David Jones, Computing by Distance Education: Problems and Solutions, Integrating Technology into Computer Science Education, Association for Computing Machinery, Barcelona, Gordon Davies, pp 139-146
Problems in teaching computing by distance education can result from the characteristics of
- the institution,
- the medium used to deliver subject matter, and
- the field of computing.
This paper examines some of the problems faced by the Department of Mathematics & Computing at Central Queensland University (CQU) in offering computing via distance education. It will describe some of the solutions implemented by the Department and the problems generated by those solutions. Experience at CQU has shown that the appropriate use of technology including computers, software, computer aided learning tools, computer mediated communication (CMC), voice mail, audio and video tapes can contribute solutions to many of the problems of distance education.
The Department of Mathematics & Computing at Central Queensland University (CQU) became the first institution in the world to offer a professional computing program via distance education when it offered Computer Science I in 1975. Today the Department teaches subjects in both on-campus and distance modes in a variety of courses including a Bachelor, Associate Diploma and Graduate Diploma of Information Technology. Table 1 summarises the enrolments in the department’s subjects for semester 1, 1996. On-campus students may be located at any one of CQU’s campuses in Rockhampton, Bundaberg, Gladstone, Mackay and Sydney. Distance students may be situated throughout Australia and increasing numbers are coming from throughout the world, especially Singapore and Dubai.
This paper is based on the experience of computing academics at CQU in teaching computing by distance education. The problems experienced at CQU can be divided into five categories based on the characteristics of the students, the institution, the academics, the media used to deliver subject material, and the field of computing. This paper examines problems from each of these categories and discusses some of the solutions implemented at CQU.
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2 Distance Education at CQU
Distance education has the following characteristics 
- the separation of teacher and learner,
- planning and preparation of learning materials by an educational
- use of media, often print-based, to carry course content and
to unite teacher and student,
- some form of two way communication, and
- students learning as individuals.
Nipper  divides distance education into three generations. The first generation was the traditional correspondence model in which print is the sole medium for student/teacher communication. Second generation distance education, also known as industrialised multimedia distance education, integrates print and other modern media such as audio/video cassettes, computers and broadcast media into the distance study package.
The major objective of first and second generation distance education is the production and distribution of learning materials. In these models little or no student/student and student/teacher interaction occurs. Third generation distance education, also known as interactive, multimedia distance education, places an emphasis on communication and learning as a social process typically through the addition of interactive media such as computer mediated communications (CMC), audiographics or video conferencing.
CQU is primarily a second generation distance education institution. At the start of a semester distance students receive a study package that contains print based study guides, resource materials and a text book. For some subjects the study package may also include computer aided learning tools and occasionally audio or video tapes. Computing subjects at CQU do not make use of broadcast media such as television or radio.
Rumble  outlines six major functional areas of distance education: curriculum planning, course development, instruction, administration and the production and distribution of materials. At CQU academics are responsible for curriculum planning, course development and instruction. Administration is spread between academic departments and central University administration.
The production and distribution of all distance learning material is performed by the Division of Distance and Continuing Education (DDCE). DDCE specifies deadlines, performs instructional design, editing and has developed a prescribed style for distance education material. DDCE also manages the submission of assignments by distance students and provides a number of other support services for distance students.
2 Student characteristics
Many of CQU’s distance computing students are mature, highly motivated people many of whom have already completed previous tertiary studies or have worked in the computing industry. The majority (87%) of CQU distance computing students study part-time while working full-time  and in many cases supporting a family. Student’s encounter problems due to
- their desire for flexibility,
- cultural and time differences, and
- personal characteristics and circumstances.
Some distance students choose to study via distance education due to the need for autonomy, independence and flexibility . However for many there is no choice. They must study via distance education due to factors such as physical location, work and/or family commitments . In either case students do not want, nor can their schedules be, dictated by the University.
However, distance students would prefer to be able to access assistance when required. Most distance students cannot study on weekdays between nine to five. Instead they set aside a number of hours for study early in the morning, at night or during weekends. Due to other commitments this is often the only time a distance student is able to study.
