Groupware tools to support distance education

Groupware tools to support distance education

by Jacob Palme, e-mail

The development reported here will be done by DSV starting in October 1997 and ending in September 1998, funded by NUTEK, The Swedish National Board for Industrial and Technical Development.

Why groupware is useful in distance education

The goal of education is not always only to teach facts. The goal is often also to teach students to think and reason, to solve problems and to be able to communicate within the subject area of the course. The ideal course often contains a combination of course components for (i) giving factual information to the student, (ii) teaching the students solve problems singularly or in cooperation (iii) teaching the students to communicate (talk, write, draw etc.) in the subject area of the course. The teacher who gives such a course will not only present information to the students, the teacher will also give them work assignments (problems to solve, presentations to prepare). An important task of the teacher is to evaluate such work assignments from the students and give feedback to the student. A course is often structured so that different components depend on each other, for example, a student may not be allowed to read the work from other students on a specific task until the student has delivered his own work.

The teacher often needs to prepare a schedule for the course, containing course components to be performed at different stages of the course. In some courses, same-time communication is included, for example question periods and discussions, in other courses, same-time communication is avoided to make it easier for students to participate in the course.

There is then a need for an environment which suits the needs of both teachers and students, and makes the course run smoothly. The environment should help the teacher to organise and structure the course, help the teacher to run the course and help the students to participate in the course.

Such tools will be especially suited for courses over national borders, and courses where students learn to communicate on the topic of the course across national borders. The tools should also allow teachers to move courses across national and language borders. We believe that cross-national education need not mean that students physically travel and live in another country, cross-national education can also include courses where students in different places and countries can participate in the course from their home town or place.

User needs

The primary actors in education are students and teachers.

Experience with distance education has shown that teachers often have less information about and understanding of the status of individual students than if the teacher meets them in the classroom [Hiltz 1995]. Experience has also shown that students in distance-education courses more often have problems in following the course at the intended pace, or even drop off the course, and that the teachers do not see such problems in time. Our intention is to tackle these problems by asking teachers and students what tools they need to organise, structure and run the course, to ensure that the students know what is expected from them, the teachers know how each individual student is doing, and the students knows how well they are doing.

The most well-known development in this area is the virtual classroom concept developed by Roxanne Hiltz at the New Jersey Institute of Technology [Hiltz 1995].

Our students will not only be able to receive multi-media lessons, they will also be able to produce multi-media tasks, using HTML extended when needed by additional objects and plug-ins. Few other projects are combining multi-media education, support for managing complex multi-component courses and use of multi-media objects not only from teacher to student but also from student to teacher and between students.

The mostly used software today for these kinds of courses is the Canadian system First Class. First Class is a good product, but does not have the special support for the organising and structuring of multi-component courses which are an important part of MMM.

Technical approach

MMM will be based on Web4Groups, a system which is currently being developed in another TAP-funded research project. Web4Groups is a different-time computer conferencing system based on the WWW. Web4Groups will have the following facilities:

Pedagogical approach

MMM is not limited to one particular pedagogical approach, but MMM is more useful for courses using one or more of the following pedagogical approaches:

As part of the MMM project, we will develop guides for teachers in using MMM, and we will give a series of seminars in different European countries to present MMM and show teachers how they can benefit from MMM.

Groupware extensions for distance education

Distance education is important, because it is of special value for continuing education for already employed people who need to update their knowledge to avoid future unemployment. Such employed people often have place and time constraints which makes it difficult for them to participate in ordinary classroom education. Place constraints makes it difficult for them to go to the place where the school is, especially for those not living in the city where the school is placed. Time constraints makes it difficult for them to follow courses which require active participation at the same time for all students in a course.

Because of this, courses which require neither same time nor same place participation are becoming more and more important. One could label this kind of education "double-distance education", distant in both space and time. The tools we develop in this project will allow for same-time components in courses, but the main approach is directed at different-time usage.

Experience with use of different-time tools for distance education has also shown that such tools have additional value for those students who are studying a course in another language than their native language. Such students often need longer time, and the different-time methods allow each student to allot the time which that student needs for each task in the course.

This means that different-time techniques are of special importance for cross-European courses, by allowing students in one country to include segments of courses in universities in other countries in their educational plans.

The most common old and new methods for such double-distance education are:

  1. Reading of books.
  2. Watching of video. Also broadcast lectures are different-time, since the student can record the broadcast and watch it another day.
  3. Traditional correspondence schools or other education using ordinary postal mail between students and teacher.
  4. Searching for and reading information from computer networks such as the Internet.
  5. Exchange of messages between student and teacher and between students. Of special importance is group communication through the use of mailing lists, BBSes or different-time computer conferencing system.
  6. Learning through the use of multi-media lessons.

