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Special Report ­
Information Technology

 April 1997



A Cyber-Experiment in C++

photo of computer screenphoto of help session

Students taking the Department's experimental cybercourse have several ways to get help. They can use Email, a dedicated chat room, electronic office hours, or they can visit Teaching Assistant Nattavut Smavatkul (top right) on campus. "One of the neat things about this course is that the students have created a cyber community in their chat room," said Professor Robert Broadwater, who is teaching the course. The bottom photo shows the course application, along with a test question.

Learning a new computer language is probably a very appropriate use of asynchronous Internet-based learning, according to students taking the Department's first totally cyber-based course- EE 4984 C++ for Scientists and Engineers.

Students taking the experimental course this spring download lectures and homework assignments each week, upload homework and tests via the Internet and use Email and an electronic chat group to interact with each other.

Taught by Professor Robert Broadwater, the senior/graduate-level course covers the fundamentals of object-oriented programming with C++, introduces concepts of software craftsmanship and introduces object-oriented analysis and design techniques.

"Electrical and computer engineers today use C++, and there is such a demand on and off-campus for this course that we decided to try teaching it over the Internet," Broadwater explained. "Many of our off-campus master's degree students were particularly interested. Since they work during the day and have variable travel schedules, a Cybercourse made sense to us." The final roster for the class shows 73 on-campus students and 24 off-campus students located in the Northern Virginia, Tidewater, and Roanoke/Lynchburg regions.

The Two Sides of Flexibility

Even though there were some initial difficulties getting materials and information to the off-campus students, many of those students are positive about their experience. "The biggest benefit to the format of this class is the high degree of flexibility for when I do the work and the time savings going to and from class," said Bradley Nelson, who is taking the course from Northern Virginia. "Every hour I can save in commuting I can put into learning...I could probably take two thirds of my master's program in this format and get the same quality of education as attending class in person," he said.

"If I was a full-time on-campus student, I would rather go to an actual classroom, but for part-time off-campus students, it is better than anything else I've tried," said Thomas Strayhorn, who took a number of satellite classes while earning an off-campus master of engineering degree. "Internet-based computing is one step better because you don't have to go anywhere to get the material," he added.

Many of the on-campus students taking the course have mentioned that they miss the in-class interaction. Other students mentioned that the flexibility of working at their own pace, also made it easy to fall behind and difficult to get motivated.

Hypertext Lectures

Broadwater decided to arrange the course so that most of it runs on the students' machines. "Other total-cyber courses have had trouble with getting all the students on the servers at the same time," he explained.

The downloaded lectures could almost be called an interactive text. Broadwater has linked many key concepts and terms in hypertext, so that a student can click and get a thorough definition, or additional explanations and comments. He is also providing tables of code for the students to access for homework, instead of typing it in.

Many of the students appreciate the ability to work with lectures and programming simultaneously. "I believe that an Internet-based course for programming languages is probably one of the most effective methods for learning," said Eric Nuckols (EE '97) "This is because the student interacts with the lectures and the actual programming environment simultaneously. Many examples can be cut and pasted directly to the compiler, which gives the student the ability to easily avoid simple syntax errors and to focus on the code rather than on his or her own simple mistakes," he said.

Not Just an Electronic Course

Developing a cybercourse is not the same as just putting an existing course into an electronic format. "It functions differently," Broadwater said. "When you interact personally in class, there is much that goes on that you don't notice. I'm trying to capture that and account for it in my course structure."

One aspect that is different from a traditional course is that without forced face-to-face meetings, students may lag behind on their course work. "We tried to give more homework and tests than in a traditional class, so that the students and I get more feedback," he said.

Developing the course is very time consuming, Broadwater acknowledged. Writing the initial Windows application on which the course runs took several hundred hours last December. "The first lecture took me 50 hours to prepare," he said. "Now it's down to 16-18 hours per lecture, or 30-some hours per week. That doesn't include interaction with the students." Original estimates for developing the course were 700 hours. "Now I expect it to exceed 1,000 hours."

The Bradley Department of Electrical Engineering
Virginia Tech

Last Updated, June 10, 1997
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