2.2 Functional structure of personal space

There are four ways to structure personal space home pages: the directory tree structure, plate structure, course list structure and category-directory tree structure. Platforms using these structures number 14, 5, 5 and 6, respectively. Adding in qualitative analysis, we find:

(1) The plate structure sorts the above functions into different page "plates" by category. There are generally two approaches when using plate structure. One is to place all of the functions on the personal space home page, which ensures the completeness and visibility of the functions, but makes the home page look cluttered due to the number of functions. The second is to use a multi-layer structure, which ensures the compactness of the home page but requires popping up multi-layer subpages.

(2) The course list structure divides the contents of the personal space home page into the two blocks of course learning and personal learning affairs. The upper block includes the course learning list, including courses, assignments and forums, and the student can click to directly access corresponding learning content. The lower block provides links to learning affairs, such as personal information, course selection, personal registration information, personal payment information, examination information, etc.

(3) The category-directory tree structure usually combines functions related to personal learning affairs into the category of “personal studio”, and functions related to course learning into the category of “course learning”. The categories of “personal studio” and “course learning” on the personal space home page can be switched, and on the lower left are specific function directory trees corresponding to both categories. By allowing for the category on top to be switched, activities related to personal affairs are separated from course learning, thus assuring the compactness of each directory tree.

(4) The directory tree structure is similar to the category-directory tree structure, but differs in that all function columns are placed in a single directory tree. This structure is able to display all of the platform support functions, classify the functions using a multi-level directory tree, and give the user's personal space home page a sense of stability. The directory tree is the most popular structure at present, but for some platforms, the lack of logic in the content division of the tree structure may cause confusion for users.

The author believes that both the directory tree structure and the category-directory tree structure are preferred choices as structures for the personal space home page. But the structure is only successful when the functions are categorically divided based on a guiding rule. This provides the user with a clear sequence of use and improves the platform's usability.

3. Function columns and structure of course space

3.1 Function columns and major contents of course space

As found in the above analysis of platform levels, 19 distance learning and management platforms offer course spaces, which are generally accessible through the “My courses” (course list function) column on the personal space home pages. The following is a statistical summary of the function columns of the course space home pages.

Table 4 shows that the contents of the course learning space include 6 categories: course information, course content learning, tutorial Q & A, peer communication, course affairs management and course learning assistance. The latter three categories overlap with contents in the portal and personal space pages, and the former three are the primary contents of the course space.

Table 4  Statistical Summary of Columns in the Course Space 

Specific column
Number of platforms
Course module
Course learning activity
Course introduction
Course information
Course information
Teacher information
Course notices
Course assessment
Schoolmates and teachers
Learning progress inquiry
Switch courses
Learning resources
Course content learning
Courseware access
Content list
Course tools
Course calendar
Learning activities (24)
Online test
Experiment center
Task activities
Tutorial materials
Tutorial material (7)
Tutorial Q & A
General review
Q & A (16)
Course forum
Online Q & A
Peer communication (7)
Peer communication
Message box
Short message
Test appointment
Test appointment (2)
Course affairs management
Final score inquiry
Score management (2)
Help documents
Course learning assistance (6)
Course learning assistance
Tool download

3.2 Analysis of commonly used course space columns

First, the specific columns that appear across 10 or more platforms are course notices, courseware on demand, course forum and assignments. These are the commonly used columns for online course learning.

Second, the course modules that appear across 10 or more (half of the platforms with course space,10 platforms without course space) are course information, learning resources, learning activities and tutorial Q & A. These are the core contents of course learning.

In addition, it is worth noting that the courseware contents offered by 6 platforms use the SCORM standard format for content listing.

3.3 Column structure of course space

There are two types of column structures for the course space: the directory tree structure and the column list structure. The numbers of platforms using these structures are 15 and 4, respectively. In the directory tree structure, the user selects a specific course by clicking “My courses” on the personal space home page and enters the course space. Within the course space, the directory tree related to course learning appears on the left. In the column list structure, after selecting the specific course, columns related to course learning appear on the right. The columns are arranged as a list or as plates, and include course forum, assignments, tutorial materials, etc. Seen from the numbers and from qualitative analysis, the directory tree structure is again the preferred choice for the course space home page, as it is with the personal space home page. 

4. Conclusion

Based on the above analysis and summary of the three levels of the learning system, it is evident that the portal, personal space and course space are designed for different functions. The portal's feature is socialization; it focuses on management services and the creation of a campus atmosphere by offering virtual campus management and services. The personal space's feature is individualization; it emphasizes individualized functional support revolving around the student's online learning activities. The course space's feature is standardization; it focuses on the study of specific courses by providing standardized learning columns for online courses that make it easy for students to switch between studying different courses.