Report of North American Study Visit

A personal account

by Robin Mason and Paul Bacsich
The Open University, UK


Both of us (Paul Bacsich and Robin Mason) have spent a good deal of time and energy over the last few years contributing to various European technology research and development projects: JANUS, CO-LEARN, COSTEL, EOUN, CCAM, NORDIC etc. We both felt the need to see what our North American counterparts were doing and to ascertain their commitment and approach to various new technology teaching strategies. We concentrated on visiting people, locations and organisations which we expected to have the most relevance to European distance education strategic issues.

While we knew that the summer period might not be the best time to visit academic sites, it was the only time that we could find for such an extended visit (3 weeks). In fact, with a few exceptions, we were able to put together a very full programme of meetings at all of the sites originally designated. These can be grouped into three categories:

Educational Institutions Penn State University, Rensselaer Polytechnic, George Washington University (member of MEU/Mind Extension University), Stanford, York University

Educational Providers/Advisors TVOntario, PBS (Public Broadcasting System), Annenberg Foundation, New Brunswick Office of Advanced Training Technology, Pacific Bell Education and Training.

Developers of Educational Technologies Microsoft, Apple, Progressive Networks, Computer Services Group, Hughes Network Systems, SoftArc, PictureTel, Lycos.

In the 3 weeks we were abroad, we made 20 separate visits, but many of these were all-day events involving a range of meetings with people both inside and external to the original organisation. In short, it was a very full (and tiring) diary of events, and the meetings were on the whole extremely valuable. The next section is an initial attempt to distill the impressions into three keynote points of greatest significance to European distance educators.

Analysis of the North American New Technology Scene

Virtually everyone we met was aware of the limitations and problems of World Wide Web and the Internet generally. However, everyone was sure they could not afford to ignore it, even if not all of them liked it. Most were developing strategies, software, or course applications based on the Web _ they were leading developments, rather than merely following them.

It is well known that North American distance education is largely synchronous, using various forms of lecturing at a distance. Most of the technologies we saw being developed will break down this distinction between real time and non-real time teaching delivery media. For this reason, organisations may wish to consider whether to build some expertise in the area of synchronous teaching strategies. This will involve various kinds of audio and video teaching and presentations.

There is growing evidence that a range of non-university education providers (such as Jones, Microsoft?) will increasingly cut into what has traditionally been core university business. While academics may continue to supply most of the actual content, these other providers are taking over the administration, marketing, networking and resource provisions, and `sub-contracting' the content to academics. The implication is that universities need to respond more quickly to the needs of students and to the technologies now becoming available if they want to prevent their eventual marginalisation.


We give brief examples of some interesting things found. Much more could be said!

George Washington University - a EuroPACE-like Model?

Contacts at the central headquarters of the Mind Extension University recommended George Washington University as the best example of an educational application. MEU claims to be the US's only basic cable television network dedicated to distance education, available to over 26 million households in more than 8,500 communities. Apparently 30 regionally accredited universities and `education providers' offer courses through the network. The arrangement works as follows: MEU provide the marketing, registration, administration and delivery (through satellite/cable/videotape as well as an electronic bulletin board). The educational provider makes the programs and designs the assessment.

At GWU we met Bill Lynch. Certainly he is an enthusiastic and dedicated leader of the MEU Program there, which consists of a Master's degree in Educational Technology Leadership. We asked why other degrees and courses were not being offered, and he said it requires a champion in the University to take it on and prepare the course materials. He appears to be given little financial or academic reward for his efforts. 12 courses make up the degree and each course consists of 30 hours of video, plus a Study Guide, plus interaction with the lecturer via the bulletin board. The 300 students take 6 courses a year and access the programs either from home or their workplace. Quite a few purchase the videotapes; some of these live outside continental US.

Graduate students (often alumni of the course) handle mundane email queries, and pass on important issues to the two professors who `teach' the course. Regular email assignments are given requiring a 1 to 2 paragraph response.

Graduate students mark these on a pass/fail basis; ten percent of the final grade is given for bulletin board participation.

About half of the students are teachers paying their own fees, and all who are qualified are accepted as students. It is a popular program with very low attrition rates.

The videos are made one week ahead of broadcast and are remade every year! MEU retains copyright of the videos with a view to marketing them in some way in the future. We expressed surprise that the course is remade every year, and Bill said he was thinking about moving towards a halfway house, with parts of the programs being re-used and parts remade. It was clear that the program had developed from the face-to-face lecture model, rather than a distance education model.

The programs consist of interviews, demonstrations, field trips etc. strung together by a professor in a studio. The design of the videos was moving more towards `off-line' viewing, but programmes still used a ticking clock in the corner for 4 minutes while students were to be working on a problem. In order to keep an important slide in view for a longer time, they were using the device of a window in one corner with the talking head of the lecturer.

We met the editor who works full time on the preparation of these videos for the Masters degree. Likewise a studio was set aside entirely for this programme. It appeared to us to be a fantastic investment of staff and resource for one degree programme, and certainly Bill implied that it ran at a loss and was not cost effective. The value is in providing access for people who couldn't attend face-to-face courses. Bill also said that Jones Corporation wants to be involved in all aspects of education and therefore continues to fund the bulletin board system despite the cost.

Lack of incentive is the major reason why no other faculty has taken up the MEU option. It is far more work to teach an MEU course than a face-to-face course: preparation time is more lengthy; making the videos is more time-consuming than lecturing and on top of all that is the bulletin board support.

TVOntario - community use of FirstClass

TVOntario, a company with 500 staff, provides a television service directly to Ontario homes, via terrestrial, cable and satellite. Their service has an educational remit. Recently they have added interactivity through the FirstClass conferencing system.

