Global Delivery of Education via the Internet





Dr. George K. Kostopoulos

Professor of Information Systems

Texas A&M International University, Laredo





Abstract

This paper describes the issues associated with global delivery of education via the Internet, as well as the academic, technical, administrative, instructional, and behavioral considerations. Also presented is a course delivery prototype, which has been designed to serve as a shell for the development of full length courses. The paper's position is that eventually a cyber-academia will be progressively formed, with its own culture and institutions, which will meet the needs of those who are time or place constrained.









INTRODUCTION

Education coupled with culture comprises the intellectual treasure of any individual. While culture normally comes from an individual's immediate environment, such as the family and the society, education may come from a wide variety of sources. Traditionally, these sources have been the schools one has attended.

The education delivery in the schools has indeed followed technological advances. With time, the most familiar blackboard and chalk have been augmented with a variety of visual aids, ranging from projected images of text, or pictures, to multimedia electronic presentations with sound, video and animation. Yet, the student's physical presence remained a prerequisite.

Parallel to this traditional delivery of education, education was also delivered via the postal service, as training by correspondence, a century old concept. There have been, and still are, many reputable schools that have educated thousands who could not physically be present in the place where the education was being delivered. Thus, receiving formal education, without being face to face with the instructor, is an old and accepted concept.

In the early Eighties, education by correspondence was re-discovered and was called distance learning. I recall, when I was, at that time, a faculty at the Florida Atlantic University, some of my graduate classes were video taped, and the tapes were distributed to various locations in and out of Florida to students, who had been formally registered in these courses. The necessary after class interaction was conducted by telephone, while all tests were appropriately supervised off campus. This was the form of tele-education in the Eighties.

Also in the Eighties higher education, at least in the U.S., experienced a frenzie in the establishment of satellite campuses. Their aim was a combination of minimizing student commuting and maximizing territorial coverage. It was indeed a very expensive version of tele-education.

In the early Nineties, as the telecommunications technology advanced, the concept of real-time tele-education became a reality, although a very expensive one. The needed infrastructure called for expensive satellite links and for specially equipped studios, at least on the instructor's side. As for the instructor and student interaction, in most cases it was on a non real-time basis, which was adequate for the majority of course deliveries.

Today, in the late-Nineties, the educators around the world are faced with a new reality of unprecedented parallel. This reality is the cyber-campus. Now, an educator's campus is no more the school buildings and the related physical infrastructure, but the entire world. We, the educators, are provided with a resource that is beyond reasonable comprehension. What offers this global access, and at a relatively negligible cost, are the recent, and hopefully never-ending, advances in the Internet Technology.

The Internet Technology as an educator's resource outperforms even the sun. The sun can only shine half of the globe at a time, while the Internet delivered education can shine the entire globe, and around the clock, with knowledge.

THE CONSIDERATIONS

The issues that are associated with Internet delivered education can be identified as academic, technical, administrative, instructional, and behavioral. These issues need be addressed in the context of the traditional delivery of education, which we aim to strengthen, and not necessarily replace with an Internet delivered version. The objective of Internet delivered education must be dual. The first is to provide tele-education for the place or time constrained students, and the second to maximize the utilization of instructional technology, in an effort to enhance the absorption of knowledge.

Academic Considerations

The academic recognition of coursework, that has been completed outside of the physical campus of the degree granting institution, has always been a debatable issue. Even if the courses are offered by the institution's own faculty, accreditation agencies frawn if the number exceeds one or two, let alone credit earned through non-traditional learning, like by correspondence, through self study or through practical experience.

The Internet tele-education, which will be the secondary educational mode of the next millennium, is now bringing the issue of off-campus / off-classroom course work to the foreground and into an unavoidable recognition. The impact of this eventual formal recognition of Internet delivered course work will be more education to more people and in more places.

It appears, that there are two areas that the cyber campus will initially address. The first will be the static knowledge, like mathematics, physics and languages, and the second the highly dynamic knowledge required by the professionals to keep abreast in their respective fields.

