towards_oe by ashrafp


									Towards Online Education

            By Marc Bélanger

  Workers’ Activities Program (ACTRAV)
   ILO – International Training Centre

1. Introduction........................................................................................................ 3

2. The Tools........................................................................................................... 4

         2.1 Computer Communications .................................................................                      5
               2.1.1 Speed ....................................................................................
               2.1.2 Timing .................................................................................
               2.1.3 The Programs.......................................................................
                   2.1.4 File Transfer.........................................................................
                   2.1.5 CD-ROMs ..........................................................................
                   2.1.6   Multimedia .........................................................................
                                        Pictures .................................................. 10
                                        Sound...................................................... 10
                                        Animation................................................ 11
                                        The Use of Multimedia.............................11

         2.2        World Wide Web Sites................................................................ ....
                   2.2.1   Designing a Web Site .........................................................
                   2.2.2 Creating a Web Site ....................................................... ...
                   2.2.3    Transferring the Web Files.............................................. ...
                   2.2.4         Naming the Web site ……………………………………

        2.3      Electronic Mail................................................................................
                 2.3.1 The In-box ..........................................................................
                 2.3.2    Folders .............................................................................
                 2.3.3 Address Book .....................................................................
                 2.3.4    Viruses..................................................................................
                 2.3.5         Junk Mail ....................................................................... ...

                                           (Contents Continued)

3. An Online Pedagogy .....................................................................................

                 3.1           Online Learning vs. Online Education ................................. 17
                 3.1                 Collaborative Work ...........................................................
18                             3.2             Knowledge Building
...............................................……… 19
                     3.3             Active Learning Techniques................................................
                     3.4        Teaching to What Level?..................................................... 20

4. Online Course Design ..................................................................................... 21

                 4.1       Modes of Computer Conferencing .....................................

                   4.2          An Introductory Period.......................................................
                   4.3       Duration..............................................................................
                   4.4         The Number of Participants.................................................
                   4.5       Number of Conferences ......................................................
                   4.5      Organizing the Conference Schedule................................... .
                   4.6         Participation Expectations....................................................
                   4.7            Moderating a Conference ...................................................

5. Evaluation .....................................................................................................

6. Problems .......................................................................................................

7. Towards the Future ........................................................................................

                 Online Education

1. Introduction
       This article is titled “towards” online education because, despite a 20 year
history of using computer communications for educational activities, it is only
recently that many universities and private organizations have begun to explore the
medium’s educational potential. You may feel like a real beginner in the world of
online (computer) education but you should not be shy about your lack of
experience, because most people interested in the topic are just starting their
explorations by taking courses or conducting pilot projects. When it comes to
online education we are all pioneers.

       What has spurred the current interest in online education is, of course, the
popular acceptance of the Internet and the World Wide Web. But before the great
expansion of the Internet in the mid-1990s there were a number of individuals
studying the use of computer communications for education and organizing
educational projects. In the early 1980s these people included: Murray Turoff
(the father of computer conferencing), Starr Roxanne Hiltz (one of the first
researchers of the medium), Paul Levinson (the organizer of the first online
graduate program), Andrew Feenberg (the moderator of the first computer
conferencing system for executive education), Robin Mason (from the UK’s Open
University) and Linda Harasim (from the Ontario Institute for Studies in
Education). In 1985 I organized SoliNet (the Solidarity Network), the first
labour-oriented computer conferencing system. SoliNet was used for national
educational projects by the union I worked for (the Canadian Union of Public
Employees) as well as for international labour courses. I took my Masters in Media
Studies completely online with New York’s

New School for Social Research which sponsored the world’s first online graduate
program in the mid-1980s.

        Today many universities are using computer communications to teach
bachelor, masters and doctorate courses. Colleges are using the medium to teach
more vocationally-oriented subjects. And many private organizations such as
Zdnet are conducting courses on topics such as computer technology. A group of
investors led by former junk bond financier Michael Milken has announced that
it will spend $100 million to start on online, for-profit university called Unext
which will feature course content from professors at the University of Chicago and
elsewhere. There is a real threat that higher education will be privatized unless
universities wake up to the potentials of online education. They currently have an
advantage in that they can accredit real degrees, but many of them could quickly
disappear as private organizations produce marketable credentials. Supporters of
public education need to learn the medium for their own needs and ally with public
institutions, now.

       This article quickly surveys the major topics of interest in the subject,
online education. It covers: the technologies, the pedagogies, online course
design, moderation of a computer conference, evaluation and problems. It is not
an exhaustive account because that would be impossible given the article’s size,
the depth of the subject, and the ever-changing nature of the medium. Think of it
as a hyperlink to a whole world of experience, writings, pilot projects and exercises
concerning online education. Ready?

2. The Tools
        In 1945 there were two computers. IBM was saying that the world would
need no more than five. But things changed. Starting in the early 1950s with the
invention of the transistor sizes and prices of computers have been decreasing
dramatically. In the 1960s with the introduction of mini-computers (about the size
of a file cabinet) computers became affordable by many educational institutions
and companies. This sparked the great 1960s debate about the
employment-destroying potentials of automation and, in the field of education, a
rush towards using computers for automated teaching. The
employment-displacing debate is still raging. But the argument that computers
should be used as untiring tutors that teach by prompting learners for correct
answers over and over again is dead. Automated teaching was a wrong dream
based on wrong ideas of what it is to teach and learn. Today, partly because of the
misplaced experiments of the 1960s, computers are seen as tools which can be
used to build learning communities which encourage members to learn by
collaboratively building knowledge. What is allowing this goal to be realized (at

least partially) are advances in computer communication technologies.

