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Half a decade of audiographics development: A case history of Electronic Classroom and its users

Allan Ellis and Roger Debreceny
Southern Cross University
Robert Crago
Revelation Computing Pty Ltd
Electronic Classroorn® is an Australian developed audiographics package for Apple Macintosh computers. Since its release in 1990 it has undergone continuous refinement and extension. These changes have been made in response to advances in communications hardware and compression software and the expressed needs of the user community. At present over 1,000 copies are in use at all levels of Australian education. This paper illustrates the usage of the package in a variety of educational settings, discusses the educational strategies used by teachers and draws some conclusions on the role of audiographics in education.


Audiographics has been variously defined, but in the context of this paper refers to the linking of a number of educational sites into a "distributed" classroom by a combined voice circuit usually using telephone connections over the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) ("audio") and linked computers ("graphics") at those sites. Audiographics is an example of what Bates calls the "remote classroom" where the teacher is in control and is arguably the "source of knowledge" (Bates, 1993). Audiographics is low cost and relatively low tech educational technology which has the called the "Cinderella of interactive multimedia" (Rehn and Towers, 1994). At its most simple it requires two relatively low end personal computers equipped with modems and a voice line for audio communication. The personal computers provide a rich shared multimedia workspace. Audiographics has a low setup cost, is simple to establish and run on an going basis and provides for flexible delivery compared with the more structured nature of print based distance education materials.

The focus of this paper is on the development and usage of an Australian audiographic software package Electronic Classroom which runs on the Apple Macintosh platform. The technology has been employed in a variety of educational settings throughout the K12 curriculum in both rural and urban areas and in the technical and university sectors with more than 1,000 sites around Australia now servicing a diverse range of programs and subject matter. The remainder of this paper analyses the manner in which the rapid improvements in hardware and operating system performance over the five year life of this product period have allowed this educational technology to meet the needs of both the early adopters of the technology as well as providing new tools for users from new areas of the curriculum; analyses the usage of the product in a variety of educational settings by pointing to a number of case studies; discusses the educational strategies used by teachers in their use of audiographics and makes some conclusions on the role of audiographics in education.

Technical developments

The technical history of Electronic Classroom provides a snapshot of the adaptation of the educational technology to both changing functionality in computing and communications and to the changing needs of teachers. The design analogy for Electronic Classroom is that of an electronic equivalent of the standard classroom whiteboard. Information which is "written" on the "whiteboard" by the "teacher" or "student" is reproduced on the screens of the other site(s).

Version 1.0 was released in February 1990 and would connect to a maximum of 2 remote sites. It offered freehand, text, rectangle, oval and straight line tools and supported one brand of modem at 1200/2400 bps. It ran on either Mac Plus or Macintosh 512K and consequently only supported a 9 inch monochrome screen. A typical Version 1 setup is illustrated in Figure 1 with one base and two "remote" Macintoshes communicating by low speed modem and with voice communication by telephone. The first classroom users of Electronic Classroom were in a number of secondary schools in Victoria and in three central (K10) schools in New South Wales.

Version 1.02 came in October 1990 and added dialling features for congested exchanges as well as the ability to open multi-screen files. Screens are held in random access memory (RAM) on each computer and so it is very quick to switch from screen to screen. Subscripts and superscripts in text were also added to accommodate the needs of mathematics teachers. A 'buzz' feature was added that students at the remote site could gain the attention of the teacher.

Figure 1

Figure 1: A basic link between three sites (Version 1 setup)

Versions 1.04 and 1.05 in early January 1991 supported greater than two remote sites via a special multiport serial card in a Macintosh II which stills forms the foundation of most multiple sites. Asian language support was added for LOTE . The first Macintosh LCs were making their way into schools so coloured drawing was added. A new graphic selection capability was added as was automatic restarting on multipointing computers to accommodate dropped telephone lines.

Key features in the next several maintenance releases added support for more modem types, including for the first 9600 baud modems in schools. Support for teachers and students to work on screens after the lesson was over was added which allowed students to review the lesson after its completion.

