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Developing a CMCS for technophobes

Anna Boyd, Glen Chisholm, Martin Dougiamas, Robert Fox, Allan Herrmann, Rod Kevill and Des Thornton
Curtin University of Technology


The development of a Computer Mediated Communications (CMC) environment in which students could communicate with academic and general staff is a goal with which Curtin University has been grappling for some time. The challenge was to develop an environment which provided high technical quality communications for those students studying in the distance mode integrated into a seamless graphical user interface (GUI). Several tertiary organisations have been developing virtual or electronic campuses which provide distance students with a number of communications channels. However, in the majority of cases these environments were based on terminal sessions attached to mainframe or mini time sharing systems. Access to the functions was through standard menu selections or in some cases overlapping windows which mimicked the personal computer GUI.

In order to develop and trial a system which was, as far as possible, user friendly for the most technophobic of distance students, funding was gained from the Curtin University Equity and Access Committee. Initially 10 units of study were "offered" to students in this trial. This involved seven teaching staff from two Curtin campuses and one off campus tutor. These staff were invited to participate because of their expressed interest in the CMC work and because of their, at least, basic computer skills. Due to the lack of student response only seven units (six lecturers) were finally included in the project. Of this group, the off campus tutor had significant difficulties in accessing the system and another lecturer was called away on urgent family matters thereby reducing their participation in the pilot.

Students enrolled in the 10 units were invited, to take part in the project conducted in second semester, 1995. Students were informed that to participate, they needed access to a personal computer and modem (although Curtin did make available for loan to students 10 high speed modems). Although high levels of computer literacy were not a prerequisite, as a reasonable level of technical and training support was to be made available, the students were informed that they would need to organise the installation of the equipment, facilities and software as required. Thirty-five students indicated their willingness to take part though six withdrew from the units and a further seven withdrew from the trials during the semester.

Evaluation of available systems

An evaluation was undertaken of the types of CMC systems available. Given that Curtin's main computing facility is based around Digital Equipment's VMS operating system, the CMCS would have to function within this environment. Two commercial CMCSs were identified as being appropriate; Camber-Roth's CAUCUS system and CoSy400 system. Each presented a CMC environment based on an ASCII terminal session to a mainframe. Both systems integrated the standard features of email, discussion groups or conference sessions, file transfer in two directions and in some cases one to one real time communications. However, both systems required the student to deal with a number of different computer environments in which there were either minor or major variations in the way the user interface reacted. For example the mail environment used the traditional VMS mail which required a knowledge of a text editor like EDT while the file transfer environment used the Kermit file transfer program. This multiplicity of interfaces added a degree of complexity to the CMC environment which was perceived to be a disincentive to neophytes and technophobes.

None of the systems investigated supported a client server environment which could make use of the personal computer GUI features available under Windows or Macintosh. In evaluating the systems currently available it became clear that the technology was at the edge of an evolutionary phase. The transition from the ASCII terminal environment to one which supported a more graphical user interface was imminent. The challenge was to find or develop a CMC environment which was user friendly and able to make extensive use of the functionality provided by the GUI desktop interface. A number of GUI systems were investigated including Lotus Notes and Forum. However, at that time, these systems were not fully supported on the dual platforms of Macintosh and IBM, both of which were considered to be essential any system. It became clear that no system fulfilled the expectations of the group.

Technical system specification

As a starting point for the design and development of Curtin's CMC environment the working group posed the following question. "What are the most desirable characteristics of a CMCS developed specifically to support distance teaching and learning?" The first requirement identified was that the system had to be simple and user friendly and had to take advantage of the features of the GUI. The second requirement was that all components of the system should, as far as possible, exhibit common interface characteristics. That is, students should not have to learn different commands to use email, take part in discussions and review their learning materials. The third key component was that the system should take advantage of client server technology which would not require the student to remain attached to one location for long periods of time.

With regard to the specific features of a CMCS, it was clear that in order to provide high quality communication for students studying in distance mode, the system should provide:

Having identified the requirements of the CMC environment the challenge was to construct such a system within limited financial resources.


In keeping with the CMCS specifications outlined above, the first two criteria for selecting software were that it should be cross platform and that it should be available in the shareware domain or at least have substantial discounts for educational use.


The shareware version of Eudora, from Qualcomm Inc., was selected as the email package because it fulfilled all of the essential requirements and in addition had been found to be a very user friendly and stable email package.