2.1. Computer Communications Technologies
      Computer communication technology consists of equipment (such as
modems), software (such as communication programs), communication lines, and
the people who use these tools for solving problems.

2.1.1 Speed

        When I started using computers in the early 1980s computer
communications was extremely S-L-0-W. The characters would appear on my
screen one, at, a, time. That’s because I used a modem which worked at a speed
calculated at 300 BPS - computer Bits Per Second. ( A modem is a piece of
equipment either in the computer or on the side which allows the computer to use
telephone lines to communicate to other computers). Today, modems work at
56,000 BPS (56K). Communication lines built especially for computer
communications can transfer data at speeds between 125K and the speed of light.
If in 1980 I had wanted to transfer a digital copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica
to a friend it would have taken me six months. Now, with access to fast
fibre-optic lines (which use light pulses to transfer data) 600 copies of the
Encyclopedia could be transferred around the globe in one second. That’s fast.
(And also one of the reasons why digital cash is sloshing around the world’s
currency markets in the blink of an eye. That’s globalization).

2.1.2 Timing

     Computer communications can be divided into two major modes, depending
on how they deal with time: asynchronous and synchronous.

       Asynchronous communications is where people do not have to agree on a
meeting time in order to communicate. When you leave a message in somebody’s
voice mail you are communicating with them asynchronously. Email is an
example of computer asynchronous communication. You don’t have to negotiate
a common time for you and your friends to communicate when you use email - you
just send mail and wait for your friends to answer.

      Synchronous communications is when people have to use the medium at the
same time. If you and your friend are talking on the phone you are

communicating synchronously. This is known by computer-communication techies
as communicating in “real time”. Video conferencing is another example of
synchronous communications

      The advantage of asynchronous communications is that you do not have to
organize people to participate in an activity at a common time (which can be very
helpful for organizing many busy people over multiple time zones). The
advantage of synchronous communications is that groups of people can
communicate almost as if they were in the same room, at the same time.

      This article concentrates on the use of asynchronous communications for
two reasons. First, because of its potential to allow millions of people around the
world to communicate at times they find convenient without worrying about
time-zones or common meeting times. And secondly, because many more people
can have access to the asynchronous capabilities of microcomputers than the
synchronous equipment of video-conferencing (which can be quite expensive.)

2.1.3 The Programs

      The major computer programs used in asynchronous computer
communications are email, a variation of email called “email listserves”, computer
conferencing, and groupware.

      Email is mainly individual to individual messaging. You send a memo;
somebody sends you a memo. Of course you can always add multiple addresses
to your email. But the messages always end up in your email in-box as individual
messages mixed up with all the other email messages you receive.

       Email listserves are programs which can be used to send mail to groups of
people. Think of a listserve as a box of email addresses in a central computer
somewhere. . If you send a message to the box (which has its own email address
such as “”) then your message is automatically sent to all the
addresses in the box. In this way you can send mail messages to thousands of
people without typing in the individual addresses. (Careful! You could
embarrass yourself enormously if you forget that you are reading a memo from a
listserve and you answer it thinking you are responding to an individual. I once
asked four thousand people from around the world to have lunch with me in
Toronto. People are still laughing.)

       Listserves can be very effective because: they allow communication
between large groups; they’re based on the relatively fast technology of email;
and they’re asynchronous. However, the messages are still received in the
recipient’s in-box along with all their other mail. It is very difficult to build group
cohesion when the group’s messages are scattered amongst all the other mail group
members receive.

        Computer conferencing is a way of building a sense of “groupness” amongst
a bunch of people. It works like this: You enter the computer conferencing
system (usually by typing an address on the Web). You then join a particular
“conference” which is a message space shared by a group of people. This
message space or conference can be “Open” to the whole community which is
using the system or “Closed” so only a particular group can enter it. You could
have a “general conference” where everybody could discuss community-wide
issues. And then you could have specific conferences open only to groups
interested in particular subjects such as International Labour Standards or Health
and Safety. Once you put a message into a conference everybody in the group can
see it and, if they choose, respond to it. The conferencing program organizes the
messages according to the particular conference, numbers the messages so that
they are easily referred to in discussion, and possibly, adds keywords. It’s
designed to facilitate group work.

       The central advantage of computer conferencing is that it builds a sense of
solidarity in a group. People feel that they are members of a online community.
The major disadvantage is that computer conferencing demands that you be
continually connected to the central computer while you are reading or entering
messages. It’s not like email where you can phone your Internet email provider,
take the messages off the computer, cut the connection, and then read or write
messages when you want - you have to be continually connected to the central
computer. This can cause problems especially in less-developed countries where
Internet connections are expensive or unreliable.

