by Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff, Invited Paper for Conference on Distance Education in DOD, 1993, National Defense University.



Collaborative Learning
Software Structures in the Virtual Classroom



Student Experiences





Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff

New Jersey Institute of Technology
University Heights
Newark NJ, 07102
Tel: 201 596 3399

Invited Paper prepared for:

Distance Education in DoD
Invitational Research Conference
National Defense University
February 11th and 12th, 1993


Virtual Classroom, Distance Education, Computer Mediated Communications, Computer Conferencing


This paper describes some of the authors' experiences utilizing Computer Mediated Communications to deliver graduate level education since the early 80's. Included are descriptions of the learning techniques and the software facilities the authors feel are desirable for improving the learning process in this distance education environment. A mixed mode delivery, combined with video, is then described, and impressions by some of the current students are included.

© Copyright 1993 Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff


During the 1980's, we constructed an online environment for teaching and learning via computer-mediated communication that we call the Virtual ClassroomTM. We experimented with offering a variety of undergraduate courses either totally via the Virtual Classroom, or via a mixture of on-campus face-to-face meetings and Virtual Classroom. For the last few years, we have concentrated our efforts in this area on graduate courses offered to distance students through a combination of the Virtual Classroom and video. This paper first describes what is meant by the "Virtual Classroom" and then gives a qualitative account of our experiences teaching two distance education courses in graduate programs in Management Science, Computer Science, and Information Science.



Computer-mediated communication systems (CMCS), especially when enhanced to create what we refer to as a Virtual Classroom,[TM] can make significant improvements in both access to and the quality of education. Currently over 80 programs worldwide are known to be offering courses partially or completely via computer-mediated communication (See, for example, Harasim, 1989; Harasim, Hiltz, Teles & Turoff, 1993; Hiltz, 1986; Hsu & Hiltz, 1991; Mason & Kaye, 1989; McCreary & VanDoren, 1987; Paulsen & Rekkedal, 1990; Rice & Caswe, 1983; Weedman, 1991; Wells, 1990; Welsch, 1982). The sophistication and flexibility of software structures for supporting distance education vary widely, from simple electronic mail systems to conferencing systems that have been specially enhanced to support classroom-like experiences, particularly group discussions and joint projects. This section presents a very concise overview of case studies that were part of the largest project to date in creating, using, and evaluating such systems for education (Hiltz, 1993).

The Virtual Classroom[TM] is a teaching and learning environment located within a computer-mediated communication system. Rather than being built of steel and concrete, it consists of a set of group communication and work "spaces" and facilities that are constructed in software. Thus it is a "virtual" facility for interaction among the members of a class, rather than a physical space. The special software structures incorporated in the Virtual Classroom were designed to support collaborative learning. As with other CMCSs tailored to support a specific type of application, some of these communication structures resemble facilities or procedures used in the off-line analogical world. Others support forms of interaction that would be difficult or impossible in the face-to-face environment. All are accessed, not by traveling to a university, but by typing and reading from a personal computer that connects by telephone to a computer acting as the "group agent" for the Virtual Classroom software. Participation is generally asynchronous; that is, the Virtual Classroom participants may dial in at any time around the clock, and from any location in the world accessible by a reliable telephone system.

Our initial pilot studies with online courses during the early 1980s (Turoff, 1980; Turoff and Hiltz, 1986) used the existing EIES conference and message facilities to supplement traditional courses or to deliver non-credit continuing education courses. The conference provides a shared transcript of the discussions taking place among the students and the instructor. It also provides the necessary tracking to allow each person to determine what had been read by others. The fact that the educational process is asynchronous means each student may engage in more reflective thinking before having to answer or discuss issues.

Though the results were promising (Hiltz, 1986), it was evident that there were many limitations to be overcome, particularly for standard college-level courses that required numerous assignments and examinations as part of the course work. As the number of students increases and the activity level of each student, the wide diversity of topics involved leads to some difficulty for both the instructors and students to maintain an adequate overview of what was taking place. Thus, we began creating special structures and features specifically to support collaborative learning.