One of the strong features of Eudora is that it supports the MIME standard. This makes it possible to transfer documents between Eudora users in a wide range of formats. For example the MIME standard allows you to attach any of the following data formats to an email message and have it correctly interpreted and unpacked by the receiver. The MIME standard not only supports pre-defined types of non-textual message content it also permits definition of custom types of message parts allowing considerable scope for expansion in the future.

Learning resources and discussion groups

During the evaluation process it quickly became apparent that enormous opportunities existed to utilise the World Wide Web (WWW) and its associated Web browser technology to provide a GUI interface which fulfilled all of our identified group discussion requirements. The fact that the browsers were integrating a number of features such as news, email, ftp and at the same time, being able to handle a range of data formats, meant that it should be possible to construct a seamless integrated environment which provided all of the necessary CMC functionality.

The WWW's hypertext distributed client server environment supports a range of information formats from text documents, menus and images through to video and sound. The hypertext links, which reference to documents and other resources by their Universal Resource Locater (URL), make it possible to construct rich active learning environments. Client programs or browsers, such as Netscape, Mosaic or Lynx, running on the user's computer, provide basic navigation operations.

Learning resources

Learning resources are delivered via a WWW site using Netscape Communications Corporation Netscape HTTP server software. Figure 1 shows the Home Page of the CMCS - Curtin Learning Link.

Figure 1

Figure 1: The Curtin Learning Link Home page.

The options available are

Students choosing the List of available units are currently presented with all of the units which were then available through Curtin Learning Link (Figure 2) trial.

Figure 2

Figure 2: The online units

In order to restrict access to the learning material the standard security features available in the server software were implemented. Students were issued with usernames and passwords which restricted the units they were able to access. When a unit, is selected, the student is prompted for a user name and password which are then authenticated (Figure 3). The password is remembered so that if they move off to another site and then back to the unit page they are not again prompted to enter a password.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Password protection.

Having entered their Unit Home Page the students can then gain access to a range of learning materials stored in the directory structure below the home page. The hypertext features of the web browser make it possible for the students to move freely within their unit environment or to any other Internet resource (Figure 4).

Figure 4

Figure 4: The unit home page

Discussion groups

A discussion group environment was created using the university news server. Newsgroups for each of the units being delivered via Curtin Learning Link were created and the students pointed at these newsgroups via a link on their unit home page. The menu item Join in with offline discussion is in fact a link to newsgroup on the university news server. Unit coordinators initiate a discussion on a topic and as students comment and expand on the topic a discussion environment evolves (Figure 5).

Figure 5

Figure 5: The offline discussion groups

Discussion groups were created at a number of levels within Curtin Learning Link so that students could begin discussions with both students outside their specific unit and other Internet surfers.

Synchronous communication

In order to facilitate synchronous communications between students and student to tutor, an Interactive Relay Chat (IRC) server was established. Students could attach to the IRC and join discussion groups related to their particular topic. In situations where the groups should be closed, password protection was put onto the discussion group to limit outside access. Students were provided with the IRC software via the Netscape web browser and at the same time given instructions on how to install and configure it (Figure 6).

Figure 6

Figure 6: The IRC Chat screen.

The objective of being able to discuss a common resource, such as a picture or piece of text, from within the IRC session could not be realised because there did not appear to be a cross platform IRC client which supported this feature. Homer, the Macintosh IRC client, is able to support a range of shared resource such as white boards and text windows while the PC clients NSChat and MIRC did not.

File transfer

The file transfer to the student was implemented via the WWW server and the web clients ability to support the MIME type FTP. Students are able to click on a resource, such as a data file or text assignment for delivery to the desktop via the web server and web browser. The transfer of documents from the student to the tutor has not at this point in time been implemented. However, document transfer is a standard feature of Eudora making the transfer of documents from a student to a tutor a technically easy matter. The decoding of such documents into a form which the tutor can read is another matter!

Analysis of initial feedback from students involved in the pilot

As part of the preliminary evaluation, seven students were contacted by phone to provide feedback on their views and experiences in using Curtin Learning Link and to give their opinions on its potential use as a medium for communication and education.


The interview was considered preferable to the anonymous questionnaire technique as it was seen as capable of generating a more open ended discussion on the role and importance of CMC and provide valuable insights into the further development of an overall project evaluation plan.

Interviews were carried out during one week in November, 1995. The CMC activities with some students had not been completed and for other students, they hoped they would be able to devote time to trialing and experimenting with the system after examinations. As a consequence, several students interviewed had had little experience of the CMC. Nevertheless, all students were happy to air their views on the trial period.

