Vol. 15 : No. 4
Editors Note: The following article is a substantive well-researched review of World Wide Web Teaching Tools and Learner Configurations. There is much value in the constructivist learning approach applied within a distance-learning environment. This article offers interesting parallels with Gary Morrison's Theory Research and Practice later in this issue.
Synchronous WWW-Based Course-Support Systems: Tools for Facilitating Online Constructivist Learning
Jim Bagi and Steven M. Crooks
The idealism that distance education and real-time classroom activity are antipodal concepts has become an outdated assumption. Today there is a variety of software available that makes it possible to design and utilize full-featured virtual classrooms via the Internet. The inclusion of synchronous components in these programs enables an instructor to create a social constructivist learning environment without concern for the physical location of each student.
Various forms of distance education have been in existence for more than a hundred years. Surface mail, telephone, television, and audio/video recordings have been popular vehicles for distance education in the past. In more recent years, telecommunication systems, satellite transmissions, and computers have been incorporated into distance education with computers quickly becoming the medium of choice for many educators. Many are realizing that computers are faster, more affordable, and can perform tasks that are impossible for many other instructional media. Recognizing the potential of computers as vehicles for distance education, many software companies have created World Wide Web (WWW)-based course support systems for developing and distributing courses on the Internet (Robson, 1999). These applications are being developed to include a full range of features so that instructors can interact with their students in a variety of ways.
The first generation of WWW-based course support systems did little more than dress up "old pedagogy in new technology." (Robson, 1999, p. 280). However, recent advances in computing power and bandwidth have enabled software developers to develop systems capable of delivering instruction more consistent with current theories of learning and instruction. One of these theories, social constructivism, proposes that higher mental functions evolve from social interactions (Vygotsky, 1978). From this perspective, social interaction and the negotiation of meaning with peers and teachers becomes the vehicle through which meaningful learning occurs. Recent classroom implementations of electronic collaboration tools illustrate the potential of the Web as an effective medium for the delivery of social constructivist learning environments (Bonk & King, 1998). Examples of electronic collaboration appear to be the exception rather than the rule, however, as revealed in a recent study showing evidence of collaborative work in less than 3% of the 436 educational web sites examined (Mioduser, Nachmias, Lahav, & Oren, 1999).
Past reviews of WWW-based course support systems have examined several products from a number of perspectives (Boak, 1999; PC Week, 1997; Beshears, F., 1998; Landon, 1999). Most of the products reviewed were designed to support a more traditional model of instruction, comprising several features that are irrelevant to constructivist learning environments (e.g., on-line timed examinations and automated grading). Additionally, many of these products were designed to support a communication structure that emphasizes asynchronous communication, with secondary emphasis placed upon synchronous communication. Many educators interested in designing constructivist learning environments for the Internet see the need for web-based systems that emphasize synchronous communication tools designed to facilitate group problem solving and real time discussions (Cameron, Barrows, and Crooks, 1999). The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of several synchronous communication features currently available in WWW based course support systems and then to compare several software products in terms of the number and type of synchronous communication features they offer.
Synchronous WWW-Based Course-Support Systems
For the purpose of this review, synchronous WWW-based course-support systems are defined as software applications emphasizing features that allow students to meet and interact with one another in a virtual classroom at a specific time. Some of the main features of these systems include chat, video, audio, whiteboard, and application sharing. The criteria for selecting software applications for this review were that they contained at least six of the 10 synchronous instructional features displayed in Table 1. The systems included in this review were: ClassPoint, from White Pine Software Incorporated, Convene, from Convene International, CyberClass, from HyperGraphics, LearningSpace, from Lotus Development Corporation, LearnLinc 4, from LearnLinc Corporation, NetMeeting, from Microsoft Corporation, Rotor Learning System, from Rotor Communications, TopClass Server, from WBT Systems, Visual Rendezvous, from VisualTek, and Web4-M, from JDH Technologies.