It is not the hardware and software technology alone that provides the potential for this technology to improve the educational process. A key component is the pedagogical techniques or social technology of the process whereby learning is facilitated and encouraged. The major educational process that is coupled to the technology of CMC is that of collaborative learning.

Collaborative learning is defined as a learning process that emphasizes group or cooperative efforts among faculty and students. It stresses active participation and interaction on the part of both students and instructors. Knowledge is viewed as a social construct, and therefore the educational process is facilitated by social interaction in an environment that facilitates peer interaction, evaluation and cooperation (Bruffee, 1986; Johnson, 1981; Johnson & Johnson, 1975). In the CMC environment one can do far more to encourage collaborative learning and utilize it as a learning mechanism than is possible in the normal face-to-face classroom environment.

The Virtual Classroom is an environment that facilitates collaborative learning -- among students, between students and instructors, among teachers, and between a class and wider academic and nonacademic communities. It also supports independent learning and generative, active learning techniques that are self-paced by each participant. For distance education students, the increased ability to be in constant communication with other learners is obvious. But even for campus-based courses, the technology provides a means for a rich, collaborative learning environment that exceeds the traditional classroom in its ability to "connect" students and course materials on a round-the-clock basis.



One way to understand the software that comprises the Virtual Classroom is with an architectural analogy. Think of all the different kinds of learning tools and spaces and ritualized forms of interaction that take place within a traditional classroom, and within an entire college campus or high school. All of these things exist within a Virtual Classroom, too, except that all of the activities and interactions are mediated by computer software, rather than by face-to-face interaction. For example, the interaction in the form of "electures" (electronic lectures) and plenary discussions takes place in a main "class conference," which is like the classroom or lecture hall. For special activities such as a debate or small group work, other conferences will be established (like moving to a different room). Private conversations, the equivalent of hallway conversations or office hours, take place via "messages." The Virtual Classroom facilities and their traditional classroom analogies are summarized in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Communication Structures in the Virtual and Traditional Classrooms

Computer Facility        Utilization                Physical Analogy         

Private Conferences Class Discussions Classroom and Lectures Study Groups Student working groups Public Conferences Student Lounges Coffee Houses Teacher Lounges Shared material (document data bases) Messages Student to student Office hours Teacher to student "Hallway" conversations Transitory material Notebooks and personal Composition facilities Work book files Membership Status Who has read and done Visual Presence what assignments (tracking) Binary File Attachments Diagrams, Spread Sharing of PC software to sheets, etc. results Comments Anonymous Signatures Encouraging Impossible in Pen-names Signatures Self-disclosure and face-to-face classroom experimentation Presenting mistakes Game and role playing Membership Directory Finding members by Clubs, interest group common interests formulation

ACTIVITIES: Question/Response Forces independent Face-to-face discussion thinking and active questions participation Selection Manage distribution of Circulate sign up unique assignments sheets Document Self selection of Printing press and copy pieces and parts of machines long document Exam Time controlled Written exam question set Gradebook Access to student grade Asking instructor record Voting Voting for lists of Voice votes or show of alternatives hands, ballots.

Note that messaging and conferencing serve very different objectives. Trying to hold group discussions and develop a shared database of the discussion is impossible in a message system, and cluttering up conferences with a lot of transitory material better sent in messages interferes with the flow of the discussion. Being able to utilize a key word index for finding material such as assignments in the conference and having a way of organizing the discussion threads are extremely critical to the use of the conference transcript as a database.

Anonymity is a key facility, because it allows students to make comments they might otherwise be hesitant to make. One important use is for providing pragmatic insights that would not otherwise be available. For example, in a management course visiting experts such as real managers can discuss real world management mistakes, without embarrassing their company by identifying themselves. They could not be invited into a face-to-face class to present the same insights.

