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Web Classroom of the Future: Integrating Course Management Software in a Java-based Environment
Walter Rodriguez, Florida Gulf Coast University

An integrated Java-based environment has been developed for learning web-based management information systems at Florida Gulf Coast U
niversity’s Department of Computer Information Systems. This paper presents the distributed learning strategies as well as the integrated use of commercial and in-house course shells. The Web Classroom of the Future consists of integrated course management software---including, course shells, mapped images and frames developed using Java, Hypertext Markup Language and Common Gateway Interface programs. Using a Java-enabled browser, students and faculty view multimedia (slides, sounds, video, animation), and communicate via an electronic bulletin board and an electronic chat room. The paper also describes the next version being developed: 4-D Classroom of the Future.

1. Background
Florida Gulf Coast University ---- America’s newest public institution and the fastest to obtain Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accreditation ---- uses innovative technologies to deliver on-campus and on-line courses. This paper describes one of the university’s course management environments developed by the author and his collaborators.

The environment, called Web Classroom of the Future or "webclass," was developed mainly to deliver the web-based information systems (IS) course. Students in this web-course learn to leverage information technology for business purposes: creating, developing and overseeing the computer and communication systems and networks used in managing products, processes and services. The result is information that improves organizational and customer service, increases customer loyalty, expands business opportunities, creates new products and services, and makes the whole enterprise smarter and more efficient. For instance, IS students learn to:

2. Web-course and the Curriculum

The IS web-course is part of the College of Business Computer Information Systems (CIS) Program. The CIS program uses new web-based tools within a Product-Process Development Framework: providing learners with managerial savvy (accounting, decision-science, economics, finance, human-resources, and marketing) and the creative/analytical skills needed to develop, re-engineer, produce, and manage new business products, systems and processes. CIS core courses, like the IS course, incorporate a product-process development project. Students are able to create, install, operate, maintain, produce and market information-based processes and products. They are also able to develop and manage innovative systems and processes to satisfy customers needs and wants.

At the undergraduate level, the faculty seeks to educate a new generation of CIS professional who will have both the business savvy and technical skills to solve organizational and management problems and provide technical solutions for society and industry. At the graduate level, the objective is to educate leaders and entrepreneurs in those areas. CIS graduates typically begin their careers in areas such as applications programming, systems analysis, database management, network administration, multimedia systems, information management consulting, and project management.

The Web Classroom of the Future or webclass is a course-design effort to develop an integrated web-based "course shell" to facilitate the delivery of Computer Information Systems curricula central to the Bachelor of Science, Master of Science, and Master in Business Administration in CIS programs. The emphasis is on enhancing interactive and asynchronous group participation. Learning within a web environment accomplishes a dual purpose: learn the subject matter while you learn the tools used in CIS practice.

3. Dual Environment---Synchronous and Asynchronous
The Web Classroom of the Future or webclass is one of the environments used to deliver knowledge and skills. Various course shells and delivery methods are being used to support the delivery of the computer information systems program. The delivery methods range from fully synchronous (i.e., video-conferencing and on-campus) to fully asynchronous (Internet) to flexible (combination of various distance learning methods). The strategy is to increase the university’s market share in the delivery of Information Technology programs and certifications via innovative distance learning strategies.

Webclass’s gateway is a mapped image (see Figure 1)---linking Java, HTML and CGI resources. Presently, it supports ISM 6021 Web-based Information Systems course. This course is delivered 100% over the Internet.

Figure 1.
The gateway is a mapped image linking Java, HTML and CGI resources.

4. Course Developmental Strategy
The course developmental strategy is simple. Within the developed shell (Rodriguez, 1998), each participating faculty member designs his or her course content and determines the set of existing tools that would fit the learning objectives and assessment strategies for the particular course.

The generic "course shell," reported in Rodriguez, 1998, has been improved with other web-based technologies, such as low-bit-rate-video-streaming.

5. Course Administration and Usage
Webclass is not fully automated and requires constant administration from the instructor. This is not necessarily an undesirable feature, since it forces constant faculty-students interaction. E-mails, web board posting, and online testing fly in and out.

