Roadmap To Computing: Past, Present and Future

Ian Cavers
Mik Kersten
George Tsiknis

Department of Computer Science
University of British Columbia





1. Roadmap Past
      1.1 First Solution: Lectures and Printed Documents
      1.2 Problems with the Original Format

2. Roadmap Present
      2.1 Interactive Courses
      2.2 Quick Reference
      2.3 Online Support Documents
      2.4 Roadmap Tools
      2.5 Feedback From the Courses

3. Roadmap Future
      3.1 Review of Current Course Format
      3.2 Future Solutions


Appendix 1: Roadmap Courses





Due to the broad scope of the Computer Science studies, the technical aspects of the tools and the environments that students need to use are not covered in the Computer Science courses themselves, creating a widespread frustration. As departments are unable to deal with this problem, the university community relies on initiatives like Roadmap for viable solutions.  To address these problems we embarked on the Roadmap To Computing project and developed a series of interactive, self-paced, hyper-media courses providing a comprehensive introduction to the computing resources availible on the UBC campus. The courses are supported by a variety of supplemental materials such as the online Quick Reference, Roadmap Tools and Online Manual.  We currently service over 700 registered users which generate an average of 30,000 course accesses per month. The interactive web-based courses  are very successful and have become an important supplement to a number of credit courses, but there are still ways to improve them.  We are in the process of developing an innovative web-based course server called the Advanced Teaching and Learning Academic Server, or Roadmap ATLAS, which will maintain a database of "knowledge units" and provide the user with the tools to dynamically synthesize courses that are optimal for the user's knowledge and needs. Our future goals is not only to expand the Roadmap suite of courses and tools, but also to improve the overall environment to provide a better learning experience.

Keywords: www, web-based instruction, interactive courses, self-paced courses, distance education, educational technology interactive courses.



The Computer Science programs at UBC require students to obtain substantial levels of knowledge and expertise with a wide range of computer environments and tools.  As the complexity and variety of computer systems grows, the gap between a typical first year student's initial technical knowledge and the expertise required in upper-level courses continues to grow.  Due to the broad scope of Computer Science studies, it is not possible nor desirable to cover all of the technical aspects particular to necessary tools and environments in the Computer Science courses themselves.  Consequently, Computer Science curriculum at UBC has assumed that students take the initiative to fill some of these gaps.  In the early 1990s, it became clear without adequate resources or guidance that students were not coping with these additional burdens.

This problem is not limited to the Department of Computer Science.  Computing technology is becoming ubiquitous across the campus and most departments and faculties have updated their curriculum to exploit computer-related tools and applications.  Consequently, knowledge of computing environments and tools has become essential to successfully completing course work.  The lack of supplementary courses had created a widespread frustration for students as they were forced to spend much of their time resolving computer usage related problems instead of concentrating on the primary subject of their studies.  Of course, frustration with advancing technology was not limited to students.  Faculty and staff experienced similar problems as they integrated increasingly sophisticated computer technology into their teaching, research, and administrative tasks.  In general, most departments had neither the resources nor the expertise to provide viable solutions.  The Roadmap initiative was undertaken to help bridge the technology gap by  developing and offering supplementary courses and material geared towards bringing people with diverse backgrounds up to date with current information technology tools and environments.


1. Roadmap Past

1.1 A First Solution: Lectures and Printed Documents

In order to address the problems experienced by students attempting to learn new computing environments and tools, we initiated the Roadmap to Computing project in May 1994.  Our first approach was to provide a series of classroom lectures and laboratory tutorials on various topics, and to supplement these sessions with a comprehensive reference manual.

Over the next three years grants from UBC's Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund supported the development and presentation of free lectures and tutorials during the first two weeks of each academic term.  The presentations introduced computing resources available on campus. For example, we discussed the use of e-mail, the WWW, text processing, programming fundamentals, and UNIX orientation.  All presentations were open to the entire university community, but our primary audience was students.  At each offering this program reached more than 1300 members of the university community.