The special features added to a basic CMC to support learning networks have been integrated into our system, EIES 2, as "Activities." Activities are executable programs that are attached to an ordinary conference comment. All of the responses related to that activity are gathered together there, instead of being scattered throughout a conference as many separate comments. Rather than automatically receiving everything that has been entered by any participant, as with comments, participants choose to do the activities only when they are ready, and explicitly give a command. A record is kept of done and undone activities for each conference member, and a review choice helps users to keep track. While students may access only their own records of done and undone activities, the instructor can review the Activities status of any of the students. The instructor can require activities to be done in certain sequences and declare whether they are required or optional. Activity types include:

QUESTION/RESPONSE, which is the most frequently used. One or more questions for response by other conference members are contained in the main conference comment. The author of a Question/Response Activity has many parameters that can be set to tailor the interaction. Responses may show the full name of the student, be entered anonymously, or allow the respondent to decide whether or not to reveal his or her identity. Each person MUST ANSWER BEFORE SEEING THE RESPONSES OF OTHERS. This is very important for making sure that each person can independently think through and enter his or her own ideas, without being influenced by responses made by others. Alternatively the author may set it up so that participants cannot see other responses even after they answer, until the author "opens" the responses for viewing. This might be done for an essay-type quiz, for example. This is a very clear example of where something that sounds like it is just as the use of questions in a face-to-face class, is actually very different in the computerized version. Many of us would say it is in fact a much more productive way to handle questions with respect to student learning and involvement.

A Document READ activity is a very simple hypertext structure that divides essay or lecture type materials into sections. Each section has a title, and can be read by selecting that section from the table of contents. Notes or annotations from readers can potentially be added to make it a "growing" form of electronic lecture (i.e., electures). Students, as well as instructors develop specific topics in depth for other members of the class.

A SELECTION activity allows the members of a conference to choose items or selections from a list (usually a list of available topics or problems for student assignments) and maintains a table showing who has chosen which selection. Without such a mechanism, allocating unique selections to students would require either dictatorship by the instructor, or a barrage of message traffic. The selection activity procedure also has the advantage of motivating students to make their selections early, since whoever makes a selection first gets it. As soon as a valid selection is made, it is confirmed for the student, who may immediately begin work on the topic or problem.

The electronic GRADEBOOK allows students to see not only their own grades and averages at any time, but also averages for the class as a whole. When grades are added, notifications are automatically sent to the members to alert them to the availability of new grades.

The QUIZ or POLL activity is an ability to issue an exam of multiple choice, fill-in, or text questions. When the student starts a quiz activity, it must be completed within a specified time. Also the student cannot interrupt the taking of the exam and come back to it later.

An example of a collaborative learning strategy applied in the VC that is included in most courses is the "seminar" type of interchange in which the students become the teachers. Individuals or small groups of students are responsible for making a selection of a topic (usually from a list provided by the instructor as a Selection Activity); reading material not assigned to the rest of the class; preparing a written summary for the class of the most important ideas in the material; and leading a discussion on the topic or material for which they are responsible (usually via a Response Activity). The use of CMC technology does change considerably the way in which course material is delivered when compared to face-to-face classes.

Seminar-style presentations and discussions are thus an example of a collaborative learning activity that is often difficult in the Traditional Classroom (TC), but which tends to work very well in the Virtual Classroom environment, even with fairly large classes of undergraduates. Other examples of collaborative learning strategy in the VC include debates, group projects, simulation and role-playing exercises, sharing of solutions to homework problems and/or answers to review questions for exams; and collaborative composition of essays, stories, or research plans. Case studies and allowing the students to form collaborative groups of two or three to work on case studies are a very ideal assignment in this medium.

Material generated by the students such as tutorials on topics they investigate or reviews of professional articles may be accumulated in a database that may be used by future classes. This cumulative impact of having an electronic memory is extremely useful and a very real aid to the instructor in terms of updating his or her course material and in aiding the class in use of the professional literature.

