Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Online units: What infrastructure services are required?

Roger Atkinson and Allison Brown
Academic Services Unit
Murdoch University
The notion of "online teaching" is unfamiliar to many staff and students. Questions of the kinds "How does it work?", "Will it be reliable and effective?", "What about students who don't have Internet access?", "What do I have to do?", will arise more frequently as universities adopt virtual campus techniques in response to changes in clienteles, technological opportunities and budgetary futures. This paper maps out a holistic approach to providing unit coordinators with infrastructure services, including computer user support, network access, user training, instructional designs for effective teaching and learning, and preparation of learning resources. The primary aim is to ensure that the "how to make it work" factor is a minimal distraction from the teaching and learning objectives for an "online unit" of study.


"Virtual universities better than new campuses, say Murdoch VC". That was a headline in Campus Review (1996), reporting on an address by Professor Steven Schwartz.

It is the kind of headline which creates mixed feelings. It gave a very welcome encouragement to staff concerned with innovations in teaching and learning. But it causes trepidation about immense new demands upon the nascent infrastructures needed to translate a vision of a virtual campus into a reality.

The report on Professor Schwartz's address included:

Information networks also have immense potential for teaching and learning, and he cited the example of the University of Maryland which provides the entire range of instruction and student services over a modem - including enrolments, examinations, counselling and job placement (Campus Review, 1996).
Over a modem? It sounds like a World War I order to the troops in the trenches, "Over the top!" Modem connections, admittedly, are a weak component in infrastructures for virtual campuses. Immense potential? Assuredly, yes, but how can we be sure that students can get their "modem connections to work"?

The starting point for this paper is a holistic approach to building up infrastructure services for online units and courses. The purpose is to gain a clearer picture of the roles and operations of all participants and components. Then we will be in a better position to allocate extra effort, or a shrewder effort, to counter a weak component such as "over a modem", to overcome any other kinds of problems, and to achieve the best we can from "online units", which are at the core of "virtual campus" operations.

What is an "online unit"?

The definition we use at present is linked with distance education:
A distance education online unit will be a conducted with world wide web, email and other Internet services as the primary means of communication for all aspects of its teaching, learning and class administration. Access to and ability to use Internet services may be a prerequisite for enrolment, if optional conventional services are not provided for the unit [1].
However, this definition is qualified by linking also with any use of Internet services in any unit. There isn't a clear dividing line, and we are very aware that the two "fronts", off campus and on campus, reinforce one another and have complementary sets of advantages and disadvantages. The following qualification of the definition above is currently in a "first the good news, then (briefly) the bad news" format:
Developing online teaching and learning offers students an avenue for enhanced study, with more scope for interactive and tutorial group processes, faster and more effective communications, and increased access to new kinds of resources for learning. Adopting online techniques for units which are available in both internal and external modes will facilitate integration of activities for the two groups of students.

For units offered externally, online techniques can circumvent slow and expensive processes in the production, printing and posting of teaching and administrative materials, reduce telephone traffic, and facilitate teaching in small classes. Students enrolled in a distance education online unit will receive all of their study materials via email and web pages, although purchases of conventional textbooks and books of reprinted readings may be required in most cases. All tutoring and assignment exchanges will be conducted in the same way, together with administrative matters such as arrangements for examinations. To be eligible, students will have to arrange Internet access, via private providers, study centres or employers, or in many cases the University may be their access provider.

For units offered on campus, the introduction of online techniques may be mediated by communications in face to face classes. With that avenue of support, internal classes should not encounter the same kinds of risks of failures or delays in Internet communications, which may arise for an online external unit depending entirely upon this method. Internal class use of online techniques may be hampered by congestion at campus network access facilities. [1]

Definitions are in a fluid state, adapted to context features at Murdoch, evolving over time and as the developments proceed. For example, the "bad news" phrases above, that is "To be eligible, students will have to ..." and "congestion at campus network access facilities", will in time become "good news" phrases reflecting achievements in those areas, and other "downside" phrases will emerge.

What are "infrastructure services"?

