Riccardo Mazza - Abstract of the thesis

Title: Using Information Visualization to Facilitate Instructors in Web-based Distance Learning

The World Wide Web provides great opportunities for creating virtual classrooms of learners and instructors involved in distance education. Many software environments take advantage of the client-server communication on the Internet and support open and distance learning. Using environments called Course Management Systems (CMS), instructors can distribute information to students, produce content material, prepare assignments and tests, engage in discussions, and manage distance classes. Although they offer many features that benefit the learner (e.g. asynchronicity, interactivity, time and space independence), some problems still remains, such as students' feeling of isolation or the lack of effective support from the instructor.

    Educational research shows that monitoring the students learning is an essential component of high quality education, and this is particularly true in distance learning. Good online tutoring requires to understand the needs of individual learner and to provide adapted tutoring. This can be achieved by monitoring regularly the student activities and be aware of what students doing with the course: which concepts are known, are students participating in discussions, have they read the course materials, who well do they performance on quizzes, etc. CMS accumulate large log data of the students activities in a distance course and usually have built-in student monitoring features that enable the instructor to view some statistical data, but usually these are commonly presented in a format that is poorly structured and difficult to understand.

    We argue that the instructors can use the student tracking data collected by the CMS more effectively when this data is represented graphically using appropriate visualisation techniques. Information Visualisation is a field in Computer Science that examines techniques for processing and pictorially representing a vast amount of abstract data, so that the data can be comprehended and interpreted by people. This thesis proposes the use of Information Visualisation to graphically represent students' tracking data in a Web-based CMS. A systematic investigation is undertaken to find which visualisation techniques are appropriate to illustrate students tracking data, based on instructors' requirements and evaluation. An extension for a generic CMS was designed and a prototype, called "CourseVis", was developed. It obtains tracking data from a commercial CMS ( WebCT is used in the current implementation), transforms the data into a form convenient for processing, and generates graphical representations that can be explored by instructors to examine social, cognitive, and behavioural aspects of distance students.

    The evaluation of CourseVis has shown that graphical representations produced with it can help instructors to identify individuals that need particular attention, discover patterns and trends in accesses and discussions, and reflect on their teaching practice. 

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