Using the analogy of software structures to emulate interactional forms in the traditional classroom gives the unfortunate impression that the VC can never be more than a second-best simulation of a TC. On the contrary, a collaborative learning environment that is computer-mediated can support some types of activities that are difficult or impossible to conduct in face-to-face environments, particularly if there is a large class. Discussion and communication about the course become a continuous activity, rather than being limited to a short scheduled time once or twice a week. Whenever a student has an idea or a question, it can be communicated, while it is "fresh."

Among the types of collaborative learning techniques that work very well in the Virtual Classroom are debates, role plays, gaming and structured group exploration processes such as the Delphi method. We will describe some of our experiences in using simulation/gaming in the CMC environment, and some of the possibilities of using a Policy Delphi as a structured group learning experience.



The ability of students to utilize pennames allows the use of CMC systems to support gaming as an educational tool. We have made extensive use of gaming in an undergraduate management course (Hsu, 1991; Hsu, Hiltz, and Turoff, 1992). Our traditional use is for simulating the startup of small competitive companies.

In the Virtual Management situation, each student team is able to maintain its own private conference for discussing and formulating materials, plans, and decisions. There is also a class-wide conference where the instructor could report to the teams the public results of their performance as a company. The students in this game were largely third and fourth year engineering students taking an introduction to management course. These were full time day students who could also be expected to be able to meet outside of class hours.

This work was based upon the hypothesis that the current limitation on the effectiveness of learning through gaming was imposed by a lack of communication facilities among the players. Even students, let alone real managers, have severe constraints on the amount of time they can devote to face-to-face group meetings. Also, for game playing, face to face interactions are often unrealistic in terms of reflecting the true communications structure of a game. In the CMC environment, both private conferences and private messages can be structured and utilized to reflect realistic communication constraints appropriate to the game environment. Furthermore, players can reflect upon their views and choose a time to engage in the game and the communication process that is consistent with the satisfaction they have with their resulting ideas and contributions.

Once the communications for a game are carried out through a CMC system it becomes possible to introduce the communication constraints that reflect the real world situation that the game is attempting to imitate (Turoff, 1991). Gaming has been an important learning tool in the military, political, and management areas. However, only in the military is gaming regularly utilized in terms of intensive group training over long periods. In the more traditional educational environment for business and areas such as political science the use of gaming is usually very non intense in that the game is broken apart into weekly exercises of an hour or so. In the asynchronous computer mode the game can be made a continuous operation and the intensity conducive to creating a learning situation is once again possible.

The CMC environment allows any role playing, event driven gaming scenario to be instituted and regulated by the instructor acting as a referee on the results of actions by the various teams. It is far more realistic in the asynchronous environment of CMC than in a face-to-face synchronous mode.

It is probably the communication requirements for games that have limited the use of games as a "real" management analysis and decision tool. While games are a standard approach to planning in the military, they are rarely utilized in real management situations. Only in limited experiments where managers could escape for days at a time to engage in gaming exercises by total immersion has there been some use of gaming by real managers. The incorporation of CMC technology into the gaming environment provides the possibility for the use of games as a management support tool. For example, decision problems such as the acquisition of a new company could be examined by management actually playing out the operation of the new consolidated company with their new roles and responsibilities.

It is our belief that the incorporation of CMC technology into gaming environments is far more than a simple improvement in the gaming approach. It is a totally new capability that allows the application of gaming to new situations and problems not previously considered possible.



The Delphi Method (Linstone and Turoff, 1975) is the process of designing communication structures that allow large groups of experts to exchange views and information about complex problems. In a very real sense there are hundreds of communication structures tailored to specific complex problem situations. These structures may also be used as learning tools. It is possible to provide these structures as a form of collaborative Hypertext where students can incorporate what they learn about a complex subject into a shared class "model" of the situation (Turoff, Rao, and Hiltz, 1992).

The Policy Delphi

An example of such a structure that can be utilized as an educational experience is the Policy Delphi (Turoff, 1970). This is an interesting Delphi structure in that its objective is not to produce a consensus, but to expose the strongest pro and con arguments about differing resolutions of a policy issue. It is a form of policy analysis that provides a decision maker the strongest arguments on each side of the issue. Usually one utilizes as respondents individuals who have the strongest opposing views.

