Institute for Human and Machine Cognition


A Learning Environment Organizer for Asynchronous Distance Learning Systems


John W. Coffey & Alberto J. Cañas

Institute for Human and Machine Cognition
Pensacola Fl, 32502


Keywords: Asynchronous distance learning environment, Client-Server, event multicasting. Focus and context


This work describes a tool that can be used to build graphical organizers to present asynchronous, distributed learning courses. The organizer tool is integrated into a software suite entitled “CmapTools” that utilizes a unique client-server architecture. The Organizer helps the instructional designer organize a learning environment using a graphical representation of topics, their sequences, and additional explanatory information on their relationships. The organizer presents essential dependency relationships among topics in a course, points the student to online instructional content pertinent to the topic, and downloads the lesson content for the student. The system tracks student progress through the learning environment. This work describes the tool’s basic functionality, look and feel, and presents an example of a learning environment organizer created with the tool.

1. Introduction

The rapidly evolving nature of technological economies and the sorts of work they generate increasingly require people to be lifelong learners. Increasingly, people are seeking to enhance their education while working full-time jobs, which do not easily permit them to attend traditional face-to-face classes. Simultaneously, the integration of computer-based networking, computer-mediated instruction, and multimedia technology hold the promise of improved distance learning environments. This integration, coupled with the fact that the Internet has revolutionized the basic availability, categorization, and searchability of instructional content, creates great potential for asynchronous distance learning environments.

This paper describes a network-based learning environment organizer software program that offers support for asynchronous distance learning, anytime, anywhere. The Organizer achieves much of its capabilities from its integration into “CmapTools,” a knowledge modeling environment [1, 2, 3] with a client-server architecture [4]. CmapTools gains much of its capabilities (which the Organizer exploits) from its own event multicasting virtual machine, which, on the client side, was built on top of the JavaTM Virtual Machine.

The Organizer helps the instructional designer organize a learning environment using a graphical representation of topics, their sequences, and additional explanatory information on their relationships. The designer can attach tasks or activities to topics in the organizer and can choose from among a variety of criteria for task completion. The organizer presents essential dependency relationships among topics in a course, points the student to online instructional content pertinent to the topic, and downloads the content at the student’s request.

The rest of this paper will discuss asynchronous, distance learning environments, CmapTools, and the Organizer as it is integrated into CmapTools. It will first present a brief overview of the benefits and drawbacks of asynchronous distance learning environments. It will then discuss the basic architecture of CmapTools – a client-server model that allows the Organizer to access online instructional content. It will discuss the basic features and the look and feel of the Organizer itself. The paper will close with a discussion of an example Organizer for an online course on the topic of Managerial Decision Making.

2. Asynchronous Distance Learning Environments

Asynchronous distance learning environments have rapidly become widespread for post-secondary education [5, 6, 7, 8]. They offer a variety of benefits such as efficient and effective use of a student’s time. Most traditional classes meet once or twice a week, and students only participate in those classes they attend. With asynchronous distance learning classes, students may participate many times per week, at their convenience. Students are also able to read and carefully formulate responses to questions or discussions, attain higher levels of participation, and create written records of their interactions in the course [9]. Other benefits include potentially simple evaluation schemes, and cost effective educational delivery [10].

Such courses can utilize numerous facilities that are already available on the World Wide Web, including the use of Web pages as course content, asynchronous forms of communication such as electronic mail, listservers and newsgroups, and synchronous forms of communication such as chat rooms and videoconferencing [11]. Some online courses are augmented with computer programs such as “Convene Software” [11], “SimulNet” [12], “TopClass” [13] and “CODILESS” [14]. These programs provide a variety of capabilities for synchronous and asynchronous distance learning.

Despite these capabilities, online asynchronous courses typically seek to emulate traditional classroom methods of instruction, only at a distance. The Organizer described in this work substantially augments the capabilities of the standard Internet technologies and adopts a different approach to distance learning that affords great flexibility to the designer and the student. The Organizer gains much of its capabilities from its integration with CmapTools, the topic of the next section.

3. CmapTools: Concept Mapping Software Toolkit

CmapTools is a software suite that is in ongoing development at the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), University of West Florida. This software suite is built as a client-server system that enables distance learning and collaboration over the Internet. Figure 1 illustrates the CmapTools architecture (personal communication, Niranjan Suri).

Figure 1. The Client-Server Model of CmapTools.

