. (1995). Can simulations help students understand programming concepts: a case study. Paper presented at the The Twelfth Annual Conference of the Australian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, Melbourne, Victoria.

Chernich, R., Jamieson, B., & Jones, D. (1995). RCOS: Yet another teaching operating system. Paper presented at the First Australasian Conference on Computer Science Education, Sydney.

Chernich, R., & Jones, D. (1994). The design and construction of a simulated operating system. Paper presented at the Asia Pacific Information Technology in Education Conference, Brisbane.

Clayton, D., Farrands, P., & Kennedy, M. (1990). Using the microcomputer to enhance calculus teaching. Collegiate Microcomputer, 8(1), 47-50.

Crock, M., & Andrews, T. (1997). Providing staff and student support for alternative learning environments [Electronic Version]. utilBASE. Retrieved 19 July, 2009 from http://ultibase.rmit.edu.au/Articles/dec97/crock1.htm.

Davison, T. (1996). Distance learning and information technology: Problems and solutions in balancing caring, access and success for students. Distance Education, 17(1), 145-158.

Ellis, A., Debreceny, R., & Crago, R. (1996). Half a decade of audiographics development: A case history of Electronic Classroom and its users. Paper presented at the Third International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, Perth, Western Australia.

Farrands, P., & Cranston, M. (1993). Computing facilities of distance students. Paper presented at the Distance Education Futures, 11th Biennial ASPESA Forum.

Farrands, P., & Lynch, T. (1996). Using computer generated software metrics to improve the quality of students’ programs. Paper presented at the 1st Australasian Conference on Computer Science Education, Sydney.

Goldberg, M., Salari, S., & Swoboda, P. (1996). World-Wide Web – Course Tool: An environment for building WWW-based courses. Computer Networks and ISDN Systems, 28, 1219-1231.

Gregor, S., & Cuskelly, E. (1994). Computer-mediated communication in distance education. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 10(3), 161-181.

Jones, D. (1994). A workstation in every home! Paper presented at the Asia Pacific Information Technology in Education Conference, Brisbane.

Jones, D. (1995). 1000 users on a 486. Paper presented at the SAGE-AU’95, Wollongong.

Jones, D. (1996a). Computing by distance education: Problems and solutions. Paper presented at the Integrating Technology into Computer Science Education.

Jones, D. (1996b). Solving Some Problems of University Education: A Case Study. Paper presented at the AusWeb’96, Gold Coast, QLD.

Jones, D., & Buchanan, R. (1996). The design of an integrated online learning environment. Paper presented at the Proceedings of ASCILITE’96, Adelaide.

Jones, D., & Jamieson, B. (1997). Three Generations of Online Assignment Management. Paper presented at the ASCILITE’97, Perth, Australia.

Luck, J. (1999). Teaching and learning using interactive videoconferencing: screen-based classrooms require the development of new ways of working. Paper presented at the AARE-NZARE, Melbourne, Australia.

Luck, J. (2009). Fusing technological design with social concerns: A socio-technical study of implementing interactive videoconferencing. Paper presented at the World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2009, Honolulu, Hawaii.

Macpherson, C., Bennett, S., & Priest, A.-M. (1997). The DDCE Online Learning Project. Paper presented at the ASCILITE’97, Perth.

Macpherson, C., & Smith, A. (1998). Academic authors’ perceptions of the instructional design and development process for distance education: A case study. Distance Education, 19(1), 124-141.

McCann, D., Christmass, J., Nicholson, P., & Stuparich, J. (1998). Educational technology in higher education. Canberra, ANU: Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs.

McConachie, J., Harreveld, R. E., Luck, J., Nouwens, F., & Danaher, P. (2006). Editor’s introduction. In J. McConachie, R. E. Harreveld, J. Luck, F. Nouwens & P. Danaher (Eds.), Doctrina perpetua: brokering change, promoting innovation and transforming marginalisation in university learning and teaching. Teneriffe, Qld: Post Pressed.

OECD. (2005, 17 January 2006). Policy Brief: E-learning in Tertiary Education.   Retrieved 5 December, 2006, from http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/55/25/35961132.pdf

Oliver, D. (1985). Off campus computing. ACM SIGCSE Bulletin, 17(2), 21-26.

Oliver, D. (1994). Software engineering project work in combined distance and on campus modes. ACM SIGCSE Bulletin, 26(2), 31-35.

Oliver, D., & Van Dyke, M. (2004). Looking back, looking in and looking on: Treading over the ERP battleground. In L. von Hellens, S. Nielsen & J. Beekhuyzen (Eds.), Qualitative case studies on implementation of enterprise wide systems (pp. 123-138). Hershey, PA: Idea Group.

Rehn, G., & Towers, S. (1994). Audiographic teleconferencing: The Cinderella of interactive multimedia. Paper presented at the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, Perth, Western Australia.

Rowe, S., & Ellis, A. (2008). Can one size fit all? Using web-based audio-graphics to support more flexible delivery and learning. Paper presented at the ASCILITE’2008, Melbourne, Victoria.

Stewart, S., & Cardnell, D. (1998). Computer Hardware Fundamentals using multimedia: The sequel. Paper presented at the ASCILITE’1998, Wollongong, NSW.

Thompson, R., Winterfield, J., & Flanders, M. (1998). Into the world of electronic classrooms: a passport to flexible learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 29(2), 177-179.

Zelmer, A. C. L. (1995). Re-examining the myth: Developing truly affordable multimedia. Paper presented at the Learning with Technology: The 12th Annual Conference of the Australian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, Melbourne, Victoria.

Zelmer, A. C. L., & Pace, S. (1994, 23-28 January, 1994). Unrealised expectations: Developing (truly) affordable multimedia. Paper presented at the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, Perth, Western Australia.

PhD update #18 – moving along

Last week’s update reported on a bit of a brick wall that had been struck. Thankfully, the strategies outlined in that update and feedback from the esteemed supervisor has well and truly destroyed said brick wall and progress is steaming ahead with a renewed sense of vigour and perhaps just the vaguest glimmers of light at the end of a long, long tunnel.

What I’ve done

Last week, I said I would

  • Bundle up chapter 2, send it to the supervisor and await some independent feedback. DONE
    This one was already done when I completed the last update. Since then I’ve received feedback from the supervisor, positive feedback and also some good directions on where to go next.
  • Aim to complete a first draft of chapter 4.
    This hasn’t been completed. However, progress has been made. I’ve just posted a first draft of the introduction and section 4.2.1. Status on other parts of this chapter are:
    • Section 4.2.2 (last bit of 4.2) is essentially done. Some minor additional references to add in.
    • Section 4.3 (a description of the design and rationale of Webfuse) is almost all done. About 16 pages so far, including a few graphics.
    • Section 4.4 (evaluation of Webfuse: 1996 to 1999) some initial thoughts and stats, but needs some work. However, shouldn’t be too large.
    • Section 4.5 (essentially the abstraction into an ISDT) a vague collection of quotes of previous papers all in the Walls et al format for an ISDT. Need to be updated and put into the Gregor and Jones format.
  • Complete first draft of chapter 6. – obviously not done.

