Distance Learning Development and Delivery Applications
David A. Tiedemann
There are many options to consider when evaluating distance or distributed learning applications. This article is based on the efforts of a Syracuse University On-line and Distance Learning Study Committee, which investigated distance learning options in the summer and fall of 2000. Although various delivery options, development tools and related applications are included, the focus of the committee’s investigation and this article is on course management systems, which are generally referred to as “courseware” here. The Technical Issues Subcommittee chose to review the options it deemed to have the most robust functionality for use at Syracuse University (SU):
Table 1. Systems reviewed
In addition to commercial options the committee investigated three products developed at SU. The Dialogue Project product was developed and is used by the SU School of Education for some of its classes and with K-12 school consortiums in the Syracuse area and throughout the state of New York. WebWisdom.com™ and TANGO were developed at Syracuse University's Northeast Parallel Architectures Center (NPAC, an advanced technology R&D laboratory) and is used by the SU School of Engineering for CPS 640 and other courses. This project at SU ended in June 2000 when WebWisdom.com became a commercial offering marketed to ebusiness and academic institutions.
A third product, AulaNet, was developed in Brazil and is available free for use at SU through an agreement between CIANET and the Instructional Design, Development, and Evaluation department (IDD&E) in the SU School of Education. It has been used to offer the IDD&E master's curriculum in Brazil.
A single product rarely meets 100% of an institution’s requirements. The primary advantages and disadvantages of developing customized software versus purchasing a commercial option (‘build vs. buy’) are shown in Table 2.
Table 3 lists some of the features and options of on-line and distance learning products reviewed by the Technical Issues Subcommittee. Innovations in cutting-edge technology, creative design, and seamless implementation are highlighted.
Table 2. Comparison of buying versus building customized courseware
Table 3. Features of courseware reviewed
Web Development Software
There are many options for Web course delivery systems (courseware packages) and other software packages to support on-line and distance learning. Not all are used exclusively for on-line instruction. Packages used to supplement on-campus classes rather than to offer instruction exclusively at a distance are included in Table 4 as they are tools that could be adopted for on-line courses.
Note: This is not intended as a comprehensive list of Web development software. Rather, it is meant to be indicative of the variety of systems available.
Table 4. Selected Web development applications
Course Development Tools
In addition to courseware packages (e.g., Web course management systems such as Blackboard and WebCT) for supporting delivery and management of on-line courses and on-line course materials, there are a number of tools that are useful in creating interactive learning materials. A collection of such tools can be used to support and supplement the development of courses to be delivered and managed in a Web course management system. Types of support tools/functions include:
Various tools to support Web site development (Dreamweaver, FrontPage, and HomeSite) and courseware development (AuthorWare, Coursebuilder, and ToolBook) are listed in the “Web Development Software” in the previous section. It is possible to create stand-alone, interactive, Web-based lessons using course development tools. Such lessons can be integrated into a Web course management system or used separately to support on-line or traditional courses. The Web site development tools are multi-purpose and can be used to help develop course sites as well as for a variety of other purposes. Continued use of and support for a reasonable set of these tools is desirable. It should be noted, however, that course development tools require training and some time to master. Not very many faculty (or other subject matter experts) are expected to master the use of such tools. Web site development tools are more easily mastered. They do, however, require training and practice. As such, they are not likely to be as widely used as word processors and Web browsers.
MS Word and PDF
Many of the materials placed on-line are based on documents created using a word processor. Saving these documents in PDF format (Adobe Acrobat) is an efficient way to preserve the best of traditional course materials and make those materials available on-line. Making Adobe Acrobat widely available (it can be integrated into Microsoft Word, for example) will help distribute the responsibility for creating on-line materials among the various subject matter experts involved. It is reasonable to expect anyone capable of using Microsoft Word to be able to create a PDF document. This capability could also be performed by a smaller group of centralized or distributed support personnel.
More Specialized Tools
There are a variety of other kinds of tools that are useful in creating Web‑based learning and instructional materials. They range significantly with regard to how quickly and easily developers, teachers, and students can learn to make effective use of them. Most people can easily master the use of a concept-modeling tool such as Inspiration. Such a tool might prove useful both to teachers in planning lessons and assessing progress as well as to learners in completing assignments. Graphics and photo-editing tools exist that are not difficult to master and are quite popular with many faculty and students (e.g., Adobe Illustrator and PhotoShop). Tools for 3D graphics and computer-assisted design are more difficult to master but are relevant to some course development efforts. These tools might be concentrated in a small number of support groups according to need.
People with basic Web development skills can easily master some simple animation tools. They are not expensive and often come bundled with other Web development tools (e.g., Macromedia Flash). Such bundled packages are likely to be useful to a number of potential developers and support groups around campus.
Audio and video editing tools typically require special skills and training. Such tools are useful in creating high impact multimedia but are more difficult to master. It is more reasonable to concentrate such tools and expertise in a smaller number of support groups.
Database and forms-based tools range in complexity. Some are usable by people with modest Web and programming experience. However, many require extensive programming expertise. The most powerful database tools require significant experience and knowledge. Some Web course management systems include embedded database and forms support or links to most database packages via standard protocols.
