Lessons Learned
Preparing On-Line Class Notes

International Conference on Technology in Collegiate Mathematics
November 9, 1996

Richard Kuntz
Monmouth University


This paper discusses issues involved in providing on-line, class notes for use in freshman general education courses. It focuses on both the technical and the pedagogical aspects. It will discuss the process of obtaining approvals and access privileges, finding and learning the appropriate tool set, organizing the materials through a naming convention, and a summary of student reactions.

Institutional Setting:

Monmouth University is a private, comprehensive, teaching university enrolling approximately 4500 students of which 3200 are full-time undergraduates. The University is located in the central shore area of New Jersey - about 55 miles south of New York City.

The Mathematics Department of the University has twelve full-time faculty members. The Mathematics Majors program at the University enrolls about 35 full-time equivalent students; a significant number of those students are dual majors - mathematics and education. As with many institutions in the environment of today, a substantial part of the teaching responsibility of the Mathematics Department is directed toward instruction for non-majors and non- science majors. The largest single population serviced by the Mathematics Department consists of those students majoring in programs within the Business School. Those students are required to complete three (3) credits in "traditional" finite mathematics, three (3) credits in applied calculus, and three (3) credits in statistics. The first course, Math 111, is the main course for which the on- line course notes were provided. Eight sections of Math 111 are offered during the fall semester and five sections are offered during the spring semester.

The University has a computer network, called HawkNet, with a fiber optic backbone that connects all academic buildings including the library and the eight residence halls. Students residing in the residence halls may subscribe to a network connection on a no-charge basis. There are 13 "public" computer laboratories in size ranging from six to thirty computers, an "information commons area" in the library, and at least two computers in each of the residence hall lobbies. All of these facilities are accessible to students. Almost all of these facilities support access to the campus "web" server. Students who subscribe to an ether net connection in their rooms, also have access to the University web server. In addition, the University supports a modem pool for dial-in access and a T1 link to an Internet Service Provider.

Goal and Description of Notes:

The on-line class notes are intended to provide an outline of the topics and issues that are discussed in class - a study guide for the lesson materials. They are not intended as a substitute for the textbook, but rather as a supplement. The notes consist of the vocabulary and concepts for the lesson, comments on textbook examples and problems, motivational questions, alternate presentations of material, and self tests (homework assignments). Some of the self-test problems were annotated with notes such as: "you should be able to do these problems in your head without pencil and paper," or "this is a follow up to our discussions on .," or "be careful, the trick is .".

During the Spring 1996 term, notes were provided for two courses: Math 111 (described above) and Math 101, a typical College Algebra course. This was the first attempt at providing such on-line notes. Because of the nature of the courses and the scope of the material, the course notes for Math 111 were more extensive than those for Math 101. By the end of the term, over 50 documents were prepared and made available for student access through the University web server. The notes ranged from one to three printed pages. The average size was about one and one-half pages in length. The notes were formatted using the basic html 2.0 markup tags. Appendix A contains a listing of the basic html tages that were used in the construction of the class notes.

Generally, the notes were provided at least one day in advance of the class meeting. In the worst case, it was in the morning of the scheduled class meeting.

Numerous times throughout the semester, the author had to remind himself of the goal for the on-line notes. On occasion the author would become carried away and become too verbose. He had to keep in mind that the goal was not to rewrite the text, but rather to prepare a study guide which contained a commentary on the vocabulary and major topics.

Since the notes were intended as a lesson outline and study guide, they were mainly textual in nature. No attempt was made to provide graphical or multi-media materials that would serve as the primary source of lesson content.

Despite limiting the notes to textual materials, it was estimated that, on the average, three hours were required in the preparation of each set of lesson notes. A typical three-credit course at the University meets twice a week for seventy-five clock minutes. Normally, a set of notes would cover a full class meeting.

Concepts Involved:

The process of preparing and providing the on-line class notes involved the six concepts which are described below.

     1. Permission Process:

The first step is to determine what approval processes are required to make on-line materials available through the University web server. Some institutions have a very formal process that must be followed. Some even go to the extreme of having an editorial board with specific standards with regard to both form and content that must be followed. In order to avoid frustrations, loss of time, and duplication of work, it is recommended that before any development work begins, the rules and guidelines be investigated. Most institutions that have a web server have assigned someone as the "Web Master." This is usually the best place to start.

