Using WWW/Mosaic to Support Classroom-Based Education: An Experience Report

Brian Butler, Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania


During the summer of 1994 I taught an undergraduate Management Information Systems (MIS) course. The only paper documents for the course were two exams, the textbook, and the formal course evaluations. All other course materials, including assignments, lecture notes, exam study hints, and supplementary readings were provided using a World-Wide-Web (WWW) server and Mosaic software for access (for more information about these tools see [5]). In addition to providing students with easy access to the course materials, the goals of this "experiment" were:

1. Investigation of the feasibility of providing all course materials for a business class in a useful format on-line.

2. Integration of a standard business subject and a concurrent introduction to on-line information resources.

3. Preliminary identification of the costs and benefits of providing extensive on-line support for classroom-based education.

The purpose of this report is to provide instructors an understanding of the challenges and benefits associated using on-line course materials to support traditional classroom-based education. This report contains a detailed description of the on-line materials provided, my experiences as the author and instructor, and various forms of student feedback. Specifically, section II contains a description of the course. In section III, I consider each of the documents that were provided as well as a discussion of their intended use.

If you are familiar with the World-Wide-Web (WWW) and the types of documents that can be provided through the WWW, you may only want to skim sections II and III. Section IV provides a overview of issues that arose during the class, structured around entries from a journal that I kept throughout the course. Section V concludes with a short discussion of conclusions that can be drawn from this case and possible directions for future work in this area.

Ii. Description of the Course and the Technology

Course Content, Logistics, and Enrollment

The class, "70-451: Management Information Systems," focused on providing a conceptual link between the technical problems and managerial aspects of using information technology in business organizations. Specifically, this involved providing a basic introduction to information technology and management in the context of management information systems.

The lectures met for two hours per day (8:30 to 10:30 am), four days a week (Monday - Thursday) from June 25 to August 5, 1994. The students were assigned readings for each lecture. They were also given, over the six weeks, two exams and four homework assignments. The assignments were due by 3:30 pm on Friday and had to be handed-in using electronic mail. The exams were administered on paper during class.

There were seven students who completed the class (three other students came for one or two lectures and then dropped the course). The students were from a variety of academic backgrounds, including business, electrical engineering and computer science. There was one part-time student, who was a university employee, and the rest of the students were full time undergraduate students. The students were all in their 3rd, 4th or 5th year in college. All of the students had basic computer skills, including knowledge of how to use a word processing program and read and send electronic mail. Two of the students knew how to use Mosaic prior to the class.

It should be noted that this environment places some limitations on the conclusions that can be drawn from this "experiment". The small class size, the frequent meeting time, the relatively technical nature of the subject, and the computer background of the students provide an atypical environment for investigating the value of on-line course materials. Most courses do not have these characteristics. However, many of these same characteristics also made it possible to use on-line materials in a way that would not be possible at this time in many standard, full-sized courses. It should also be noted that though the class was small, the variation of academic backgrounds and computer experience among the students, and the dual business/technological nature of the course materials makes it possible to develop some preliminary conclusions from this work.

Software, Hardware and Support Infrastructure

The course was conducted at the Graduate School of Industrial Administration (the business school) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). The network infrastructure at CMU is well developed. Networked public computing facilities, consisting of a variety of Macintosh, IBM-PC, and Unix workstations, are widely available on campus and open to all students. During their first year, all students are given an account that enables them to use electronic mail and other basic Internet tools (FTP, Telnet, etc.) [1] All first-year students are also required to complete a workshop introducing them to basic computing tools, such as spreadsheets and word-processing programs. To access the on-line course materials the only tool that the students must know how to use is Mosaic, which runs on an Internet connected PC or workstation. The other software systems and tools described here are used by the information provider, in this case, the instructor.

At the beginning of the course, the students were all given a copy of version 1.0.3 of MacMosaic, a version of Mosaic for the Macintosh. Before the software was given to the students, it was tested to ensure that MacMosaic would work on all of the public Macintoshes on campus. This testing was done to ensure that the students had a reliable way to access the on-line course materials. The newer version (2.0.x) of MacMosaic was not used because, at that time, it was not reliable enough for use by novices. The students were also given a 30 minute, hands-on introduction to MacMosaic.

