David Jones Renay Buchanan
The traditional teaching methods, for both on-campus
and distance students, employed by the Department of Mathematics
and Computing (M&C) at Central Queensland University combined
with the increasing size and diversity of its student population
is creating a number of challenges. An approach being taken to
address these challenges is the development of integrated online
learning environment (OLE) to enable the appropriate use of online
learning by all Department units.
This paper describes what an integrated online learning environment is, discusses the design guidelines and features of the online learning environment (OLE) being developed by M&C and provides examples of how students and teachers might use the system. Included in the paper will be a pointer to the OLE's WWW pages that contain more information on the system and provide access to the system itself. The paper also discusses existing online learning systems and explains why another system is being constructed. Finally the paper will describe some issues that will need to be addressed when implementing such a system.
The Department of Mathematics and Computing (M&C)
at Central Queensland University (CQU) offers units using traditional
on-campus and second generation distance education methods. Over
recent years many challenges have been raised by the combination
of these methods and increasing student numbers and diversity.
For example, M&C students may be studying at any one of four
Central Queensland campuses, at commercial campuses in Sydney
and Melbourne, studying via distance education from throughout
Australian and the world, through commercial partners in Singapore,
Dubai and via OLA. These students may start and finish study
at different times and come from a wide range of cultural and
educational backgrounds with completely different expectations
Traditional teaching methods are proving to be ineffective
and inefficient for this diverse student population and continued
use of these methods has created many issues, problems and additional
workload for department staff. One approach that has the potential
to solve many of these problems, improve the overall learning
experience of our students and possibly further expand the base
on which we draw our students is online learning using the Internet.
However, personal experience  has shown that offering
a unit via online learning, using existing resources, requires
significant time, energy and technical knowledge. This requirement
places the use of online learning beyond most academics and limits
adoption to the technically minded and extremely motivated. For
online learning to become widespread within M&C it is necessary
that appropriate tools, automated systems, procedures, documentation
and training be available to reduce this burden.
During the second half of 1996, and drawing upon
over two years experience in using the Internet for online learning,
M&C staff have been developing an integrated online learning
environment (OLE) designed to simplify the creation and management
of online learning. The intention being that the OLE will be
used to enable the use of online learning in all department units
and provide M&C with a distinct advantage over its competitors.
This paper will describe the guidelines driving the design of
the system, examine the individual components that make up the
system, discuss some of the issues involved in building and using
the system and provide examples of typical use of the system by
teachers and students. The paper also provides pointers to other
similar systems that are currently available and will discuss
why yet another system is being developed.
What is an integrated online learning environment?
The authors define an integrated online learning
environment as a set of tools, systems, procedures and documentation
that allows any and all parts of the learning experience to occur
using some form of computer mediated communications. An integrated
OLE provides all of the features and systems required by both
students and teachers using a consistent and easy-to-use interface.
There is much more to online learning than converting lecture overheads and unit profiles into HTML and placing them on a server. An integrated online learning environment should provide support for tasks including, but not limited to, assignment submission, automated (self-)assessment, evaluation and both synchronous and asynchronous communication.
Why not use existing systems
The system under development at M&C is not the only online learning environment currently available. There are already a number of similar systems with varying capabilities including
The decision to develop another system at CQU does
not indicate that existing systems have any major flaws. These
tools have been used quite successfully in a number of situations
. However the M&C situation offers many unique perspectives
including the combination of on-campus, distance and international
students and a student population with significantly greater computing
expertise and access to technology. In addition, there are many
M&C staff with research interests in the Internet and the
application of information technology to learning.
These and other circumstances combined with experience
using the Internet in learning has identified a number of features,
approaches and ideas that have not yet been implemented in existing
systems. For example, the ability for students to download a
unit's WWW pages and work offline or providing both students and
staff the ability to choose the look and feel most appropriate
for their situation.
The relative youth of online learning means that there are new features and methods that have not been used or even thought of. The design, implementation and use of another online learning environment within M&C will provide an opportunity to experiment with new services and enable a comparison to be drawn between different systems and hopefully identify even more possibilities. It is hoped that the development and widespread use of a number of different systems will help to identify the mistakes to avoid and the practices to replicate in the production and management of online learning.
