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Implementing a Virtual Campus through a Student Intranet
Director, Information Technology Services
University of Southern Queensland
Many universities are utilising developments in communications and information technologies and adopting flexible delivery and learning systems as a means to improve teaching and learning and for competitive advantage within an internationalised higher education sector.
In 1995, the University of Southern Queensland commenced a corporate initiative to implement a flexible delivery and learning system. Its experience as a leading provider of distance education services has meant that its organisational culture, policies and procedures are consistent with the need to address four key issues relating to flexible delivery and learning systems: student centredness, openness, transactional distance, and the application of relevant communications and information technologies. A student intranet has been developed that presents to each student enrolled with USQ, a personalised window into an extensive range of educational resources and support services. An analysis of its features and the technology against these criteria lead to the conclusion that the system does offer students flexibility in their teaching and learning environment.
The executive management of many universities recognise that recent developments in communications and information technology present opportunities to extend markets and to improve teaching and learning by adopting flexible delivery and learning systems.
This paper overviews inter-relationships between four models for teaching and learning adopted by institutions of higher education: on-campus, distance education, open learning, and flexible delivery and learning systems. Descriptive characteristics of this latest paradigm are presented, and key issues are identified which will assist an institution create a suitable environment to support the implementation of these new teaching and learning systems.
In 1995, the University of Southern Queensland initiated a corporate programme to implement flexible delivery and learning systems. USQ is a leading provider of distance education services with offices in ten countries, serving students in 42 countries. It has an established tradition, culture, policies, structures, procedures and systems that make the introduction of flexible delivery and learning systems a natural extension to its existing educational services.
A system, USQconnect, has been developed utilising the latest Internet and intranet technologies to offer educational resources and support services to students throughout the world. This system is evaluated in terms of its ability to offer students a flexible teaching and learning environment.
2 Flexible delivery and learning systems
Developments in communications and information technology offer new opportunities which are blurring the boundaries between various models of teaching and learning systems previously adopted in the higher education sector, such as on-campus teaching, distance education and open learning systems. But rather than being a new and distinct model for teaching and learning, flexible delivery and learning systems are a variation of the characteristics of these other models, enabled or enhanced by the judicious application of communications and information technologies.
On-campus teaching can be viewed as being the more traditional method of delivery for higher education at our universities. In practice it is largely typified by face to face interaction between a student and the lecturer or tutor, referred by Rumble (1989) as contiguous education. Another important dimension of the on-campus experience is the interaction between students, educationally and socially.
On the other hand, distance education systems deliver learning materials and support services to students located off-campus. Keegan, (1986) has defined distance education to be characterised by:
* the separation of teacher and learner,
* the role of an organisation in providing learning materials and support services,
* the use of a variety of media to present course content,
* the use of two-way communications systems to support dialogue, and
* the limited experience of group based learning.
Rumble refers to the 1984 Manpower Services Commission to define open learning:
Open learning arrangements enable people to learn at the time, place and pace which satisfies their circumstances and requirements. The emphasis is on opening up opportunities by overcoming barriers that result from geographic isolation, personal or work commitments or conventional course structures which have often prevented people from gaining access to the training they need.
Rumble defines 15 characteristics of openness grouped into five categories as being:
access related criteria, ie age, the ability to attend a class, employment status , how tied to an environment the student is (eg a seamen, homemaker etc), relative independence of financial status, and the irrelevance of previous educational qualifications.
criteria related to place and pace of study, ie able to study in a place of own choosing, can begin studying whenever chosen, study at a time chosen, study at chosen pace, and the ability to study independently of deadlines.
criteria related to means, ie the existence of a range of media that allows the student to choose.
structure of programme in terms of content and assessment, ie ability to choose a particular course or section of a course, recognition of prior learning or experience, and a students ability to define learning objectives and to select content, services and assessment method to match.
criteria related to support services, ie the provision of counselling and advisory services.
The characteristics of open learning could be common to both face to face and distance education forms and any particular sample from either system could be labelled in the continuum from closed to open. For example, a distance education programme would be considered to be a closed system if there were an over dependence on prepared media with little choice of content and little interaction with lecturers and other students. The division between face to face and distance education has become less obvious "as many of the approaches used within distance education systems to teach students remotely can also be used to support classroom teaching", (Rumble).
