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Murdoch Online: Preparing an Infrastructure for Virtual Campus Operations

Roger Atkinson

Teaching and Learning Centre

Murdoch University



The perspective for the discussion in this paper is that for effective use of Internet services in teaching and learning we must provide a balanced share of institutional resources for each of two main areas, curriculum development and infrastructure services. There is the risk of a "support crisis" as we attempt to ensure that students and teaching staff are not distracted and hampered by problems in "how to make the technology work". This paper discusses two of Murdoch University's current main issues in implementing infrastructure services, help desk and server environment tools. It proposes a new organisation of help desk services centred upon the Library, integrating with access services and user training, and linking to other kinds of services in learning skills and information retrieval skills. Consideration of the potential introduction of server environment software for web based teaching suggests that in our context the outcome will be a diversity of environments, some in house, some proprietary.


In "virtual campus operations" we seek to conduct a major part of teaching and learning for selected units or subjects via Internet services. Many universities in Australia are initiating virtual campus operations, attracted by this medium's suitability for flexible delivery, its economy and speed of communication, the potential for integrating on campus and off campus classes, and the prospects for increased enrolments.

However, using Internet services effectively for teaching and learning demands a substantial investment in curriculum development and infrastructure services [1]. The perspective for the discussion in this paper is that this investment must provide a balanced share of institutional resources for each of these two main areas of virtual campus operations. Otherwise, there is the risk of a "support crisis" (AVCC, 1996):

179. Teaching staff need support services such as media specialists, instructional systems developers, computing consultants and equipment technicians to assist them in gaining access to and effectively using IT. A phenomenon confronting many universities, however, is an insatiable demand for information technology services which appears to be growing day by day. It includes demands for more dial-in lines, the exponential increase in use of the Internet and the World Wide Web and requests for more and more central and departmental support for desktop computers.

180. The result is that many universities report that there is a "siege" environment in their IT support organisations; in that enormous pressures are being generated on the support staff involved on the one hand and that there is a lack of understanding by end users of the complexities involved in their simple request "to fix it" on the other. Many universities report an "IT support crisis"... (AVCC, 1996).

In developing Murdoch Online [2], Murdoch University's central service for Internet based teaching and learning, we have to cope with the "support crisis". Teaching and learning in an online unit cannot be conducted successfully if the unit coordinator, tutors and students are distracted and hampered by problems in "how to make the technology work". We need strategies to minimise the risk of this kind of outcome:

...The faculty based support staff therefore bore the brunt of the load of helping the pilot-group students to solve their technical problems, although their role was meant to be primarily one of educational support and facilitation of group-based learning experiences. (Briggs and Thompson, 1997).

Defining Infrastructure Services

In Murdoch University's context, the definition of curriculum development and infrastructure services as the two main functions in providing for virtual campus operations is determined mainly by existing demarcations. "Curriculum development" encompasses the work of Divisions, Schools and Programmes, creating the academic content of units (subjects) and conducting the teaching processes. "Infrastructure services" are provided by the Library, Teaching and Learning Centre, Information Technology Services, Registrar's and other non-teaching cost centres.

However, infrastructure services are defined also by customary practice, by the organisational location of facilities, skills and knowledge, and by the perceptions of individual staff. At Murdoch, and no doubt also at many other universities, it has been customary to expect the computer people "to fix it", for any kind of "computer problem", regardless of the real origin or nature of the problem. It is also customary for students to seek "computing help" from any helpful source, disregarding the University's formal structuring of support services. Facilities, and skills and knowledge for computer support are also located in teaching Divisions and Schools, most notably in the cases of Programmes with specific needs or well developed forward planning for accessing and supporting the new technologies, for example Computer Science, Engineering, Mathematics, Business, Law, Journalism, Veterinary Science and others. Much of the central support previously provided by Information Technology Services (former name Computing and Network Services) has been devolved to IT Liaison Officers located in and paid for by Divisions and Schools. Academic administration, concerned with enrolments, tutorial group allocation, assignment submission and similar class administration details, is also devolved in part to teaching Divisions and Schools. Individual academic staff have widely varying expectations about the nature and extent of the support services they may draw upon, and the extent to which they as individuals are to be providers of support services.

Thus the definition of infrastructure services according to "who provides" is not a clear specification. There is the risk of an unusual kind of "demarcation dispute", in which it is the loser who gets the work, not the winner.