The on-line course materials were made available using a WWW server running on a Sun workstation. This machine and the WWW server software are maintained by the business school computing services group. I created the course materials using Microsoft Word and MacDraw on a Macintosh. To convert the materials into the proper format I used GIFconverter, a shareware graphics conversion program (the text didn't require any explicit conversion). The materials were transferred to the server using FTP and slightly modified, as necessary, using GNU Emacs (a text editor). I tried several Hypertext Mark-up Language (HTML) editors [2] and found that it was easier to use Microsoft Word and type the HTML by hand. However, as more advanced HTML editors are developed, this may change.

III. Description of the Course Materials

The purpose of this section is to provide a brief description of the course materials and some observations about the design of the various documents.

Paper-based Course Materials

Though the majority of the course materials were provided only on-line, there were some paper-based materials, including materials a midterm and final exam, a textbook, and a formal course evaluation. The exams consisted of two parts: definitions and short answer questions. The textbook was _Management Information Systems : Strategy and Action_ by Parker and Case [4]. The formal course evaluations, which were administered by the university, were conducted using a standard form consisting of a section for general comments and a series of questions asking the students to rate various parts of the course on a 1-5 scale. The only other paper documents created for this course were the instructor's copy of the lecture notes, printed each morning before the lecture, used, and discarded as I left the classroom. Consequently, there are no significant paper records for the course.

So why have anything on paper at all? Theoretically, the exams and course evaluation could have been conducted on-line using the simple text entry facilities provided by Mosaic. In the case of the course evaluation, it was simply a matter of university policy. The formal course evaluation form was on paper, not on-line. However, an informal evaluation, the results of which are discussed below, was conducted on-line using electronic mail.

As for the exams, they were not conducted on-line because it is not clear what impact the on-line environment would have on the students taking a fixed time period exam that required essay answers. An on-line, text-based exam could significantly hinder students' ability to skim though the exam, draw clarifying diagrams, create preliminary outlines, and other activities that are generally thought to be good test-taking strategies. This change could potentially shift the focus of the exam from the course content to the computer skills required to complete the exam. At the very least, it might give a significant advantage to students who could touch-type. It would also be likely to create additional stress for students, and significantly reduce the value of the exam as a tool of evaluation of students' content knowledge. I believe it is important to consider, in more detail, the implications of the on-line environment before conducting any exam, especially a fixed time-period exam, on-line.

Theoretically, if I had more time and energy, a textbook could have been provided on-line. In fact, there have been some attempts to create on-line textbooks [1]. However, for this course a paper-based textbook was more feasible. During the course, the textbook was used by the students in conjunction with the lecture notes and the supplemental readings. As we shall see below, the structure of the lecture notes seemed to have an impact on how the student read the textbook. This serves to emphasize the idea that materials for a course form an inter-related collection of documents, not just a set of independent texts. Consequently, even when the focus is on designing the on-line materials, it is important to consider in detail how the paper-based materials will be used and how that use will be affected by the availability of on-line documents.

On-line Course Materials

As stated above, the on-line course materials were provided using a WWW server, and accessed using Mosaic. WWW documents are structured hypertext documents. A hypertext document is essentially a standard text document with "links" that allow readers to easily move to other parts of the same document, or different documents, usually by selecting a highlighted or underlined phrase. For example, a reader in one document might select a highlighted phrase ( perhaps INTRO) to follow a link and jump directly to the introduction of the document. Alternatively, the reader might select the highlighted phrase supporting documentation to follow a link to a different, but presumably related, document. The on-line course materials were designed to take advantage of the additional structure that the links in hypertext documents make possible.

All of the on-line materials described in this section are available through the WWW at the URL3 : The on-line materials can be divided into three categories: administrative documents, content documents, and evaluation and exercise documents.

Administrative Documents

The administrative documents created for this course include a course homepage, a syllabus, a schedule, and an informal survey. The syllabus, schedule and home-page were all WWW hypertext documents. The survey was a plain text document that was distributed to the students via electronic mail.

Unlike a three-ring binder full of paper documents, which a reader may open to any page, WWW hypertext documents are often thought of as having a single entry point. This entry point is called a "homepage". The challenge when designing a homepage for a collection of materials is to make it as simple as possible to get from the home page to the materials that interest the reader. The homepage for this course is included in Appendix 1. At the top of the homepage, basic information about the course (office hours, instructor's e-mail address etc.) is provided. This is followed by any announcements that are likely to be of immediate interest to the students. The announcements often included information about upcoming assignments and links to documents relevant to those assignments. Then the homepage contains the schedule entries for the previous lecture and the next lecture, with complete information about lecture topics, readings, and assignments that are due - with links to all relevant documents such as lecture notes and supplemental readings. In addition to the current "news" about the course, the homepage also contains a description of the contents of the archives of lecture notes, assignments, other administrative documents and exam materials, with links to each document. Essentially the course homepage was designed to act as both a quick reference document for current course information and an unobtrusive entry point into the rest of the course materials.

