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Jli.retecivica.milano.it

FUNCTIONAL ARCHITECTURE OF A WEB-BASED DISTRIBUTED
SYSTEM FOR UNIVERSITY CURRICULA SUPPORT
Philip Grew, Ivan Longhi, and Elena Pagani Department of Information Science and Communication email: {grew,pagani}@dico.unimi.it; ivan.longhi@rcm.inet.it ABSTRACT
lum. Better coordination among courses and teachers can Several tools have been proposed in the literature to use the be achieved, thus providing better quality teaching. Univer- web to support learning. Usually, these tools are designed sity staff can monitor the progress of each student, easing for a very specific purpose, namely, to provide information about a course, to support student assessment or as a plat- In this paper, we propose a distributed architecture form for maintaining the learning community. However, that integrates three main functionalities: support for teach- in a university curriculum all those independent functions ers and students in the learning process, with particu- contribute to training students and should be merged har- lar attention on promoting interactivity; facilitating and moniously, as well as include student-services offices.
partly automating student-performance assessment; feed- In this paper, we describe the architecture of a dis- back from teaching and testing, so that statistics on test re- tributed system that provides modules to perform these sults can be used to improve teaching quality.
functions, in such a way that the modules are strictly in- The choice of a system based on the open-source de- tegrated into the overall system and interactions among the velopment model was a foregone conclusion, given the sit- parties involved – teachers, students, and university offices uation. Aside from the obvious ethical obligation of an – are greatly facilitated. The architecture was designed so Italian public university to implement, insofar as possible, as to accompany and tutor students throughout their whole public-domain, non-proprietary, and European-made solu- program, meanwhile allowing faculty and staff to monitor tions, budgetary constraints would have made any licensed- student performance with respect to the chosen curriculum.
software option prohibitive. Many of the considerations The architecture is almost completely deployed and is al- that had led to the original decision to develop Just Learn ready in use at the Department of Information Science and It! (known as “JLI!”) still held true (see [2] p. 135). JLI! Communication of the University of Milan, Italy.
started as an open-source LMS to foster distance-learningknow-how among small and medium enterprises in the KEY WORDS
Lombardy Region using an adaptation of the Adept project web-based education; innovative web-based teaching and learning technologies; educational portal; distributed archi- Other factors specific to our teaching context con- tributed to our choice to pursue integration through fur-ther development of this system. Previous experiences with Introduction
platform adoption had made our department leery of anycommitment to server-side systems that we could not mod- Many tools have been proposed in the literature to provide ify ourselves. Conversely, the open nature of JLI! and its web-based support for teaching and learning. Usually, such modular design assured that functions supplied by other tools have a specific purpose – e.g., assessing students in a platforms already adopted here could either be delegated specific course or publishing course information or main- to those systems or subsumed by JLI! on a case-by-case taining a community for teachers and students – but are not integrated with one another. Sometimes their use is not Many diverse systems continue to be used on campus, flexible with respect to the needs and skills of students and making proposals for yet another centralized solution un- teachers. All-in-one platforms are often not designed to in- tenable. Our objective was not to import contents and data tegrate with other systems already deployed and to remain but to make the diverse systems run collaboratively, with- out duplicating functionalities already provided by dedi- An integrated environment providing such function- cated platforms but rather focusing development efforts on alities and oriented toward supporting interactivity among features strictly related to serving our course content and those involved has several advantages. A workgroup can be created that involves students in the course material. Ex- Because the automated test-correction facilities in ams results can be monitored and used to adapt teaching JLI! had been developed specifically to meet our testing either within a specific course or across the whole curricu- needs, it offered a guarantee of suitability that no other Figure 1. Overall system architecture.
platform could match. By using standard protocols to inte- System purposes
grate this platform with the other systems we use, we wereable to leave many things as they were while offering the Using the web to support didactics as is traditionally done, added testing functionalities. Various courses have forums simply allows teachers to provide information about their and online areas based on technology related to the subject courses in electronic form, substituting the paper-based no- of the course, in keeping with the principle enunciated by ticeboard and a copy center with equivalent virtual docu- Linser [8] that “how you teach is what you teach.” These ments. The communication model among teachers and stu- include WikiWiki websites [9], a custom assembled quiz application called “Mirror” [10], and various forum appli- At the Department of Information Science and Com- cations. Subsequent development of Mirror, for example, munication of the University of Milan, most courses have had been hampered by its closed-source nature.
from 100 to 200 students. With such large numbers, sup- One of the most important forum applications with porting student-instructor interaction and managing exams which JLI! integrates is our FirstClass [11] community server. Although this is still widely used, various attempts radic,1 mainly because its installation, management and to integrate other services with it over the last ten years had customization are left to teaching faculty, though not all taught us that such integration was not part of the origi- teachers have computer skills. However, the infrastructure nal design plan. Naturally this affected our consideration proposed in this paper aims at alleviating these problems.