The static knowledge, by virtue of being static and widely used, like mathematics, languages, history, literature, and the like, justifies the large amounts of investment needed to develop effective Internet multimedia courses.

The highly dynamic knowledge, like the content of state-of-the-art courses in computers, is attracted to Internet type of delivery because it cannot be supported by traditional channels of knowledge distribution. There are two reasons. One is that there are not enough instructors to cover the demand, and the other is that books preparation and their distribution take such a long time, relative to the speed of change in the respective knowledge, that, unfortunately, the books turn obsolete shortly after they are published.

At this point in time, in the U.S., of the several thousands of institutions of higher education less than seventy offer courses via the Internet. Collectively they amount to about 2,500 courses. A research as to what today constitutes Internet delivered courses has indicated that the practice varies from mailed video tapes to interactive multimedia web based courses. In all cases, however, there is instructor accessibility via e-mail, often, by telephone as well. In addition, complete degree programs are currently being offered, and in many cases the courses allow open entry, so that a student may start cyber attendance at any time (Caso, 1998).

Courses offered over the Internet, can be full courses, with sole Internet interaction, or may be supplementary to an in-campus course, in which case the student - faculty interaction remain on a face-to-face basis.

Properly designed, structured and offered Internet courses may result in significant competitive advantage for an educational institution. There are tremendous financial gains ahead for the publishers of high quality multimedia Internet deliverable courses. Today, a very small percent of the Internet delivered courses fall in this category. But with time, and as appropriate course authoring tools are developed, there will be an abundance of Internet delivered educational programs provided for a subscribed access, and for free, as a public service.

Examining the trends, and the expected windfall returns to schools, one may foresee that degree programs will eventually have two components, the in-campus courses and the cyber courses, with certain courses offered through both media.

The way the Internet technology advances and the way it is globally accepted, it will not be too long before Internet course offerings by academic institutions, will be expected, as websites are being expected today.

Eventually numerous complete degree programs, will be offered over the Internet, not only by currently established academic institutions, but also by new ones, that are truly virtual, having no physical campus at all. These academic program offerings will comprise the global cyber campus, an academic community with its own scholastic standards, accreditation criteria and its own culture. Currently, some cyber programs are accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC, 1998)

Technical Considerations

The delivery of courses via the Internet depends on three main technical factors, namely, the network access, the server capabilities and the browser compatibility.

Network Access

For an effective world wide delivery of education, the already existing and globally available technological infrastructure must be utilized. This is none other, but the Internet Technology. Dedicated microwave terrestrial links or satellite links, the prominent technology of the Eighties and early Nineties, are not necessary anymore. The current Internet Technology, absolutely, meets all of today's technical needs, for the delivery of education. However, to become useful, this technology must be understood, learnt and utilized.

At the same time, it must be recognize, that while the Internet Technology itself does meet the speed needs for node-to-node data transfers, the last mile problem still exists. By last mile, we mean the user's connection to the Internet service provider, or to the first node. For the general public, this link has been a dial-up telephone connections, with all its advantages and disadvantages.

The last mile problem, which now limits effective video delivery, is overcome when wireless networks for Internet access are being utilized (ZD, 1997a), ( ZD, 1997b), (ZD, 1997c). In California, the Bonita School District, in the Los Angeles County, is currently planning to link up all its fourteen schools with a wireless Internet access network, as Washington, D.C. schools have already done (ZD, 1997a), (TV, 1997).

Wireless Internet access networks with data rates of 3Mbps, which is twice that of a T1 line, easily support multimedia applications including full motion video and Internet telephone communications. The per site installation cost of a wireless system is, presently, $6,000, and is expected to decrease, where single installations may easily accommodate one hundred users (ZD, 1997a). In addition to offering superior quality over telephone lines, wireless Internet connections also eliminate costly telephone bills and pay for themselves in one or two years.

