TMA 01 - H802/98

Author: Yannis Karaliotas

Sunday, 29 March 1998



Examining the Collaborative Potential in a Distance Taught Course

The Course and its Objectives

Possible Implementation of Mind Weaving Practices in Pursuing the Course Objectives


CMC Software Used in Online Course Delivery - An Evaluation

Online Courseware and Distance Learning

Examining the Collaborative Potential in a Distance Taught Course

In spite of an ongoing major shift in Open and Distance Learning (ODL), readers and set books, static video and audio material are still the basis for the delivery of the majority of Distance Education (DE) courses, worldwide. Even if additional possibilities of two way communication and use of interactive media are provided within a course, conventional approaches limit or even exclude collaborative learning and confine learners to studying in isolation, with the help of limited distance tutorials (Reeves & Reeves, 1997).

In my third year of DL with the Open University of the UK, I choose to reflect on a conventional MA module, hereon referenced as the Course in order to evaluate and justify the possible outcomes and implications of covering Course objectives through collaborative learning and peer exchange.

The Course and its Objectives

The module (OU E827 / '97), part of a taught MA in Education, aims to examine adult/lifelong learning in the context of contemporary shifts, as well as the contradictory and contested significance of such shifts.

With the help of a number of set books and Readers, audio and video material and quarterly mail tutorials (summaries) sent by the tutor in between Tutor Marked Assignments (TMAs), internationally based learners are expected to learn how to:

(E827 Study Guide / 1996)

Possible Implementation of Mind Weaving Practices in Pursuing the Course Objectives

Collaborative learning can be defined as possible and desirable part of an individual's learning process, which has the potential to excel learning gains.

Through practices such as peer exchange, interaction and role interchanging, learners could benefit on all seven objectives of the Course. Bearing in mind that most, if not all, learners were acting professionals and the Course aimed at professional improvement, it could be said that there wouldn't exist a more ideal framework where collaborative learning and its outcomes would flourish (Khan, 1997).

It is certain that the process of identifying decisive elements and parameters related to the issues under question, as well as the overall reflection needed could be enhanced and deepened, had learners had the opportunity to exchange their individual experiences which had been acquired in different settings. Also, the sharing of resources would facilitate and possibly accelerate the process of analysis required, and its quality backed by discussion amongst peers.

It is apparent that such collaborative and interactive tasks requiring peer/tutor one-to-many and many-to-many communication can only be served by an international network connection such as the Internet and the WEB. If this could be the case, there would be a number of constraints for both learners and tutors. Technical requirements could deter learners new to the medium, as well as problems arising from cross-cultural communication and interaction (Collis & Remmers, 1997). Tutors might also be discouraged by unsuitable software, ill prepared roles and badly planned collaborative framework. These could be prevented by a careful interaction design and thorough preparation of trainers ( Dillon & ZhuBostock ).
Also, as Ted Panitz (1996) remarks:

Learners and trainers are not likely to change their attitudes as swiftly unless they are trained in CL techniques.

 CMC Software Used in Online Course Delivery - An Evaluation

History -

Since the early days of ARPANET (1969), users and in particular academics constructed and developed communication applications, and the Internet (1983) was utilized almost exclusively in that direction until it was commercialized (History of ARPANET - INTERNET). The ArpaNet/INTERNET was joined by the USENET (1979), the BITNET (1981) and the FIDONET (1983). These large scale networks are supplemented by the proliferation of independent Bulletin Board Systems[1] (BBSs) run from individual microcomputers and medium to large-scale information services like Compuserve, GEnie, and the WELL.

Within these vast networks interconnections of another kind have formed: social networks of people who have come together
virtually, that is via computers and networks, to interact with others for a myriad number of purposes. A number of methods
exist to facilitate communication between individuals and groups via these networks. The simplest is electronic mail (email).

Email allows for one-to-one or one-to-many communication between any individuals who have a valid email address on the
same network or on a network that can be gatewayed to. Effectively, this means that some 15 million people are accessible to
one another instantaneously and without regard for distance.
Using tools to enhance email, some groups have created "lists" than ease the process of collecting email addresses. Some lists provide a single address for mail that is to be forwarded to every member of the list. The largest of these lists have as many as 15,000 subscribers located all around the planet.