     (The solution would be to build a hybrid between an email listserve and a
computer conferencing system. Consider this design:

      A listserve is established which transmits messages by grouping them in
various lists [such as a list on ILS]. A program, which runs on the recipient’s
computer, takes the messages aimed at the members of the ILS group, organizes
them into an ILS “conference”, numbers them, and possibly adds keywords. All

this work takes place after the messages have been downloaded [taken off the
main computer]. This means people could get their messages, disconnect from the
email provider and then have their messages organized as if they were in a
computer conference. They could read and write messages when offline
[disconnected]. Later they could upload [send to the main computer] their
messages and those messages would be automatically sent to other members of the
group. The result would be an email-based computer conferencing system which
could be used in countries which have expensive or undependable Internet access.
However, nobody is working on this solution because most Internet technologies
are being designed for the advanced electronic countries.)

      Groupware is a combination of email, computer conferencing and database
capabilities. (A database program manipulates information such as address lists).
Lotus Notes is an example of a groupware program. The advantage of a
groupware program is that, if you are working with a defined set of users, they can
have access to a powerful set of communication capabilities. The major handicap
though is, like most conferencing programs, groupware programs demand a
continual connection to the main computer. A second problem is that they can be
expensive for large groups because a license fee is charged for every user.

2.1.4 File Transfer

       Of course, not only email text can be sent through computer communication
lines, whole files can be as well. The most familiar example of this is when you
“attach” a file to an email message. As long as the recipient has the same program
as the one you used to create the file they can read it. In other words, if you send
a Microsoft Word file your recipient must have Microsoft Word in order to read it.

       But there is a way to send text files which can be read by any word
processor. The most common method is to by send an ASCII file. (ASCII stands
for American Standard Information Interchange). An ASCII file is a plain-text
file that has all the codes of the word-processing program stripped out of it. You
can save a Word file as an ASCII file. The problem with an ASCII file is that the
American alphabet includes only 27 basic characters thereby excluding accented
and other words. The solution here is to save the file in RTF (Rich Text Format)
which is a sort of ASCII with more characters.

       A consideration when sending a file via computer communications is the
time it will take to send the file. Large files can take lots of time and if you are

paying for your Internet connection by the minute the costs can add up very
quickly. The answer is to compress the file with a program such as WinZip.
Compressing is like removing all the spaces and blank lines in a document so that
it ends up smaller. A special command in WinZip (and other compressing
programs) allows the file to be made “executable”. This means anybody who
receives the file can uncompress it without having WinZip (or other
file-compression program).

       Another file transfer technology used in computer communications is called
File Transfer Protocol (FTP) which we’ll discuss later on when we look at the
creation of a Web site.

2.1.5 CD-ROMS

      CD-ROMs can be used very effectively for learning because they can
contain huge amounts of 0s and 1s which can be used for storing large manuals,
videos, graphics and more. In one online course I helped teach all the participants
were sent CD-ROMs before the course started. The CD-ROM included the
readings, the course manual and video lectures from the tutor. The participants
began each week by studying the required readings for that section of the course
and watching a video lecture by the tutor. They then connected to the computer
conferencing system and participated in a discussion about the week’s topic.

       Until very recently CD-ROMS were “read-only” (which means that they
could only be read, not written on). Today however, if you have the appropriate
CD-ROM (a recordable) you can use it to store huge amounts of data in the form
of text, images and video.

2.1.6 Multimedia

      Multimedia means the use of many media: sound, text, graphics, pictures,
video, and animation. The World Wide Web is multimedia because it uses all
these. It can do that because they have a common ground: digital 1s and 0s. In
other words they can be digitized. Pictures

       Pictures, for example, can be digitized in a number of ways. The simplest is
to take them with a digital camera. The photos are stored, not as pieces of film, but
as computer files which are made up of 1s and 0s (well, really, on and off electrical
signals but that’s another story). The photo files can then be printed out,
displayed on a monitor, or posted on the Web.

       Another way to digitize photos is through the use of scanners. These are
like small photocopying machines which store the image they see as files.

       Or, if you do not have access to a digital camera or a scanner, photos can be
digitized by your commercial film processing company. Take your file to the
company as you normally do and (if they have the service) they can give you a file
of the photos at the same time as they give you printed copies. Some firms will
even put the files on the Web for you to download.

       Pictures can come in two file formats: gif and jpeg. Gif is usually used for
graphics. Jpeg is used for detailed pictures because it can include much more
information. That is why graphics on the Web are usually in gif format and
pictures are in jpeg. The difference is in the amount of space they take up and the
speed at which they can be displayed (jpegs are bigger and slower).

      A great advantage of digitized photos is that they can be edited. With
programs such as Photoshop. you can crop them, change their size, alter colours
and more.

       In a number of courses I have conducted on the Web I have included a
digitized photo of myself in my introduction. In others, all the participant photos
were included in a central file area. It makes a great difference to online group
cohesiveness if people can see who they are communicating with. Sound

       Just as pictures can be digitized so can sounds. Many web sites for example
have music playing as you read their text (which depending on the music can be
either calming or grating). You hear the sounds because they are stored in a
computer file which gets used by your computer.

      The production of sound files can be very simple - all you need is an input
device and an editor. The input device, such as a microphone, captures the sound
and then a computer program digitizes it into a file (usually called a .wav file.) A

sound file editor can then cut the file into sections and then splice the sections
together in different ways.

       Many radio stations are broadcasting on the Web mainly because their
programs are digitized as soon as they are recorded and it is no great chore to
upload them to the Web. The next great wave of activity on the Web will be
Web-radio programs produced by organizations which would never have been able
to afford a radio station. The Canadian Labour Congress, for example, broadcasts a
Web radio program during its national conventions. Other organization will
produce educational radio programs.