What I’ll do next week

The main aim is to get a complete first draft of chapter 4 completed and sent off to the esteemed supervisor.

At this stage, I’ll revisit feedback on chapter 2 and set out again to get the last remaining 3.5 components of the Ps Framework complete.

Build it and they will come – starting with the institution

In the last PhD update I outlined a change to tack. I’ve moved from working on chapter 2 (the lit review) to working on chapter 4. Chapter 4 is the first of two chapters, each describing one iteration of the 2 action research cycles that make up the core contribution of the thesis. Chapter 4 focuses on the period from 1996 through to 1999 and is titled “Build it and they will come”.

The following is the introduction and first part of the first major section of that chapter. Most of the content seeks to describe CQU as it stood in 1996. i.e. it’s attempting to outline the context in which the development of Webfuse arose. The next post/section will offer a description of the state of “e-learning” use at CQU by the end of 1996.

You should be aware, as with previous posts containing sections of the thesis, the following is at a rough draft stage. Most of the prose is there, in the right structure but it hasn’t been gone over with a fine tooth comb.

Introduction

The aim of this work is to formulate an Information Systems Design Theory (ISDT) for e-learning within a university setting. As outlined in Chapter 3, the work has used an iterative, action-research process over a number of years to develop and evolve a real information system with thousands of users and to provide the foundation and insight to formulate the ISDT. Previous publications (Jones & Gregor, 2004, 2006) have described the formulation of the ISDT using three separate phases, this thesis will use two. This chapter describes the first phase of ISDT formulation from 1996 through 1999 and its use of a somewhat unique technical solution married with fairly naïve, traditional and misguided approach to dissemination. Chapter 5 takes up the story from 2000 through 2004 and adopts more informed approaches to both technology and process with improved outcomes.

Both chapters use a common structure adapted from the synthesised design and action research approach proposed by Cole, Purao, Rossi and Sein (2005). This structure starts with a definition of the problem (Section 4.2) to be addressed in terms of the context in which this work commenced in 1996 and the organisational requirements at that stage. Next, section 4.3 describes the design and implementation of the information system designed to fulfil those organisational requirements. Section 4.4 presents an evaluation of the resulting system and its use from 1996 through 1999. The chapter closes with a reflection and learning section (Section 4.5) that seeks to abstract the knowledge gained during this intervention with the aim of making a practical and theoretical contribution. For this work this abstraction will take the form of the first generation of the ISDT using the anatomy of an ISDT proposed in Gregor and Jones (2007).

While originally conceptualised in 1996 (Jones & Buchanan, 1996) as a research project, the implementation of the system discussed in this thesis was not initially seen as a process that would produce an ISDT. This is one reason why the first three sections of this chapter do not mention design theory or design research. Instead, they seek to describe the principles, ideas and approaches taken as expressed during 1996 to 1999. This description draws upon a number of publications from that time (Gregor, Jones, Lynch, & Plummer, 1999; Jones, 1995, 1996a, 1996b, 1999a, 1999b; Jones & Buchanan, 1996; McCormack & Jones, 1997), supplemented with email and log archives. This description has also been shared with other individuals involved in the activities. The abstraction into an ISDT is outlined in Section 4.5 and is being written in 2009 and has been informed by prior attempts to abstract the principles and processes from 1996-1999 into an ISDT (Jones & Gregor, 2004, 2006; Jones, Gregor, & Lynch, 2003).

Section 4.2 – Problem definition

This work commences in mid-1996 within the Department of Mathematics and Computing (M&C) at Central Queensland University (CQU) with the recognition that the department needed to make greater use of the World-Wide-Web and other Internet-based technologies in its teaching and learning. This need arose due to the increasing quantity and diversity of the department’s students, prior experience with e-learning, increasing interest in the Web and perceived limitations with traditional teaching methods. The problem was how to enable the department to adopt e-learning across its teaching and learning. This section provides more background to this problem by first describing the institutional context (Section 4.2.1) within which this research takes place and the experience with e-learning within this institution in the period leading up to 1996 (Section 4.2.2). Section 4.3 moves onto to describe the design and nature of the intervention undertaken to address the problem.

4.2.1 – The institution

Central Queensland University (CQU) is an Australian university which started life in the town of Rockhampton in 1967 (Bowser, Danaher, & Somasundaram, 2007). Since that time it has undergone a series of name changes starting with the Queensland Institute of Technology (QIT) Capricornia in 1967, Capricornia Institute of Advance Education in June 1971, the University College of Central Queensland in 1990, the University of Central Queensland in 1992, Central Queensland University in 1994 and CQUniversity in 2008 (McConachie, Harreveld, Luck, Nouwens, & Danaher, 2006; David Oliver & Van Dyke, 2004). as the Queensland Institutue of Technology (Capricornia) in 1967. It became the Capricornia Institute of Advanced Education in 1971 and the University College of Central Queensland in 1990 (Central Queensland University, 2006). The 1990 name change was part of the abolution of the binary system within Australian higher education and marked the institution transition to full university status. Full university status was achieved in January 1992 with the initial name the University of Central Queensland which was changed to Central Queensland University in 1994 (Central Queensland University, 2006).

Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s significant changes were made to how and where the institution drew its students. These changes arose from a combination of institutional need, environmental and sector influences and an on-going need to increase student enrolment to ensure long-term viability. Three significant shifts in student population and methods of learning and teaching experienced by CQU included: the adoption of distance education; development of additional Central Queensland campuses; and expansion into international campuses through commercial partnership. Each of these is briefly explained in the following.

The adoption of distance education. The large geographic distances and small population based within the institution’s local area made distance education an appropriate response to community needs for higher education (Dave Oliver & Romm, 2001). In 1974 the institution became the first Australian provider of a Bachelor of Applied Science via distance education (David Oliver & Van Dyke, 2004) with Biology, Mathematics and Management following in subsequent years. By 1983 the number of students enrolled to study via distance education exceeded the number enrolled as on-campus students (Cryle, 1992). By 1995 of the approximately 9000 people enrolled with CQU, 4500 were studying by distance education with many of these unable to easily access the various sites supporting distance education (Davison, 1996).