To supplement the limited material presented in the lectures and tutorials, and to give students a persistent reference, we also published an extensive reference manual.  Recently, Version 5.0 of this manual split the material into two popular documents: UBC Roadmap to Computing-Getting Connected and UBC Roadmap to Computing-Advanced Tools.  In total, more than 1000 copies of the manuals have been sold to members of the campus community for a nominal fee.  These manuals provide a comprehensive reference to the computing tools and environments relevant to students associated with Computer Science directly, as well as the mainstream university community of students faculty, and staff.


1.2 Problems with the Original Format

Although this initial program was a huge success, we discovered a series of limitations and difficulties inherent to the format described above.  The following sections describe the technical and pedagogical issues separately.

1.2.1 Technical Issues

Accessibility was limited due to classroom size.
The number of lectures given was limited by instructor availability and budget constraints.
The quality of the lectures was limited by the experience of the instructors and the time available for their preparation.
Conflicts between student schedules and the limited number of lectures presented were unavoidable; as such the lectures could not reach all of the interested students.
The cost of printing the Reference Manual required the students to purchase it for a nominal fee, which often discouraged them from obtaining the supplementary material.

1.2.2 Pedagogical Issues

All students received the entire content of each presentation at a pace chosen to meet the needs of novice computer users. As a result, the lectures and tutorials were unable to cope with a student's particular interests, aptitude, and background and many students were either bored or overwhelmed by the materials level of detail.
Both the lectures and the Reference Manual presented a broad spectrum of material, whereas students were often interested in information specific to their problem.  This difficulty is particularly significant, since one of the key issues that we were attempting to address was that of users being showered by an excess of information, the outcome of which was often more confusing than instructional.
Another problem inherent to the traditional lecture format is the lack of direct experimentation with the course material during a presentation.  (Space in laboratory tutorials was very limited due to financial and scheduling constraints.) Presentations concerning tools such as WWW search engines or computing environments such as the the UNIX operating system, for example, are not effective without direct interaction with those systems.  In-class demonstrations were helpful, but we found they could not effectively replace direct experience.
Finally, the time constraints of a one or two hour lecture format did not permit effective evaluation of a student's understanding of the lecture material.  Consequently, we were unable to reinforce poorly understood concepts or correct misunderstandings.


2. Roadmap Present

In order to address the problems associated with  the traditional style of lecturing and paper based instruction we embarked on the second phase of the Roadmap to Computing project.  With the support of the Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund and the BC Provincial Government Innovation Fund we developed a series of interactive, self-paced, hyper-media courses providing a comprehensive introduction to aspects of information technology of interest to a broad audience of campus members. The courses provide hands-on instruction to all users with minimal on-going costs.  In addition, we also developed materials to supplement the course material, such as the online Quick References, Roadmap Tools, and Online Reference manual.  These changes dramatically increased the utility, and consequently the popularity of the Roadmap Project. For example, to date more than 750 users have registered for our on-line courses in the past year and we average 30,000 course accesses per month.

The web-based approach solves many of the technical problems discussed in the previous section:
The time and accessibility constraints are limited only by the students access to a web-browser.
The instructor related constraints are removed by changing the traditional lecture presentations into a self-paced, web-based tutorials. The technique and experience of several instructors can be used by the designers to enhance the quality and effectiveness of such tutorials.
By supplementing the Reference Manual with an hierarchically indexed and hyper-linked online manual, problems associated with student access to a hard-copy publication are alleviated.

Similarly, the web-based approach offers a solution to many of the pedagogical issues raised:
The scope of the material is determined by the user  who uses the hyper-media tools (e.g. our reference manual's contents navigator ) to select the focus of their study dynamically. Given the hierarchical nature of the online documents users can avoid overloading themselves with extraneous information.
The problem of  hands-on experience is solved by designing the courses to be interactive and by providing a communication framework that allows students to directly experiment with the applications  and computing environments they study.  For instance, our introductory to UNIX course provides a UNIX account and a window that students use to access the system without leaving the course pages.
Student self-testing modules offer a solution to the problem of evaluating the student's grasp of the course concepts and providing them with feedback.

The following sections provide an expanded discussion of each of the Roadmap's key components.

