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Improving Student Interaction with Internet and Peer Review - INTRODUCTION, THE STUDENT GROUPS WITH PEER REVIEW METHOD, SOFTWARE PROJECT ASSIGNMENT, Group Formation, Assignment Upload

students tool webcom debate

Dilvan de Abreu Moreira
University of São Paulo, Brazil

Elaine Quintino da Silva
University of São Paulo, Brazil

INTRODUCTION

In the last few years, education has gone through an important change—the introduction of information technology in the educational process. Many efforts have been conducted to realize the benefits of technologies like the Internet in education. As a result of these efforts, there are many tools available today to produce multimedia educational material for the Web, such as WebCT (WebCT, 2004). However, teachers are not sure how to use these tools to create effective models for teaching over the Internet. After a teacher puts classroom slides, schedules, and other static information in his or her Web pages, what more can this technology offer? A possible response to this question is to use Internet technologies to promote collaborative learning.

Collaborative Learning (CL) is an educational strategy based on social theories in which students joined in small groups are responsible for the learning experience of each other (Gokhale, 1995; Panitz, 2002). In CL, the main goal of the teacher is to organize collective activities that can stimulate the development of skills such as creativity, oral expression, critical thinking, and others. When supported by computers and Internet technologies, collaborative learning is referenced as Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL). The main goal of CSCL is to use software and hardware to support and increase group work and learning. The peer review method, known by almost everyone in the academic world, when applied as an educational tool, can be considered a kind of collaborative learning activity.

This article describes an educational method that uses peer review and the Internet to promote interaction among students. This method, which has been used and refined since 1997 (by the first author), is used currently in different computer science courses at the ICMC-USP. A software tool—the WebCoM, Web Course Manager (Silva & Moreira, 2003)—is also presented. It supports the peer review method to improve interaction among students. The main advantages of the use of the peer review method and the WebCoM tool over other works in this context are that they:

  • allow debate between groups (workers and reviewers) to improve interaction and social abilities among students;
  • focus on the interaction among students and their social skills; and
  • offer support for group activities (such as reports and assignments) without peer review.

Results generated by the experience of managing classes with the WebCoM tool are also presented.

THE STUDENT GROUPS WITH PEER REVIEW METHOD

The peer review process is commonly used in the academic world; an article, project, or course is proposed, and peers judge the merits of the work. It is used in the educational context with a variety of goals, but almost always it is focused on communication and writing skills (Helfers et al., 1999; Kern et al., 2003; Nelson, 2000).

In the educational peer review method presented here, students join in groups to carry out an assignment. After that, each assignment is made public using the Internet and is judged by another group of fellow students. These reviewers write a review report presenting their opinions about the work. Once the reviewers’ work becomes public, the teacher schedules a class debate. At this debate, each group presents its work and has a chance to defend it from the criticisms of the reviewers. The two groups debate the work in front of their classmates and teacher. Usually, the teacher is able to grade the assignment based on the review and the debate.

Trying to do all these tasks by hand would greatly reduce the benefits of the method because of the work needed to implement it. A software tool is necessary to manage the assignment process. So, few authors have developed Web-based software to assist it, such as:

  • The PG (Peer Grader), a system that offers support to peer review activities in which students submit work, review other works, and grade the reviewed work. The final grade of each work is determined by the system, based on the grade of the reviewers (Gehringer, 2000).
  • The WPR (Web-Based Peer Review) system is mentioned in Liu et al. (2001) as a tool for peer review management. Although some results of experiments using this tool are presented, there is only a brief explanation about the tool and no references to specific information about the system.

There are other Web-based tools that can be adapted for classroom use, such as CyberChair (CyberChair, 2004) and WIMPE (Nicol,1996), which support the review process for technical contributions to conferences.

The major problem with these tools is the kind of review they support, one not targeted to promote interaction in educational environments. A new tool, WebCoM (Web Course Manager), was developed specifically to address this issue. Its main objective is to provide graphical interfaces to get, store, manipulate, and present information generated by both student groups and teachers during a course. Using the WebCoM tool, the teacher can:

  • define assignments and deadline dates;
  • define other activities such as reports and tests;
  • define which group a reviewer will review; and
  • associate grades to students or groups.

The students can:

  • create groups;
  • turn in assignments and reports;
  • view and access works of others groups; and
  • access their grades.