The development of additional Central Queensland regional campuses. From the mid-1980s a variety of community pressures contributed to the establishment of additional campuses in the Central Queensland towns of Mackay (350 kilometres to the north), Gladstone (120 kilometres to the south), Bundaberg (330 kilometres to the south) and Emerald (280 kilometres to the west). This produced a network of campuses covering a geographical area of some 616,121 square kilometres (Dave Oliver & Romm, 2001). Until 1996, these campuses only offered the first year of courses with students having to move to Rockhampton or study by distance education to complete their studies (Luck, 1999). This resulted in some students transferring to other universities after their first year. To address this attrition and become a true regional institution second and third years of some degress were introduced on other regional campuses (David Oliver & Van Dyke, 2004). Interactive videoconferencing facilities (discussed in more details in the Section 4.2.2) were implemented to support the necessary multi-campus teaching of advanced courses (Luck, 1999).

The development of the international campuses through commercial partnership. During 1998, CQU’s Vice-Chancellor continued an on-going argument that the survival of regional university, like CQU, was dependent on it being able to raise funds from a non-government source. At this time CQU had commenced planned growth into overseas student markets, both internationally and within Australia, in order to strengthen CQU’s local campuses (Singh, 1998, pp. 13-14). Throught the 1990s CQU formed partnerships with a small number of overseas companies to teach students within Singapore, Hong Kong, Fiji and Dubai. In the early 1990s, through a commercial partnership with a private company, the institution established a number of campuses in major Australian cities – Sydney (1994), Melbourne (1996), Brisbane (1998), Fiji (1998) and the Gold Coast (2001) – to cater specifically for overseas students (David Oliver & Van Dyke, 2004). Students at these campuses are tutored by locally appointed academic staff, specifically employed for teaching rather than research, giving face-to-face tutorials and lectures supplemented with distance education materials (Marshall & Gregor, 2002, p. 29). Consequently, it was possible that some courses with large enrolments at multiple campuses could have 40 or more academic staff teaching the course in different locations.

Table 4.1 provides an overview of the student cohort at CQU during the time period 1996 through 1999. The overview shows the percentage of individual students enrolled at CQU through the various modes. Distance education students relied on primarily on print-based materials and rarely attended a campus. Regional campus students attended one of the institution’s Central Queensland campuses. International campus students attended one of the campuses within Australia, created by CQU’s commercial partner primarily for international students. During this time period only the Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane campuses were operating. Overseas international students were studying in Dubai, Singapore or Hong Kong using CQU learning materials and supported by a local, commercial partner of CQU.

Table 4.1 – Overview of CQU student numbers (1996-1999) by mode
  1996 1997 1998 1999
Distance education 59.4% 55.6% 53.7% 52.3%
Regional campus 34.7% 34.7% 32.6% 31.1%
International campus 4.4% 7.7% 10.5% 13.1%
Overseas international 1.6% 3.1% 3.3% 3.6%

In 1996, CQU’s academic units were broken up into six Faculties (Arts, Applied Science, Business, Education, Health Science and Engineering) made up of departments. The Department of Mathematics & Computing (M&C) at Central Queensland University (CQU) was part of the Faculty of Applied Science. The Department had a history of teaching programs in Mathematics and Information Technology (applied computing) to students studying on-campus or via print-based distance education. Distance education students rarely, if ever, set foot on a university campus. M&C had significant experience in print-based distance education, becoming amongst the first in the world to offer a professional computing course via print-based distance education when it offered Computer Science I in 1975 (Hinz, 1977).

Many of CQU’s distance computing students are mature, highly motivated people many of whom have already completed previous tertiary studies or have worked in the computing industry. The majority (87%) of CQU distance computing students study part-time while working full-time (Philip Farrands & Cranston, 1993) and in many cases supporting a family. By 1996, CQU was essentially a second generation distance education (Nipper, 1989) dual-mode provider. This means that the same courses were delivered to both on-campus and distance students, generally by the same teaching staff. With distance education students relying predominantly on print, in the form of study guides, textbooks and resource materials books, as the primary teaching medium (Jones, 1996b). University policy required that all courses offered by distance education must pass through the DDCE system (Macpherson & Smith, 1998).

The reputation of CQU’s pre-dominantly paper-based distance education resources is a result of a mostly collaborative effort between academics, instructional designers, editors, printery staff and other employees such as maintenance workers and administrative staff (Davison, 1996). In 1996, the Division of Distance and Continuing Education (DDCE) was responsible for the production and distribution of all distance learning material and consequently the specification of deadlines and the style of distance education material (Jones, 1996a). DDCE also offered a range of services including and instructional design, editing, management of assignment submission, and various other student support services. A wide range of computing and communications facilities were provided and maintained by the Information Technology Division (ITD). However, a small number of academic departments, such as the Department of Mathematics and Computing, funded and maintained their own information technology resources.

During 1997 and 1998 the institution undertook a comprehensive review of academic structures. The primary intent was to make the institution more competitive in an increasingly aggressive higher education marketplace (Macpherson & Smith, 1998). As a result of this review, a new structure of faculties of schools was created through innovative combinations of complementary disciplines that offered potential synergies that could be exploited to improve both teaching and research programs (Higher Education Division, 1999). The original six faculties were reduced to five through the combination of some existing faculties and the creation of a new one. The Department of Mathematics and Computing was moved from the Faculty of Applied Science to the Faculty of Informatics and Communications (Infocom). Infocom brought together the discipline areas of information technology, information systems, communication, cultural studies, journalism, mathematics and health informatics (Condon, Shepherd, & Parr, 2003) At the same time, the institution introduced a change from a two-semester academic year to a four-term academic year with the intent of attracting new students by enabling them to complete degrees over shorter periods of time (Macpherson & Smith, 1998).

The nature of a dual-mode, second generation distance education institution, the capabilities of the existing technologies, and the resulting organisational policies and processes necessary to support this practice across a large number of courses created a range of problems. These problems were widely known within the distance education literature (Caladine, 1993; Galusha, 1997; Jones, 1996a; Keegan, 1993; Sherry, 1995) and included, amongst others: high attrition in initial courses; loss of student motivation; significant up-front costs; limited interaction, collaboration or active learning; inflexibility in processes and materials; limited recognition and reward for staff; the out of sight, out of mind problem; and constraints of the print medium. The existence of these problems and the availability of a range of technologies and media have led members of the CQU community to undertake a range of experiments with e-learning. A brief overview of these experiments leading up to the start of this project in 1996 is provided in the following section.

References

Bowser, D., Danaher, P., & Somasundaram, J. (2007). Indigenous, pre-undergraduate and international students at Central Queensland University, Australia: three cases of the dynamic tension between diversity and commonality. Teaching in Higher Education, 12(5), 669-681.

Caladine, R. (1993). Overseas experience in non-traditional modes of delivery in higher education using state-of-the-art technologies: A literature review. Canberra: Department of Employment, Education and Training.

Central Queensland University. (2006). The history of Central Queensland University.   Retrieved 9 Jan, 2007, 2007, from http://www.cqu.edu.au/about/history.htm

Cole, R., Purao, S., Rossi, M., & Sein, M. (2005). Being proactive: Where action research meets design research. Paper presented at the Twenty-Sixth International Conference on Information Systems.

