(1999, July). Towards the Virtual
Class: Technology Issues from a Fractal Management Perspective.
Proceedings of the ED-MEDIA 99-World Conference on Educational Multimedia,
Hypermedia & Telecommunications.
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This paper addresses the research question:
What are some of the key information and communication technology
issues from a fractal management perspective when implementing the virtual
class in conventional higher education? It also suggests
effective management strategies for dealing with the identified issues. The
specific manifestation of the virtual class referred to in this study is when
the virtual class is based on Internet and Intranet technologies. The term
"networked education", coined by the writer is used to describe this
expression of the virtual class. The study concludes that the implementation of
the virtual class in conventional higher education has an extensive and
profound impact on, and demands new ways of using and managing information and
single most frequent failure in the history of forecasting
has been grossly underestimating the impact of technologies"
The research question addressed in this
paper is: What are some of the key information and communication
technology issues from a fractal management perspective when implementing the
virtual class in conventional higher education? This paper
attempts to identify what some of the key technology issues are when the virtual
class is implemented in conventional higher education and ways to address
Rayport and Sviokla (1995) summarise the essence of the virtuality
of the virtual class when they write about a corresponding phenomenon in the
business world that they term the "marketspace"
that is a virtual market place. They characterise it
as being "virtual" because the value-adding processes "...are
performed through and with information".
Tiffin & Rajasingham
(1995) first used the term "virtual class" to refer to the learning
process that is enabled solely by telecommunications. Tiffin & Rajasingham (1995) distinguishes the concept of the virtual
class from the "Virtual Classroom" coined by Roxanne Hiltz (1986) as "...it suggests that the place a
virtual class is held is an electronic simulation of a conventional
classroom" (p. 10) because Hiltz described it as
the use of computer-mediated communications "...to create electronic
analogue of the communications forms that usually occur in a classroom
including discussion as well as lectures and tests" (p. 95).
The virtual class can be described as the
process that occurs when teacher, learner, problem and knowledge are joined
solely through communication and information technologies for the purpose of
learning and teaching. It is an educational experience of real people in a
virtual dimension. In the virtual class the teaching and learning is performed
without the movement of physical objects (eg getting
students and lecturers into a physical venue).
The specific manifestation of the virtual
class referred to in this study is when the virtual class is based on the
Internet or Intranet technologies. The term "networked education",
coined by the writer is used to describe this expression of the virtual class.
Networked education emphasises the high level of
connectivity that it enables through creating a network between student en
student, student and teacher, student and resources, teacher and resources as
well as the past and the present (through availability of on-line resources of
one course occurrence for a next occurrence). It also indicates that the
education is network-based (Internet or intranet) and computer-mediated, that
it includes teaching, learning and research ("education"), and emphasises the distribution both of the control of
learning, as well as the on-line learning and teaching materials among the
students and teacher(s).
The virtual nature of this type of learning
can remove the conventional prompts to assist the learner to focus on their
studies for example when the lecturer starts to speak in a face-to-face
on-campus lesson, or the arrival of study materials in paper-based distance
education mode. It is therefore essential in the virtual environment to build
in prompts to assist in this area for example automatic e-mail based on the
course schedule as well as on the participation of each individual student.
The most significant loss students often
experienced in an on-line environment are the lack of mobility of the study
The affordability and weight of portable
computers such as Laptop computers and notebooks negate these technologies from
being an adequate provider of mobility. Smaller hand-held palmtop computers
with infrared updating capabilities are a positive step in re-creating the
mobility for on-line students.
Another development which is currently
experimented with by MIT (Nicholas Negroponte at the 1997 ICDE Conference) and
by commercial companies in the
A complete set of technologies, which have become
transparent through their pervasive integration into every-day life is required
to make conventional on-campus or distance education possible. This set of
technologies include roads, vehicles, electricity, air conditioning, buildings,
ducting, clothing, aids such as spectacles, food preparation technologies,
piping, systems dealing with waste, entertainment systems and so forth. At the
same time these technologies require skills and knowledge which in most cases
have become totally transparent through our frequent and natural use of it for
example navigating buildings and roads.
The virtual class is per definition based
on communication and information technologies. Education in this environment
similarly needs a whole range of technologies, which often corresponds to the
ones described above. At this stage the technologies required to enable the
virtual class are however not only in its infancy and undergoing revolutionary
changes, but the full complement of what is required is not even fully clear yet.
In the current phase of establishing the virtual class, there are often new realisations of totally new technologies needed or
significant changes required to existing technologies (like Word-processing
HTML documents). It might be that the virtual class at this stage is creating
more questions than being nicely tied down according to our traditional
conventions. In this scenario communication and information technologies can be
seen to be more of a hurdle than an enabling agent.