of the other platforms grouped by Wenger [7] in the same In addition to providing web-based information pub- type class as FirstClass, such as Blackboard [12], which re- lishing facilities, our infrastructure aims to boost interac- quires an Oracle database, and all-encompassing solutions tivity by supplying tools that create communities of peo- ple who cooperate online within the framework of a givencourse. All the people involved in such a community know The system is currently deployed and under further their respective identities, whereas teachers often know development at the Department of Information Science and only a few students, especially in large classes, the ones Communication of the University of Milan [14].
who talk in class. Linser [4] discusses how supporting The paper is structured as follows: Sec.2 explains interactivity and creating a sense of belonging to a com- the aims of the system. In Sec.3, the overall system ar- munity helps boost the exam performance of less interac- chitecture is explained, along with an example of its use, tive students. The architecture we outline supplies tools to and some details of the main system components’ internal prepare and mark exams and publish the results, through a structure are given. In Sec.4, the advantages offered by our learning management system (LMS) that is integrated with system are discussed, and its current implementation statusis described. Sec.5 contains the conclusions.
other tools for community maintenance. Administrative maintained on the JLI! platform, using their student login.
tasks are supported by providing the student-services office The data shown by JLI! and the authorization to modify with easy access to student data and course notices posted it depend on user identity, according to the authentication procedure. JLI! can be used both for didactic support and As a result, easier management of exams allows for exam management. JLI! is similar to WebCen as far teachers to collect information and statistics about stu- as its ability to provide course information and additional dents’ evaluation of the course and students’ exam results, material. However, JLI! provides a richer set of tools: it en- which can be used to adapt teaching to the real needs of the ables access control, it logs students’ participation, it lays students, as they emerge from the system. This task may the groundwork for a community of teachers and students, involve either an individual teacher or the teacher commu- and it eases management of all the tasks related to exams, nity in dynamically adapting the whole curriculum to stu- from preparing tests to marking them (which is partly au- dents’ needs, by better integrating and interfacing different tomated), from publishing exam results to collecting statis- tics on those results. In particular, JLI! is currently used These goals are achieved via a distributed system that to conduct the English placement test, in addition to ex- “tutors” each student throughout his/her university career.
ams for several other courses. The value of applying place- The distributed system includes all the major resources ment tests in core subjects such as mathematics, physics available to students and teachers. It can also be easily ex- and logic is currently under evaluation. These tests could both help last-year college students choose the appropriateuniversity curriculum, giving them an estimate of the skillsthey need to be successful in a given program, and aid the System architecture
university in organizing preliminary courses for students Fig.1 shows the overall system architecture. Already im- who lack the needed prerequisites. The results of the tests plemented modules and interfaces are drawn with solid will be available to the students’ office through direct ac- lines while dashed lines are used for components that have yet to be fully developed. We describe how the system op- When students take the English test, as a preliminary erates through an example of its use, which is already ongo- operation they are asked to enter their data, i.e., their cho- ing at the Information Science and Communication and the sen major and a valid e-mail address, which can be useful Computer Science Departments of the University of Milan.
to both the students’ office and to teachers in case there is Details on the modules’ internal workings are provided be- a need to contact the student. This information is main- tained by the students themselves, thus preventing the uni- Before courses start, first-year students must take a versity from having outdated, inaccurate or contradictory preliminary English language test, whose purpose is to data. University faculty and staff can use the authentication place them into an English course of the appropriate level system to access JLI! and WebCen in order to edit platform [1]. Students’ data is recorded in the student data repository content or display information about students (exams re- and a login is created for each of them, which allows stu- sults, number of passed exams, and so on).
dent authentication for access to all the protected resources A system to distribute certificates to students who log in the system. It remains valid until the student graduates.
on to the SILab machines is currently under development, The main resources students have at their disposal are the so that those certificates allow them to access either Web- department laboratory (SILab) – used for practical activi- Cen or JLI! without having to enter their password again.
ties to train them in the subjects of different courses and The resulting architecture has been designed so as to eas- for accessing the internet – and various systems on which ily allow other modules whose access is controlled by the they log in to access course material.
