Computer Based Presentations to Teach Computer Science: Past and Current Experience

Kasia Müldner
Graduate Student, Computer Science Department, University of Victoria

Tomasz Müldner
Jodrey School of Computer Science, Acadia University, Wolfville, N.S. B0P 1X0 Canada



From 1993 to 1995, an introductory course on computer programming (in Modula II) at Acadia University was taught using a computer based presentation called MN (Modula Neatware). In the Fall of 1996, all first year Computer Science students at Acadia University entered a so-called "Acadia Advantage" program; they received notebook computers (IBM Thinkpads), and all first year courses have been offered in electronic classrooms. In this paper we describe our experience with teaching computer science; both in a traditional setting and in an electronic classroom.

Keywords: Computer Based Presentations, Electronic Classrooms.

1. Introduction

   Even before the advent of electronic universities, it was clear that computers, and in particular notebook computers can be useful as a teaching tool, see [Col89, Mau88, Ket91]. At Acadia University, starting from 1993 computer science students have been taught a full year course on introductory programming in Modula II, using a computer based presentation called Modula Neatware (MN). This presentation was developed by the second author, using NEAT. That year, and the following year all classes were conducted using MN. A notebook computer was connected to an LCD, and it was used to project the presentation on a large screen. In addition, MN was made accessible to students on a university wide network; students could either run it in the lab, or download it to their personal computers. However, a class is not limited to presentation; interaction with students, in particular solving problems with them is another important component of the class. Most of the time, half of classroom time was spent for the presentation and another half for "doing", i.e. solving problems with students. The only way to work interactively with students was to use a blackboard. Students response to MN was generally positive; they liked the fact that they did not have to concentrate on taking notes, and could review material at their own pace and time.

   Various universities in the United States have recently introduced computer based teaching; for example the University of North Carolina and the Wake Forest University.

   In 1996, Acadia University announced "The Acadia Advantage" (AA), an academic initiative which integrates the use of notebook computers into the undergraduate curriculum. Every student and faculty member received an IBM Thinkpad notebook computer (for more details see below). We were excited about a possibility of using electronic classrooms to implement interactive teaching. In this paper, we will describe our positive and negative experiences with using computers to teach computer science courses.

2. Modula Neatware

   MN was developed in 1993 using NEAT (iNtegrated Environment for Authoring in ToolBook); see [May93, Mul93a, Mul93b, Mul94, Mul96a]. NEAT is an authoring system based on ToolBook, a popular commercial system, see [Too94]. Courseware created using NEAT is called neatware; and it can be executed with the freely distributed ToolBook run-time system. Neatware's structure is based on a book metaphor; it consists of chapters; each chapter consists of sections, subsections and pages; a section consists of subsections and pages. A tutorial page, containing information to be learned, always has the same appearance. Hypertext links could be used to move around in the book, allowing the user to access information which may be more relevant. In addition, MN provides tools for customization of the learning material. Notes can be kept separate from the book; notes can also be kept on the margin of each page. One or more bookmarks may be placed, for easy future reference. Words on each page can be highlighted, in one of several colors. Finally, to support example-based learning, the author and the learner can create and modify a repository of examples with a hierarchical structure. In addition, each page of every neatware may contain examples that are used for teaching, and so cannot be modified by the learner. However, the learner can select her or his own preference (the preference may be based on his or her knowledge when studying the book; for example, on knowledge of Pascal or FORTRAN when studying C), and an example may have several appearances, depending on the preference.

NEAT was used to develop several larger applications:

   The next generation of NEAT added an ITS (Intelligent Tutoring System) component. ITS provides individualized instruction for each student. An obvious way to obtain information regarding some aspect of a student's knowledge is through questions. The questions can be created by the author of neatware using the question templates tool, here called Repository, see [Mul96b]. Question templates serve two very important functions: they provide the developer with a GUI for creating different types of questions, tests and drills, and secondly, they guide the developer throughout the question design process:

In retrospect, the ITS version was found to be less useful than expected. While the design of tools for navigation, annotation, etc., proved to be appropriate and was used in the next, the ITS-like system with units, courses and curricula would require a much greater programming effort than we could possibly afford. Lack of interactivity in non-electronic classrooms was another major obstacle.