The Web Classroom of the Future, itself, serves to illustrate the web-enabled communication principles, tools and strategies learned in the course to gain competitive advantage in the marketplace. For instance, when faculty-students interact in a live "chat" on the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) or on the Java-enable Chat (graphics) facilities, students are able to compare the limitations, connectivity, and speed of each commercial chat application.

The Web Classroom helps address problems, such as temporal and geographical fragmentation in communications. Its dual asynchronous (live chats) and synchronous (e-mail, postings) modes help students get ready for the "information-age." They learn to communicate--in writing and with commonly used desktop software--the results of their analysis of a business problem or situation.

In addition, students apply IS strategies in the design of their own Internet-based enterprise (E-Commerce)---including on-line presentation of an e-business plan and an enterprise resource planning (ERP) strategy.

6. Instructor’s and Student’s Role
Within the Web Classroom of the Future paradigm, the instructor serves as facilitator in the learning process: creating exciting learning opportunities for the students; assigning readings and challenging projects; and assessing student work and stimulating participation. Students are active participants in the learning process: reading assigned chapters and analyzing cases (by due date); participating in discussions (via e-mail, chat rooms and electronic bulletin board); and submitting assigned problems/projects/exams per course schedule.

Below are the most important points regarding the webclass delivery strategy:

7. Other Faculty Efforts
In addition to the author’s effort, it is worth noting other faculty development and distance learning efforts. For instance, Dr. Thomas Harrington is developing online statics and quantitative method courses. Dr. Kazuo Nakatani is developing a Systems Analysis course (See department home page, then click on "courses.")

This course uses both a knowledge reproduction approach and a knowledge building approach. The knowledge reproduction approach focuses on the transmission of the existing knowledge to students. The knowledge building approach (based on a constructivist standpoint) focuses on identification of new knowledge through knowledge building discourse.

Instructional materials are being developed to support the two approaches. Using those materials, students will:

The above courses provide a short review of the kinds of resources being developed in addition to the webclass. When FGCU/CIS faculty started developing web-courses, there was very low student interest in web-based delivery. After two years of development efforts, a larger number of non-traditional students prefer the flexibility of a web course as opposed to the on-campus class--when given the option.

8. Students Using the Webclass
The annual enrollment for the Web Classroom of the Future has been over 130 students in the last two years, and it is expected to rapidly increase during in next three years to about 300 students. Below is a short profile of the type of students:

For the MS/MBA: Working professionals with any BA/BS-degree in non-business or non-computing areas who desire to enhance their professional career and learn to use information technology to gain competitive advantage in their organizations.

For the CIS certifications: Those who want to learn how to develop information systems in a professional manner in order to solve business problems. Students who seek a CIS degree and an information technology related job are also involved. Others taking the course include business majors (accounting/finance/marketing/management) who are interested in use of information technology as a business solution, and information technology professionals who want to learn a more systematic approach to systems development.

Students are constantly suggesting new webclass features, as they learn about the opportunities of e-commerce. The new version, 4-D Webclass will incorporate those suggestions.

9. The Future: 4-D Webclass
The next generation shell for the Web Classroom will be called the 4-D Classroom of the Future, because it will allow users to simulate and navigate in the four dimensions of time and space using Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML). Of course, it will continue to build upon the author’s work with the delivery of Information Systems course, as well as recent communications developments.

The 4-D Classroom of the Future will bring asynchronous material and 3-D VRML models stored in Windows NT servers. In addition, some courses will use high-function SGI O2 servers available in a systems development laboratory to encode and store course videos. All commercial and customized instructional materials are available to students via the Internet. Students and faculty will communicate with each other from properly configured computers (Java-based browser, NetShow, NetMeeting clients, and other free collaborative software).