Condon, A., Shepherd, J., & Parr, S. (2003). Managing the evolution of a new faculty in the 21st century. Paper presented at the ATEM’2003.

Cryle, D. (1992). Academia Capricornia: A history of the University of Central Queensland. Rockhampton, QLD: University of Central Queensland.

Davison, T. (1996). Distance learning and information technology: Problems and solutions in balancing caring, access and success for students. Distance Education, 17(1), 145-158.

Farrands, P., & Cranston, M. (1993). Computing facilities of distance students. Paper presented at the Distance Education Futures, 11th Biennial ASPESA Forum.

Galusha, J. (1997). Barriers to learning in distance education. Interpersonal Computing and Technology, 5(3-4), 6-14.

Gregor, S., & Jones, D. (2007). The anatomy of a design theory. Journal of the Association for Information Systems, 8(5), 312-335.

Gregor, S., Jones, D., Lynch, T., & Plummer, A. A. (1999). Web information systems development: some neglected aspects. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the International Business Association Conference, Cancun, Mexico.

Higher Education Division. (1999). The quality of Australian higher education: An overview. Canberra, ACT: Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs.

Hinz, T. (1977). Teaching computing subjects externally. Paper presented at the Conference on Research in Mathematics Education, Melbourne.

Jones, D. (1995). 1000 users on a 486. Paper presented at the SAGE-AU’95, Wollongong.

Jones, D. (1996a). Computing by distance education: Problems and solutions. Paper presented at the Integrating Technology into Computer Science Education.

Jones, D. (1996b). Solving Some Problems of University Education: A Case Study. Paper presented at the AusWeb’96, Gold Coast, QLD.

Jones, D. (1999a). Solving some problems with university education: Part II. Paper presented at the Ausweb’99, Balina, Australia.

Jones, D. (1999b). Webfuse: An integrated, eclectic web authoring tool. Paper presented at the Proceedings of EdMedia’99, World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia & Telecommunications, Seattle.

Jones, D., & Buchanan, R. (1996). The design of an integrated online learning environment. Paper presented at the Proceedings of ASCILITE’96, Adelaide.

Jones, D., & Gregor, S. (2004). An information systems design theory for e-learning. Paper presented at the Managing New Wave Information Systems: Enterprise, Government and Society, Proceedings of the 15th Australasian Conference on Information Systems, Hobart, Tasmania.

Jones, D., & Gregor, S. (2006). The formulation of an Information Systems Design Theory for E-Learning. Paper presented at the First International Conference on Design Science Research in Information Systems and Technology, Claremont, CA.

Jones, D., Gregor, S., & Lynch, T. (2003). An information systems design theory for web-based education. Paper presented at the IASTED International Symposium on Web-based Education, Rhodes, Greece.

Keegan, D. (1993). Theoretical princples of distance education: Routledge.

Luck, J. (1999). Teaching and learning using interactive videoconferencing: screen-based classrooms require the development of new ways of working. Paper presented at the AARE-NZARE, Melbourne, Australia.

Macpherson, C., & Smith, A. (1998). Academic authors’ perceptions of the instructional design and development process for distance education: A case study. Distance Education, 19(1), 124-141.

Marshall, S., & Gregor, S. (2002). Distance education in the online world: Implications for higher education. In R. Discenza, C. Howard & K. Schenk (Eds.), The design and management of effective distance learning programs (pp. 21-36). Hershey, PA, USA: IGI Publishing.

McConachie, J., Harreveld, R. E., Luck, J., Nouwens, F., & Danaher, P. (2006). Editor’s introduction. In J. McConachie, R. E. Harreveld, J. Luck, F. Nouwens & P. Danaher (Eds.), Doctrina perpetua: brokering change, promoting innovation and transforming marginalisation in university learning and teaching. Teneriffe, Qld: Post Pressed.

McCormack, C., & Jones, D. (1997). Building a Web-Based Education System. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Nipper, S. (1989). Third generation distance learning and computer conferencing. In R. Mason & A. Kaye (Eds.), Mindweave: Communication, Computers and Distance Education (pp. 63-73). Oxford, UK: Pergamon Press.

Oliver, D., & Romm, C. (2001). Integrated systems: Management approaches to acquiring them in Australian Universities. In K. Pearlson (Ed.), Managing and using information systems: A strategic approach: John Wiley & Sons.

Oliver, D., & Van Dyke, M. (2004). Looking back, looking in and looking on: Treading over the ERP battleground. In L. von Hellens, S. Nielsen & J. Beekhuyzen (Eds.), Qualitative case studies on implementation of enterprise wide systems (pp. 123-138). Hershey, PA: Idea Group.

Sherry, L. (1995). Issues in distance learning. International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 1(4), 337-365.

Singh, M. (1998). Globalism, cultural diversity and tertiary education. Australian Universities Review, 41(2), 12-17.

ePortfolios in universities – forget it?

I continue to have a high level of skepticism around the concept of universities investing in ePortfolios. I feel that it is another example of how people within universities tend to over-emphasize their importance in the scheme of things, extend the university role into areas it where it should never have been and subsequently waste resources and more importantly the time and energy of academic staff that would be better spent focusing on other aspects of improving learning and teaching. In particular, I see ePortfolios being another approach that is being over-run by the technologists alliance.

This latest restating of my prejudice arises from a find from Stephen Downes OLDaily newsletter which eventually traces back to this post from a Spanish higher school teacher which in turn draws on this post from Derek Wenmoth.

Perhaps this is some limitation of mine. I just don’t see the point of ePortfolios. What is all the fuss about?

The diagram

The core of the post is the following image that, at least for me, does a good job of giving a road map of what learner’s do within their learning: do stuff, manage the outcomes, present it to various audiences, share it with others.

ePortfolio roadmap by Perfil de Sonia Guilana

My immediate though was where in any of this is there a need for a formal institution of learning (e.g. university or school) to provide the learner with the tools to perform any of this? Why does the advent of elearning technologies change any of the relationships?

From the discussion it appears that the institution’s role can be seen in providing a VLE – shown as one place the learner might “do stuff” and also talked about one place they may “manage stuff” – and one part of “presenting stuff”. The institution’s role in “presenting stuff” is in assessment and accreditation.

Already the VLE provided by institution’s is falling behind the usability and functionality provided by external tools. Sorry, but having seen both Moodle and Blackboard up close, I’d much prefer to be using external tools. I even prefer, for functionality and ease of use reason, using Google Mail to the email system provided by institution. Given they are already falling behind, why should an institution believe it can provide a better suite of systems for the learner to “present stuff” with.

