An Open Letter to (Potential) Internet Students

Approximately once a year, the Department of Computer Science at UIUC offers a web-based version of CS 373 for off-campus and extension students, as part of its I2CS program. This internet course is also available through the University's UI Online program, through the College of Engineering's Engineering Online program, and through National Technological University, an online education clearing house. (Despite these many incarnations, it's exactly the same course.) In the past, the largest majority of internet students have signed up through a cooperative agreement with The Quantum Institute, a now-defunct educational center in India.

Internet students take exactly the same course as on-campus students: the same course material, the same homework questions, the same exams, the same deadlines, and so on. Digitized videos of the lectures are available on the course web site for registered students to watch at any time. (Unfortunately, thanks to the department's short-sightedness, watching the videos requires a Windows machine. Don't get me started.) Students download homeworks from the course web site and submit their solutions by email. Exams are taken on paper, but at each students' own chosen location, with the help of a pre-arranged off-campus proctor; typically, the proctor gets the exam from us by email, prints it, and physically mails the student's answers back to us. Off-campus students communicate with the instructor and TAs through the course newsgroups and email.

Of course, there is one rather obvious difference: off-campus students are not on-campus! They can't ask the instructor questions in the middle of a lecture, or talk face-to-face with any of the on-campus course staff, meet in groups to discuss homework problems, or hear rumors from people who have taken the course before. They're effected much more by the inevitable technical snafus. Many students thrive in this environment--for example, they set up electronic study groups and regularly ask questions on the course newsgroup--but for others, the lack of personal face-to-face interaction is a serious disadvantage.

Letter grades for off-campus students are determined by the on-campus grade distribution. This means that regardless of how good or how bad the off-campus students perform, they are judged by the same standard as our traditional on-campus students. The specific grading standard I use is described in my Homework Instructions and FAQ; other instructors may use a different grading scheme.

Unfortunately, off-campus 373 students seem to perform significantly worse than their on-campus counterparts. In the four years that CS373 has been offered over the web, approximately 1/3 of the online students have failed. Other UIUC internet courses have experienced similar disparities, but our experience in CS 373 has been by far the most extreme. The disparity was considerably smaller in Fall 2002 than in past semesters, but still significant.

This is deeply troubling, both to me personally and to the department as a whole. On the one hand, we absolutely cannot use a separate grading scale for off-campus students without compromising the quality of our graduate degrees. On the other hand, many online students seem to lack the necessary mathematical preparation or academic maturity to pass the course according to the on-campus standards. On the gripping hand, we don't want any of our students to fail!

If you're taking 373 over the web, or even just thinking about it, there are several ways you help us reverse this unfortunate trend. (This goes for on-campus students, too!)

  • Be honest with yourself. Every semester, 373 begins with a "Homework Zero", which tests your knowledge of the prerequisite material: discrete mathematics, big-Oh notation, recurrences, induction, basic data structures, and so on. If you cannot solve most of the Homework Zero problems by yourself, you are probably not prepared for 373.

  • If you're not prepared, drop as early as possible. In order to get a full tuition refund, off-campus students must drop a class at most two weeks into the semester. After that, fees are refundable on a pro-rated basis for another few weeks. By the time the first exam grades (and the regular drop deadline) arrive, tuition is completely non-refundable. Many students do not realize that they are having serious trouble with 373 until after the first midterm.

  • Use the homework to help you learn. The homeworks give you a chance to practice and (hopefully) master the course material. More importantly, they can help you discover what you don't really understand. If you mostly solve the homework problems yourself, even if you don't get them completely right, you'll do much better on the exams, and you'll get a much better grade overall.

  • Ask for help. If you don't understand something, post a message to the newsgroup. Don't be embarrassed to ask stupid questions; there are at least 10 other students have the same question as you do. There are (almost) no stupid questions, only stupid answers. Form or join an online study group. Don't be afraid of holding other people back. By helping you figure stuff out, they'll learn the material even better. And you may understand something they don't. Everybody wins.

  • You will not pass the course if you do not understand the material. This observation seems self-evident, but many poor students have trouble accepting it. You cannot get a good grade in 373 by "playing the system". You will not get a good grade just because you worked hard, or because you paid a lot of money, or because you think you learned something. You will not pass just because you need the course to finish a degree, or to stay in the program, or to get into Stanford, or to keep your job, or to keep your parents from disowning you. (Yes, I have heard all these "reasons" from actual students, both on and off campus.) You must demonstrate that you understand the material.

  • Don't confuse good homework grades with understanding. There is usually very little correlation between homework grades in 373 and the final letter grades. I suspect this is because many students copy homework solutions from each other, or from textbooks, or from the web, or from previous semesters' solutions, or split up the homework problems among a large group, in order to get a better homework grade. In the long run, this will not help your grade. Even if you have perfect homework grades, you can still fail the exams; if you fail the exams, you will fail the course. In Summer 2001, for example, the worst student in the class had a 95% homework average, but his average score on the exams was less than 10%; the best student that semester got an A+ with only a 92% homework average.

  • Don't cheat. Copying homework solutions from another student, a textbook, the web, or even the instructor is plagiarism, unless you give full and proper credit. Because we expect our students to be honest, we treat plagiarism and other types of cheating very seriously. Several students have been kicked out of the I2CS program (in part) because of cheating offenses in CS 373. See the Homework Instructions and FAQ and the University Policy on Academic Integrity, especially the section on plagiarism. Even if you always give proper credit, you'll get absolutely nothing out of the homeworks if you let other people do the work for you.

Jeff Erickson ( 07 Jan 2003