The syllabus, on the other hand, was designed to introduce incoming students to the course. It was assumed that the syllabus would only be used early in the course and then only by students interested in an overview of the course. The syllabus contained a overview to the course content, the objectives, a short description of the textbook and course materials, a list of assignments and a discussion of the grading criteria. Each of these items was provided in a separate, clearly marked section and the document began with a short introduction that had links to the various sections. The enabled students to jump directly to sections of interest. The syllabus was provided as a single document, as opposed to placing each section in a separate document, to enable students to easily print a copy. Links were also provided to the course schedule so that students interested in more detailed information could easily access it.

Unlike the syllabus, the schedule was designed to be a reference document for students throughout the entire course. Consequently, the schedule was not included in the same document as the syllabus, though there were several links from the syllabus to the schedule. The schedule consisted of two sections: the assignment and exam schedule, and the main schedule. The intention of the assignment and exam schedule was to provide the students with easy access to the assignment due dates and exam dates. However, probably as a result of the announcement on the homepage, the assignment and exam schedule was almost never used.

The main schedule was divided into six sections, one for each week of the course, which could be accessed directly through links from the homepage. Each section contained individual daily entries.

July 25
     Requirements Analysis and System Design (Lecture Outline)
                ~ Chapter 14 & 15 - (Parker & Case)
        Part 1 of Assignment 4  was distributed.
Each entry had the topic, readings, and information about assignments that were distributed or due along with links to supplemental readings, assignment descriptions, and lecture notes. In addition to acting as a reference document for the students, the schedule also served as the primary index for the archives of lecture notes and supplemental readings.

The informal survey (included in Appendix 2) was plain text file which was sent to the students using e-mail after the mid-term exam. The instructions stated that the students should answer the questions and return their answers via e-mail. It was also stated clearly at the top of the survey that the student's responses would NOT be anonymous and that if the students were uncomfortable with this they did not have to respond. Three of the students returned the survey at mid-session. The remaining students were sent another copy of the survey with their final grade, via e-mail, after the course was completed. Another three of the students responded at this point. The results of the survey are discussed in detail below. The major problem with conducting an informal survey in this fashion is the lack of anonymity. This could be resolved by using the limited text entry facilities provided by the WWW server. However, the version of Mosaic used for this class did not support data entry capability and at the time I did not know how to setup a WWW document to accept the data.


Some of the main benefits of having administrative documents on-line include:

1. Increased availability of materials for the students.

2. Decreased need for the instructor to maintain paper archives.

3. Greater flexibility for the instructor; for example, it is possible to elaborate or modify the schedule without redistribution.

The costs of having on-line administrative documents on-line include:

1. Time required to create the documents

2. Time needed to maintain the "news" portion of the materials

3. Students' and instructor's time required to learn about WWW, HTML and the associated tools.

In the informal evaluation, students provided feedback about how they used the administrative materials. Some of their comments were:

"I refer to the weekly schedule & study hints (if any) daily or consistently in order to keep myself up-to-date with the current course schedule."

"[the schedule] made it possible to look ahead and have an idea of what the lecture topic was."

Below are some observations and suggestions, based on my experience, discussions and student feedback, regarding the creation and use of on-line administrative documents:

An important thing to remember when creating an on-line version of administrative documents is to focus on how the information will be used, as opposed to simply recreating existing documents on-line. For example, a traditional syllabus serves several purposes. It introduces students to the objectives of the course, serves as a cover page for the course materials, and is used as a quick reference. For this course, the official syllabus was intended to be used as an introduction, while the homepage is designed to provide other course information for quick reference. When creating a on-line version of an administrative document you should decide whether the various tasks, such as introducing the course and providing commonly used information, would be best supported by a single document or by several more specialized documents.

Content Materials : Supplemental Reading and Lecture Notes

The administrative documents described above provide the overall structure of the course and the materials. However, they do not contain any real content. The lecture notes and supplemental readings provided the bulk of the content in the on-line course materials. In this section, we will consider these documents and how they were intended to contribute to the objectives of the course. We will also look briefly at how the materials were structured to overcome limitations and take advantage of the features of the on-line hypertext environment.