It is important that if a student encounters a problem that it be resolved quickly. If it isn’t then the student’s motivation to study can suffer. Often the quickest solution to these problems is direct assistance from the lecturer. University lecturers are not generally available early in the morning, at night or on weekends. For distance students this means that they must wait until the next day before being able to contact the lecturer and hopefully solve their problem. Having solved the problem the student may not be able to continue studying until their next study period the following week.
There are a number of quite valid factors that can contribute to a distance student being unable to submit a piece of assessment on time or at all. In general distance students require greater flexibility than on-campus students when it comes to assessment deadlines.
2.2 Cultural and time differences
CQU has distance students located throughout Australia and in Singapore, Dubai, Cyprus, Indonesia and Europe. Cultural differences are increasingly important as distance education becomes global. Examples and analogies that make perfect sense to an Australian student may mean nothing to a student in Singapore. Due to the print based nature of distance education it is essential to make use of relevant examples and analogies.
There are times during study when some form of synchronous communication between student and teacher is necessary. Organising synchronous communication between a student in Cyprus and a lecturer in Rockhampton includes solving the problems caused by different time zones.
2.3 Personal characteristics and circumstances
The personal characteristics and circumstances of distance students contribute both problems and benefits. Motivation, maturity and computing expertise is often greater amongst distance students than on-campus students. These characteristics can make distance education enjoyable. This also leads to distance students having greater expectations of service.
Personal characteristics can also effect a student’s motivation and/or ability to study and complete a subject. Contributory factors include the student’s age, gender, educational background, personality, learning style, confidence and previous study experience. Most distance students are either returning to study after a prolonged absence or studying seriously for the first time. The initial period of readjustment to the requirements of study can cause problems for some students.
The circumstances under which distance students study can also generate problems that lead to poor performance. These circumstances include workload, family commitments, illness, economic situation, geographic location and general lack of time.
3 Institutional characteristics
The institution and its policies set the tone and create the environment in which distance education occurs. Institutional factors that can effect the quality of distance education include
- recognition of the importance and support for distance teaching,
- administrative inflexibility, and
- the organisation of distance education.
3.1 Recognition of teaching
With on-campus teaching it is possible to modify the presentation of the subject in response to how well the students are understanding the material. The print based nature of distance education means that this responsiveness is not available in distance teaching. Instead the production of second generation distance education study material requires significant planning and development. All possible circumstances must be thought of and handled before teaching begins. This requires significantly greater effort than presenting a traditional lecture.
The effort required to produce traditional print based material is increasing due to the growing competition in the distance education market and the heightened demands from students for quality, service and innovation.
Due to CQU’s dual mode nature its staff must teach the same subject twice using different methods. First they must prepare the print based distance study material months prior to the start of semester. Then once the semester has started the traditional on-campus teaching methods are used to teach the subject again.
Traditionally academics gain more recognition for research activities than for teaching. Distance students often suffer from the out of sight, out of mind problem that results in a lower status being assigned to distance students . If a distance education institution does not recognise the importance of distance education, provide sufficient support or reward quality teaching then distance education quality suffers.
3.2 Traditional inflexibility
University administration is traditionally inflexible. Semesters start and finish at set times, enrolments must be complete by this date and exams sat on that date. Flexibility is one of the important characteristics of distance education and its counterpart open learning. This incompatibility causes problems.
There are times when through outside factors a distance student will be unable to sit an exam at the time set by the University. What happens when a distance student must be at sea the week the exam is sat? At CQU some students must wait six to eight months after the subject has finished to sit an exam in the next official, scheduled examination period.
3.3 Distance education organisation
While performing its role the organisational model at CQU, where all distance education material is produced by a central organisation, has the following problems
- a lack of field specific knowledge in instructional design
- a lack of control felt by some academics,
- large lead times in subject development, and
- an inability to handle change.
3.3.1 Little understanding of particular fields
CQU offers a wide range of topic areas by distance education. Each area has different requirements and optimum presentation styles. The CQU approach is for all distance education material to use a single presentation style. This may not be the most appropriate solution.
For example the DDCE style guide for distance material specifies that single quotes shall not be used. The study guide for the computing subject 85343 Machine Intelligence contains a number of sections of Prolog code. The syntax of the Prolog language means that single quotes are required in these code fragments.