This paper uses the following main topics and purposes for infrastructure services. The selection reflect a desire to integrate as seamlessly as possible with existing teaching, learning and administration processes in a dual mode (on campus and off campus or external enrolments) university:

  1. Student support and unit delivery services. These are built upon a core in computer user support, network access and user training, although linked as closely as we can with "non-technological" services in study skills, study techniques, library skills and provisions for a "virtual campus social environment". The primary aim is to ensure that the "how to make it work" factor is a minimal distraction from the teaching and learning objectives for an online unit of study.
  2. University administrative processes. These are developing for two areas, also on the basis of integration with existing patterns of operation. Units for online delivery are subject to academic approvals procedures conducted by Academic Council and administered by the Registrar's Office. The second area is student administration, including the processes of admission to the University, credits for previous studies, enrolment in a programme ("major") and in units for each semester, and a range of class administration processes such as assignment interchange, enrolment changes, and conduct of examinations. The primary aim is to ensure that administration is efficient, economical, fair and effective - goals which are essentially the same for any form of academic administration.
  3. Curriculum development and delivery support. The core provision is documentation, consulting and staff development in topics such as "Designing a unit for online delivery", "How to select, prepare and use resources and services", "How to conduct tutorial functions for an online unit" and "Textbook and reference materials from the Internet". It draws upon pilot projects and examples of practices at Murdoch and, via web links, from educational institutions world wide. The primary aim is to ensure that academic staff are ready to adopt virtual campus teaching, and are able to prepare for themselves in an effective way much of the teaching materials required for their units. However, this area also has to make provisions for "production services" and aspects of delivery support, such web page writing, graphics, and the conduct of server environments, to facilitate and supplement or complement the inputs from unit coordinators. It also has to create frameworks for electronic submission of assignments, virtual library reference lists, and other specialist topics.

Implementing Infrastructure Services

This section highlights two of the current main issues in implementing infrastructure services, help desk and server environment tools. This selection does not imply that issues which are not cited are not sufficiently important to warrant space in a brief paper, but it does reflect a degree of concentration upon the concerns illustrated in the introductory section, and it also illustrates some key tasks amongst those mapped out in the Murdoch Online project plan [3]. For broader scale reviews and diverse perspectives relating to dual mode universities, I recommend Bates (1997), and Debreceny and Ellis (1996).

The issue of the help desk and user support in general for students is current because we encounter the circumstance, "enormous pressures are being generated on the support staff" (AVCC, 1996). The issue of server environment tools is current because we face demands for rapid evaluation and possible implementation of one or more of LearningSpace, WebCT, TopClass or similar proprietary tools for conducting web based course preparation and delivery activities [4].

Some potential issues in the areas of "Student support and unit delivery services" and "Curriculum development and delivery support." are not open for significant further change because previous decisions at University level have already set a pathway. In common with many other institutions, we have downsized central support services from non-teaching cost centres and devolved functions and resources to teaching Divisions and Schools. There is a University commitment to flexible delivery principles [5], but the option to build a substantial production and delivery service, as was characteristic for distance education units in earlier times, is closed. "Infrastructure services" have to proceed mainly via the more economical pathways of student user training, documentation and staff development, which enable as much as possible the goals that teachers and learners will do their own production work, solve their own problems, and so on, without calling upon others.

With respect to administrative procedures, in the context for Murdoch Online major developments are dependent upon the University's commissioning of a new student records system for the 1999 academic year [6]. For this reason the initial procedures for enrolling are based upon and closely related to existing, traditional procedures. However, within the current constraints there is scope to enable online use of at least one significant procedure in Student Administration, the change of enrolment form (known as the "green form", it includes address change). Also, we are trialing procedures for online submission of assignments, which is classified here as "administrative" although much of the work involved in this service falls upon other categories of infrastructure.

Help Desk: Organisational Options

Technology should not be bolted onto existing institutions; they need to re-structure their organisation in order to exploit new technologies in a cost-effective manner (Bates, 1997).

The particular issue considered here from among the many embraced by the topic of "help desk" is organisational options. Who is to provide help desk services for student users? The task of minimising the impact of the "IT support crisis" (AVCC, 1996) is shaped by a number of context factors [7], including at least these principal factors:

  1. Perceptions about ourselves as good communicators with our students - we want students to rate Murdoch University and Murdoch Online as "user friendly" in all aspects of our Internet use and student support.
  2. Concerns over Internet access for students - encouraging and supporting all forms of on campus and off campus access, and being a good access provider for many or even most of our students.
  3. Seeking to obtain the most complementary, economical and effective contributions to technical help from the diverse avenues for obtaining it - user training by group sessions in a laboratory-classroom environment; individual, case by case assistance, by telephone call, "benchtop" installations and face to face demonstrations; peer group assistance; FAQs, how to manuals and other documentation; and campus laboratory based help.
  4. Needing to ensure beneficial interaction and feedback exchange between help desks, user training, unit instructional design, and other kinds of support services in learning skills and library skills.
  5. In our context, technical help services have evolved mainly on the basis of category of user, leading to four main avenues, now requiring improved coordination: staff users help desk; laboratory based help in School or Divisional laboratories; help for users of free access via Student Network; and help for users of the fee paying hosts cleo and carmen.