Server

The Server is the origin of the transmission, and the power of its performance directly affects the quantitative and qualitative features of the accessed presentations. The necessary server must feature multi casting (multiple broadcasting), which is the simultaneous transmission to multiple users of Internet data, including live audio and live video (PC, 1997).

To best emulate the in-classroom lecture environment, the presentations must be made live, with real-time interaction. Live presentations delivery can be easily implemented with the popular RealAudio servers, and may include audio, video and animation (RA, 1998). This is a proven technology, with about 30,000 servers in use, and over one million respective players already downloaded (RA, 1998a).

For live interaction, there are two options. One is the electronic mail. In this case, the instructor, during, or at the end of the live lecture, will read the electronic mail of the cyber audience and will respond verbally before ending the live presentation. However, sometimes, it may take hours for an e-mail to arrive, and this approach may end up being impractical. The other option is live Internet audio, or video, broadcast from each student station, and a multi-browser multi-listening configuration at the instructor's site, which might be somewhat technologically demanding.

An easy start into the Internet global education delivery is offering predesigned educational programs on demand. In this case, the program, which may include audio, video and predesigned interaction, resides in the instructor's server from where it can be accessed at any time.

The delivery of the associated audio or video can be, either downloaded files in their full size and played on arrival, or can be downstreamed files sent in isochnonically delivered data packets, where the modem requirements can be as low as 14.4Kbps. However, with today's 56Kbps modems high quality audio can be received even via telephone lines.

Browser

At the student's computer, the browser must be compatible with the technology of the delivered program, and should have installed the necessary plug-ins, like the audio, video or animation players. This should not pose a problem, because the instructor's side will be providing the cyber audience with all necessary information on the needed infrastructure.

At the instructor's computer, if no live interaction is expected, the e-mail capability will suffice. On the other hand, if there is to be real-time interaction, the instructor's computer must have multireceiving (multiple receiving) audio or video capabilities. This can be accomplished through multiple browser installations with own audio/video players. Eventually, there will be multireceiving browsers for educational or similar needs. Using multiple browsers openings the author was able to simultaneously hear only up to two independent audio sources.

Satellite Internet Access

Neither the instructor nor the student need be in a fixed geographical location in order to interact over the Internet. Today's technology facilitates satellite Internet access via portable small size antennas that connect to notebook computers (Alpha, 1998).

Administrative Considerations

An educational program, in addition to the actual delivery of the planned education, entails a large number of support activities, such as the posting and the maintenance of academic information. This need can also be fully supported by an appropriate website.

Such site will display information on the institution itself, on the course availability and scheduling, on course syllabi and faculty interests, as well on other related activities or services, making any person-to-person contact unnecessary. Through the same site, students, through passwords, will be able to access their records, or other confidential information. Also, through the site prospective students may formally register by completing appropriate forms.

Faculty, who may be located around the world, will also receive the class rosters, and enter the grades via this site. Thus, all administrative needs can be met through the Internet Technology.

Instructional Considerations

The prime instructional considerations in Internet delivered education are two. The technical support the instructor will need in the preparation of cyber course, and a mechanism for the evaluation of the cyber students.

Not too long ago, professors were using the services of graphic designers for the preparation of visual aids, and the services of typists for their notes. These days are past and gone. Today, professors are computer literate by necessity, and are expected to be preparing their own electronic presentations, using appropriate software applications. Similarly, while today professors use the services of Website designers for the preparation of their cyber courses, in the near future they will be expected to use cyber courses development tools themselves as part of their instructional activities (Asymetrix, 1998)

Such cyber course development applications provide users with a ready structure, a shell, where stand-alone files (text, audio, video or animation) will be linked to the shell resulting in a complete Internet deliverable presentation.

In a cyber instruction environment student evaluation, is a major issue. However, it may take one or both of two equally valid forms. One is the traditional examinations, which, in this case, will be proctored by an institutional representative. The other is, video or audio only, live Internet presentations, technically similar to those of the instructor.

