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The Global Classroom

Collaboration tools turn virtual studying into virtual participation.

After a 10-year hiatus, Mary Jo Prezioso returned to school for her master’s in Public Administration at New York’s Pace University. After one semester, the college’s director of student advising felt confident with her choice. That was until Professor Joseph Ryan asked her to take his Organizational Behavior course online. Although she had all of the requisite technology tools-a laptop, a palm pilot, and a cell phone-she was “a very reluctant e-learning student,” Prezioso recalls.

Once she took the class, however, her leap of faith was handsomely rewarded. The self-paced educational experience provided her with the time to participate in an in-depth discussion and debate with her fellow students-communication that normally would not take place within the confines of a one-hour-per-week classroom.

Since that first course, she has taken five others. Prezioso admits, “I did not think it would be a quality experience, but I can tell you that I am a complete convert.” She attributes the success of her learning experience to subjects that were well suited to virtual discussions, dynamic professors and the absolute flexibility offered by studying online. The experience has even given her greater confidence in her overall scholastic ability, as well as a better appreciation for her offline class discussions.

According to the 2002 E-Learning Industry Report published by Collaborative Strategies, a San Francisco-based management consulting firm that focuses on e-collaboration and knowledge management, e-learning is gaining momentum due to a variety of factors. They include: a global resource crunch for skilled workers; the need for enhanced productivity; an increasingly mobile workforce that is widely distributed; an emphasis on cost-cutting measures; and current and emerging technologies that offer enhanced learning experiences. It is for these and other reasons that you can expect, in the not-too-distant future, to be taking a distance-learning course at a school or office near you.

With the market for e-learning products and services forecasted to exceed $10 billion in revenues by 2005, Prezioso is clearly not the first true believer. In this year alone, the report estimates that worldwide virtual classroom marketplace revenues will exceed $300 million and highlights that more than 5 million people used virtual classroom systems last year.

Those figures aside, Jerry Voltura, an Alaska-based doctoral student researching the differences between online and ground-based education for his own online degree from a Florida university, admits occasional feelings of disassociation from the other students in his cyberspace-based classes. Prezioso similarly misses the face-to-face interaction. She also emphasizes that certain courses like those covering discussion-centered social or policy issues are better suited to digital collaboration than are problem-solving finance, economics, or math classes that require live interaction with an instructor.

Tools and techniques

Perhaps her view stems from the technology that most courses use. Typical programs enlist simple products like e-mail, threaded discussions, chat rooms, MUDs (multi-user domains) and MOOs (MUDs that are object-oriented), the Track Changes feature of Microsoft Word and instant messaging services to support their missions. These tools offer students and teachers the ability to share information with one another at their own pace and on their own time.

E-mail is obviously the simplest and most popular form of communication. It allows the transfer of information on a one-to-one or a one-to-many basis. This is helpful for teachers distributing assignments and students sharing responses; however, it is difficult to coordinate group debate this way, and e-mail lacks a central storage location, since each person maintains her own e-mail account.

Threaded discussions are a slight variation on e-mail. They allow each recipient to review all of the responses to a single query. This lets students follow a conversation from the beginning regardless of the point at which he joined the class.

For a document-centered approach, the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word (and Excel, though less popular) allows each reader of a document to view comments and revisions as they occur or are suggested. Once set, the software will automatically track each change any writer makes. The author of the document can accept or reject these changes.

Students can engage in richer discussions by using educational MUDs and MOOs. These are essentially chat rooms that allow users who are logged on simultaneously to exchange information. The difference between a MUD and a MOO is that a MOO is usually a subject-specific, text-based environment that is accessed through a dial-in telnet, while a MUD is a typical chat room that can be accessed over the Internet. MUDs tend be easier to create and use than MOOs, which makes them more popular in online learning. The difference between a MUD and e-mail is similar to the distinction between talking to someone on the phone and playing phone tag with your answering machines.

For private one-to-one real-time discussions, perhaps between a student and his professor, the weapon of choice is instant messaging (IM). The most popular makers include AOL, Yahoo!, MSN, and ICQ. The problem, of course, is that they are not all compatible, so if one student uses AOL and another uses Yahoo, they might as well be using two tin cans with different strings attached to communicate. Generally, though, it should not be difficult to establish uniform use at the beginning of class.

The underlying course software itself might have a proprietary IM feature. But that, of course, depends on the design and the foresight of the developer.

As teachers move from form to substance, the core tool for the e-learning platform creator is Learning Content Management (LCM) software like Jupiter Suite 4.5 from Englewood, Colo.-based Avaltus. This allows instructors to create content tailored to each user at the precise moment he needs it.

