Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

The Virtual Campus - Taking the campus to the students

Marie Corrigan
Department of Computer Science
Edith Cowan University


Introduction

Edith Cowan University has been a major provider of tertiary level distance education for nearly two decades. During this period the delivery mechanisms have moved from traditional approaches, to incorporate new options based on advanced systems technology. The considerable University Learning Systems infrastructure at ECU has provided a base for research into the adoption of appropriate technologies to create additional distance education options and to improve the facilities for the increasing distance education population. The main need expressed by students was the provision of effective two-way communication between students and their tutors and between the students themselves, to reduce the sense of isolation felt by many of these external students.

During 1990, the Department of Computer Science began researching the possibility of implementing a system that would allow external students to contact the University via modems and computers with the intention of emulating on-campus resources. In 1991, research was done into the software available in the public domain; later, hardware and telecommunications options were explored. The prototype system was developed from components compiled through that investigation. Security features and menu systems were built into the prototype to enhance useability and integrity. To date the system has been through a number of revisions adding to its functionality.

The system became known as the Virtual Campus. Its purpose was to provide distance education students with the 'electronic' or 'virtual' equivalent of a campus. The initial aim was to reduce the isolation of these students and to improve access and communication between students, tutors and University resources. Field trials were conducted on a prototype system by a pilot group of about 20 external students in the first semester of 1992, and full scale operation commenced in semester 2. In the second semester of 1994, the system was made available to all ECU students, both internal and external.

Technical details

The Virtual Campus system has been implemented to augment the traditional print-based medium. In order to make it available and cost-effective for the majority of students, it is a character-based system which requires no specialised software on the student's home computer.

To use the Virtual Campus, a student needs a basic personal computer with communications software capable of running VT100 emulation, a modem (at least 2400 baud) and a telephone line. Users connected to the system are on a wide variety of platforms including Macintosh, Amiga, IBM, clones, laptops, minis and mainframes. Users who are not in the metropolitan area can come in via Austpac or AARNET - ADENet is also available in the major capitals. Overseas students use Internet.

Services on the Virtual Campus

Mail

Participants can exchange electronic mail messages with anyone else on the system or on the Internet, as this option has full Internet mail capabilities. This would include tutors and other students. Everyone has their own mailbox address on the system which ensures that mail is private.

Chat Rooms

This is an open forum for real-time interactive talk, the virtual equivalent of the on-campus coffee shop or the break-out session.

Particular "rooms" are designated as tutorial rooms which can be booked by lecturers and tutors for student tutorials. The General Chat area can be used for socialising at any time. Any number of chat rooms can be created to become the virtual equivalent of board rooms, class rooms and common rooms.

Private Chat

This facility allows for private conversations between two people. Tutors may use this facility to counsel students or to give additional private tuition. Individuals may get together to discuss a shared work assignment or simply to provide mutual support. Any number of private chats can be running simultaneously.

Library

The Edith Cowan University library catalogue is available to enable students to search for books and materials. External students of the university will be able to reserve and request books and materials on-line.

Access to the other Perth universities' library catalogue systems and other general libraries, for example the Australian National Library, is also provided.

Internet

Authorised users have access to the world wide resources of Internet through the AARNet link of the Virtual Campus system. These resources include Gopher, Network News and World Wide Web. These provide facilities such as database browsing and searching, document retrieval and communication with other Internet users.

Notice Boards

These are established to provide a public posting area for items of general and group interest. Lecturers are able to set up notice boards for particular courses or units or topics and post notices to them for the students to read.

Boards are grouped within topic areas such as general information, special interest groups, social notes and other topics as the need arises. Students also are able to post notices and, in the Social Boards area, set up notice boards for their own social needs.

Send Files (Up-Load)

Students are able to send files to tutors. These files may be assignments or portions of work for which feedback or assistance is required. Working groups can exchange files of work in progress.

Receive Files (Down-Load)

Participants can down-load files that are in the system. These may be returned assignments, an article of interest, or an update to a technical manual.

Education delivery

The Virtual Campus does not create the "content packages", which is still the function of academic areas, but rather it provides a vehicle which facilitates flexible delivery of learning materials, at lower costs and increased versatility for users in choosing how, when and where to learn.

Already staff are beginning to take advantage of the improved communications with their external students:

The Virtual Campus project forms an integral part of the process of developing appropriate infrastructures for the provision of alternative delivery mechanisms and flexible learning packages which is the hallmark of ECU's External Studies programme. Such servicing (as provided by the Virtual Campus) will enable the further development of learner-centred packages. These packages should seek to improve the learning process in both quality and efficiency.

In this way the Commonwealth's pursuit of increasing access to university education matches Edith Cowan's twin goal of participation and quality. Through these projects, the University will be able to provide increasing opportunities for independent student learning.

Please cite as: Corrigan, M. (1995). The Virtual Campus - Taking the campus to the students. In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p33-35. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/corrigan.html


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