Date of Award


Document Type

Thesis - ECU Access Only


Edith Cowan University

Degree Name

Doctor of Information Technology


School of Computer Science and Security


Faculty of Computing, Health and Science

First Supervisor

Justin Brown

Second Supervisor

Barbara Combes


In an attempt to provide educational opportunities for students who have other constraints on their time, such as work, family commitments or who are located at a distance, many universities have developed wholly online distance education programs. These online courses use Web technology as a distributed learning mechanism. However, online distance learning in technical courses such as programming remains challenging for both instructors and students. This thesis aims to identify the technological and social enablers and barriers to effective teaching of computer science topics in a wholly online environment from the perspective of instructors and learners by using a case study approach.

The technical teaching environment does indeed have a significant impact on the web-based delivery of computer science topics. In fact the general responses overall from staff and students in this research, indicate that the online environment presents substantial barriers to any type of teaching and learning delivery. This study has demonstrated that a significant contributor to these barriers is the social and physical separation experienced by staff and students that is a feature of the online teaching and learning environment.

While it is apparent that there are real barriers to effective teaching and learning in the online environment, particularly in technical computer science units, these negative perceptions, as reported by staff and students in this case study, also create a barrier that is difficult to overcome. Even though the school in this case study had taken comprehensive steps to ensure successful online study programs and continues to support an elearning culture, staff and students doing technical computer science units still experience issues. They have negative perceptions about the online teaching and learning environment; there are poor enrolments in wholly online units and high attrition rates, especially in technical units; and staff and student satisfaction continues to be a barrier to the delivery of successful online programs. This case study found that most of the instructors prefer to teach and students prefer to learn in a traditional classroom. For students it is easier to communicate with peers and their instructors, and the social aspects of teaching and learning are enabled by the face-to-face environment. Staff also felt it is easier to motivate students and monitor academic progress in the face-to-face classroom.

Evidence from this thesis makes it clear that the online delivery of computer science courses is challenging for both staff and students. There are considerable barriers posed by the technical environment and the physical separation of staff from their students. In many ways this could be defined as a psychological barrier rather than a set of physical challenges to overcome. This thesis shows that students, almost by default, have a negative view of online learning and only use it only when absolutely necessary, even in a school with a ten-year history of elearning implementation. Similarly, many staff within this study clearly indicated a belief that on-campus teaching produced better student outcomes, particularly in computer science subjects. Though a majority of the staff felt they had engaged fully with the online medium, the analysis of historical data pertaining to unit content, indicated a lack of full engagement with the development of comprehensive elearning methods, materials and assessments.

A majority of the research literature deals with online learning either from the student expectation perspective, particularly in terms of what staff should be doing to meet student needs. This study indicates that truly successful elearning must be driven from the converse perspective, whereby institutions take a holistic approach and provide leadership, time, and professional development to enable staff to develop online curricula most suited to their students’ needs. This study also found that to successfully design online educational programs, the instructor must ensure that there is a balance between guidelines provided by the system and the human facilitator; that learning materials use a range of processes to facilitate inquiry which motivate learners with the right questions and engage them in a variety of activities; and clear guidance is continually provided. These characteristics are features of any successful educational program, both face-to-face and online. Therefore, a key enabler is the development of the concept of a single methodology and mindset for teaching and learning across all delivery modes.

LCSH Subject Headings

Computer science -- Study and teaching (Higher) -- Australia.

College students -- Australia -- Attitudes.

Internet in higher education -- Australia -- Psychological aspects.