It is possible to design and develop interactive simulations and deploy them in distributed, Web-based settings using such tools as ithink/Stella, Powersim Studio, SimJava. Effective use of these tools requires deep understanding of the topic domain (e.g., the ability to create a mathematical model of a domain) as well as some programming expertise.
Given this array of support tools, a reasonable strategy would be to make many of them available in a few appropriate support centers. Those tools that are inexpensive, useful, and easy to use should be widely available to faculty and students so as to encourage a gradual increase in Web literacy.
Streaming Media Applications
Streaming media is a general delivery option for distance learning. Streaming media can be used to deliver live or pre-recorded audio and video over the World Wide Web. As with videoconferencing applications, dialup modems often do not provide sufficient bandwidth to deliver sufficient quality streaming audio and video for instructional purposes. For example, 56.6 Kbps modems may only deliver a bit rate in the low 40s because of typical residential wiring and termination issues. A broadband modem or LAN Internet connection is recommended for the most effective instructional use of streaming media.
A number of products are available ranging from free client player software to licensed server software with pricing depending on the number of simultaneous streams to be supported. Three of the more common media players are:
Instructional applications of two-way interactive videoconferencing have evolved over the decades from satellite-based videoconferencing in the 1980s to ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network, compressed video) in the 1990s to Internet Protocol (IP) based videoconferencing in the current decade. The expensive highly technical and support intensive nature of satellite videoconferencing made it a very centralized service. The ease and relative low cost of ISDN videoconferencing has begun a decentralizing trend that will grow significantly as the migration from ISDN to IP systems continues. Although it is possible to videoconference using a dialup modem, a broadband (cable or DSL(Digital Subscriber Line)) modem should be considered the minimum speed Internet connection from a quality perspective. Moreover, videoconferencing can be integrated into online environments via a technology known as webcasting.
As with streaming media, videoconferencing software and hardware range greatly in price and functionality. Microsoft NetMeeting is free software that enables the use of very inexpensive cameras (http://www.microsoft.com/windows/netmeeting/). There are dozens of manufacturers of videoconferencing hardware that support ISDN and IP videoconferencing. One such manufacturer is Polycom (http://polycom.com/), offering a wide range of products.
Development and Delivery
The number one application used by SU faculty to develop course materials for distance learning is Microsoft Office. Faculty create syllabi, assignments, course presentations, and a wide variety of course material using this rather mundane, but very productive software suite. The productivity of the Office software is not to be taken lightly. The most useful development and delivery tools in use are those that provide some productivity improvement for faculty while, at the same time, effectively supporting the student learning experience. This means a steep learning curve is often the death knell of authoring programs that promise very useful learning experiences. Faculty lack the time and the incentives to master and implement complex toolsets.
Many faculty are also empowered to create and maintain their own Web sites for distance learning courses, and for on-campus courses as well. The software and servers used for this vary considerably across the campus. In many instances, PowerPoint, Word, and HTML files are created and maintained by faculty assistants or technical support staff.
Xerox DocuShare is one tool that may promise some productivity improvements for the development of course materials. DocuShare was presented to the subcommittee as a delivery tool, but its value is more in the creation and integration of distance course content. There are other delivery tools developed explicitly for distance learning that are superior to DocuShare with regard to delivery management.
Support staff often implement other tools used to develop distance learning content. Video capture, editing, and encoding, for example, are typically undertaken by technical staff members who support faculty teaching distance learning courses. Likewise, development of rich media using Shockwave, Flash, or Coursebuilder are most often delegated to technically proficient students or technical support staff.
The most commonly used mechanisms for delivery of course material and supporting course interactions are email, email listservs, and the Web. These are standard tools available in most settings in and out of the University. Delivery of course content and interactions are supported by higher level commercial e-learning platforms on campus as well. At Syracuse University, several systems are used by different schools and departments.. Blackboard, TopClass, and WebCT offer a bundled set of Web-accessible interactions and resources that include easy upload/download of course documents, file sharing, chat, discussion forums, and on-line quizzes and exams.
Streaming media and videoconferencing are increasingly common delivery options. These options have become increasingly accessible as prices have dropped and high speed Internet connections such as cable modem, DSL, and ISDN have become more readily available for home users of streaming media and videoconferencing. Hybrid applications such as Caliber combine the power of Web delivery and streaming media/videoconferencing into one package.
The investigation of the Syracuse University On-line and Distance Learning Study Committee’s Technical Issues Subcommittee revealed abundant options as well as rapid change in distance learning tools. During the six month investigation many of the courseware packages released major upgrades (and some have done so again as this article goes to press). It is clear that nearly every institution or instructor can find distance learning development and delivery applications that matches their needs and budgets. However, in an era of an abundance of distributed learning tools the challenge is not so much in selection and infrastructure implementation as it is in the appropriate design and use of the selected tool.
The author wishes to acknowledge and thank members of Syracuse University’s On-line and Distance Learning Study Committee’s Technical Issues Subcommittee for their research and contributions to the report on which this article is based, especially George Abbott, Andy Covell, Peter Rounds, Michael Spector, and June Winckelmann.