Teaching Basic Computing Skills
using Interactive Web-Based Tutorials

Ian Cavers and George Tsiknis

Department of Computer Science
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6T 1Z4

Phone: (604) 822-4327, 822-2930 Fax:(604) 822-5485
Email: cavers@cs.ubc.ca , tsiknis@cs.ubc.ca



This paper describes the development of a set of interactive, self-paced, hyper-media based noncredit courses providing a comprehensive introduction to the computing resources available on the UBC campus. The first web-based course in this series introduces the basic concepts of the Unix Operating System to novice users. This course has been designed as an active supervisor that guides students through new concepts by asking them to perform a series of tasks using the actual Unix tools they are learning about. Through the use of student self evaluation, interactive exercise, and quizzes the student's understanding is assessed.

The homepage of the Roadmap project can be found at the URL:

Keywords: WWW, Computer-Aided Learning, Web-Based Instruction, Unix, WebCT


1. Introduction

During the past 5 years the manner in which information is shared over the Internet has been dramatically improved by the introduction of the World Wide Web. As a direct result, the Internet has attracted new generations of users from every corner of the society. The wide acceptance of the Internet and the ease of use of its new services have established it as a preferred medium for many educational applications. In this paper we describe the development of a set of interactive, self-paced, hyper-media based courses providing a comprehensive introduction for students, staff, and faculty to the computing resources available on the UBC campus.

For the last three years grants from the Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund have supported our development and presentation of free lectures at the beginning of each academic term, which introduce computing resources available on campus. Lecture topics include the use of Internet services such as e-mail and the WWW, text processing, programming fundamentals, UNIX orientation, and much more. These lectures are open to the entire university community, but our primarily audience is students. At each offering this program reaches more than 1300 members of the university community.

Although the program is a huge success, there are limitations and difficulties associated with continuing in its present format. One of the most serious difficulties we face is limited accessibility to the lectures, because of classroom size, the limited number of lectures, and the frequent conflicts between lecture times and student schedules. In addition, one hour lectures are often found to be too short for introducing a moderately complex topic with sufficient detail. Unfortunately, increasing the number and duration of lecture offerings would dramatically inflate the on-going costs of the program, which are already substantial. Finding good lecturers is also difficult and paying for their preparation and lecture time is expensive. As a result, we have only been able to offer at most two one hour classes on a limited number of topics at the beginning of each term.

Another serious difficulty is the fixed format of each course presentation, which cannot be tailored to meet the specific pace and content needs of individual participants. In addition, direct experimentation with the course material during a presentation is typically not possible, on-line demonstrations are limited, and a student's grasp of the course concepts is not evaluated.

To overcome these problems and to experiment with ways in which Web techniques can enhance the effectiveness of a presentation, we have embarked on the development of a series of interactive, self-paced, hyper-media based courses, which will provide hands-on experience to a wider audience with minimal on-going costs. This paper describes the structure of the first course in this series, which introduces the UNIX operating system to novice users. We started offering this course in September 1996 and the development of similar introductory courses on a variety of topics of interest to campus computer users is under way.

2. Objectives

It is widely acknowledged that the expectations of the typical University or College student have changed significantly during the last few years. While students continue to demand high quality instruction, the possibility of having unrestricted access to course material outside the classroom is also becoming increasingly important. The advantages of the Web-based instruction over the traditional in-class presentation with respect to time and space constraints are well recognized. By using Web-based course tools, we are confident that we can address the scheduling and content issues discussed in the previous section and that we will be able to address a larger audience at minimal cost.

Although location and time-independent instruction was the initial motivation for the project, our attention has been lately focused on the pedagogical issues associated with the Web-based course models. Our objective is to study hyper-media based techniques and tools which enhance the quality and effectiveness of instruction.