One year, due to the rule prohibiting the use of single quotes, all the single quotes in the 85343 study guide were automatically changed to double quotes. Needless to say when students attempted to use the example Prolog code they discovered problems.
3.3.2 Academics lack of control
With traditional on-campus teaching academics generally have complete control over what they teach and how it is presented. In CQU’s distance education model the subject matter’s presentation is controlled by DDCE. This results in significant tension between the desire to operate standardised systems for production and distribution of courseware and the desire for course designers to be creative and imaginative .
3.3.3 Large lead times in subject development
The large number of distance subjects offered by CQU means that distance study material is due at DDCE four to six months prior to the start of semester. This results in the need to develop material for the next distance offering of a subject at the same time as it is currently being taught. This leaves little time for reflection or evaluation of teaching methods and resources.
3.3.4 Inability to handle change
Distance education institutions have proven capability as organisers and supervisors of programmatic elements but not as leaders with a vision of what distance education can become . CQU’s centralised model of distance education is difficult to reconcile with the requirements of new technology of fast, flexible and devolved decision making .
An example of this is the inability to change funding patterns from a traditional print-based costing model. This means that non-print resources are considered "extras" and must be funded out of the teaching department’s funds rather than the distance education allocation.
4 Educational media
The choice of the media used in distance education affects the cost of distance education and how the student learns. At CQU the primary medium is print with some subjects making use of audio/video cassettes, computer aided learning tools and CMC. The use of print as the primary medium for teaching in distance education contributes a number of problems including
- the slowness of distributing subject material, and
- a lack of student/teacher and student/student interaction,
- a high level of transactional distance.
4.1 Distance means time
The print based nature of second generation distance education means that the primary distribution mechanism is the postal service. When students are geographically distant the time required to distribute material via the postal service can lead to a number of problems including
- late reception of study material,
- difficulty of distributing fixes or clarifications, and
- problems in providing sufficient and timely feedback.
4.1.1 Late arriving materials
There have been cases where distance students do not receive their study material until several weeks into semester due to production and delivery delays. Additional problems result because CQU students are able to enrol in new subjects up to and including the second week of semester. A late enrolling distance student may not receive the subject’s study material until week 5 (or later) of a 13 week semester. A similar problem occurs if a distance student loses the study material for a subject.
4.1.2 Distributing fixes and clarifications
The discovery of a mistake in print based materials may result in the need to distribute a solution. The process for distributing such a fix by the postal service includes creating the solution, making sufficient copies, placing them in envelopes and mailing them. For a subject with a large enrolment this process takes considerable time, effort and cost. In all it can take two to three (and more) weeks to deliver the fix.
This causes particular problems when the identification of the problem does not occur until the last week of semester. At this late stage the time required may result in distance students not receiving the fix until after the subject’s final assessment.
4.2 Lack of interaction
The predominantly one-way nature of the media used in second generation distance education results in little or no student/student and student/teacher communication. This lack of communication leads to students feeling isolated.
4.2.1 Providing feedback
The only form of feedback for most distance students is the submission and return of assignments. The mark and comments on an assignment are often the only indication of how well a distance student has understood a topic. It is also the only indication that an academic has by which to gauge the progress of the class.
Using the postal service for the submission of assignments, results in turnaround times of between one to three weeks and the possibility of lost assignments due to human error. Students must often submit an assignment before a previous assignment has been marked and returned. It also means that students may not receive any feedback on concepts introduced late in a semester .
As they are often the sole avenue of feedback for a distance student the comments on a returned assignment must be meaningful, plentiful, appropriate and encouraging.
4.3 Transactional distance
Distance in distance education is not limited to geographic distance. Transactional distance is the psychological space between the learner and the teacher . Transactional distance is a function of two characteristics
- the extent of the dialogue between student and teacher, and
- the responsiveness of the subject to an individual learner’s needs.
As has been seen in the previous sections both these characteristics are limited in second generation distance education that results in a high transactional distance.
5 Teacher characteristics
The commitment of academics to distance education is variable. There are academics who invest great effort in producing quality learning materials and providing an appropriate learning environment, while others will expend little or no effort. This variability is the result of academic interests, capabilities and the perceived importance of distance teaching. If greater rewards are available from research activities then more effort will be expended on research.
