Other papers and publications by the writer are available from his personal website


Uys, P.M. (1998, April). Seminar "The hydi Educational New Media Centre: Findings in Distributed On-line Education" at the Knowledge Media Institute of the Open University, UK.


http://www.globe-online.com/philip.uys/ www.globe-online.com,philip.uys,kmi1998.htm


The hydi Educational New Media Centre:
Findings In Distributed On-line Education

Dr Philip Uys

Senior Lecturer and Project Director : Educational New Media

Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand

E-mail: philip.uys@globe-online.com

Personal homepage: http://www.globe-online.com/philip.uys

Seminar at the Knowledge Media Institute of the Open University in London, UK.

2 April 1998



If you need assistance in the strategic implementation of e-Learning (networked education/distributed learning) in your institute, you are welcome to contact philip.uys@globe-online.com to discuss your needs.



Table of Contents


1. Introduction

"Reality isn't what it used to be."

Steinar Kvale

In this seminar /seminar the use of educational new media and in particular on-line hypermedia in higher educational institutes is discussed within two given frameworks. Firstly within the current transition in higher educational institutes from traditional learning to virtual class learning - also called "telelearning"(Tiffin & Rajasingham, 1995) and "distributed on-line education" (Uys, 1998).

The second framework is the action research findings of the hydi Educational New Media Centre (Uys, March 1998) in implementing the virtual class since September 1995. The growth of the centre has underscored the words of Prof Robert Spence (Professor of Information Engineering, Imperial College, London) at a New Zealand Computer Society Conference: "Visions are vitally important; they lead to plans which translate into opportunities."

On-line hypermedia and the advent of intranets extensively increase the ease and feasibility of offering the same educational facilities to local students and distance students. This convergence of learning modes which traditionally have been called "distance education" and "on-campus education" means that both learning control as well as on-line learning and teaching materials are distributed to both local and distance students using the same interface (ie a Web browser). Hence the term "distributed on-line education", coined by the author, which will be used throughout this seminar to denote learning in the virtual class.

"Hypermedia" is defined as multi-media (which includes text, movement, sound, pictures, colour) with hyper-links, which seamlessly transports the reader to other hypermedia materials.

The virtual class is seen as an electronic meeting place of students and lecturers for the purpose of learning and teaching - an educational experience of real people in a virtual dimension. In the virtual class the activities of the traditional educational institute is performed mostly without the movement of physical objects (eg getting students and lecturers into a physical venue); this includes the challenge of providing social interaction and a "campus experience" to on-line students.

The virtual class can take many forms, it might be for example on-line education using the Internet or an intranet, or meeting in virtual reality as telepresences, or combining these methods with traditional educational modes. Moving towards the virtual class for some higher educational institutes mean to move all education from traditional education to virtual class methods, or it might mean to incorporate the virtual class as one of the key educational strategies.

The reasons why higher educational institutes are considering moving towards the virtual class include the need for life long learning. Education is becoming more of a lifelong endeavour than a few years stint after school because most careers require continued training to keep up with the growing body of relevant knowledge and also because of the modern tendency to develop more than one career during a person’s working life. Distributed on-line education is attractive to those already in the work force because of its open and flexible nature.

Emerging as a strong rationale for using distributed on-line education is that it can greatly enhance the quality of learning. It can lessen two huge problems in traditional distance education ie decrease in personal motivation and a sense of isolation. Both asynchronous (e-mail, message boards) and real time on-line communication facilities (voice, video, Internet Relay Chat and shared whiteboards over the Net) can be used very effectively in this area. It also bridges the boundaries and limitations of time and space, provide for a variety of learning styles as well as for different navigational preferences. Students can also take more control of their learning and can develop "life" skills like time management and research skills, by students having to set there own study plans, find additional Web resources, having to evaluate its validity and then drawing sound conclusions.

The following aspects of distributed on-line education will be highlighted:

  • Some of the key management issues as higher educational institutes progress towards the virtual class
  • Navigational paths and different learning styles
  • On-line communication facilities (both synchronous and asynchronous)
  • Designing for a constructivist learning approach
  • Database support for on-line course generation.


2. Some key management issues as higher educational institutes progress towards the virtual class

"Do not be afraid of going slowly,

be afraid of standing still."

Eastern Proverb

Four key management issues are discussed here: an approach for organizational change, convergence of traditional on-campus and distance education, ensuring adequate motivation for virtual class facilitators and dealing with an increasing proximity between industry and education.