The instrument employed for the study was an interview guide with 6 open ended topics. The semi-structured nature of the interviews allowed students to pursue any area of the inquiry about which they felt strongly. The open ended approach encouraged students to draw their own conclusions about their experiences. After the initial interview, it was hoped that follow up discussions will be made for clarification or elaboration. It is envisaged that more discussions will take place in mid-December when more students will have had the opportunity to complete CMC activities. The interview guide included such topics as levels of technical difficulty, technical support and technical assistance offered and needed, the benefits CMC provided to the unit being studied and the perceived potential benefits and added value the CMCS had to offer.

Interviews were between 5 minutes to 15 minutes in duration. Students in the urban and rural regions, across states were interviewed and a gender and age balance was maintained across those interviewed.

Limitation of the study

The small scale of this study and the limitations of time and of student groups means that the findings can not be extrapolated too far.

In interpreting data the research team recognises that their opinion will be reflected in the study. In collecting and in writing up the report the research team took into account the following assumptions that:



Technical problems encountered by all students had prevented them from using Curtin Learning Link to its perceived full potential and all students interviewed had spent considerable time in setting up facilities and creating the necessary links.

Three students noted problems of accessing OpenNet connections and that the instructions given to set up the links were not clear. However, two students indicated they had technical assistance at work and that they were able to set up the required equipment configuration and load the discs supplied by OpenNet with ease.

One student had withdrawn from the unit due to work commitments and several had conceptual difficulties in understanding how the system operated. For example, one student had phoned for help in setting up the modem and had asked to be talked through the installation phase. As the student was phoning from home with only one phone line, this proved an impossible task.

Two students, who had encountered problems in installation, suggested that the OpenNet manual needed to be made more user friendly. Another student who had received some technical assistance at work felt the OpenNet installation manual was clear and easy to follow and that the technical support provided over the phone by Open Net was excellent.

All students stated that the installation and link up had taken considerable time and effort and that to date, only two students had found the time taken had been compensated by the perceived value provided by Curtin Learning Link. However, five students who had linked in, all felt that they had learnt a great deal and that in future, the technical difficulties would be minimised and that to a great extent the technical difficulties were a 'one off' problem. In general, students felt that the considerable time taken to date had not been wasted and that they hoped the trial would continue in 1996.


Two students had recent interactions with their tutor and fellow students and that these interactions had greatly benefited their learning. The exercises developed by the tutor had given them opportunities that would not have been available without the link. Both students stated that these activities were a vital and central part of their studies. One student noted that without Curtin Learning Link, she would not have been able to complete the unit at all. The exercises set by the tutor required students to interact with each other through email, and to take part in a relay chat session on the Internet, to conduct data searches on WWW and to carry out a FTP file transfer. As one student confirms: 'to get confident, you have to use it and I'd have liked more exercises'. One student who had access to CLL early in the semester had been disappointed that these exercises had not been provided at the beginning of the semester. However, the student recognised that other students had not been able to overcome technical problems early and would not have been able to use the CLL till later on in the semester.

Only one student interviewed had had any time to explore or generally to 'surf the net' although two students indicated that they were looking forward to investigating the WWW during the Christmas break. The student who had explored the Web had fully used his 15 hours of "free" access time surfing various sites.

One student noted that in his unit, instructional materials placed on CLL were not any different to those print based materials sent by post. 'If all that's on... is what's already given in print... what's the point?' This was reinforced by the same student who had technical difficulties accessing the offline discussion facility. One student felt that CLL would be an essential professional development tool and would, through email and WWW relay sessions, break down feelings of isolation and poor communication for rural and remote students. She went on to state however that all students needed access and that 'local Telecentres should have dedicated machines' and that 'this would increase access to many more students who do not have equipment and facilities at home or at work'.

Another student mentioned the cost of access and wondered whether Curtin would subsidise student access after the trial. 'I've used up my 15 hours... who pays for the next? If it's me ... I'll have to think long and hard to see if it's worth paying $60 or so for. That's a lot of money to me'.

Discussion of some critical issues relating to staff development

Staff were invited to participate because of their expressed interest in the CMC work and because of their basic computer skills. Because of lack of student response only six of these were included in the project. One group meeting was held at the beginning and then teaching staff were assisted by the project team, on an individual basis according on request.

The expectation that motivated teachers, with technical and instructional design support, could generate sufficient appropriate material for Curtin Learning Link was not met. Only by the end of semester were some of the staff conceptualising the possibilities of the system within the context of their particular unit(s) of study. While this augers well for future semesters, it meant that, beside an electronic version of the Unit Plan and some discussion based on the unit specific news group, no substantial instructional materials were available to the students.