More advanced technologies offer the promise of streamlined programs, live or pre-recorded, that integrate voice, video, and data through audio, video, and Web conferencing and online course management. They result in true interaction across borders. The most popular titles include: LearningSpace 5.01 from Cambridge, Mass.-based IBM Lotus Software; WebEx Meeting Center by San Jose, Calif.-based WebEx Communications, Inc.; PlaceWare Conference Center from Mountain View, Calif.-based PlaceWare, Inc.; Web Conferencing Pro from Louisville, Colo.-based Raindance Communications; and, Blackboard 5: Learning System from Washington, D.C.-based Blackboard Inc. (Incidentally, Prezioso’s courses utilized Blackboard.)

Satellite technology is also being used in unique e-learning environments. For example, the Jason Foundation for Education based in Needham, Mass., takes scientists, students and teachers to, among other places, the Galapagos Islands, Yellowstone National Park, and the Peruvian rainforest. Utilizing space-based equipment and the Internet, these researchers on site are connected back to an estimated 25,000 teachers and 1 million students in schools worldwide.

Todd C. Viola, the program’s director of technology, says, “there’s something very special that happens when you enable students to reach out beyond the walls of their classrooms and interact with other people who are interested in the topic they are studying. It helps lend importance to the subject.”

The advantage of more advanced distance-learning technology is that, unlike the simple equipment described above, which lets people transfer data and generic documents, the more complex tools allow users to share presentations, documents, applications and video immediately with anyone anywhere at any time. They are generally compatible with Windows, Macintosh, or Solaris systems and use a standard Web browser. What they also offer, according to Dustin Grosse, Placeware’s worldwide vice president of marketing and business development, is “better recording and archiving of educational content that allows learners to [go] at their own pace.”

Cathy de Moll is founder of St. Paul, Minn.-based OnlineClass, a prominent provider of e-learning content that helps teachers incorporate the Internet into their classrooms. Despite all the sophistication surrounding the explosion of distance learning over the past few years, she says, “e-mail is still the killer app for collaboration. We all want more sophisticated tools, but the truth is that we are all most comfortable with e-mail, and it is wonderfully flexible and universal.”

Benefits and challenges

Convenience is key in distance learning. After all, it allows self-paced, on-demand education. It also permits teachers to draw on a global array of resources. It is the brave new world of education, according to Dr. Linda Howard, program professor of Leadership Studies at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

In addition to convenience, the new technology promotes extraordinary cultural exchange. Chester, Pa.-based StudyAbroad.com, a popular online resource for study-abroad programs and information, recently hosted a live online discussion between Israeli and American college students to encourage dialogue on the conflict in the Middle East. StudyAbroad.com CTO Mark Landon says, “Any time the people of one culture can communicate openly with the people of another culture, you’re building the foundation for understanding and tolerance.”

Collaborative Strategies senior analyst Lewis Ward is not fully persuaded. “I don’t think K through 12 is [in a hurry to adopt distance education], and colleges offer a lot more than just academics to students,” he says, supporting the premise that e-learning will not replace traditional institutions, but will perhaps supplement their reach.

Adoption of distance learning in public education is slow because the system is unreceptive to change and lacks the funds to properly implement the technological enhancements. Students also tend to have limited access to the high-speed Internet connections often required for the more sophisticated online learning programs.

In addition, self-paced learning requires self-discipline, a characteristic that not all students share. The challenge is fostering the change in work habits necessary for the full benefits of this technology to be realized. Online educational information also lacks the security of a live classroom. Teachers have no way of confirming that a particular student has completed a specific assignment. Many programs do, however, ensure the privacy and integrity of their data with standard SSL (secure-socket-layer) encryption protection.

Costs vs. benefits

The costs of collaborating are surprisingly low compared to the benefits and estimated returns on investment. E-mail, instant messaging, chat rooms, and other programs can be found at no cost on the Web. Video and audio conferencing, real-time or otherwise, can be purchased on a per-minute or per-session basis. Software might be purchased on a per-license basis or as a subscription.

Businesses benefit from streamlined expenses and faster dissemination of information. The high-speed transfer of data results in increased competition and better-trained employees, partners, and customers. Companies with better-trained employees will find themselves at a competitive advantage. Avaltus’s Katzman cautions, however, that “collaborative technologies by themselves are not solutions to business problems. They must be applied to be effective.”

Tom Vreeland, architect and chief technologist for OpenVES.org, a public/private partnership that sets standards and develops e-learning platforms for public education, predicts, “Collaboration technologies, and the infrastructures that deliver them, are poised to ignite a revolution in public education in the next few years.”

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