2.1 Interactive Courses

2.1.1 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.  By means of Web-based course tools we have been able to address the technical and pedagogical issues discussed in the previous section.

Our approach has focused on the pedagogical issues associated with Web-based course models.  The result is an emphasis on an interactive, rather than a narrative, presentation style based on 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 online quizes.  The environment used for delivering such courses imposes certain technical limitations based on the computer facilities available on the campus and the hardware and communication facilities available to a typical user at home.  The campus UNIX terminals mostly offer large monochrome monitors, have no sound capabilities, but have a very fast connection. In contrast, color displays and sound hardware are typically available on the users' home machines, but the network link between home and campus is usually restricted by low modem bandwidth.  These requirements and limitations have resulted in courses that are composed of interactive text and image content.

2.1.2 Course Structure

Employing the interface and tools of the WebCT environment we have created a series of courses accessible with any modern browser (WebCT is a tool developed at the UBC Department of Computer Science that facilitates the creation of sophisticated World Wide Web-based educational environments).  The material is broken up into a group of lessons, each of which is comprised of tutorials.  Each tutorial contains a series of steps that introduce the lesson material and administer the exercises, progress evaluations, and quizes. 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.  The lessons also involve additional interactive features such as interaction through a telnet  window for courses that require command line use (we currently provide tailored UNIX accounts for all suitable courses).

Each step of a tutorial is presented in a separate document in order to help students focus on relatively small and manageable tasks and reduce the distraction presented by an excess of material.  From each step the student can access a variety of tools to enhance their learning experience.  Some features, such as the Glossary Tool, are internal to WebCT, while others, such as the Lesson Navigator, were developed with the explicit purpose of helping navigation through an interactive online course.  Students are guided to follow through the steps of a lesson in a linear fashion, but are not constrained to this navigation paradigm.  Additional content within the steps includes Huh? buttons the help students with challenging topics and simple animations to demonstrate visual concepts.

Figure 4: C++ Interactive Course

2.1.3 Student Self-Evaluation

One important 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 assessment, but oftentimes there is no clear indications of the concepts being tested by each exercise.  The need for self-evaluation is exemplified by the self-paced, Web-based courses because their unrestricted format permits students to overlook important topics.  For these reasons the Roadmap courses pay particular attention to student self-evaluation.  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 lesson.  At the student's request, the system provides a number of hints or presents the final solution.

2.2 Quick Reference

The quickest, simplest, and most broadly used  Roadmap tool is the Quick Reference.  Although the complexity and level of detail addressed by the Quick References is very limited, they constitute a very convenient means for retrieving reference information on topics such as programming languages, operating system and text editor commands.  Authoritative references are difficult to track down on the web today, and the majority of comprehensive references is constrained to a single topic.  Paper-published reference material has the disadvantage of being displaced from the medium that it is being used for.  In contrast, a web-based quick reference is always available, doesn't cost the user, and provided proper administration exist, is always up-to-date.

The Quick References currently available focus on:
UNIX commands
Emacs/Vi text editing
the C/C++ programming languages
the Perl programming language

An example of a Quick Reference is shown in Figure 1, where the HTML reference has been selected to display an "interactive color-picker".  In this case the Quick Reference is mostly composed of tables of HTML tag definitions, but like the other Quick References it also contains relevant tools.


2.4 Roadmap Tools

Neither the Interactive Courses, nor the Quick References and Online Manual are used in isolation.  Roadmap users require the course and reference material in order to help them accomplish specific tasks.  As a result we [set out] to provide web-based tools to supplement the courses.  The Equation Tool is shown in Figure 2; this tool is intended to supplement the web-publishing course by allowing the web-publisher to conveniently create mathematical equations and use common mathematical symbols in his or her web pages.  The Tools are a new facet of Roadmap and future tools are currently under development.


2.3 Online Support Documents

In the past Roadmap relied solely on a printed reference manual in order to supplement the courses and offer a comprehensive reference for Computer Science students.  The large scope of the reference material prompted a splitting of the manual into separate Roadmap to Computing: Getting Started and Roadmap to Computing: Advanced Tools manuals.  The increasing number of requests for these documents and the feedback we have received [from them] indicate that the printed manual has become a valuable source of information for the UBC community.  We have recorded more than 60,000 requests during the month of September 1997; during the past year more than 180,000 requests have been made [a [%] of which were requests for the manual].

