Teaching and Learning Forum 99 [ Contents ]

Exploring online education: A research framework

Christian Bauer, Just Berkhout, Vanessa Chang, Kum Leng Chin, Bernard Glasson and James Tauber
Electronic Commerce Network (ECN), Curtin Business School
Curtin University of Technology
The dramatic uptake of the Worldwide Web has caused universities to consider local and remote delivery of their education programs using this new medium. There is evidence of much activity at the subject or unit level - although many of these efforts are trivial and some even questionable educationally. Curtin University's Electronic Commerce Network (ECN) is creating a learning environment to enable it to deliver educational programs in Electronic Commerce, online via the Internet, to a worldwide student community.

This paper presents a research framework for online education. It will define roles for the actors involved (students, course constructors, facilitators and developers); communication frameworks (content and online learning communities); and the technical infrastructure for developers (content and tools repositories). The paper brings all of these elements together into a model of an Internet-based 'learning environment'. The model will be decomposed into sub-models for ease of development and implementation. This research framework will provide the foundation for ECN's online education research.

Introduction: Curtin University's Electronic Commerce Network (ECN)

The Electronic Commerce Network is a Curtin University teaching and research entity sponsored by BankWest and supported by other industry associates. ECN's focus is Internet-based business. ECN's aim is to foster the uptake of Electronic Commerce in the Western Australian region by creating and disseminating Electronic Commerce know-how.

ECN is responsible for the development and delivery of Curtin University's Electronic Commerce offerings. Graduation from an educational program requires students to complete a prescribed number of units, typically 24 units for an undergraduate program and 16 for a coursework masters program, within a prescribed time. The Electronic Commerce offerings include a Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) in Electronic Commerce, seven "double majors" (eg Marketing and Electronic Commerce), and a graduate certificate, postgraduate diploma, and two masters programs in Electronic Commerce.

ECN has three businesses - education and training, research and development, and technology transfer and commercialisation. A key success factor for ECN will be its ability to leverage each of its separate activities for the benefit of the whole enterprise. This paper discusses an example of one of those synergies. It discusses the early outcomes of an ECN research project that aims to create the online learning environment for ECN's education business.

Background and overview

The ECN's guiding vision of a learner-centered, 'just-in-time', electronically enabled learning environment is captured in Figure 1. While this vision will take some years to become a reality, it provides a focus for our online education research. For brevity we refer to all this as "online education".

There are many definitions of "online" education. There is little argument that an essential element of online education is the use of computing and telecommunications technologies to deliver or receive education. In addition, here we take online education to include these meanings: "teaching and learning independent of location", "non face-to-face classroom scenario", "teaching and communication using Internet-based media". Courses and units offered by ECN can be fully online or partly online with some physical face-to-face contact.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Basis for ECN's Educational Vision (adapted from Hamalainen et al., 1996)

ECN's strategy is to use online delivery for all of its postgraduate offerings. At the undergraduate level it will use online delivery exclusively for units in the third and final year of the Electronic Commerce major. Students taking the first and second year units of that major (which are also available as electives or as part of a four unit minor taken by other students) have the choice of taking their units fully online, in a traditional way, or in some mixed mode. The research described in this paper focuses on full online delivery.

The unit-level learning environment

The unit, as the component where the actual learning process and most of student instruction takes place, has been identified as the cornerstone of online education. Clearly, every unit has to be placed into the context of an overarching structure, which usually links it to degree programs and administrative systems. The proposed framework does not cover singular interaction patterns within a unit. While the need for integration into higher and lower level context has to be acknowledged, it appears to be feasible to provide interfaces from the framework to these 'layers'. The concentration on the unit-level has been chosen to reduce the complexity of the resulting models and make the learning and unit development processes more transparent.

Figure 2 presents a role-based approach to defining relationships and information flows for online learning processes and their support functions at unit level (compare Henri, 1998). The focus on roles rather than on technology platforms (e.g., Nunez et al., 1998) or systems development (Oliver et al., 1997), offers an opportunity for abstract modeling as well as linking back to real-world processes. One or more people can fill a single role, but at the same time a single person may hold more than one role. Future research is needed to identify synergies and workload sharing and to determine the most efficient organisational setup for filling the roles. A detailed description for each role will be given in the following section.

The actual learning takes place in the Online Learning Space (OLS), which is represented by the cloud symbol in Figure 2. Students are accessing this Online Learning Space and perform their learning activities, such as browsing and reading through the content, taking part in discussions or taking exams or self-tests. The 'Facilitator' guides them through their learning. A 'Constructor' of the unit prepares learning materials and instructs the Facilitators. The developers of content and tools (ie information infrastructure) do not have direct contact to the actual OLS, but interact with Constructors and Facilitators.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Role-based view of the online learning environment

The diagram in Figure 2 can be broken down into more detail by adding an information infrastructure specific view. In Figure 3 this information infrastructure has been added and specifies interfaces between the roles identified previously. The content of the OLS is split into two categories: pre-defined content and ad-hoc content. Pre-defined content is (or at least could have been) developed before the start of the unit, while ad-hoc content is defined while the unit is running. This classification proves useful, since these two types of content are associated with different characteristics and requirements. The distinction is also important for unit development: the pre-defined content is created entirely by the 'Constructor' role, while the ad-hoc content evolves from contributions by facilitators and students. Content repositories are a prerequisite for the ultimate goal of making learning materials reusable, interchangeable and customisable. The tools repository provides all services and online learning facilities that are available to the constructors and facilitators for creating the OLS. The content repository is the main source for the constructor covering the knowledge domain for a particular unit.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Information infrastructure view in the Unit-Level Learning Environment (ULLE)

The Unit-Level Learning Environment (ULLE), as proposed in this paper will serve as the foundation for further research into online learning. Some potential research areas listed as follows:

Defined roles in the unit-level learning environment

Together with the Unit-level Learning Environment and the Online Learning Space, five roles have been introduced: Facilitator, Student, Constructor and Content and Tools Developers. For each of these roles some characteristics have been defined and summarised in Table 1 and Table 2.

