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Advanced computational environments for education

Liddy Nevile
Sunrise Research Laboratory, RMIT

In this paper, three categories of programmable computational environments will be the focus: The critical common feature of the three categories is the programmable nature of the environments. Not only are they multimedia, in the sense that they may contain text, graphics, video and sound, but they are truly interactive: the user can change the environment and is not dependent upon a systems expert or expert programmer to do this. Programming is given a modern meaning - it is not an esoteric art which must be practised by specialists but the power to make changes to programs which define the computer's operation, thus making the computer 'soft' in the hands of the user.

Computer based community teaching spaces

Imagine a university course for students in different locations. Assume these students are not only separated by distance, but also by time zones, and that they are normally engaged in full time employment. Imagine these students meeting for a one week quality contact session with fellow students, practitioners and faculty, every three months. How can these students be given the same, or better, learning opportunities than their full time, campus based colleagues?

Currently, the students are disadvantaged by distance and time incompatibility because they have:

In short, no real university life. But there are good examples of ways in which such students have been helped in the past, such as the Open University program in the United Kingdom.

The Open University spends several years developing courses for students which are then distributed in a range of ways: television broadcasts, printed materials, audio tapes, video tapes etc. The materials are tested extensively before use and then the program is run by a team which includes tutors within the locality of the student where possible. The program is fixed before it is commenced. Changing an Open University course requires extensive corrective work and the changes will again be tested before being published and distributed.

It is often said that the Open University courses, in particular, offer students more personal, individually tailored learning experiences than many courses which are delivered to students face to face. But this is because the program is very well constructed and tested so that it does cater well for such students as might choose to use it. Those who write the courses are highly trained in the process and years of accumulated wisdom are applied to evaluation of the courses. Really expert programmers' prepare the Open University courses. Really expert 'programmers' change them. What has not been prescribed is not available within the course structure. Students and tutors cannot choose to change the course to suit their needs, their idiosyncrasies. The Open University courses are based on 'printed material'.

What we are proposing is courses based on computers. Courses which are made visible on paper for the convenience of the reader but which are actually not considered to have a static form. Courses which can be changed at any moment by editing what is in the computer.

In fact, it is not so much the course as the campus for the course that is likely to change mid stream. It is the set of reference materials, usually known as the library; the meeting times and venues, usually known as the timetable; the course materials, usually contained within a 'text book', and so on which will change as the particular course progresses. Generically we are considering it to be the campus which will change. Books and new articles located where ever in the world will become available to students as they are published, not when the physical library on the real campus acquires them; meetings will occur when participants are ready for them, when they choose to access their electronic mail, and course materials will be annotated by students and staff as the course progresses, not needing to wait until the start of the next course for a fresh version. The campus will be Internet and the computers used by the staff and students, the interface to the campus.

The interface with which we are starting, Mosaic, has been developed initially by the National Centre for Super-computing of America, in Illinois. It is used on what has become a public facility and it is augmented by the work of thousands who depend upon it. It is most unlikely that an individual institution will ever again have to work on the underlying code although many may choose to. Like the telephone and the road system, we as citizens, this time of the world, can rely upon its existence and maintenance just because so many others do too. The campus to which we are referring is then, built upon the international network of computers. It is changed by us simply by our decision to add a new address to our 'address book' in order to include a new set of materials on the resource list, or when we create some materials and put them into a public location for others to access.

The campus is 'soft' in the hands of the teaching staff using it but also in the hands of the students. They can choose how to access the campus and localise, within their own computers, the ways in which they deal with materials and how they augment what is offered by the course staff.

What is the benefit of such a campus, and at what cost?

Students will benefit from more open and flexible approaches to their learning while gaining increased access to wider resource collections. They will need to be equipped with standard computing facilities and access to Internet and in many cases will have to pay connection fees but they will not have to pay for regular transport to the real campus, they will not have to pay for the expensive production of materials on paper and the transport of those materials, and the course providers will not be dependent upon the building of yet more bricks and mortar structures or the travel expenses associated with moving teaching staff around.

What existing services will need to change? Teaching staff will still produce course materials for their students but these will be located in a certain place on a particular computer, not printed. Pictures, video clips and sound can be included. Long video sessions will still need to be distributed by some other means, broadcast on TV channels perhaps, but only until the standard communications channels are upgraded. Staff who would talk to students face to face can either use email or 'etalk' (when the screen is split so both parties can type and read simultaneously), but very soon there will be 'etalking' salons available to make this easier (see next section).

