3.2 Optional Extra Curricular
We assumed that after seeing compelling demos in class, students would interact with them on their own time. Thus, our next step was make them available to the class and suggest different exploratories be used with different lec- ture topics. We added links to exploratories from the syllabus and then conducted informal polls and observa- tions to see if they would be used. Most of these exploratories were also demoed in class.
We found that such optional exploratory use was largely ineffective. Students had too many other claims on their time and even those who expressed interest often spent little or no time with the applets. In addition, most of our applets lacked supportive text and students weren't sure what benefit they would receive unless they put in substan- tial time in first.
We learned from this experience that we needed to better motivate the exploratory use by showing how the explora- tories would help is them in assignments. This was accomplished by having TAs use them in help sessions. It also reconfirmed the need for exploratories to be embedded in a hypertextual environment that explains their use, rele- vant background concepts, and relationship to other exploratories. In addition, when the use is optional, ease of use becomes even more important. These two points had been explored in a paper entitled "Granularity in the Design
of Interactive Illustrations" 11
and led us to
exploratories, with explanatory text.
create simpler embedded in
Use, A User Study
In-class demos were working, but we believed that interac- tion was fimdamental to the use of our material and that
should be made to use them during the optional extra curricular use had not
been very successful, we did a user study whether brief use of an exploratory in class while.
to see worth-
We selected every other student as they entered room to either use the applet or to be in a control group, viewing a number of screen shots taken while an experienced user interacted with the applet (for example, Figure 2). After- wards, all the participants were tested with randomly
selected subsets of a nately, there was no
performance of our cluded that five to spend with our style
study group and the control. We con- 10 minutes was not enough time to of learning experiences.
It had been difficult enough to get 15 minutes taken out of the lecture for the study and it was obvious that taking more time would not work. We thus abandoned the idea of annexing class time for exploratory use. Also, our lecture room has workstations, but otherwise in-class use requires two different classrooms and students may have to switch between them during the class session. We are also fortu- nate to have a large number of teaching assistants, but in
other cases a course structure may not be able to support many students needing assistance at the same time.
Figure 2: Example of a screen grab from the in-class user study
We decided to solve the time-constraint problem by having additional lab sessions for exploratory use.
We planned a lab during an upcoming evening and adver- tised in it the class. Again, we had to test software, train TAs and book appropriate rooms. The first lab was on color theory and was not in support of a specific assignment.
Students who came to the lab gave positive responses on a feedback form and most who came attended for the entire session. We had initial difficulty running more labs, how- ever, first because of scheduling problems and secondly because an hour-plus lab session required substantial mate- rials development around a given topic. When additional labs were conducted, there were mixed results. In the end, attendance was not high enough to merit the extra effort and time demanded by their continuation.
The lab format inspired another approach, however, which we are trying for the first time this year. We decided to have students use the exploratories in homework assign- ments in which they had guided experiments to perform. We could also tie these homeworks in with the rest of the course by asking questions relevant to the concurrent pro- gramming assignments, Another benefit was that, once designed, the homeworks could be used year after year.
The final question in each homework asked for feedback on the experience of using the exploratories and answering the lab-style questions. In general students enjoyed using the exploratories and felt that experience contributed to their understanding of the concept being taught. There were some problems getting the exploratories, which in this case were Java applets, to run smoothly for everyone. Some labs were more popular than others, and several students felt the questions should be more difficult. There were also re- peated suggestions for more accompanying text.