In addition to obtaining information on rules and guidelines for publishing on the web, information on the technical process of getting the materials on the web server must be obtained. Does the institution provide personnel support on the mechanics or is it up to the publisher to do all the work? In the latter case, such details as assigned directories, directory and file permissions, and links to the starting point of the notes must be established.

At Monmouth University, the author was provided with a directory with read/write permissions and a link from the University Section entitled "Academic Programs." Once the directories, permissions, and links are set up, the rest is the development of the materials in an organized fashion that permits easy installation and maintenance.

     2. Type of Materials:

One of the decisions that must be made early in the development process is on the type of materials that will be provided. With the technologies that are rapidly being developed for preparing web materials, this decision may not be as easy as it was one year ago. In addition to the traditional textual and graphic formats that have provided the main presentation forms, the current technologies are providing the possibility for truly dynamic, interactive, multi-media formats. The decision on which formats will be used depends upon many factors. The main factors are: what technologies does the infrastructure support (the materials have no utility if the students are not able to easily and consistently access the materials), what kind of preparation support is available (if the entire preparation phase falls upon the instructor, then it is unrealistic to expect much more than the basic textual and graphic formats), and what kind of stability state are the notes in. (if the notes are evolving over time, it is unrealistic to expect to produce a finished, polished product).

Two factors influenced the decision to use the relatively simple textual format with minimal graphics. The University did not have the technical support staff to provide consistent, long-term assistance for developing the on-line materials; thus the production process was solely in the hands of the author. Since the goal of the notes was to provide a supplemental study guide rather than a primary source, basic textual materials was most appropriate.

     3. Server Platform and Development Environment:

Monmouth University uses an early version of the NCSA (National Center for Supercomputing Applications) httpd (hypertext transfer protocol daemon) web server. It runs on a Digital computer with 64 Meg of memory. All students at the University are provided with a campus e-mail account. The same computer functions as the UNIX e-mail server for the students as well as the web server. At the present time, University policy does not permit individual groups or departments to operate a web server that can be reached from off campus. Since the goal was to provide lecture notes that would be accessible to students regardless of the location of their workstation, the author had no choice but to use the UNIX-based web server administered by the Information Services Department.

The most convenient development environment for the project was a pair of Intel-based computers using the Windows 95 operating system. One of the computers was a 486 - 66MHz computer located in the author's home office, while the other computer was a pentium 90MHz computer located in the author's University office.

A consistent environment would have been more effective and efficient. That is, an environment in which the web server and the notes development were the same or transparent to the developer. As a result of the magnitude of the documents that were placed on-line during the semester, a considerable amount of time was spent transferring the files from one environment to the other. It is estimated that each document required 15 to 30 minutes to transfer from the development environment (Windows) to the web server. Each document needed to be "uploaded" to the UNIX based machine, placed in the appropriate directory, given appropriate permissions, and a hyperlink placed in the appropriate table of contents. After all that was done, the links needed to be tested to ensure that everything was in order.

     4. Selecting Tool Sets:

Since the author would be required to complete all steps in the process - develop the content, format the material in html markup language, transfer to the web server environment, place in appropriate directory, and prepare necessary links so that the material would be accessible, it was necessary that a development tool set be selected that offered a quick start, low learning curve introduction. The selection was aided by the fact that the materials were to be textual in nature supported by an occasional graphic image. Such minimal requirements did not require the use of sophisticated development tools that were beginning to become available - tools that attempted to be all things to all people.

On the PC side, the fundamental areas in the process were: spell checker, html syntax editor, graphics editor, and file transfer program. On the web server side the process required a basic UNIX text file editor. The goal was to obtain a set of tools that satisfied the requirements and would be sufficient to support the project throughout the term. Once a tool was selected and the basic skill level for the tool was acquired, it would have to carry the project through to the end of the term. There wasn't going to be time to jump back and forth to try out better tools.

About the time that the author began searching for the html editor, the popular trade magazines started to test and report on various html syntax directed editors. One of those articles described a product that appeared to fit the requirement. It was called html Assistant Pro, one of the early entries into the market with a solid base of features and a small learning curve. A demo version was available for testing. After downloading the demo product and testing it out, it was clear to the author that it satisfied the basic requirements of ease of use and fundamental features. It had the advantage of a built-in spell checker. The full professional version, at a cost of $99, was purchased and has been used by the author ever since. The only significant feature missing from the version that the author used during the project was the ability to create "hot keys." Most of the special formatting required a mouse click.

When it was time to select the tool to effect the transfer from the Windows environment to the UNIX environment, the author was introduced to the shareware product entitled "Ws-ftp." It was more than adequate for the task.

