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A Dynamic Custom Module Support Web Site.

Andrew Martin, Warwick Business School, University of Warwick

Introduction, aims and rationale

Whilst relatively static web sites such as company brochures and personal ‘home pages’ are becoming relatively straightforward to develop, interactive, dynamic web applications such as banking, auctions and home shopping that ‘execute business logic to modify the business state of a system’ (Roussev, 2003) are more complex as well as more powerful. Several institutions have therefore recently launched dedicated modules to teach web applications development’ e.g. Greer (2002), Lim (2002), Roussev (2003), Wang (2003). One such module has been running at The University of Warwick since 2002-3. Originally designed for students following the MSc Management Science and Operational Research, it was additionally and separately offered this year to BSc Computer and Business Studies (CBS) students, and in the coming year it will be available for the new MSc in Information Systems & Management.

The learning outcomes for the module specify that by the end of the module the student should be able to:

  • demonstrate an appreciation of the capabilities and contribution that dynamic web applications can offer in business, and the way they work.
  • design a functional, well structured, documented and usable dynamic web application.
  • implement a functional, well structured, documented and usable dynamic web application.
  • demonstrate an appreciation of the need for usability design, and the key underlying principles of human-computer interaction design.
  • critically appraise other web sites and applications.
  • work collaboratively towards application design

The teaching enhancement for this module was the design and development of a web site to provide key information and resources to support student learning. Although there was no formal needs analysis, the author was convinced of the desirability of additional support through experience of running the module and from student feedback. In particular the core requirement for the site was to serve as an accessible and integrated repository for the large number (over 200) of program files that had been developed as teaching examples. The large number of examples is due to the many individual concepts and techniques covered in the syllabus, the desire to illustrate each concept as simply as possible, and the need for multiple versions to illustrate alternative implementation approaches (e.g. VBScript vs. JavaScript). It also reflects a strong orientation of the module teacher towards teaching by example, an approach shared by Wang (2003). One disadvantage however is the sheer task of managing this large set of files and making them easily and systematically accessible to students.

Figure 1 shows the site's home page. First, it includes 'static' standard items such as syllabus, schedule, assessment details etc. Second, it presents some standard information such as module resources (e.g. references to supporting web sites and books) dynamically by retrieving them on demand by topic from a simple database. Third and most importantly, it supports a search for relevant teaching examples by keyword (or by teaching week); the student can locate, then view or directly run any selected teaching example directly with a single mouse click, either to check their understanding of the topic, to build solutions to exercises or build their own application for the assessment. Students may need to make reference to any of these items at any and many times during the module; of course they are available '24/7'. Fourth, the module is assessed by means of the group design and individual implementation of an interactive web-based application. In order to make a level playing field for the group work it was considered desirable to allocate students to groups evenly according to the mix of abilities, experience, culture and gender.  The web site assisted this process, by means of a custom on-line experience survey. Fifth, the web site allowed limited direct input and control by the module tutor by means of the ‘Admin’ section. The third and fourth elements are discussed further below.

Fig 1. Site Home Page

Figure 1: The Module Web Site Home Page.

The custom site aimed to supplement the general discussion, messaging and resource provision provided by ‘my.wbs’ which is the standard on-line support environment developed by WBS for students following its modules. This paper discusses the requirements, planning, design, development and evaluation of the site, makes some pedagogical observations and considers areas for its further development and adoption by other teaching staff.

Early design, planning and prototype

It was quickly realised that although the site’s primary role is to offer operational support for students, it also serves as a good example of the scope of the module. This encouraged a reflexive perspective whereby not only the module shaped the web site but the web site also shaped the module.  It also served as a challenge to the teacher to design and implement the site to the standard set for the students by his own teaching! The only barrier to full development was the time required. An early version was developed by Kearney (2003) who had followed the MSc module; his work acted as a feasibility study and successfully proved the concept. The author felt that full development and deployment became justified by the adoption of the additional ‘run’ of the module this academic year. There was little risk of technical failure since, as just mentioned, the web site is highly synergistic with the aims and scope of the module. 

Features

Two particular innovative features of the site that could apply to other modules will now be briefly presented, showing how they were designed and how they deliver added value to students and teacher.

Keyword search of teaching examples
Examples were initially organised by teaching session and were distributed to students in this form via my.wbs. Although presented in a progressive learning sequence, it was realised that the student (and the teacher!) found the task of managing the sheer number of examples a burden. Most examples cover more than one teaching topic, and each topic is illustrated by more than one example, therefore the basic solution was to create a database catalogue of the examples, available on-line, indexed by topic keyword as well as by teaching session. 