2.1 An approach for organizational change

The concept of the virtual class is new to most higher educational institutes and introduces organizational change; this was also the case at Massey University at Wellington where an On-line Campus has been created while traditional educational strategies have also been continued.

The On-line Campus is part of the vision to combine hypermedia on the World Wide Web as an on-line education medium, with other educational strategies to provide education to both overseas, national and local students in an open and flexible manner.

The main aims of the centre - through research, consulting, development and teaching - are to increase

  • the quality of learning
  • educational opportunities
  • profit
  • student numbers and
  • staff productivity.

A key factor in the success of the on-line campus project at Massey University at Wellington was that the vision of on-line delivery was a shared one between the President and the Project Director. This assisted tremendously in introducing this new concept.

For acceptance of the "virtual class" concept , it has been important to create a general awareness following both a top-down and bottom-up approach. After the President accepted the proposal and appointed the Project Director, the Project Director then asked staff who have shown some personal interest in on-line education, to join the project in the required roles. The President agreed to launch the concept at a breakfast for the Directorate (top management) - with other specially invited staff - and the project team. The Project Director also provided input on a monthly basis at the Senior Management’s meetings. A number of general sessions were held for other staff. Each deliverable has also been publicly launched.

The concept of a pilot project to develop the Wellington Polytechnic Homepage was used so that the team could gain a better understanding of Web technologies and gain an understanding of the resource requirements.

The pilot project concept was again used when the first on-line course, ‘Teaching Techniques for Adult Learning’ was developed. This free sampler provides interested parties a taste of what on-line courses at Wellington Polytechnic can be like (different delivery approaches however are followed in other on-line courses.

Overall, the seven stages of Lewin and Schein’s model for organizational change (Stair, 1992) were followed. These stages are listed with a description of how each step was applied in this project:

a. Scouting: Identify potential areas or systems that may need change: educational planning, development and delivery

b. Entry: Stating the problems and the goals: included and described in the initial proposal document

c. Diagnosis: Gathering data and determining resources required: described in the initial proposal document and further developed during the pilot project and the development of the Sampler course

d. Planning: Examining alternatives and making decisions: some early decisions were contained in the initial proposal document eg that the Web is to be used as key delivery medium; others were made by using the prototype and Sampler concepts where a large degree of exploration, discovery and experimentation was allowed for in all areas : educational, technical and design.

e. Action: Implementing the decisions: decisions were followed through in a consistent manner.

f. Evaluation: Determining whether the changes satisfied the initial objectives and solved the problems identified: this process has been carried out continuously in weekly and later fort-nightly project meetings, informal and open discussions, feedback by students who were asked to "test-drive" the courses and by enrolled students. Valuable feedback from trusted colleagues at other higher educational institutes were also obtained. It is essential that continual student feedback is sought and also that ongoing technical evaluation occurs to ensure that the most appropriate technologies are being used in an effective way.

g. Termination: Transferring the ownership of the new / changed system to the users and ensuring efficient operation: if the content providers (as clients) are intimately involved from start to implementation, this transition should take place in a fluent and satisfactory way.

The above model seems to work well if the seven stages are not seen as consecutive, but as dynamic dimensions of a process. Flexibility and giving a high priority to people-issues proved to be essential ingredients in the success of introducing this change in Massey University at Wellington.

2.2 Convergence

With the advent of intranets, the ease and feasibility of offering the same facilities to local students that are being offered to distance students have increased extensively. With the same interface (ie a Web browser), on-line education and teaching materials are available to both local and distance students.

Traditionally, centres for distance education were often "the minority" who understood and used information technology in education out of necessity because of its ease of distribution, ease of maintenance and later because of its potential to increase the quality of learning and teaching. At the same time their colleagues carried on with face-to-face education with workload formulas based on contact hours as a key component and lecturing in bigger and bigger lecture halls.

On the other hand, some educational institutes have the majority of their on-line materials solely for the use of local students.

Scenarios like these indicate that the possibility and reality of convergence of both local and distance education modes is a paradigm shift which is currently being made by only a small number of higher educational institutes.

What does this convergence look like in reality? It means that teaching and learning materials are available on-line and that it is used by academic staff as well as local and distance students in a creative way. Local students may have all their lecture notes on-line as well-designed hypermedia courseware which include on-line communication facilities, different navigation paths, catering for different learning styles, access and pointers to other Web resources and exercises. The local students may also have face-to-face tutorials to work through exercises and sit tests and exams in a physical building. Distance students may also have all their lecture notes on-line, have on-line real-time tutorials, attend workshops on the physical campus, and do their assignments on-line. However the synergy of this convergence is that local and distance students can meet on-line as well as physically, evaluate each other’s on-line published materials, do group assignments together, form informal study groups etc!