As identified in the discussion regarding the major issues affecting students' participation in any CMCS in general and Curtin Learning Link in particular, the benefits and costs are measured in terms of "value addedness". This means that the effort and cost required to access and use the system must be compensated by the learning returns. In this case the instructional materials which are accessed in this manner must be relevant, easily understood and contribute in a very direct way to student learning. This creates an immediate dilemma for programs such as distance education at Curtin University, where equity and access issues are central to academic provision.

Students already receive comprehensive print based study materials and so the CLL materials cannot merely be an electronic version of these. At the same time providing web based materials that may be perceived as offering those with access relying on relatively sophisticated hardware an inequitable advantage, raises its own problems. These two issues of "value addedness" and equitable provision are the major difficulties for the development of instructional materials for CLL.

These issues can, in fact, be considered in terms of design expertise, technical support and identification of resources. Interviews with staff involved provided anecdotal evidence for these factors.

Design expertise

While examples of audio, video and CBT can be easily found, traditionally, distance higher education in Australia has been clearly based in the print medium. The design elements for print are based on different premises to those of electronic text and graphics (Hartley 1994) which are required for a web based CMCS eg. chronology, layout, types of interactivity and outcomes. Clearly the provision of an "electronic page turning (or is that scrolling?)" version of the print materials was not an option. The fact that the project was set up to encourage the experimentation with a range instructional media necessitated skills in multimedia development. As is often the case there is a tendency to confuse instructional design and graphic design skills with an inordinate amount of time and effort spent by unskilled staff in "tizzing and tarting" the materials.

The more important and more difficult design issues such as engagement, interactivity, level of direction and instruction/facilitation strategies, are easily lost in the rush to "get something up".

Technical support

The sharing of a definition of technical support was seen to be vital. "Technical" was seen by teaching staff as anything which was not content related. The responses to the concept ranged from "show me how to get started" to "I'll just give you everything and you sort it out to get it up". Clearly these responses were related to the individuals' level of computer literacy and their understanding of the instructional process. It had been anticipated that, given the heavy workloads of these staff members, specific "just in time" assistance would be more appropriate than a structured front end training program. This proved to be the case.

Due to the novelty of the system, many teaching staff, while realising that they needed assistance, were unsure of what sort of assistance to ask for. This has lead the project team to spend time with individuals developing specific strategies and materials as exemplars to be able to demonstrate features of the system to other interested staff. While there was some lead time available for materials development, the amount was underestimated adding to the pressure on staff.

Identification of resources

The enormous amount of information on the web has positive and negative aspects. While increasing the range of materials available to the students, it also means that there is an extra responsibility on staff to identify the relevant and useful material in order to make student use as efficient as possible. To support the effort needed to identify good quality materials and sites, money for content based research assistance is being made available. It is intended that this will release the lecturer to focus on learner interactions and supervision and monitoring that relevance, quality and currency of materials used or referenced in the unit materials.

The other confounding factor is the overall moulding of this growing range of complex materials into a coherent, structured and manageable unit of study appropriate for the level of student attempting it.


The current environment is far from perfect. However, it has achieved in some measure the initial specifications of the system we envisaged. The interface is consistent and supports all of the GUI characteristics on the Mac and PC.

The potential of CMC remains considerable, though it has a long way to go before its impact is truly felt in education and particularly in distance education in which CMC seems eminently suited. The key concerns continue to be those of access, in trouble shooting technological problems and in training users in relevant electronic facilitation/discussion skills.

There remains too, the need to continually review the role of CMC in education. As Levinson points out, the media we use in education are not chosen because they are the best 'but because they happened to be available.' (1988, p.48). CMC happens to be around and as costs come down and accessibility increase, we would see the use and effectiveness of CMC increase. It's potential is far more than just an add on media as it allows course developers to restructure programs and to build in central exercises that require the use of far more student centred activities. The ability to provide students and staff with a technology that enables relatively immediate communications: allowing students to talk about topics and issues of mutual concern is considerable. However, tutors and students will need help and training in using and exploiting CMC. CMC is not a transparent medium; there are specific skills required as outlined by Feenberg as well as familiarity with the technology in order to use CMC effectively. The use of CMC also demands an interest in it's use in educational networking and a commitment to values of group work and cooperative learning. And finally, CMC demands that sufficient time, not just online time is allocated in order to reflect on tutor's and students' contributions and react to them.


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Please cite as: Boyd, A., Chisholm, G., Dougiamas, M., Fox, R., Herrmann, A., Kevill, R. and Thornton, D. (1996). Developing a CMCS for technophobes. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Third International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 65-72. Perth, Western Australia, 21-25 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1996/ad/boyd.html

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