Unit Management Challenges in the Enwebbed Age
Timo Vuori and Maria Jean Hall
School of Computing, Information and Mathematical Sciences
Edith Cowan University
This paper reports on work in progress to support the learning experience of internal, external and overseas Edith Cowan University students in an environment supported by new technologies. There is a need to facilitate an improved method of 'Unit Management' for units presented in multi-modal, multi-locational and time-staggered modes. The challenge is to manage multiple offerings of unit study and assessment materials, and their continuous enhancement whilst retaining and improving quality and relevance to student and institutional clients.
Electronic / Internet delivery of course materials provides both product and process oriented challenges. This paper concentrates on the process challenges i.e. the management of an electronic repository storing and delivering study materials. Issues canvassed include authorship and copyright, guaranteed accessibility and electronic delivery through the Internet. Challenges in curriculum development and finding suitable instructional design mechanisms are product related and are peripheral to the main intent of this paper.
The authors wish to share their experiences to date and to prompt responses from colleagues who are interested in the major challenge Intranet / Internet brings to educators.
Keywords: Internet, unit management, electronic repository, access control, authorship, copyright, configuration management.
The Challenge to Educators
The recent Federal budget has challenged universities to rethink the ways they fund their operations. For many this has meant cost cutting and rationalisation of operations. Some universities have embarked on new full fee paying markets in Australia and overseas.
Edith Cowan University V.C. Millicent Poole recognises this new globalisation of University life. "Once internationalisation in the university context meant welcoming small numbers of overseas students into the institution. Now the term has a much wider meaning and includes the internationalisation of curricula, the student body, the staff, research and consultancy" De La Harpe (1997, p. 9). The emerging Internet based infrastructure gives the modern university the opportunity to rethink their methods and markets for university education. In the past universities were limited to a greater or lesser extent by their geographic location. This had a major impact on the geographically isolated Australian universities. New Internet based technologies have opened doors for a more global approach to education delivery. It is no longer necessary to physically remain in the campus vicinity whilst studying a university course. It is now possible to study a full university course in the external mode via the Internet.
Globalisation of education works in two directions. Students working from any location can study for a university degree from a wide choice of national and international institutions and universities can market their courses globally. This presents an opportunity for Australian universities to extend their interstate and overseas activities. The growing overseas markets provide an attractive opportunity for increased revenue raising to compensate for the losses experienced in recent federal budgets. Our challenge is to meet national and global competition from large, well-resourced and internationally recognised institutions.
The current climate of economic rationalism has increased the urgency for universities to fully utilise available technological support. "Technology will at least partly underpin the way ECU meets the challenge of demands for life long learning, customised courses, desk top and flexible delivery" De La Harpe (1997, p9). This is especially evident in the increased use of the Internet in curriculum delivery. Falling equipment costs have made it feasible for students to possess a computer with an Internet connection. The tools required to produce material for Internet delivery are now more sophisticated and learning materials can be developed in a cost-effective manner.
Changes in the delivery of university education have had a direct impact on the role of University Lecturer. In the past the lecturer was expected to conduct lectures and tutorials on campus. This role has changed.
The traditional two-semester model on one or two campuses has vanished. Academics must now put more effort into the management of the delivery of units. The familiar 'Unit Coordination' role has now evolved to a 'Unit Management' role. There is an increased administrative overhead involving materials enhancement, versioning, configuration management, and delivery. Appropriate materials have to be made available to students with differing requirements studying concurrently.
Currently, at Edith Cowan University a course can be offered internally on four campuses over two semesters. The institution is considering the trimester model. Courses are offered offshore under license and international partners must be provided with timely and current materials in an appropriate form to support the teaching of units at their location.
Modern tertiary course delivery is not only multi-locational but can be multi-modal and time-staggered as well. Many students still study in the traditional internal mode but increasing numbers opt to study externally or in a mixed mode using paper or electronically delivered materials. Short intensive courses with or without residential requirements are becoming a popular option. Commercial fee paying courses will become more common. Today's Unit Manager may manage concurrent but time-staggered offerings with differing commencement dates.
Traditionally External Studies staff have been responsible for managing the delivery of paper based materials. This requires a considerable time lag between an academic producing the materials and their eventual delivery to students due to the scheduling of high volumes of printing and binding. Academics have to supply external teaching materials in the middle of the previous semester, well in advance of their delivery to students. Opportunities for enhancement are restricted to twice a year rather than continuous updates whenever the material is reviewed for internal delivery. This doubles the review burden and places it at the busiest time of semester when the needs of assignment and exam marking are paramount.