6 Field of study
In addition to the standard problems of distance education the characteristics of each individual field of study introduce unique problems. Characteristics of computing that cause problems include the ever changing nature of computing and the need for students to have access to appropriate computing resources.
One of the defining characteristics of computing is change. The production and design of second generation distance education material results in high fixed costs but low variable costs . This results in a need for large student numbers or the reuse of study material to regain costs.
Investing considerable resources in developing subject material that must change every time it is offered may not be economically viable. This is especially true in advanced computing subjects where there is a small student population. The continual change also places an additional load on computing academics who must invest time and effort to keep material up to date.
6.2. Access to computing resources
The study of computing has three essential paradigms: theory, abstraction and design . In order to experience the abstraction and design paradigms students must have access to appropriate computing resources.
For on-campus students this access is traditionally provided by central computer laboratories. The geographic spread of distance students means that this is not an appropriate solution for distance education. The traditional solution has been to require distance computing students to organise their own computing access. This generally results in computing students facing greater expense in order to purchase appropriate hardware, software, training and support.
In 1980 44% of CQU computing students gained access through "home town" computers, 5% through direct use of CQU computers and 51% submitted programs on cards or tape for compilation by CQU staff . In 1993, 85% of CQU distance computing students had computers in their home. The remainder gained computing access through work (19%), Open Learning Centres (9%) or friends (2%) .
The penetration of the personal computer into the home means that most students are able to gain access to a computer. There are however, problems with some advanced subjects that require capabilities and performance not available on personal computers. At some distance computing institutions, residential schools provide access to these resources. CQU does not use residential schools for computing subjects. Requiring distance students to be present on the University campus decreases the flexibility and autonomy of distance education and significantly increases the cost to the student.
There are a number of different computing platforms available to distance students. A distance education institution must decide whether or not to support all computer platforms, or specify a standard computing platform and design all subjects for that platform. Designing a subject for multiple platforms introduces additional problems and requires a considerably higher investment of resources than designing for a single platform. Persuading a group of academics to agree on a single suitable computing platform can be difficult.
6.2.2 Software and Data
With on-campus computing laboratories it is possible to organise site licences for required software. Obtaining similar site licences that allow the supply of software to distance students is rare. This results in distance students having to purchase the necessary software further adding to the costs of education.
In addition to software students will require example programs and data. Providing this data requires the copying and distribution of large numbers of floppy disks. In 1992 the Department of Mathematics and Computing distributed more than 15000 disks . Inevitably a proportion of those disks copied will be corrupt. Distance students receiving a corrupt disk may not be able to commence their studies until the delivery of a replacement disk.
Distance computing students have all levels of computing expertise. There are students who have years of experience in the computing industry while others will be using a computer for the first time.
A novice computing user about to study computing by distance education has two mountains to climb. They must first become familiar with the operation of distance education and how best to fit study into their existing life style. Then they must obtain, install and learn how to use a computer for the first time. These novice students require additional assistance from the lecturers of first year subjects and technical support staff.
Under a normal workload it takes a CQU distance computing student six years to complete a Bachelor of Information Technology degree. A distance student starting six years ago was likely to have a 286 with 1Mb of RAM and a 40Mb hard disk. By the time they have reached their final year in 1996 there are subjects that require at least a 386 with 4Mb or RAM, 100Mb of disk space and a CD-ROM. For most distance students it is necessary to upgrade their computers at least once during study.
7 Solutions at CQU
The Department of Maths & Computing has attempted to solve these and other problems using a variety of methods. Some of these solutions have been the result of a department wide initiative while most are initiatives by individual or small groups of lecturers. These solutions include
- the design of all distance computing subjects for the IBM PC/MS-DOS platform,
- the development and use of computer aided learning tools,
- the use of audio and video cassettes,
- the provision of a hot-line manned at the times at which distance students study,
- a variety of methods to improve assessment and the provision of feedback, and
- the use of computer mediated communication (CMC).
7.1 A standard computing platform
All computing subjects offered by the Department of Maths & Computing are designed to use an IBM PC compatible computer running MS-DOS. The main advantages of this platform is that it is the most popular computer platform. This means that distance students will generally be able to gain access and support in their local area.