     The advantage to Web radio is that, because it consists of computer files
which can be downloaded, the Web-radio program can be played asynchronously,
whenever the listener has the time.

2.1.6. 3 Animation

      Animation is a perfect candidate for multimedia applications because it
consists of a series of pictures which are displayed one by one (albeit quickly).
The animations can be simple 2D displays (like Mickey Mouse) or very
sophisticated 3D images. A distance education course conducted by Simon Fraser
University, in Vancouver, for example, uses 3D animation to conduct an online
dance course.
Graphic representations of dancers are manipulated in three dimensions by student
choreographers to produce very sophisticated dance sequences.

      Most often though the animations on Web sites are animated ads or logos.
The software used to produce these animations is called Flash. The Use of Multimedia

       Multimedia can be very effective in communicating messages - as long as it
is not overdone. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should, all
once. Some of the messiest Web sites are incomprehensible because too many
multimedia elements have been used.

      Which brings us to the World Wide Web:

2.2 World Wide Web Sites
       There are two basic forms of Web sites: static and involving. A static site is
one in which material is merely presented. An involving site is one in which
participants are encouraged to interact with the site by joining in online
conversations, answering quizzes, searching for knowledge via online tutoring
systems, and recreating the site’s material in ways that make sense to them.
Obviously, the closer you can come to designing an involving site the better.

2.2.1 Designing a Web Site

       The key to designing an effective Web site is to remember that you are not
designing a book - you’re creating an interactive computer communications
program. That means you don’t dump a whole lot of text into a web site and sigh
happily that you’ve done your job. People do not want to read large amounts of
text on their monitors - they want to participate in the site. They want to do things
with it because they want to help create it in ways that serve their needs. That
means allowing them to re-create the site (by using keyword searches and other
techniques) in ways understandable to them. That is how people learn: they
reorganize material presented to them according to their existing mind-maps and
then incorporate the new knowledge. And when they do, they want to talk about
their experience with other people so they can learn more.

       The layout of the web page (which is not really a page at all) should follow
these principles: It should have a clean, uncluttered design. Don’t add junk to your
page. Use lots of white space. Highlight the main activities to which you want
visitors to pay attention. Use small paragraphs. Don’t add extra tricks such as
jingles or dancing logos. And above all, organize! It’s better to not have a web
site than to have one that is badly organized. If you invite a hundred people to
visit your web site and then confuse them. . .well, it would have been better not to
invite them. Many organizations are telling the world that they are confused and
useless by. . . operating Web sites that are confused and useless.

      A well organized site makes explicit the major ideas you want to promote.
Don’t make people trundle through massive amounts of text to get to your central
ideas. Just because you have lots of material around doesn’t mean you have to
dump it all on your participants at once.

      And update, update, update. A stale site is a public advertisement that you
don’t care about your web site. And if you don’t care about it, why should
anybody else?

       Look at the sites of the huge multi-billion dollar Web organizations such as
Yahoo or They have the money to add all kinds of multimedia tricks
to their sites but they don’t. They have plain pages with cleanly-organized
hyperlinks that are updated every day. And these web sites are very effective.

2.2.2 Creating a Web Site

       Creating a web site involves two major steps: First you create a file using a
set of commands known as HTML ( Hypertext Markup Language - the editing
language which tells a computer how to display a web page). And then you
transfer the file to a computer which is plugged into the Internet.

      The creation of web pages is becoming easier and easier. It used to be that
you would have to write a page using the raw commands of HTML like this:
<B>This sentence is in bold type<b>. If you misplaced a comma or angle
bracket you had a mess. But now there are editors such as Frontpage or
Dreamweaver which take care of the little details such as positioning the angle
brackets so you can concentrate on the design of the page. You can also create
simple text-oriented Web pages by saving a Word file as an HTML document
(look under the Save As function).

      Interactivity can be added to the web pages by adding a computer
conferencing system, a chat line (real-time, online conversation) and other
functions. Some of the interactive or animated features you see on Web pages
are written as either Java applets (small chunks of computer code) or in Java,
which is a programming language. Learning to use Java applets is relatively
simple (because you can find millions of them on the Web and edit them for your
purposes). But Java, the language, is complex. Unless you are an experienced
programmer don’t even think of using Java (it’ll just give you a headache.)

2.2.3 Transferring the Web Files

       Once you have created your web pages you have to transfer them to a Web
Server - a computer which is connected to the Internet . The program you use to
transfer your file from your computer to the Web server is called FTP (File
Transfer Protocol) which is quite simple to use. (You can see the contents of your
computer and the Web server displayed in windows on the screen. You click on the
file you want to transfer, tell it where in the Web server you want it to go, and
voila! you have a web site.) You can usually get a copy of the FTP program from
the company or department which hosts your site. The first page people see in
your new web site is called the Home Page.

2.2.4 Naming the Web Site

       The name of your site depends on a whether you are using the address of
your Web Server computer (for example: or you
have registered a name for yourself (such as Site names are
known as domain names and must be unique throughout the whole wide web.
There are companies - mainly in the United States - which register the name. The
easiest way to get a domain name is to talk to a company which provides space for
Web pages because many of them will also help you register a name.