The current definition is also in an evolutionary phase and adapted to some specific features in Murdoch University's context:
What we have done, and have to do, to enable high quality support for online units from Academic Services Unit, Library, and Computing and Network Services, from world wide Internet services and online resources, and from providers of Internet access. [1]
The phrase "support for online units" refers to a core of services in computer user support, network access and user training, although these do not constitute all that is required from an infrastructure. At present there are two main extensions to the above definition, which separate two major areas into other categories, but nevertheless both are closely related to the concept of "infrastructure":
Ideas about how we may adapt University administrative processes and academic approvals procedures, to accommodate and integrate online units.

Ideas on designing a unit for online delivery. How to select, prepare and use resources and services. How to conduct tutorial functions for an online unit. Textbook and reference materials from the Internet. Examples of practices at Murdoch and from educational institutions world wide. [1]

The separation of these two categories are because the activities associated with them relate to different audiences. Firstly, "administrative processes" [2] are conducted by the Registrar's Office, and include services for academic policies and approvals bodies such as Academic Council. Secondly, "designing a unit for online delivery" [3] is intended mainly for academic staff who may seek to incorporate online services into their teaching. These categories address questions from administrative and academic staff, for example "How does it work?", "Will it be reliable and effective?", "What about students who don't have Internet access?", and "What do I have to do?" By contrast, "support for online units" addresses mainly for the needs and concerns of student users. [4], [5]

Network access, user support and training for students

The "what we have done" part in Murdoch's case includes a sustained effort to disseminate an Internet consciousness and capabilities amongst our students (Atkinson and Rehn, 1996). During 1996 Murdoch achieved more than a doubling in the student user base, by the commissioning of Internet access via the host elvis.murdoch.edu.au (also known as "student.murdoch.edu.au"), the on-campus laboratory "GCL1" (General Computing Laboratory 1), some web-only workstations in the Library, use of School-based hosts in the case of Veterinary Studies and Business, and a doubling of the modem pool capacity available to students. Via the hosts cleo, carmen, elvis, numbat and business, and some students' access through employers or private providers, we estimate that about 2000 of our 8000 students have used Internet access, usually though not always, access to a full set of services (slip/ppp, email, web, ftp, newsgroups, telnet and others).

In 1996 the "what we have done" part was concerned mainly with attaining momentum in network access for students. Having created and fuelled student demand, we now have to cope better, to "do more with less". Therefore, in 1997 the "what we have to do" part will be concerned particularly with the maturation of user support services and user training. Broadly, user support and training are concerned with two major questions:

  1. Will students attain reliable and consistent access to Internet services?
  2. Will students achieve effective use of Internet services for learning?
The first area is primarily technical in nature. It relates to "getting it to work" problems, such as "My modem won't work", or "I can't collect my email", or "Netscape doesn't work", and a myriad number of similar questions. At present an excessive load falls upon user support provided to individuals for case by case, expert help desk resolution of technical problems. This has to be moved as much as possible onto user training and support documentation [5], designed to enable users to solve for themselves most of the common technical problems, and onto other measures such as mutual self help groups. We will need "just in time" training sessions for groups of students, and we need to remain very aware that the proportion of autonomous, "self starting" students in the user population will decrease as the proportion of our students using Internet access increases beyond the present estimate of about 25% of the total student population.

The second area is less technical, though often referred to as "information technology skills". It relates perhaps more closely to traditional skills in written communications, studying at university, and library information retrieval, than to the technical knowledge and skills contained in the "getting it to work" category. The Library has an established program of information technology user training courses for students, and in refining this, it is expected to link in more closely with traditional provisions of student learning support services conducted by ASU staff.

For both areas, the driving force is that teaching and learning in an online unit cannot be conducted successfully if the unit coordinator, tutors and students are distracted and hampered by problems in computer user support, network access, and "how to use the technology".

University administrative processes

In Murdoch's context, particular benefits may be obtained from substituting Internet based delivery for conventional distance education delivery, as outlined in the discussion above. This may require changes in the University's administrative "infrastructure", for example to address the question "Can the University rely upon a student's email address as the primary channel for official communications relating to enrolments, exams and other central administrative functions?" [2]

Designing a unit for online delivery

For unit coordinators, questions of the kind "How does it work?", "Will it be reliable and effective?" and "What do I have to do?" are likely to be central concerns. To obtain economies with their time, coordinators will look for instructional design models, like adaptable recipes, and for a secure reliance upon whatever infrastructure is needed to ensure that the "how to make it work" factor is a minimal distraction from teaching and learning objectives for their particular unit. To meet that kind of concern, we will need instructional designs which build upon the familiar, for example propagating simple designs based upon the web as lecture equivalent and email listserver as tutorial equivalent.

