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Volume 9, Number 4: December 20, 2002

Using Database Software for "Do-it-yourself" Online Homework Assignments

by Thomas Holme,
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Abstract

This paper presents some fundamental information about using easily obtained database software to build online homework exercises. The database software we have used in the General Chemistry Department at UW-Milwaukee is called Filemaker® Pro. It allows an ordinary PC or Mac to be a web server for this purpose. In conjunction with HTML editing software, course registration, homework, scores and other "bookkeeping" functions of college courses can be readily handled online, without the necessity to use any large web course software system (such as Web-CT or Blackboard.)

 


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The ability to provide exercises to students in an online format is a feature of a number of commercial packages, such as WebCT or Blackboard, that are available to university faculty in their courses. While these packages are generally powerful, they tend to be "black boxes"--tools that work without the faculty member actually knowing how they work. Moreover, the level of control of these software packages is rather minimal for the average faculty member. Computer services staff is responsible for maintenance of the servers. Crashes are not entirely rare. There is therefore, some benefit in being able to provide some of these functions in a low-cost, local environment where the faculty member maintains essentially complete control. Database software that includes a web server component can provide this "do-it-yourself" environment.

In our case the database software we utilize is Filemaker® Pro. Convenient interfaces exist between this software and Home Page®, an HTML editor that simplifies the construction of web pages that correctly access the online databases. Thus, the online aspects of even large courses can be handled by a local PC level machine. The databases we use for as many as 400 students in a semester run on an older model PowerMac (7600 series).

The Process: From Beginning to End

Upon purchasing and installing database software, how does one begin to utilize it in a course? There are several key features to consider. First, for security reasons, students must complete a registration exercise in order to create or be assigned individual "accounts." Second, instructors must make choices about the types of questions they will construct for the homework exercises. Third, instructors should consider the amount and type of feedback they will provide to their students. Finally, they must also determine how they will integrate the scoring of the online component with the rest of the course. We begin with a description of each of these components and then note the pedagogical and attitudinal benefits of the use of online homework assignments.

The registration process provides several advantages for course management. In addition to obtaining student names, an online username is assigned or created, passwords for online homework assignments are set, code systems for posting scores can be established and additional questions can be asked. During the first two weeks of class, the registration database is available for students to sign up for the online homework exercises. (We provide a second, "challenge-problem" option for students who prefer not do to weekly homework online, but this option is not commonly chosen.)

When students register, they provide their full name, email address, a username for the online system and a password. When the registration process is completed, the student is assigned a random, four-digit number that is used for posting of scores, not only for online homework but for all assignments and exams in the course. These randomly generated numbers liberate us from any privacy concerns associated with posting scores based on student ID numbers or social security numbers. We normally ask students to voluntarily provide information about their backgrounds that are pertinent to the course (in our case, former math and science courses, for example.) The vast majority of students are willing to provide that information. Quite importantly, the username and password supplied by the student in the registration process provides the access to the homework. Our security system is essentially a "look-up" function where access to one database (the homework) is allowed only by an accurate comparison of entered values to an existing database (the registration).

To use the database as a homework vehicle, instructors must consider the types of questions they will use. Our perspective is that homework generally supports several types of learning, one of which is the building of factual knowledge. The set of facts needed to answer questions is reinforced by utilization. This goal can be accomplished with multiple choice questions, which also have the advantage of being easy to grade automatically. It is certainly possible for students to gain points by guessing homework problems, but we assign only around 5% of course points to homework, so the overall benefit of guessing is modest.

The amount of feedback provided to students also needs to be considered. It is possible with database software to let students know the correctness of each answer. To discourage cheating, we have opted instead to provide each student with an immediate score (number of questions correct) but not identify which questions were correct. When the assignment due date is reached, we post a key for the questions, so students can check their answers at that time. In addition to immediate feedback on the homework, course score feedback can also be enhanced with the databases. Because students have password protected access, they can look up their scores for all aspects of a course in a secure fashion. We take this advantage one step further by providing grade calculator web pages, where students can input their scores and projected scores on the final exam to determine what they need to accomplish in order to meet grade expectations.

Using the scores that students obtain from homework assignments in the course grading system is readily accomplished. Databases for individual assignments can be easily combined to create a homework total score (based on the student username, or the "posting" code). These scores can be exported into a spreadsheet program for grade calculation purposes, or grade calculations can be carried out within the database software.

The Value of the Assignments

Online homework using this philosophy provides the same benefits normally expected from traditional homework assignments. Our studies indicate that there is a positive correlation between homework performance and test performance in the courses where we have used it. The linear correlation coefficient is typically between 0.4 and 0.5, so there is a large amount of scatter in the data, but that too is not particularly surprising.

UW-Milwaukee is an urban campus with a preponderance of commuter students. One benefit we have seen from these assignments is the formation of study groups who utilize our learning center to work on them. The learning center is staffed by graduate students who report a more cooperative atmosphere in the semesters when the online homework is active. On our campus, this is a significant benefit.

Student surveys in several courses (with over 300 total students) provide additional insight into the use of the online homework. 73% of students surveyed perceive the homework helps at least "somewhat" (either somewhat or very helpful). 65% of students report working with others on these assignments. 53% of the class spends between one and two hours doing the homework--so the value is not associated with long hours spent on the homework, but rather the regular, weekly exposure that helps students "keep up" with classwork. 81% of students indicate that cheating is not a problem on the homework, despite the fact that students can and do work together on homework that is ultimately individually scored. Ultimately, we have found that the online homework becomes a seamless part of the course where we have significant control of how the homework system is built. Students perceive it as a normal component of the course that is generally viewed as positive.

A web site with links to several classes that have used the online database software is located at http://www.uwm.edu/~tholme/classpt.htm. A paper which outlines various uses of the online database including the homework component was published in 2000.1

Acknowledgements

Many of the technical issues associated with the implementation of this database scheme were addressed by Luke Fisher, a graduate student in our department at the time. Funding from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation was instrumental in establishing this technology in the chemistry courses where it has been utilized.

 

Notes

1. Fisher, Luke and Thomas Holme. "Using Web-based Databases in Large Lecture Chemistry Courses." Chemical Educator, 2000, 5, 269-276.

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