2.3 Electronic Mail
       While not appropriate as an online education medium (because of its lack of
group enhancing functions) electronic mail is essential to recruiting and supporting
participants. Email should be used as a way of encouraging participants to work
in the computer conference which have been established. It should not be used to
start building participant-tutor exchanges on the topic being studied because the
central goal is to develop group work and discussion.
       But because of its essential role in supporting participants, organizers of
educational computer conferences should know how to handle their email

2.3.1 The In-Box

      Crucial key Number 1 to handling your email is to have an empty in-box.

Would you leave the in-box on your desk to pile up and overflow? Of course not.
If you did, you would soon lose control of what you had to do and what new
things you had to handle. It’s the same with an email in-box. As much as
possible, keep it empty. That way you will be able to see important messages
which come in instead of gazing at a long list of messages:
read-unread-junk-undeliverable-important-not important-personal-organizational
and on and on.

2.3.2 Creating Folders

       The secret is take the time to file your messages into folders in your email
program. Create a folder for important projects and file all the messages related to
that project in the appropriate folder. Then have a series of folders for ongoing
activities, such as:

      Answer!      Put messages into this folder which you have to answer but
                   don’t want to respond to right away (Maybe because you want
                   to think about the answer or find some information)
      Technical    A folder for messages concerning the technical operation of
                   your email and other programs.
      Resources    A place to put messages about resources on the Web or other
                   places which can help you in your projects.
      Misc         A general folder - but don’t make everything general! If you
                   find a few messages on the same topic start a new folder.

       You can probably think of more folders. The idea is to take a few minutes at
the start and end of the day to file your messages appropriately or do it as soon as
you have read a message.

      You can also set your email program to automatically file certain messages.
In some programs (such as Eudora) these instructions are called filters. In others
(such as Lotus Notes) they are called rules. Use filters or rules to act on messages
which are sent to you often (such as a weekly newsletter) and put them into
pre-determined folders. Then, every once and awhile you can visit the folder to see
what has been entered. Some programs (such as Notes) will allow you to filter
many messages and then step you through all your unread messages no matter
what folder they are in.

2.3.3 The Address Book

       Another program feature you should use is the address book. This is a
collection of email addresses you collect from messages which have been sent to
you. For example, in Lotus Notes you can click on TOOLS on the top menu and
then ADD TO ADDRESS BOOK. The address will be automatically entered into
your book. Once you have an address in the book you can add it to a GROUP. By
clicking on the group’s name all the addresses registered under that group will be
sent the email you create. Using the address book saves you lots of time and
frustration, especially when you’re dealing with long complicated addresses.

       And here’s a plea for politeness: answer all personal email messages sent to
you. It is disconcerting for people to send messages and not get replies. Even if
you don’t have the time to compose a considered message send a line saying you
will reply soon. If you are going to be away from your email for awhile set an
OUT OF OFFICE message (In Lotus you can find this command under TOOLS).
Don’t forget to name the senders to whom you do not want to send an Out of
Office message (such as the sender of a regular newsletter who is not expecting a

2.3.4 Viruses
      Be very careful opening programs which are sent to you by people you do
not know. Some programs are viruses and can destroy the data on your computer.
(And when was the last time you backed up your computer, eh?)

2.3.5 Junk Mail
       Never! answer an email from a spammer. A spammer is somebody who
sends you unsolicited email (spam), usually to try and sell you something. Spam
messages are sent to millions of people in the hopes that somebody will respond.
The people who send the spam mail do not even know if the address to which they
sent the message is functioning. By responding you prove that they have reached
a functioning address and they will send you even more messages!

The Tools
      The tools which enable computer communications have advanced

dramatically in the past few years. They allow us to do things we were doing faster
and, occasionally, better. They create new opportunities for educating millions of
people. They often astound us by their capabilities. But tools are dead
instruments unless they are used by people. What makes a tool a technology is
when it is adopted for use by people. Remember that: a technology is a tool used
by groups of people to solve problems. (And when groups of people are organized
to use a tool to solve problems that’s called technology organizing. Activists who
facilitate this process are called technology organizers).

      We need to continue our discussion of online education by thinking about
how the tools we’ve just surveyed can be used. This will involve thinking about:
pedagogies (theories of teaching) course design, conference moderating, evaluation
processes and potential problems.

3. An Online Pedagogy
      A pedagogy is a systematic and comprehensive theory of how to establish a
teaching and learning environment. An online pedagogy is one which takes into
account the problems, capabilities and potentials of learning and teaching online.
We are just at the beginning of our understanding of how to develop an effective
online pedagogy but because of people such as Starr Roxanne Hiltz, Linda
Harasim, Robin Mason and others there is a substantial body of knowledge
pointing to some basic principles.

3.1 Online Learning vs Online Education

       We can start our survey of these principles by making an important
differentiation between online learning and online education. Online learning is
the providing of educational material via computer communications for self-paced
instruction. An example would be an online tutorial or a collection of electronic
manuals for students to study on their own. Support for online learning can be
provided via email or telephone. Online education takes this process an important
step further by adding a discussion component to the activity. Online education is
the use of discourse, supported by online materials, to build knowledge. This
differentiation is not in any way meant to demean the capabilities of online
learning. Online learning can prove very effective - especially for just-in-time
instruction when participants need to learn a skill immediately. But it remains
secondary to online education because it is only through discussion that new
knowledge is built and incorporated. Aristotle talked in order to build new

knowledge. Computer conferencing is frozen talk.