The CQU online learning environment is being driven by a number of design guidelines that are discussed in the following paragraphs. In short, the design guidelines are
Flexibility and don't reinvent the wheel
The one unchanging characteristic of the Internet,
and the computing field in general, is that it never stops changing.
This characteristic makes flexibility and adaptability essential
features for any online or computing system. Without these characteristics
an organisation runs the risk of either retaining an out of date
system because it is too expensive to replace, or having to throw
away the investment in a system because it has not kept up with
change. This risk is demonstrated by the problems faced by Universities
that have only recently stopped (and some who haven't stopped)
using mid-80s style, text based computer mediated communications
Among the keys to adaptability are
The design of the M&C OLE will attempt to maximise
adaptability by concentrating on providing the infrastructure
required to integrate existing and yet to be developed online
learning tools. The M&C OLE will provide the management infrastructure
and consistent interface to combine existing tools such as WWW
servers, online quizzes, assignment submission etc. into a single
integrated whole. While a number of the component systems will
be developed at CQU, the emphasis is on integrating existing tools
into the OLE.
This approach has a number of benefits including
Platform independence and standards
The era of forcing students and staff to use a particular
brand of computer or software package should be over. Increasingly
students and staff come to University with a wealth of experience
with a particular computer platform and associated software packages.
Forcing staff and students to learn a new computing environment
is a waste of time and energy. Especially since the spread of
networks and open systems has taken us into an era where the sharing
of information, and not the tools that created the information,
should be straight forward.
Platform independence is especially important for
M&C since M&C students could be using an IBM PC running
Windows 3.1, 95 or NT, an Apple Macintosh or any one of a number
of UNIX platforms. Using a tool, such as ActiveX, which is not
available on certain platforms means that some students will miss
out. Platform independence will not be limited to client software
but will also be a criteria for server software. Platform independence
not only increases the potential user base but also increases
adaptability to future industry developments.
One major method for achieving platform independence is the use of widely accepted and implemented computing standards. The M&C OLE will use standards that include Internet standards such as those for HTML and also other computing standards such as ODBC (a standard for accessing databases).
Provide the tools not the rules
Many existing systems, especially in distance education,
consist of a number of strict procedures and formats that must
be followed. These strict procedures leave little room for the
unique characteristics of individual disciplines, units, academics
and students. The quality through consistency approach
The aim with the M&C OLE is to provide the tools but not the rules. To provide individual staff and students with the tools they require to make use of online learning but allow them to adapt the use of these tools for their personal situation. The system will provide a number of examples of good and bad use of online learning and some general guidelines. However, in the end the approach taken in individual units will be left up to the individual lecturer and student.
A traditional CQU distance education student has
no input into the format or style of presentation used in a print-based
study guide. All distance students receive the study guide in
the same format despite their particular learning style or personal
preference. In an online learning environment, where all the
information is stored in a digital format, the presentation of
the information can be manipulated to provide each student with
a format that best suits them.
This freedom of choice is seen as one of the important
advantages that can be provided by online learning. Consequently
the M&C OLE will where possible maximise the ability for both
students and staff to customise the behaviour and presentation
of the system to suit their individual needs.
Minimise online time and new skills
If online learning is adopted throughout M&C
this will introduce a number of additional costs for students,
staff and the department. It is thought that in the long run
the department will save money by a combination of cost savings
offered by the technology, attracting a number of new students
and by decreasing the drop out rate of existing students.
For staff there is an initial cost in becoming familiar
with the technology, adapting traditional material and implementing
new teaching methods. However, in the long run it is possible
that online learning will decrease the overall effort required
to manage and maintain a unit.
Students will have a number of new costs to bear
including purchasing or upgrading computers, purchasing modems,
paying for online time, learning a number of new skills and the
printing of study material. While the additional advantages of
the online environment may help justify these extra costs, it
is important that every effort be made to minimise the cost to
the students. Using tools such as Netscape and email clients
that are familiar to most students will help minimise the cost
of becoming familiar with the environment. In addition the value
of the investment that students make in learning this environment
should be maximised. This can be achieved by using tools, such
as Netscape, that will be used for purposes other than learning,
e.g. recreation and work.
Given that in most situations Internet access for students is charged on a time basis it is important for students to minimise the time they are required to be online. To address this the M&C OLE will be designed to enable students to perform the majority of the required tasks on their local machines while they are not connected to the Internet.