After each lecture a copy of the instructor's notes was made available to the students on-line. These notes contained an overview of the material covered in the lecture, but they were not direct transcripts of the lecture and did not contain many of the details (see Appendix 4 for an example). Initially, the lecture notes were available directly from the homepage and, indirectly, through the course schedule. After a few days the direct link was replaced with a link to notes for the current lecture and the older notes remained available only through the course schedule. This procedure ensured that the most recent materials was easily available and the older materials were still accessible.

The lecture notes were designed with several different users in mind.

For the instructor's purposes, the focus was on providing the structure, diagrams, and information needed to complete a one hour and 45 minute lecture. On occasion, graphics were included in the notes using MacDraw and GIF converter [4], a shareware [5] graphics conversion program, to create diagrams in the format used by the WWW server. For students working using the on-line documents, a number of facilities were added. A summary, with hypertext links to each of the major headings in the lecture outline, was included at the top of each set of notes. This enabled the students to quickly jump to particular sections of each day's notes, thus simplifying the process of finding information about a certain topic. It was also possible to provide links between outline items and the notes from earlier lectures that introduced relevant concepts. For example, in a lecture that talked about software applications in specific business settings, links were provided to earlier lectures in which the general software concepts were introduced. In order to allow students to easily create paper copies, each set of notes was placed in a single file. The lecture notes were provided with the intention of strengthening the connection between the individual lectures and the other course materials, including the textbook and supplemental readings. Observations In the informal evaluation, students provided feedback about how they used the lecture notes. Some of their comments were:

"I think they were the most useful. I could know what was the whole chapter about by just gazing through lecture notes. To study for exams, used mostly lecture notes, maybe skimming through book on certain topics or defn."

"I really think that the lecture notes are very commendable! They help me to focus on the gist of the lecture itself and to recapitulate some points of the assigned textbook readings."

"Useful. The outline really helps us when reading the textbook. It let us know what issues we have to aware of."

"Very good summaries. The availability of them at all times was a big plus for me."

"To me this is the most helpful. if this weren't available I probably wouldn't read the textbook as much"

These comments provide some indication that the lecture notes actually did help strengthen the connection between the lectures and the other course materials. In particular, the students seemed to use the lecture notes in conjunction with the textbook. However, other than one comment about availability of the lecture notes, there is nothing in this feedback to indicate that having the materials on-line provided extra benefit for the students. While this could be due to the fact that the survey question only asked for general comments, it remains to be seen whether the features available on-line can be used to provide real educational benefits. Specifically, I wonder whether the ability to provide explicit hypertext connections between the individual lecture notes provides any educational benefit.

Below are some other observations and suggestions, based on my experience, discussions and student feedback, regarding the creation and use of on-line lecture notes:



In addition to required readings from the textbook, supplemental readings were also provided. The purpose of these readings was to introduce the students to aspects of the material that were not specifically addressed in the textbook or the lectures. The students were told that they would not be tested on these readings. Though the supplemental readings were referred to in some lectures, it was not assumed that the students had read the additional readings. The on-line supplemental readings came in three forms: on-line examples, extracts from on-line discussion groups, and articles from trade magazines and journals.

Several of the supplemental readings for the course were actually small collections of relevant on-line resource or examples. Each "reading" was provided for the students with a cover page that indicated the significance of the examples. The examples were chosen with the intention of encouraging the students to explore a small set of relevant items from the vast wilderness of the Internet. In one case, this type of reading was used to show the students specific examples of how organizations are using electronic networks to do business. The cover page for that example, which is included here in Appendix 3, provided a brief introduction to the topic, links to general resources, and links to specific examples of businesses using the Internet.

Another type of reading that was used during the course was extracts from Internet discussion groups [7]. Most of the excerpts I used were single messages from the public archives that most of these discussion groups maintain. The purpose of providing these excerpts was to provide students with a different view of certain issues or problems than is usually available in published articles. Because Internet discussion groups often involve a combination of practitioners and academics it is often possible to find archived discussions that present a far more balanced picture of certain issues.

The remainder of the supplemental readings were on-line copies of articles from a variety of magazines and journals. To avoid problems with copyrights, I avoided actually copying articles and in most cases I simply provided links to the publicly available document. Most of these articles were publicly available at no cost. Though I did not use them, there are many sources of on-line articles, some which charge fees, that could be used to provide a wider variety of reading materials than are available for free in the public domain.


In the informal evaluation, students provided feedback about what they thought about the supplemental readings. Some of their comments were:

"Good in the sense that gives us an idea of what's "out there" and to the extent to which MIS services exist. Quite frankly I was surprised to see Bank of America providing a Mosaic page."