Moore (1983) introduced the concept of transactional distance to define the extent of separation between the teacher and learner. It is a function of two variables: structure and dialogue. Structure refers to the "extent to which educational objectives, teaching strategies, and evaluation methods are prepared for or can be adapted to the objectives of the learner" and can be compared with certain aspects of Rumbles openness. Dialogue refers to the communication flow between teacher and learner. According to Taylor et al (1996, p. 78) dialogue offers these advantages. It:
* personalises the experience for the student.
* overcomes the alienation of distance between teacher and student.
* clarifies students needs.
* involves students in the university culture.
Client focus is a third dimension. Lewis and Spencer (1986) define "open learning as a term to describe courses flexibly designed to met individual requirements. It is often applied to provision which tries to remove barriers that prevent attendances at more traditional courses, but it also suggests a learner-centred philosophy". Following on, Sewart (1988) relates the adoption of a service industry approach or student-centred approach to the provision of education. Sewart identifies the potential conflict that this philosophy might generate in a large scale distance education system which prepares learning packages and "to tacitly assume the subordination of the needs of the individual to that package".
Finally, what characterises a flexible delivery and learning system? Taylor et al (p. xi) uses the term flexible to "refer to practices which utilise the capacities for learner-learner and teacher-learner interaction made possible through recent developments in communications and information technology to provide increased openness in both on- and off-campus delivery of educational material". The concept of flexibility of an educational system can be aligned to the characteristics of openness, transactional distance and student centredness that have been identified in other models, enabled or enhanced by the judicious application of communications and information technologies.
2 Key issues for the adoption of flexible delivery and learning systems
Many universities have identified the opportunities and challenges presented by developments in communications and information technology. On the one hand, new markets are available to those institutions who are able to develop strategies and services that incorporate communications and information technologies that underpin flexible delivery and learning systems. On the other, even the most prestigious campus-based universities will be faced with direct competition from international institutions of higher education.
How should universities make the change to incorporate flexible delivery and learning systems? What policies, expertise and management structures will enable an organisation to embrace the concept of flexibility more easily than another? Taylor et al (p. 100) argues: "While the move to flexibility has to have some strong element of continuity with current practices, it involves a deliberate re-configuration, rather than an abandonment of current good practices ..... flexible approaches must be grounded in local contexts". Key issues can be identified and have guided a comprehensive programme initiated within the University of Southern Queensland over the last two years.
There are two distinct strategies that may be considered in the implementation of a flexible delivery and learning system. One involves a top down approach where university management defines institutional policies, identifies outcomes and assigns resources to achieve these outcomes. This approach offers marketing opportunities as it enables an organisation to prepare a marketing strategy for a complete product such as an award course and all its units of study, offered to a target market. On the down-side, not all staff involved in the course may be enthusiastic participants. Strategies will need to be adopted to encourage the participation of these staff.
A bubble-up strategy is a second alternative. This is a less directed approach, where interested staff are encouraged to trial new instructional methods and utilise communications and information technology infrastructure. This strategy offers the important advantage of harnessing the skills of staff who are enthusiastic about exploring opportunities to improve teaching and learning. However, there remains the need for the organisation to define an overall policy framework to capitalise on these initiatives.
The design of course materials
Teaching and learning systems need to be tailored to suit the topic and discipline. Lundin (1993, pp. 13 - 16) argues that "the use of communications and information technology and open and distance education is as good as or better than face to face programs in terms of both student satisfaction and achievement as well as staff perceptions", and that effective use can be made in any discipline given appropriate design, media, and student support services.
The design of educationally effective course materials in a flexible delivery and learning environment must consider the characteristics of student centredness, transactional distance and openness to enhance the efficacy of teaching and learning. What are the organisational and structural issues that need to be considered to achieve effective systems?
The multi-disciplinary project team, consisting of content specialists, instructional designers, librarians, and technologists, is a proven forum for the design and development of teaching and learning systems that are appropriate to the discipline area. Taylor J.C. (1996) argues that "the key process for improving the quality of teaching and learning is instructional design.... which entails a systematic fine-grained analysis of the knowledge base and associated cognitive skills that provide the foundation of professional expertise in the particular discipline". Librarians play an important role in identifying information resources from a variety of electronic sources. Technologists assist in achieving the best possible outcomes by identifying the features and bounds of a new form of technology and assisting other team members to adapt the technology to each particular educational context.
Encouraging participation by academic staff
Communications and information technology and the development of a flexible delivery and learning system can enhance students educational experiences but it may necessitate a change from current practices. A change management strategy should be adopted which promotes the benefits of the proposed methods, assists staff during the transition, and overcomes any barriers that might be perceived to exist.