Components and Features
The following section examines the components and features of the CQU online learning environment. Some of these features are similar to those offered by other systems while others are unique and are based on earlier experience and feedback received from students who used an early prototype system during 1996 .
Feedback from the students enrolled in the first CQU unit to distribute the majority of its learning material via the WWW found that one-third of the students read the material on the screen . The distribution of learning material via the WWW provides a number of advantages even if the majority of students print the material. These advantages include
If a unit's textbook and study guide is on the WWW a student can connect to the unit's WWW page, download and print the material and start studying as soon as they are enrolled.
In order to access the information the student must
be able to use a WWW client and possibly a printer. These are
skills that should be familiar to the majority of students or
at the very least can be picked up relatively easily.
The features of the M&C OLE that support the use of the WWW as an information distribution mechanism include
A number of other more experimental features will be investigated including authoring on the fly .
The M&C OLE will adapt one of the existing automated quiz systems as a method for students to undertake self-assessment. Some of the systems currently available include
While most of these systems are primarily designed
for self-assessment it is possible to use them for assessment
purposes. The final decision will be up to the individual lecturer.
Electronic assignment submission and marking
Assessment and marking is one of the more resource intensive parts of teaching and requires significant time and human resources. The application of information technology to support this process promises to provide significant savings. In attempting to achieve this aim the M&C OLE will make use of automated submission and management systems , online marking systems such as PASE  and automated marking systems such as Ceilidh .
Evaluation and feedback
The use of WWW forms for unit evaluation has been used previously at CQU and may be partially responsible for increased participation rates. The M&C OLE will provide a system that enables staff to create and distribute feedback forms to students using either WWW pages or email.
The use of the Internet for increasing student/student and student/teacher communication is one area that provides some of the biggest gains for education and is an area where there has been much work. The OLE will provide a variety of communication mechanisms by using existing tools including
The M&C OLE will maintain a database of student information including name, student number, address, units enrolled in, email address and a collection of other information. This information will be used for a number of tasks including notifying students of modifications to the WWW pages, subscribing them to mailing lists and simplifying student contact. The OLE will provide tools that
A day in the life of the
Having just finished preparing the overheads for the last lecture the academic selects the bookmark for the M&C OLE and is asked for her username and password. Having identified herself she is presented with the list of units she is teaching this year from which she selects the appropriate unit and as a result is presented with the unit's administration page which displays
The modification list shows that a number of new
annotations have been made by students and includes the name of
the student who made the annotation and a link to the actual annotation.
Also included in the modification list are the names of any new
students who have just enrolled in the unit. If she had chosen
to the modification system could have forwarded the changes to
the lecturer via email but given the amount of email she already
receives she decided against this.
To add the overheads for the new lecture the 'Lecture overhead' component is chosen which brings up a form that includes information about the existing 12 lecture overheads. It also includes a space where the new lecture number can be entered and the overheads for the new lecture uploaded using the WWW browser's file upload capability. Once the new overheads are uploaded the unit's WWW pages are automatically updated by reapplying the unit's template and the modification system also distributes notifications of the changes to the appropriate people.
The kids are finally asleep so it's time to do some
study. The student turns on the computer and while waiting for
it to come alive she looks for the print out of the unit's study
guide she's been reading during the day. Once the computer is
up, the regular routine kicks in and she connects to her local
Internet Service Provider (ISP), dumps all her email and disconnects
as quickly as possible. The new email includes some discussion
from other members of her small group about the assignment and
an email from the modification system that includes a compressed
copy of the recent modifications to the unit's WWW pages.
After reading the discussion from her group members
and replying to a couple of messages the student unpacks the changes
to the unit's WWW pages into the directory where her local copy
of the unit's WWW pages reside. She can now start up Netscape
and peruse the WWW pages, including the new lecture overhead added
by the lecturer earlier in the day, all while not connected to
Some of the recent discussion on the group mailing
lists has helped clear up a problem with the assignment which
can now be finished. Once the assignment is finished the student
reconnects to her ISP, starts up Netscape and selects the M&C
assignment submission page from her bookmarks. On connecting
to this page she is asked for her student number and password.
Having correctly entered them she is presented with a list of
all the units she is studying and the assignments for each unit.
By selecting the appropriate assignment for the appropriate unit
she is presented with a page where she can use her WWW browser's
file upload capability to submit her assignment.
