One-Stop Shopping in an Online Educational Mall

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 A Multimedia Web-Based Teaching/Learning Environment

 

Nova Southeastern University (NSU) has been delivering online courses to learners in their homes using the UNIX environment since 1983. The learners meet in real-time using an Electronic Classroom (ECR) designed specifically to be used by learners from their homes. Communication between learners and teachers in the recent past was limited to ASCII text. This changed with the advent of the World Wide Web, and today several multimedia tools make it possible for teachers to use audio, graphics, and video in their online courses. The client/server computing paradigm has made it possible to modularize various aspects of the environment and share resources across the institution and even to remote servers in learners' workplaces or home environments. In this article, the authors discuss the development and implementation of a system of tools for faculty and learners. This system is part of an overall reengineering effort at NSU to bring the online learning environment in touch with learner and faculty needs for computing and educational tools. The system we describe here is called "ClassLeader" and contains a rich set of online tools for teachers and learners.

This reengineering effort has produced major changes in the system of online education. These changes have involved increasing the bandwidth of network access to learners' homes, providing access to all learners regardless of location, migrating all academic users to SUN SPARC servers, raising disk quotas to accommodate increased use of image files, developing a single point of entry to all academic servers, and transforming the legacy text-based and terminal emulation-based "green screen" tools to a multimedia, client/server, browser-based, integrated environment. The tools in the system have been focused mainly on adding multimedia capabilities to previously text-based utilities where possible, but for the most part, new tools have been developed from scratch.

Today, the Web-based multimedia system that we use in our classes at NSU enables any learner's project to become a training opportunity for other learners, and even for individuals outside the immediate course environment. The significant thing about this is that many learners for the first time are getting an opportunity to take charge of their own learning environment, and hopefully to begin harnessing a vast array of information resources for their own use and to share with others.

Not only are the number of Internet users and Web sites still increasing in the new millennium, but the manner in which things are done is changing in new and exciting ways. These changes reflect not only the use of multimedia, but also a heightened focus on interactive experiences on Web sites. This is made possible by the use of CGI scripts, Java applets, and the concept of "frames." If we can extrapolate from the amazing growth of multimedia and interactivity on the Web, the future holds a great deal of promise for education. In the past five years, we've gone from getting excited about HTML editors and converters to reaping the benefits of cutting edge developments in browsers, multimedia plug-ins, and programming applets and agents. One of those systems is described in this article.

In the early stages of development of the system described here, a set of requirements was produced. These requirements are the foundation of what was previously labeled the Multimedia Electronic Classroom Project. Through various projects, the staff, faculty, and learners have been attempting to solve problems that are reflected in the weaknesses of a text-based "green screen" environment. With the advent of the World Wide Web, the online learning environment has grown in its capacity to support learning and teaching as well as its complexity to administer.

 

Background

The distance learning system presented in this article is the result of 17 years of experience with online distance education programs in the school of Computer and Information Sciences at Nova Southeastern University (NSU). Although the tools we used in the beginning, especially from 1983 through 1993, were quite primitive, we were able to develop a working methodology, based on extensive learner-teacher interaction that supported the system.

In the year 2000, there are many Distance Education systems. These include systems from LearningSpace, BlackBoard, TopClass, WebCT, PlaceWare, LearnLinc and Convene, to name a few. These were developed to satisfy a surge in the demand for online courses over the Internet. However, the system presented here derives its special quality from the long-standing online training experience acquired by the faculty at NSU. We are now convinced that, without such experience gained over the years, we would have missed our chance to implement a system that serves as a seamless network for interactions between the teacher and his or her learners.

To make a comparison, let's look briefly at a field that has eluded programmers for years, the field of software engineering. Because the field is so general in purpose ó programs can be developed to do just about anything ó it has taken years for software engineers to develop a methodology appropriate for a great variety of software applications. We believe, and our experience has confirmed, that unless a methodology is developed and implemented, online distance education will be a painful experience for both teachers and learners.

 

The Methodology

The methodology we developed was designed to preserve, as faithfully as possible, the quality of the education process as it is implemented by a teacher within a face-to-face classroom situation. The model we developed involves the adaptation of a course to the real needs of the learners and the teachers, using the Internet as the communication link. The process starts with the publication of a course as a document that learners are asked to study and react to. This is the definition phase. The result is usually an avalanche of messages from the learners requesting further explanations. The teacher's next task is to review these messages (the analysis phase) in an effort to deal with the source of the difficulty, and bring a remedy by providing new explanations or exercises to facilitate the learning process.