However, numerous restrictions exist with the printed format of the manual: its size makes portability difficult, numerous students are unwilling to pay for a manual, searching through a text-based manual is not possible, and the availability of the manual is limited to its physical location    In order to solve these problems we have created an online version of the manual along with support tools to make its use more convenient (Figure 3).  The Content Navigator (shown in Figure 3) is a solution to guiding the user through a very large body of material.  In addition to the advanced navigation and searching tools, a convenient feedback mechanism and help feature is also available.


2.5 Feedback From the Courses

The large scope of material available on Roadmap requires us to continually reassess both the pedagogical and the technical aspects of the way in which we serve this material.  As such, we have established several mechanisms by means of which user feedback is collected.  The first means of interaction for students is the WebCT Bulletin Board [WebCT reference].  The Bulletin Board permits students to quickly ask a question or to view responses from to similar questions at any point in their progress through a course.  A second mechanism, more oriented towards helping designers get feedback from users, is the questionnaire which students are encouraged to complete at the end of every course.   Users are also able to submit comments at any point during their progress through the Roadmap pages.  A less interactive, but also useful means of feedback is a questionnaire that we give out to all 2nd year Computer Science students who complete the C++ course.

Although we can not adequately address the issue here, the results from the feedback indicate that the majority of Roadmap users find the interactive, self-paced course an efficient and convenient mechanism for learning.  The negative feedback was almost exclusively focused on the desire for a greater scope in some courses (particularly the UNIX course), and on a lack of guidance and interaction experienced by the user.  The first problem is addressed by our continual development of new material.  However, the user-feedback mechanisms  that we currently employ are not interactive enough to guide users through a course, or to respond to their questions before they move on.  As such, more interactive tools, like the Electronic Help-desk, are currently being developed for Roadmap's future.


3 Roadmap Future

3.1 Review of Current Course Format

The Roadmap course format has proven successful in delivering interactive web-based courses to the computing community at UBC and [in a lesser degree] beyond.  The results form the last two years of offering online courses have raised several issues concerning a web-based format of offering course material.  The concerns raised by the Roadmap project are summarized by the following points:
The topics covered by each Roadmap course typically cover a large scope of material.  Although navigating through this material in a linear fashion is suitable for users who are willing to commit a significant amount of time to learning a course, numerous users are interested in learning a small subset of the course content or are only capable of absorbing a limited subset of the course content in the time that they have committed.  These users are overwhelmed by the amount of material presented in a course and as such are discouraged from completing it.
The current course interface treats each user identically and present him or her with identically formatted course content.  This presentation ignores the users' background knowledge, aptitude, and learning style, which are often quite diverse among the users of our courses.
Each course consists of html documents that contain text, images, reference tables and interactive examples.  The courses are supplemented by the Online Reference Manual and Quick Reference.  Although the majority of the material is duplicated between the documents, as a result of the static html format each is created and maintained separately.  The direct relationship between the content presented in each of the documents should be exploited so that separate copies of each do not have to be maintained.
The course format is tightly bound to the information style that is appropriate for a typical science topic.  A more general format that is extendable to other areas such as the Humanities, or to a pure reference oriented content, would be desirable as it would allow for future expansion.
Currently the user's success in a course is based on their self-evaluation.  However, this self-evaluation does not allow for concise testing, nor does it yield an effective way of determining whether or not the student has mastered the course material.  A problem that stems from this is related to the students progress; if a student does not succeed in a section of the course, they are still able to continue in the course, making the learning of dependent topics increasingly difficult.  [Not only does this impede the learning process, it makes giving credit for the completion of a course impossible].
Current web-based course systems, such as the WebCT-hosted roadmap, are all focus on maintaining information for individual courses.  The drastic increase in popularity of these courses has resulted in large collections of courses covering a wide domain of topics.  However, current systems offer no facilities for combining material from different courses into new instructional units or dynamically rearranging the course material to respond to the needs of particular users. Each course is treated  rather hermetically by the existing systems which do not  maintain any information more global than that of a course.