Most of these systems also included asynchronous features, such as a message board and e-mail, but synchronous communication features play a more central role. Some products were considered for review that had extensive synchronous communication features, but they relied heavily on television, videotape, or telecommunications equipment in order to deliver the instruction. Products of this nature were not included in this review. All ten applications included in this review enable instructors to create an instructional climate more conducive to social constructivist learning and real time problem solving because of an emphasis on synchronous communication.
Course Management and Synchronous Instructional Features Available in WWW-Based Course Support Systems
There are several available software applications that permit online course development but which lack the synchronous features necessary to develop an interactive online course. These applications rely heavily upon asynchronous features such as threaded message boards and e-mail for communication among students and the instructor. Discussions about instructional content usually consist of the instructor and/or students posting messages to the message board, either to begin a discussion or to add to an ongoing one. Those participating in this type of course will usually check-in a few times each week to contribute to the class. Courses based on an asynchronous communication structure are quite popular with individuals whose schedules do not permit regular class meeting times or who can only access the course materials at odd hours. While these courses can be effective instructional tools for many learners they are limited in terms of the quality and quantity of group interaction that can occur. For this reason they are more appropriate for content areas emphasizing procedural knowledge, not complex problem solving.
Description of Key Features of Synchronous Interactive Courseware
Many different courseware applications were considered for this review with ten being selected (see Table 1). Information was gathered about each of the applications from articles in magazines, by e-mailing each company, and from each product's Web site. The twelve features described here (two course management features and ten synchronous instructional features) are those considered to be representative of a web-based course-support system that is designed to create a synchronous interactive online course.
Course Management Features
Two course management features, instructor control and student registration, were considered important elements in the implementation of online constructivist learning environments. These elements, while not unique to synchronous course support systems, can be an important part of managing an online learning environment. Educators should consider the presence of absence of these features in light of their course goals in order to determine the most appropriate software application for their purposes.
Instructor Control. Instructor control refers to the fact that the instructor has full authority over the development and distribution of the course. The instructor has control over the instructional strategies employed and who will be given access to the course. This feature also enables instructors to control the discussion (text-based chat or audio) by designating an individual to speak or by opening-up a group discussion. The instructor can control what is viewed on each participant's screen or they can give someone else control.
Student Registration. This feature allows the student to go online and signup for a course. They can go to the home-site for the course and fill in all of the required information. If admitted, they will be given a logon name that will give them access to the course. Some of the applications are capable of keeping a log of each time a student accesses the course site.
Synchronous Instructional Features.
Ten synchronous instructional features were identified in many WWW-based course-support systems available today. Each of these features is described below along with some examples of how they can be used in instruction. As indicated previously, to be considered in our review of synchronous WWW-based course-support systems, a software product needed to offer at least six of the following 10 synchronous instructional features.
Web Tour. The web tour feature enables and instructor or a student (under the instructors supervision) to open his or her browser and it will be represented on each student's screen. They can then navigate the net and every site visited will be automatically seen by every student. This can be a useful tool when the instructor (or a student) wants to display web content to class members as the basis for a discussion or some other instructional activity.
Chat. The inclusion of text-based chat is a minimum requirement for a synchronous interactive courseware application. The use of text-based chat enables the instructor and the students to 'talk' in real time, exchange ideas, ask questions, or debate issues. System requirements for using chat over the Internet are relatively low making it an easily included feature. Some drawbacks to using chat are that if a group is too large the messages will appear out of order and there may be too many posted at the same time making it hard to keep-up and to keep them organized. To use the chat feature successfully the class will need to agree to some online rules also known as Netiquette.
Video. The use of video can place a significant drain on systems resources. Several of the applications reviewed include a video component, however if a class wants to get full benefit from the video component it will need to have access to a higher bandwidth network such as T1, T3 or ISDN. There have been major strides in Internet video transmission over the past couple of years, most notably the method known as streaming. An instructor should use caution however when including video, at least for the near future.
Audio. Audio can be employed with a satisfactory level of confidence when using it over an Internet connection. Several of the applications give control of the audio to the instructor who can designate who, if anyone can speak. The instructor can retain the use of the audio for himself/herself, select a student, or mute the feature entirely.