Institution’s providing portfolio systems becomes a bit more silly when you add in the observations that informal learning far outweighs formal learning and that increasingly learners will engage in formal learning from many different providers. One solution proposed to address these issues is for education systems to standardise portfolio systems so either they are all using the same one or have systems that talk to each other. Given the long history of failure of such attempts at standarisation, I’m surprised anyone still doesn’t laugh uproariously when someone suggests such a project.

What is an alternative?

Only very briefly, have to stop procrastinating and get back to the thesis, the following are some initial suggestions:

  • Ensure that institutional systems integrate/interface simply and effectively with all the other tools that make up the above diagram.
    e.g. it should be easy for learners to export the “stuff” they produce in a VLE into their own tools. As part of this, VLEs should be generating RSS feeds for most if not all of its functions. Ensure institutional systems work within global authentication systems (e.g. OpenID), rather than institutional or system specific authentication systems. (e.g. Australian Access Federation)
  • Focus institutional technology on only those tasks that the institution must perform and aim on doing it well.
    e.g. Rather than providing an ePortfolio system that helps learners present their work (something they can do themselves). Focus on implementing significant improvements on the systems around assessment and accreditation. The assignment submission systems in most VLEs is woeful, and that’s only in simple implementation details that would significantly increase the efficiency of the assessment process. Most don’t offer any support for activities that might significantly improve learning and assessment from an educational perspective.

In part, this is one aspect of the BAM project. One area it is trying to experiment with. Rather than require students to use blogs provided within an institution LMS (which are mostly really limited), allow them to use real-world blog engines and focus the institutional information technology on the assessment aspect.

Wicked problems, requirements gathering and the LMS approach to e-learning

Increasingly, the IT requirements of organisations are being met through the application of “enterprise systems”. Large systems created by commercial vendors (though increasingly there are also open source variants, which while offering small improvements still suffer some of the same problems) that are meant to provide an integrated solution to a large scale system with an appraoch that combines “best practice” processes and techniques with information technology that will “scale” to meet the requirements of the organisation. Examples including ERP systems like Peoplesoft for finance, human resources and, at universities, student enrolment. In terms of e-learning at Universities the current dominant approach is also to employ “enterprise systems”. With e-learning the “enterprise system” is known as the learning management system (lms), course management system (cms), virtual learning environment (vle) or some other 3 letter acronym. Examples include: Blackboard, Moodle and Sakai.

In this context, based on the experience and observations of myself and colleagues from around the world, I’m suggesting the following as a nascent (and fairly cynical) process model for how IT departments approach development of feature requests from users. Have you got any additional steps you’d like added?

The process model is

  • Ignore the request.
  • Explain that the request can’t be done.
  • Explain to the requester how the same outcome can be achieved using another process within the existing system. The suggested approach will be so time and resource consuming for the requester that they are unlikely to use it.
  • Explain how the cost and resource implications of the request mean it can’t be implement at this point in time.
  • Explain how, given the need to upgrade to the next version of the enterprise system, IT needs to spend all of its technical resources on upgrading to the next version and consequently can’t implement the request feature.
  • Funnel the request through a reference group, project board or governance committee who are meant to identify whether or not the request is sensible and worth expending scarce resources. Such groups are usually made up of users – usually management or innovative end-users – and IT people. The user representatives usually have no IT knowledge and have to rely on the objective expert knowledge of the IT people.
  • Explain how the given feature doesn’t neatly fit within the model on which the enterprise system is built and how that would require IT to extend the enterprise system beyond “vanilla” and that it can’t do that. Since, if it goes beyond vanilla the next time it has to upgrade to the next version of the enterprise system it will have to re-implement the feature request, and that’s expensive.
  • If we get to this stage, the feature request might be implemented. The first stage of this implementation will be to funnel the request to a business analyst who will be tasked to determine the complete requirements for the request. The business analyst will, at the start of this project, usually have no knowledge of the business (e.g. the nature of learning and teaching) or of the technology that will be used to implement the feature. They are meant to develop an objective and complete set of requirements that doesn’t need to be sullied by additional knowledge.

    It is highly likely that the implementation will not be completed due to a range of factors.

So, in an enterprise system environment, I would suggest that it is highly unlikely that any feature request from a coal-face user will be implemented. If the request originates from someone important within the organisation, chances are that it won’t be implemented either, but it will go a slightly different route (e.g. it probably won’t have to go to the reference group).

But even if the request makes it all the way to the final step, there’s a problem.

Fundamental difficulty in establishing system requirements

The following is a quote from Sommerville (2001, p32). This is the 6th edition of one of the standard textbooks on software engineering. This is what it has to say about establishing system requirements.

A fundamental difficulty in establishing system requirements is that the problems which complex systems are usually built to help tackle are usually ‘wicked problems’ (Rittel and Webber 1973). A ‘wicked problem’ is a problem which is so complex and where there are so many related entities that there is no definitive problem specification. The true nature of the problem only emerges as a solution is developed.

This is the source of the well known problem in software engineering – “The user won’t know what they want until they see it, and then they will want something different to what they told you during the requirements gathering stage”. This is the reason why the business analyst approach and the related teleological approach to systems development is deeply flawed in just about any context, but especially those that are diverse and less than stable.

I’m hard pressed to think of any context that is more diverse and less stable than that involved with the implementation of e-learning within a university.

Disclaimers

I know of any number of really talented, nice people that work within IT departments and are driven to provide the best service they can to their clients. I’ve also seen a few that are not so nice, talented or appropriately motivated.

Personally, I don’t believe in universal models. I don’t think that all systems/institutions use the model above. I do think, in some situations, that the above model might be appropriate – not just e-learning. However, most IT departments profess a belief in universal models (i.e. single templated processes to implement any system regardless of its type). Most profess that you must generate requirements and only then start implementation, get sign off and then don’t touch the system for years. They don’t see the need for alternatives, in some situations.

Yes, I have developed alternate solutions or approaches. I’m not just being critical.

References

Rittel, H. W. J. and M. M. Webber (1973). “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning.” Policy Sciences 4(2): 155-169.

Sommerville, I. (2001). Software Engineering, Addison-Wesley.

BAM into Moodle #5 – Coding a block?

Up to Unit 7 of the introduction to Moodle programming course, this one is titled “Replicating a moodle block”. So the programming begins.

Creating a simple block

Looks like we’ll be doing most of the standard stuff, adding tables, using forms CRUD…Staring with this tutorial from the Moodle site. THe process

  • Create a single file in a single directory
    ~/blocks/lowercase name of block is the directory and block_lowercase name of block.php is the file.
  • File format:
    • first line is block class definition – fixed naming convention
    • class must have an init() method – initially to set to class member variables title and version
    • get_content – required before it will display something on screen

Bugger, laptop migration didn’t work 100% with permissions – XAMPP is playing silly buggers, and now so is Moodle. Ahh, CVS wasn’t brought across in the migration either. Bugger, Apple developer CDs – long time to download to get CVS…..