       A further advantage to designing online courses aimed at knowledge
building is that they can be less expensive than online learning courses. When you
design a learning course you have to make sure that the tutorials or manuals are
very clear because the student has nobody to talk to about problems in
understanding the material. This means a lot of time and money has to be spent on
writing and testing. In a knowledge-building model, which has discussion as its
core element, the student has the tutor and other participants to whom questions
can be posed. Resource material for knowledge-building courses should be
carefully written but since it is not the central component of the course it does not
have to be as expensive to produce as material for a learning course.

       The goal of an online course should be to create a shared computer
messaging space - a virtual classroom - where educational discussions can take
place. The most appropriate techniques for encouraging this sort of
discussion-oriented environment are based on: collaborative work,
knowledge-building, and active learning methods.

3.1.2 Collaborative Work

       Collaboration is essential to online learning. By working together
participants add to the group’s bank of knowledge and themselves learn new skills
and concepts. When they collaborate on projects participants create a sense of
community. This produces a feeling of connectedness with the other participants
and increases motivation. (Research has shown that online students working
collaboratively are less likely to dropout than students in traditional classes.)

      Projects which can be organized for encouraging collaborative work include
problem-solving, debates and role playing. Problem solving is the consideration of
a problem posed by the facilitator and tackled either by the whole group or in small
working groups. Debates are generated by asking participants to adopt pro and
con stances and discuss particular subjects. And role playing is the development of
an online drama in which participants adopt different roles. (In my first online
course on Artificial Intelligence in the mid-1980s I played the captain of a space
ship who had killed an AI robot. Other participants adopted the roles of judge,
prosecutor, jury members, investigators and others. Was I guilty or not guilty? )
3.2.3 Knowledge Building

       Collaborative work enhances the process of knowledge building which is at
the core of education. Knowledge building is the creation of new knowledge by a
group of people. It is founded on the premise that there are two steps in learning a
new ability (a skill, a way of thinking, a philosophy, a theory). The first step is to
recognize that knowledge is dispersed amongst people. A group of people is
always much more knowledgeable than an individual. You and I are much smarter
than just you or just me. In discussion a multiplicity of perspectives and a range of
experiences is brought to bear on the topic and new knowledge can be created.
The second step is for the individual to incorporate the insights generated by the
group and master the new ability. This is done by thinking about the insights,
judging them against existing concepts the individual may have, absorbing them,
and practicing them. Along the way the individual may add new knowledge to the
group’s activities, defend ideas against the group’s way of thinking, change
existing ideas, and learn. A person learns much more by participating in
knowledge building than when left alone to study self-paced tutorials or manuals.

       In this knowledge-building model teachers cease to be transmitters of
information and become group facilitators. Information may be transmitted in
order to provide the group with raw resources. Previously built knowledge may be
passed on in order to move the group’s activities ahead. And facts necessary to the
group’s work may be presented. But, in the end the role of the online facilitator is
to create the group dynamics needed to build new knowledge. In this model the
teacher becomes as much a student as any member of the group. The goal becomes
to create a community of learners.

3.3.4 Active Learning Techniques
        The third basic element of good online education is the use of active learning
techniques. This means the promotion of involvement in discussion and interaction
with other participants in an active and engaged manner. In an online conference
it is very easy for participants to become “lurkers” (people who read and don’t
contribute messages) because they are not sitting in a room with the other
participants and therefore don’t feel as pressured to contribute. If people become
lurkers they effectively disappear from the online classroom because it is only in
their contributions that can you “see” people online.

3.3.5 Teaching to What Level?

       In order for an online course to be successful the organizers must have very
clear goals. This often means deciding what level of expertise in the subject the
participants should have after the course. This level of expertise is related to the
subject matter being studied, not to the competencies of the participant. A
participant could be an expert in economics but know little about health and safety
issues. To what level should the course bring the participant?

      There are three basic levels of course-related expertise:

       - The participant will have been introduced to the basic concepts and
       vocabulary of the subject. They will also understand how the subject fits
       into their local context.

Just-in-Time Researchers
      -The participant will not only understand the basic concepts but will also
      know where to find further information as opportunities arise to apply the
      lessons learned.

     The participant understands the subject, knows where to find further
     information, and can work at organizing activities concerning the subject.

       Pick a level. Maybe it is enough to have produced initiates who can then
think about the subject and how it can be applied in their environment. Trying to
teach these people concepts that organizers may need could not only be a waste of
time but be counterproductive. If people leave the experience confused because of

too much information they are worse off than before the course. And so, in the
end, despite all your hard work, all you’ve done is produced a bunch of confused

       It is up to the facilitator to chose the expected expertise level, provide tasks
for collaborative work, ensure that progressive knowledge-building is taking
place, and engage students with active learning techniques. This can be done with
a combination of course design and conference moderation techniques.

4. Online Course Design

       Designing an effective online course means paying close attention to the
structure of the course, its duration, its content and its resource material. The goal
is to encourage participants to commit themselves to being part of a learning
community for a period of time.

4.1 Modes of Computer Conferencing

      The first step is to determine how the computer conferencing will be used.
They are three basic forms: pre-course; post course or completely online.

       Pre-course means using the computer conferencing system before a
traditional face-to-face classroom. Participants can introduce themselves to the
group, help set the course’s agenda, and ask for particular topics to be addressed.
This helps make the course much more effective because participants come to it
better prepared and with a clear idea of what will be discussed.