Behavioral Considerations

It is true that cyber instruction deprives the education process of the very important classroom ambience for which there is no direct replacement.

However, with Internet audio and video in multi casting and multi receiving mode, we may create a live global conferencing environment. It is quite possible, that because of its global nature, student cyber attendance may be more interesting and more punctual than traditional classroom attendance. Undoubtedly, it will be most fascinating, for once or twice a week, to be meeting in cyberspace with classmates from various parts of the world.

Thus, while the traditional classroom environment is not maintained in an Internet based instruction, a totally new concept is being created, that of a live global cyber classroom, with its very own merits.

Tele-education, while a valuable and important educational resource, will especially benefit the dedicated students, who are time conscious, self disciplined, self motivated and appreciative of the received education.



THE CHALLENGES

For a major academic institution, the question is not whether to offer, or not to offer, tele-education via the Internet. The question is what courses and in what timetable and format. With time, no academic institution will have exclusive geographical territories by virtue of proximity, because Internet tele-education will be available in every home around the globe.

To successfully put into practice education over the Internet, academic institutions must first effectively address the issues that are associated with the implementation of such undertaking.

In an institution, the first cyber course may be the result of a professor's own initiative, later there might be a departmental pilot program, but eventually, every major academic institution will need to have an Internet tele-education department that will administer this global marketing and service effort.

The most challenging issues, associated with actually putting a series of courses over the Internet, are not technical, but technology mastering, faculty training, and course restructuring; and in that order of challenge.

Technology Mastering

It has to be recognized by academic administrations that the Internet technology, besides being most fascinating, is evolving very fast, and no amateur can keep track by casually flipping through the pages of related publications.

Mastering the Internet technology is more than one specialist's full time job. It requires a dedicated multi-member staff that not only follows the technology's evolution, but also practices the various technological offerings in a real world environment.

For an academic institution, mastering the Internet technology is not a luxury, but a necessity, because without a thorough knowledge and expertise of this technology, every effort will end up in vain demonstrating the use of obsolete methods and technologies.

Today, information-seeking directly identifies with the Internet, tomorrow, education-seeking will similarly identify with the Internet.

Faculty Training

Internet tele-education literacy for the faculty is a major and critical issue, because faculty participation is of paramount importance. Here, however, there are two obstacles.

The first is time. In today's fast pace world, available time is a scarce resource. Faculty are already preoccupied with being abreast in their own fields, and can hardly find time to learn the Internet technology that even outpaces the experts.

The second is lack of will, on the part of most faculty, to leave their beloved blackboard and chalk, and to learn new knowledge delivery skills - that of the tele-education technology - a technology that is useless, unless it is mastered in full.

Course Restructuring

Presenting a lecture over the Internet is not showing a video of the instructor in front of a blackboard with his back turned to the audience while writing solutions to problems. Internet delivery of education is a multimedia production, prepared for a multi-year use, where every second of video and audio content effectively conveys quanta of knowledge.

In the classroom, an instructor may write five words on the board and deliver a one hour lecture based on these five words. In tele-education the visual content, which re-enforces the aural delivery, should be changing continuously, preferably every ten seconds.

Therefore, courses will have to be redesigned, so that the visual flow, video or animation, and aural flow, speech or music, are both continuous and captivating.

It has to be realized that developing a course for Internet tele-education is a very serious undertaking, like the development of a good textbook. On the other hand, the academic as well as the financial rewards can be very significant. For many student this form of learning may be their only access to education. In terms of financial rewards to the academic institution, a well developed cyber course can pay for itself within a semester.

AN EXAMPLE

Aiming at the eventual development of a simple cyber course shell for the subsequent production of cyber courses, a prototype has been designed taking into account some of the discussed considerations. The subject presented in this prototype has been multimedia. It is a twenty minute presentation of fourteen pages that can be manually selected or sequentially presented without viewer interference.

