Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Educational challenges in the enwebbed age

Timo Vuori and Maria Jean Hall
Department of Computer Science
Edith Cowan University

Introduction

The Computer Science Department of Edith Cowan University is currently conducting a program to deliver materials by the Internet to support the learning experience of external and international students. This exercise is being conducted within a limited time frame and has provided an interesting challenge to those involved. This paper will outline some of the issues found relevant to the delivery of educational materials in this new environment.

Management issues

The use of the Internet in education has implications both for the quality of the product and the management of the production and delivery processes. Many modern quality assurance techniques and process maturity models are based on a belief that a quality process will typically deliver a quality product (Sallis, Tate and MacDonell, 1995, p.101). Process issues such as project management, risk assessment and control, and quality assurance are vital. The development, maintenance and assured conformation to appropriate standards, the criteria used and conduct of evaluation of the product are as important in the Internet world as they always have been to educational managers.

There has been a very recent and rapid evolution to what is now a nearly universal access to, and acceptance of this new media - the Internet. Thus many of those now responsible for managing this task of providing education by the Internet, must lack experience in transporting their skills from a traditional to an electronic environment. They will also have difficulties finding and following available and useful models to assist them in this process.

The WWW promotes the dynamic delivery of changeable content. This poses problems. There may be in existence at any time many different versions of materials, perhaps requiring varying student access. As we move to multiple unit offerings over an academic year in multiple sites, it is conceivable that three or more versions of unit materials may be in current use. In disciplines such as Computer Science which have rapidly changing content, new versions will always be under development. Version control will be imperative. Issues such as ownership, publication authorisation, access control and automation of the WWW publication of written materials are important issues for consideration by managers of the process.

Other technical issues will require specialist input. Guaranteed availability of materials held on the Internet may be nearly impossible to assure. Insufficient bandwith in some areas, availability of Internet access providers and the costs associated with this, access speed, the vagaries of relying on electronic delivery, the inherent complexity and anarchic nature of the Internet are all considerations. Solutions are being developed. Replication technology can duplicate data from the Internet to a local server. This is a dynamic and difficult area and specialist technical input will be required to maximise results for educationalists. There are already several commercial and university developed products available which can assist in this area.

Availability and the scope of the material

Making material available on Internet is a significant investment. This investment requires considerable resources e.g. academic and support staff time, training, software, hardware, etc. In light of this, it would be unrealistic to expect universities to make all of their Internet published material freely available to the general public including other institutions competing in the same market.

Different potential users of educational materials on the Internet will have different needs and will require different levels of access. Obviously enrolled students should have full access to any materials relevant to the unit(s) in which they are currently enrolled. To protect the intellectual property owned by the University, the general public including prospective students should only have limited access to materials such as lecture notes and overheads, study guides, past examination papers, handouts. Other marketing materials of general interest and enrolment information should be made freely available.

Copyright and export controls issues

With the original ethos of the Internet promoting the unrestricted use of materials, a perception has grown that Internet published materials are in the public domain and so free use can be made of them. This is inaccurate. Currently, Internet published materials are automatically protected by both Australian and international copyright laws and so are not covered by the University's copyright agreement under the provisions of the Commonwealth of Australian Copyright Act 1968. This means that it is illegal to print and distribute such materials to students without specific authorisation from the authors. However, using the Internet as a delivery tool, it is a rather simple matter to sidestep this copyright issue. A pointer (URL) can be provided allowing students to access the page where the material is available rather than providing them with a copy of the material itself. Students can then make their own "fair dealing" copy for study and research purposes. The drawback of this method is that the University has no control over the material itself or its availability at all times. The dynamic nature of Internet also means that the URLs need to be regularly checked to ensure that they are still pointing to the material. Another important issue related to the use of information available on Internet is that some governments have very strict regulations on using or exporting material that they consider to be of a sensitive nature. Other countries may not share their particular sensitivity concerns. A good example of what can happen when you are considered to be in violation of these regulations is the well publicised Phil Zimmerman's case in the USA. Phil Zimmerman was prosecuted on the basis that he violated the USA export regulations by exporting an encryption software package Pretty Good Privacy (PGP). He has since been acquitted because of lack of evidence, but to defend himself must have cost him dearly. This example highlights the importance of making sure that any material students are asked to use or copy does not break or violate any Australian or International laws or regulations currently in place.

Access control

The most commonly used method of controlling access to computers is the username / password combination. The issue is not so much the selection of the access control method as there are no real practical alternatives to the username / password combination but the everyday management and allocation of passwords. Internally in ECU this task is allocated to IT support. Generally students are required to fill in an application form then get an authorisation from a lecturer or tutor and return the form so that the username and password can be provided for them. It is quite obvious that this method is inconvenient for students studying from remote or overseas locations as it can take weeks for these forms to reach their destination and then back to ECU.

An alternative to this paper based method is to use forms on the WWW. How could this approach work in practice? When a student initially attempts to access restricted information, a username and password is requested. If students do not have these available, an option is provided to apply on-line for an account. Instructions would be displayed on how to gain access to the restricted area and a form would be provided to be filled in electronically. This form would provide personal details, student number, units enrolled etc. The student would submit this form and wait for a reply. After receiving the information the server would confirm that the student is enrolled for the unit(s) and provide a username and a valid password to access all restricted material related to the specific unit(s). No access would be provided to controlled material on units the student is not currently enrolled in. As the information on student enrolments is already available electronically this method should be feasible.