"They are interesting and helpful which also helps me to understand the issue in the lecture and in the book better."

"Very interesting, I really liked seeing how other organizations used technology. I found the MUD as a system tool article very interesting."

These comments provide an indication that some students looked at the supplemental readings. The students who mentioned specific example both returned the survey after the final exam, three to five week after the readings were provided.

Below are some observations and suggestions, based on my experience, discussions, and student feedback, regarding the creation and use of on-line supplemental readings:

Exercise and Evaluation Documents: Assignments and Exam-Related Materials

The goal of the assignments in this class was to ensure that the students were aware of certain MIS concepts and could apply them in a variety of situations. The exams, on the other hand, were intended to provide the instructor with evaluative information, to distinguish the students for the final grades. In this section, we will consider how the on-line materials and procedures supported, or hindered, these objectives.


The assignments for this course were structured in different ways, ranging from a small individual case study to a group project. Part of the purpose of providing the assignments on-line was to give the students some experience with various uses of on-line information, with the hope that they would begin to think critically about the strengths and weaknesses of on-line information systems.

Assignment 1: Individual Case Study of an On-line Information Service In this assignment, the students were given a link to publicly available information about an on-line information service that is available thru the Internet. They were asked to explore the service and to answer several questions about it. The questions focused on how the service might be used in a business environment and what the implications of using the service might be. This assignment is a prime example of the potential value of on-line assignments. While this assignment could have been done on paper with a description of the service, it was more realistic, and probably more interesting, for the students to explore the service on-line. The assignment also introduced students to the type of service that is available on-line and challenged them to think about uses of that service beyond their immediate personal context.

Assignment 2: Read and Comment on Excerpts from an On-line Article

For assignment 2, students were asked to read excerpts from an article and answer several questions. On the surface there is nothing special about this assignment; it could have been accomplished just as easily on paper. However, it illustrated, both to me and to several of the students, some of the limitations of existing on-line tools. For example, when creating the assignment I was constrained by the lack of variety in the available articles. Unlike paper-based publishers, most on-line publishers do not yet provide a wide variety of materials, even without tables and graphics, at a reasonable cost. Several of the students also mentioned that, due to the small screen size, it was difficult to simultaneously read an article, look at set of questions, and take notes in a word processing program. As a result, most of the students printed out the article and the questions and worked from the paper copies.

Assignment 3: Read, Summarize, and Comment on Several Articles

This assignment presented the students with four articles from MIS trade journals and asked them to read, summarize, comment on three of them. Like assignment 2, this assignment could easily have been done on paper. It also illustrated some of the deficiencies of on-line materials. It was difficult for the students to work with a large document in Mosaic and a word processor at the same time. The students also had a tendency to copy large portion of the articles, instead of paraphrasing them. On the other hand, the use of on-line materials made it more feasible to provide the students with a choice of articles, which would have been more difficult if it were necessary to copy and distribute the articles.

Assignment 4: Group project - Specification and Design of an On-line Class Support System

For this assignment the students were split into two groups and asked to develop a preliminary design for a system to support a class that would be taught simultaneously in the U.S. and Mexico. The on-line materials for this assignment included the project description, lecture notes that dealt with system specification, and the students' final reports. The students were given time to work on this assignment during class. The lecture notes and the project description were printed by the students for use within their groups. The electronic hand-in seemed to discourage students from using diagrams in their final report, even though doing so was no more difficult than including a graphic in a word processing document. However, providing the students' final reports on-line seemed to facilitate the sharing of ideas of among the students. The access log of the WWW server indicates that several students looked at all of the final reports after they were made available on-line.

Assignment Hand-in Procedure

The students handed-in their assignments through electronic mail. Using an e-mail program available at CMU, it was possible for students to turn in assignments either as plain text e-mail messages or as fully formatted word processing documents that are "attached" to e-mail messages. If the assignment solutions had required that the students draw diagrams or perform algebraic calculations, typing them would have been more difficult. However, because the questions were primarily short essay questions, this issue did not arise. During the course there was only problem. It occurred when a student accidentally turned in her solution for assignment 1 instead of assignment 3. With a few e-mail messages, this problem was easily corrected. In addition to receiving all assignments by e-mail, all comments and grades were returned to the students via electronic mail.


In the informal evaluation, students provided feedback as to how they thought about the assignments. Some of their comments were:

"Sometimes not entirely related to material in lecture but are interesting examples of "real" world situations"

"Assignments are relevant to the course. I also like the idea of having to complete one assignment per week when there is no test /exam."