Our goal, then, was to use the very mechanism that controls the communication process between a teacher and his or her learners to build an online distance learning system. At first, the technology to manage the educational and administrative tasks and to create the courses and their structures was quite primitive. It was housed on a Berkeley UNIX platform that supported electronic mail and a text-based electronic classroom that, although primitive, offered all the pedagogical elements necessary to simulate a real-time class environment. Nevertheless, this approach avoided the problems faced by chat rooms, where uncontrolled and unmanaged discussions were less effective in supporting the learning process.

In spite of adequate functionality, the text-based interface in the NSU electronic classroom of the 1980s and 1990s appeared to be a barrier to effective learning, at a time when multimedia was emerging. It was only with the arrival of graphical browsers such as Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator thatthe next plateau was achieved. The Java development environment and the Internet made it possible for us to implement the required system.

 

Putting Teachers in Control and Empowering Learners

Our first attempt to design a system followed the classical model, i.e., representing the organization of a university or college, with a separate administrative system to handle university-wide registration, and an educational system organized by departments. We soon discovered that such a construction was detrimental to the educational process. In our second design, we decided to put the administrative burden on the user, that is, let each user category (administrator, teacher or learner) be responsible for their own registration. A protection-key mechanism was added to ensure system reliability and security.

With this new architecture in mind, the system was designed to minimize administrative tasks, help the teacher install a course rapidly, enhance the teacher's efficiency while teaching, and most importantly to promote more effective and efficient learning. To accommodate the different needs expressed by different teachers, we designed a system flexible enough to adapt itself to a variety of teaching strategies.

 

Design Issues for the Software and Hardware Environment

In developing the system environment, we needed to take into consideration the fact that today, teachers and learners have a remarkable environment ó a PC with multimedia features, access to the Internet, and a rich collection of application tools ó with which to prepare course materials. We also knew that the education process would remain bland if we did not provide an automated communication link that emulates a standard face-to-face classroom environment between teachers and learners. Ironically, the solution was readily available, in the form of two computer languages that have played an important role in the recent development of the Internet: CGI/Perl and Java.

So, why had this solution not been exploited by the distance learning industry? Our answer to that question is that the industry may have been too anxious to exploit the features of multimedia and forgot to accommodate the pedagogical process. We believe also that there has been a shift in the programming process today, where the difficulty of implementing complex systems d'es not require highly specialized programmers, but can be handled by the very people who will be using the system: teachers and learners. As educational practitioners we knew that to teach effectively and efficiently over the Internet we needed to design the system as an integrated environment, somewhat like a "one-stop educational mall." Teachers and learners wanted an integrated set of tools and features where all items were presented through a common user interface. In fact, in an earlier phase of our reengineering efforts to add another feature in an environment where multiple tools were not interconnected, one learner remarked, "Oh no, not another tool-of-the-week." We knew also that two languages would play a central role in implementing the system.

CGI/Perl was used to implement the asynchronous component, and Java, to implement the synchronous component. We wanted to design the system to scale well as the number of learners increased, but also to be portable over a wide range of computer platforms. The system we describe here can in fact be installed on a PC or UNIX server, as long as a Web server is present with the Java Development Kit and the Perl language. By adding a permanent Internet connection and a domain name, the system is ready to support the online distance education process from anywhere in the world.

 

The Software

Two programming languages were used to implement the system. The CGI/Perl language provides the programming environment for the asynchronous part of the system. The Perl program is called each time a user clicks on a submit button in one of the forms. This executes the CGI protocol to complete the submission. The Java language, on the other hand, provides the programming environment for the synchronous part of the system, known as the Electronic Classroom, or JavaECR. This allows the teacher to control class discussions, poll the class on important issues, present slides or examples of learner projects, and conduct class during real-time sessions. Each electronic classroom session is automatically recorded and can be replayed by the learners at a later time.

Electronic Classroom

In Figure 1, the features and capabilities of the real-time electronic classroom are evident. Each learner has a dedicated seat in the class indicated by the various cells in the upper portion of the screen. The cells contain learner usercodes. Up to 40 learners can attend a session, but more can be accommodated with a minor change in the program. The learners and teachers have equal space within which to present their comments or questions. A major feature is the ability of the teacher to post graphics to the learner's screen through the use of a browser and URLs. Any type of file can be posted as long as the learner's browser can open it. This includes audio, video, text, graphics, etc.

