Lotus Notes in the Telematic University

by Paul Bacsich,
Professor of Telematics, Electronic Campus Project,
Sheffield Hallam University, United Kingdom

On the Internet there has been a recent flurry of US interest in the use of Lotus Notes for telematic-based teaching. Yet the general view among European distance educators is that Lotus Notes is not relevant to their problems, at least as judged by the small number of actual Lotus Notes systems used for distance teaching. With the notable exception of Henley Management College and the Southampton Institute, coupled with some limited trials among EADTU members, an apparent trial with one Open University course, and idle talk among several other universities, Lotus Notes is almost invisible in European distance teaching.

There are several reasons for this. Certainly the forceful success of FirstClass in knocking out CoSy, COM and other old-fashioned systems in several key European computer conferencing sites left little room for other systems. In addition, the early versions of Lotus Notes suffered from poor performance over dial-up links and were not integrated with Internet. Finally, those (and they are many) who did not adopt such systems at all rationalised their delays by such excuses as saying they were "waiting for Web-based conferencing".

I contend that the main problem is because of a wrong perception of the role of computer conferencing in education. In my view, it is going to be as important in on-campus as off-campus teaching. It may even be most important in that grey area of "near-campus" or "just-off-campus" teaching, where better network links and mixed-mode teaching methods (distance teaching and lectures) will be prevalent.

As so often, the US universities have got there first. In this they have been aided and abetted by the conferencing system vendors and by charitable foundations. In particular, the Sloan Foundation’s programme in "Learning Outside the Classroom" has a central theme of exploring new outcomes in science and engineering higher education which are made possible by asynchronous access to remote learning resources through current, affordable technology - an approach that they call "Asynchronous Learning Networks". (The Americans always have to have a new name for things.) In addition to this, Lotus (even before their takeover by IBM) have put substantial resources into funding university trials and documenting the results.

A search of the Lotus site: http://www.lotus.com gave me 118 entries containing the word "university". Even there, among the (allegedly ) most relevant 50, the only European universities are Henley College and the University of St Gallen in Switzerland. Yet in the US, the examples abound. The Sloan Foundation have funded trials of Lotus Notes at Drexel University, New York University, Westchester Community College and the University of Wisconsin Extension at Stout. See their page: http://www.sloan.org/education/ALN.new.html for a complete list of their projects (but remember that many of them do not use Lotus Notes). To me, the key feature of the Sloan list is not the sites, but the way that they are classified - "on or near campus", "commuting distance" (a Regional University concept) and "very far" (including the topical subject of Global Courses).

Other universities using Lotus Notes include Babson College, Bentley College, University of Maryland, Northwestern University, University of Tennessee Knoxville, and University of Texas. You can access many of these by searching the Lotus Web site, or from the page: http://www.lotus.com/school/ for "Lotus Academic Solutions".

It is true that most of the use by these institutions is in business management courses, but this is by no means the only academic area. Certainly it is true that in the MBA area, there is an additional incentive to use the package, since many students will be (or will get) familiar with Lotus Notes through their company, and this incentive seems to help to overcome the natural reluctance of many faculty to use technological solutions.

Those of our readers who do not use Lotus Notes may well wonder what this has to do with them. It has a lot to do with them, for two reasons.

Lotus Notes already has offered for a year or more several of the groupware and Internet features that other systems like FirstClass and Microsoft Exchange are only just now getting. Thus technical insights from Lotus Notes (such as the performance and interface issues of linking specialised servers to the Web) can now be applied to these other systems, thanks to those pioneers with Lotus Notes.

More generally, many of the educational lessons that institutions have learned from Lotus Notes are fully applicable to the other mainstream systems. As an example, let us look at the University of Maryland’s view of the benefits of Lotus Notes. We have given only the top-level statements, but if you read the University of Maryland’s description, you will find that it (and the others documented on the Lotus Notes site) contain a wealth of ideas for improving your teaching system by using telematics:

As a European example, the University of St Gallen gives the following advice to others. See how much of it you think applies to other packages. I think most of it does:

New York University and the Sloan Foundation are holding the Second International Conference on Asynchronous Learning Networks on 1-3 November 1996. For full details: http://www.nyu.edu/sce/aln/alnhome.htm.

As I have said on several occasions, "let’s cancel the phrase ‘distance learning'" - it is leading us into error. Telematics is too good just to use off-campus.

Issue 10 "Learning in a Global Information Society" 2 September 1996