To that end, our UNIX course has an interactive (instead of a narrative) presentation style and provides hands-on experience with computing facilities and tools through on-line tutorials and interactive exercises. To improve the effectiveness, the course is divided into smaller units with distinguishable steps that allow students to tailor the material to their own level of experience and pace, and to gauge their level of understanding with on-line quizzes.

The environment used for delivering such courses imposes certain technical limitations that we had to consider when designing our courses. The most difficult impediments to an introductory course on UNIX come from the computer facilities available on the campus and the hardware and communication facilities available to a typical user at home. The majority of the labs in the Department of Computer Science and other instructional units of the University, are largely equipped with monochrome or gray scale terminals connected to a LAN with direct Internet access, but with limited or no sound capabilities. In contrast, color displays and sound hardware are typically available on the users' home machines, but the network link between home and campus is restricted by the relatively small bandwidth of modem communication.

These limitations discourage us from using sound, color and sophisticated animations in out presentations. We employ alternative techniques to improve concept comprehension and emphasis, and to keep the interest level of the user high. The following sections describe in more detail the methods and styles we employ in the UNIX course.

3. Course Structure

With the support of the Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund and the BC Provincial Government Innovation Fund, we have created the first web-based course in this series using the interface and tools of the WebCT environment. (WebCT is a tool developed in the Department of Computer Science at UBC that facilitates the creation of sophisticated World Wide Web-based educational environments.) The content of this first course introduces basic concepts of the Unix Operating System to novice users. The course has been designed as an active supervisor that guides students through new concepts by asking them to perform a series of tasks using the actual Unix tools they are learning about. Through the use of student self evaluation, interactive exercises and quizzes the student's understanding is assessed.

To take the course, students need WWW access with the Netscape browser and an application providing Telnet access, but do not have to provide their own Unix account. When a student registers for the course, he or she is given a Unix account on a machine dedicated to exclusive service of our interactive courses. This is a plus for two reasons. First, by providing a Unix account free of charge students can have extensive exposure to Unix without having to purchase or otherwise obtain access to a Unix account in another manner. Another important concern on our part is providing a uniform platform to all students of the Unix course. When the account is provided by our administrator, it allows us to give more direct and accurate feedback to the students within the course material. During the presentation of course material on the Web, a student is asked to click on a terminal button to open a Telnet connection to their Unix account. After the student provides his or her userid and password (provided to them through our Web-based registration system), the telnet session provides them full access to their Unix account. As the lesson continues, it persuades the student to apply the concepts he or she is learning directly in this Telnet window. As the students perform the suggested tasks, the course provides direct feedback. In case of more involved interactive exercises the student can ask for explanations and suggestions, or view detailed solutions to problems.

Three interactive lessons comprise the Unix course, each of which is further divided into a number of tutorials. Each tutorial contains a series of steps that introduce the lesson material, and administer the exercises, progress evaluations and quizzes. The intended length of each lesson is approximately one or two hours, but students are completely free to proceed at their own pace and repeat or review lessons at their leisure. A useful feature of the Web CT environment permits students to automatically return to the position in the course where they left off at the end of their last session.

3.1 Lesson Content

The first lesson of the Unix course explains how to install the necessary tools and applications required to properly access the course. It then introduces the basic techniques for logging in, logging out and describes how to issue Unix commands. Finally, the first lesson teaches students how to access Unix manual pages for on-line help.

The second lesson deals with basic file system concepts. Students learn filename and path concepts, and experiment by navigating through an existing directory system. Their Unix account gives them their own home directory in which they practise creating a hierarchical file system and creating, deleting and moving their own files.

Finally, the third lesson provides additional tutorials regarding the manipulation of files, and an exposition of more advanced topics including: file and directory permissions, elementary process management, combining commands with pipes, searching for files by name or content, shell commands, and customizing a Unix environment.

