Functions in Groupware to Support Distance Education

Abstract: This paper specifies which functions are especially needed in non-simultaneous groupware systems (computer conferencing systems, bulletin board systems, BBS-es) to support their use for distance education. Both general tools, useful also for other uses than distance education, and special tools just for distance education, are discussed.

By Kent Jansson <>, translated to English by Maria Gustavsdotter

First version: 20 April 1995 Revised: 27 April 1997

Table of contents

Functions in Groupware to Support Distance Education


By (Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) is meant computer systems to support communication between humans. Examples of CMC systems are e-mail, Usenet Netnews and the World Wide Web (WWW). When such systems are specially aimed at support of communication in groups of users, they are often called Groupware. Most such systems are primarily aimed at non-simultaneous communication, where the humans who interact need not use the system at the same time (like for example e-mail). Non-simultaneous CMC groupware is often called Computer Conferencing (CC). In this paper, the word Computer Conferencing (CC) is used with this meaning, and is thus not used to designate simultaneous conferencing tools like video and audio conferencing.

The conventional kind of distance education, the correspondence school, where the student gets a part to read and some questions to answer, can be handled with ordinary electronic mail. The communication is a dialogue between the student and the teacher. If you want to develop the distance education system into a model that uses the advantages of a classroom where the students can learn from each other and solve problems together, then a groupware system would be useful.

The simplest kind of computer conferencing can be seen as a system of several electronic mailboxes open to everyone. One mailbox for each conference / meeting / activity / subject. A meeting in a conference system can be used in distance education to mimic a classroom situation. A contribution that can be read and commented by the other members in the conference is similar to a remark made in a classroom.

Computer conference systems can be used as a complement in a distance education course, which also uses audio and video conferencing, as a electronic bulletin board where the students can have a discussion going between themselves and the teacher. It is also possible to give complete courses entirely using a conference system. In this case, the software can be extended with special functions for support of distance education. For example, special functions can be added to simplify the administration or the control of mandatory tasks.

This paper is mainly based on the experience of the primary author (Kent Jansson) in using two different CC systems for distance education:

The object of this paper is to find and identify functions that can simplify the use of conference systems in distance education. The gathering of facts was done as a side activity when the main author of this paper (Kent Jansson) actively participated in courses using the two different systems. Therefore the perspective is mainly that of the student. The perspective is also influenced by the experiences earlier made by this student.

The special functions that are shown here will probably be of interest even in a general conference system or under other circumstances. Activities such as sequence, reservation and question-answer might for example be useful in work-flow applications.

Account for needs and functions

The functions presented here aim at support of different needs. And the needs vary according to how you participate in the course. Because of this, we start the account of functions with a list of the needs that lie behind the functions.

After this comes an account of functions that may be useful in an educational system. The account is divided in three parts, user interface, functions in the general conference system and finally, special functions. The borders between these parts is not sharp. If you regard VC as the additional special functions only, the quality of the educational system will depend not only on the VC additions but also on the conference system into which you implement them.

Most of the functions are observed in both the system (VC and FC), some are found in references. Additionaly some functions are reported, that could be useful in an educational situation, but seem to be missing in both systems.

Table of needs for different user categories




  • Administration of courses.
  • Overview of ongoing future and completed courses.
  • Planning of courses with different kinds of activities.
  • Se who has and who hasn't performed tasks.
  • Controlling the student's access to each others contributions
  • Giving exams.
  • Participate in one or more courses.
  • A survey of status of mandatory activities.
  • Perform different work tasks.
  • Having a private discussion with the teacher and/or another student.
  • Working in groups.
  • Making anonymous contributions.
  • Participate in a course.
  • Be able to view the contributions made by others.
  • Forum for a general discussion.
  • Forum for discussion about the system.

Functions divided into different parts of the system

User interface

The user interface is very important because this is how you first meet the system. It is important to be able to start in a simple manner and easily finding help when needed.

One of the methods commonly used to simplify the start is to have a slide show that shows the user how the work is done. Then the user can be guided to different functions with the help of e.g. menus, fixed sequences of pictures or so called agents.

A good help function is easy to find and well defined. Context-sensitive help should be well adjusted to the context in which it is used. More information of either general or specific kind should be available on demand.

Once the importance of a simple start is established, the system will not be regarded as user friendly for a longer time, unless it is, regardless of the interface, attractive also to an experienced user. He who masters the system, might find the beginners aids disturbing so he ought to be able to shut them off.