"These allow you to apply what you learned to a real-life situation (or understand how it was applied by others)"

"Useful but it usually takes me a longer time in thinking how to do them than I actually do them. It is also too hard to get the extra credit."

"I found the readings for the assignments interesting, but for me, the questions were more busy work than thought provoking."

"Maybe it's just me but I couldn't really relate this to the material we've been doing (maybe I just didn't try to)"

These comments indicate that the link between assignments and the other course materials might be made clearer to the students. It may be helpful to provide hypertext links between the assignments and relevant sections of the lecture notes. Using explict links could potentially have two benefits. It may help the students see the relationship between the lecture material and the assignments. Also creating the hypertext links might focus the instructor's attention on the relationship between the assignments and the lecture notes and help ensure that there actually is some connection.

Below are some observations and suggestions, based on my experience, discussions, and student feedback, regarding the on-line assignments:



In addition to the assignment descriptions, several other assignment and exam-related documents were provided on-line. These included exam study hints (for an example, see Appendix 5), and assignment and exam solutions. The exam study hints provided several review questions for each chapter as well as hypertext links to specific lecture notes. The exam answers, which were made available after the exams were returned to the students, also included links to relevant lecture notes. The assignment answers were provided only as stand-alone documents with no significant links to other course materials.


Below are some observations and suggestions, based on my experience, discussions, and student feedback, regarding the on-line study hints and solutions:

General Guidelines for Designing On-line Course Materials

While developing the course materials I began to wonder if there were any books or articles that provided general guidelines on designing on-line hypertext documents. The best reference that I found was a work entitled Designing and Writing Online Documentation by William K. Horton [3]. In addition to providing guidelines for structuring and writing on-line documents, the book also has a bibliography that provided an overview of the prior work that has been done in the general area of on-line document design.

Based on my experience and reading, here are some general guidelines for designing on-line course materials:


Throughout the course I kept a journal of observations and thoughts related to the course and specifically to the on-line course materials. This section contains selections from my journal that illustrate issues or questions that, in retrospect, seem to be important when one is considering providing on-line materials for support of a traditional classroom-based course.

How much time did it take to create all of these materials?

Starting from nothing, it took an average of three hours for each one hour and forty-five minute lecture. This included preparing the lecture, developing supplemental readings, and creating lecture notes. It took about five hours to prepare each assignment, three or four to develop the questions and one or two to write the on-line solutions.

How did the students learn to use the on-line tools?

"I gave each of the students a Macintosh disk with a copy of Mosaic. The purpose of the this was to ensure that all the students had access to at least the basic software at all times. I also spent about 30 minutes giving the students a hands-on demonstration of Mosaic.

"There was one student who was concerned about the use of the technology in the course but when I assured her that I would be glad to answer any questions she seemed satisfied." (June 27)

"Several students asked me for some help about how to attach word processing documents to e-mail messages." (June 29)

These two entries, from early in the course, are a record of the only times there were any questions from the students about the on-line tools. This is partially due the relatively high level of computer skills among the students. In addition, the training the students received focused on using Mosaic to access the course materials, as opposed to presenting Mosaic as a general information retrieval tool. This focused approach to training probably helped the non-computer users get accustomed to the the on-line tools without being overwhelmed by details.

What type of equipment (hardware and software) did the students use to access the materials?

In the feedback survey the students were asked how they accessed the course materials and whether they had ever accessed them from their own computer at home. Of the six students who responded to the survey, four indicated that they had always used MacMosaic and Macintoshes in public computer labs. The other two students had accessed the materials using Mosaic on X-windows [8] workstation or through their own computers at home. The four students who just used the public computers said that they either did not have a computer or that they did not have a modem connection to campus.

Did the students actually use the materials on a regular basis?

"I forgot to post an announcement about the classroom change and I got e-mail messages from 2 students asking what had happened. The timestamps on the e-mail messages indicate that the students gave up relatively quickly and sent me e-mail." (June 29)

"Some of the students reported that there were some difficulties with course materials when accessed through Lynx and X windows Mosaic." (July 12)

"I also thought about a problem with the Mosaic scheme. If the information isn't reliably there then the use drops off dramatically. If you want the students to reliably use it you need to make sure that the information is there when they need it." (July 20)

These quotes, and comments that I received on several occasions when I fell behind in providing the lecture notes on-line, indicate that the students were actually using the materials on a regular basis. In addition, the WWW server log files indicate that most of the course documents were looked at by at least 9 people, presumably the 8 students and the instructor. However, in the log files, it is difficult to separate the times that I accessed the documents for testing purposes, from the times that students looked at the files. In the future, to avoid this confusion, I will create a development copy of the materials, for testing and demonstration purposes, and a separate, "clean" copy for the students. This will enable me to better track the number of times the students use particular documents.