Curriculum materials in units with a high technology content must respond rapidly to change to remain relevant. Amongst others, courses in Software Engineering, Computer Science, Multimedia and Computer Security need to be frequently updated and enhanced. Sometimes it can be inappropriate to deliver materials that have been prepared six months previously. They are already out-dated. Yet the traditional methods for the delivery of external materials require a considerable time lag from curriculum development by the Academic to the eventual use by the student. The Internet, which accommodates the dynamic dissemination of materials, should provide a solution.
Academics take pride in their work and strive for quality. The extra pressures of multi-locational, multi-modal, time-staggered delivery can impact on the quality of the materials produced. Modern quality assurance techniques and process maturity models are based on the principle that a quality process will typically deliver a quality product (Sallis, P., Tate, G. and MacDonell, S, 1995). In the headlong rush to accommodate the macro demands of economic rationalism and globalisation, care must be taken to meet the micro challenges of unit management and still produce a quality product.
The production, enhancement, storage and delivery of a large amount of teaching and learning materials have to be managed. Academics need a simple means of adding their work to this body of teaching and learning materials. Formats must be appropriate for delivery using current and future technologies. Students require assured access whenever and from wherever needed. These challenges are the catalyst for a solution.
Automated tools and ancillary manual systems to support course material management tasks are required. These will help meet the three challenges:
The delivery infrastructure needs can be met by a repository based storage system i.e. a database serving to student and other users via the Internet. This repository requires configuration management facilities allowing for the serving of particular versions of materials to authorised user clients in an Internet extended distributed client server environment.
Students and other clients would access the repository-stored materials served on Web pages using common inexpensive Internet browsing software. The bandwidth and infrastructure to support guaranteed user access via the Internet and a reasonable response time may not always be available in rural districts of Australia or off-shore in outlying regions where the technological infrastructure is still immature and under development. In these regions, snapshots of the repository should be replicated on a regular basis on a local server. This would provide local access rather than possible unreliable Internet access to Perth stored materials.
The Academic's ownership of the different versions of the materials must be tracked i.e. the initial making the materials available, their continuous update and eventual archiving should be automated. This process, whilst automatic must always be initiated and verified by the owner usually the author or Unit Manager. Many different versions of the materials may be in concurrent use and the repository system must accommodate this.
Whilst academics are rightly concerned with ownership of the materials they produce, it should not be mandatory for them to be involved with the design and implementation of Web pages. Developing and maintaining Web authoring expertise takes considerable time and effort. For many Academics these resources could be better expended on their own areas of curriculum design and delivery. An automated system is essential. An Academic should simply deposit a new version of teaching materials in the repository and the process to make it available to students should be completely automated and transparent.
These challenges will directly impact on how Edith Cowan University's School of Computer, Information and Mathematical Sciences will offer degrees in the present and in the future. A major task is underway to 'enweb' (i.e. make available for Internet delivery) unit materials from many of our undergraduate degrees. The School will be positioned to support our degree offerings in flexible modes anywhere and at anytime as required. Many undergraduate units are externalised in paper-based form. A smaller number of units utilise the Internet in their delivery. Most units have electronic support materials available e.g. lecture notes, and overheads (slide shows) and many lecturers make these materials available to internal students via the University networks.
The Multimedia Task Force (MTF) is a School based project, which takes existing paper-based materials and makes them available on the Internet to support student learning. The development of an electronic repository and the provision of supporting processes and infrastructure will symbiotically interact with this project. Academics provide the curriculum contents, The MTF formats the materials providing a standard structure, 'look and feel' and supporting learning environments and the repository process will supply the management infrastructure.
This paper outlines the need for the management of the unit materials production, storage, delivery and access process. This is often ignored or given second place to the more visible need for developing teaching and learning materials in a format suitable for Internet delivery. The Internet provides new opportunities for instructional design and consideration needs to be given to this area to take full advantage of it. This is beyond the scope of this paper. If the management of the process is not taken into account in the early stages of an enwebment project and suitable infrastructure provided, considerable costs and difficulties in later stages will result as huge amounts of teaching materials clog the system. The good work done in instructional design for the new environment and the preparation of unit materials will not reap its full potential.