What is a holistic approach?

What's the point in having a well designed unit for online delivery, if half of the class encounter problems in using their email and web readers? Why work hard on developing a student user base, if unit coordinators do not adopt Internet services into their teaching? Why should I get a modem or use the on campus labs, it's too frustrating and anyway will it help my study? A consideration of these kinds of concerns is a major part of the case for a holistic approach, for if any component or participant is unwilling, or unprepared or unsupported, a system for online units will fail to operate effectively.

A holistic approach, meeting the needs of all participants and components, has to be something more than just providing services. It should also encompass a set of attitudes:

  1. client centred. Recognise, respect and engage the interests of all parties - students, unit coordinators and tutors, infrastructure service providers and the University. For online units, we want volunteers, not draftees.
  2. opportunistic and dynamic. Respond quickly to changing circumstances and opportunities to promote client interests and to raise funds. As one phase of development matures, move quickly to the next phase.
  3. realistic. Set realistic goals and paths, adopt realistic perspectives on budget and resource allocations. Murdoch's path into virtual campus operations will develop mainly from "workface initiatives", in contrast to development via centrally orchestrated major projects.
  4. being "streetwise on the info superhighway". Learning to adapt to and use the diversity created by the Internet revolution, the proliferation of home based personal computers and modems, and the new kinds of national and international markets facilitated by networking.

Edtech and instructional design

Two roles, educational technology and instructional design, are at risk of overload or "under allocation" in the buildup for a virtual campus infrastructure. Educational technology, according to one of many definitions [6], seeks to bridge a gap between technologies and teaching and learning purposes, to overcome the "how to make it work" barrier. Instructional design has a closely related purpose, to minimise the gap between what is taught and what is learnt.

These are complementary, but have differences in their principal concerns. Typically, and particularly in our University's context, "edtech" responds to a principal concern over gaps in the supply of technology resources and their useability, by marshalling as much as possible from every possible avenue, and utilising these resources as fully as we can. Instructional design responds to a principal concern over lack of familiarity with new techniques for teaching, by disseminating through seminars, online manuals, pilot projects, exemplars and evaluations, approximately in a sequence from "basic" to "enhanced" designs. Both avenues seek to equip staff and students to be more self sufficient in teaching and learning with new technologies, at providing large elements of infrastructure services for themselves.

Educational technology and instructional design share a common concern over "Preparation of materials and class activities". The basic tools for the delivery of online units are the web server and the email list server. Integration is inherent in our context, because "edtech" conducts two web servers and listservers, on the hosts cleo and carmen, and thus "instructional design" is able to offer unit coordinators a "production" service, freeing them from a major concern in the "materials and class activities" area of resources for an online unit.

Of course these specifications demand a close link for edtech and instructional design with student learning skills, especially "IT skills", with staff development, and with unit evaluation. It is significant, and very encouraging, that proposals for restructuring Murdoch's Academic Services Unit into a new Centre for Teaching and Learning retain these five services as core services (Academic Council, 1996 [7]). This feature, together with the prospective assignment of the new Centre as an arm of the University Library, is highly consistent with a holistic approach to infrastructure services in general, and online units in particular.


Atkinson, R. and Rehn, G. (1996). Some strategies for promoting student adoption of Internet services. In Abbott, J. and Willcoxson, L. (eds), Teaching and learning within and across disciplines, 13-19. Proceedings of the 5th Annual Teaching and Learning Forum, Murdoch University, 7-9 February. Perth: Murdoch University Academic Services Unit. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/edtech/pubs/tlforum/atkinson_tlforum96.html

Campus Review (1996). Virtual universities better than new campuses, says Murdoch VC. April 11.

University of Maryland University College. Tycho, UMUC's Virtual University. http://www.umuc.edu/tycho/tycho.html

Web pages

[1] Online units - a scenario

[2] Online units - University procedures

[3] Online units - Academic preparations

[4] Online units - Infrastructure services

[5] Techniques and skills for studying online units

[6] Roles of educational technology in the Academic Services Unit

[7] Academic Council (1996). Murdoch University Academic Council Agenda and Minutes

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. and Brown, A. (1997). Online units: What infrastructure services are required? In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p6-11. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/atkinson.html

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