Conducting "Experiments" vs. Educating Students

"I spent 5 hours preparing the materials for lecture tomorrow but the largest portion of that was spent playing around with the illustrations (perfection is not necessary)." (June 30)

"I arranged to use a projector plate and a powerbook so that I could display the in-class exercise, my notes, and some diagrams. However, the projector wasn't bright enough for the students to see and take notes so I have abandoned this idea.

It also became apparent that having my copy of the notes on the computer was an unnecessary distraction. The time that it takes to glance at a tilted computer screen and perhaps scroll ahead is to long. The paper copies work better. However, it might be possible to arrange things so that the distraction was not so great. (Mouse wands, and portable tablets?)" (July 1)

"[After about 8 hours total for setup] I tried using a MUD for a class discussion but there was a problem and the students were unable to get into the system. I may try again later." (July 8)

These incidents illustrate an idea that I think is important for instructor to remember when trying out new ideas in the classroom. No matter how interesting the technology is, it is important to remember that the primary reason the instructor uses it to educate the students. While experiments with new tools are useful, it is necessary to try and evaluate the impact of the "experiment" on the students' learning environment, before conducting the experiment. Trial-and-error may be a useful way of learning, but too many failed experiments in one course may frustrate and confuse the students.

Administrative Benefits

"A student who missed the class today sent me e-mail and asked if they could get a copy of the syllabus and the schedule. From home, I replied that both of those documents were available on-line using Mosaic. This student was able to access it." (June 27)

"A student missed class but he was still able to get a copy of the lecture notes (which he did later that day)." (June 28)

"One student sent me his homework today (Wednesday) [Note: The HW wasn't due until Friday]. I believe he is not going to be around for the rest of the week. Another benefit of using the e-mail for collecting homework is that it is easier for me to manage the homework (by accumulating the e-mail in a personal folder)." (June 29)

"Today we decided to re-schedule the class from 5 days a week to 4 (but longer lectures). This involved significant changes to the schedule. However, all I had to do was change the schedule on the server." (July 6)

These entries mention various administrative benefits, for both students and instructor. In an environment where computers are readily available, the students have access to the materials at all times and can hand in assignments at any time. Because of the on-line tools the instructor can provide this level of "service" without having to carry manage large collections of paper documents, thus reducing the amount of wasted paper and storage space. However, it is not clear what the nature of the administrative benefits are and how they would be affected by changes such as increasing the class size or a providing less than a complete set of on-line course materials. For example, how useful is it to just provide the administrative documents on-line for a 200 person class? Determining the magnitude of the administrative benefits is an important part of determining whether it is worthwhile, from either the instructor's or the educational institution's perspective, to support the development of on-line materials.

Focusing on the Real Audience

"In the past week as I have prepared to make the course materials public I have spent way too much time on them. This is to be noted: 'publishing' something, even if it is not 'official' publishing is a very different (and time consuming) task, in addition to preparing the materials for the classroom." (August 4)

During the course I kept thinking to myself - "Wow, I can make these course materials available to people all over the world!" This is something I would never have considered with paper-based materials. However, I learned that preparing materials for a large audience of instructors and preparing materials for the students I was teaching were two totally different projects. Even though it was possible to easily 'publish' the on-line materials, I had to constantly remind myself that the target audience was the students, not other instructors. When I didn't remember this fact, I spent many, many hours working on materials that probably provided very little benefit for the students. My conclusion here is not that 'publishing' on-line materials is bad, merely that it is a different project and should not be confused with helping the students currently enrolled in the class.

Practicality vs. Policy

"Turning in the assignments (3:30 today) went ok. There was one student that turned in her assignment 3 hours late." (July 1)

"One of the students turned in the assignment late again (only a couple hours)." (July 8)

These entries bring up an interesting issue. When turning in assignments on paper, meeting a deadline is often a practical matter - if a student doesn't get the paper turned-in by the deadline, there will not be anyone there to take it. However, when turning in assignments through e-mail, a deadline is almost entirely a matter of policy. If the student turns in the assignment late, the instructor will still receive it, with no extra effort on the part of the student. The extra "cost" associated with finding the instructor and trying to hand-in the homework, is essentially gone. Consequently, it is entirely up to the instructor to determine the strictness of the policy, and hence the "meaning" of the deadline. In general, one should always consider how the use of on-line tools will change student behavior simply by changing the "costs" of the various alternative actions.