In order to address these issues, we designed and begun the development of an innovative web-based course server called the Advanced Teaching and Learning Academic Server, or Roadmap ATLAS.  Resolving the above problems demanded reconsidering the problem of presenting courses and course related material [from the ground up].  The focus of the the ATLAS design has been the following:
a data structure capable of maintaining extended course and general knowledge information
a set of intelligent agents capable of planning courses from this structure based on a user model
a course server capable of translating the course data into a web viewable format
an personal interface customized for each user and capable of interacting with the user for the purpose of maintaining an accurate user model

The ATLAS initiative is a departure from the standard method of serving web-based content, in that it focuses on creating dynamic courses particular to a user's background, aptitude, and style of learning.

3.2 Future Solutions

Roadmap is currently expanding in order to serve a larger variety of courses to a more diverse audience.  Apart from offering courses focused on information technology specific fields such as Computer Science and Engineering, we are currently developing mainstream courses on topics such as word processing and spreadsheet publishing (please refer to Appendix 1 for a description of the courses under development).  Apart from the additional  courses and resulting Quick References, we are also developing a Personalized Web Workspace, providing the user with tools and a desktop-like environment for manipulating courses and reference information.

Our direction for the future is focused not only on expanding the Roadmap suite of courses and tools, but on optimizing those tools for the web-based learning experience.  Current web-based instructional tools still present material in a static, text-book like manner.  However, this material is not limited to a single form, as is printed material.  The role of ATLAS is define a user model, and to apply it to dynamically restructure the course in such a way that it is optimal for that user.



In the past, Roadmap was a limited reference source that arose from the UBC campus communities' need for tutorials on information technology.  The original solution of classroom-based tutorials was inadequate because it did not focus on the needs of the individual student.  The result was Roadmap's innovative approach to offering self-paced interactive online courses.  The feedback from these courses has been very encouraging, but has also directed us toward new problems related with serving instructional material in this medium.  The future direction of the Roadmap project is based on our reassessment of the www as a mens for instruction.  The naive approach of treating online material as a textbook with extend referencing capabilities is inadequate for presenting the large volume and scope of material that Roadmap offers.As a result, we are currently in the process of establishing a new framework for online instruction.


Appendix 1: Roadmap Courses

The enormous success of the Roadmap UNIX and Text Editors courses in prompted the development of other courses relevant to the UBC Computer Science curriculum.  Numerous users expressed interest in more general courses, particularly those relevant to the World Wide Web.  To satisfy such disparate needs, we have developed categories of courses, some more pertinent to mainstream users, while others aim at helping Computer Science students master topics that are likely to help them with their curriculum courses.

Please note that courses currently under development are highlighted with an (*) asterix.

A1.1 Computer Science Courses

The UNIX Operating System

The UNIX course was originally the flagship of the Roadmap courses.  It arose from the enormous campus-wide demand for UNIX [tutorage].  The main obstacle for the UNIX course to overcome was that of interaction with a real UNIX environment; the user could not be expected to learn the nature of UNIX commands without this interaction.  The solution was to create a limited UNIX account for each user and to guide them along the lesson while prompting them to apply what they were learning.

The UNIX Operating System for Advanced Users (*)

Much of the backbone of campus computing is based on Unix systems, which has made the RoadmapÕs Introduction to Unix course very popular. However, numerous requests have been made by users to create an advanced Unix course which caters to those who need to make use of the advanced features of Unix.

Text Editors

The Text Editors course has been very popular in the UBC Computer Science department for both undergrads and graduate students.  The course covers both Emacs and Vi, and as such is of great assistance to new UNIX users.

Introduction to Programming in C (*)

Experience with C is a requirement for many upper-level Computer Science and Electrical and Computer Engineering courses. Currently students have limited opportunities to get a formal introduction to the language. This course will draw upon material developed for our popular course introducing the C++ programming language.

