Dr Jon Watmuff and Warren Nageswaran
This paper describes an efficient automated web-based course coordination system where many academics are required to assess the work of a large cohort of students.
The Aerospace Final Year Thesis Project offers a significant challenge for effective course coordination, since it is: project based; the association of students with respective supervisors is not known a priori; and coordination of around 100 students and up to 20 or more supervisors is required. The task is made more complex since supervisors can fall outside the Aerospace and Aviation Discipline, and many students complete the project while overseas, with overseas supervisors.
We have recently started to develop new automated web-based methodology and tools which have proved to be extremely effective for efficient and productive coordination of this course. These techniques make use of existing capabilities of the Blackboard Academic Suite implemented at RMIT coupled with software, such as Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). Other courses with less stringent coordination requirements will benefit from the methodology and tools we are developing.
Aims and Objectives
1. Increased productivity of staff involved with courses with multiple teachers
Past experience has been that individual academic staff tend to develop ad hoc spreadsheet designs which satisfy their own requirements, but from their own limited perspective. However, inconsistent makeshift spreadsheet design can make the course coordinator's task more difficult and laborious.
Design of customized marks entry spreadsheets for individual staff involved with a single course will increase the productivity and efficiency of those staff since the assessment requirements will be made clear and the procedures will be streamlined. There will be considerable time saving since individual staff members will not be required to develop spreadsheets by themselves.
Proper design of course coordination methodologies, such as spreadsheet design, allows for ease of use for the individual staff members involved in the marking. Proper consistent spreadsheet design allows for rapid collation of final results using the automation offered by readily available software tools, such as VBA.
2. Improved CES and CEQ scores
Students have expressed appreciation of "asynchronous" type of coordination we can offer since it avoids the need to travel to campus for specific classes. Administration is streamlined which allows students to continue with their project work with minimal disruption. The University has encouraged the use of Black Board for interactions with the students by implementing "Minimum On Line Presence" project last year. This year it has been extended to include REAP (RMIT's E-Learning Advancement Program). Developing these tools improves the ability for the coordinator to interact with the students in a more efficient manner, requiring less time, but without compromising productivity and efficiency.
3. Improved transition and success rate of articulating students
Increased efficiency of course coordination will lead to less travel and a general reduction of other time consuming tasks for students. Reduced demand on student time as part of the course coordination process will lead to improved transition and success rate of articulating students.
Additional information that can be obtained from students can be used effectively to monitor their performance in a convenient and accessible way. Potentially at-risk students can be identified at a much earlier stage so that remedial steps can be taken to bring them back on track with more chance of success.
4. Improved interdisciplinary collaboration in T&L
Web-based tools can be used to transcend discipline boundaries by integration of many of the Discipline, School, Portfolio and University procedures. For example, many units within the University have created PDF versions of their existing forms, which have been made available on the intranet. However, in many cases staff still have to print out these forms and fill them in by hand, and then submit them via internal mail. This is only a very small benefit beyond the original paper forms. The techniques we are developing will provide examples of how to properly implement a fully electronic forms capability.
As mentioned in the Introduction, we believe that the Aerospace Final Year Thesis / Project (and equivalent project-based courses in other disciplines) generate that most significant course coordination challenges within the School. At the beginning of semester the relationship of around 100 students with up to 20 or more supervisors is unknown. The task is made more complex since supervisors can fall outside the Aerospace and Aviation Discipline. Further, many supervisors are mavericks, in the sense that they advise students of procedures which are contrary to the course coordinator.
Most other courses can benefit from the methodology and tools we are developing. However we do not wish to act as consultants. We consider that our role for implementation will be advisory, rather than to conduct an investigation of existing methodologies for coordination of each course in the School. We are confident that staff will be inspired to implement these methodologies and associated tools after the benefits have been clearly demonstrated by means of an example. We envisage providing live demonstrations to all interested staff as outlined below.
2. Specific example: Aerospace Final Year Thesis
Detailed information required for effective coordination of the Aerospace Final Year Thesis course is obtained from spreadsheets completed by students. The spreadsheets are delivered to students electronically and they submit the completed spreadsheet as an Assignment using the course Blackboard web site. In excess of 100 spreadsheets can be automatically processed in less than a minute to create a master database listing the names and ID of each student, their supervisor, project titles and a brief description or abstract of their project work.
Individual marks entry spreadsheets can be created automatically for each supervisor from the master database using elementary software tools. This will save the supervisors considerable time and effort, since they will not have to create individual custom spreadsheets for marks entry. Proper design of consistent supervisor marks entry spreadsheets allows for rapid collation of final results using the automation that is readily available in software tools, such as VBA.
The Aerospace and Aviation Discipline conduct the Final Year Thesis presentations on a single day, which requires six presentation sessions run in parallel. A draft presentation schedule is created using a simple spreadsheet format which is distributed for via email to all staff and students. At the outset, students are placed in a session corresponding to their supervisor as session Chair. This manual operation is relatively fast and simple. Staff and students can request modifications, such as students within a group, who can request present sequentially. A properly formatted Presentation Program is created following final acceptance of the presentation schedule.
Manual creation of a properly formatted Presentation Program is an incredibly tedious task. For example if there are 100 presentations, then around 200 manual copy and paste operations (name and presentation title) must be performed from the master database spreadsheet to the appropriate location in the Presentation Program template. However this task is even more tedious since 200 operations of "Paste Special → Unformatted Text" must be used to avoid inserting pieces of the spreadsheet into the final MSWord document. The tools we are developing can perform this task automatically in less than a minute.
The second semester the master database spreadsheet will be used to create a 50+ page Thesis Presentation program, which also contains a complete list of abstracts of all the presentations. Again, this task can be accomplished automatically in about a minute using VBA macros. This is a significant properly formatted 50+ page long document that is widely distributed electronically to all concerned, including industry representatives.
Timeline and major milestones
Development of web-based methodology and tools will continue for the second component of the Final Year Thesis Project in semester two. Major milestones:
- 01-Aug-08: Distribution of spreadsheets to (approx 100) students
- 15-Aug-08: Collection of spreadsheets from Blackboard web site
- 29-Aug-08: Completion of spreadsheet processing to create database
- 12-Sep-08: Distribution of marks entry spreadsheets to (approx 20) supervisors
- 10-Oct-08: Automated creation of 50+ page Thesis Presentation program document
- 13-Nov-08: Final results: automated collation of supervisor marks spreadsheets
We consider that our role for implementation will be advisory, rather than to conduct an investigation of existing methodologies and to advise on the coordination of each course in the School. Some specific software tools will be made available for effective course coordination.
We plan to provide results in an education seminar where specific information will be disseminated and the techniques and methodologies will be described in the form of a live demonstration. We believe these techniques exemplify good practice and are consistent with and will encourage peer coaching and support.
Dr Jon Watmuff
Dr. Watmuff obtained his PhD from the University of Melbourne in Australia in 1979. He then held a post-doctoral position and worked for the Australian Defence Science and Technology Organization (DSTO) for several years. He moved to the US in 1985 to take up a Research Staff Member position at Princeton University. In 1987 he became a member of the NASA / Stanford Center for Turbulence Research (CTR) where he conducted experiments for direct comparison with corresponding Direct Numerical Simulation (DNS) of a low Reynolds number turbulent boundary layer. He was employed as a Contractor at NASA Ames Research Center where he conducted several years of basic research into boundary layer transition. In 2000 he returned to Australia to take up a Senior Lecturer Position at RMIT University.