Some library facilities will need to be altered. Already most libraries have electronic versions of their catalogues and subscribe to electronic publications. These can be made available to students electronically without any difficulty. But printed materials are not yet easily handled. If students 'ebuy' books there is no problem, they can be sent to them, but most on campus students depend upon photocopies of sections of many books. Currently it is illegal throughout most of the world to replace photocopying with scanning and then give students electronic versions of the texts they want. Such activity would breach the Copyright Laws. It may be possible to hold an electronic copy of a small section of a text for long enough to fax it without breaching copyright, however. This situation means that currently libraries are not able to offer the services they would like to distant students, but it is clear that there are going to have to be changes to publishing rights and freedoms in the future and they should solve some of these problems.

There are commercial associations and organisations which do provide ways around the difficulties the libraries are facing but they mean a different type of access to resources for students. Traditionally libraries were established on campuses for the benefit of students and huge holdings have been accumulated by the better resourced universities. The cost of holding the resources was borne directly by the universities and indirectly by the students. In the future it might be that the universities hold only the material in which they have copyright and that students directly bear the cost of purchasing access rights from the relevant source. In this case, libraries might start to look different: they may not be large spaces in which books are located but rather offices from which computer stored materials are made internationally available. The reading would take place in the student's own domestic circumstances, not in physical space provided by the library. Librarians would continue to be the specialists in collections but they would not be cataloguing their own collections so much as those of the rest of the world.

So far we have talked about a computer program or two and the data used by them. Such electronic campuses will of course need maintenance. The maintainers of these campuses will browse the Internet for new improvements which they may choose to use within the campus, simply by adding them into the existing collection of programs, putting them in the same file, as most of the improvements are being developed not as patches to the original code, but objects which sit beside it, which require no special installation and which do not require specific understanding by the user for their inclusion in the system. What skills such maintenance people will require seems likely to be a combination of technical and educational knowledge. The ability to see that a particular technical solution is able to resolve an educational deficit is not the same as the ability to make new electronic toys work. It is usually that the technical solution makes possible a paradigm shift on the part of the educationalist which clarifies the way in which the new solution can improve the educational offering.

The exciting possibility that such electronic campuses offer the teacher is control of the teaching environment, something which is almost impossible in any context where physical facilities are shared, as in almost all educational institutions.

Computer based community learning spaces

Imagine a rain forest in which flora and fauna have for centuries lived in harmony. Falling leaves provide the mulch in which little bugs breed and grow before they climb to the light, gobbling the fungus on the leaves as they go. Imagine trying to build a satellite monitoring tower in the rainforest, introducing sound waves which will upset the navigation capability of the bats which live in the forest and eat the bugs, risking the death of many bugs, and so trees, and so birds, and so.... What are the links in this ecological chain and how should they be maintained? What can be done to reconstruct them once they have been upset by a fire caused by spillage of petrol from a chainsaw?

Organisational theory is moving from the older mechanistic models of the world. for nature. science and social science, to dynamic, interactive models and the focus of much of what is studied today is the relationship between objects and ideas rather than the objects or ideas in isolation. Ecological models give access to ways of thinking about systems that function, whether they function well or badly. Engineering students are not just taught the capacity for stress of particular types of steel but how to work with others in the process of making and using steel. Learning itself is seen as a social activity, where interaction with others and the ideas of others is essential. The process of matching and distinguishing one's personal view from others' is essential for effective learning. Effective problem solving is being seen by many as 'getting in touch with' the elements of the problem, not imposing a solution over the top.

Role playing has long been recognised as a powerful way to simulate experience but the resources necessary have not always been available. Nor have the forms of role playing matched the culture of those being asked to assume the roles. Increasingly, students are becoming familiar with computers and computer based games and a modern version of role playing is developing.

We all understand what happens when a trainee pilot flies a plane in a simulator. The computer is programmed to react to certain actions in certain ways - all the ways have to be anticipated by the system programmer and made possible in advance. Anticipating what the pilot will do and deciding what response should be prescribed depends upon enormous expertise in the program designer and programmer. Implementing a system which will give realistic feedback to the user is becoming increasingly feasible as the quantity of data which can be accessible to the computer for determining the response increases (due to the development of optical storage etc), but the programmer remains responsible for the whole system, it is a centralised system and responsibility for it is realised in the program which generates the responses.

