University of Manchester
Department of Computer Science

ARCADE Overview

ARCADE is used to manage the continuous assessment work for lots of students taking a number of modules. The following loosely describes the typical set up, although there are variations that can be supported. I have observed that some find the ARCADE philosophy counter-intuitive at first meeting. This, brief, overview makes no attempt to explore the issues properly. A much fuller discussion can be found here.

The modules taken will vary from student to student. The work for each module involves a number of exercises each allocated to a whole number of scheduled laboratory sessions. The students are divided into a number of groups for each module. Each group for each module has its sessions allocated on different days, and/or at different times, and/or in different rooms, depending on resources and timetabling.

Each exercise has a deadline, which occurs at the end of the last (or only) session allocated to that exercise! Just before the deadline, the students have a right to request an extension of it, without penalty, until the start of the following session for that same module. This forces students to work in their own time as well as in the labs, and encourages them to prepare by doing half the work before the labs. If the extended deadline is missed, then that exercise is flagged as LATE. Late work is marked in the normal way, but once a student has acheived the pass level for a module, late marks are completely discarded. Thus lateness cannot cause a student to fail, but if all work is flagged late the student can only achieve the pass mark.

ARCADE naturally, and reasonably efficiently, handles exceptional circumstances for individual students.

The data collected for each student for each lab session comprises: attendance at session (yes, no or excused), together with, for deadline sessions, completion by deadline (yes, no), extension obtained (yes, no, excused, not needed), completion by extension (yes, no, excused), date of completion (if after extension) and mark. The data is collected on special paper sheets tailored to each particular lab session instance. Paper is a cheap and flexible medium, and its use optimizes the time of the most expensive staff in the assessment process -- academic staff. A data entry program with a very efficient user interface is then used by clerical staff to enter the data on-line. (At Manchester CS, one member of clerical staff enters all data for all first and second year labs; she additionally manages and runs a `student resource centre', and student printers.)

The data is collated and eventually used to produce final marks for each module for each student. But a much more exciting use, is ARCADE'S ability to extrapolate performance, and predict students who are likely to fail! Each student for each module always has a (predicted) final mark, even before any labs take place. As data comes in, this mark gets more accurate, and eventually is the actual final mark. The prediction is crude, but remarkably effective.

ARCADE can email students (and their tutors) about irregularities (such as absences, lateness, etc.) including failure predictions. All ARCADE processes can be run automatically, as well as by hand, using a simple and flexible `remote control' command. The single most effective combination of ARCADE features that can be used, is the automatic emailing of failure predictions to the students concerned. This results in most wayward students coming to my door to seek advice, forgiveness and/or help, often without me even being aware they exist, let alone are in difficulty, let alone me having to trawl through records to identify them. (I have no empirical evidence, but I believe this has led to a significant reduction in our drop-out rate.)

ARCADE has many other features, too numerous to list in this brief overview. Essentially, if you can imagine really wanting it done, there's a good chance ARCADE already does it; or `soon' will. And it's `easy' to combine the basic commands to build tailored mini-applications. Looking back to before 1993, I find it hard to imagine how we coped -- I guess in many ways we didn't, and it cost us more then than now, both directly and indirectly. ARCADE has saved this department a huge amount of effort, whilst seriously increasing our effectiveness. [Of course, it's taken for granted by everyone else, but hey, this is Earth... Sigh!]