This system allows electronic instructional content in the form of concept maps [15], text, graphics, audio and video to reside on machines that are configured with the CmapTools server software. Any machine on the network can be set up as a CmapTools server and can be used as a non-local repository for these resources. Such servers can be accessed from any machine with TCP/IP and the client software. The runtime system itself supports storing resources on remote machines from the local machine that is being used to edit the content. Other Web-based content such as Web pages can also be accessed from the CmapTools client.

The client software is organized around an additional software layer that has been built on top of the JavaTM Virtual Machine. This layer, called the "Core," provides synchronization and event multicasting among a group of modules that work like plug-ins to provide the functionalities of the system. When the software is loaded, the modules register the so-called "Core" events that they will generate and handle with the Core. As the software runs, individual modules detect Java events and convert them to "Core" events. The Core multicasts these events, so that each module that requires notification of the occurrence of a Core event is informed that it occurred.

Figure 2 presents a graphic illustrating the structure of the client program, including the various communications among the Core and the other modules. The basic modules are: a network communications client, several modules that allow for creation and editing of projects, modules that contain the functionality of a concept map editor/browser, the Organizer modules, a rule-based inference module that utilizes JESS (Java Expert System Shell) [16], collaboration tools, a search module, and other utilities. These modules can be included in various combinations in a system build to create software that can be specialized for a variety of applications, including the creation of the organizer that is described in this work.

Figure 2. The Core and modules that comprise the CmapTools’ client program.

4. The Learning Environment Organizer

This section describes the organizer’s look-and-feel and basic functionality. An Organizer takes the form of a graph (in the mathematical sense of the word), with two different types of nodes, instructional topic nodes, called place nodes, and explanation nodes that explain about the topics. The place nodes have color codings to indicate student progress through the course of instruction. The Organizer presents both a global (context) view and a local (focus) view of the course structure, and a “Display Status Panel.” These features will each be described in more detail in the next sections. Figure 3 presents a view of an organizer pertaining to a course in Data Structures.

(Click on the image for a larger view)

Figure 3. The Organizer in User mode, showing place and explanation nodes.


4.1 Place/Explanation Nodes.

Place nodes correspond to the topics in the course. Explanation nodes elaborate the relationships among the place nodes and have no adornments. Figure 3 depicts place nodes as those surrounded with shadowed boxes, populated with icons, and containing a rectangle that color-codes the status of the place. For example, “Introduction to Data Structures,” “Linked Lists,” “Arrays,” “Recursion,” etc., are place nodes. The place nodes are linked together by double lines that convey prerequisite relationships. They have links to the instructional content that can be used to learn about the topic under consideration and to perform the tasks or activities associated with the topic. When the user clicks on the icon that looks like a graph beneath the place, a pull-down menu appears that presents links to online instructional content that is pertinent to the topic. The other icons beneath the place nodes may be clicked to access the tasks, assignments, activities, etc. that are associated with the topics. These assignments may be rendered in text, in a video of the instructor describing the assignment, or in other media the instructor might utilize.

The place nodes are color coded to indicate the student's progress through the organizer. There are separate, configurable colors for completed nodes, the current node, nodes for which the student is ready, and nodes for which she or he is not yet ready. When a place is completed, the system changes the color code of that place to the color that indicates completed status and then determines which subsequent places are to be changed to ready status.

The instructor can specify the criteria for completion of a topic. Several possible alternatives have been identified and implemented. The instructor may require a submission of a deliverable that must be evaluated before indicating that the place is completed. The student could download a test (true/false or multiple choice) that could be taken and graded on the spot by an automated process, with the organizer updated immediately. The place could be essentially optional or suggested, in which case the student might be allowed to decide when to mark it and move on. The icon on the left side of the place node indicates completion criteria for the topic. The icon that looks like an envelope indicates that a submission must be made to the instructor. The icon that looks like a smiling student indicates that the user marks the topic completed when s/he is ready to do so. The icon that looks like a text indicates that the student takes a test to complete the topic.

4.2 The Context and Focus View.

The context view of the organizer appears in Figure 3 as the floating palette in the upper left corner of the window. A highly articulated organizer with many topics and a large number of explanatory nodes can grow very large and tangled, and does not fit in its entirety on a computer monitor. A significant concern that the design of this software addresses is the need of the user to see the entire organizer while still being able to read a portion of the organizer. A basic focus and context scheme has been chosen as an information visualization solution to this problem [17, 18, 19].

The focus is the large rectangular component that fills most of the window. It is resizable by resizing the entire window. When it is resized, the rectangle in the context view resizes to maintain proportion with the focus view. The focus contains the actual part that the user views.

The user can grab the blue rectangle in the context view and move it around to move around the focus view. This mechanism is useful since it allows scrolling horizontally vertically, or along arbitrary trajectories in a single mechanism, rather than only horizontally or vertically through two mechanisms, via scrollbars.