Instead of trying to meet traditional workload formulas and extend often ineffective class room and distance education techniques, this convergence rather look at creating the best possible learning scenarios for both local and distance students in a more flexible way.

This convergence of learning modes which traditionally have been called "distance education" and "on-campus education" means that both learning control as well as on-line learning and teaching materials are distributed to both local and distance students using the same interface (ie a Web browser). Hence the term "distributed on-line education".

Managing this convergence is a key aspect in the transition towards the virtual class.

2.3 Ensuring adequate motivation for virtual class facilitators

It is essential that reward systems are tied to the strategic objectives and directions of an institute. If an institute desires to move towards the virtual class, its reward systems should encourage those involved to become more effective and committed to it.

In general it can be said that academics don’t like changes to their jobs and how they work. In the virtual class environment a large number of changes are required eg moving from text based to digital media, being more of a facilitator (ie following a developmental rather than a dissemination approach (Hodgson, Munn and Snell,1987) than a "lecturer", spending more time on on-line communication than face-to-face communication, being less of a "guru" and more of a coach, being less of a "creator" of courses and more of a "user" (especially of Web resources) etc.

Workload requirements needs to be revised to incorporate these on-line activities as well as the involvement in developing on-line hypermedia courseware.

Intellectual Property rights should be debated and negotiated, especially in a virtual class environment where a large proportion of the courseware is published on an international medium from where materials can be easily copied.

2.4 Dealing with an increasing proximity between industry and education

Corporate Universities are emerging which do not have the same academic philosophies or handicaps of traditional higher educational institutes (Microsoft, Andersons and Macdonald’s for example is active in this area). These proprietary institutions often focus on what makes money (eg courses like MBA, ESL, certificating teachers) following an industrial model of education ie through an intermediate process, inputs deliver outputs which can be marketed and sold.

Education and entertainment is getting closer too! Hollywood Studios are also getting involved in partnerships (currently project with Warner Bros to identify how each student learn and what they need to learn, and then match up with specific computer mediated learning systems). I have heard that the BBC, the Open University (UK) and the British film industry is exploring joint projects in education?

Will we soon see "The Ultimate Consortium" delivering the same quality of education, at the same cost or less, but more entertaining and taken shorter for degreeing students? A consortium consisting of a huge financial sponsor, a computer giant (eg MS) and a prominent company in the film industry drawing on the "best professors" available for the content and educational process? Will free academic discourse, critique and research be valued, encouraged and supported when the bottom-line becomes achieving a target profit margin?

Higher educational institutes will need to rethink mission, objectives and strategies to turn threats into opportunities in this competitive and dynamic environment.


3. Navigational paths and different learning styles

Hypermedia assists the instructional designer in catering for different learning styles and ways of navigating a course. Mediated individualised instruction is a sound educational goal and supported by educationalists like Romiszowski (1984).

3.1 Navigational paths

Two basic navigational preferences are being addressed in the Massey University at Wellington’s on-line courses: sequential and random navigation, as well as whether the student would like to study independently in a more flexible mode or as part of a group in a more structured manner.

Let’s first look at sequential and random navigation.

The Web and intranets cater very naturally through hyperlinks for the random learner. No strict sequence is built into the courses, although some suggestions of a sequential progression are made. The learner can thus take any route through the content and activities; the only fixed requirement is that the assessments need to be completed before credit can be obtained!

For the sequential learner, special measures need to be taken in an on-line course. In some courses we have used clickable navigational "course maps", which is a graphical presentation of the proposed sequence of the main sections in a course, and is presented at the start of the course. One of the standard hyperlinks at the bottom of each page within a course is a link to this "map" to help students orientate themselves whenever required.

From the page that contains the "course map", students can also access an "Index" page which contains an extensive list of most of the hyperlinks within the course. The inherent capability of Web browsers to change the colour of all followed links are used on this "Index" page, so that a student can access this page and see exactly which parts of the course have been visited and which parts not (this is a crude method and needs to be developed further).

Another issue is whether a student would like to study independently in a more flexible mode or as part of a group in a more structured manner. When the student wants to study as part of a group, the time lines within a course needs to be adhered to, and group assessment techniques can be used. The message boards can also play a key part in such a learning approach. If a student choose to study independently however, start and finish times for a course becomes less important. Assessments are then structured for an individual approach and the student might or might not want to participate in on-line communications. One of the benefits of on-lined education is that certain types of asynchronous communications like hypermail boards and newsgroups, allow the independent student to see what communications have been occurring on course topics and also provides contact information o fother students who have done or are doing the same course and in such a way break the isolation often experienced by the independent student.