Information about courses can be made available The internal architecture of major system components to students either via WebCen (the server for web-based is described in greater detail below.
teaching [3]) or via JLI! Both platforms have been de-ployed at the Computer Science and Information Science JLI! was initially developed as a component of a departments at the University of Milan. They differ in their system to implement a learning environment for small busi- primary purpose and essential features. Basic information nesses [2]. In particular, JLI! implements LMS functions.
can be provided on WebCen using pre-formatted HTML It was subsequently oriented mainly to providing tools for pages provided by the platform and maintained by instruc- testing students. JLI! is currently used for testing and learn- tors. Teachers may decide to add additional HTML pages, ing support in several courses offered by the University of whose implementation is left to them. The material sup- Milan Department of Information Science and Communi- plied by WebCen may be either public or protected. In the latter case, student authentication is achieved via the stu- The JLI! architecture (fig.2) includes a user- dent login and password mentioned above.
management interface that allows access to JLI! tools, Either through the internet or WebCen students may subject to user authentication via login and password.
access the information associated with a certain course and The JLI! authentication system uses the account repos- JLI! instance
for course XYZ
itory that provides students access to SILab resources, assigned, monitor their exam results, and practice with thus greatly simplifying both student authentication and the exam topics via self-evaluation modules. Evaluation security-management tasks. Moreover, JLI! logs user ac- forms are available for students to provide teachers with cess to the system. Re-use of SILab user IDs and passwords For further details on the internal structure of JLI! and Only students enrolled in a certain course can access considerations about experience in using it, interested read- the JLI! data for that course. Students are registered for required courses they are supposed to take during the cur-rent semester – by the students’ office – and may subscribe WebCen was devised as a portal to provide in- to the elective courses they choose. In the latter case, reg- formation about courses supplied by the Information Sci- istration is accomplished the same way as exam registra- ence and Communication and the Computer Science de- tion is currently handled: students send an e-mail to the partments. It was designed with the main purposes of both teacher with the relevant data (their name and student num- offering users a uniform interface for different courses, and ber). This information is used by the teacher to build a CSV offering teachers a platform to easily publish materials re- lated to the courses they are responsible for, regardless of Each course is composed of several modules – their skills. Indeed, teachers of courses not related to com- i.e. learning objects – each of a given type. Basically, puter science may be uncomfortable with the task of creat- three kinds of modules are available: testing modules, which make it possible to build different kinds of exer- The WebCen structure (fig.3) allows access to a list cises, questions, and quizzes for the course’s final exam, of the courses available during the current academic year.
self-evaluation modules used by students to gauge their For each course, information about the teacher, the sched- preparation, and theoretical modules, which can be used ule, and the course program is available, along with notices by teachers to make additional resources on course top- and forms for students’ evaluation of the course. A teacher ics available. Teachers may create and edit courses and may decide to add additional materials, such as his/her own modules, as well as sign up new students to whom to as- slides or notes about the course topics, links to related sites, sign courses. They may provide students with information and the course bibliography. Related links may involve a about the course, news, a course glossary, and links to addi- forum, independently managed by each teacher and per- tional HTML pages, external applications or a forum. Af- haps relying of different technology. All the resources pro- ter an exam session, teachers may use JLI! to mark the test vided are public, i.e. no access control and logging is per- modules, if they have assigned essay questions. The sys- formed by WebCen. Teachers may limit access by imple- tem automatically corrects multiple-choice and fill-in-the- menting filters themselves on the linked material. WebCen blank questions, and alike. It also tabulates exam results pages for a given course are edited through forms acces- and gathers statistics. These statistics can also be accessed sible to the instructor in charge. These enable instructors by the office of student services to monitor students’ career Registered students have a personal space at disposal, • fill in pre-established fields (e.g. office hours); which allows them to create personal notes and a glos-sary for the course, access the modules they have been − bibliography− slides, teacher’s notes • add links (to forum or – possibly protected – web SILab resources
Until recently, no further tools were available via We- bCen. WebCen was used as a traditional web site, where students could find information about their courses, pub-lished by the teachers.
and students was supported, unless explicitly provided by teachers as an add-on external to WebCen.
The interfacing between WebCen and JLI! is nearly In the future, we plan to adopt WebCen as the unique portal for course information, providing gen- decreasing the workload previously required of university eral data through unprotected web pages. The interaction staff to maintain information beyond their control.
among students taking a course and between the teacher Teachers can find out which students are registered and the students will be supported through the tools pro- for a course beforehand, including their email addresses.
vided by JLI!, which make it possible to build the virtual In addition, the JLI! student-authentication system may be community that is proving to greatly enhance both teach- used to limit access to course contents to registered students ers’ and students’ work. These topics will be better de- only. Moreover, by knowing the number of students regis- tered for a class, a teacher can determine at any time howmany students still have to take the exam. JLI! allows email The SILab (Scienze dell’Informazione Labora- broadcasting to all registered students, for example to send tory) supplies students with resources and tools to prac- out urgent notices about the course that would otherwise tice the topics taught in our courses (fig.4). Each student be disregarded if published on a traditional noticeboard or owns a home directory, which (s)he can use for his/her data, programs, and exercises, and can freely navigate in Inter- The use of JLI! for exams allows teachers to mon- net. Among the available resources students have at their itor students’ results so as to collaborate in harmonizing disposal, are compilers for the various programming lan- course syllabi. For instance, collecting statistics about re- guages taught in the courses, packages for computer graph- sults achieved in Computer Networking exams may reveal that students need greater insight into interrupt-treatment Access is controlled via the login/password pair as- mechanisms, which are taught within the framework of the signed to a student when (s)he enrolls. This remains valid Operating Systems course. The visual interface and the statistics tools provided by JLI! help teachers detect suchneeds, thus enabling course plans to be adapted to student Discussion
behavior. Potentially, workloads can be re-balanced amongcourses if JLI! shows that some courses are too burden- Several advantages have been reported by both teachers and some and students achieve poor grades in them. This task students who have used infrastructure described.