       Post-course refers to using the conferencing system after a traditional
classroom course. It is used most often when participants come together from
geographical dispersed areas and will have an opportunity to have hands-on
training on the conferencing system. This mode can be very effective; here’s
why: In class the subject can only be taught at a general level. There is simply no
time to talk about all the specifics of how the lessons could be applied once the
participant returns home. A computer conference held after a face-to-face course
can be extremely valuable in helping the participants translate the generalities in
the class they have learned into the specifics of their workplace. They can use the
conference to tell others how they are applying the lessons they learned and ask for
help in facing problems they are encountering. Combining face-to-face encounters
with computer conferences is known as mixed mode.

       The third alternative is to have a course completely online. This is
obviously the option which will be chosen if there is little opportunity to bring the
people together face-to-face. Computer conferencing will never replace
face-to-face learning. But, for those times when people can only be taught online
because of work commitments or geographical dispersion, computer conferencing
can provide a very rich educational experience.

4.2 An Introductory Period

       Every online course should be designed in order to recognize the efforts
learners will make to learn the technology. Participants are not only expected to
study the course subject; they are also at the same time expected to master the
techniques of computer communications. They should be provided with the time
and resources they need to discover how to learn online.

       The course should begin with an online self-paced tutorial on how to master
the technical commands of the conferencing system that is being used. Then a one
or two week period in the virtual classroom should be dedicated to the participants
using the system just for practice. During this time they can introduce themselves,
ask questions about how things are done, and just get used to being online. If this
introductory period is not organized then the participants get confused as they try
to learn the system while they’re trying to keep up with the course. The result is a
high drop out rate.

4.3 Duration

       Online courses take more time than traditional classroom courses because
the participants read and enter messages at times convenient for them. They may
add two or three comments to the discussion but the occasions those comments
are entered are spaced out through the week. The course has to be designed to take
this into account.

       Online courses should be two months long. This gives the facilitator time
to introduce new topics and organize small group work assignments. It also
provides the participants the opportunity to stay engaged with the course even if
they have to withdraw for a few days because of work or family pressures (which
always happens). If the course is paced so tightly that participants miss out on
crucial sections while they are paying attention to other matters they are less
likely to come back into the process.

      The amount of time available will determine how much group work can be
planned. Small groups (of three or four) need at least a week to organize
themselves and a week to prepare their assignments.

      Never organize an open-ended course. People are more likely to commit
themselves to a course with specific starting and ending dates. They know that if
they want to participate they have to be involved within a certain time period. And
never extend a course, even if the discussions are going along really well.
Eventually the conversation will trail off and people will go on to other things. The

result will be a weak ending to a good course.

4.4 The number of participants

      Computer conferences can have hundreds of participants involved because
people don’t have to get together in one place and one time. But conferences
designed for education should have no more than twenty people and no less than
ten. With more than 20 the conversations get confusing because too many
comments are being generated. With less then 10 the discussion slows down and
may even stop because not enough new ideas are being presented.

      Plan for some dropouts - there will always be a few participants who have to
withdraw from the course. If you want to work with a group of 20 invite 24 or 25

4.5 Number of Conferences

      Participants should have access to a number of conferences. They should

      Café - a general conference where participants can chat about whatever they
            like. This keeps the general chatting out of the main educational

      Help - this is the conference participants use to post help messages. A
            central help conference is useful because other participants can help
            when somebody enters a question. This not only builds a sense of
            community but helps the facilitator handle the number of help
            questions. It also forces the participants to stay within the
            conferencing system rather than use email to the facilitator.

      Course - the main course conference is used for teaching. If other course
           conferences are needed the instructions for finding them can be put
           here. It is very important that the participants know which conference
           they are supposed to be working in and when.

      Resources - this is the conference participants can use to put in long
           messages (over 100 lines) and material they have found that could be

            of interest to the other participants.

4.6 Organizing the Conference Schedule

      The conference should be organized in weekly units. Weeks can be
organized by topic or activities (such as group work assignments). A two month
conference would allow for eight subject-oriented modules and one or two small
group assignments. Here’s a typical schedule:

       On Monday the facilitator enters a message which introduces the topic for
the week and asks the participants to comment. Through the week participants
enter comments discussing the topic introduced by the facilitator and the messages
contributed by the other participants. On Friday the facilitator summarizes the
work that has been done and links it to the next week’s topic.

4.7 Participation Expectations

      Facilitators must be very clear about what is expected by the participants.
What are the tasks to be accomplished? What are the deadlines? If more than one
conference is to be used by the group which conference is to be used, for what
and when? How many messages should participants enter every week? The
more explicit the facilitator can be, the better.

      Tasks should be limited to one or two a week. Because people are trying to
follow the course while continuing to work they often do not have the time to
handle a large number of tasks. As well, many tasks increase the danger of
confusing the participants. And it’s not as if they can raise their hands in class
once they get confused.

       Participants should be told to enter a specific number of messages a week.
The norm for a beginning class is two messages per week. Each message should be
between 25 and 50 lines and certainly never more than 100. In no case should the
length of a message pass two screens. Long messages tend to stop conversation
because they are difficult to read and people get bored very quickly. If
participants want to enter messages longer than 100 lines the facilitator should
establish another conference which will hold the long messages.