3.2 Different Learning styles

Other facilities in the On-line Campus are included to support specific learning styles. One learning style inventory describes four learning styles namely that of being a pragmatist, activist, reflector and theorist. (It is recognized that every student has a blend of these learning styles and approaches, and also that this is one of about twenty possible learning style inventories!).

Pragmatist : learning best by understanding / seeing and actively engaging in a practical application of the content - a "Gymnasium" section is a standard hyperlink at the bottom of each Web page within some courses where students are provided with exercises of both a practical and theoretical nature

Activist: learning best when the content contains a large number of activities and concrete experiences, when learning is an exciting experience and when there are a variety of "discoveries" - the "Gymnasium" section in some courses also assists this learning style. The Web also naturally lends itself to "discoveries" through hyperlinks - within the course or to external sources. Students can experience excitement in their learning through

- random navigation

- high level of inter-activity through e-mail, message boards, on-line feedback on assignments

- the use of multi-media ie graphics, colours, sounds and movement.

Reflector: learning best by reflective observation - a "Reflection" section is a standard hyperlink at the bottom of each Web page within some courses where students are provided with "thinking" exercises - often more advanced questions or points to ponder on. The "Gymnasium" section also assists this learning style. Since a large proportion of on-line communication in hypermedia courses on the Web is asynchronous, the student has the opportunity to reflect before responding to students, lecturers, the content or to assessments.

Theorist: learning best by abstract conceptualisation ie by understanding the principles of theory - a large percentage of some of our courses are the narrative elements (ie the instructional pages which consist largely of direct information-giving).


4. Communication facilities: synchronous and asynchronous

"The single most frequent failure in the history of forecasting

has been grossly underestimating the impact of technologies"


The question why on-line communications are so important is briefly discussed below.

On-line real-time communications over the Internet is exponentially growing. On-line video and voice meetings, CHAT’s, real-time interactive applications in education and commerce is growing. (About 50% of the people who attended the ICDE conference in June 1997 have been using on-line real-time communications over the Internet regularly.)

"Distance" is no longer defined in terms of physical proximity but in response time!

It will become an essential and normal part in on-line courses to provide this extremely cost-effective way of communication between students and between students and lecturers ("Cyber guides"!). The educational value of it include

  • immediate feedback
  • addressing social aspects (voices, faces, body language) in on-line communication
  • add elements of accountability
  • provides a "somebody cares for me" message!

One of the problems with traditional distance education courses is the isolation that these students often experience. They often don’t know who their fellow students, previous students or even their lecturers are! We have employed a number of mechanisms in our attempt to solve this problem and also encouraged an active, constructivist learning approach.

Some of our on-line courses are using real-time on-line communication facilities like Internet Relay Chat (IRC), voice, video-conferencing and shared whiteboard facilities over the Web. These facilities provide social interaction in a more natural way, and also build some accountability into these courses.

Asynchronous mechanisms we use in our distributed on-line courses include an "Ideas Exchange" which is referenced via a hyperlink at the bottom of every page in our sampler course. Here students can place public messages for other students on a dedicated message board - with or without an e-mail address (some courses uses hypermail threaded message boards while others use open message boards). They can also place public messages for the lecturer on a dedicated message board - with or without indicating their e-mail address, as well as send private messages to the lecturer via e-mail. (Message boards can be used for both asynchronous and synchronous communications).

Other courses might have a "Student Discussion Place", a "Facilitators Office" or an "Espresso Bar".

A clear distinction is made between students-only boards and ones on which the facilitator may participate.

The degree and benefits of public access to course communications and the decision about leaving all or some messages on the boards for future (or continuous) course occurrences are issues to be considered by each on-line educator.

Nicholas Negroponte encouraged participants at the 1997 ICDE Conference to take the role of emotions in communication seriously! There was a time when purists in sociology and communications believed that emotions detract and negatively influence the "true message" - it was part of the "noise" which had to be removed to get the "real" message. We should however not subtract or try to remove emotions from human communications - instead, it is a very important and natural part of human communications which should be included and supported in computer mediated communication!

The challenge is for computer systems, and computer mediated education systems in particular to accommodate, facilitate and communicate emotions (be it verbal, body-language or otherwise) as an integral and vital part of the message.

On-line education can deliver some support for this aspect through on-line audio and video, emoticons, well-designed icons etc. - but there is still a way to go!