3.2 Lesson Structure

As previously mentioned, the course is broken into lessons, each of which consists of several tutorials. Each tutorial is further divided into individual steps introducing new concepts to the students or requesting their participation in an exercise. The course presents each tutorial step in a separate document. Alternatively, we could have placed an entire lesson in a single document and allowed students to scroll back and forth at their leisure to review previous material or to scan ahead in the lesson. We chose to present material in a segmented manner to help students focus on relatively small and manageable tasks and reduce the distractions presented by other material. Students are encouraged to follow through the steps of the lesson in a linear fashion, however, they are not constrained to this navigation paradigm as discussed below.

Each lesson in the course uses a variety of tools to enhance the learning experience of the student. Some of these tools are provided by the WebCT environment, while others are unique to our course presentation style. Figure 1 illustrates the typical view of a lesson we provide to the student.

Figure 1: The Presentation Environment of a Typical Lesson



In general, once working in the WebCT environment, the student should largely ignore the browser's navigation buttons, and use the tools and buttons provided by WebCT and the course material. As shown in Figure 1, we divide a typical window into three frames. The top frame is the WebCT tool bar. It provides some navigational aids and a number of valuable tools that enrich the course environment. For example, the glossary tool provides definitions of terminology used in the course, and the chat room and bulletin board tools permit students to communicate with the course administrator and other students in the course.

To the left of the course notes is a navigation tool called the Lesson Navigator. This frame contains a scrollable table of contents for the current lesson. A pointing finger () appears at the currently visible tutorial or tutorial step. A student can click on any entry in the outline to move to the corresponding course notes. This tool provides the student with ultimate control over their path through the course material. As well it provides them with feedback regarding their progress through the lesson.

The right hand frame below the tool bar contains the actual course notes for the current step of the lesson. A scroll bar allows the user to move around within the notes of the step, and at the bottom of the step's notes is a button (not visible in Figure 1) that the student can select to proceed to the next step of the lesson. Despite our best efforts, students find some steps confusing or make mistakes that do not permit them to proceed with the lesson. We attempt to identify these steps and include an additional material or helpful hints. When the student clicks on the (Huh?) button at the bottom of such a step a small Guide window appears, as illustrated in Figure 2. The Guide window provides a list of questions that might be bothering the student. When he or she selects a question from the list the answer appears below the question. Additional buttons at the bottom of tutorial steps initiate the interactive exercises and self-tests discussed in the following section.

Figure 2: Guide Window Example



3.3 On-Line Support Documents

Our interactive courses (and the Roadmap to Computing lecture series) are also supported by an on-line reference manual. It contains additional information about the topics presented in the courses and more. The reference manual is equipped with a selectable table of contents and a searchable index and it is accessible from the interactive courses. Both the latest version of the reference manual and the Unix course are accessible from the Roadmap homepage at http://roadmap.ubc.caWhile the reference manual is freely available to all users on the Web, the interactive course requires both WebCT and Unix accounts on the host machine. Students who want to take the course get an account by filling out an on-line registration form available at the same location.

4. Student Self-Evaluation

One aspect that is often overlooked in traditional courses is material that helps a student to assess their comprehension and estimate their progress in the course prior to formal examinations. Many students benefit from more frequent feedback than can be provided by the instructor through examinations and assignments. If a textbook is used in a course, certain exercises in each chapter can be selected for assessment, but in many cases there is not a clear indication of the concepts being tested by each exercise. In addition, detailed solutions to these problems are not readily available to students. The need for self-evaluation is even greater for the self-paced, Web-based courses, because the careless students can more easily overlook important topics.

For these reasons, we pay particular attention to student self-evaluation in the Unix course. At the end of each lesson the student works through a series of interactive exercises and takes a quiz. Each interactive exercise describes a task that must be accomplished by the students using their expertise learned in the Unix lesson. At the student's request, the system provides a number of hints or presents the final solution. While performing the interactive exercise, students are given seamless access to Unix manual pages describing the commands they are manipulating. The implementation of these features does not disrupt the exercise, and in fact enhances its presentation. Figure 3 illustrates a window containing a portion of an interactive exercise. As in other steps of the lesson, the left most frame contains the Lesson Navigator. Below the frame containing the instructions for the current exercise, however, we introduce a new frame. This frame contains buttons allowing the student to proceed through the steps of the exercise, review exercise steps, request hints, look at a detailed solution, and access Unix manual pages, all without losing their place in the exercise.