The virtual class therefore requires of
both student and lecturer to assume a sophisticated level of computer literacy
and use. While the on-line lecturer may have support within the tertiary
educational institute through a computer department and a network of
colleagues, the students often may not have the same advantage. It is therefore
essential to provide technical assistance not only via on-line help
information, but also through a technical help desk function which can be
reached by telephone and fax.
A conventional tertiary educational
institute interested in using technology-based education like the virtual class
seems to require therefore an extensive use of CIT throughout the organisation. At the University of Melbourne, Australia,
where a campus wide information system (CWIS) was implemented, Goldenfarb (1995) noted that one barrier to the successful
implementation of the CWIS was low IT skills. Goldenfarb
also notes that "...if the problem is identified, it can be overcome and
the department can become a successful adopter".
In embracing the virtual class, an organisation per definition also embraces communication and
information technologies on a wide base and with it the requirement for higher
and new levels of computer literacy of their academic an administrative staff
as well as their students.
In networked education the materials and
teaching process is in a state of continuity while these are in a state of
discontinuity in conventional tertiary education. Once a course is on the Web,
it remains available and no special arrangements need to keep it continually
available; special arrangements however have to be made to discontinue
Effectively managing the discontinuity of
on-line materials as a result of the discontinuity of human involvement is
vital to meet student expectations and provide ongoing support, and in so doing
avoiding that the institute comes in disrepute. An example of discontinuity is
when a course is in a specialised academic area and
the lecturers discontinue their involvement with the course. The on-line course
materials will still remain on-line and might become obsolete, or when removed
causes frustration to on-line users when unsuccessfully attempting to locate
In a paper-based distance education
environment or a face-to-face physical teaching environment, the discontinuity
of a lecturer can be addressed by the discontinuity of the mailings or the
classes at an appropriate point. Two factors contribute to the problem. Firstly
the on-line materials are often registered with search engines and guides on
the Internet. The URL is then bookmarked within a web browser by users who may
also share the URL with others in a network of contacts. Secondly the on-line
materials need to be kept up to date if it needs to remain available.
The virtual class thus needs special
approaches to ensure a seamless discontinuity like de-registering the materials
with the search engines and guides, replacing the course materials with clear
notices to that effect or contacting those whom the institute know have
bookmarked the materials.
It is quite staggering to see how many
computer products for the development of on-line courses take the notion for
granted that course elements ("course objects") - including media
elements - are to be stored in flat directory structures.
Often the HTML files media elements and
scripts are being stored on servers in an organised
flat directory structure, which is reminiscent of how data was stored before
the 1980’s. Since then relational databases and object oriented databases
have clearly emerged as more effective and sound ways of storing information in
Some comprehensive and specialised
databased software have been developed for on-line
course generation eg "Hyperwave"
(initially developed as "Hyper-G") (Hyperwave
1998) and TLM (The Learning Manager) and Lotus Learning Space.
A major challenge in the virtual class is
addressing the issues of dialogue across the response and psychological
distance between teacher and learner. "Distance" in the virtual class
however is no longer defined in terms of physical proximity but in response
time (comment made by Nicholas Negroponte at the 18th World International
Council for Distance Education Conference in June 1997).
There is also another type of distance
which Caladine (1993) explains as 'transactional
distance' which is the psychological distance between learner and learner, and
learner and teacher. Caladine indicates that
transactional distance in technology-delivered education is greatly impacted by
the technology itself: "...one of the most important determining factors
is the medium of communication". Terry Evans and Daryl Nation (1992) seem
to agree when they state that virtual class practices "...do not eliminate
the problems of distance between teachers and learners but create their
own" (p. 9).
Complicating this issue is a changing
relationship between student and lecturer. In the conventional class, the
teacher often has a one-to-many relationship with the students, which is based
on the conventional teaching model as well as on convenience for the students.
Students in a course will often relate with the academic community solely via
the convenor of the course when seeking
clarification, feedback, additional instruction or wish to challenge ideas. The
on-line student however is "...no longer confined to our campus and its
teachers and students and activities"
Synchronous on-line communication
facilities like Internet Relay Chat (IRC), voice, video-conferencing and shared
whiteboard facilities over the Web provide social interaction in a more natural
way, and also build some accountability into on-line courses. Asynchronous
mechanisms like electronic mail, hypermail-threaded
message and newsgroups are effective in bridging both time and space.