Private Message. Sometimes during a class a student would like to ask a question of the instructor or another student but does not want the other students to know. This is almost always impossible to do in a traditional classroom without being too obvious. By using the private message feature a student can contact another participant directly during class. The message receiver can then reply directly back to the inquirer if they choose or they can defer their response until a later time. This feature is especially useful for a new student who may be new to the technology.
Hand Raising. Allows the student to notify the instructor that they wish to speak, much as in a traditional classroom. The student selects the option and a marker appears next to their name in the class participant's frame notifying the instructor. The instructor then chooses when and if to call upon the student. The instructor can also use this feature to quickly poll the class concerning a yes or no type of question.
Discussion Groups. If a class has a large number of students the instructor may want to establish small groups to work together. Using the discussion group option the class can be broken-up into smaller groups and assigned to 'rooms'. Here the students can meet to work on their assignment away from the remainder of the class. The instructor has the ability to visit each of the rooms to work with each of the discussion groups.
Whiteboard. One of the most fascinating interactive features is the whiteboard. The whiteboard is very similar in appearance to the Paint³ window that comes with the Windows³ operating system. It contains a variety of tools for drawing and typing text. You can also cut, copy and paste to the whiteboard. What is unique about it is the ability for all of the participants in the class to view it and/or add to it. The instructor can activate the whiteboard and retain control of it or he/she can allow others to take control.
Application Sharing/Collaboration. The courseware also has the ability to open many common applications, such as word processors and spreadsheets, in a window that is replicated on each participant's screen. Once again the instructor has control over who can manipulate the contents of the program. They can retain control, assign it to an individual, or select collaboration and allow the whole group to actively engage in the application. A key feature of application sharing/collaboration is that only the computer, which opens the application to be shared, has to have it installed. All of the other computers in the network are only seeing an image of the application even though they have the ability to manipulate it.
File Transfer. During a class someone may want to share a document or graphic with the others. By selecting file transfer a participant can send a copy of that file to everyone in the class. Everyone will be prompted that they have received a file and they can choose to accept it or not.
Using Synchronous WWW-Based Course Support Systems
An instructor has three main questions to answer before creating an online synchronous course. 1) Is the WWW an appropriate medium for the course content? 2) If so, what software is best suited to the task? And 3) are the system resources and technological support available to make the course successful?
1. Is the Content Appropriate for Online Instruction?
In the case of appropriateness, the instructor should examine the content material of the course and review the learning objectives. The instructor should ask himself/herself, 'Will this course be effective online?' Teaching online is quickly becoming a popular thing to do but that does not necessarily mean that all instruction, in its current form, is suitable for the virtual classroom. In many, if not most cases, the instructor is taking a traditionally taught course and wants to teach it online. The reasons for this may include wanting to reach a wider student base or it may be an attempt at incorporating new technologies into the classroom. It also could be an administrative mandate. Whatever the reason the instructor needs to assess the course objectively and decide if it is suitable for online presentation.
In making the decision as to whether or not a particular course is suitable for online distribution an instructor must compare what the benefits will be to what will be sacrificed. An experienced instructor already knows that even though the content of a course can remain relatively static the participation of different students or student groups, location, and time will create varied outcomes. These same variables coupled with the dynamics of a synchronous online environment may create more and different outcomes. In either scenario, predicting what those outcomes will be difficult at best. Synchronous course support systems provide an instructor with a variety of tools to achieve their educational goals with, but the instructor will have to match the tools and the learning objectives themselves.
2. What Software is Most Appropriate?
After it has been determined that the course is suitable for online instruction, the next step is to match it to the most appropriate software. If the content material consist of a textbook and possibly some handouts and is presented straight forward without discussion, then the instructor would be advised to select a courseware that is asynchronous in character. This may be appropriate for courses that are primarily procedural in nature. The instructor can post a syllabus and all related materials to the site where the course will be located and inform the students what is expected of them. The student can read the materials, post to the message board, e-mail the instructor if they have any questions, and submit any assignments. The key benefit that this type of online course offers is that participation is completely asynchronous. There would be no benefit in selecting an application that includes audio, video, whiteboards, and the like if these features will never be used. If the course requires real-time participation, such as in many constructivist learning applications, then the instructor must consider using a synchronous WWW-based course support system.
