Virtual University - University of Hagen Online

by G. Schlageter, P. Buhrmann, S. Mittrach,
Fern Universitšt, Germany

For the first time a university is developed which offers all its services in an integrated way to its user via Internet. These services not only include learning material of all types as well as library and administration functions, but also extensive communication and collaboration support. Thus, the flexibility of the learner as to time and location does not lead to isolation; the user is involved in a network of partners and tutors via net.

The Goal

For the first time in Germany, the concept of a virtual university is being implemented at the University of Hagen (FernUniversitšt) and evaluated in real-life. This project is done on the background of the FernUniversitšt with about 55.000 students in its current system. The virtual university offers new forms of learning as well as location- and time-independent, individualized and on-demand learning by systematic use of new media (multimedia and communication technology).

The project goes beyond current approaches in that it integrates all functions of a university, thus producing a complete and homogeneous system. This does not only include all kinds of learning material delivered via electronic network (most "online university" approaches focus almost exclusively on this aspect) - but for a promising approach the following is absolutely essential: user-friendly and powerful communication, especially also between users themselves for collaborative learning (peer learning) and for social interconnecting, possibilities of group-work (cscw), seminar support, new forms of exercise and practical via net, easy access to library and administration, information and tutoring systems. The system is based on powerful unix servers, PCs or other front-ends for users and Internet; it includes internet-based (low cost) video conferencing, i.e. the user will finally have a simple video-camera and microphone at his/her workstation.

Many of the functions of the system are already running in real-life. This paper gives a brief description of the project.

The new learning

The new university is not built around the lecture room, but around the user’s needs: it’s goal is maximum independence of the users as to time and location. This is especially important due the fact that studying and working are getting more and more intertwined (life-long learning). This is, by the way, the reason why we talk about "users" and not about "students" here. For the most part of their studies, users will work wherever they like, at home, while travelling, in the office, or even at the university. The personal workstation (typically PC) plays a key role: the computer is at the same time provider of learning material, experimentation environment, library, information terminal, and communication center. Learning material includes multimedia courses, (interactive) video, computer based training, simulation packages, experimentation software, animations, but also printed material, mostly through printing on demand.

While learning the user has all the material of the university at her fingertips, so, for instance, she might search for technical terms, for appropriate simulations or for additional literature on the subject at hand. Of course, the learning material will include references to related material in the Internet, thus offering the user a huge world of background material.

Communication is a critical factor, not only between university and user, but also between the users themselves. They contact other users for various reasons, exchange of experiences, help, etc.; discussion groups form for technical subject areas, but also for social matters. Distributed workgroups approach problems, do practicals, prepare seminars, develop software, edit reports, etc. Essential components are not only electronic mail, but also voice communication, groupware for teamsupport, teleconferencing and videoconferencing. New forms of learning material also belong to the mix of media, for instance combinations of lectures on video and multimedia material).

Note, that in this environment the users learn on-the-job an important element of today’s industrial world: to cooperate in distributed processes and to manage and organize this kind of cooperation.

Automated information agents provide information on curricula, rules etc. Human agents are not bombarded by routine enquiries, but can look after users with individual and personal problems.

Example Real systems in the virtual laboratory

In this new environment we can also run practicals from the distance which include systems only available at central locations. An example (Figure 1) is a robotics practical: the user writes the control software for the robot, then transmits it to the robot in the central lab, where the robot executes the commands it receives. The user can closely watch the robot’s behaviour via video, and can thus check it what happens is what she really wanted.

This kind of learning and experimenting from the distance also are of special interest for continuing education, technology transfer and industry cooperations.

Real systems in the virtual laboratory

Figure 1 Real systems in the virtual laboratory

The virtual university system (VUS)

The system is based on the Internet / WWW. For browsing we favour the Netscape Browser because of its integrated mail and news tool and its sophisticated capabilities concerning the HTML standard and Java. Other tools offering additional functionality like communication and cooperation are fully integrated into the environment. If necessary, new mime types are defined.

Asynchronous communication is realized by means of Internet mail and newsgroups. Internet Relay Chat and Internet-based videoconference tools are used for synchronous communication. The user interface and general information are presented as HTML documents. The learning material itself is presented in different forms: HTML, Postscript, PDF and Toolbook applications. The servers are unix systems.

User’s working environment

The workstation of the user may be a PC or any other front-end running WWW browsers. A low-cost video camera and a microphone support the communication.

Figure 2 The Home page of the Virtual University System

Figure 2 shows the home page of the virtual university. It integrates the typical functions of a university with the following components:

Education - The education menu offers participation in courses, seminars, practical trainings and exercises. After entering the education menu students can work on their actual courses or seminars, can leave messages for other students working with the same course or send messages to their tutor. Powerful communication tools are the basis for online-seminars, online-exercises and practicals. As a central point of this component is teamwork support.