Okay, back to it.

Misc other stuff

  • instance_allow_config method returns true to allow instance configuration
  • config_instance.html – used to specify HTML/PHP/Moodle functions to implement form to allow configuration
  • can’t use config variables in init section of blocks
  • specialization method is automatically called after init – used to apply config i.e. to specialize the block
  • instance_allow_multiple method allows multiple instances of the block for a single course – if it returns true
  • has_config – indicates global configuration exists if it returns true – i.e. allows application of config to all instances in all courses.
  • config_global.html – specify HTML form for global configuration

Skip to Unit 9 – requirements documents

While that’s downloading, time to move on. Will need to think about a requirements document some time soon to keep the organisational hierarchy happy and it will probably not require any code. Onto unit 9 – requirements documents.

Ahh, believes a requirements document will reduce feature creep – philosophically I disagree with this. It allows the developer to ignore the user’s growing knowledge of what they’d like to do with the application. It closes off possibilities – or at least that is how it is used.

It’s all fairly standard requirements document guff, little specific to Moodle. Most of it is just really limited in being of any use in a real situation.

This section of the Moodle developer docs seems to be a bit more useful and talks about creating a specification in Moodle docs. This one is used as the example.

. Some other alternatives include: specification of Workshop 2.0, blog improvements.

This will have to come later.

What’s next?

Looks like the reinstall of Moodle is going to take a while. Running out of time today. Not all that productive – but that’s what you get for changing laptops.

At this stage, it looks like it will be time to move onto the planning and documentation. Which also implies doing a presentation at CQU to generate more requirements. The interesting part of this will be working out which of the types of plugins (or how many of them) BAM will required.

For example, for students, registering their blog and checking marking progress could be thought of as activities. Configuring BAM for a course could, as it stands, be for an assignment. However, I’m not sure I want to limit use of BAM only for assessment. Why not use it as a basis for a course blog – aggregate – oops, is this feature creep?

BAM into Moodle Step #4 – Learning more about Moodle

In the previous step I got to know a bit more about the Moodle code base, libraries and idioms. Even got to modify a bit of code – nothing much more complex than hello world. Time to continue that journey.

Roles and capabilities

Continuing my journey through Unit 6 of the Moodle Programming Unit. This time with roles and capabilities.

Apparently before v1.7 there were fixed roles. Gee, I learnt that in Webfuse in 1996 – sorry, writing historical chapters of the thesis, revisiting old ground and getting pissy about it all.

Main terms are:

  • Contexts – hierarchical “spaces” in which “permissions” apply
    • 7 of them – from broadest to most specific: CONTEXT_SYSTEM, CONTEXT_PERSONAL, CONTEXT_USER (spelled CONETXT in docs), CONTEXT_COURSECAT, CONTEXT_COURSE, CONTEXT_MODULE, CONTEXT_BLOCK.
    • Permissions not set within a context are inherited from a more general context.
    • Capacilities – a specific Moodle action that can be executed by a user
      • e.g. ‘moodle/course:update’ – updating course settings
      • e.g. ‘moodle/course:viewhiddencourses’ – guess?
    • Roles – a named set of all the capabilities with associated permissions (which ain’t a great explanation)
      • e.g. student, forum moderator etc.
    • Permissions – describes the ability of a role to perform a certain capability (Que?)
      • permissions for a capbility are set within a context – e.g. course.
      • Four permissions available to be set for a capability of a role within a context:
        • CAP_INHERIT – inherit permission from more general context
        • CAP_ALLOW – guess
        • CAP_PREVENT – deny the capability in the current context and more specific contexts, unless over-ridden
        • CAP_PROHIBIT – deny a capability and don’t allow it to be over-ridden.

      Functions for roles and capabilities

      • require_login – require user to be logged in and perform some other checks
      • get_context – returns a context instance object containing a context level and an instance id – e.g. CONTEXT_COURSE and a course id. This is needed to do the next step.
      • require_capability
      • has_capability

      Documentation

      PHPDoc used for code documentation – another thing to learn.

Improving CEQ Outcomes

As part of my new position I’m meant to identify opportunities, trends etc around learning and teaching and inform the local institutional community of them. The following is the first of those reports. I’ve attempted to keep the explanation as short as possible as I’m uncertain the type of folk I’m writing this for are likely to read long essays.

It could be interpreted as a fairly questionable approach. However, I have a few theoretically perspectives on how to create sustainable improvement in L&T within a University that suggests that this is a good way to do it. It’s meant to be only the first step.

Summary

CQU’s 2009-2012 strategic plan has identified improved outcomes on the Course Experience Questionnaire (CEQ) as a key point in the quality assurance section of the learning and teaching component. This document suggests one approach to achieving that aim. It suggests that CQU improve CEQ outcomes by ensuring that the next cohort of CQU students to complete the CEQ enjoys a positive last learning experience at CQU.

The suggestion is that this be achieved by:

  • Identifying which courses contain the majority of CQU students who will next be completing the CEQ.
  • Resource and work with the course development and delivery teams of the identified courses to make modifications to these courses that:
    • do not require significant change in conceptions of teaching held by academics; and
    • maximise fit with what is known about student expectations of university learning.

The rest of this document details the rationale and assumptions, student expectations, example approaches and risk associated with this suggestion.

Rationale and assumptions

Assumptions underpinning this suggestion include:

  • CQUni has limited resources but a significant interest in improving learning and teaching as measured by the CEQ
  • Large-scale re-design of courses is expensive and likely to fail.
    It is widely established that the conceptions of teaching and learning held by teaching staff are a significant limiting factor in the types of teaching approaches adopted (Samuelowicz and Bain 2001; Gonzalez 2009). Large-scale course re-design typically relies on changes in the conception of teaching and learning held by academics. This is difficult, time-consuming and likely to fail.
  • Recent experience will over-shadow earlier experience on the CEQ.
    As an example of a “level 1” evaluation the CEQ has known limitations. Including the tendency for recent experience to over-shadow earlier experience. Consequently, a significantly positive final experience may/should have an impact on CEQ responses.
  • At least anecdotally, there have been reports of other institutions adopting strategies designed to maximise CEQ results that have worked.
    For example, it has been suggested that at least one NSW-based institution adopted wording in course profiles that match that used in the CEQ around graduate attributes and encouraged widespread use of that terminology. The implication is that a significant proportion of students completing the CEQ are not familiar with graduate attributes and the associated language. The reported institution was ranked at the top of one of the LTPF rankings.
  • Students are fairly conservative in terms of learning approaches.
    For example Hardy et al (2008) report that even students with self-perceived high levels of competence and confidence with information technology remain conservative in their approach to study and prefer traditional face-to-face approaches with online approaches used as on-demand supplements.
  • It is widely known what students want from a learning experience.
    The conservative nature of students combined with a number of reports summarised in the following section provide strongly indicative pointers of what students want from a university learning experience. See the following section.
  • There are a number of matches between what students want and the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education (7PGPUE) (Chickering and Gamson 1987).
    Table 1 frames results from various reports on student expectations using the 7PGPUE. It offers one way of “ranking” the 7PGPUE on the basis of student expectations.
  • There are approaches already adopted at CQUni that can meet these desires and observations without significant change.
    See the “Example approaches” section.