In this electronic classroom, the teacher can call up individual slides that have been prepared using the system's slide maker. These are then made available to the teacher by name or number in a pull-down window. Different colors are used throughout the interface to denote certain features. The background of the teacher's presentation window is a light purple, whereas the color of the learner's window is a light green. The text entry window for both teacher and learner is yellow. The learner usercode cells are white when a learner is not attending, and these change to light green when a given learner enters the classroom. When a learner asks a question, his or her own window turns yellow. When the teacher gives the learner access to the learner chat area on the screen, the learner's cell changes color to orange. This gives the teacher an indication of which learners "have their hands up" and which learner has control of the learner chat window.

All sessions are recorded automatically and can be played back at any time by the learner. When playing back a recording, the slides that were posted by the teacher that contain Web sites (URLs) can still be navigated by the learner. Thus, on replaying a session, the learner gets a flavor of interactivity even though the recording was made at a previous time. In a sense this is a mix of asynchronous and real-time modes. Since this system is Web-based, learners can access it from any location in the World through an Internet connection.

In order to illustrate the extent of the changes in the interface that occurred when we moved from the text-based electronic classroom to the graphics Java-based system, we present a screen showing the old text-based system. The screen shown in Figure 2 is the interface developed in 1985 and used until 1999, when it was replaced by the new multimedia ECR. The old "legacy" system was described in a 1989 article in T.H.E. Journal (Scigliano, Joslyn and Levin 1989).

Both learners and teachers accessed the old system using a direct connection over an asynchronous line or opened a telnet window with PPP and an Internet connection. In Figure 2, the teacher is provided with up to 16 lines in the upper window to present text. The learners get the bottom four lines.

The learners' usercodes are listed in this bottom window where the learner can post questions. The teacher can post text slides in the top window and type as in a chat room. That's about it. The new system presented in Figure 1 contains the graphics ECR environment thatbegan operation in 1999. Students overwhelmingly prefer the new system.

Issues and Problems

Even though the system is meeting the needs of its users, there are still things that can be improved. Learners would like to see the chat area for the electronic classroom enlarged, and we're working on that. Not all browsers are equal, and Microsoft's Internet Explorer 5.0 works better with all the features and screens than d'es any other browser at this time. Real-time electronic classroom sessions are difficult to schedule because of the international nature of the learners in the programs. On any given evening, one can find learners from many different time zones, including countries such as Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Iceland, Taiwan, and any one of the 50 states in the U.S.A. However, the recording function d'es make it possible for learners in different geographical sessions to view a session at their convenience.

 

Prospects For the Future

The system is still evolving. Current efforts are focused on building in interactive voice capabilities along with streaming video in the chat room. Projects are underway to use the voice recognition features of the Pentium III chip. The user interface is undergoing continuous improvement as feedback from learners and teachers helps make it more usable. The goal of development has always been to bring the online environment as close as possible to what teachers and learners need to do in order to make learning effective and efficient. In a sense, the system attempts to knit theory and practice in a seamless environment. That's the design goal for the future.

 

Conclusions

The system described in this article helped us solve many problems that were legacies from the 1980s and early 1990s. It presents a common interface for both teachers and learners that helps overcome "tool burnout" that can occur when numerous teaching or learning tools are not integrated or based on a common standard. The system enables multiple file formats and media to be used without concern for what will play and what won't. The advent of the graphical Web browser has reduced the troubles that teachers and learners had in the early days of online learning. The challenge now is to ensure that the power of technology is used in effective ways to improve online teaching and learning.

 

John A. Scigliano is Professor of Information Systems in the School of Computer and Information Sciences at Nova Southeastern University. He received a doctorate from the University of Florida in Higher Education with an interdisciplinary cognate in Industrial Engineering and in Management. Dr. Scigliano has served on the faculties of the University of Georgia, Kent State University and Broward Community College.

 

E-mail: scigl@scis.nova.edu

 

Jacques Levin is Professor of Computer Science in the School of Computer and Information Sciences at Nova Southeastern University. He holds a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Grenoble, France. Dr. Levin has worked on the research staffs at the University of California, San Diego and at Burroughs Corporation before coming to Nova Southeastern University in 1983.

 

E-mail: jclevin@scis.nova.edu

 

 


 

References

Scigliano, J. A., Joslyn, D. L. and Levin, J. 1989. The Non-School Learning Environment: ECR. T.H.E. Journal, 16(6), 63-67.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.

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