Young J. Choi

Department of Applied Computing & Mathematics

University of Tasmania

Launceston, Tasmania 7250

Soon-ja Yeom

Department of Applied Computing & Mathematics

University of Tasmania

Launceston, Tasmania 7250


The Virtual Class system is a new flexible learning and teaching environment with comprehensive resource materials specifically designed for the World-Wide Web based on interactive multimedia, computer assisted learning, and internet technologies. It aims to improve the quality of teaching and learning and to improve the access to higher education for students on-campus, off-campus and off-shore. Three main functions of a virtual class are interactive two-way delivery services, on-line/off-line Web-based CAL modules, and computer-mediated interaction facilities for students and teachers.

A customised higher-level authoring system is introduced to help produce Web-based learning and teaching documents for students and Web-based management documents for teachers. Six basic subsystems have been identified: the CAL modules, the logical content map, the submission subsystem, the interaction subsystem, the printing subsystem, and the external applications subsystem.


virtual class, world wide web, computer-based teaching and learning, flexible delivery, computer-mediated interaction

1 Introduction

Technological Trends The acceptance of the internet and the convergence of telecommunication systems with information technology herald the beginning of a new era in education systems where boundaries between universities and campuses are no longer relevant. This presents an urgent challenge to every university to be globally competitive in respect of their quality of the teaching and learning environments.

Political and Social Trends The reduction of public funding for higher education systems and an increasing dependence on private funding sources and tuition fees have placed more pressure on universities to attract students from global ëmarketsí, to deliver better quality education in a cost effective manner, and at the same time cater for the increasing demands of students and industry, such as equity, accessibility, and flexibility in time and place of learning

Educational Trends Emerging technologies on the internet present a timely opportunity to improve the quality of teaching and learning environments, and to improve accessibility to university programs. This is especially true for traditional on-campus universities with little or no options of flexible learning. Traditional modes of teaching are not flexible enough and are often not the most effective methods of teaching and learning.

As part of its strategic planning initiatives, the Department of Applied Computing & Mathematics is developing an innovative teaching and learning system (Virtual Class) for its computing units. The Virtual Class is designed to provide a cost-effective quality learning environment for off-campus/off-shore students as well as to complement on-campus teaching.

The Virtual Class uses emerging technologies available on the internet combined with existing technologies, to address some of the challenges and problems facing the higher education system, such as in equity, quality, accessibility, flexibility, and costs. Interactive multimedia, Computer Assisted Learning (CAL), and internet technologies are used to create a flexible learning system which will improve studentsí learning experiences in ways which are not possible by more conventional means.

2 Virtual Classes

A virtual class is a tutorial-based flexible learning & teaching system with comprehensive resource materials specifically designed for the World-Wide Web (WWW). It provides:

ï on-line Web services for delivery of tutorials, assignments, and teaching and learning materials;

ï off-line Web-based interactive multimedia CAL modules to facilitate active learning;

ï tutorial and discussion sessions held face-to-face, using on-line services, and computer-based video and audio facilities;

ï computer-mediated interaction facilities for students and teachers; and

ï printed materials.

This change of the teaching and learning pattern from passive didactic teaching to active learning with appropriate feedback will help students develop problem solving skills and improve their understanding of subject matter. This will lead us back to a 19th century Oxford/Cambridge style tutorial-based active learning system.

The WWW has been chosen as the integrated teaching and learning environment for virtual classes because it is the most effective means of connecting students and teachers and delivering information to students. The cross-platform nature of the WWW means that a variety of hardware and software systems can be used for the delivery of the resource materials. In addition to its ëstaticí hypertext abilities, the WWW can combine all kinds of multimedia documents and it has the ability to extend its functionality further through client-side and server-side applications using Common Gateway Interface (CGI), JavaScript and Java languages

If it is to be effective, however, the WWW has to be further developed and customised as an effective interactive learning and teaching environment. The new tools and methodologies will enhance the functionality of the WWW in the following areas.

2.1 Improved Uploading Capabilities

The WWW was designed for effective dissemination and delivery (downloading) of all kinds of information to the vast array of heterogeneous computing systems connected to the internet. At present, passing information back to a server (uploading) is rather limited. For example, delivering assignments or information to students in various computing systems is simple and efficient, but submitting assignments or information from various computing systems to a server (a teacher) is quite complex and difficult to accomplish. A simple HTTP file upload facility has been introduced as a FORM input type in Netscape Navigator 3.

As an interactive learning and teaching environment, there is a need to develop integrated facilities for submitting documents (from students to teacher) as well as integrated facilities for returning documents (from teacher to students) in the virtual class system.

2.2 Improved Facilities for Interaction

Various computer-mediated interaction technologies are emerging on the internet. The effective integration of these asynchronous and synchronous facilities between students and teachers is crucial in order for the WWW to be fully accepted as a quality learning environment, rather than a simple delivery system. These technologies include email, bulletin boards, interactive whiteboards, talk and chat, audio/video conferencing and shared windows.

2.3 Improved Authoring Capabilities

To benefit directly from the power of the WWW, interactive multimedia CAL modules of Virtual Classes are developed as Web-based products. However, given that the current authoring capability of the Web is somewhat limited, comprehensive integrated authoring tools for the virtual class system which extend the current capabilities must be developed. Once this has been done, Web-based multimedia CAL modules will provide an active learning environment off-line or on-line.

2.4 Improved Printing Capabilities

Hyperlinks provide the means to connect documents according to their logical sequences. To complement information available on-line, there is still a need for an effective printing facility, following its logical hyperlinks in a document.

The Project team is developing new tools for the WWW and methodologies for the development of Web-based resource materials in order to fully utilise the WWW as an effective information delivery system and to establish the WWW as an interactive and effective learning environment.