Student expectations

There is a range of reports and reviews that report upon the expectations students have of their university learning experience. These include reports from CQUni on the expectations of distance education students (Purnell, Cuskelly et al. 1996; Jones 2007), a report on what students say on the CEQ (Scott 2005), a study on student expectations from the United Kingdom (Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) 2007).
Key findings from this work include:

  • Students are conservative, they do not like approaches to learning that do not meet their expectations of a university education.
    For example, though separated by 11 years the two attempts (Purnell, Cuskelly et al. 1996; Jones 2007) to discover what CQU distance education students want found agreement. In 1996, students request greater use of audio and video-tapes to provide them with access to on-campus lectures. In 2007, the request was for increased use of online lectures.
  • The seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education (7PGPUE) (Chickering and Gamson 1987) provide a good framework for understanding what features students most like.
    Table 1 uses the 7PGPUE to frame the outcomes from the above reports on student expectations and identify potential opportunities for maximum return on investment.
Table 1 – 7PGPUE mapping of student expectations
(A rough and ready analysis)
7PGPUE Scott (2005) Jones (2007)
Student/faculty contact Presence of staff who are capable, accessible and responsive Online lectures, discussion boards
Cooperation among students   Discussion boards
Encourages active learning Designs that use interactive, practice-oriented and problem-based learning methods  
Gives prompt feedback Staff are responsive, even to the extent of improving course design during implementation Quick, effective, polite responses from staff, Online assignment submission, provision of exam results and breakdowns
Emphasizes time on task Course design that is sound and clear. Effective and responsive systems Print documents, Materials that are ready and consistent
Communicates high expectations    
Respects diverse talents and ways of learning Course designs that are flexible  

Example approaches

The following is a brief list of approaches that have been successfully used at CQU. Most are were used with distance education students. Most do not require any significant changes in the conceptions of learning and teaching held by academics. Some do require significant resources, others do not. They are included here as indicative examples and include:

  • eMail merge emails to all students at important times during the term.
    eMail merge is a tool that enables bulk email to be sent to large numbers of people in a way that makes the message seem to be private. This facility can be used to send email messages to all students at the beginning of term welcoming the student, in the lead up to assignment due dates checking to see if any assistance is required, after assignment due dates to students who have yet submitted and after results have been finalised providing essentially a coordinator’s report to students.
  • Offering a pre-submission check and feedback on assignments.
    Distance education students have been offered a chance to submit draft versions of assignments a week ahead of the due date in order to receive feedback. The feedback includes some specific feedback but also is closely tied with the assignment rubrics. The deadline of a week before the due date rules out most students as they don’t have a draft ready. However, even if they don’t make use of it, the existence of the offer is appreciated and remembered.
  • Assignments returned within 3 working days.
    Marking is designed, organised and resourced to ensure rapid turnaround using effective feedback.

Apart from these somewhat different approaches there are approaches that are normally expected, including:

  • Ensuring that study material is consistent and complete before the start of term.
  • That the marking rubric is available, easy to understand and referred to continuously.
  • All lectures are available in a variety of accessible online formats. Often before the start of term.

Risks

The following are some initial risks that may be associated with this suggestion.

Compliance and task corruption

The primary success factor for this suggestion, and any approach to improving learning and teaching, is the level of engagement and commitment on the part of the academic teaching staff. Academic staff who do not engage voluntarily in this project are more than likely to undertake forms of compliance or task corruption. There are also aspects of CQU’s current environment that may increase the risk of compliance behaviours.

Limited engagement on the part of academic staff would limit any chance of positive outcomes.

Changing conceptions

While the suggestion here is to actively avoid challenging established conceptions of learning and teaching held by academics, it is likely that any change will involve an aspect of challenge to existing models. This includes both conceptions held by academics and models embedded in CQU policies and processes. Such change will be difficult.

For example, the current practices around assignment marking at the AICs would be significantly challenged by the above example of returning assignments within 3 working days.

Diversity of students and support structures

CQU has three broadly different groups of students

  1. On-campus students based at a Central Queensland campus.
  2. On-campus students based at an AIC.
  3. Distance education students.

Each of these groups of students may have significant differences in their expectations of university learning. Such differences would impact upon the minor modifications that might be most appropriate.

Identifying appropriate modifications to courses will also need to consider the differences in the support structures and management processes used for each group of students. In particular those used at the AICs.

There may also be significant differences in the percentage of each student group that actually complete the CEQ.

Perceptions of opportunism

The CEQ statement in the strategic plan is located within the section titled “how will we know that we are doing it well?”. This suggestion could be perceived as a form of organisational task corruption. i.e. CQU is opportunistically attempting to directly influence the measure, rather than address underlying systems and practices around learning and teaching.

Responses to that view might include:

  • Other institutions are reportedly doing the same thing.
    Not a strong or perhaps “moral” defense, but a related observation.
  • CEQ itself is a less than appropriate or effective measure of the quality of learning and teaching. It has several significant flaws.
    Perhaps seen as shooting the messenger and not likely to win friends and influence people amongst a higher education sector that broadly, at least in public, accepts the CEQ.
  • The 7PGPUE has formed the basis for CQU’s management plan for learning and teaching for a number of years. This is a logical extension and use of those principles informed by research.
  • It can be argued that this is approach could provide concrete examples of improving learning and teaching which is seen as an important component for encouraging change.
    Cavallo (2004) outlines a successful approach to encouraging large scale change and growth that includes the importance of concrete exemplars. If successful, this suggestion would provide exemplars where significant improvements in student satisfaction and engagement are provided through minimal resource implications.

References

Cavallo, D. (2004). "Models of growth – Towards fundamental change in learning environments." BT Technology Journal 22(4): 96-112.

Chickering, A. W. and Z. F. Gamson (1987). "Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education." AAHE Bulletin 39(7): 3-7.

Gonzalez, C. (2009). "Conceptions of, and approaches to, teaching online: a study of lecturers teaching postgraduate distance courses." Higher Education 57(3): 299-314.

Hardy, J., D. Haywood, et al. (2008). Expectations and reality: Exploring the use of learning technologies across the disciplines. 6th Networked Learning Conference. Halkidiki, Greece, Lancaster University.

Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) (2007). Student expectations study. London, Author.