Figure 3: Interactive Exercises



At the end of each lesson students are encouraged to take a self-evaluation quiz to determine the degree of their knowledge on the current topic and whether it is advisable for them to repeat portions of the tutorial. Each quiz is a selection of multiple choice for which the WebCT quiz tool provides the student immediate feedback as shown in Figure 4. When the student clicks on the bullet corresponding to a particular answer WebCT presents them with a check mark or an X indicating success or failure. With the X mark we include an explanation why that particular answer is wrong. Students are free to choose any number of different solutions until they determine the correct answer.

Figure 4: Self-Evaluation Quiz



Although our Unix course and subsequent courses are not for credit, we plan to introduce a timed quiz at the end of each course. WebCT provides a tool for managing such exams, but marking is performed manually by the course instructor. The quiz has a limited time, at the end of which the paper is automatically submitted. These quizzes will provide the student with an additional source of feedback and will provide us with important data for assessing the effectiveness of our Web-based instructional techniques.

5. Cost and Design Issues.

The Unix course described in this paper is part of a large project that aspires to develop an interactive environment providing students with the basic training on the use of the computing resources available on the UBC campus. Therefore, it is difficult to estimate the cost of the single course in isolation. We estimate that the labor costs for the initial development of the Unix course and the support documents for the series (i.e. the Reference Manual) is about $25,000. This figure includes the salaries of two undergraduate students working full-time for four months and the cost of a employing a graduate student 10 hours per week to supervise the implementation of the project's many components. In addition, we include the cost of a dedicated server for the delivery of the course and a separate development machine. The cost of a course administrator, who is needed for all periods the course is offered, is not included in this budget. Although this cost will eventually be shared by all on-line courses in the series, it remains a significant budget item. We estimate administrator will require approximately 8 to 15 hours per week to adequately support the courses and maintain the courseware, but administrative costs may increase with student enrollment.

As the first course in the series, the Unix course suffered from the steep learning curve. During that initial project phase, we developed and tested numerous methods, tools, environments, patterns, and styles that will be used by the subsequent courses. Consequently, we expect the cost of the additional courses to be lower as start-up costs are amortized over more courses.

It is important to acknowledge that WebCT significantly reduced the cost developing our course. For example, the WebCT environment made an easy task of the general organization and sequencing of lesson pages in the course. In addition, WebCT provided us with a tool for designing the multiple choice exercises, a bulletin board for student-student and administrator-student interaction, and a tool allowing the tracking of student progress.

In the last five years we have acquired more experience with Web-based, multimedia courses and a better understanding of the basic issues than we had before. Nevertheless, the uniqueness of each design introduces new challenges which often lead to unique presentation and delivery approaches. Our first challenge was to determine the degree of multimedia usage in our presentations. To cope with the diversity of the environments the university supports, we decided to restrict the use of color, video and sound, to make the course widely available. Alternatively, we focused our attention upon providing opportunities for active student participation and interaction. Our approach encourages the students to directly apply the ideas they learn without leaving the lesson they study. A presentation style that encourages this interaction and keeps the student interest alive was one of the major challenges we faced in this course.

6. Course Evaluation

In addition to offering an important service to the University community, the Unix course also provides a testbed for studying the effective use of WWW as an educational medium. Our main interests include the study of Web-based methodologies that enhance comprehension, sustain student attention, and make the learning process more enjoyable. Therefore, course evaluation and student feedback are of paramount importance to our project.