Olcott and Wright (1995) argue that the "attitudinal barrier is the single biggest barrier to reform". There is a reluctance by some academic staff to adopt methods other than face to face. As an example, Taylor et al (p. 65) refers to an apparent cultural bias in the academic community against open and distance education and that some academics associate open and distance education with flexible delivery and learning systems.
A staff development programme is an important element of this change management strategy. Firstly, the role of flexible delivery and learning systems within the academic programme should be promoted. Olcott and Wright (1995) argue that it is important "for the academic mission and pedagogical values to become more flexible without compromising the integrity of the academic program". The educational benefits should be emphasised rather than the technology and "focus should change from what technologies are being used to how they are used", Taylor et al, (p. 72). Secondly, a training program should be prepared to address the skills necessary for a productive involvement by academic staff. The appropriateness of techniques should be evaluated in the context of the discipline. For example electronic mail computer conferencing may need to be used differently for teaching mathematics than for the social sciences. Thach and Murphy (1995) include these three items in a list of 10 key competencies:
* knowledge of (flexible teaching and learning)
* basic technology knowledge
* technology access knowledge.
Olcott and Wright also refer to inadequate compensation, training and incentive structures. There are increasing demands being made on academics. Policies need to be adopted which recognise the importance of initiatives relative to other academic pursuits, such as research. The skill involved and the effort required for academics to participate in these programs should also be recognised, and criteria for staff promotion and tenure should reflect institutional priorities.
Intellectual property rights
There needs to be clearly defined institutional policies governing course materials prepared for electronic delivery to facilitate their use in other contexts, eg in other courses, or continued beyond the conclusion of the authors employment contract. Also, procedures must be established that ensure copyright is not breached when materials are published in electronic form.
The concept of the "library without walls" colourfully describes the joint goals of ensuring that students have adequate access to library resources and services, and that the issues of openness and transactional distance are adequately addressed. Networks of electronic information resources, located in the host institution, on subscribed data bases, or on the Internet, should be made available to students by virtue of their course enrolment. Access controls should be developed to ensure institutional obligations as defined in licence agreements, are observed.
Systems should be implemented that support the electronic delivery of library materials, and library support services such as the "virtual reference desk" should be established to offer assistance.
Core business systems
The existence of sophisticated administrative and production systems is essential if flexible delivery and learning systems are to be institutionalised. Flexibility and scalablity are two important characteristics.
Flexibility has been defined in terms of openness and transactional distance. The implementation of many of the 15 criteria for openness defined by Rumble and the reduction of Moores transactional distance requires the existence of a comprehensive students management system linking with other production systems which control a variety of services. For example, there are substantial administrative complexities, such as the production and distribution of teaching and learning resources, associated with offering students the flexibility to:
* begin and conclude studying at a time chosen;
* complete the course at a chosen pace, independent of deadlines;
* select from a range of media; and
* define learning objectives and choose a section of a course, and an assessment method to match.
Scalable business systems are central to the widespread adoption of flexible delivery and learning systems. By scalable, it is meant that the institution can scale a service from small to large numbers of students, without the need for major re-investment in resources, ie economies of scale are achievable. This can only happen if an institutions information systems and corporate data bases are integrated with systems associated with the preparation and delivery of packages of course materials, and the teaching and learning processes. For example, consider the development and delivery of physical study materials (print form, CDs, audio and video tapes). It is important that production schedules are integrated with student enrolment details, so that the correct numbers of packages can be prepared and mailed in time, without waste. As a second example, automated systems need to be in place which create a personalised environment for each student, with controlled access to course materials and services, by virtue of enrolment, or fee payment.
Specially funded pilot studies can be successful for small numbers of students, however, to grow these processes in an institutional context to cater for all students requires coordinated institutional planning and a considerable investment in business systems development.
Quality assurance mechanisms
Expected outcomes and success criteria consistent with institutional goals need to be defined at the outset, and processes established to evaluate outcomes and monitor performance. Students should be surveyed to assess the effectiveness of the programme. Academic staff involved in authoring the course materials or teaching should also be questioned about their experiences.
There must be sufficient flexibility for academic staff to update materials easily, otherwise currency may be compromised. Procedures should be in place or systems developed that ensure materials are presented in conformance to pre-defined standards, and copyright obligations are not breached.
Service guarantees should also be defined with key third party service providers, such as telecommunications providers.