Three major releases then took place in the period from August 1992 to July 1994. Version 1. 13 added colour picture support including reading PICT files and extracting the text where appropriate. Colour pictures are much larger than the relatively simple monochrome and colour paint files and presented a challenge to transmit in reasonable times over unreliable phone lines. Apple's QuickTime technology was used to compress them on the fly by the sending computer and uncompress them on the fly by the receiving computer.

Version 2.0 added remote CD-ROM including PhotoCD access and QuickTime movie support. The QuickTime digital movie format allowed the teacher to play movies on the remote computers. In theory, the movies could be downloaded over the PSTN but realistically given the size of the movies this was infeasible. Hence an alternative solution had to be found and a methodology for recognising mounted storage volumes, be they hard disk or CD-ROM, on each Macintosh was devised. The teacher could, then, distribute CD-ROMs to each school and as long as the students or support teachers at each location had loaded them into the CD-ROM drive, the teacher could play the same movie simultaneously on all remote computers. The only information transferred over the PSTN was the instruction to get and play the desired digital movie. The full details of version 2 features are described in Ellis and Debreceny (1994).

Version 2.5 added a whole new word processor, with transparent and scrolling text so that the teacher could pre-prepare significant amounts of text and scroll them up into view as required. Invisible text was added at the request of teachers so that they could pre-prepare an answer to a question and make it invisible and then, as needed, make it visible. Similarly, speech bubble text borders were added following the expressed needs of LOTE teachers. Sound input and speech synthesis was supported.

To reduce the amount of time at the start of a lesson taken up with the connection and transfer of the lesson, this version allowed for complete lessons to be sent ahead of time and opened remotely without delay. In contrast to the early period of the software when there were only a handful of modems available and they had limited functionality, the mid 1990s saw a diversity of brands and of standards being followed. Each modem seemed to have different initialisation strings and varying success in gaining and holding a connection notwithstanding the manufacturers' claims. Version 2.5.8 implemented modem scripts for a wide range of modems and different types of modems were now allowed on each different port in the bridge computer. Most schools now purchase 14.4 kb modems but the line quality of the PSTN means that many still must run them at 9600 or even 2400 bps.

Version 2.5.9 in June 1995 added multimedia support via attachments to text objects. Now multiple on screen movies, stills and sounds can be played, shown or hidden at will using resources from commercially available CD-ROM titles. File opening was simplified, especially for stepping through folders of similar lesson material. Many other keyboard features were also added to reduce the time taken to perform frequent tasks whilst teaching. Version 3.0 (alpha) is currently being tested and is planned for release in February 1996. It will allow Electronic Classroom to operate over the Internet.

This will bring some obvious advantages to the main user group, including

Of course schools will need to sign up with an Internet Service Provider (ISP) and obtain an IP address. Connection is then simply a matter of opening the program, typing in the IP address of the other school and clicking "Connect". The process is repeated to link in additional sites.

Early tests show that response times using the Internet are extremely variable. Sometimes it is extremely fast and other times it is extremely slow and frustrating. This seems to mirror most users' current experiences with Web browsing and other Internet operations. If all users connect via the same ISP response times should be faster and more predictable.

New hardware and software requirements will apply to Version 3. Users will need at least a Macintosh LCIII or newer model with an 68030, 68040 or PowerPC processor. At least 10 MB of RAM is needed as well as Apple's new Open Transport networking software expected to be released early in 1996.

In the half decade, the product and the manner in which it has been used in Australia schools has changed from the basic setup shown in Figure 1 to the more complex and richer environment shown in Figure 2. A bridge computer with a multiport card provides linkage to a number of remote sites.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Typical multisite setup in mid-1990s

Equipment setups for use with Electronic Classroom

Teachers have also gained considerable experience in the manner in which the technology is employed. Typically, a classroom or a portion of a classroom will be set up as the local node of the "distributed" classroom. Two strategies, shown graphically in Figure 3 below, have been employed if the number of students exceeds three or four, the effective limit at which a single screen can be viewed. The first approach has been to acquire a computer projector or "datashow" which takes the output from the computer and displays it on to a screen. The second approach has been to acquire a video booster and splitter and up to three computer displays which are then distributed around the classroom. This latter approach has been more popular as the use of colour has increased and monochrome datashows have given way to colour datashows which often have relatively poor display characteristics and costs which make them prohibitive for schools. Some schools have also "daisy chained" keyboards together so that each group of students clustered around a monitor can use the mouse or keyboard.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Two possible screen display setups

The educational environment

The workspace that the teacher and students share in the latest versions of Electronic Classroom retains the whiteboard concept of the first release but is now a multimedia "colour board". The interaction is built upon a teacher/student model with the teacher retaining overall control of the session but allowing students at the other sites to have control at any time. While the workspace is a shared environment, it is not shared synchronously as only one site may change the workspace at any one time.