The structure of a Policy Delphi is very simple.

Policy Delphi Structure
Resolution of issue Desirability
Argument Importance
Pro or con to a
given resolution
Opposing to other
Supportive to other

In the above structure any respondent in the Delphi is free to add a possible resolution (solution) to the basic policy issue, or to make a pro or con argument about one or more of the listed possible resolutions. He or she can do this at any time. Also, the respondent can vote at any time, using the two types of voting scales associated with either of the item types. Individuals may also choose to change their vote on a given item at any time. In this structure the two scales are needed to highlight situations where policy resolutions might be rated in such categories as desirable but infeasible, and arguments may be rated as important but invalid (others might believe them). When making additions of a qualitative nature, participants must also indicate how that addition is related to the existing items.

The computer's role in the above process is to organize everything so that the individual can follow what is going on and obtain a group view. An instructor can divide a class in to teams that might each have the objective of supporting a particular class of solutions to the basic issues. One might consider a situation such as developing an international trade agreement, with each team representing a particular block of countries having somewhat common views. Specific Delphi designs are specific semantic network structures imposed upon the way members of a collaborative group contribute information. Ultimately a generalized collaborative Hypertext structure that the instructor can utilize to design a collaborative Delphi structure would be a significant step in allowing students to contribute to the formulation of a collaborative knowledge base about a topic.



CMC technology can be utilized in many different modes to support education and training:

  • As an adjunct to a regular face-to-face course in order to improve the communications between the students and the instructor, as well as to improve the communications among the students.

  • As a mechanism for providing communications in a remote course where the students receive the lectures via video (by direct broadcast or by recorded tapes).

  • As a total means of delivery, without any other communication mode. For totally online courses, it is recommended that the material be at a sophomore or higher level, or else that students be screened very carefully, to advise those with poor study skills against an introductory course offered online.

In general, the more the course is oriented to teaching basic skills (such as deriving mathematical proofs), the more the lecture is needed in some form as an efficient means of delivering illustrations of skills. However, the more the course involves pragmatics, such as interpretations of case studies, the more valuable is the CMC mode of delivery. CMC is the ideal technology for extending the ability of students to discuss material and to work in collaborative groups as an integral part of the learning process. It is also the ideal technology for extending education or training to those segments of the population that have difficulty in taking the time to attend face to face sessions. Increasingly, it is managers and professionals in active, demanding jobs that have found CMC technology a very satisfying form for remote education.

Some of the broadcast courses use standard public television courses, such as "Discovering Psychology," produced by PBS, in conjunction with VC for interaction among the dispersed class members. Others, such as a Computers and Society course being taped this spring, are filmed by NJIT in its "candid classroom" and then distributed to remote students on videotape. The satellite-delivered courses are offered via the National Technological University. One section meets at NJIT, in the "candid classroom," where it is being broadcast to students enrolled in a remote section, either through NTU, or carried to small groups of students on remote campuses of NJIT, through special lines. Thus, the whole class watches the real-time lecture at once, though some are on-campus and some are remote. In all three video variations, the Virtual Classroom is used for all assignments and additional discussions, among the remote and on-campus students.



For the last two years, the authors have each offered a graduate course via distance education each semester, combining videotape distribution with the Virtual Classroom. Enrollments thus far have been small- about four to eight students per semester in the distance sections. Thus, there are too few students to generate statistical results. However we do have qualitative observations from students and our own experiences to share.