Jones, D. (2007). "Summary of FLEX student feedback."   Retrieved 24 June, 2009, from http://cddu.cqu.edu.au/images/9/96/FlexFeedback.pdf.

Purnell, K., E. Cuskelly, et al. (1996). "Improving distance education for University students: Issues and experiences of students in cities and rural areas." Journal of Distance Education 11(2).

Samuelowicz, K. and J. Bain (2001). "Revisiting academics’ beliefs about teaching and learning." Higher Education 41(3): 299-325.

Scott, G. (2005). Accessing the student voice: Using CEQuery to identify what retains students and promotes engagement in productive learning in Australian higher education, DEST.

BAM into Moodle – Step #3 – some initial development?

Okay, so Moodle is installed, configured and working. The next step, I believe, will be playing a bit with Moodle development and trying to get my head around how it works, what the abstractions are and anything else I need to know in order to actually start the design and development of “Moodle BAM”.

So this means back to the Introduction to Moodle Programming course and picking things up from Unit 4 – configuring moodle for development.

Abstractions

Two are introduced

  1. Roles – a role contains permissions within a context, within a context a user can be assigned the role. Roles are inherited down the context hierarchy.

    Apparently a Systems Administrator can create additional roles. Users can have multiple assigned roles.

    1. Administrator
    2. Course creator
    3. Teacher
    4. Non-editing teacher
    5. Student
    6. Guest
  2. Contexts – there’s no definition of context, but we’ll assume a standard one. Essentially a hierarchical set of containers
    • System (no parent)
    • Site (parent = system) – Moodle 1.8 onwards
    • Course category (parent = system)
    • Course (parent = category or system)
    • Module (parent = course or system/site(1.8 onwards))
    • Block (parent = course or system/site(1.8 onwards))
    • User (parent = system)

Plugins it appears this is a phrase that’s used interchangeable with “blocks”. Different terms, same meaning – great way to make it easy to use. Guessing this might be a historical hang over. A little later on I’m looking at the contrib source code, seems plugin is the name of a directory that is used to hold all manner of things, not just blocks. Is this a mistake in the course docs?

Creating a course and some users

Have to create a course for testing, also some users. Ahh, won’t let me use the same email address for different users. Will start with two users – david (staff member) and student (guess?). Will revert to numbers for the remaining. The restoring a course example worked seamlessly as well. Perhaps I spoke too soon. heading3 html elements in each topic seem to have been screwed up. The zip file was for 1.9.3, wonder if that was the problem – will ignore this for now.

Contributed code

There’s a separate “contrib” directory/project in source control. Holds a number of contributed blocks, modules etc. However, it appears to use them in an instance, you need to copy them into the Moodle directory hierarchy – in a specific place: blocks for blocks, mod for modules etc.

So, essentially its download, copy into Moodle hierarchy, visit notifications via admin block on site.

Visiting the Moodle admin page after copying a new module across, runs the config/setup for that module – appears to anyway.

The intro to moodle programming course is suffering from the age old problem of docs for software – it’s getting out of date.

Reflections on Moodle design for BAM

Currently, from a student’s perspective, the main BAM activities that they would perform in Moodle are:

  • Register your blog
    This is where they give Moodle the URL for their blog.
  • Check your progress
    Where they see what the markers have had to say about their contributions. This is different from reading comments on the blog.

It would appear that these would have to be activities that could be added into the topics within a course. Register might be included at the start.

During the process of adding such an activity the Moodle abstraction seems to be this is where a lot of the configuration information goes. Including messages etc. This would be where the default “instructions” for BAM would go, probably .

Academic staff would require a link to the BAM Manage interface. Not sure where this would fit at the moment.

Moodle’s directory structure

Getting into Unit 5, some summary of directories covered

  • /admin
    • Implementation of Site Administration block
    • docs list 635 files as of Nov 2007 (1.8.3) – 1.9.5 has 962.
    • admin/cron.php is how it runs regular tasks
    • modules get stuff run by cron.php by defining a _cron function This is where the BAM mirror process will go
    • /blocks
      • the course offers a description of blocks again here. Would have been more useful earlier for me.
      • Each block has a directory in /blocks
    • /lang – language files for the help button content
    • /lib
      • Looks like it contains the “support” libraries for the rest of the stuff. Specifies three of the more important ones
      • moodlelib.php – main Moodle library. Contains general purpose functions.
      • weblib.php – functions that produce web output. Actually, it looks like more than web output, but that could be just misinterpreting the names.
      • datalib.php – how to access the database. And just to confuse things, also contains role capability related functions.
    • /mod – contains the key Moodle modules. Is this where contrib modules go? Yep, it’s where they said to put facetoface.

    Global variables

    Interesting, says you shouldn’t generally use globals in PHP and that you should never directly access the small number of Moodle global variables that break this rule. Instead you should access via the API.

    Most of the variables seem to use a type of OO approach. The variables are, and most server standard purposes

    • $CFG – configuration directives – many, not all.
    • $USER – guess?
    • $COURSE
    • $SITE

    A small exercise at the bottom of this section has me updating my first bit of Moodle code – yippee?. Essentially using Dumper() to show content of a global. Interesting, I didn’t think the directions provided enough information for a newbie to establish exactly how to do this. Perhaps I’m skimming too much.

    Moodle libraries

    Contains more information about the libraries. Pointer to XREF site for browsing the code and finding out more.

    Looks at some additional libraries

    • lib/dmlib.php – putting records etc into the database. Low level. Not system abstractions like datalib.php
    • lib/ddlib.php – manipulating database schema.
    • lib/accesslib.php – context/roles/permissions functions
    • lib/blocklib.php – everything to use blocks on a course page
    • lib/formslib.php – how to create forms

    Including library files

    • as little as possible.
    • almost always use require_once
    • config.php is the most common — first from scratch PHP file written in Moodle
    • This will be where I’ll have to start coming to grips with the differences between the Perl idioms which are essentially second nature and the approaches that should be used in PHP and then also Moodle. I’m sure that will be fun.

      More on coding guidelines

      Input validation – lib/moodlelib.php

      • required_param( $parameter, PARAM_TYPE ) – name and type of parameter that is required. NOt easy to find out what appropriate PARAM_TYPE values there are. — Ahh, TYPE has to be replaced with various values INT INTEGER NUMBER ALPHA. The course document actually defines them down below – but after covering other stuff. This will stop if the parameter is missing
      • option_param( $parameter, $default, PARAM_TYPE )
      • clean_param( $variable, PARAM_TYPE )

      It seems the use of $variables in the above is wrong – it’s the actual name as the first parameter and the return value should be set $course = required_param( “course”, PARAM_TEXT );

      Output functions defined here

      Private tokens – sesskey and confirm_sesskey can be used to ensure private token sent in forms.

      What’s next

      Haven’t finished unit 6 – up to the stuff on roles and capabilities. Will start again from here on Thursday