The key menus are shown in Figure 6 and display the wide range of text handling features including scrolling text windows, transparent text, a variety of borders and the ability to incorporate sound files within the text box. A teacher can pre-record sounds or use existing sounds, and then write a small amount of text to describe the sound. This has obvious applications for language teaching but has been used in disciplines as far from language teaching as physical education and science. The video menu gives control over the playing of digital movies in QuickTime format.

Case studies of usage

Some 1,000 copies of Electronic Classroom are in use around Australia with a handful outside the country. The breakdown of usage between sector is shown in Figure 4 with the overwhelming usage in the secondary sector.

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Figure 4: Breakdown of usage by educational sector

This preponderance of usage in the secondary sector can be attributed to the need for secondary schools to support a higher number of students in a wider range of subjects than in a primary school. A primary school in Australia might service an enrolment of as low as twenty students with a single teacher which would be inconceivable at the secondary level. Further, there is pressure from students and parents to offer a wider and wider selection of subjects to higher levels. A particular school may appear to have a viable number of students and staff to mount a full secondary program yet not have the appropriate mix of staff expertise or student demand to warrant offering a particular program. A number of schools can jointly offer subjects that each would not be able to mount, using audiographics as the technological "glue". Schools may also be short of teachers with skills in high demand such as teachers of Japanese.

Figure 5

Figure 5: Electronic Classroom screen showing menu bar and vertical tool bar.
The teacher or student can cycle around the screens with the arrows on the tool bar as well as to
insert new screens. The tool bar also provides the usual features of a simple graphics package.

Figure 6

Figure 6: Key menus in Electronic Classroom

Western Australian rural education

Oliver and Reeves (1994) analyse the Priority Country Areas Program (PCAP) project in schools in rural Western Australia. The project saw the introduction of audiographics in both primary and secondary programs including post-compulsory schooling. The introduction of audiographics required significant investment in training and preparation by individual teachers and changes in the communication patterns within the "classroom". Equally important were the organisational and management support to the introduction of audiographics with success depending on management at the school, regional and system levels. They found that audiographics "... showed itself to an ideal application of technology in response to an urgent educational problem".

Northern Border senior access program

Debreceny and Ellis (1994) analyse the experiences of students in the Northern Border Senior Access (NBSA) program in the North West of New South Wales. The area is described as "rural, disadvantaged" and has a relatively high proportion of Aboriginal students. The schools that made up the program are "central" schools that had previously taught only until Year 10. None of these schools could on their own mount a program to Year 12. The program involves building a combined high school between a number of smaller schools using Electronic Classroom and teleconference links. Teachers in the combined high school are drawn from all the schools in the program. A bridge site was built at a centrally located school and the teachers and students from the other sites dial in to the bridge. Subjects taught using Electronic Classroom range from Mathematics to General Science and Computer Studies.

Queensland secondary school

Three secondary schools in the Far North Queensland are currently engaged in a trial project of teach Japanese language skills to senior students. While no individual school had the resources to offer the program, the combined resources of all three schools allowed a teacher to be appointed and the necessary equipment purchased. The project commenced using audiographics sessions to support existing paper based print materials. All sessions are multipoint. The teachers involved in the project are progressively adapting the paper based print materials to Electronic Classroom format and extending and enhancing them by introducing sound, colour graphics and movie files.