This proposal aims at developing techniques of type (4), (5) and (6) above, and of using and testing all six techniques in various combinations. We believe that these techniques are important, especially in courses where the students need not only learn facts, but need to learn how to think, reason, discuss and write on the topics of the course. Some courses can be performed entirely with tools of type (1), (4), (5) and (6) above, in other courses, such tools can be used together with more conventional distance education techniques such as video and broadcasting.

Why additional development is needed

We believe that additional development is needed for the techniques labelled (4), (5) and (6) above for the following reasons:

The most used technique for education of type (4) is use of the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web needs, however, better tools than today for helping students find the important and relevant information, and for helping students find new information without having to rescan already seen information.

The most used technique for education of type (5) is use of either ordinary e-mail or use of the Canadian BBS software First Class. Ordinary e-mail lacks many features important for distance education. First Class is in general a good tool, but it lacks features to support organising courses and to aid the teachers. Experience with using these techniques show that either there is very limited usage, or else the communication is time-consuming for the teacher.

Multi-media lessons, type (6), need coordination with each other and with other course components into a managed structure of course elements.

In ordinary face-to-face education, the teacher will gain knowledge of the status of the students through continuous face-to-face contacts and through written or oral exams, exercises and laboratory lessons. In distance education, the teacher will mainly gain knowledge of the status of the students through the written correspondence (questions, work tasks, written exams) from the students. Experience with e-mail and computer conferencing for distance education shows [Männikö 1996] that this will become a burden for the teacher, because it is difficult for the teacher to get a good overview of the status of the students. Such overview for the teacher is important, since it is well-known [Hiltz 1993] that there is a larger risk that weak students drop off in distance education than in face-to-face courses.

Additional functions needed

As a pre-study to this proposal, the department of computer and systems sciences at Stockholm university, Sweden, has studied the needs of teachers and students of special features to support distance education [Palme 1994, Lintunen 1994, Jansson 1995, Aram 1996]. These studies show that important functions in CMC systems for distance education are those listed in the table below; shaded areas in the table are areas which are not well supported by most existing software, including the First Class system. The numbers (1) to (5) indicate the importance of this function according to user (student and teacher) studies performed by Majid Aram at DSV, with (1) = least important and (5) = most important. Some functions which the users found of low importance have been omitted from the table. Note: In this pre-study, no function got less than (4). It might be useful to also ask the users to distribute a limited number of points on the alternatives. This would force them to choose what is really most important to them.

General tools in a good groupware system which are of special need for distance education usage

User interface

An easy to use graphic user interface

Media types

Formatted text




HTML-formatted documents

Attachments in any file format should also be allowed

Finding and searching

Good tools for finding and searching for information in the course data base based on keywords, dates, author, subject, contents, etc.


E-mail interface

WWW interface

Same time functions





Special tools added specifically to support distance education usage

Tools for the teacher

Tools for the student

Tools for the school class

(5) Administration of courses

(5) Participate in one or more courses

(5) Participate in a course

(5) Overview of ongoing, future and finished courses

(5) Overview of status for this student in the mandatory course activities

(5) Overview of group tasks

(5) Plan and organise a course with different activities, preferably with a graphic design which shows the course structure

(5) Follow a course according to the plan given by the teacher

(4) Find group tasks in the course plan

(4) Provide lists of tasks where each student selects a different task to perform and report to the course.

(4) Select a task from a list of tasks so that only one student selects each task.

(4) Select a task from a list of tasks so that only one group selects each task.

(5) Control when and how students can see what other students do (for example a student may have to complete a task before seeing the task reports from other students)

(5) See other students task reports

(5) See which students have performed and not performed each task within the course, and see the status of each student in relation to the course, and see other useful course statistics

(5) Perform individual and group tasks within the course and report to the teacher

(4) Reminders when behind in the course work

(4) Perform group tasks

(5) Answer and handle questions from individual students

(5) Personal correspondence between student and teacher

(5) Discuss the course topic with other students and with the teacher, read questions and other messages from other students on the task of the course and responses from the teacher

(4) Giving exams and diagnostic tests

(4) Participate in exams and diagnostic tests

Discuss points of order in the running of the course

Asking for course evaluation

Making course evaluation

Discussing quality aspects of the course itself

(4) Giving marks to the students, knowing which students are weak and need more encouragement, knowing in which areas the students in general have problems with understanding the course content

(4) Knowing your status, especially knowing areas where the student is weak and needs more study

(4) Teacher evaluation tools

(4) Knowing your status in relation to other students in the course (not seeing the individual marks of other students, but knowing if your own marks are above or below average)

(4) Off-line usage: The student can rapidly download web pages and messages and then read them and write own contributions without need for a continuos connection.

The issue of to what extent the teacher should control the activities of the students is somewhat controversial, some teachers prefer a more controlled environment, others prefer an environment giving the students more freedom. The tools should support different teaching modes.