Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Participant's Opinion

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jan 19, 1998

Posted to DEOS-L 20 Jan 1998

Peter Faulhaber writes, Now we want to use internet. The following course we want to offer: The student apply to the course via on online Intake form. He chooses which parts he want to learn about e.g. Word 97. The material is cut into chunks and is stored in a Database. When the student made his choice via a server the material is gathered, lay - out and send via e-mail to the student. The student can print out is fully personal learning material. We choose this option for two reasons: 1. Reading via a computerscreen is still much more tyring than reading a print out material. 2. The student don't have to switch between Internet and e.g. Word 97. Help is offered via an Internetsite. The student can send an email to the trainer, chat to the other students, look into a FAQ and look into a Database.

Peter's methodology is illustrative of a principle in distance education which has not been discussed to any great length on this list: customization. While there has been a lot of chat about learner-centred course design, few people have challenged the idea that the basic unit of instruction is the course.

In fact, if distance education design - especially on the internet - is to become relevant to the student, and cost-efficient to the teaching institution, designers are going to have to look at ways of dividing course content into much smaller chunks, to be assembled into a learning package on an as-needed basis.

At Assiniboine, we are designing our courses in three hour chunks called "modules". This is documented at By designing courses in this way, we can assemble new courses in a matter of minutes to meet the precise demands of the student, our corporate partners, or government. In a demo last week, for example, I designed an eight hour course, called "Internet Communications", in about 10 minutes by combining modules from our Computer Systems course and our English course.

Peter is using this methodology to build what are, essentially, print courses supported by email. His reasoning, quoted above, is two-fold: it's hard to read from computer screens, and it's hard (especially for beginners) to switch between two applications at once.

But I think students will find this mode of delivery limiting. True, courses can and should be supported by print material. As the Wired editors pointed out some months back, print is an unparalleled medium for high-content thought. And web designers have known for some time that users do not read web pages, they scan them. However, not all aspects of all courses are best delivered via print media.

Computer programs are a good example of this. While it is possible to learn how to run software from a book alone (the 'Teach yourself in 21 days' series is an excellent example), it is easier to learn if you see the operations demonstrated on the screen in front of you. The tutorial in "Scientific Notebook" is a good example ("Scientific Notebook" is a mat/science document processing program; highly recommended).

CD-ROM versions of computer courses have been doing this for some time now. The program operation is captured (with products like, eg., Lotus's "Screen Cam", another recommended product), saved as a video file (usually .avi) and stored on the CD-ROM. Such video clips are then displayed at appropriate times by, say, Macromedia's "Director".

The problem with such demonstrations, as they apply to internet delivery of course materials, is that they are much too large to be delivered reliably over the internet. Bandwidth is currently to small. This is a situation which will change rapidly. We are on the cusp of the 10 megabyte/second internet era. Additionally, file compression can reduce even large movie files to a fraction of their original size. And video streaming, while still in its infancy, is fast becoming a proven technology.

But an additional problem with the print-based / email supported model that Peter describes is that it too much resembles the traditional 'do-it-yourself' approach to distance learning. The student is viewed as isolated, essentially working on his or her on, obtaining tutorial support only on an as-needed basis. In my opinion, this factor of isolation is one of the major factors preventing distance learning from becoming much more widespread than it is today.

For education is not merely an intellectual activity, it is a social activity. The process of learning requires not only the acquisition of new information, it also requires validation and reinforcement. People need not only to know what they've learned, they need also to be told that what they have learned is socially appropriate, that the manner in which they express that learning follows community conventions. The classic case of the self-taught learner is one who - embarassingly - mispronounces "Socrates" in a social gathering. The social dimension of learning mitigates errors in the nuances of what is learned.

For that reason, much more interaction is recommended. Communication, not only with the instructor, but also with other studentss, is to be encouraged. And where possible, communication in several media - voice and video, specifically, are preferred over a simple email model. Again, the technology which supports this is in its infancy. However, like streaming audio, it is on the verge of becoming widely accepted.

As an initial first step, I would recommend supplementing your email support and web site with two key resources: a discussion list, and a chat area. Here there are many options to choose from. David Woolley's excellent "Conferencing on the World Wide Web" site will help you there. Give the link a little time; it's not the fastest in the world. For comments on integrating communication into your course materials, see my "Effective Interaction and Communication in Web Based Courses" (contents page: )

One nice piece of software we are working with at Assiniboine is called ICQ (I Seek You). (I think they also have running now). This program lets you define a list of friends (typically, your class) and lets you know when they are on-line. It allows you to quickly send short messages, transfer files, chat in real-time, refer URLs, and launch any of a number of conferencing programs.

But plan for more intense communications. With higher bandwidth and better compression, desk-top videoconferencing is rapidly becoming a reality. The best software I have seen for this is Microsoft's Netmeeting ( ). In addition to video-conferencing, it also allows you to manipulate a remote screen. This is very useful if you wish to demonstrate an application.

The idea behind such methods of improved communications is not only to transmit learning materials more effectively, it is also to build a web-based community. When students become a member of a community, their learning takes on a larger role in their life. Logging on, chatting with the other students, accomplishing a module, passing a test - all these things begin to *matter* to a student, not only in a learning context, but also in a social context. Achievement is reinforced when achievement takes place in a community which rewards achievement (conversely, achievement is minimized when achievement takes place in a community which does not reward achievement, or even, when it takes place outside a community at all).

What this means at your end is committment to more ongoing resources and support for your internet courses. If you intend to market globally, plan on staffing your site with chat moderators and tutors 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Your convenors should not only be knowledgable in the subject area, they should also be warm, welcoming folk who encourage new students (who will be hesitant at first) deeper into your web community.

This is not only good education (and it *is* good education), it is also good business. You are not only teaching your student a new skill, you are building a relation with that student. By drawing the student into your community, you are ensuring repeat business and tremendous word-of-mouth (one of the most powerful forces on the net) advertising.

Again, as with the course materials, your interaction and communication with the student should be as completely customized as possible. Mopderators should be able to draw from your database all relevant information about the student and his or her classes. Students should be encouraged to seek out peers with similar course (module) selections and expressed interests. Corners of your site should be assigned for each of the various groups which will inevitably form. Student-generated content will greatly enhance your site's value and usefulness, and it will also increase the students' sense of belonging to the community.

Distance education in the future will succeed by emulating those aspects of traditional education which were so successful - the social aspect, the community aspect - and by discarding those aspects of traditional education which were not successful - flat unidimensional presentations, cookie-cutter content. By provideding a customized, community-based, content-rich learning environment you will provide students with much more than mere training, and will be well on the way to providing a rewarding distance learning experience.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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