3. Acadia Advantage

In March 1996, Acadia University introduced the Acadia Advantage, an initiative which provided a selected group of students with laptop computers (a 100 MHz Cirrus CPU, 12 Mbytes of RAM and a 540 Mbyte hard drive, VGA color monitor, a floppy and a CD-ROM). In September 1997, all first-year, full-time undergraduate students will take part in AA, and by the year 2000, all full-time undergraduate Acadia students at all levels will be involved. The university would gradually provide more and more electronic, wired classrooms, upgrade the campus computer network and supply state of the art digital audio-visual systems. Also, every two years, a new model of a laptop computer will be introduced. With AA, the computer could become the central teaching tool in the classroom. In addition, residence rooms have been equipped with a state-of-the-art telephone from Maritime Tel & Tel, which has voice mail, conference calling, and a direct access button to security. Data drops for connection to the Acadia network and the Internet have been installed in residence rooms, public areas, and classrooms. To support AA, Acadia University established Academic Development Centre (Sandbox), a group of technicians and summer students who assist faculty with course development.

4. Electronic and Studio Classrooms

In an electronic classroom every student and the teacher have access to a personal computer (either desktop [Shn95, Nor96], or notebook [Aca96], [Hol96]). All computers in the classroom are networked, giving access to information available on Intranet and Internet and allowing for various types of computer-supported interaction. We limit the scope of our discussion to "physical" classrooms in which the teacher and students share the same room (i.e. we consider synchronous, face-to-face systems), rather than distributed, asynchronous, virtual classrooms as used for example in distance education. Large lectures taught in a traditional way tend to be non-interactive, with the students passively listening and taking notes.

   The studio classroom approach, see [Hol96, Wil97] replaces the traditional three hour lecture and three hour lab format with two, two-hour studio sessions which combine the functions of lecture, tutorial, and laboratory in one unique setting. The computer is used for the acquisition and analysis of data which can be collected either from sensors or digitized video. In the studio setting, about 50 students are taught by an instructor who is assisted by a senior teaching assistant, usually a graduate student or demonstrator. The size of a studio classroom is an important consideration; to be cost effective, it should be in the range from 50 to 60 students. However, typically to provide a high level of interactivity, it has to be much smaller, say between 15 and 25. Studio classrooms were first introduced at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). In RPIs studio approach to teaching physics The Comprehensive Unified Physics Learning Environment (CUPLE), was used. Currently, at RPI studio teaching is used in Mathematics, Physics, Engineering, and Chemistry, and the initial results obtained are promising.

   We believe that for many departments, electronic classrooms are more practical than studio classrooms. However, to be useful, electronic classrooms have to provide means to support student interactions, perhaps in a form of shared workspaces. For the sake of completeness, below we provide a description of "shared workspaces" (SW) from [Mul96c]. Note that this system has only been speciefied but has not been implemented.

   Every participant's computer screen will have a designated area which works like a mail box, but is specifically designed to be used for classroom interactions. When a teacher submits data to a student, this student will be notified by the SW organizer. Access within a group of students will be organized in a similar way. When a teacher will want to take control of a student's machine, the SW organizer will submit a request, and the student will have to approve it. The SW organizer will have various options available (for example, to automatically save any submissions). The SW organizer will be an integrated system for dealing with a repository of information such as:

   The organizer will allow the participant to maintain information, for example to update information automatically (e.g. by checking Internet sites for new information or by checking new on-line notes from the teacher). Also, the organizer will be used to create (explicitly or implicitly) links between various types of information; for example links between a specific part of the courseware, information available on Internet, and notes. Finally, the organizer will provide a revision system, so that, for example, a participant could compare two versions of courseware notes or programming examples (code) to see what changes have been made. In addition, intelligent agents could help in organizing and retrieving relevant information. For example, a student working on Java may ask these agents to seek for any new information on Internet that is related to Java, assign a high priority to electronic mail on this topic, etc.

5. Experience and Conclusions

   In the Fall of 1996, when we first moved to electronic classrooms, the hardware (computers and the networks) was failing quite often. Fortunately, this situation has improved greatly, and in the winter term computer demonstrations were carried out without any major problems.