Conferencing systems, information services and BBSs fill out the range of virtual communications. These systems share a great deal in common, differing mostly in terms of size, commercial status, and focus. These systems tend to be centralized, that is supported by computers at a single location although accessed by computers all over the world.
Conferencing systems focus on providing the tools for the facilitation of discussions. BBSs and information services do this as well, but additional emphasis may be placed on services like data libraries and archives.

All of those systems have been used for educational/teaching purposes and, as the provision of online courses, both as stand-alone and as a support to classroom courses, is becoming more and more widespread and important, there has also been a growing number of specially developed instructional software applications for creating and managing Internet, Intranet or Web-based asynchronous and/or synchronous course content. They mostly evolve from earlier applications such as the WELL[2] conferencing system (asynchronous), the IRC[3] system, the still growing proliferation of MUDs[4] and MOOs and the newsgroups[5] of the USENET. These software applications empower the learning community to create new teaching-learning environments.

Online Courseware and Distance Learning

The traditional way of learning at a distance is based upon correspondence and mail delivery. The basic element of this form is a student interacting with a professor at a distance. A second form (second generation DL courses) involves extension of a traditional face to face classroom environment via electronic technologies so that traditional classroom interactions between and among students and their professor are simulated to the maximum degree possible. A recent movement (third generation DL courses) toward online asynchronous learning via the Web and greater use of computer conferencing systems represents the third technology-based approach. These systems permit students to interact with each other and their professor as well as access a rapidly growing set of educational resources available via the Web (Nipper, 1989).

In an attempt to evaluate available CMC software, communication tools and their features need, first, to be identified.


Tools / Features      ..........               Notes

Learner Tools 

Tools/facilities used by the student learner at their location, the client side of distance education. 
Web Browsers  Tools for viewing HTML documents
Bookmarks  Bookmarks identify internet locations. This category covers the creation, display, management and updating of bookmarks. 
Multimedia  support for images, audio, video, and VRML files.
Security  features to prevent unauthorized access and/or modification of data. Includes a wide range of approaches and methods. 
Asynchronous Sharing  the exchange of data and files where the correspondents are not on-line at the same time. 
E-mail  Electronic Mail using the internet protocols (unless otherwise indicated).
BBS file exchange  (Bulletin Board Service) - facility for downloading files and uploading\posting files over the Web. 
Newsgroups  Newsgroups facility includes access to Usenet newsgroups and like functions. 
Synchronous Sharing 
Chat  a feature that allows the exchange of text (e.g., Internet Relay Chat).
Whiteboard a shared text window that may also support shared drawing. 
Application sharing  the ability to run an application on one machine and share the window view across the Web. May also include provisions for sharing mouse control of the application. 
Virtual space  MOOs, MUDs, and virtual meeting rooms.
Group browsing  a group tour of Web sites with a shared browser window; some interaction capability between the members of the group and the tour leader. 
Teleconferencing  audio conferencing.  
Videoconferencing  broadcasting video to users without a video input device. 
Student tools  applications that cater to the special needs of telelearners. 
Self-assessing  facilities for self-assessment such as practice quizzes and other survey style assessment tools that may or may not be scored on-line. 
Progress tracking  student's ability to check marks on assignments and tests. 
Motivation building  self-help tools and other facilities that provide direct encouragement to overcome difficulties that impede or impair student performance
Study skill building  study skill building includes facilities that support effective study practices, which can range form simple review tools to mini courses in how to study. 