is supported by facilities of JLI! that are already deployed, First of all, duplication of information has been elim- which allow registered students to submit their own course inated by maintaining student data in a unique repository, thus avoiding data inconsistencies. Giving responsibility Finally, the database produced by the use of JLI! will for the maintenance of information to the people it regards allow the department to easily derive information about the guarantees that the data is correct and up to date, thus starting point of the students (thanks to entry tests), the time they spend before graduating, the relationships be- framework of the FIRB “Web-Minds” project.
tween their initial skill, the grades they achieve in differentexams, and their final graduation score, and so on. Some of References
this information is currently collected manually through thehard work of university staff, given that it is fundamental in [1] P. Grew, I. Longhi, F. De Cindio, and L. A. Ripamonti, evaluating the quality of the education provided.
“Applying an LMS to Large Language Classes”, Proc.
IASTED International Conference on Web-Based Edu-
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cation (WBE’04), Feb. 2004.
[2] F. De Cindio, I. Longhi, and L. A. Ripamonti, “De- This paper describes an integrated infrastructure that sign Issues in Developing a Learning Environment supports students, teachers, and student-services offices for Small-sized Enterprises Communities”, Proc. Intl. throughout the whole course of study. The primary infras- Conf. on Technology-Enhanced Learning (TEL’03), tructure components are already implemented and are cur- rently in use by both teachers and students. The processof integrating them into additional existing infrastructure is [3] G. Valle, “Continuous Learning Relaxing Time and Location Constraints in a Regular Curricula Degree The use of an open architecture means that system in- Offered by University of Milan”, Proc. Intl. Conf. tegration can be achieved without forcing changes in tools “Challenges and Opportunities of Vocational Training and methods on teaching faculty who now use a variety of and E-learning in EU Accession Countries”, Nov. 12- systems for managing their specific course content. Thus the course-specific WikiWiki servers and forum systems al- [4] A. Ip and R. Linser, “Simulated Worlds: Rapid Gen- ready in use for certain classes can be preserved and inte- eration of Web-Based Role-Play”, Proc. Seventh Aus- grated into the SILab system used for WebCen/JLI! tralian World Wide Web Conference (AusWeb’01), Apr.
Further development has also been planned. A big problem still to be coped with is maintaining informa-tion consistency among multiple sites. Currently, informa- [5] J. Hodges and R. Morgan, “Lightweight Directory tion concerning both teachers, such as their office hours, Access Protocol (v3): Technical Specification”, RFC telephone number, and room, and courses, such as lesson 3377. Work in Progress. Sep.2002.
times, classrooms, and schedule, are maintained not onlyon WebCen but also on the official departmental website [6] Adept Project http://adept.sourceforge.net and potentially in JLI! The management of these sites may [7] E. Wenger, “Supporting Communities of Practice: a be left to different people. When an update is performed, Survey of Community-Oriented Technologies”, Report all those concerned must be informed so as to maintain con- to the Council of CIOs of the US Federal Government, sistency among information copies. Inconsistencies create http://www.ewenger.com/pub/pubpapers.htm, student confusion and result in inquiries to both teachers and student-services offices requesting clarification.
The design of a comprehensive portal has been un- [8] R. Linser, “Role-play Simulation in teaching and learn- dertaken for the two departments that supply curricula re- ing”, Seminari at the Department of Information Sci- lated to computer science. This portal should integrate both ence and Communication of the University of Milan, WebCen and JLI!, with all modules referring to a unique repository for basic information available in several places,so that consistency will be automatically provided by dy- [9] W. Cunningham and B. Leuf, “The Wiki Way. Quick namically building webpages that use repository data. In Collaboration on the Web”, Addison-Wesley, 2001.
particular, WebCen, linked with JLI!, will be the sole site as far as teaching materials are concerned. By contrast, the departmental site will maintain information only about de- partmental research activity and about administration. As a subsequent step, the portal will be interfaced with the uni-versity portal.
Acknowledgments
[12] Blackboard Inc. http://www.blackboard.com/ We wish to acknowledge Dr.Raffaella Folgieri andDr.Marco Reggio for their help with the WebCen structure.
This work has been partially supported by the Ital- ian Ministry of Education, University and Research in the

Source: http://jli.retecivica.milano.it/papers/wbe05.pdf

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