Interface Based on Graphic or Signs

One of the two system we studied, FC had a graphical interface (window-based) while VC was character based (VT100 terminal emulation). You can have several meetings going on at the same time in a graphical interface, and you can e.g. see the contribution on one side of the screen and write an answer in a window. On the screen oriented interface you can open one meeting at the time. You can switch meeting with a command or through a menu.

There is not a great difference between the systems especially once you get used to them. The window system gives a certain amount of freedom, which demands some discipline or it will get cluttered just like an ordinary desk. You can quickly change window and decide yourself how they are to displayed, side by side, overlapping and so on. It is not difficult to change meeting in the terminal-oriented system either. But that system is a bit more guiding as it demands you to make things in a certain order. EIES 2 is designed to guide the user into conferences with contributions that have not yet been read.

In FC an overview window shows every conference by a folder icon. The conference can be divided into different subject areas with new folders and folders inside other folders in an hierarchic order. A flag on the folder marks unseen contributions. In VC the user finds a list of the conferences where he is a member and how many unseen messages are waiting in each of them.

A system that is adjusted to different environments should be designed to follow standards in respective environment. The Mac-adjusted look in FC could seems quaint in a Windows enviroment but some users might find it annoying.

Conference Functions

This section presents functions that belong to the base functionality of the conference system and are not particular to distance education.


The system notifies the user of events that either directly or indirectly are of interest to this user.

FC shows unseen contributions with a flag next to the contribution and also by folder. Personally addresse messages are found in the users mailbox.

VC has a special conference (Notifications), where you go first if you let the system guide you. From there you are referred to all the events that concern the user, personal letters, if anyone has read or commented on contributions and also other kinds of general information, that could be of interest of the user.

It is probable that there is a function in EIES that allows a user with a certain authority to put the parameter "shown in Notification" on a contribution. Notifications gives the user a swift overview, especially if he is participating in several meetings. From Notifications the user can chose whatever seems to be interesting or let himself be guided by the system.

Seen contributions

How the system handles contributions which the user has already seen:

In FC the flag disappears but the contribution stays were it was.

In VC the contributions once read are moved to a special area were it can be reached by the order "accepted".

The VC model is very good if you have many contributions. On the other hand the FC model is also practical at least if you can scan the contributions.

Ordering of contributions

Different facilities for the user to choose the order in which contributions are presented:

In FC you can sort the contributions under different concepts: time, title (subject) and so on.

The contributions in VC are numbered in an hierarchic order. If the basic contribution gets the number N, the comment gets the number N.N. and the comment on N.N. gets the number N.N.N. and so on.

In VC you have no further options for sorting contributions.

Access to contributions

Functions to aid the reading of contributions:

FC has a row of buttons where you can chose among others "Next unread item" and thereafter chose the button "Answer to this".

VC has support for threads, chains of contributions which refer to each other. That function is probably very useful to a reader that wants to evaluate the result of a certain activity.

Suppose we have an activity A, which consists of a lecture with questions. The students answers the questions as comments to A. When the teacher "corrects" the activity he makes Thread A and the system presents a list with A and all the answers to A and all discussions between students and/or teacher that might follow. With this, the teacher can concentrate on A without scanning through other, in this case, irrelevant contributions.

Types of contributions

Allowing users to make contributions of different types:

Private contributions are directed to one or several persons and general contributions are directed to a meeting.

FC has a menu where you can specify different kinds of contributions. E.g. question, the type is shown on the list of contributions by a special icon.

This kind of signal simplifies matter to the reader when he has to make priorities among unread contributions and also if he is looking for one special contribution. In an educational system you could use special types related to the educational system. E.g. General Information, Compulsory Task, or Rebuke.


Should the name of the sender be shown on a contribution?

In VC you can use an alias or be anonymous. Hiltz emphasises the advantages of this e. g. in role-plays or in discussion on a delicate subject when you can hide your bashfulness by participating anonymously. Another way of using aliases are when you want someone to participate in a provocative manner to stimulate a discussion.

Attachment of files

The possibility to attach files to a message so that you can use your own word processor, and send pictures, sound or executable code.

Special functions for education

This section describes special functions to simplify administration of courses and teaching and participation in distance education.


In VC the primary roles are moderator/teacher and student.

One very useful function is the possibility to define different roles, especially if you can give the roles different abilities as needed for that role.

  • The student can be given the role leader of the group, which has certain qualities, but is limited to last for a certain conference or part of it.
  • A guest teacher can be able to make certain activities and get access to all contributions.

Parameters of roles

Qualities that can be given to a certain role.