We were most impressed by the way TVOntario has developed a community network throughout Ontario of over 3000 participants, with the TV programmes used as a jumping-off point. The educational conferences are run by a mixture of paid staff and community volunteers, with very light moderating from TVO. For example, a highly successful teens conference was run by a very young member of TVO staff. (There were some instances of flaming between young boys but these were cured by stepping up the moderation. The youngest user is age 7.)

TVO also uses FirstClass as an administrative and communication system within the company, including workers off-site such as installation engineers. It is highly successful in this: exchanging documents and writing joint reports. The source of the success seems to be that it also acts as the only email system within the company. FirstClass is used not just as an email system _ the conferencing component is also used for management purposes.

TVOntario see organisational benefit in allowing anonymous posting of messages within the company as a way of airing sensitive issues and allowing criticism of management. Initially these could be posted direct but they have now moved to a moderated anonymous conference.

Microsoft - Entering Distance Teaching?

Microsoft is the largest software company in the world. Many distance teaching organisations are dependent on Microsoft products to run its information technology systems. Recently they have launched Windows 95 and Microsoft Network (MSN), which is Microsoft's new online network being deployed world-wide. It is available via dial-up networks and via Internet. We had a thorough demonstration of Microsoft Network, and it was immediately clear that this offered very similar functionality to FirstClass, and in some cases in a similar way.

Before we visited, it was not clear to us what exactly Microsoft are doing in the online education world. We had heard persistent rumours on our trip that Bill Gates had "discovered" distance education and wanted to mount a major service on Microsoft Network, possibly involving satellite delivery. What we saw was the Microsoft Online Institute (MOLI) _ more prosaic but still a key development.

MOLI is a service on Microsoft Network which delivers online courses which appear (and we had a thorough demonstration with our hands on the keyboard) to be delivered using computer conferencing _ without a CMC guru in sight! These courses could be described as "training" courses and seemed to be currently all about Microsoft's own products. However:

we were told that MOLI wants to open up the service to "other types of providers"

and many of the courses taught would be not that different from many courses taught in a computer science department (C++ courses, network courses, etc) and more so, from a computer centre.

Microsoft told us that they are trying to downplay the term "Microsoft University" but much of the MOLI terminology (only recently introduced) is very university-based. We came away feeling we should "watch this space".

Progressive Networks - Internet Radio for Teaching

Progressive Networks is a start-up (started by an ex-Vice President of Microsoft) who have already cornered the market in providing real-time audio broadcasting over the Internet _ "Internet radio" _ with the product "RealAudio". The OU has ordered a large RealAudio server, already has several RealAudio pages running on, and is finalising an Autumn series of monthly "Internet radio" programmes under the title "Maven of the Month".

The RealAudio player is bundled with Microsoft's Internet client . It will be bundled with Apple's Internet bundle, with Netscape and Spyglass (= commercial Mosaic). They are talking to Spry (conveniently also in Seattle) to bundle it for CompuServe users.

Progressive Networks is really an impressive company. They have nice premises, in a fashionably old but modernised downtown Seattle building, and are growing fast. Many US universities have bought the RealAudio server product, for applications described as "public radio", "lectures on the Internet" and "digital audio libraries".

The audio quality on RealAudio is like AM radio, not FM radio. It is not good enough for music _ but Progressive Networks are working on higher-quality audio encoding at 16 kbit/s data rates (oriented to V.34 modems) and we heard samples of speech and music which sounded good.

We also saw a demonstration of RealAudio linked to graphics, used in a baseball match commentary. One can easily conceive of educational applications. Again we came away feeling that the synchronous and asynchronous conferencing worlds were colliding.

Simon Fraser University - A Canadian DELTA?

Although we have known Linda Harasim for a long time, it was only on our travels that we heard of her recent success in winning a very large 4-year contract with the Canadian government to set up a Centre of Excellence in Technology-Based Learning. The project involves 150 researchers, 26 universities and 15 industrial partners. In fact, it mirrors in some ways the EU-funded DELTA programme.

As we were passing through Vancouver between flights, we took the opportunity to talk with her on the telephone about this programme. She expressed an interest in coming to visit Europe again and catch up on distance education developments. We shall be organising this.

Linda's programme covers a very wide area: K-12 education, post-secondary education, work and home based education, learning models, social and economic factors influencing education, technology systems and training-the-trainers programmes. The aim is to set up a Virtual University using a networked multimedia environment based on WWW. Particular interests are: collaborative learning methods, technology tools for learners and teachers, and knowledge-building approaches.

At Simon Fraser, she has developed an integrated computer conferencing and WWW facility, which Microsoft were coming `to have a look at'. Although this is primarily a Canadian project, there is an international aspect to the programme which we expressed interest in.


We received a number of requests for further joint work as a result of the visit. We are following these up and in some cases passing them on to relevant colleagues in Europe. Both of us feel enormously stimulated from the trip and we shall be disseminating our experience as much as possible throughout Europe in various ways, such as at the FLISH'96 conference, via broadcasts and reports, and via a jointly authored textbook, available in 1996, about the Internet in off-campus university education.

For the textbook, we are interested in hearing about other sites that were not on our first trip, both in North America and in Europe, as we are looking for good case studies. Please send any information, especially any technical or evaluation reports to Robin Mason or Paul Bacsich.

Contact Point: Dr Paul Bacsich, Knowledge Media Institute, Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA, UK.
Tel: +44 1908 652070
Fax: +44 1908 640169
FirstClass: Paul Bacsich

Issue 6 "Learning in a Global Information Society" 14 November 1995