Internet published material
It is a common view that material published on the Internet is in the public domain and freely available for use. This is incorrect, Australian and international copyright laws automatically protect Internet published material. However this material is not covered by the University's copyright agreement under the provision of Commonwealth Copyright Act 1968. In practice this means an authorisation from the author is required before distributing this material in print or in electronic format.
Some material on the Internet is provided free of copyright. This is normally clearly identified. Such material can be freely delivered to students either in printed or electronic format. In other cases copyright restrictions apply but this issue may be sidestepped by providing a pointer (URL) to the material. Students are not provided with the material but rather directed to where the material is available, when they have the option to make individual "fair dealing" copy for study and research purposes (Barton, 1996).
There are practical issues to consider when including material sourced form the Internet. In contrast to material published in books or journals, Internet published material is often not peer reviewed and the content validity is questionable. Similarly, the University has no control over future content changes. The dynamic nature of the Internet means that its content is constantly changing. Materials are updated and moved to different locations. Regular checks are needed to ensure that the pointers (URLs) still point to the intended material.
It is important when publishing on the Internet to consider both Australian export restrictions and any cultural and legal differences in the country where the material is to be received. These issues can limit the material available for students depending on their geographical location. Any material students are asked to download, should not violate cultural views and/or laws and regulations locally in place. What might be legal and acceptable in Australia can be illegal or unacceptable elsewhere.
Publishing study material on the Internet and maintaining quality and relevance requires considerably resources, i.e. academic and support staff time, training, software, hardware etc. The provision of these resources is an investment in a teaching and learning infrastructure. It is unrealistic, in the current economical environment, to expect universities to make the results of this investment freely available to the general public and other competing institutions. However the use of the Internet does provides a convenient media to deliver information to potential students and others interested in the courses and units offered.
To accommodate the broad spectrum of user needs, access to Internet published materials needs to be differentiated. General interest and marketing material including enrolment information should be made freely available. To protect the University's investment and intellectual property, access to materials directly linked to the delivery of courses should be limited to enrolled students. Access to lecture notes, study guides overheads, past examination papers and weekly handouts should be controlled.
Edith Cowan University is currently trialing an Internet based online student enrolment system ECUWES (Anonymous, 1997). This enrolment information is regularly uploaded to the Student Records system. This electronic enrolment information could be used to restrict student access to relevant study materials. Access would require a student to submit a valid Login ID and Personal Identification Number (PIN). This form of identification processing requires students to first claim an identity and then prove it by submitting a corresponding PIN.
Provision of a repository and associated infrastructure will support and enhance tertiary course delivery. Positive outcomes for students and staff will be integrated at every level into the University's existing program delivery system. The main benefits for the students will be:
The new infrastructure will assist academic staff in their efforts to provide an appropriate, up-to-date learning environment for their students. The main benefits being:
Not only individual Academics and their students but also the wider University community will benefit. The new infrastructure will have direct benefits for the School of Computer, Information and Mathematical Sciences in Edith Cowan University in the delivery and management of their current courses. It will also impact on the course delivery in the wider Edith Cowan University community by providing an example to follow and to improve upon. The broader outcome for the academic community is a working repository and delivery model for the management of university teaching and learning materials.
Universities require a well managed quality system in place for unit and course delivery as they approach the next century. This must be responsive to the needs of students, academics and the University administration.
As we move further into the electronic age, this system should harness the available technology to better student learning outcomes. Universities who have already invested in this technology will be in an advantageous position with respect to future developments in the fast moving communications arena. They will be well positioned as they have taken the initial steps to standardise and manage their materials electronically.
It is critical that Universities provide more choice for their students to enhance their lifelong learning. Currently, the use of the Internet to support student learning is immature. Many challenges face educators but the work accomplished today has the potential to change educational delivery mechanisms as we approach the millennium. The first steps of a long journey have been taken but much has to be learned and accomplished before the journey is completed.
Anonymous (1997). ECUWES, Edith Cowan University Web Enrolment System
[on-line]. Available WWW http://spider.stu.cowan.edu.au/owa_wes/owa/wes$login.startup [17th October 1997].
Barton, M.(1996). Edith Cowan University Copyright Home Page [on-line]. Available WWW http://www.cowan.edu.au/copyright/ [17th October 1997].
De La Harpe M. (1997). Walking the economic highwire. Campus Review, 7(38), 9.
Sallis, P., Tate, G. and MacDonell, S (1995). Software Engineering. Practice, management, improvement. Sydney: Addison-Wesley.
(c) Timo Vuori and Maria Jean Hall
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