Choosing the IBM PC/MS-DOS platform has caused a number of problems. Not all IBM PC compatible computers are compatible. There have been significant difficulties with getting some software to run on a supposedly standard IBM PC. The platform itself is not the most user-friendly in the world and increasingly computing subjects require capabilities that are not available under MS-DOS.
A recent solution to this last problem for one subject has been the distribution of the Linux operating system . The distribution of Linux has raised some problems. In particular the fact that the latest distribution of Linux requires 55 floppy disks. The penetration of CD-ROM technology is helping to alleviate this problem. In semester 1, 1996 56 of the 65 (91%) distance students that required Linux asked for the CD-ROM distribution.
7.2 Computer aided learning
There are a number of concepts throughout computing that students have difficulty understanding. Examples include pointers, parameter passing, concurrency and mutual exclusion. Live demonstrations and examples are useful in solving the difficulties of on-campus students. However, the print based nature of distance education means that live demonstrations and examples are not possible distance education students.
In response to this the Department of Mathematics & Computing has developed a number of computer aided learning packages that use simulation to assist understanding. Examples include SIMPOINT , Kid Codie  and RCOS . SIMPOINT and Kid Codie provide a graphical simulation of pointers, procedures and parameter passing. RCOS is a program that simulates and animates the operation of a multi-tasking operating system that supports semaphores and shared memory.
Developing quality computer based simulation tools to assist in instruction is costly. Some estimates indicate that up to 500 hours is required to produce one hour of quality interaction . CQU experience has shown that the use of computing project students to develop these tools can help reduce the cost of development . However it is still necessary to invest considerable resources in providing suitable documentation and integrating these tools into a subject.
7.3 Improving assessment and feedback
The only feedback that distance students receive on their progress is through marked assignments. Therefore it is important that feedback on assignments be appropriate and timely. Rekkedal  found that by reducing the median turn-around time on assignments from 8.2 days to 5.6 days, course completion increased from 69% to 91%.
Individual staff from the Department of Maths & Computing have adopted strategies and developed systems that assist in the provision of appropriate and timely feedback. These include
- improved methods for writing and marking of assessment,
- the production of tools to provide immediate feedback to students, and
- the development of a system to manage the submission of assignments via email.
7.3.1 Assessment strategies
To ensure that distance students are aware of how an assignment is marked some lecturers distribute the marking criteria that will be used with the assignment. To improve the quantity and quality of feedback comment sheets are used. These sheets contain a list of all common comments for a particular assignment. Individual student assignments are labelled with numbers indicating with each comment from the comment sheet. This strategy allows the marker to provide in-depth comments without repeatedly writing the same comment.
Another strategy appreciated by most distance students is the distribution of past exams and solutions at the start of the semester. This provides them with some idea of the questions that will be asked and the standard of answers expected.
7.3.2 Automated feedback
One of the problems faced by distance students is that they do not receive any immediate feedback. Instead they must await the return of their first assignment. In some first year programming subjects a computer managed learning system is used to provide immediate feedback . Recently software to analyse student programs and provide feedback has been created. The system examines student code and produces
- a diagrammatic representation of user defined data structures and variables,
- a table of metrics for each function and procedure indicating whether or not the module has passed or failed, and
- an advice window on how the program can be improved.
7.3.3 Email submission of assignments
The majority of the time taken to submit and return the assignments of distance students is due to the speed of the postal service. Electronic mail and its instantaneous delivery provide an obvious method for reducing turn around time. Experience in one subject has shown that simply using email for assignment submission can increase the workload of the academic and not provide any considerable reduction in turn-around time.
It has been found that to fully benefit from the advantages of email submission of assignments it is necessary to change the way in which assignments are marked and provide an automated system to manage the submission of assignments. During 1995 such a system was developed and used in a CQU computing subject. The system automatically
- acknowledges receipt of an assignment,
- forwards the assignment to the appropriate marker,
- archives a copy of both the assignment and the marked assignment,
- returns the marked assignment and solutions to the student, and
- produces a WWW page that includes the number of assignments received and returned, the lowest, highest and average marks for each assignment and the individual assignment marks listed by student number.
