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Office hours unlimited: Software redefining student/teacher collaboration

A student hits a snag with a homework assignment due the next day. She types her professor’s name and finds he’s online, working at home. Using a new interactive software program, she "shows" him her project on his computer, and the two work on it together, albeit miles apart. She logs off with a smile and a greater understanding of the material.

Sound like something out of the university of the future? Such virtual collaborations will become reality this fall for computer science students. G. Drew Kessler, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, begins testing the program he’s spent the past two years developing, a program he hopes will significantly change the way people work together.

The Constructive, Inquiry-Based Multimedia Learning in Computer Science Education, or CIMEL project, takes e-mail 100 times further, enabling both student and professor to work together in the virtual world.

"It’s a way of collaborating with two or more people and using the computer as a way of storing the ideas as they’re put to paper and discussed," says Kessler.

The CIMEL project is part of a larger effort supported by a $500,000, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation, which includes using multimedia, computer-based teaching in place of traditional classroom lectures. Co-investigators are Glenn David Blank, associate professor, and William M. Pottenger, assistant professor.

The program features a graphical display that enables users to actually "move" objects into place and "draw" boxes around important elements to highlight specific points. Kessler says the "coolest" feature is one that enables the instructor to draw boxes, circles and text messages directly on the student's display right where it is needed to point out mistakes.

CIMEL records and stores collaborations as a multi-media Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) section, a great study aid and help for professors, who often find themselves answering the same questions from different students.

The real-time, interactive feature sets CIMEL apart from tracking features available in word processing programs, and because feedback is immediate, a student can ask follow-up questions, which would be otherwise difficult for assignments with short deadline.

Kessler points out that while a professor provides advice, suggestions, and direction, a student still has to do the work, creating the text to paste into their assignment. He says CIMEL is a powerful learning tool because students seem far more willing to engage their professors using e-mail, versus phone calls or office meetings.

Eventually, CIMEL could be used for distance learning, but it differs from what is now available in that it provides the visual annotations on a student's screen, and focuses on more personal interaction than distance education-- one student connecting with one instructor at a time.

A next step, Kessler says, is developing CIMEL to allow students to work among themselves on large projects. It will be a straightforward effort to enable two students to work together at one time, he says, while developing a system that allows more than two students and perhaps a teaching assistant to work together will be a bit more of a challenge, but it is certainly feasible.

"Although these types of "groupware" applications have been studied in the past few years (primarily for tech support)," Kessler says, "we believe that we will have our greatest impact in the education area, where it has not been used to any extent."

William Johnson
Wjj0@lehigh.edu

Posted on Wednesday, July 10, 2002

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