News - The news menu is a campus wide blackboard containing all sorts of up-to-date information relevant to the users of the VUS. In contrast to traditional blackboards search facilities for the retrieval information and structuring mechanisms are supported.

Cafeteria - The virtual cafeteria offers a forum for social contacts between students. Making use of sophisticated communication tools (CUSeeMe, IVS, IRC) students discuss topics relating to their studies, look for lifts in cars or do flat-hunting. Besides online communication students can also use several forms of asynchronous communication (newsgroups, email) to get in touch with other students.

Office - The office component includes all administrative functions. The user can register, can enroll into specific courses, seminars, practicals, etc. or can change her personal data. The student management will be supported by access to databases with an intuitive, graphical user-interface.

Research - This element offers access to all research-related activities in the university. The user finds papers, progress reports, reports on new and ongoing projects etc., and she can get in touch with the researchers and research students of the university. This function offers the adequate window for enterprises interested in cooperation or technology transfer.

Shop - The shop offers all material that can be purchased from the university. This includes learning material for contininuing education that can be downloaded after paying a fee, or tapes, CDROMs etc. to be mailed.

Information- The information menu contains general information about the university. It offers access to an information system with guided tours through the virtual campus of the VUS.

Library - The library offers access to both traditional and digital libraries. The library menu supports queries through WWW-database gateways, downloading of articles which are available in electronic form, or order forms for traditional books. Access to further online libraries is integrated in this component.

The new learning: A scenario

After running an authentification procedure, the virtual university system (VUS) presents the interface shown above which is personalized for this user from earlier access. The user browses through the "top news" and may react to announcements, for instance she may use an online form as she notices an upcoming deadline. Now, she starts to work on the courses she is currently involved with. She checks if her discussion groups produced an answer to a problem she had with the course. As this is not case, she asks the tutor of the course via email for a date for a video conversation. As the questions are of broader interest, the tutor announces a public online-session for the course. All users who cannot attend the live session can watch the recorded session later on.

The student now works on the exercises of the course. She can evaluate her reults in an integrated simulation package for animation and verification. After finishing the exercises she prints the next course unit which she want to read on the train. She then visits the "Cafeteria" in order to fix a date for the next online meeting with the other participants of the software practical. Before leaving the cafeteria she checks if finally somebody has reacted to her blackboard notice that she would like to share a ride to Hagen.

Technological challenges

The first prototype of the virtual university system (VUS) is based on the World Wide Web. Documents are stored in an ordinary file system and languages like HTML, PDF or Postscript are used. Multimedia courseware enriched with Java applets, communication and cooperation is supported through special helper applications. User administration and protection against unauthorized access is realized by the basic features the World Wide Web Server offers.

Parts of this implementation are not powerful enough for future requirements of a growing system. The main technological challenges are in the areas data storage, hyperlink management, user administration, communication and cooperation and development of courseware. Our actual research investigates on the combination of database systems and the Java technology to solve these problems. Some database systems already have interfaces to the Java programming language. An application programmer’s interface to relational databases for Java (JDBC) is announced. The Hotjava Browser offers a convinient way to integrate new mime types and protocols by adding new handlers.

Experiences

Various components of the system have been in real-life use for various courses, seminars and practicals. The students react even more positively than we expected, many of them enthusiastically. The only bitter pill is the communication costs which are excessively high in Germany during most periods of the day. However, the user does not work online most of the time. There will be a separate report on student reactions and what we have learnt from them.

State of project

As the project is large, it is an ongoing enterprise. Parts of the project are already in real-life use, whereas many issues are still open. Not only is the technical platform rather ambitious, as it integrates a multitude a different aspects and technologies, but in addition the transformation of the teaching material into appropriate digital versions requires substantial resources. Furthermore, the approach requires fundamental organizational changes, and, an issue not to be underestimated, new thinking and education of the university staff itself.

The project definitely needs additional external financial support for infrastructure and personnel.

Summary

The virtual unversity is feasable, realistic and the users definitely want it; furthermore, it can be implemented without costly investment on the user’s side. The essential point is that an integrated approach is required which supports all functions in a completely identical way. The virtual university offers completely new perspectives as to quality, flexibility, individualization, demand orientation, and social support. It is thus the required reaction to the needs of today’s industrial and information societies.

For further information look at the VUS Home page on the WWW: http://vus.fernuni-hagen.de/.

or Email Gunter Schlageter at: gunter.schlageter@fernuni-hagen.de.

Issue 11 "Learning in a Global Information Society" 28 October 1996