F6-ALG1-1 - Algorithm Visualization Environments: Degree of interactivity as an influence on student-learning

2. Research-to-Practice Full Paper
Pálma Rozalia Osztián , Zoltán Kátai1, Erika Osztián1
1 Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania

Nowadays, online learning environments have become very popular for teaching algorithms. To improve the learning process these environments often include various visualizations of the algorithms. Because of the abstract nature of algorithms, expressive animations which illustrate these processes have become critically important educational tools. Another important feature of online learning environments is the extent to which the user should be involved in the learning process. Previous research in this field has produced mixed results. While some studies emphasize that there is a benefit in user control, others conclude that interrupting the animation process can also have negative effects. Taking into account this previous work we have created a novel online learning tool which includes visualizations of ten basic computer algorithms (searching and sorting strategies). In this environment three levels of interactivity are defined: 0 interactivity (system-paced instructional material: students are only independent observers), ½ interactivity (students are partially involved: at specific key moments the animation suddenly stops, and user interaction is needed) and 1 interactivity (the full control is given to users: students are invited to orchestrate the algorithm by predicting the entire operation sequence for a given input). The main research question we addressed is the following: can an optimal interactivity level be established?

We examined 139 first year undergraduate students (14% girls) who were divided in three “equivalent” subgroups based on their prior knowledge (0, 1-2 or 4 years of programming during high school studies). The experiment was built around the shell sort algorithm since none of the participants were familiar with this sorting strategy. The three instructional conditions assigned to the three subgroups were: 0, ½ and 1 interactivity level.  Our results show that there are no significant differences between students’ performances from the three specific subgroups. This finding is in line with previous research results that emphasize that each interactivity level might have both positive and negative effects. Since students’ learning styles are different, an important characteristic of online learning environments should be that gives the possibility for everyone to choose the most appropriated interactivity level.