Each semester, a regular on-campus section of each course is also offered. CIS 675, Evaluation of Information Systems, is taught by Roxanne Hiltz and usually enrolls about 20 students on campus, equally split between masters students in Computer Science and Ph.D. students in the management of information systems. CIS 732, Design of Interactive Systems, usually enrolls about a dozen students from the same two degree programs in the on-campus section, and is taught by Murray Turoff. The same visuals are used in the on-campus lectures as in the videotapes, and these are made available to the students in a workbook. This helps to "standardize" the course content, and also allows students viewing lectures via either medium to concentrate on the content, rather than on copying the text of the visuals. The Virtual Classroom is used for both sections of each course, for all assignments. It allows the relatively few distance students to be integrated with the on-campus students, to form teams with them for some assignments.

About half of the students who enroll in the distance section are true "distance" students, who live anywhere from 100 miles away from campus, to thousands of miles away. However, about half live within the traditional commuting distance of the campus of NJIT; they choose the distance section because they like it better. As one student explained it, the videotapes put the lecture pace much more under the control of the student. The "pause" button can be pressed to allow the studying and copying of a particularly puzzling or complex example. The tape can be rewound and replayed to aid in understanding difficult concepts or techniques. "Fast forward" allows skipping of the material that was already understood, on a second viewing.

Having a large group of on-campus peers in addition to the other distance students in a common class conference allows distance students the opportunity for collaborative learning. As the very first online activity, all of the participants are asked to give an extensive self-introduction, describing personal interests as well as work responsibilities and interests and academic interests. This is to help students get to know each other and to start to feel like the class conference is a friendly conversation among peers. All assignments are "collaborative" in nature, with students working and learning together. For example in 675:

  • Assignment 1 uses a "response activity" to have each student describe an example from his or her own experiences that illustrates one of the reasons for resistance to or failure of information systems, which are presented in the first set of readings. The distance students are usually working in some of the U.S.'s most "high technology" organizations, and provide some rich and relevant materials. The majority of the NJIT on-campus graduate students are international, and provide a cross-cultural corrective to the often American-focused text materials.

  • Assignment 2 requires the students to form groups of three to eight members to carry out a "protocol analysis" of a software system. The students form themselves into groups, many of which are mixed between on-campus and distance students. Each student group then sets up its own conference to plan and carry out its assignment.

  • The third assignment is a controlled experiment on Group Decision Support Systems, which also mixes on-campus and distance students. These usually make use of special decision support activities, such as the List Activity (ability for the group to build and edit a joint list) and a Vote Activity (ability to apply any one of a number of alternative voting schemes to the items on a list).


Student Experiences

Because of the small number of students thus far in our mixed video + VC sections, and because we currently lack funding for any research in this area, we have not carried out any surveys or statistical analysis. However, distance students in this mode frequently make spontaneous comments about their reactions to this delivery mode. In addition, to gather material for this paper, we asked the current distance students to share their reactions with us.

The questions we asked were:

1. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of the video plus EIES 2 approach, as compared to just video?

2. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of the videotape plus Virtual Classroom approach, as compared to traveling to face to face classes at a university?

3. How shall we describe you if we use your quote? May we use your name? Please give us a couple lines of descriptive background information, e.g., what degree program you are in, why you are enrolled in the particular course you are in, any other potentially interesting or relevant background information.

What follows are the slightly edited and reorganized responses of three students.


Tom XXXXXXXXXXX lives in Texas and works for ISSC, the outsourcing subsidiary of IBM. He answered our questions as follows:

1.A: Advantages of Video+EIES 2, as compared to video.

a. I have taken five courses in NTU that were video only. This course is my first one using EIES 2. I find the "just video" to be sufficient if the course needs only to distribute lecture information, and participation is sufficient through E-mail, phone and US mail. The advantage of adding VC is that if the course needs active participation by all the students, including the distance students, then it's easy to do it. An excellent example is the experiment that you undertook with your local students and we distance students. It allowed us to participate and learn, and it also allowed you to conduct an experiment.

b. I have felt more involved in the course. For example, I can download information from the conference that is available. This is a pain when using mail.

c. I can ask a question, and usually get a fast response. This avoids phone tag.