Regulatory requirements

There are University requirements governing the supply of certain printed documentation to students, e.g. unit outlines, assessments and exams. Authorisation traditionally delivered via a signature also presents difficulties in the on-line environment. These issues are receiving considerable interest and different solutions are being trialed as educational materials are moved onto the Internet.

Structure and organisation of the material

Curriculum development

There may be no great difference in curriculum design for on-line (Internet-based) and off-line (paper based) delivery as far as content is concerned. This is still a discussion point in academic circles. However there is certainly a perception by students that on-line materials will be more current than their off-line counterparts. How realistic this expectation is a matter of debate. On-line materials will reach a far broader audience both demographically and internationally than traditional hard copy materials and this may well have an impact on the curriculum covered.

Instructional design

If there is some doubt in the area of differences in curricula in the two media there should be none as far as instructional design is concerned. This new area offers new ways of delivering materials and specialist input will be necessary to take full advantage of the potential. Many lecturers will lack the necessary skills. Special graphical designers, multimedia experts, CAI designers and instructional designers will be required to support the Internet effort. Funds will be required and staff will need considerable familiarisation sessions and training.

Delivery formats

The look and feel of the study material provided on the Internet can have an effect on the students view of the professionalism and quality of the unit studied. This is especially so if the same material is used for short courses offered commercially for full fee paying customers. If the unit material is provided in html format most of the commercially available Internet browsers will do a fairly good job of displaying these documents on computer screens.

However often the students also want to have a paper copy of the material available for them. The format and the structure of html documents often makes them unsuitable for printing. The result is badly formatted printed versions of material displayed on screen and if the document is divided into subdocuments, each of these needs to be printed separately.

The obvious solution for this problem is to provide two versions of the study material for students. One designed to be displayed on screen and other to be printed. In theory this sounds good but in practice, providing a document for printing purposes will have practical difficulties due to the number of different operating systems and word processors currently available. Most of these difficulties could be overcome by providing documentation in standard formats, e.g. Microsoft Word and Postscript. For both of these formats there are free viewers available on the Internet.

Student support issues

Traditional staff student communication - outside specified contact hours in lectures, tutorials or workshops - has involved face to face, telephone or written contact. Personal contact can be a problem geographically - getting two people together in one place. Also temporarily - finding times when it is convenient for both parties. Communication by telephone whilst in some ways more convenient, can also be a problem with the ridiculous worst case scenario involving voicemail returning messages to impersonal voicemail. Neither of these communication methods supplies a natural record of the communication content. Written communication has advantages. The very act of formalising a problem to be able to document it often prompts the student to find their own solution. Written communication has a further advantage in the natural record of the communication content that becomes available. The disadvantage of traditional written communication has been the delivery time for written messages.

The Internet and electronic communications can add considerable value to traditional student support mechanisms. Emails offer informal brief communication with almost instantaneous delivery. The mean time to reply may be another matter. Such messages and the replies can be filed and kept on line or rendered to hard copy. Modern email packages can be set up to apply rules to the routing and processing of such messages. Files can be sent as attachments retaining their specialised formatting or the text can be incorporated without special formatting within the body of the email message.

Edith Cowan University's Virtual campus which supports both external and internal students offers student bulletin boards and 'chat' sessions where staff student and student student contact can be facilitated. Student to student contact, facilitated by the Internet, adds great value and a sense of belonging to the lives of the more isolated of our students. Staff can offer student support from a distance on a daily basis either via Internet email messages or via such chat sessions arranged at predetermined times. Video conferencing and voice communication on the WWW are growth areas which may well change our methods of student support in the future. The Internet challenges us in this area.

However there are no free lunches. Costs are significant. According to Marie Corrigan, manager of Edith Cowan's Virtual Campus (M. Corrigan, personal communication, December 6th, 1996) the costs of providing material electronically can be greater than by traditional methods. Currently the University is carrying this cost but it is possible that in these times of constricted budgets, economic rationalism and accountability, these costs will be allocated on a user pays principle, i.e. will be passed on the student.

Future directions

We are at the beginning of the process of using the Internet to support student learning. We are meeting the challenge and the work being accomplished today in this area has the potential to change educational delivery mechanisms as we approach the millennium. The critical accomplishment will be the provision of more choice for our students. We have much to learn before we complete this journey and seek your input and creative feedback.

References

Sallis, P., Tate, G. & MacDonell, S. (1995). Software Engineering: Practice, Management, Improvement. Sydney: Addison-Wesley.

Edith Cowan University Copyright Issues for Staff [on-line] (1996). Available: http://www.cowan.edu.au/copyright/staff.htm#net

Copyright Basics [on-line] (1993). Available: http://www.virtualschool.edu/mon/ElectronicProperty/CopyrightLaw.html"

Elias, S. (1994). Copyrights in cyberspace [on-line]. Available: http://www.benedict.com/

Please cite as: Vuori, T. and Hall, M. J. (1997). Educational challenges in the enwebed age. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p345-349. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/vuori2.html


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