Did the students actually use the materials on-line?

"I ended up printing all lecture notes in the end, most easy to take around"

"Yes, I print the schedule, the lecture notes, and any other supplemental readings on a consistent basis, if not, on a daily basis."

"No, I printed out the syllabus to keep with my book. I sometimes printed out homework questions while doing the reading/ exploration so I could refer to the questions while reading, I should have just copied them into another window or used multiple Mosaic windows. The only other thing I printed was some of the longer articles that I wanted to read over dinner, etc."

On the informal feedback survey, I asked the students whether they regularly printed the course materials. Of the six students who returned the survey, five of them said that they regularly printed some or all of the materials.

Other Opportunities for On-line Support of Classroom Education

"It also was interesting that the students had questions for the guest speakers after the lecture/guest speaker came. It might be useful to try and have several e-mail accessible guest speakers come early on in the class and then have them available on e-mail (or perhaps have an e-conference panel later in the semester?) This strategy might adjust for the delay between the speaking time and the time when the students come up with questions." (July 29)

During the course, I asked a Vice President (VP) of Research & Development from a local computer software company to speak to the students. On the day that the VP was in the classroom, most of the students did not have questions. However, in the days following the guest lecture, many of the students asked questions about the speaker, her company, and how it operated. This indicates to me that providing the students with a way to communicate with a guest speaker, in the days following the lecture, would be useful. An e-mail mailing-list or a class bulletin board could be used to provide this communication link.

I have also been considering the possibility of using e-mail to follow-up on the students. It seems to me that there might be some value in encouraging students to continue on-line discussions with the instructor and other students, even after the course is officially over.

Traditional Methods vs. New Technology Supported Methods

"The review session was wasted time. Only one student showed up and she really didn't have any particular questions (she did ask one question the prompted me to clarify the lecture notes)."

(August 3)

"It is very encouraging to see the students reading through the textbook to see what kind of technology can be applied to the problem given in the assignment. (I'll have to think of some variations on the theme it seem to work well to get them into the subject.)" (July 29)

"I have begun wondering about the wisdom of teaching a full sized class this way. What is the right function of paper documents in a classroom environment? It obviously is easier to access (in some ways). How about textbooks and other materials, if you are going to do things electronically what things should you try and replace the paper form and for what things should the paper form be used? These are kind of tricky questions because we have a lot of experience with certain types of classrooms and may be unwilling to critically examine those experiences." (Jul 20)

"An overall comment: As you know, I was already familiar with most of the information presented in this class. I knew this would probably be the case when I entered the class, but I found the presentation to be more interesting and dynamic than I had anticipated. I found the on-line materials to be very useful and interesting, especially as I am looking to apply Mosaic for information distribution in my job. Since I had such a hectic work schedule, I also found it very helpful to have the lecture notes accessible for the classes I missed." (From the student feedback survey)

"I think it was great using the Web and e-mail for the course." (From the student feedback survey)

These last entries raise an issue that I think is crucial when considering on-line support for classroom instruction. Everyone has some experience, whether as a student or an instructor, in a variety of classroom settings. Consequently, we all have, already formed, ideas about what will work and what won't. It is crucial, however, to be open minded. When critiquing a change, be sure to consider the possibility that it might help or change things for the better, even if you don't expect it. At the same time, when working with new technologies keep in mind the possibility that the traditional way of conducting the class might be better than the new technologically supported technique.

Conclusions and Directions for Future Work

In this report I have attempted to provide an overview of my experiences providing on-line course materials, for a single undergradute business class. On the basis of this 'experiment' it is reasonable to conclude that providing on-line course materials to support classroom-based education has potentially significant administrative and educational benefits. However, these benefits do not come without a cost. Specifically, providing sucessful on-line course materials requires substantial investment of time and effort on the part of the instructor. In this case the time and effort required was comparable to that required to provide paper-based course materials. However, it is important that instructors not become focused on creating on-line materials and forget their primary task --teaching. With this in mind, I believe that future work in the area of the design and use of on-line materials should be focused on the following objectives:

1. The development of a conceptual framework for identifying the costs and benefits of on-line course materials in a variety of different educational environments.

2. The development of concrete, practical guidelines for instructors and administrators considering the development of on-line course materials.


I realize that there are many people working on the development of computer supported education. I am very interested in learning about communities of people who would be interested in this research. Any comments/criticisms/questions are welcome (my e-mail address is