1.B: Disadvantages of Video+EIES 2, as compared to video.

a. The interface of EIES 2 could be a disadvantage itself. Personally, it wasn't a disadvantage to me at all. I found it perfectly adequate for the tasks at hand. Someone else could compare it to Microsoft Workgroup for Windows, but that's a whole new kettle of fish.

b. Depending on your perspective, this could be an advantage or a disadvantage. Personally, I would put it under advantage; I believe you have a good system. EIES 2 is a 4gl, interpretive application. This is good for those students who needs to use EIES 2 in different ways, e.g., to enhance or test enhancements to the base code in an efficient manner.

2. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of the videotape plus EIES 2 approach, as compared to traveling to face to face classes at a university?

2.A: Advantages of Video+EIES 2, as compared to traveling:

a. It allows me to take the course. It would be impossible for me to travel to NJ. I would absolutely not be able to take the course.

b. It allows me to schedule taking the course within my work and personal schedule. As a full-time professional worker, I would definitely miss classes if I had to travel.

c. It allows me to review and replay material that I need to. This is great for the things that I find that I need to do more studying on. Also, sometimes we all tend to drift a little, and I can always rewind and restart.

d. During interaction on EIES 2, I find that I can think and contemplate about the discussion, which leads to a more considered judgment. In face-to-face, you may miss meetings, have a headache, etc. This reply is one excellent example.

e. You choose the environment, e.g., smoke free, quiet, music.

2.B: Disadvantages of Video+EIES 2, as compared to traveling:

a. I really feel not being able to interact with the professor. Phone calls and mail (electronic or postage) are necessary and you can get a good rapport, but I don't think it will ever make up for meeting someone.

b. No conferences with the professor.

c. Feeling remote. Sometimes, you think you're missing out on something, and you don't know what, because you're not there.

d. Same as number 1 for the students.

e. Not being in the same town, talking about the same things (local sport, weather, politics, etc.).

f. Scheduling time for a tape in my work schedule. At certain times, work takes precedence, and it's easy to accumulate tapes. This could be very bad for some students, because it causes a lot of pressure on you personally; to complete the course, to attend to work, and to attend to personal matters, such as your wife and family. Note that the scheduling is an advantage and a disadvantage.


Nancy XXXXXXXXX is a candidate for a master's degree in Computer Science who is on disability as a result of an accident that caused brain injury. Her experiences show that this mode can be especially good for those who are challenged by temporary or permanent limitations:

I enrolled in the first class because I had days when the head pain made it so I could hardly think and I thought with a video class I could do it during the times I felt good. It worked and I was so pleased with it that I signed up again. And now for the third time. I don't have the pain any more, but I still enrolled because I like the format, and the courses themselves. These classes have allowed me to advance more than even my neurologist thought I could - and that's because I could work at my own pace (slow at first but now I'm almost up to speed) when I felt good. I really think that they have played a big part in my rehabilitation. The format of these classes was open enough and still rigid enough to encourage me and prod me. Sure the extension class at night forced me to attend no matter how I felt, but I didn't have a tape I could look at again when my mind wandered (a very big problem for the head injured). So I don't know how else to say it except for great big THANK YOU for developing this type of class.

In answer to the first question, I can say that I always felt in touch with the professors and the class. In the extension courses, we all are tired at the end of the day, sometimes a student or professor is late and contact with the professor is very limited. Sometimes they show up just on time and by the time 9:30 rolls around no one wants to stay. If a question arises who do you ask? You might know other students and then you might not. Trying to reach the professor is usually not easy and the ones that do other work during the day, you hate to call them at their job. But with EIES 2, you can always send a message and it's always answered within 24 hours or less. I have even used the directory option to see who is on line and then 'talk' to them about the class, assignments etc. I took the first class with a little bit of hesitation, but not the second and I've signed up for my third this spring. (Yes, there were even two extension classes that I could sign up for and one I was really interested in, but I have liked the constant contact I have with everyone.)

A video class without EIES 2, I don't think I would like it. I took a few correspondence classes when I lived in Germany - to get calculus which wasn't offered at the U. of Maryland overseas - but I didn't like them and I think that a plain video course would be like that.