Technology, and technology support infrastructures
The technology infrastructure provides an institution with the opportunity to reach into new markets as well as being the vehicle to improve educational experiences through increased openness and reduced transactional distance. It includes such facilities as telecommunications services, networks, network servers, and software as well as the clients computer, modem and telephone service.
Technology infrastructures within the institution must be reliable. Like power, water and telephone services, clients have the right to expect that the services are available when required. Hours of service operation ought to be determined in the light of international time zones of target markets, with appropriate considerations given to telecommunications, network, computer equipment and client support services. The end-to-end service is judged by the client, even though many areas of potential failure are not the responsibility of the host university. Technical support services are essential to assist clients to identify the source of any problem and to devise a solution. Universities must make considerable investment in these infrastructure and support services, for an acceptable standard of reliability to exist.
3 The case study context at USQ.
The University of Southern Queensland has targeted the implementation of flexible delivery and learning systems as a focal strategy. The initiative commenced in 1995 with the formation of the Vice-Chancellors Standing Committee on Flexible Delivery consisting of the Universitys senior executive and the Director of Information Technology Services.
Following the successful completion of a pilot programme in 1996, each of the six faculties has prepared a three year rolling plan outlining its strategy for adopting flexible delivery and learning systems. The programme has continued into 1998 which will see the offering of five whole courses delivered across the Internet, and the involvement of 128 units of study, where each unit is equivalent to one quarter of a full time workload for a semester.
A bubble-up strategy was adopted during the initial stage of the programme, whereby academic staff were invited to register an interest in participating. An evenly distributed response from all faculties was received and all proposals were accepted into the programme. This offered an ideal opportunity to trial techniques with the support of enthusiastic participants. These early adopters have since played an important role in mentoring their colleagues.
The bubble-up approach was continued into subsequent years of the programme. As well, a directed top-down strategy was adopted in four faculties each of which has targeted one or more complete postgraduate courses, the Master of Professional Accounting, the Graduate Certificate in Open and Distance Learning, the Master of Editing and Publishing, the Master of Business Information Technology, and the Master of Professional Communication. There are perceived to be distinct benefits in being able to offer complete products to target markets, firstly from a marketing perspective, and secondly to encourage students to invest in equipment that would allow them to benefit from enhanced services.
The universitys 20 years of experience offering distance education services has provided an ideal environment in which to advance the concepts associated with a flexible delivery and learning system. The policy framework and the organisational structures were already in place within the institution to address the design, development, production and delivery of packages of course materials and extensive support services. Historically, technologies had been used widely in the distance education programme: during the preparation of packages of course materials and to support the teaching and learning processes, especially using print, audiotape, videotape, computer based learning, audioteleconferencing, videoconferencing, audiographic communication and interactive multimedia.
The adoption of flexible delivery and learning systems has seen a natural progression to include emerging technologies into the mainstream academic programme. Particular focus has been placed on the application of Interactive Multimedia (IMM), World Wide Web (WWW) and Computer Mediated Communications (CMC) technologies, in conjunction with CD-ROM and Internet/intranet access delivery technologies.
Self contained IMM packages have been developed for a number of specific discipline areas and topics. Many of these have been funded by government grants, and are examples of leading edge applications of IMM techniques to an educational context, presenting content in an effective way, supported by audio, video, simulations, and test questions. IMM offers opportunities to enhance the educational effectiveness of materials by addressing many of the characteristics of openness and the structural aspect of transactional distance. IMM is primarily delivered to students off-line on a CD-ROM disk, and this is likely to continue for some time until broadband telecommunications networks are widely available.
The inclusion of CMC within a unit presents an opportunity to improve dialogue between student and lecturer and between students, reducing transactional distance. It has become to be the most widely adopted technology within those units of study included in the programme, and is used by both on-campus and off-campus students.
Course materials have also been prepared for electronic publishing in World Wide Web form for access via the Internet. Existing packages of resource materials are supplemented with additional Web-based resources, eg simulations, audio, test banks, hyperlinks to Internet resources. The Graduate Certificate of Open and Distance Learning was the first accredited course to be delivered entirely via the Internet offered by an Australian university, and students from 10 countries are currently enrolled in the course.
The World Wide Web has been adopted also as a technology to deliver services to students across the Internet and campus networks.
