The Design of an Integrated Online Learning Environment

David Jones Renay Buchanan

Department of Mathematics and Computing

Central Queensland University


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 of education.

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 [5] 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 [12][3]. 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.

Design Guidelines

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 systems.

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.

Maximise choice

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 [5].

WWW publishing

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 [5]. 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 [8].


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 [5], online marking systems such as PASE [11] and automated marking systems such as Ceilidh [6].

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 the Internet.

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 [13], "There is no real effectiveness benefit in this technology unless it incorporates changes to the learning approach itself."

[14] 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.

[4] 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 teaching approaches.

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 [1] 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 unit [5].

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 access.

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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