Duquesne University Gears Up for Distance Learning With FirstClass Intranet Server

Duquesne University has selected SoftArc's FirstClass Intranet Server (FCIS) Version 5.5 as their distance learning tool for bringing students and teachers together in virtual classrooms, free of academia's traditional bricks and mortar. Online conferences are the future of distance learning programs at Duquesne.

An estimated 1,500-2,000 students, faculty and administrators in undergraduate departments and doctoral programs at Duquesne use FCIS 5.5 to replace much of their traditional face-to-face contact with electronic communications — from class instruction and e-mail to chat conferences and group projects. Long-term plans call for expanded use of FCIS throughout the University, which is aiming for "10K in 2K"(10,000 students in the year 2000).

Duquesne has four stand-alone Pentium-class Dell servers (named for famous educators Socrates, Dewey, Wolf and Sagan) running FCIS 5.5. Each server has 128 or 256 megabytes of RAM and multiple hard drives. TCP-IP links are used for access. The primary server is licensed for 1,600 users on FCIS 5.5 in the doctoral nursing program and some undergraduate departments. Another machine, dedicated to the doctoral pharmacy program, has 300 users, and will soon be upgraded from FCIS 5.01 to 5.5. Duquesne's Center for Academic Technology uses a third FCIS server. The fourth server handles 1,000 users in the education department. System administrators can create e-mail post offices on multiple drives to meet the University's rapidly growing and changing communications needs.

Online Instruction for Ease and Convenience

Since Mark Vehec, FCIS Administrator and Education Computing Consultant, arrived at Duquesne in 1996, he has seen distance learning explode from only a few hundred online users to almost 2,000. "Many of them are professionals in hospitals, pharmacies and labs who don't have time to spend on campus," Vehec explains.

He estimates that 30-50 users are logged on at any one time, but expects to hit 250 concurrent users in the year 2000. "Students seem to enjoy all aspects of distance learning and the virtual classroom," says Vehec. "Over the last four semesters, students kept asking for more online instruction. They love the ease and convenience of it." Vehec estimates that 60-70% of student-instructor communications is via e-mail or chat on FirstClass, with the balance including phone calls and written correspondence.

The school's philosophy, sociology and communications departments also conduct classes on the primary server. "We use other communications packages on campus, but we want to do more with FirstClass," notes Vehec. The computing and technology department uses FirstClass as its primary package "and I use it for everything I do," he adds. The Health Sciences Department also uses the system as its intranet, to exchange files. Communications Department students use FCIS 5.5 as the primary Web server for its pages and class projects.

For distance education, instructors and students use chat and e-mail as a virtual classroom. Students log in on particular days at particular times and interact with classmates and instructors. Using the online conferencing features of FCIS, instructors can easily exclude one group's access to another group's work in the same class. "Security has been important. We show instructors how the system can protect course materials on the Web from unauthorized entry. Using FCIS, they quickly realize that materials they post are safe," relates Vehec.

Students find it easy to log on from home, work or out of town, to participate in the FirstClass online conferences through the Web using standard browser and TCP/IP connections. "We're very grateful for that capability, instead of having to download a client to participate in chat," says Vehec. "Faculty and staff that travel a lot can also interact easily with their students and colleagues when traveling."

"Long term, FirstClass could well be our campus-wide solution," says Vehec. "We're very aware of the success that Emory University in Atlanta has had with FCIS as its primary system. I'm intrigued that a system for almost 20,000 users at Emory can be run from very small machines. Our hardware is much the same as Emory's, so we see the possibilities for a campus-wide package for students — all their mail, as well as Web space on a server for anything they and faculty and administrators want to do."


Synchronous Communication for Learning

Cross-platform capability of FCIS was the primary reason it was adopted. Mac and PC clients were needed, and both Mac and Windows NT servers are in use on. Ease of use is the other reason as most of the 30 instructors that currently offer distance learning on the system needed only one hour of instruction before offering classes online. "Anyone with basic knowledge of computers can set up FCIS conferences," says Vehec. "We were amazed at how quickly everything was up and running. On both Mac and NT systems, we've had absolutely no problem setting up and maintaining everything."

Vehec praises synchronous communications as a strength of the FCIS package. "That's key," he says. "Students and faculty stress that they have to communicate very rapidly, and e-mail just isn't the solution. They want to log on, call someone into a chat session, or meet in an online conference area at a specified time for a one-on-one exchange of discussion and documents. Other packages only have message boards, which aren't fast enough communications for us. It's also critical that FCIS e-mail lets our users send non-compliant attachments across the wide spectrum of machines we deal with. Our old e-mail systems couldn't handle attachments, or required too much specialized knowledge to use them. With FCIS, I can send a Word document and know it'll be received."

Vehec sees distance learning for ongoing professional education as sheer necessity. "There is growing demand for it from both the faculty and our CEU (Continuing Education Unit) students, in terms of time and cost management. While face-to-face instruction will never be eliminated, many people don't have time for traditional on-campus programs. They will take some CEU classes -- perhaps all classes -- online." Vehec foresees a long future for First Class Intranet Server at Duquesne. "We're really happy with the FirstClass education package."


SoftArc Inc.
Markham, Ontario, Canada


This article originally appeared in the 10/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.