Addressing the social needs of on-line
students and on-line teachers are critical. Strategies like newsgroups,
electronic mail discussion lists, synchronous on-line meetings, arranging some
kind of meetings in the physical realm with other students, designing courses
with a high level of interactivity and using photographs and video clips of
students and lecturers within a course can all be used to address these needs.
… and suggests that our thinking
about those issues itself must recognise that a
'smooth evolutionary transition' to the widespread use of more flexible modes
of delivery is not likely. Indeed, his work suggests it may be far more
productive to conceptualise the process of evolution
in terms of dislocations, dilemmas and uncertainties rather than projections
from 'what is' to 'what is needed'.
At the University of Melbourne, Australia,
where a campus wide information system (CWIS) was implemented, (Goldenfarb 1995), a research project looked closely at the
first ten departments adopting the use of CWIS and set out to test if critical
success factors in diffusing innovations, identified in the literature and at
other universities played key roles in diffusing the CWIS in this University. Goldenfarb found that:
In the final analysis of departments
against criteria measures for successful adoption, the departments that recognised the low skills as barrier found solutions to
this problem and rated highly in the ranking order. On the other hand, the
department that had very high IT skills but did not see a clear advantage in
adopting ranked last. The department that did not see a clear relative
advantage didn't have full commitment from the head of the department. Many
other departments reported success in obtaining commitment from the leader,
when clear benefits were demonstrated in trial/pilot projects.
Understanding the benefits of the virtual
class, like possible productivity increases of academic staff, is therefore
essential for administrative managers and academic staff to take a positive
interest in the implementation of the virtual class.
The possibility in the virtual class to
work collaboratively has become a strong motivation to consider networked
education. This is not surprising if one considers the nature of the underlying
distributed technologies of the virtual class that is the Internet and
intranets - the purpose of which in essence is to enable connectivity - be it
to share resources or contact other people. This fundamental characteristic of
the virtual class needs to be fully explored in areas like on-line
communication, use of on-line resources, collaborative research activities and
the transnational recognition of prior learning and qualifications.
Does conventional tertiary education have
the ability to change as dramatically as the new media seem to demand> Can
it respond in such a flexible, dynamic and adaptable way? Thomas, Carswell, Price and Petre (1998)
argues for the "transformation of practices (both teaching and
administrative) to take advantage of technology in order to provide needed
functions, rather than superficial translation of existing practices".
Taylor, Lopez and Quadrelli
(1996) believe it to be improbable:
As technology becomes more pervasive in
all aspects of teaching and administration, both academic and general staff
roles are being transformed. New positions and skills are required across all
key areas. From the diversity of staff development strategies and activities
that universities are adopting, we identified three approaches to deal with
this challenge. These approaches will need to support an accelerated shift from
teaching to learning, delivered not by individual lecturers but by
multi-functional teams. Universities are poorly equipped and under resourced to
manage this strategic change.
It is important that the future must not be
inhibited by what we have been doing in the past; we have a great opportunity
to rethink teaching, learning and research; to uncritically replicate in the
virtual class what happens in conventional on-campus and distance education
would be a tragedy.
a time of drastic change it is the learners who survive;
"learned" find themselves fully equipped
live in a world that no longer exists"
Caladine, R. (1993). Overseas Experience in
Non-Traditional Modes of Delivery in Higher Education Using State-of-the-Art
Technologies: A Literature Review. Australian Government Printing
Evans, T. and Nation, D. (1992). Theorising open and
distance education, Open Learning, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 3-13.
Hiltz, S. R (1986). The virtual classroom: using
computer mediated communications for university teaching, Journal
of Communications 36(2).
Hyperwave (1998). Welcome to Hyperwave.
Available: [1998, March 17].
Morrison, T.R. 1995, 'Global
transformation and the search for a new educational design',
International Journal of Lifelong Education, vol. 14, pp. 188-213.
Rayport, J. F., & Sviokla, J. J.
(1995). Exploiting the virtual value chain. Harvard Business Review,
November - December 1995, 75-85.
Rogers, E. (1983). Diffusion of
Innovations (3rd edition), Free Press,
Taylor, P. G.
, Lopez, L. & Quadrelli, C. (1996). Flexibility, Technology and Academic staff' Practices:
Tantalising Tales and Muddy Maps.
Thomas, O., Carswell,
L., Price, B., Petre, M., 1998. A holistic
approach to supporting distance learning using the Internet: transformation,
not translation. British Journal of Educational Technology, Vol 29, No 2, pp.149-161. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Uys, P. M (1998). Towards the
Virtual Class: On-line Hypermedia in Higher Education in The