The C++ Programming Language

The C++ course is the flagship Roadmap course.  Although its is intended for beginner users and as such does not focus on the Object-Oriented aspects of C++, it is a comprehensive course.  Currently, all 2nd year UBC Computer Science students without C++ experience take this course.

Object-Oriented Programming with C++ (*)

Our existing course on C++ gives a detailed introduction to the language, but avoids all the unique (and advanced) features of the language. We plan to create a new course for the advanced user introducing object-oriented programming and advanced language features important for object-oriented design including templates, overloading, inheritance, and polymorphism.

Programming in Java (*)

Java is a relatively new programming language that enjoys widespread attention because of its portability and its application to the Web. We plan to design an interactive course on Java following the style and methods used in our C++ course.

Introduction to Perl

Perl is a very useful programming language whose ease of use, expressiveness, and usefulness in Web and UNIX programming are unparalleled.  The Perl course is an introductory course and is offered in conjunction with the "Creating CGIs with Perl" course.

Multimedia Publishing on the Web (*)

This course will expand upon the RoadmapÕs Introduction to Web Page Design course, describing techniques and free software for effectively creating and embedding graphics, sound clips, animated GIFs, etc. in HTML Web documents.

Advanced Web Page Design: Programming with JavaScript (*)

JavaScript is a convenient and accessible way to add multimedia content and complex interface features to Web pages. An interactive JavaScript course will appeal to the numerous students, faculty and staff maintaining their own homepages.

Advanced Web Page Design: Creating CGIs with Perl (*)

CGI scripts are the link between Web documents and functionality on Web-based systems, and are widely used on campus Web servers. The interactive CGI course will build on the existing Perl Programming course.

A1.2 Mainstream Courses

Introduction to E-mail

The e-mail course deals with general e-mail concepts such as net-etiquette, and offers detailed instruction for setting-up and using e-mail with Netscape, Eudora, Pine, and Zmail.

Introduction to Usenet News

The Usenet News course familiarizes users with both "rn" and Netscape as news readers.

Introduction to Searching the World Wide Web

The web has become saturated with information; our Searching the World Wide Web course is intended to help users find what they set out to.  General search techniques are covered, as are the more popular search engines: Alta Vista, Big Yellow Global, and Excite.

Introduction to Web Page Design

With the Web having become such a popular medium for presenting information, numerous Roadmap users requested a web-page design course.  The result is a course that focuses on HTML design , tags, frames, images, and layout.

Introduction to Word Processing with Microsoft Word (*)

This is the first in a suite of four mainstream courses based on the ubiquitous Microsoft Office product.  Similar to the other Roadmap courses, these courses will lead the student through short projects and exercises illustrating software features and effective usage paradigms.  We plan to develop variants of each course for both Macintosh and Windows platforms.

Introduction to Spreadsheets with Microsoft Excel (*)

Similar to Microsoft Word.

Introduction to Databases with Microsoft Access (*)

Similar to Microsoft Word.

Introduction to Presentation Graphics with PowerPoint (*)

Similar to Microsoft Word.



  1. Ian Cavers & George Tsiknis, "UBC Roadmap to Computing -- Getting Connected", 1997.
  2. Ian Cavers & G. Tsiknis, "UBC Roadmap to Computing -- Advanced Tools", 1997.
  3. Ian Cavers, George Tsiknis, "Teaching Basic Skills Using Interactive Web-based Tutorials", Proceedings of the Western Canadian Conference on Computing Education, pp. 117-128, May 1997.
  4. Ian Cavers, George Tsiknis, "Interactive Web Courseware Introducing the Unix Operating System", Proceedings of N.A.Web'96, Second International North America World Wide Web Conference, October 1996.
  5. Murray Goldberg, "World Wide Web - Course Tool: An Environment for Building WWW-Based Courses", Computer Networks and ISDN Systems, 28 (1996), pp 1219-1231.


About the Authors

Ian Cavers
Department of Computer Science
University of British Columbia

George Tsiknis
Department of Computer Science
University of British Columbia

Mik Kersten
Department of Computer Science
University of British Columbia


Created:  01/03/98
Last Modified:  20/04/98