4.8 Moderating a Conference

       Successful facilitators understand that their job is not to lecture but to create
a collaborative working environment in which the group as a whole builds new
knowledge. This involves understanding group dynamics, how to create
collaborative projects, how to lead a process of guided discovery and more. Here
are some suggestions for moderating an educational computer conference:

       1. It’s very important to provide clear goals and expectations. Start off
with simple task that is easily done (such as entering an introductory message).
This will give participants a sense of confidence which can be built upon.

       2. Pose questions to focus the discussion. Always end your weekly
topic-setting message with one or two questions. If the questions get answered
during the week and the discussion begins to lag, add some more questions. The
idea is to encourage the participants to engage in discussion.

       3. Encourage people to enter messages which promote discussion. Ask them
for expansive answers (“Don’t just say yes or no - tell why you think that way”.)
Tell them to bring new information into the discussion. Ask them to make
reference to the background information. Tell them to advance the argument or

       4. Always recognize the contribution of a participant. Participants can
become very discouraged if they enter a message and nobody comments on it. It
is up to the facilitator to say: “ In message Number 24 Mary made a very good
point about. . .” Or “Bob said in message Number 45. ..”

       5. Use names as much as possible. And encourage the participants to refer
to others in the group by name. The only way participants know that they work is
even being read is when they see their names on the screen.

      6. Correct misinformation. Sometimes an online group can go off on a
tangent because of some misinformation. Correct the information and refocus the
group by posing a question.

       7. Make threading comments. A threading comment is a summary of the
recent discussion highlighting the contributions of people by name and pointing
towards other discussion topics. For example: “Mohammed and Sauda both
pointed out that International Labour Standards are a way of confronting the
effects of globalization. Erika, Ronald and Miriam talked about the role of

international agencies. So let’s talk about the International Labour Organization.
What do you think the ILO’s role should be in confronting globalization?”

       8. Organize group work efficiently. Make sure the group understands the
project. Appoint group leaders. Be explicit about timelines (“You should be at a
particular stage of the process by Tuesday”. “The deadline for reporting back to
the main group is Friday”.) Provide enough time for groups to do their work -
usually two weeks. Organize debates. Create role playing situations.

      9. Develop good online etiquette:

             DON’T USE CAPITAL LETTERS (It makes people think you’re

             Think twice before reacting harshly. Sometimes people write in
             ways that could be easily interpreted as insulting but were not meant
             to be. Be nice. Ask them what they meant by what they said.

             Use emphasis by *highlighting* words.

             Signal sarcasm or irony with emoticons such as             :)
                - Which means: “I’m smiling while I write this.”

        The role of the facilitator in creating a learning environment by encouraging
group interaction for knowledge-building cannot be over estimated. A good
facilitator will help produce an educational experience which the participants
appreciate and want to continue.

5. Evaluation
      As in traditional face-to-face classroom education it is important to develop
a good evaluation system. Evaluation comes in three forms: formative,

summative and conclusive.

      Formative refers to evaluations performed by the participants to judge for
themselves how they are progressing. An online quiz is an example of a
formative evaluation.

      The second major form of evaluation is summative. This refers to how the
course is progressing. Is it meeting its goals? Have the resource materials been
useful? Were the discussion focused? It is difficult to provide time for this sort
of evaluation every week because the entry of message takes place over long
periods. But there should be a evaluation period at the end of the first month of
the course. The results of the evaluation can be used to re-direct the course if it is
not meeting

the needs of the participants and to provide ideas for improving the course in the

      Conclusive evaluation takes place at the end of the course. Did the course
meet expectations? What could be done to improve it? Every course should be
taken as an opportunity to learn so that the next course is more effective.

6. Problems

      Computer conferencing for education is not without its problems. The two
most serious are: language and writing ability.

       Multiple languages is obviously the source of many problems. If users are
not participating in their mother tougue they are more likely to be shy about their
level of participation. And, worse, some people may not be able to participate
because the conference has been organized in a language they cannot understand.
Some solutions which have been tried are: ongoing translation where a translator
will translate all the messages - but that is very expensive. And some
organizations have experimented with automatic translation programs. And, while
these programs can perform remarkable feats, they are not yet at the level where
they can be used effectively. The only real solution available today is to organize
separate conferences in English, French and Spanish. Summaries of
language-specific conferences could be translated and distributed to other

       The second major problem is related to writing ability. If participants do
not write comments they are effectively invisible to the group. And writing can be
very difficult for lots of people -even when the are communicating in their mother
tongue. This problem will never disappear but can be lessened by teaching people
how to write messages. An online course on how to write could be conducted as
part of a large program. Or, in the introductory part of the course, the facilitator
could post some tips for writing more easily and more effectively.

7. Towards the Future

       Despite the problems involved with the use of the medium, computer
conferencing can be very effective. It can bring educational opportunities to
thousands, if not millions, of people who want to continue their education but are
hampered by lack of time or their geographical location. It can help organizations
develop global educational programs in an age of greater globalization. And it
can stretch our concept of what education is: If a course is active 24 hours a day,
seven days a week what is a “course”? How could online education fit into
life-long learning? Should anybody ever “graduate”? Fascinating questions, all.
And fascinating questions create education.

      So. . .any questions?

Marc Bélanger

Turin, Italy
March, 2000


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