Imagine trying to develop a system which would steer all the cars in a major city. It would take for ever to work out how to get this right. Imagine now a system which could be placed in each particular car and directed that car to detect the presence of other cars and adjust its movement according to the behaviour of the other cars (what human drivers try to do). Such a system would not have to be very complex. The distribution of responsibility means that any individual part of the system can be simpler but the totality of the system might be more complex. The situational nature of the decision making in the dynamic distributed system makes for simple decisions at any time but a more powerful collective system.

There are now computer environments which have been developed in which users can control the roles of driver (or car) and traffic lights, and inclement weather, and road conditions, and work within the system of traffic rather than on it. Such environments are known as multi-user dungeons and they do not depend upon the prescription of activity, objects, numbers of people, etc. They are, in other words, programmable by the users.

Such spaces can be used to model theoretical structures, for instance micro economic conditions, and then users can collaboratively, or competitively, develop activities within the artificial environment. More particularly, in these spaces, students can work with other students, and the development of interpersonal skills can become part of the learning process. The shells in which such learning spaces are built are freely available from universities in the United States and many of them are already being used in explorations of the type of medium.

We anticipate using such spaces for our electronic campus staff room, as a place where students and teachers can meet electronically to talk about work they are doing, and as subject domain specific extensions to our electronic campus. We plan to build MUDs with particular foci: to create objects and rules which will simulate the fiscal conditions of a particular state and invite students to see if they can manage a business successfully within the artificial context, to create objects and rules which simulate sections of the human body and see if students can create and act out the role of bacteria and survive. We plan to use the environments the other way too, to produce objects such as viruses and invite the students to see if they can produce the objects and rules which will make the environment like the human body. Of course we plan to have both activities going at once as soon as possible.

We believe that the facility to focus on the interaction of the objects and rules as well as their definition adds an exciting new dimension to computer based learning.

Individual programming environments for learners

The third level of programmable environments is, we think, that associated with the use of programming environments which draw upon artificial intelligence. Such environments are able to be modified by users but users are also able to use tools and data as in a set of integrated business software. In addition, such environments contain what we describe as literature and a community of colleagues: they are usually run on computers which have telecommunicating capabilities and they have available for exploration and use, even appropriation and adaptation, the work of others previously using the system.

The two chosen environments are in themselves models for our understanding of the two previously described types of environments. They exemplify the power of interaction in unique ways providing a way of thinking about the educational and technical issues involved in the types of environments described above. They are Boxer and *Logo (pronounced star- logo), both of which originated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The two environments are not chosen because they demonstrate concepts and principles well but because they provide a medium in which the user has an abundance of ways of interacting with the concepts and principles developing in the user's mind. These exemplary environments are suitable for use by students in a range of domains and do not demand expert programming skills of the user in order to achieve complex programmed results - they are both very high level languages which make it possible for naive programmers to achieve in a relatively short time what previously only expert programmers would have tried to do, and even then only in several weeks.

Conclusion: Promoting flexible and open learning

All three types of environments described depend upon the concept of education as occurring locally in a global environment. It is a fundamental tenet of all three kinds of environments that students and teachers work in international network space. Human interactions across distance are essential design features of the environments which offer access to resources which are stored and accessed using global networks. Personal computing in public, global space is the underlying theme and for all activities students and teachers will use computer and communication technologies.

All three types of environments are interdependent. The levels of interaction range from educational organisation to individual with a concept, as they do in real life, and no element is more important than the other. The types have been distinguished for the benefit of having them as models one for another but they are ecologically dependent and as understanding grows with respect to one, it seems to grow with respect to them all. Their organic nature makes them exciting and challenging but they will require careful nurturing and tolerant acceptance as they work their way into the main stream of education, which we hope they do.

Author: Liddy Nevile, Director, Sunrise Research Laboratory at RMIT, GPO Box 2476V Melbourne 3001, ph 03 660 3461, fax 03 660 2761; email

Please cite as: Nevile, L. (1994). Advanced computational environments for education. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 183-186. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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