Adding to these the ubiquitous and usual factors of static budget allocations and very high growth rates in user load, both on campus and via the modem pools, we face an imperative for restructuring. We have an impetus given by the creation of the Teaching and Learning Centre in 1997 as a branch of the Murdoch University Library. We can build a new organisation of help desk services centred upon the Library, integrating with access services and user training, and linking to other kinds of services in learning skills and information retrieval skills. Attractive precedents for this kind of linkage in similar contexts have been developed at Northern Territory University (Byrne, 1997) and Griffith University (Grgic, 1997):

Server Environments: Facilitating Design and Delivery

How do we conduct teaching and learning activities in an online unit? Although the basic functions are similar for any medium, and indeed for face to face teaching as well, online units are something of a mystery for many, perhaps most, staff and students. In such circumstances, software aids for creating, sustaining, facilitating and managing online teaching and learning activities have a potentially useful or even significant role.

The main potential significance is that software structured creation of a more familiar "environment" may ease staff and student transitions into the new medium of online units. Also, server environments such as LearnLinc, LearningSpace, ToolBook II, TopClass, Virtual-U, Web Course In A Box, WebCT and others [4] may offer workload relief for staff providing infrastructure services for course development and delivery. The providers extol the attractive benefits of their solutions:

" the only online learning solution on the market today that provides desktop video conferencing synchronized web browsing, true application sharing, scaleable class size, enhanced multimedia authoring tools, and multimedia resource management tools across local and wide area networks." [4]

"... a server based software system that enables customized design, delivery, and enhancement of education and training courses delivered over the World Wide Web (WWW). The technology is ideal for post-secondary institutions, K-12 schools, and businesses/corporations which are in need of a flexible, user-friendly, and integrated framework for delivering online learning." [4]

However, equivalent server environments may be constructed from public domain modules and "in house" work, for example ClassNet at Iowa State University, Webclass at Central Queensland University and others [4]. In our context, as in many others, the ultimate outcome will be a diversity of environments, some "in house", some proprietary. The main factors leading towards diversity include:

  1. Academic staff preferences for a high degree of autonomy and room to make their own selections of the particular tools they wish to use for preparing and conducting their teaching. This principle is written into the University's planning for flexible teaching and learning [5]. Also, many academics seek to differentiate "my units" from other units.
  2. Much of the induction of staff into their first use of Internet based teaching is expected to be via pilot projects within their own Schools or Programmes ("Departments"). The "early adopters" responsible for pilot developments of online units tend to promulgate the techniques they used in their own learning and thus are less likely to be proponents for new tools which seem to be only a different way to obtain the same end result. As the number of central infrastructure staff is relatively small, "early adopters" in the teaching Divisions and Schools are a major influence upon the techniques selected for forthcoming developments of online units.
  3. A feeling that the quality of teaching and learning is dependent much more upon creative instructional design and content presentation than upon the specific software tools used to prepare a web site, conduct class discussions and other teaching and learning functions.
  4. A view that as the student's screen interface is a standard web reader such as Netscape or a standard email handler such as Eudora, learning outcomes are not strongly influenced by the use of a specific server environment such as WebCT, TopClass, LearningSpace, or others.
  5. Separation of the administrative processes of admission to the University and enrolment in units as University controlled processes means that some of the administrative capabilities in software packages for online teaching are not relevant in our context.

However, there remains an uncertainty about the productivity levels attainable by teaching staff and infrastructure staff as we proceed towards a diversity of server environments. Thus the issue of software for creating "virtual class environments" is likely to recur as online units become a routine part of our teaching and learning activities.


[1] Online units.

[2] Murdoch Online.

[3] Murdoch Online: Tasks.

[4] Comparing software for online teaching

[5] Flexible teaching and learning.

[6] Murdoch University Student Information System.

[7] Murdoch Online: Technical help with computer use

AVCC (Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee) (1996). Exploiting information technology in higher education: An issues paper.

Grgic, K. (1997). Design and implementation of an integrated information desk service. In Information Technology - The Enabler, 211-220. CAUSE in Australasia '97 Conference Proceedings. Melbourne: The University of Melbourne.


(c) Roger Atkinson


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