As a practical example, the next section shows how a very common kind of assignment for computer science courses—a software project—can be handled using WebCoM and peer review to promote interaction among students.

SOFTWARE PROJECT ASSIGNMENT

The software project is a classic assignment in computer science courses. Commonly, in this type of activity, students are required to put into practice all concepts taught in class. There are two ways to conduct the software project activity: first, all students (or groups) develop a project from the same subject; and second, each student (or group) develops a project from a different subject. In either way, students are limited to explore and learn only about the project they are working on, mainly because of the individualism from traditional education methods (Panitz & Panitz, 1998). The presented peer review method minimizes this limitation, because students (or groups) are required to learn about their colleagues’ projects. When required to review projects and to participate in debates about other projects, students have an opportunity to extend their knowledge about other subjects, expanding the experience they would have using traditional individual learning.

The development of a software project under the peer review process has five steps: group formation, assignment upload, choosing review groups, review upload, and classroom debate.

At the beginning of the course, the students have access to the course Web pages, where they can find the usual material (lecture slides, course calendar, etc.) and a list of available software projects. These projects are previously defined by the teacher and relate to the subject being taught in the course. In addition, students have access to the WebCoM tool, in which the course and its activities (assignments and projects) are registered. The next subsections describe each of the five steps of the process.

Group Formation

After signing into the WebCoM tool, students have to form groups, usually three to four components. At this stage they can choose which project they want to work on. There are a limited number of projects, and each one can be worked on by a limited number of groups. As the groups are formed, the options are reduced in a first-come, first-served basis. After the group creation, the management tool creates an area on the server to store files uploaded by the groups (assignment and review report). Figure 1 shows the interface of the WebCoM’s Group Formation tool.

Assignment Upload

Until the deadline, groups can upload their work as many times as they wish, using the WebCoM FTP tool. It automatically defines where to put the uploaded files, based on the group from which the logged student is a member. The use of a software tool is important at this point, because once the files are uploaded, they can be organized in Web pages and accessed by reviewers. Soon after the upload, the files are made available on a WebCoM HTML page (Figure 2).

Specifically for the software project, students have to upload the code and a structured report called UDF (Unit Development Folder) (Williams, 1975). Other kinds of structured reports can be used, but it is important to have a structured report about the code being uploaded. That report is used to normalize the review process.

Choosing Review Groups

After the deadline for hand-in (upload) of the assignments, the teacher can determine which group another group will review. The teacher can take this opportunity to pair complementary projects, avoid cross reviews (two groups doing the review of each other), or any other strategy the teacher thinks may improve the quality of the reviews and the final debate. This task also can be done using a WebCoM tool for review allocation.

Review Upload

Until the deadline for the review, the reviewer groups can upload their work as many times as they wish, using the WebCoM FTP tool. Again the tool automatically sets the directory to upload files, based on the logged student information, and makes files available on a WebCoM HTML page (Figure 2).

Reviewers have to test the programs and read the reports about their colleague projects. At this stage, reviewers are encouraged to iterate with the group that did the work in order to better understand the project and exchange ideas. After that, they try to answer specific questions in their review; for instance, design quality, code quality, and documentation quality. It is important that judging parameters for each question are clearly defined to the students.

Classroom Debate

That is the most interesting part of the method. In the classroom (or in a chat room for distance education courses), each group has a chance to present its work to its classmates (and teacher) and to defend it against the reviewers’ criticisms. The correspondent reviewer group can present its suggestions and defend its points of view. The two groups can debate the project problems and qualities for some time. Teacher and classmates can give opinions, ask questions, and contribute to the debate. The process goes on until all groups have presented their work. Usually, the teacher can give a grade to the groups, based on the reviews and the debates. During the debates, it is easier to notice if a group really understood the theory and key concepts behind its software project.

It is recommended that the teacher plan the course schedule to leave sufficient time for the debates. Some groups debate more than others. If the time for debate is too short, the students will not have time to expose their points of view.

At the end of the process, all information is made available in an organized way at the course site. Figure 2 shows a WebCoM page that summarizes the results of an activity managed with the peer review method.

In Figure 2, Group is the name of the group; Project is a link to the assignment done by the group; Project Review is a link to the review of the group’s project; Makes review of is a link to the review written by the group; Grade is the grade for the project; Review Grade is the grade for the review; and Students are the members of the group.