The web site then offers the facility to search for matching examples by selecting up to three keywords, each made available by a drop down list (see Figure 2). This is a very useful facility, especially since the site then dynamically generates links to the matching examples so that the user can directly click to either run the example or to inspect its code. Students are able to locate working code for any topic covered in the module with ease. Since the design and implementation of such a dynamic search facility is one of the teaching topics of the module, there was really no excuse for the absence of this feature! It is intended to be a resource to help students develop solutions to exercises and the individual assessment. This enables the level of learning to rise beyond creating error-free syntax (though this is a key activity) to design of solutions and even choosing between alternative implementations demonstrated by the examples. The site was also able to retrieve teaching examples dynamically by session, serving as a ready-to-hand online resource that was used directly in lectures. This eased the administrative management of each session, presenting a coherent resource and encouraging students to use the site.

fig2. Search for examples by keyword

Figure 2. Search for Examples by Keyword

Prior experience questionnaire
Students on computing modules typically exhibit a wide variety of prior experience; it was felt appropriate to gauge this experience in order to tune the teaching plan and to allocate groups as mentioned above. The mechanism selected was to use an on-line questionnaire, since this would be consistent with the content of the module. Although this involved further development work, the initiative had useful benefits. First, a measure of student experience was easily derived from the responses, and was used as one of the attributes for the formation of coursework groups.  Second, the exercise exposed the students to an early engaging experience of the type of pages that the module would enable them to design. Third, the questionnaire pages were used as a teaching example that demonstrated procedures for authentication, validation and feedback.

fig3. Student Prior Experience Survey

Figure 3. Student Prior Experience Survey

Design and Development

In summary, the requirements were to provide a supplementary repository of module information, a mechanism for programmed interaction with the students and a searchable index to the teaching examples. The prototype was evaluated, re-designed and implemented by the author to be ready for the CBS module run this year. This included indexing all the examples with keywords; the complete catalogue is stored in a Microsoft Access database that drives the site. It also included porting the prototype code from an open source software (‘PHP’/’MySQL’) platform to Microsoft (‘Active Server Pages’) technology. As taught by the module, there is a clear expectation today that web sites should be designed to enable accessibility by all users. It required too much work to implement full accessibility immediately, but in general the site proved highly accessible to its particular users with the exception of universal browser support.

IT Platform and scripting language: open or proprietary environment?
The module was deliberately designed for a Microsoft environment (Internet Explorer browser, Internet information Services server and Active Server Pages and VB Script programming languages) for two main reasons. First, it assured a continuity of language for students who had previously been taught Microsoft Excel and/or Microsoft Access with VBA programming. Second, although the University and Business School does not support a Microsoft web environment, a set of laptop computers provided for students by IBM UK enabled the use of the Microsoft environment by the MSc students. Although the undergraduate students did not enjoy the provision of laptops, the Microsoft environment was still able to be supported by externally hosting the module site and student work sites. The debate between open and proprietary development tools and browsers is reflected in student feedback. Some students are passionate about support for open products such as Mozilla based browsers, MySQL database and PHP server pages, as anticipated by the prototype site. Others expressed appreciation for the restriction to the Microsoft environment: ‘Thank goodness we only have to target Internet Explorer with the coursework - getting my application to work on both Internet Explorer and Mozilla is plain painful!’

Development methodology
There was no budget restriction, but there were ‘hard’ time deadlines that constrained and focused development work; both content and functionality was strongly driven by what was needed by when (this is also typical of commercial e-business applications). Web site structures can be adapted from others that follow a broadly similar pattern (Bass et al, 1998); since the site was relatively small in scale, with a closed set of interested parties, the author used his experience of other sites so that little formal design was required. Testing was undertaken incrementally, and just one report of a functional bug was received from students, in the second run of the module. The overall development process was iterative, so the structure, content and presentation evolved during the module into its current form. For example the Admin functionality and the Experience Survey were added later, while the Examples Search and Star Video teaching application were moved from their own menu into the Examples menu. The use of the database and ‘style sheets’ enabled the separation of content from presentation, to help such maintainability.

Evaluation

The site was made available and announced to registered students before the start of the module, was actively used to run examples in every teaching session, and was consulted regularly by students to support exercises and preparation of their assessed work. It was of course available to students '24/7' (it is easy to underestimate the value of such availability), and would cope relatively easily with larger scale and distance learning requirements.

Ideally, evaluation would seek to establish whether the teaching and learning of this module were made more effective or efficient as a result of the web site. With regard to effectiveness ‘it is virtually impossible to prove conclusively that students learn better as a result of any application of technology, due to the large number of uncontrollable variables in such studies’ (Heines 2000). Similarly with regard to efficiency, in a context of ongoing module development it is difficult to measure any improvement without a more formal research study. The question becomes: did students find the module support site useful? This was measured in two ways  First, an explicit and direct question (‘How useful was the module web site?’) was included in the normal WBS module evaluation feedback questionnaire; the average response was 4.4 out of 5 over 22 responses from the 45 students, so it is clear that the site was extremely positively received by at least half the class.  More intensive questionnaires, interviews or focus groups could establish further evaluation, for instance direct comparisons of how the students value the web site compared with other provision.  Second, an equally direct but less explicit evaluation measure was enabled by implementing a count of the number of visitors to the site. This was not only a useful feature for site administration but was also used to illustrate the mechanism to students. It was a relatively simple implementation that simply counts every visit to the home page, nevertheless it is expected that it gives a crude indication of the level of activity on the site. The count showed an average number of visits of 16.5 per day over 59 days since week 9 of the module when the facility was initiated, including weekends and vacation (approximately 1000 ‘visits’). This suggests that a good number of students found the resource useful. 

