Building and Evaluating a Learning Environment for Data Structures and Algorithms Courses

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Virginia Tech

Learning technologies in computer science education have been most closely associated with teaching of programming, including automatic assessment of programming exercises. However, when it comes to teaching computer science content and concepts, learning technologies have not been heavily used. Perhaps the best known application today is Algorithm Visualization (AV), of which there are hundreds of examples. AVs tend to focus on presenting the procedural aspects of how a given algorithm works, rather than more conceptual content. There are also new electronic textbooks (eTextbooks) that incorporate the ability to edit and execute program examples. For many traditional courses, a longstanding problem is lack of sufficient practice exercises with feedback to the student. Automated assessment provides a way to increase the number of exercises on which students can receive feedback. Interactive eTextbooks have the potential to make it easy for instructors to introduce both visualizations and practice exercises into their courses.

OpenDSA is an interactive eTextbook for data structures and algorithms (DSA) courses. It integrates tutorial content with AVs and automatically assessed interactive exercises. Since Spring 2013, OpenDSA has been regularly used to teach a fundamental data structures and algorithms course (CS2), and also a more advanced data structures, algorithms, and analysis course (CS3) at various institutions of higher education.

In this thesis, I report on findings from early adoption of the OpenDSA system. I describe how OpenDSA's design addresses obstacles in the use of AV systems. I identify a wide variety of use for OpenDSA in the classroom. I found that instructors used OpenDSA exercises as graded assignments in all the courses where it was used. Some instructors assigned an OpenDSA assignment before lectures and started spending more time teaching higher-level concepts. OpenDSA also supported implementing a ``flipped classroom'' by some instructors. I found that students are enthusiastic about OpenDSA and voluntarily used the AVs embedded within OpenDSA. Students found OpenDSA beneficial and expressed a preference for a class format that included using OpenDSA as part of the assigned graded work. The relationship between OpenDSA and students' performance was inconclusive, but I found that students with higher grades tend to complete more exercises.

Computer Science Education, eTextbook, Learning Technology, Automated Assessment, Algorithm Visualization, Student Evaluation, Data Analytics