A certain role gives certain rights in a certain activity.


Different kind of courses demand different kinds of activities. This should be adjustable just as the characters are adjustable from time to time.

Activity parameters

Special activities can have special parameters.


A typical correspondence-school-activity is question-answering. The teacher makes a contribution that has the form of a lecture and ends with some problems to solve. The system keeps track of who has answered the task.

Under other circumstances question-answering could be used e.g. remittance procedure.

Time Limit

The activity could be available for everyone up to a certain time, then it could be shut down. The time limit could also be relative. That is an answer must be given within a certain time from the moment the activity was opened by a student.


Time limit can be combined with reminders, which signals the students that still have not answered the question signals the teacher of students who have not performed tasks.

Access to contributions

An access control that does not allow a students access to other students answers until he has given one himself, or after a certain time limit is useful. Other access controls can make a contribution accessibl for only certain users.

Question lottery

The question lottery is another way to make cheating more difficult. When the students can ask for a question, they are taken at random from the "bank"

Computer supported scoring

Some questions that demand simple answers can easily be corrected by the computer.

By using this function you can make a built-in system of checkpoint tests.

Task Sequencing

The teacher may wants the student to perform the assignements in a certain order. An example is theory and practice: Before the student gets access to the practical assignement he has to complete the theoretical test.


Reservation is the opportunity to choose one assignement from a list of several. The system keeps track of what assignement are available and who chose what assignement and when. The reservation function can also be used for a kind of booking when the resources are limited. E.G. time for guidance and access to certain equipment.


The system should allow the students to have their own partconferenses for group work. The leader decides how the conference should be designed.

Open or closed, who participates, what kind of activities. The groups result can then be showed as a contribution at the conference.


An exam done on distance has its problems. It is fairly easy to cheat, the students can send electronic mail to each other. In spite of the problems, the function should be available in the system.


An exam function, and an inquiry system to get answers to a series of questions, are similar in design.


Every contribution can be given a number of keywords, that later can be used when making lists of contributions of a certain kind. "Activity list" as seen below is probably a special case of that function seen in EIES.

Activity list

Activity list is a function that gives a list of compulsory activities. This makes it easier for the student but above all for the teacher to separate these activities from other contributions. Such a list gives an overview of the student's recent status in relation to different activities such as if the student has performed the tasks in that activity. The student can watch only his own list but the teacher can of course see all the students lists

List activities

A function which lists mandatory activities makes it easier for both student and teacher to distinguish these from other activities.

Such a list gives an overview of the current status of the student in relation to each activity.

Further possibilities that can be of use for the teacher are:

  • who has not answered a certain activity.
  • all answers to a certain activity (see "Thread", at Availability of Contributions above).
  • who has not answered a closed activity.
  • see also notifications above.


A question-answer activity where the system registers who has answered and sent back results can be used for voting.

Report Card

The result of each activity can be displayed on the students report-card. Other pieces of information can be average value, the average value of the class, highest and lowest scores in the class and the scale of rating. This could be combined with the activity list if you only want to show passed/failed.


If you combine a set of special functions with an attractive user interface and a forceful conference system you get a system that seems to be extremely useful in distance education, but also can act as a adjunct to traditional classroom education. The teacher can profit from the fact that the system makes it possible to rationalise the administration of assignements and the correction of exams. The function used to list activities are functions useful to teachers.

The base of the outline are the conceptions "role" and "activities".

The teaching functions can be seen as basic components in a software that you can compose courses with. The carachter is created by defining the authorithy the character skall have in a given situation. Actvities are created by putting parameters for type, access time and such.

Of course a conference system that is programmable with the help of different types of activities and other parameters is also useful in other situations than just teaching. This can be compared to a word processing program where you can create patterns fit for different needs.

When you compare VC to FC the former seem to be much more powerful, thanks to the many extra facilities for distance education.


Hiltz 1993

The virtual classroom; Learning without limit via computer network , by Starr Roxanne Hiltz, Ablex publishing 94-06-22ISBN: 0-89391-928-4.

Hiltz, 1992

Constructing and evaluating a virtual classroom, In "Context of Computer-Mediated-Communication", Harvester Weatsheaf, 1992, Lea, Martin (ed).

Palme, 1995

The use of computerised conferens sytems in distance education by Jacob Palme, Department of Computer and Systems Sciences.

[TM1] Virtual Classroom and EIES 2 are trade marks registrered for New Jersey Institute of Technology.

[TM2] FirstClass is a trade mark registrered for SoftArc Inc.