The task of selecting a graphics editor was more complicated. Ideally, the tool would be required to accept a graphic image from some source such as a scanner or a screen capture, edit the graphic, size the graphic to the proper dimension, and output the graphic in a format that was appropriate for the notes. Most of the graphics were to be graphic images of mathematical entities that could not readily be formatted using html mark-up codes. As a result, it would be appropriate that the images have the transparent background property (gif 87a format). After some trial and error with some extensive periods of frustration, the author discovered the product "LView Pro." It is a relatively inexpensive product that incorporates all the features required to prepare the graphics for inclusion in the lecture notes.

Since the author had working knowledge of the UNIX environment, the easiest part of the task was selecting the UNIX-based text editor. The old standby "vi" was used to perform the UNIX editing tasks associated with setting up the links and performing "last minute" editing.

     5. Organization of the Materials:

The most significant oversight during the early stages of the project implementation was the need for a well-defined organization and identification scheme for the materials. In the early stages, the documents were given a cryptic name and placed in the same directory. It soon became clear that a naming scheme would have to be devised.

Each document was given a number which corresponded to the order in which the material was to be covered in the lectures. The documents were designed to approximate a single lecture, consequently the scheme numbered the documents according to the lecture. That is, they were entitled Lecture Notes # x, where x denoted the sequential number of the lecture.

The document file names used a combination of course acronym and lecture note number. For example, the file corresponding to the ninth lecture notes for the Mathematics 111 course was named "m11109.htm," and the file for the second lecture notes for the Mathematics 101 course was named "m10102.htm."

The second part of the problem was to name the graphics file so that it was clear which document was the primary document that included a given graphics file. This turned out to be a little more complicated since a given lecture notes document may contain more than one graphics file. The scheme used near the end of the project incorporated the course name, lecture notes number, and a sequential number representing the graphics file. For example, the file "gm1110902.gif" represented the second image file for the ninth lecture notes for Math 111. Such files started with the letter "g" to clearly identify the file as a graphics file. The importance of that designation becomes apparent during the file uploading to the UNIX server. Such graphics files must be transferred using the "binary" transfer mode. Before the designation was adopted, several graphics file transfers were attempted without using the "binary" mode. The first time that occurred, the author spent a considerable amount of time attempting to determine what was wrong.

After the scheme was devised during the fourth week of classes, the author went back and renamed all the files and documents to conform to the name scheme. The scheme has worked well and is still being used in the notes that are being developed for this Fall term.

     6. Time Requirements:

Since the entire project was performed by the author without the assistance of any technical staff support, a considerable amount of time was spent on the project. The effort was compounded by the fact that the author had not taught a similar course in well over twenty years. The notes for the Spring 1996 project were developed from ground zero.

Starting from the ground level, a set of notes for a single lecture on the average required 3 hours of effort. In addition to the technical component of typing and formatting the material, that effort included deciding on the topics, outlining the major points, identifying the vocabulary requirements, presenting demonstration problems, augmenting the material in the textbook when deemed appropriate, and identifying homework assignments. Approximately 50% of the time was spent deciding on the material and 50% on entering and formatting the text. During the formatting process, the text would be checked out with a browser to determine whether or not the formatting was accomplishing the desired objective.

That 3 hours of development time did not include the graphics component. It is estimated that each graphic image included in the lecture notes required about one hour of time. This included the selection or development, preparation and sizing, and integration with text.

After the documents were developed and proofed in the PC development environment, the next step was setting up the materials on the UNIX web server. This part of the process was fairly routine. However, the number of steps required concentration. The file had to be placed in the correct directory, the permissions had to be adjusted, and the links had to be added to the table of contents. On the average, it would take about fifteen minutes to complete that task and verify at the author's workstation that the document was properly linked.

A not-so-obvious final step in the process was an occasional check in the student laboratories. On occasion students would report that the materials were not available. Most of those problems turned out to be related to accessing the materials through one of the on-line services. The browsers that students were using were not compliant with the defacto Netscape 1.2 or later version that was being used on campus. The other recurring problem was campus network printing. The demand for networked printing at times would exceed the ability of the network print stations.

Student Reactions:

A twelve question Course/Instructor Evaluation was conducted on the last class meeting. The evaluation form was designed for the courses and contained two questions directly related to the on-line class notes. The first question requested that students estimate what percentage of the on-line class notes they obtained throughout the semester. The second question requested students to indicated on a five point scale (1=no value through 5=extremely helpful), the value of the class notes to them.