Teachers of computing-related modules agree that such modules are resource-intensive in set up and operation (Greer, 2002; Ingram & Lunsford 2003; Lim, 2002; Wang 2003), noting that the enthusiasm of the teacher is generally considered to be the critical requirement. Heines (2000) adds that the resource required to maintain a supporting web site is also significant, even once it is developed. The author concurs with this view.  However the initial impact of the web site is strong, positive and pleasing; further, it is claimed that the site would gain a respectable mark if it were submitted for the module assessment!

Continuation strategy, dissemination and applications for other modules

The development of the site is ongoing for the next run of the module, but eventually is expected to reduce to ongoing maintenance of the database entries.  Current and envisaged work includes:

  • support for non-Internet Explorer browsers where that is relatively easily possible.
  • remote database content management
  • evolution of the site structure; for example the experience survey, once completed, takes up unnecessary space; it could be relegated to a sub-menu or removed.
  • extending the keyword and resource indexing to support debugging; it could link error messages or symptoms to possible underlying causes and treatments. 
  • incorporation of components such as discussion boards, calendars and independent site visit counters (this could also be educationally worthwhile for the students).
  • inclusion of examples / solutions generated by students.
  • greater integration with the standard my.wbs support site.

Wider applicability
The core idea of a keyword-indexed database of custom module resources could be a useful feature for many modules, particularly where the number of resources is large. Such resources could be any form of information e.g. web pages, on-line papers, video/audio or computer simulations.  Although the form of the resources to be indexed would differ between modules, a general database structure could be envisaged. The key challenge is to develop a service that enables a less IT-literate teacher to maintain a custom resource for their own module, integrate them with existing web resources and maintain data integrity. Such a service currently beyond the scope of SiteBuilder, but a Computer and Business Studies student project has been initiated to explore the feasibility. This could include one or more standard database templates whose contents could be maintained by the teacher over the web, together with standard search pages for the user to access the data.

For those interested in further information, a version of the site is available at www.hear-see-do.com/WAD (or www.web-lab.org.uk while the module is running); a departmental seminar has been given, a University seminar is being planned and a more extensive paper has been submitted to the Australasian Conference on Information Systems.

Summary and conclusions

The innovation has been well received by students, and fits extremely well with the module aims, both demonstrating and extending teaching concepts. The site was always designed primarily to support rather than deliver the learning outcomes for the module. However as has been shown it makes a direct contribution to learning outcomes by demonstrating module content as well as providing in itself a further example of site function, design, layout and usability for students to critique. It helps students to be self-supporting, and encourages them to appraise, select and build on units of working code. By its nature and structure, its content can now be easily maintained and its functionality incrementally enhanced.  It will continue to be used and maintained for the lifetime of this module and, with appropriate supporting technology, its contribution could be adapted for use in other modules.


Andrew MartinAndrew Martin
Senior Lecturer
Warwick Business School
University of Warwick
Coventry CV4 7AL, UK
Tel: +44 24 7652 2453
Fax: +44 24 7652 4539
Email: Andrew.Martin@wbs.ac.uk.


References

Bass, L., Clements, P and Kazman, R. (1998) Software Architecture in Practice. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley.

Greer, T.H. (2002) Critical Success Factors in Developing, Implementing, and Teaching a Web Development Course.  Journal of Information Systems Education, 13(1), 17-20.

Heines, J.M. (2000) Evaluating the Effect of a Course Web Site on Student Performance, Journal of Computing in Higher Education 12 (1), 57-83 and http://www.cs.uml.edu/~heines/academic/papers/2000jche/

Ingram, R W.  Lunsford, D L. (2003)   Developing an e-Commerce System Using Active Server Pages. Journal of Information Systems; 17 (1), 135-156.

Kearney, P (2003) Open Client Server. Unpublished MSc thesis, University of Warwick.

Lim, B.B.L. (2002) Teaching Web Development Technologies: Past, Present, and (Near) Future, Journal of Information Systems Education, 13(2), 117-124.

Roussev, B. (2003) Empirical Evidence Justifying the Adoption of a Model-Based Approach in the Course Web Applications Development, Journal of Information Technology Education 2, 73-90.

Wang, M. (2003) Teaching Web-driven Database Applications with Templates, Information Systems Education Journal 1 (11) September 16, 2003, 1-8.

 

Citation for this article is:

Martin, A. (2005) A Dynamic Custom Module Support Web Site. Warwick Interactions Journal 26. Accessed online at: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/cap/resources/pubs/interactions/archive/issue26/martin/


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