The first advantage of this system is that students receive an immediate acknowledgement that their assignment has reached CQU. With the postal service students must wait a number of weeks before finding out whether or not their assignment was received by CQU. Using appropriate marking methods it is possible to achieve considerable reduction in assignment turnaround time. Submitting assignments via email is also simpler and cheaper for distance students. Email is also a much safer mechanism for submitting programs than sending a floppy disk via the postal service. An unexpected benefit of the system is that the WWW page it produces allows students to compare their results with the rest of the class. This helps reduce the sense of isolation felt by distance students.
Problems include equity of access and technical difficulties. Some students cannot access email and therefore are unable to benefit from the system. Also, a decreasingly small number of students have difficulty with using the technology.
7.4 Use of audio and video tapes
The audio cassette is an underrated medium that can provide a vicarious experience of tutorials or academic debate . Audio cassettes have been used at CQU in first year programming subjects to provide an example tutorial session between a lecturer and a student. Other subjects have also made use of audio tapes with at least two subjects also using video.
While the costs of producing a single audio or video tape is not prohibitive, copying and distributing tapes to large numbers of students can be expensive and time consuming.
7.5 Student hot-line
A student hot-line, staffed by advanced mathematics and computing students, has been put in place to handle student queries submitted by email, fax, telephone or face-to-face. The hot-line is operated during lunch hours, in the evenings and on weekends in an attempt to match the times when distance students are studying. Where possible the hot-line staff answer student queries immediately; if unable to answer a query the hot-line staff will pass it to the lecturer responsible for the subject.
This system replaced a previous centralised system managed by DDCE. The centralised system took up to 48 hours to deliver a student query from DDCE (where the night-line is situated) to the appropriate computing lecturer. Being a central service for all distance subjects the staff taking the messages had no computing knowledge that also led to some problems.
7.6 Use of CMC
The use of computer mediated communication in distance education at CQU is increasing. With appropriate support CMC can solve a number of the problems with distance education. Use of CMC within the Department of Mathematics and Computing has included
- the use of email for individual student/teacher communication,
- the use of email for assignment submission,
- use of mailing lists and Usenet news for group discussion, and
- the use of the World-Wide Web for the distribution of learning material.
7.6.1 Email, Mailing lists and Usenet News
Every computing lecturer has an individual email address that is published in the study material distributed to distance students. Students are able to use email to communicate directly with the lecturer. The asynchronous nature of email means that games of telephone tag are no longer necessary.
In first semester 1996, 22 subjects have individual mailing lists that are used for purposes from ad hoc distribution of subject information through to assessable small group discussion. Usenet newsgroups have also been used to provide similar functionality . However distributing local CQU newsgroups so they can be accessed by distance students gaining Internet access through commercial Internet service providers is proving difficult.
7.6.2 World-Wide Web
In the 1996 offering of the subject 85321 Systems Administration, the WWW was the primary distribution mechanism for all distance material . All subject materials including the text book, study guide, resource materials, tutorial questions, past exams, solutions, student results, group discussion and some software were distributed using the WWW. The only print based information distributed was a four page subject profile.
Similarly most of the materials for 85138 Human Issues in Computing, a core first year unit, and 85323, an advanced unit were also available for optional delivery via the WWW.
Florini  outlines the major problems with the use of CMC as being
- its restriction to text,
- the requirement to train students and teachers in its use, and
- the question of equity of access.
The multimedia capabilities of the WWW provide a solution to the restriction to text. Past experience at CQU has shown that the major problem with the use of CMC has been technical and training difficulties. However these problems are disappearing due to the increasing user-friendliness of modern Internet applications. In addition the spread of Internet Service Providers throughout Australia has meant that CQU students no longer rely on CQU for the provision of software and training.
The penetration of the Internet is also addressing the problem of equity. In the 1996 offering of 85321 76% of students had Internet access prior to starting the subject. The remaining 24% obtained access before the subject commenced .
Offering computing by distance education suffers from a number of problems. Foremost among them being the difficulty of student/student and student/teacher communication primarily due to the print based nature of distance education. Other problems with distance education are caused by student, academic and institutional characteristics as well as the requirements of computing.
None of these problems are impossible to solve. Careful planning, innovative strategies and the appropriate use of technology can solve many of these problems and make distance education a rewarding experience for both students and teachers.
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