Once submitted she is returned to the original assignment submission page which includes a summary of how many assignments have been submitted, returned and details about the marks achieved by other students. The page also shows that her assignment has been safely received and provides her the opportunity to view the files she has uploaded to check that they have arrived correctly.
The technical tasks involved in implementing an OLE are but the first and possibly simplest steps in the widespread adoption of online learning by an academic department. There are a number of other issues that must be addressed some of which are discussed in the following section.
Getting staff to use the system
"If you build it, they will come", may work in the movies but it does not work in the academic environment where staff development has been described as "herding cats". Once the system is built staff must be
It is hoped that the design guidelines emphasising ease of use and of providing the tools and not the rules will decrease the learning curve and increase the sense of ownership felt by academic staff.
Adapting to new methods
As pointed out by , "There is no real effectiveness
benefit in this technology unless it incorporates changes to the
learning approach itself."
 reports the common misconception amongst many
academics that the use of online learning is simply the act of
placing existing teaching materials onto the WWW and consequently
will actually decrease the time, energy and cost involved in education.
While this approach is certainly an option the greatest advantages
are gained from online learning when existing teaching practice
is modified to make the most of the characteristics of the new
environment. Historic, didactic teaching approaches are not the
most appropriate methods in an environment that emphasises and
enables the importance of communication and interaction.
The increase in interaction and communication that
comes from using appropriate pedagogy could actually make online
learning more expensive than traditional methods, especially for
distance education. However that increase in cost must be considered
in combination with the increased service that is provided to
students and the possibility of increased performance and decreased
drop out rates.
 refers to a study that concluded that the level
of integration of students into university life has a crucial
impact on their success and satisfaction. Use of online learning
to enable the adoption of collaborative learning and increase
student/student and student/teacher communication is one promising
approach to increasing this integration. However this will only
happen if teachers make the move away from traditional didactic
The need to modify the style of teaching/learning employed raises a number of questions including
Access and Equity
An Australian Bureau of Statistics press release
 reports that only 30% of Australian households had used a
computer and only 23% of those households had a modem or external
link. These figures reveal that there is still a definite problem
with assuming that everyone has Internet access. One of the advantages
enjoyed by M&C is that its student's access to information
technology is well above the average. In the 1996 offering of
one unit 74% of the students had Internet access before enrolling
in the unit, all but one student gained Internet access for the
However there are still some students who cannot
gain access. For example, one M&C student is serving time
in the maximum security section of a Northern Territory jail
and is not allowed Internet access, other students are in remote
areas or other environments where it is not possible to gain Internet
Addressing the issue of access to appropriate technology will require effort at the institutional and national level. Individual academics and departments do not have the resources required to fully address this issue. However they should endeavour to provide alternative solutions for those students who cannot gain appropriate access.
Infrastructure for on-going support
If online learning becomes a central component of the learning process within M&C then it is essential that the hardware and software that provides these services is available 24 hours a day. Providing such a reliable service is not cheap and will require either the provision of additional funding or the reallocation of existing funds.
Integration and effect on existing practice
The widespread adoption of online learning is likely to require significant modification in current institutional practices especially in
Copyright and other unsolvable problems
Some of the most difficult problems related with online learning include thorny issues such as
These are large problems on which a number of people are working. The complexity of these issues is demonstrated by the fact that they also exist for traditional teaching methods and are yet to be fully addressed for those methods.
Online learning, if implemented correctly using appropriate
technology, pedagogy and supported by capable teaching and technical
staff can supply a number of significant advantages over traditional
teaching methods. Widespread and efficient use of online learning
requires the support provided by an integrated set of tools, procedures,
documentation and training. There are a number of systems currently
available that provide this support. However since the widespread
use of the Internet for online learning is still developing there
is scope for different systems using different approaches.
The Department of Mathematics and Computing at Central Queensland University is in the process of developing an integrated online learning environment that is based on a flexible, portable architecture designed to take the most appropriate of currently available tools and combine them into an overall system. The OLE is being designed to maximise adaptability, student and teacher choice, portability and to minimise new skills and cost. It is hoped that the OLE will provide an efficient mechanism by which all the Department's units can make appropriate use of the online environment.
The final system, including all the tools, will be available free of charge. For more information refer to the URL
David Jones, Renay Buchanan (c) 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 reporduced. 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.
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