As it is not appropriate to transfer large sound or movie files in real time even in compressed format, lesson resources are transmitted to remote sites using during non-teaching times using Appletalk Remote Access. With identical lesson materials stored on hard disks at each of the three sites the teacher is able to remotely call up an extensive range of resources during any given lesson. These resources are also available for the students to review after the lesson has been completed. In the near future it is hoped that the transfer of core lesson resources will be achieved at regular intervals by burning and distributing files on CD-ROMs. Email and fax technologies are used to support this distance teaching program. The trails have already been so successful that it is already planned to introduce another language option, Italian, in 1996.

Northern Territory correspondence school

The primary instructional resources of the Northern Territory Correspondence School remains paper based print material. Teachers in the school have traditionally used mail or telephone or radiotelephone to support students working either individually or in small groups of three to five students at remote localities throughout the Territory. Two years ago audiographics sessions using Electronic Classroom were introduced to provide an additional form of student support and tutorial assistance. Today twelve or fifteen sites throughout the Territory regularly linked to the School for tutorial sessions in English, Maths and Science. At this stage there are no plans to develop specialised teaching materials for delivery via Electronic Classroom.

About one third of the teachers at the School are regular users of audiographics and a systematic program of staff development and training is provided to encourage and support new users. The frequent poor quality of standard telephone line connections in some of the more remote parts of the Territory and the ability of Electronic Classroom to maintain a useful data stream under such conditions, albeit at low baud rates, was one of the reasons that it was selected for use by the School.

Tasmania correspondence school

The Tasmanian Correspondence School has been a user of Electronic Classroom for five years. Audiographics is regarded as an important teaching technology for LOTE programs and is used in classes from Grade 4 to Year 12 (ages 9 to 18 years old). At present the School services 12 sites. The usual format is point to point with a teacher connecting to one school and working with both the students and teacher of a traditional classroom group. This format not only teaches the students but provides a form of staff development for the classroom teacher who is not a language teaching specialist.

The school still relies primarily on paper based print materials but there is an evolving pool of Electronic Classroom resources and a growing number of teachers willing to integrate audiographics into their weekly teaching sessions. One teacher at the school receives a workload allocation to provide training and assist in the development of resources.

Distance Education Centre (primary) New South Wales

The role of the Centre is to provide education for primary aged children who are isolated from a traditional school. This "isolation" can be the result of permanent geographic location, sickness or travel either interstate or overseas. Approximately 25 of the 90 students currently enrolled with the Centre are provided with the hardware and software to make regular audiographic: links with the teachers at the Centre.

These sessions frequently allow for one on one contact between student and teacher although where possible and appropriate a teacher will conduct a multipoint session involving two or three students. Teaching is based on existing printed materials and Electronic Classroom sessions often take the form of tutorials. English and Science and Technology are the subject areas must commonly taught.

Because of the one on one nature of many of the sessions and the fact that students have unlimited access to the hardware and software outside the normal online times, students frequently prepare screens that are uploaded and "marked" on line by the teachers. This form of immediate online feedback is regarded by students as one of the best features of an audiographic session.

In a similar fashion to the Northern Territory Correspondence School, the ability of Electronic Classroom to perform over very poor quality PSTN lines was an important factors in its selection by the Centre.

University undergraduate programs

Southern Cross University has "University Centres" in regional centres in the North East coastal strip of New South Wales. The university offers the Bachelor of Business in selected majors through the Centres for a primarily mature age audience. Electronic Classroom has been used for the teaching of accounting in this program which involved weekly early evening classes employing a combination of pre-prepared screens that were also used in the on campus environment and partially completed screens for worked examples. Audiographics was found to be particularly appropriate for the group in working step by step through worked examples. The lack of computer expertise amongst the mature age student population mitigated against extensive involvement from all students. The weekly meetings did however build a common understanding between teacher and student that could not have been achieved by more traditional distance education approaches (Debreceny and Ellis, 1994).

Audiographics is also used in an undergraduate pre-service teacher education program at Deakin University in Victoria (Stacey, 1995). Students teach lessons in Indonesian into remote primary schools from an audiographics site on campus and in Italian to metropolitan schools. They work with primary aged children whom they do not meet face to face until a later semester when they go out for the traditional in-school practicum experience.