In consultation with experts at UBC, we have designed a questionnaire that asks specific questions about the various aspects of the course. Questions on the contents, methodology, presentation style, and the delivery method have been included in this evaluation. At the end of the course the students are asked to fill out and submit this detailed evaluation of the course together with their comments and suggestions.

At the end of each term we will analyze the data we have collected from the student responses and use the result to revise or even redesign the course for the following term. We expect to use the experience we will gain from the offering of this first course to guide us in the development of the remaining courses of the pilot project.

The most important lesson we learned from the last term's evaluations is that it is very difficult to force the students to fill in the evaluation questionnaire. Despite having registered more than 120 students, we have managed to collect too few evaluations to conduct a reliable statistical analysis. All responses in this small sample, however, are positive and encouraging. We are currently investigating alternative methods to persuade students to provide the feedback we need.

7. Conclusions

With the support of the Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund and the BC Provincial Government Innovation Fund, we have embarked on the development of a series of interactive, self-paced, hyper-media based courses providing a comprehensive introduction to the computing resources available on the UBC campus. The first web-based course in this series introduces the basic concepts of the Unix Operating System to novice users.

The Roadmap project is driven by two main goals. The first goal is to provide location and time-independent instruction to all members of the campus, avoiding scheduling conflicts and accessibility constraints. The second goal is to provide a testbed for exploring new methodologies and presentation styles which take full advantage of the capabilities of the new media to improve the effectiveness of instruction.

A serious problem we have experienced with the traditional in-class lectures is the lack of computer access for demonstrating concepts. With computer-based learning we can both explain concepts, and demonstrate them through the same medium. Furthermore we can integrate interactive exercises and on-line quizzes into the learning process, permitting students to practice their new skills and evaluate their progress. The World Wide Web course also increases its educational effectiveness by allowing students to tailor their learning experience to suit their own pace and existing level of knowledge. Instead of sitting through a lecture of familiar material, students will be able to move directly to specific portions of the course of interest to them. This is especially advantageous for the orientation of computer users in the university community given the tremendous variance in their computing experience.

A truly innovative aspect of this approach is to design the course with a high level of interaction. The course presentation alternates between asking the students to perform a series of tasks using the tools they are learning, assessing their knowledge, and guiding them through the new concepts in a way that is interesting, enjoyable and effective. The students are able to directly manipulate the actual tools, systems, and environments as they are learning about them.

The Unix course described in this paper is the first in a series of on-line Web-based introductory courses. We plan to continually monitor the effectiveness of our instructional techniques during the 1996/97 academic year. Using the experience gained from this first course offering, we continue to develop additional courses in the series and apply successful techniques to our regular curriculum.

We have recently completed another interactive course introducing the text editors vi and emacs, and we expect to complete the first course on C++ by May of 1997. We have submitted a proposal for the 1997-98 academic year to develop the final phase of the course series that includes courses such on: Electronic News and Mail, the UBC Library system, Web Page Design and Scripts, Introduction to Java, Advanced Topics of C++, and Advanced Unix Topics.


We are grateful to Glendon Holst and Eddy Ma for their contributions in the development of the interactive courses and the documentation for this series. The help of Murray Goldberg and Sasan Salari with respect to WebCT is also acknowledged.


*    Murray Goldberg, "World Wide Web - Course Tool: An Environment for Building WWW-Based Courses", Computer Networks and ISDN Systems, 28 (1996), pp 1219-1231.

*    Nigel Horspool, "The Berkeley Unix Environment" Prentice-Hall, 1992.

*    I. Cavers & G. Tsiknis, "The Roadmap to Computing: Reference Manual", UBC Publication, 1996.


About The Authors

Ian A. Cavers, Instructor
Department of Computer Science, University of British Columbia, Canada, V6T 1Z4.
E-mail: cavers@cs.ubc.ca

George K. Tsiknis, Instructor
Department of Computer Science, University of British Columbia, Canada, V6T 1Z4.
E-mail: tsiknis@cs.ubc.ca