4 Implementing a flexible environment with a student intranet
The university has developed an innovative system, known as USQconnect, which is designed to enhance the teaching and learning environment for its students. USQconnect offers students a single window into a comprehensive range of educational and support services, personalised for each student, accessed from any location on USQ campuses, by dial-in services to USQ campuses, or from anywhere in the world via the Internet. USQconnect is a student intranet, using technologies traditionally associated with the Internet to address the needs of the target audience. It is easy to use and offers a consistent graphical interface for all services.
USQconnect presents students with a flexible learning environment. This can be demonstrated by analysing its features in terms of the characteristics of flexibility defined earlier, ie student centredness, transactional distance and openness. Its benefits can be summarised as follows:
Student Centredness (Sewart) and Openness relating to support services (Rumble)
* Each student is allocated an individual registration and password to enable personalised services to be presented.
* There is a welcome menu personalised for each student.
* Each student can access electronic instructional materials that correspond to his/her own enrolment, and no others.
* Internet access quotas are allocated based on each students enrolment and unit requirements.
* Students can publish their own home pages.
* It offers a single window to a range of on-line services that can be easily expanded eg:
Transactional Distance - dialogue (Moore)
* Synchronous and asynchronous computer conferencing systems offer many forms of interaction that can be tailored to the learning environment.
* Dialogue is supported between student and lecturer, and between students, regardless of location and time of access.
* Communications can be private or shared between group members.
* All student inquiries are automatically routed to the appropriate service provider, without the need to know university structures and responsibilities.
* A virtual library reference desk has been established.
* Frequently asked questions are published.
* An on-line evaluation form is available for every unit of study.
Transactional Distance - Structure (Moore) and Openness relating to Structure (Rumble)
Students are able to select course content, services, and assessment methods to match. Course materials are structured to offer student choice and content selection, supported by a variety of media.
Openness relating to means (Rumble)
* A range of media are offered and students can choose.
* On-line services are delivered via USQconnect:
Other media are available in traditional forms
Openness relating to access (Rumble)
* Services are accessible worldwide via the Internet with a standard Web browser.
* Internet access costs are beginning to decrease to a level acceptable to the Australian and international community.
* The student population is becoming more technically competent in the use of computing facilities.
Openness relating to place and pace of study (Rumble)
* A student is able to choose his/her place of study: on-campus, via dial-in services or via the Internet.
* A student can study at a chosen time. On-line services are subject to telecommunications availability. Alternative media forms are usually available
* A student can study at a chosen pace within a semester timeframe.
The student intranet, USQconnect, has also been designed to address three critical issues for the institution. Firstly, by virtue of the personalised presentation of services and resources tailored to the needs and entitlements of each student, intellectual property rights of course materials and reference materials are protected from unauthorised access. Secondly, the system is scalable. Each personalised environment is created automatically by full systems integration with the universitys corporate data bases. While network and server capacity is dependent upon the number of users, all administrative procedures such as registrations, access control and quota allocations are fully automated. Thirdly, the issue of currency of study materials is addressed with the provision of services that enable academic staff to add ancillary materials at any stage, easily, for immediate distribution to students, without the need for specialist technical assistance.
Examples of face-to face teaching, distance education and open learning systems can be categorised in terms of the concepts of openness, transactional distance, and student centredness. While a flexible delivery and learning system exhibits these three characteristics, it also incorporates communications and information technology in the delivery and learning processes and in the provision of associated educational services.
Institutions who choose to implement flexible delivery and learning systems will need to address key issues, such as: an overall policy framework within the context of its institutional goals; organisational structures that can produce effective teaching and learning systems; change management strategies to overcome barriers; and adequate technology infrastructures.
The level of re-configuration is likely to be less in universities with a culture of providing distance education services. Distance education providers have adopted strategies to address the development of appropriate educational materials and support services to remote students. Academic staff have accepted the need to prepare study materials that are transformed into study packages by a standard process. While there is undoubtedly a great variation as to how this may occur, the issues of openness and transactional distance are understood at an organisational level. The developments of communications and information technology present opportunities for these universities to further improve their teaching and learning systems.
USQs experience as a one of Australias leading providers of distance education has meant that many of the policies, structures and systems that are critical for a successful implementation of flexible delivery and learning systems are already established. One of the most recent strategies adopted concerns the implementation of a student intranet which uses the World Wide Web as an umbrella technology to offer a comprehensive set of educational resources and services. By analysing the functionality of this system in terms of the three characteristics of student centredness, transactional distance and openness, it can be concluded that the system is highly consistent with the concepts of a flexible delivery and learning system.
Keegan, D. (1986) The foundations of distance education, Beckenham, Croom Helm, p. 49.
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