The roles of the facilitator, the student and the constructor are defined in Table 1. These three roles are directly interacting with the Online Learning Space, which has to fulfill the functions of administration, learning and assessment in a university environment. Therefore, each of the roles is analysed in Table 1 according to these functions. The table also shows the activities, outcome and the information needed to administer each of the functions. The roles are specified through the activities associated with them, which require information as an input and result in certain outcomes, usually viewed as deliverables.

These three roles are directly interacting with the Online Learning Space, which has to fulfill the functions of administration, learning and assessment in a university environment. Therefore, each of the roles is analysed in according to these functions. The table also shows the activities, outcome and the information needed to administer each of the functions. The roles are specified through the activities associated with them, which require information as an input and result in certain outcomes, usually viewed as deliverables.

Table 1: Detailed role descriptions for students, facilitators and constructors

Administration LearningAssessment
ActivitiesVerifing student prerequisites; unit general administrationAnswering students questions; maintaining FAQ; hosting of / participating in discussions; encouraging / ensuring student participation; monitoring student progress (corrective support); organising (occasional) meetings (face-to-face, real-time-online)Marking or evaluating assignments / exams; monitoring and awarding participation
OutcomeStudent enrolment; updated student academic recordStudent learningStudent evaluation and feedback
InformationStudent academic records, student enrolment, unit prerequisitesKnowledge of the subject, technologies used, pedagogyStudent assessment items; assessment criteria
ActivitiesHas fulfilled all prerequisites; is correctly enrolled in hosting organisation; submits a unit enrolment applicationIs able to use the facilities in the OLS, reads and understands the unit outline, works through provided online learning materials, participates in provided online learning activities, reads FAQ, asks questionsMakes assignments; sits exams
OutcomeCorrect unit enrolmentUnderstanding of the subjectCompleted assignment and examination
InformationUnit advertising information, motivation for enrolmentUnit contentAssignment / examination questions
ActivitiesWorks out the overall unit objectives and syllabusIdentifies the components and develops a pathway through the componentsEstablishes assessment structure and components of assessment
OutcomeCorrect unit objectives and syllabusComponents from Tools and Content to build learning space for the unitA list of assessment methods
InformationMeeting University deadlinesContent repositoryCompleted assessment method from content repository

The structure from Table 1 has been kept in Table 2. The remaining roles of the Content Developer and the Tools Developer do not have direct access to the Online Learning Space. Breaking the activities, outcome and information down into administration, learning and assessment would therefore not add additional value to the analysis.

Table 2: Role descriptions of content and tools developers

Content DeveloperTools Developer
ActivitiesDevelop unit learning componentDevelop learning tools
OutcomeLearning component in the content repository, documentation for constructorsLearning tools in the tools repository, documentation for content developers
InformationKnowledge domain, data formats, available tools, pedagogical requirements, online learning requirementsIS development skills, data formats, online learning requirements


The proposed framework will serve as a foundation for the research into online education at the ECN. The overarching structure is expected to integrate smaller research projects to combine individual strengths and build on each other's work. The long-term objective of ECN's online education research is a holistic approach that integrates pedagogical issues, online communication, content development, delivery architectures and global learning as laid down in ECN's educational vision in Figure 1.


Hamalainen et al. (1996). Electronic Markets for Learning, Communications of the ACM, June, Vol. 30 (6): 51-58.

Henri, F. (1998). Designing a Virtual Learning Environment for a Graduate Course on Multimedia. Proceedings of the XV IFIP World Computer Congress (Teleteaching), Vienna and Budapest, 31 Aug - 4 Sept.

Nunez, G., Sheremetov, L., Martinez, J., Guzman, A., and Albornoz, A. (1998). The EVA Teleteaching Project - The Concept and the First Experience in the Development of Virtual Learning Spaces. Proceedings of the XV IFIP World Computer Congress (Teleteaching), Vienna and Budapest, 31 Aug - 4 Sept.

Oliver, R., Herrington, J., Omari, A. (1997). Creating Effective Instructional Materials for the World Wide Web. Proceedings of AusWeb96. http://elmo.scu.edu.au/sponsored/ausweb/ausweb96/educn/oliver

Please cite as: Bauer, C., Berkhout, J., Chang, V., Chin, K.L., Glasson, B. and Tauber, J. (1999). Exploring online education: A research framework. In K. Martin, N. Stanley and N. Davison (Eds), Teaching in the Disciplines/ Learning in Context, 28-34. Proceedings of the 8th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1999. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1999/bauer.html

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