The Structure

In structuring the prototype, the prime objective was to develop a shell, where educational material, as well as presentation parameters, can be easily entered. In this case, the educational material is a sequence of HTML pages, which may include embedded files, such as audio or video, in addition to images and animation.

The prototype opens up with a full screen page, shown in Fig. 1. Embedded in this page is a MIDI file, to create a relaxed atmosphere, and an audio RA file, welcoming the user and describing what is to follow. Use of WAV files would be impractical due to their large size and need for downloading, rather tha streaming.

For design simplicity, and to provide the users with a feeling of security, that they would not get lost inside a labyrinthic website, the course presentation has a consistent appearance, illustrated in Fig. 2, where the Table of Contents is to the left and the Controls Panel is to the right. In the middle of the viewing area is the educational material, which may be experienced, that is, viewed and listened to, under the user's control.

The Interaction

Here, there are three options in accessing the presented material. The first one is through the Table of Contents, shown in Fig 3., by clicking on the particular page. The second is through the Controls Panel, appearing in Fig 4, where the selection is relative to the currently displayed page. The third option is to let the presentation run by itself at a pre-defined sequence without any input from the user. The user, however, may interrupt the presentation at any point through the Table of Contents or through the Controls Panel.

The Audio

All audio files in this prototype were originally recorded into WAV format, with a sampling rate of 11Khz and a sampling amplitude resolution of 8 bits. Through a WAV to RA encoder, provided by RealAudio, the audio files were compressed into RA files for 28.8Kbps modems (RA, 1998b).

The Shell

The above described course delivery prototype, with minimal additional programming, can be scaled to accommodate any size of presentation. In the case where a presentation contains images, the images can be either part of the course pages, which appear in the middle of the screen, or they may have a frame of their own, preferably in the upper left corner, as illustrated in Fig 5.

The layout of Fig 5 aims at providing a shell structure where the user will develop only text pages. Images, animation and videos, though initiated in the text pages, will appear in the images-frame located in the upper left area of the screen.

CONCLUSION

The Internet, as a network, coupled with the streamed audio technology, provides in total the necessary infrastructure for global course delivery.

The need, today, is for course development tools, the learning and use of which, will require the minimum of skills, time and effort on the part of the educator. Using such tools, which will resemble those of multimedia development, courses will be prepared for endless deliveries on demand.

The educational horizons that have been opened, thanks to the Internet and to the streamed audio, technologies are unprecedented magnitude and importance.

With time, via the internet, education will shine onto the world population, as solar energy shines on us daily. Eventually, no one should be deprived of education because of location or time inconvenience.

REFERENCES

Caso (1998), Your Guide to On-Line College Courses, www.caso.com.

DETC (1998), Distance Education and Learning Council, www.detc.org.

ZD (1997a), Wireless Internet Signals, ZD Internet Magazine, July 14, 1997.

ZD (1997b), Major-Wireless Offering Wireless Modem Services to Internet Service Providers, ZD Internet Magazine, May 15, 1997.

ZD (1997c), Nationwide Wireless Internet and Intranet Access with AirBrowse, ZD Internet Magazine, February 28, 1997.

TV (1997), D.C. School Gets Connected Without Wires, TV Technology, July 17, 1997.

PC (1997), IP multi casting makes headway among ISPs, PC Week, October 6, 1997.

RA(1998a), RealNetworks, Inc. www.real.com.

Alpha (1998), Alpha Communications, www.networkalpha.com.

Asymetrix (1998), Toolbok II Assistant/Instructor/Librarian, www.asymetrix.com.

RA(1998b), RealNetworks, Inc. www.real.com.



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THE AUTHOR (kostopoulos@tamiu.edu)

Dr. George Kostopoulos is a Professor of Information Systems with the College of Business at the Texas A&M International University in Laredo, Texas. His professional interest is the Internet, as it applies to Electronic Commerce and Global Education Delivery, while his academic interest is International Education.

This paper appears in the Volume 3 Number 3 1998 issue of the Internet Research: Electronic Networking Applications and Policy, ISSN 1066-2234.