5. Designing for a constructivist learning approach

"The Universe is full of magical things

patiently waiting for our

wits to grow sharper."

Eden Phillips

The concepts of "constructivism" and "discovery learning" are often confused (Bell, 1995).

"Discovery learning" centers around the concept that a strong narrative is not provided and that the student "discovers" knowledge / meaning through various self-directed activities such as working through a case study, having debates, answering a set of questions, being provided with references to resources. The Web lends itself very powerfully to this kind of learning through linking to various Web sites and through the use of both asynchronous and synchronous on-line communications.

"Constructivism" however, is a philosophical educational approach in which it is argued that since knowledge is socially and culturally constructed (Brookfield, 1985), it is the learner who constructs knowledge for themselves. It argues that no two people have exactly the same personal constructs of knowledge (Zepke, 1998).

Hypermedia systems can also facilitate this approach very well as Landow (1992) for instance writes:

"Hypermedia technology is enabling rather than directive; learners browsing hypertext documents can construct their own knowledge according to associations in their own cognitive structures ... This emphasis on an active, constructivist learner means that hypermedia systems should be viewed as learning rather than teaching tools."

The implications for instructional design is well summarised by Boyle (1996) who suggests that it should focus on:

  • construction of knowledge rather than instruction
  • developing contextually authentic rather than artificial learning tasks;
  • setting collaborative tasks within clearly defined social contexts;
  • giving students voice and ownership within the learning process;
  • enabling students to construct knowledge from their own life experiences;
  • awakening students to their part in the knowledge construction process.

Adding to this should be an expectation on the part of the lecturer of receiving different expressions of meaning in assessments.


6. Database support for on-line course generation

"A mind once stretched by a new idea

never regains its original dimension"

Oliver Wendell Holmes

It is quite astounding to see how many computer products for the development of on-line courses take the notion for granted that course elements ("course objects") 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 emerged as effective, sound and popular ways of storing information in computer systems.

Some comprehensive and specialised databases have been developed for on-line course generation eg "Hyperwave" ( initially developed as "Hyper-G") (Hyperwave, 1998)

The hydi Educational New Media Centre is currently developing a flexible, low-end educator’s tool for on-line course generation using the "Filemaker" relational database because it is a cross-platform (Mac and PC) product, can generate HTML on the fly, is a fully relational database, is an inexpensive product and has sufficient security and access features.

This tool allows the lecturer to input from their office directly into the database text in paragraphs, selects from a range of pre-designed media elements (graphics, movies, audio clips) via key word queries, create internal and external links, and doing all of this without any knowledge of HTML, Java or other technical coding languages. This tool is highly flexible and does not have the characteristics of a "shell" type product.

At any stage the content provider can generate the course for transfer to the web server or deliver html on the fly through a pre-designed template script.

We see the advantages of this tool in

  • the course convenor being able to enter a course without having to have comprehensive technical knowledge
  • storing all elements of a course in a fully relational way in a database
  • being able to treat all elements as objects which can then be analysed and amended separate from each other eg all hyperlinks can be tested for validity as a separate action
  • acknowledging the role of people and serious preparation in developing an on-line course

being a low end, friendly and focussed tool for developing distributed on-line courses.


7. Summary

"Freedom is not worth having if it does not include

the freedom to make mistakes."

Mahatma Gandhi

In this seminar the following aspects of distrbuted on-line education werer highlighted:

  • Some key management issues as higher educational institutes progress towards the virtual class in which a rethink of all levels of management of higher educational institutes are advocated to successfully progress towards the virtual class
  • Navigational paths and different learning styles where the individuality of every student was emphasised as well as the responsibility on the part of the course designer to cater for these differences
  • On-line communication facilities in which both synchronous and asynchronous were discussed as having complementary and vital functions in distributed on-line education
  • Designing for a constructivist learning approach in which techniques were discussed to enable each individual student to construct their own meaning within their own contexts
  • Database support for on-line course generation where the need to store all elements (objects) of an on-line course in a database was emphasised, and where a new database tool for on-line publishing being developed by the hydi Educational New Media Centre was discussed.

There is no doubt that the findings discussed in this seminar is preliminary and that it will be enhanced and expanded as the movement in higher educational institutes towards the virtual class gain increasing momentum. In the field of distributed on-line education we should acknowledge that expertise is short lived, and that an appropriate approach is that of being a continual learner, since:

"In a time of drastic change it is the learners who survive;

the "learned" find themselves fully equipped

to live in a world that no longer exists"

Eric Hoffer