4.3 Display Status Panel.

Figure 3 illustrates the Display Status Panel, the small rectangular panel in the top-center of the graphic, which allows subsets of the organizer network to be shown or hidden. To ameliorate the potential problem of information overload, nodes of any given status (completed, current, ready, not ready) may be either shown or hidden. In addition, the explanation nodes may be shown or hidden. The check boxes associated with a given node status may be selected or deselected to show or hide that subset of the organizer. The colors of the words indicating status in the Display Status Panel correspond to the color codes associated with the nodes themselves. For example, the word "completed" in the display status panel is color-coded blue. As instructional places are completed, their color codings are changed to blue.

The explanatory nodes provide additional information about the place nodes and can also be shown or hidden by the same mechanism. If they are shown, the explanatory nodes elaborate the relationships among the place nodes at the possible expense of a potentially very large amount of additional information being displayed on the screen. If the explanation nodes are hidden, the student has less advance knowledge of what will be encountered at that place, but less clutter on the screen.

4.4 Login - registration and authentication.

Students can freely browse through the materials in the organizer at any time. If they wish to work on a course with the organizer, they must first register with the system and log on. Once the student has logged in, the system either retrieves the progress record associated with the userid and the organizer for which the logon occurred, or it creates a new progress record for the given organizer and userid. The progress record contains information on the student's progress, submissions of deliverables, whether the deliverables have been graded, etc. When the student initiates the process of setting a place to “completed” status, the system manages the process. If the student has permission to update the status of a given place, the system automatically updates the screen display and the student progress record.

A separate application program (which is not part of this work) enables the instructor to check assignments students have submitted. The application the instructor uses checks the progress records of each student, looking for ones that require evaluation and update. The progress record has a field that indicates the need for the update. The instructor's software checks the progress records for the students, determines which ones have submission evaluations pending, and provides the capability to indicate the results of the evaluation to the student.

5. An Example Organizer

The MDM Organizer illustrated in Figure 4, was created in a collaborative effort with the instructor of a graduate course on Managerial Decision Making. The MDM Organizer is tightly coupled with a knowledge model that was previously created using the knowledge modeling capabilities of CmapTools. The Organizer presents the user with a clear depiction of the two major threads of the course, regression and time-series models, and how these are used to create forecasts. The organizer also presents explanatory information on the types of analyses that can be performed with the various statistical models.

(click on the image for a larger view)

Figure 4. The MDM Organizer.

The MDM organizer was created by making an initial mapping of topics, followed by iterations between refining the topics and their sequences, and the addition of the explanatory component. The designer of the MDM organizer changed the organization substantially through the various iterations. When the topics and explanations were stable, the completion modes for the courses were mapped. This example utilizes the entire range of completion criteria that the organizer provides. The locations of four tests and a number of submissions to the instructor were identified and indicated in the organizer. Many of the topics simply required the student to perform an activity and then mark the topic completed.

The entry points into the MDM model were fairly evident from the topics in the organizer and the model itself. The links between these places were mapped. Additional sources of information that resides on the World Wide Web and is pertinent to the various topics were identified and linked into the Organizer. Although this Organizer was viewed as a demonstration of the capabilities of the tool, it is anticipated that it will be useful for distance learning course delivery when additional components of the system, such as the database management system for student progress records is operational.

6. Summary and Future Work

This work describes a new approach to an online asynchronous distance learning environment that is designed to deliver instructional content anytime, anywhere. The Organizer is comprised of modules that are included in a client-server application that enables the tool to retrieve online instructional materials for the user of the system. The Organizer provides the user with a graphical representation of topic sequences in the course, explanatory information regarding the topics, tasks, and completion criteria for the individual topics. The system tracks the user’s progress through the topics in the course. This approach is illustrated by the presentation of an organizer for an online course in Managerial Decision Making.

Future work will proceed along two paths, extending the basic capabilities of the editor/runtime system and integrating the system with other on-line learning environments. As an example of integrating this system with other on-line instructional systems, the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) initiative [20] by the White House Office of Science and Technology and the DoD seeks to create reusable on-line courseware objects and a standard method of cataloguing, searching and presenting them. The organizer could easily be adapted as an editor to generate XML course descriptions (CSF records) in the standardized format prescribed by the SCORM, and to serve as a front end for the learning systems themselves.

7. References

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Paper presented at the Twelfth IASTED International Conference Parallel and Distributed Computing and Systems (PDCS 2000). November 6-9, 2000, Las Vegas, Nevada.