The data from these two questions indicated the following (at total of 41 students participated in the questionnaire):

Percentage obtaining class notes - 2 (4%) up to 25%, 5 (12%) 25-50%, 5 (12%) 50-75%, 13 (32%) 75-100%, and 16 (40%) all the notes. These data indicated that 72% of the students obtained at least 75% of the class notes that were made available.

Value of notes - no one indicated no value, 3 (7%) indicated of minimal value, 3 (7%) average value, 16 (39%) indicated helpful, and 19 (47%) indicated extremely helpful. These data indicated that 86% of the students felt the notes were at least helpful (more than just average value).

In addition to the two questions, students were encouraged to comment on the courses. Appendix B contains a transcript of the some comments relating to course notes that were made by the students.

One final note regarding student reaction to the notes. After the course was over, one of the students informed the author that her friend, attending another institution and taking the same type of course, using a different textbook, found the notes helpful as a supplement to the materials being presented in his class. She also indicated that he had no difficulty obtaining the notes through his Internet connection at the other institution.

Summary of Key Points:

Information on University Policies and Procedures and the process for placing the materials on the web server should be obtained before development begins.

The goal of the notes should be established before development begins -are they intended to provide an outline of the topics and issues, serve as a study guide for the lesson materials, or to become the primary source materials?

A decision on the type of materials should be made early in the process, i.e., textual based, graphical, interactive.

A clear understanding of the environment must be obtained - interface between the server platform and development environment needs to be understood.

A well thought out plan for the organization of the material up front will save time in the implementation. A well- designed scheme will ease the implementation of lots of material.

First time through, plan on spending lots and lots and lots of time. It will always take longer than you think. Be realistic on how much material you are going to be able to generate if you are doing it all yourself.

Choose a basic set of development tools that will accomplish the task. You don't have to learn the latest and greatest tool set, if you goal is to provide basic textual material.

Once you select a tool set that works for the task at hand, stick with it for a while. Don't spend a lot of time looking for something better.

Check and recheck the links. Does the document look the way you want it to look from the locations that the students will be viewing the materials?

Expect to spend time during the first and second week of classes explaining to students how to obtain the materials.


Appendix A
Listing of Basic html Tags:

<a href="URL"> .. </a> -- hypertext link
<body background=#rrggbb> .. </body> -- body of document setting background color
<center> .. </center> -- center text
<font size=+2> .. </font> -- increase the font size
<img src="gm1110101.gif" align=left> -- include an image file
<ol> .. </ol> -- construct an order list of elements
<li> -- indicate a member of an ordered list
<p> -- start new paragraph
<br> -- start a new line
<b> .. </b> -- render in bold text
<i> .. </i> -- render in italic text
<sub> .. </sub> -- subscript
<sup> .. </sup> -- superscript
&nbsp; -- enter non breaking space
<table> .. </table> -- construct a table
<tr> .. </tr> define a row of elements in a table
<td> .. </td> define a data element in a row of elements in a table

Appendix B
Transcript of Student Remarks

I felt that the on-line class notes were very helpful, because if you missed a class you could always be able to get the notes that you missed, so you wouldn't fall behind. Don't change it.

The e-mail system was good as well as the class notes. It gave me a chance to keep up with the class if I didn't attend.

I thought that the e-mail and on-line class notes were very beneficial in helping me study for tests.

It was very hard for me to obtain all of the on-line notes, because I live off campus. However, when I was able to get my hands on them, they were very helpful.

I feel that the on-line class notes were the most helpful item I've ever had in taking a test.

The on-line class notes were also great, especially for when you missed class.

On-line class notes were helpful because it prepared you for the next meeting in class.

The on-line class notes were also helpful. This way we weren't completely lost if we missed the class.

At times you lost me, but what I didn't understand I was able to get from on-line notes.

I found the on-line class notes to be very helpful, because it provided problems to do so you could practice the skills discussed in class.

On-line notes - great.

The class notes were beneficial for unclear information and where to find it.

On-line class notes were very clear and thorough, however, I personally prefer the use of the textbook.

The e-mail system, on-line class notes, and lab exercises were new to me. They became very helpful throughout the semester and I think more professors should try this style.

Its better than taking notes and trying to figure things out for yourself. The notes made it easier to understand.

On-line class notes were extremely helpful; all but take the test for me.

I loved it, I didn't have to write notes and could put full attention to lectures.

rak 11/96