Melissa Norfolk, Iven Mareels
Department of Electrical & Electronic Engineering, The University of Melbourne, 3010, Australia
This poster reports on the Virtual Learning Space project which extends on a prior pilot project  that developed a fully integrated online learning resource for first year electrical engineering students. This twelve month project began in May 1999, as a result of an internal multimedia project grant. The project team consists of two academic staff involved in teaching the subject, a web/multimedia programmer, a graphic designer, a java programmer and an academic staff member from our Multimedia Education Unit, to assist with pedagogy and evaluation of the site.
The main goal was to extend upon the EE1 Online project  developments as a result of evaluation and student feedback in 1998. The online learning environment we had developed lacked an online help system where students could ask a question and get tutor-like help or feedback at any time. We also made improvements to the online quiz system to reduce cheating and are working to improve the level of maths on the site through the use of XML, MATHML and Maple  integration.
This project has taken on the title "Virtual Learning Space", due to the integration of the existing learning environment with a virtual tutor and the emphasis on learning rather than teaching. Our goals were to further enhance students learning options and the level of help and feedback available through our learning environment.
Student feedback identified the need for a question and answer interaction, as would normally be the case in a tutorial class. In response the project team designed the idea of a virtual tutor. The virtual tutor is an application program that could either be called upon by a student voluntarily or could also act upon observed difficulties to assist a student when they got stuck in an interactive exercise or quiz. There was a need for a sensible character who could be switched on or off so as not to become an annoyance.
Another function of the web site is the weekly quiz, which is completed and assessed online. In 1998, all students received exactly the same quiz each week. Student feedback complained about "blind copying" and some students putting in little effort for the marks associated with the quizzes. In 1999, modifications to the quiz system (NEST ), resulted in each student being allocated a subset of a weekly pool of questions, with both questions and answers presented in a random order. This individualised the weekly quiz and 1999 student feedback indicated a more positive approach to this implementation, with better learning outcomes as witnessed by pleasing improvements in the results for the final exam.
The Virtual Tutor was developed in java and sits on top of every page as a separate java application. This makes maintenance and portability easier as the code doesn't have to be added to each page on the site. It also allows for the window to be separately minimised or closed, if not being used. Figure 1 (a) and (b) show how the window sits on top of the existing web site.
The remainder of the project will be spent improving the functionality of the tutor, building up a database of common problems and feedback and improving the mathematics on the web site. There is also a need to integrate a live person(s) with the database so that if the virtual tutor cannot answer the students question, a human can.
The first year subject that makes use of this site, is only a single semester subject, but has large student numbers (400+). The randomised online quiz system was implemented in time for use by the 1999 student group and the approach and feedback was much improved on 1998.
The virtual tutor will be used by the first student group in the second half of 2000, so we are unable to report on evaluation and feedback of this part of the project. Our main tasks are to build up a database of problems and responses that may be asked of the tutor and also make it easy for the students to get an answer to their question if the virtual tutor cannot help.
The intention of the web site is to enable students to take more responsibility in their own learning, from first year onwards. Our learning environment helps to facilitate this and the model has other applications both for other subjects in our Faculty and across other disciplines.