Teaching programming at a distance: the Internet software visualization laboratory

Domingue, John and Mulholland, Paul (1997). Teaching programming at a distance: the Internet software visualization laboratory. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 1

DOI: https://doi.org/10.5334/1997-1


This paper describes recent developments in our approach to teaching computer programming in the context of a part-time Masters course taught at a distance. Within our course, students are sent a pack which contains integrated text, software and video course material, using a uniform graphical representation to tell a consistent story of how the programming language works. The students communicate with their tutors over the phone and through surface mail.
Through our empirical studies and experience teaching the course we have identified four current problems: (i) students' difficulty mapping between the graphical representations used in the course and the programs to which they relate, (ii) the lack of a conversational context for tutor help provided over the telephone, (iii) helping students who due to their other commitments tend to study at 'unsociable' hours, and (iv) providing software for the constantly changing and expanding range of platforms and operating systems used by students.

We hope to alleviate these problems through our Internet Software Visualization Laboratory (ISVL), which supports individual exploration, and both synchronous and asynchronous communication. As a single user, students are aided by the extra mappings provided between the graphical representations used in the course and their computer programs, overcoming the problems of the original notation. ISVL can also be used as a synchronous communication medium whereby one of the users (generally the tutor) can provide an annotated demonstration of a program and its execution, a far richer alternative to technical discussions over the telephone. Finally, ISVL can be used to support asynchronous communication, helping students who work at unsociable hours by allowing the tutor to prepare short educational movies for them to view when convenient. The ISVL environment runs on a conventional web browser and is therefore platform independent, has modest hardware and bandwidth requirements, and is easy to distribute and maintain. Our planned experiments with ISVL will allow us to investigate ways in which new technology can be most appropriately applied in the service of distance education.

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