Patterns of usage within the educational environment

Teachers use audiographics in very different ways depending on the subject matter, teaching style, the level and type of training given the teacher and students (Gray and O'Grady, 1993) as well as their sense of expression and visual style. Four major styles of usage can be identified

The clean whiteboard

As Gray and O'Grady (1993) note, the foundation of audiographics is not too far removed from the normal classroom and some teachers use Electronic Classroom purely as they would a whiteboard. As they talk to the students, they use the mouse to draw, or create shapes or the keyboard to type text to reinforce their words. Such an approach requires considerable technology skills an equal level of confidence in the subject matter.

The partially filled whiteboard

Other teachers use the ability to create screens ahead of time to create a foundation. or "partially filled whiteboard" that can be built upon in an interactive fashion. A first example is shown in Figure 7 and is drawn from Secondary French in Queensland.

Figure 7

Figure 7: Partially filled whiteboard: Secondary school French, Queensland

The teacher has used the pen tool to create a simple line drawing upon which an interaction can be built that can revolve around wind, rain, the coat and umbrella worn by the female walker. No French or English language is displayed on the initial screen and the teacher will build on the initial graphic to work with the students in the "distributed" classroom to construct a dialogue about the scene. The screen has no colour or photographs or movies but is nonetheless an effective foundation for a shared classroom experience that might last most of a typical period.

An example of a partially filled whiteboard which provides clear visual signals and which is drawn from Primary English in New South Wales is shown in Figure 8.

Figure 8

Figure 8: Partially filled whiteboard: Primary School English, NSW

Here the teacher has prepared a simple set of alternatives using text below a photographic image which graphically represents the action being analysed. The slide may only take a few minutes in the teaching period. Conversely, an example of a partially filled whiteboard which was relatively simple to prepare and yet contains enough material for a complete teaching period is the slide from Secondary German from New South Wales shown in Figure 9. The slide presents a time schedule which is a facet of school life known to every secondary school student. The times of the day and the days of the week are completed but the activities in each of the cells are not completed. The teacher can then work with the students to discuss what might go on in each of the time periods, search for the appropriate words or phrases in German and type them into the relevant cell.

Figure 9

Figure 9: The Partially Filled Whiteboard: Secondary German, NSW

The filled whiteboard

For many subjects, it is appropriate to complete the screen prior to the class and then talk about the screen over the audio link perhaps using the chalk tool to make an emphasis . A "filled" whiteboard may well be followed by a "partially filled" whiteboard slide.

A relatively complex slide is the mathematics slide from Secondary Mathematics from Victoria shown in Figure 10. This uses simple but very effective graphics to illustrate the words on the left hand side of the screen. The teacher would then talk to the screen as well as possibly use the "chalk" tool to emphasise particular parts of the graphic or formulae.

Figure 10

Figure 10: Filled whiteboard: Secondary mathematics, Victoria

The scrolling text box allows a teacher to include a considerable amount of material which can progressively be brought into the discussion. Figure 11 shows a slide from an introductory undergraduate accounting class where the complete journal entry has been placed in a scrolling text box and the students and the teacher can collectively work through the example on the screen.

Figure 11

Figure 11: Filled whiteboard: University undergraduate Accounting, NSW

Figure 12 shows a Japanese lesson in phonics from Western Australia. It uses a very simple combination of coloured line drawings using the pen coupled with text explanations with appropriate underlining to provide the appropriate phonic emphasis.

Figure 12

Figure 12: Japanese Lesson in Phonics Western Australia

A slightly higher level of sophistication is displayed in Figure 13 drawn from secondary school German in South Australia. The screen uses a couple of visual clues, drawn from an existing body of scrapbook art, a sentence in German and a sound of the sentence. The teacher can then draw the class into a discussion of the sentence and what might go on in the context of a party with gifts. The inclusion of the sound allows students to come back after the class and listen again to the sentence as many times as they wish. This slide provides both synchronous and asynchronous student learning.

Figure 13

Figure 13: Slide from high school German South Australia

The slides in the "filled in" whiteboard series show similar strategies. They generally use simple graphics and provide a foundation either for immediate discussion, in the case of the German slide or worked examples or exercises in the case of the Mathematics and Accounting slides. In each case relatively minimal preparation time gave rise to an effective teaching tool that could be integrated into the "distributed" classroom.