3. Are System Resources and Technological Support Adequate?
Next the instructor will need to assess the resources available, both those at the institution sponsoring the course and those of the students. The sponsoring institution should have someone, such as a network administrator, available to help the instructor determine if the school's network is able to support the selected courseware application. The courseware applications listed should be able to run on most school networks however space availability and the possibility of a firewall being present are an institution-by-institution issue. The computer systems of individual students will not be so uniform. The instructor will need to determine if an online course offering should include a requirement for each student having access to a computer that is powerful enough to support the program. The applications reviewed generally require at least a PentiumŒ class processor and 16 megabytes of RAM. Many students will be able to satisfy this demand but there will be some that cannot.
After the instructor has satisfied the above concerns he/she is ready to begin creating the course. The software is purchased and is installed on the sponsoring institution's network. Several of the software applications provide templates for the instructor to use that will assist him/her through the process. They are a good place to start if this is the first online course created by the instructor. The instructor will then logon to the instructor's screen for creating a new course using the name and password given to them by the network administrator. Here they will be asked to provide some general information about the course such as a course profile, start and stop dates, number of students allowed to enroll in the course, links to specific files and Web sites, and which of the product's features he/she expects to use. The instructor is always able to go back to the instructor's screen for creating a new course and change, add-to and/or delete the selections when desired. The course can be as simple or as complex as the instructor decides it needs to be. For a course that includes many students new to online learning the instructor may decide to select only those features they feel are necessary to start the class and as the students become more comfortable with the technology, add other features. New students may take a class period or two to adapt to chat, application sharing, the whiteboard, and following the instructor on a Web Tour. Even though the learning curve for using these features is not steep, being introduced to them all at once could prove to be overwhelming.
The course is now ready for enrollment. Students interested in the course can logon to sponsoring institution's network and select the course. The student will need to provide all of the requested information in order to be considered for enrollment. The instructor has the authority to grant admission or to deny it. If given permission to take the course the student will be provided a logon name and a password to gain access to the student's main page, which will link them to the course. The student does not have access to the instructor's screen for creating a new course. The students and the instructor are now prepared to hold their first class session.
Distance education is growing at an accelerated pace each year as more and more educators incorporate it into their instructional process. Today computers are more powerful, Internet accesses faster, and software applications are more robust. Courseware applications are now available that make it possible for educators to develop full featured interactive courses. Online courses now include the capabilities to hear, see, share, and work together. Instructors can create virtual classrooms that provide their students with a sense of community and inclusion. A student can attend an online synchronous class without many of the fears and concerns they may find present in the traditional classroom. Speaking out in class or making a presentation could become a more rewarding experience for those students who dislike and even avoid such classes. Many potential students are not able to attend traditional classes because of physical, geographical and/or time constraints. The interactive virtual classroom makes it possible for them to fully participate.
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About the Authors:
Jim Bagi currently is working in the industrial sector and has been involved with a customized educational center for unionized workers for the past nine years. He has helped in the full development of the center including selection and development of course offerings, establishment of computer labs, and funding of the project. Jim's plans include joining the ranks of academia full time in the near future as an instructional designer. He is continuing his research in distance education with a special interest in nontraditional adult learning. He received his MSEd in Instructional Technology from SIUE (Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville).
Jim can be reached at: Phone: 618 931-1650, email: Jim_2000@MSN.com.
Steven M. Crooks is an assistant professor of instructional technology at Texas Tech University. Prior to coming to Texas Tech, he taught as Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville and Arizona State University. He received a Ph.D. in Learning and Instructional Technology from Arizona State University in 1995. While in Arizona he worked as an instructional designer for Intel Corporation and the Maricopa Community College District Office. His current teaching, research, and consulting activities are in the areas of instructional design, educational psychology, computers in education, and distance learning.