   Our past experience from using MN in a traditional classroom was quite positive; indeed most students indicated that they prefer this kind of a presentation over a presentation that uses transparencies. However, when we moved to an electronic classroom, we found that the single most important missing feature of MN is interactivity; specifically the following types of electronic communications and interactions:

Unfortunately, as of today we do not have this capability and in our opinion, without it we can not truly engage in collaborative learning. In the first term of 1997, the second author had a class of 50 students, and used an electronic classroom. The presentation part of a class had quickly become reduced, since all students had access to a computer based presentation on their notebooks. Thus, "old" techniques to interactively solve problems with students were attempted. Traditionally, a problem would be stated, discussed with students and then a volunteer would go to the board and write a solution. What was very important was the fact that all other students could see the solution (the idea of: my colleague did it, so I can also do it), and they could also engage in a discussion of weaknesses and strengths of this solution. Now, how could this be done in an electronic classroom? The instructor could type a problem description on a notebook, and all students could copy it to their notebooks. However, the instructor could not ask a selected student to show her or his solution; there was no way to transfer a student notebooks screen to a large screen. Thus, in the second term, the old "chalkboard" technique was used.

   Studio classrooms which turned out be very successful in Physics, are not necessarily suitable in Computer Science or other departments where there are large number of students. We believe that in order for studio classrooms to be successful they must be limited to approximately 20 students; also departments which do not have a technician available, and can not teach a class with two instructors would find teaching studio classrooms to be disappointing. A shared workspace, as described above may solve these problems and currently we are looking for existing software that can perform all or some of these interactions.

   We strongly believe that computer based presentations of static information such as text are not much better than transparencies, etc. While they can be useful for class presentations, the cost of their development is probably too high to justify their effectiveness. Computer based presentations are really useful to simulate real life experiments; for example to show the execution of a recursive procedure; or to provide a hypertext structure for related information. Perhaps, in the future when a screen resolution is much closer to that of a printed page, and flat screens are available, traditional books can be replaced by electronic books.

   In conclusion, we do believe that at the present time a computer can be a very useful tool for teaching computer science; however its use should be carefully considered.


[Aca96] Acadia Advantage.
[Col89] Colbourne, C.J. and Cockerton-Turner T. Using Hypertext for Educational Help Facilities. University of York, England, June 89.
[Gru94] Grudin, J. "Groupware and Social Dynamics: Eight Challenges for Software Developers"; Communications of the ACM, 37, 1 (1994), 93-105.
[Hol96] Holmes, M., Porter, D.: "Student Notebook Computers in Studio Courses"; ED-MEDIA'96 Conference, AACE Proceedings, Boston (June 1996).
[Ket91] Ketinger W.J. Computer Classrooms in Higher Education: An Innovation in Teaching. Educational Technology. August 1991, pp. 36-43.
[Mau88] Maurer, H. A Report on the COSTOC Project. EATCS Bull. 35, 1988.
[May93] Mayer, S., Müldner, T., Unger, R. "NEAT: An Integrated Authoring Environment based upon ToolBook." In EDMEDIA93, Orlando, Florida, June 1993.
[Mül93a] Müldner, T. "NEAT REFERENCE MANUAL". Technical Report, Jodrey School of Computer Science, Acadia University, September 1993a
[Mül93b] Müldner, T. "NEATWARE REFERENCE MANUAL". Technical Report, Jodrey School of Computer Science, Acadia University, September 1993b
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[Nor96] Norman, D.A., Spohrer, J.C.: "Learner-Centered Education"; Communications of the ACM, 39, 4 (1996), 24-27.
[Shn95] Shneiderman, B., Alavi, M., Norman, K, and Borkowski, E.: "Windows of Opportunity in Electronic Classrooms"; Communications of the ACM, 38, 11 (1995).
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[Vee95] van Veen, Christine M. Design and Implementation of a Multi-User Learning Environment. Honours Thesis. Jodrey School of Computer Science, Acadia University, Canada, April 1995. [Wil94] Wilson, J.T. "CUPLE" Phys. Teach. 32, 518 (1994).
[Wil97] Williams, P. J., MacLatchy, C.S., Backman, P.J., Retson, D.S. "Studio Physics Report on Acadia Advantage".
"Slader", neatware on drug and alcohol abuse
"C INTERACTIVE", neatware on teaching programming in C
"MN", neatware on teaching introductory programming in Modula II
"Introductory Electronics", "Graphics, Hypermedia and Multimedia", and "An Introduction to Maple on the AXE Network"
"Compilers", neatware for teaching translators at Acadia University.
specific Internet sites (providing, for example, information on mammals)
local courseware
any information that was broadcast
correspondence (electronic mail) with other participants
articles posted to News groups
other useful information, including addresses (ftp, URLs, etc.), dates of tests, and so on.
teacher addressing students (a single student, or broadcast to all students)
access within groups of students · student addressing teacher
student, or teacher accessing the environment, or vice-versa
teacher taking over input devices of the selected student.