Below is a listing of the new time-space features being developed for the 4-D Classroom:

  1. When a student finishes navigating a particular module room or space, the 4-D system will record it so that the next time it will automatically bring the student to the next room or "learning space."
  2. The environment will be tailored to the particular student habits---for instance, if a student likes to review the online videos before the narrated slides, the system will bring first the video space.
  3. The 4-D Webclass will be personalized---students will be asked to enter some personal information such as zip code and line of business or interest, and so on.
  4. To prevent the 4-D web site from presenting just piles of information (for instance, a detailed table of contents), student will enter their zip code and the system will display some unique image of the particular region where the student is taking the course. For instance, a student in Florida may receive an image of beaches, while a student in Colorado may see mountainous landscape. This, of course, is just one example. Another would be selecting examples or cases related to a student's particular line of business.
  5. As the system learns from the student personality, an artificial intelligent agent will search the web and send e-mails related to the course subject being studied and particular sites on the web.

The most important principle in the design of the 4-D system is that it will assist both the facilitator and the student learning without hindering their autonomy.

10. Evaluation and Conclusion
FGCU’s Planning and Evaluation uses a standard instrument called State University System Student Assessment of Instruction (SUSSAI), using a 5 point scale. SUSSAI includes the following eight standard questions:

  1. Description of course objectives and assignment
  2. Communication of ideas and information
  3. Expression of expectations for performance in this class
  4. Availability to assist students in and out of class
  5. Respect and concern for students
  6. Stimulation of interest in the course
  7. Facilitation of learning
  8. Overall assessment of instructor

The first time that the IS course was offered on-campus, the instructor obtained a 4.73 on a 5.0 scale for the overall assessment of the instructor. However, the first time that he offered the course on the Internet the evaluation was 3.69, using the same instrument and scale. After the developing the Web Classroom of the Future, the evaluations have been improving very rapidly: from the initial semester 4.5, then 4.8, and a perfect 5.0, last semester, using the same instrument and scale.

Based on the Web Classroom of the Future development and implementation experience, the new 4-D Classroom of the Future will provide customized time and space experiences akin to real-life. It will consist of stored hypertext, audio, video, and virtual modeling language (VRML) graphics. Students will be able to asynchronously access the stored classes either by file transfer and/or real-time playback via modem connection over standard telephone lines, the Internet, and/or on campus via FGCU’s ATM backbone.

Interaction between the student and the instructor will be mostly asynchronous with some synchronous consultations using NetMeeting. The webClass will continue to integrate audio, video, text and collaborative tools such as WebBoard, E-mail, and video conferencing. Anyone with a properly configured PC or Mac can participate any place, any time. However, the present .avi files download slowly from a modem (Figure 2). The new Web Classroom of the Future uses low bit rate video streaming (28Kbps) with MediaBase to minimize the connection and bandwidth constraints, as well as new communication technologies available. Of course, the webclass courses will continue to be delivered primarily using the existing Internet technologies, including WWW, web conferencing, web-enabled on-line testing, web-enabled group support system, and other web-enabled applications, as well as client/server applications.

Market Niche: Graduate and undergraduate CIS programs and certifications are a natural niche market to FGCU. The Information Technology industry is the largest industry in the U.S., while Systems Analysis is the second largest occupation in Southwest Florida. There is great demand for student interns and professionals with (1) hands-on experiences; (2) ability to adapt theories and concepts in real projects; and (3) interpersonal and communication skills. Most universities respond to this by using a group systems development project as a primary method of teaching in courses. Unfortunately, a group project is difficult to implement in a distance learning environment. The Classroom of the Future project will allow for the implementation of the group project and simulation teaching approaches essential in IT team teaching. The 4-D Classroom of the Future will provide these experiences by integrating various web-based communication tools described in this proposal. Marketing: The 4-D Classroom of the Future will be marketed internationally by the Center for Leadership and Innovation---which is evaluating opportunities for MS/MBA programs in China/Taiwan, Germany, Mexico, and Latin America.

11. References
Rodriguez, W., "Web Classroom: A Java-based Resource for Learning Information Technology Management," Proceedings of the WebNet Conference, Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, Orlando, Florida, November 7-12, 1998.


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IMEJ multimedia team member assigned to this paper: Daniel Pfeifer