Instructor Tools 

 facilities primarily intended for use by instructors, markers and course designers. 
Course tools  instructor tasks related to bringing course materials together and managing the student's use/access of those materials. 
Course planning  tools that enable at least initial course layout and or structuring. 
Course managing  facilities to enable instructors to collect information from or about students related to their progress in the course structure also to permit/deny access to course resources. 
Rapid course revising  the ability to change the structure of the course and its assignments, exams, etc.
Course monitoring  facilities that provide information about the usage of course resources by individual students and groups of students.
Lesson tools  tools that facilitate the development and deployment of instructional sequences smaller than a whole course, like assignments, modules, topics, etc. 
Instructional designing  facilities to help instructors create learning sequences. 
Presenting information  facilities for formatting, displaying, or showing course material over the Web. 
Testing  facilities to assist in the making up of practice quizzes, tests, exams, and other assignments.
Data tools  tools for marking on-line, managing records, analysing and tracking. 
Marking on-line  facilities that support the marking of student generated material while on-line. 
Managing records  facilities for organizing and keeping track of course-related information.
Analysing and tracking  facilities for statistical analysis of student-related data; the ability to display the progress of individual students in the course structure. 
Resource tools  tools for building knowledge, team building, and building motivation among instructors.
Building motivation facilities for self-help (and possibly other help such as a "buddy system") to provide encouragement and enhance morale. 
Team building  the ability of instructors with common interests to communicate in a way that facilitates their forming a sense of group/team identity. 

Technical Admin Tools 

the setup and maintenance tasks involved on the server side of the application and extending to setup/configuration of client side software to work properly with the server side application (some of these tasks may be carried out by instructors in  some situations). 
Installation tools  facilities that are used in the initial set up of the application or in upgrading from a previous version. 
Server  provides the Sys Adm with a script library for operations such as Installation, Archiving, and Moving the server site. 
Client  Client tool installation includes both the student client and the instructor client software. 
System tools  authorization tools, security tools, resource monitoring tools, remote access tools, and crash recovery tools. 
Authorization tools  tools that assign access and other privileges to specific users or user groups 
Security tools  Security tools - tools to prevent unauthorized access and/or modification of data. Includes a wide range of approaches and methods. 
Resource monitoring  the ability to display the disk space and cpu resources devoted to the application while it is being used. 
Remote access tools  tools for application system administration from more than one machine. 
Crash recovery tools  facilities to recover from communications or server hardware failure without loss of data (in addition to the tools provided by the operating system). 
Help desk tools  tools that assist the technical administration personnel in handling trouble calls and requests for technical assistance. 
Student support tools  tools that facilitate the tasks of an operator responding to requests for help by student users of the application. 
Instructor support tools  facilities to assist technical support personnel in providing technical assistance to instructors using the application. 
 * Adapted from Dr.Bruce Landon's original Comparative Analysis Tables

                              Tightly Integrated Software Systems

The choice seems to be with CMC integrated software systems, WBC applications, where many additional independent, mainly, web applications can be coupled. "The best system is one that is intuitive. One that makes it obvious how to send and receive messages and how the group work itself is structured. [...] Having an "uncluttered" system interface is also important. [...] The means by which the user can access, interpret and reply to individual messages impacts on every aspect of their group working, collaborating and, ultimately, learning experience." (Mssg # 138)

In my line of work, training and supporting the visually impaired, a simple but upgradeable system, one that has an open  architecture, would be preferable. As specific courses and learning conditions require specific courseware, I find a WEB BBS such as EBBS an ideal system which, based on Frontier, can be shaped, accept changes, be rebuilt according to requirements, and much preferable to FirstClass Intranet which seems to be excessively rigid in an ever changing environment.. I am also missing HyperNews feature which allows users to "subscribe" to specific articles, so they will be notified by e-mail when new responses are posted.


Reeves, T. & Reeves, P. - Effective Dimensions of Interactive Learning on the WEB - in Web-Based Instruction (WBI), ed. Khan, B. ISBN 0-87778-297-0 USA, p. 63 [Up]

E827 Study Guide, E827 SG - The Open University UK, 1996. [Up]

Khan, B. - What is it and why is it? in WBI, ISBN 0-87778-297-0 USA, p.17 [Up]

Collis, B. & Remmers, E. - Cross Cultural Communication and Interaction - in WBI, ISBN 0-87778-297-0 USA, pp. 85-92 [Up]

Dillon, A. & Zhu, E. - Designing WBI: A Human-Computer Interaction Perspective -in WBI, ISBN 0-87778-297-0 USA, pp. 221-224 [Up]

Bostock, S. - Designing WBI for Active Learning - in WBI, ISBN 0-87778-297-0 USA, pp. 225-230 [Up]

ARPANET, history of -

INTERNET, history of -

Copyright 1998 Yannis Karaliotas