Kathy XXXXXX has worked for CSC for 5 years as a software engineer. She is currently the manager/lead engineer of a project that built the user interface for the AN-BSY2 Submarine Combat System. In the middle of her latest course, she had her second baby. She says:

An advantage of video in combination with EIES 2 is that one is able to watch the class and immediately ask any questions that occur to you. The response to the question usually will come within one day. One is also able to ask other students what they thought about a particular topic; this creates a less competitive atmosphere because one student does not know how well another is doing. I do not believe that students are intimidated by each other as they are sometimes in a traditional classroom setting.

One disadvantage is that the students who are taking the course from a "live" instructor are not necessarily hearing the same things that the distance learning students are hearing on a tape that was made a year or two ago. Sometimes the assignments are different and confusion can arise. Thus, the combination of EIES 2 and the video is essential.

Convenience is the greatest advantage of EIES 2 over the traditional classroom. I starting taking the video courses so that I was able to be home with my son in the evenings, put him to bed, and then watch the course. I was not able to have that luxury to be actually attending the course. I felt that having a child in day care during the day and not coming home is the evening was too much. Thus it was a choice between video and not taking any courses.

The only disadvantage to this type of media was the ability to contact the professor. The limited office hours and the fact contact was not possible even during these hours was a bit frustrating. However, there was always mail and I always received a response.

One must be very disciplined to take a video course. It is not very fun to sit and watch three tapes before an exam because you have let time slip away. However, it is great that the option is available.

It should be noted that with only one video classroom at NJIT, currently the tapes for a given course are only being updated about once every two years. This is probably the maximum delay that should be allowed between updating lecture tapes in such area as Computer Science, Information Systems, and Management.



Another development of great import is the tying together of the world's computerized information resources, and their accessibility to students and instructors through such networks as Internet, which links most colleges and universities. This means that students can access the equivalent of the world's libraries of information in computerized form, in doing research for papers or projects. In order to make the wealth of information navigable, it is being organized in many cases into a "Hypertext" format. An example of such a system is the "World Wide Web," which is now incorporated as part of the facilities of the Virtual Classroom on EIES 2. This provides access to the Internet GOPHER world wide information services, including the ability to search databases on many campuses connected to the Internet.

Perhaps the future of this technology is most closely tied to overcoming some of the current difficulties, particularly in the current situation of budget cutting and increased course loads for faculty in higher education. The first difficulty is the initial burden placed upon instructors to completely rethink the nature of their courses and adapt a facilitation role to their teaching style. It may even be necessary to provide some training for faculty on how to utilize collaborative learning approaches. There is also an initial workload in terms of creating materials in electronic form that is quite large the first time one teaches utilizing this medium. Faculty may be far slower to change and adopt this technology than students; therefore, one has to consider the incentives to do so in the particular educational institution.

In the comprehensive NJIT studies of undergraduate courses (Hiltz, 1993), one key generalization was that good students often do much better in the Virtual Classroom, while poor students may do worse. As a result, the average performance is usually the same as face-to-face classes. For graduate students, there is usually a much smaller proportion of students who do not have good study habits and the self-discipline to do their studies without face-to-face supervision. In a distance education situation it is quite easy for students to put off their participation to a point where it becomes impossible to catch up with the class. The instructor must be provided, in the computer environment, with the tools to track the progress of the students and detect problems early on.

There is no comparison with other modes of delivery of distance education in terms of the ability of CMC technology to allow students to work together in groups and to become a student body with respect to the program of study as a whole. Those of us who hold that this peer group reinforcement is very necessary to creating an outstanding educational process see no other cost effective alternative to computer based conferencing. It is possible with this technology, not just to provide courses, but to establish a "virtual university" with all the facilities necessary to make that a reality.


Continuing research on appropriate software structures for collaborative learning via computer is partially supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF-IRI-9015236). We are also grateful to NJIT for their financing of videotaping to support our distance education efforts.



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