3 Framework for Implementing Virtual Classes

All activities of a virtual class are carried out through studentís and teacherís Web documents. A virtual class has six subsystems: the CAL modules, the logical content map, the submission subsystem, the interaction subsystem, the printing subsystem, and the external applications subsystem.

An interactive content builder (a customised high-level authoring system) is being designed to help produce Web-based learning and teaching documents for students and Web-based management documents for teachers.

3.1 The Logical Content Map

The Virtual Class System helps a content expert create a logical map of content (which is a collection of interactive multimedia CAL documents) for a virtual class and allows the expert to combine the various Web documents. The logical content map specifies the logical relationship among learning materials and it directs how Web documents are presented to students on-line. Furthermore, the content expert can modify the content and re-arrange the logical ordering of content by changing the logical content map.

3.2 The Print Subsystem

This print subsystem of virtual classes allows students to print the whole or a part of the resource materials based on the logical content map, in addition to the standard print facility provided by a Web browser. This differs from the H2FDoc system (Yang et al. 1996) which can automatically print a document by following its physical hyperlinks, rather than a logical content map which is used for the printing in a virtual class.

3.3 The Submission Subsystem

The submission subsystem of virtual classes allows students to submit all kinds of information, from simple forms to various kind of files. It collects and maintains all submissions, transmits submissions to teachers on request, maintains an up-to-date status of submitted materials for students and teachers, collects and maintains all returned submissions, transmits returned submissions to students on request, and maintains the integrity and security of the subsystem

3.4 The Interaction Subsystem

This interaction subsystem of virtual classes provides various kinds of (synchronous and asynchronous) computer-mediated interactions for students and teachers. These include asynchronous interactions (such as email, bulletin boards, and listserve facilities) as well as synchronous interactions (such as text-based chat and talk, shared windows, interactive whiteboards, audio and video conferencing facilities).

The email facility is integrated with the studentís Web documents, while an email management system is integrated for the teacherís Web documents (in a manner similar to the submission subsystem).

An electronic appointment system within the interaction subsystem allows the students and teachers to make arrangements for face-to-face and computer-mediated direct interaction.

3.5 The External Applications Subsystem

The external applications subsystem allows subject-specific client-side applications to be ëplugged iní to the studentís Web documents. For example, the external applications subsystem could allow a C++ system to be activated from a studentís Web document.

The submission subsystem will allow some indirect access to the server-side applications for students through a submit-return protocol. Furthermore, a subject management system will be included in the lecturerís Web documents.

4 Issues for Flexible Learning Systems

The Virtual Class is leading towards a convergence of on-campus and off-campus education by removing the known deficiencies in current learning systems by

ï introducing effective interactivity to the traditional distance education system;

ï complementing the remote-classes of open learning with the added flexibility in time and place of learning; and

ï complementing on-campus learning with the provision of quality resource materials and flexibility in time and place of learning.

Sir John Daniel, the Vice-Chancellor of the Open University, UK identified some key principles that underpin the field of distance education and open learning (Daniel 1996).

However, before being accepted fully as a credible alternative, flexible learning and teaching systems must address many associated issues and their implications to students, academics, institutions, and society.

These include:

ï Change of teaching and learning pattern from passive teacher-centred to active learner-centred, and from lecture-based to tutorial-based learning

ï Change in the roles of academics from teachers to facilitators

ï Resistance to adoption of flexible learning systems, especially in traditional universities compared to newer universities, and resistance to the materials developed elsewhere

ï Quality assurance process for flexible learning systems

ï Recognition and rewards for academics and technologists at departmental and institutional levels

ï Commitment and collaboration of experts and collaboration between departments and institutions

ï Costs associated with the production, delivery, maintenance, student support system, and management of flexible learning systems.

The Commissioned Report No. 33 of the National Board of Employment, Education and Training (1994) identified and analysed some of the key issues associated with developing and implementing resource-based learning on- and off-campus, in an Australian context, and Bates (1995) provided a methodology for costing educational technologies.

5 Conclusion

Virtual classes are not suitable for all subject areas of higher education, but many areas will benefit from the use of some or all of the components in the virtual class. A virtual class is a convergence of the three traditional modes of learning (Distance education, Open learning, and On-campus learning) by World-Wide Web technology.

Can we afford to develop such a system within Australian universities? The question should be, can we afford not to?

In the new globally competitive world of education, Australian universities should be prepared to deliver some of their own high-quality programs elsewhere in the world in a cost-effective manner. With reduced funding, it is a difficult challenge, yet it presents an opportunity for the future. If the challenge is not met, some Australian universities could become campuses of overseas international universities.

Prototypes of the Virtual Class system are being constructed. It is expected that by 1997, two computing core units will be fully implemented as virtual classes. This is the pilot stage in a long term plan to convert our bachelorís program into Virtual Classes for both on-campus and off-campus/off-shore students.


Bates, A.W. (1995) Technology, Open Learning and Distance Education, Routledge, New York.

Daniel, J. (1996) New kids on the box: Distance education enters its third generation, Keynote speech, 3rd Interactive Multimedia Symposium, Perth.

National Board of Employment, Education and Training (1994) Costs and Quality in Resource-Based Learning On- and Off-Campus, The Commissioned Report No. 33, AGPS, Canberra.

Yang, J., et al. (1996) ëFrom Hypertext to Flat Text: A Tool for Document Constructioní, Proceedings of AusWeb 96, Southern Cross University Press, Lismore, pp. 67-72.


Young J Choi and Soon-ja Yeom ©, 1996. The authors assign to ASCILITE and educational and non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to ASCILITE to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM and in printed form with the ASCILITE 96 conference papers, and for the documents to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.