The example of a software project assignment describes well how the method works, but this method has been used in other kinds of assignments. When used in seminar assignments, where groups have to present a seminar about a subject to the class, the review strategy is slightly modified. The groups upload the text and slides they intend to present, and then the reviewers (usually after a week) upload their opinions. Now the groups have the chance to modify their text and slides, based upon the opinions of the reviewers, if they agree with them. After the seminar presentation, there is the debate between the group and the reviewers (the audience is invited to take part, too) where the reviewers can present their opinions about the seminar presentation, analyze if the modifications they proposed were properly implemented (if they were accepted), and point out the qualities and problems of the work. Again, the group is free to challenge the opinions of the reviewers. This strategy improves the quality of the seminars and helps to start a good debate about the seminar.

TESTING THE PEER REVIEW METHOD IN THE REAL WORLD

This method of student groups and peer review has been in use and refinement since 1997, with good results. Since August 2001, the method has been evaluated using the student evaluation questionnaire for graduate and undergraduate courses. To get a picture of how the participating students were seeing the peer review method and WebCoM tool, the following questions, from the student evaluation questionnaire were analyzed:

  • Question 1: Did you use the WWW facilities? (Y/N)
  • Question 3: Does the use of the WWW facilities make the course easier? (Y/N)
  • Question 7: What is your opinion about the idea of Internet support?
  • Question 9: What do you think of peer review evaluation?

The questionnaire was applied to seven classes from graduate and undergraduate courses, two from the second semester of 2001, two from the second semester of 2002, two from the first semester of 2003, and one from the first semester of 2003. Table 1 shows the total number of students in each class and the total number of students that answered the questionnaire.

Three persons—a teacher, a psychologist, and a graduate student—classified the student answers in three categories: Yes or Liked , Neutral, and No or Disliked , based upon what the students were asked. The three classifications were merged into one, using averages. Question 3 was used just to make sure all students used the WebCoM tool. Table 2 shows the results of this evaluation (the percentages were calculated taking only the students that answered the questions).

As shown on Table 2, few students disliked the use of the Internet in general (Questions 3 and 7). The majority of the students (both graduate and undergraduate) had a good response to the peer review method (Question 8). Also interesting are the topics raised by the students in their answers about the peer review method/WebCoM (Question 8):

  • Interaction: 13% graduate and 21% undergraduate students stated in their answers that the method increased interaction or that they learned more about the project of the group they reviewed.
  • Fairness: 21% graduate and 5% undergraduate students were concerned about having clear judging parameters. As the students are doing the evaluation, they are concerned that different reviewers may be using different parameters for their evaluation. This highlights the need for clear judging parameters being explained in advance by the teacher. Thus, if a group thinks its reviewers did not stick to these parameters, they can bring up the issue during the debate.
  • Embarrassment: 26% graduate and 6% undergraduate students felt that the review process caused friction among students or that they were embarrassed or uneasy during the debates. They were not comfortable exposing their work and/or receiving criticisms. However, these students are having an opportunity to learn how to overcome those feelings. This is important, as they will be exposed to criticism from their peers throughout their careers.

CONCLUSION

This method of student groups with peer review is one way to explore the real potential of the Internet as an educational tool. The method uses the communication capabilities of the Internet to stimulate more interaction among the students, create an environment to foster constructive debate (collaborative learning), give the students a chance to learn how to give and receive criticism in a polite and constructive way, and provide an engaging environment for the participants (very helpful with dull topics).


The role of a software tool such as WebCoM in managing the peer review method activities is key to the success of the process as a whole. The method can help the students learn how to:

  • present their work, because they have to show their results and opinions to another group and to the rest of the class; therefore, they have to learn how to convince people about a subject;
  • evaluate the quality of the work of others, because they have to present constructive criticisms about them; and
  • accept and understand criticisms from their colleagues, which is very important for a successful computer science professional.

Teachers can save time by letting part of the evaluation work be done by students. This extra time can be used to manage more groups of students (with less students per group) or to focus on problematic students, who may need extra help.

The main negative point of this method is that some students let personal involvement interfere when they receive criticisms from fellow students. However, this is something that students should begin to change when they are still at school rather than when they become computer science professionals.

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