The multimedia whiteboard

The "multimedia" whiteboard brings together a number of different features in an integrated fashion. Figure 14 shows an example of a slide in Secondary Japanese from Queensland. Here relatively simple graphics have been combined with a considerable amount of text using a Japanese font and audio text buttons for replaying on the computer's speakers.

Figure 14

Figure 14: Multimedia whiteboard: Secondary school Japanese, Queensland

This theme is continued in Figure 15, which has the added complexity of scanned photographs of images which are in the everyday experience of the students and which have been completely integrated into the lesson in the distributed classroom. The slide shows graphic images, text in a LOTE font and interaction with sound icons that can be used by the teacher and students in an interactive fashion or alternatively the students can return to the slide in their own study periods.

Figure 15

Figure 15: Multimedia whiteboard: Secondary school Japanese, Queensland

The multimedia whiteboard extends the educational context for the students to incorporate material which is important for the particular class, or to more strongly reinforce the subject with experiences to which the students can relate. Sound, scrapbook images, photographic images and digital movies all can be integrated on the same whiteboard space and subsequently manipulated by teacher or student. While such screens are more time consuming to prepare, they are much less difficult to create than fully interactive multimedia where there is no involvement of the teacher.

Discussion and conclusions

Audiographics in the Australian context has only been in existence for half a decade but has shown that it can be used effectively in a wide variety of educational environments from primary to tertiary levels and from the humanities to the sciences.

The technology is not age specific and is used in a variety of ways depending upon the characteristics of the teaching institutions and the resources available at remote sites. The patterns of usage which have been discerned have not been dominated by the technology but have been dictated by management factors such as the level of training of teachers and students and the curriculum. Some educational environments are completely built around Electronic Classroom whereas others use the product for tutorials or to reinforce and amplify existing printed materials or classroom teaching.

The rapid changes in computing technology have been incorporated into the product in innovative ways with QuickTime, for example, being used in a manner that its designers would not have imagined. It has also accommodated the constraints on the surrounding technology. Rural Australia is not endowed with high quality PSTN lines so the software is designed to tenaciously hold those lines open and to ensure that when sites are being reconnected that there is the least amount of disruption possible to the distributed classroom.

The use of Electronic Classroom is an example of a successful innovation in the use of educational technology. It has been successful because it was designed to extend in a productive manner and not to Change the familiar patterns of classroom interaction. It has been developed to meet the direct needs of the educational customers and the levels of technology that were available at a particular stage in the development of the software. In doing so, it has followed the known tenets of understanding of the diffusion of innovation (Burns and Stalker, 1961; Rogers, 1983; Mahajan and Peterson, 1985). Perhaps the measure of success with an educational technology is when it is so thoroughly embedded into the curriculum and teaching and learning practice that it becomes effectively transparent. In some educational environments, Electronic Classroom has become just that. As one student in the Northern Border Senior Access (Debreceny & Ellis, 1994) program said ".. audiographics is just, you know, school. School is school."

Note: A fuller version of this paper will appear in the inaugural edition of the Journal of Education and Information Technologies.


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Authors: Allan Ellis, Faculty of Education, Work and Training,
Southern Cross University
PO Box 157, Lismore NSW 2480, Australia.
Email: aellis@scu.edu.au
World Wide Web: http://www.scu.edu.au/
Phone: +61 6 620 3611 Fax: +61 6 622 1724

Roger Debreceny, Faculty of Business and Computing,
Southern Cross University
PO Box 157, Lismore, NSW 2480, Australia.
Email: rdebrece@scu.edu.au
World Wide Web: http://www.scu.edu.au/
Phone: +61 6 620 3837 Fax: +61 6 622 1724

Robert Crago, Revelation Computing Pty Ltd
PO Box 356, Zillmere, Queensland 4034, Australia.
Email: revelation@eworld.com
Phone: +61 7 263 8891 Fax: +61 7 263 8871

Please cite as: Ellis, A., Debreceny, R. and Crago, R. (1996). Half a decade of audiographics development: A case history of Electronic Classroom and its users. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Third International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 123-136. Perth, Western Australia, 21-25 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1996/ek/ellis.html

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