The dominance of the Internet Protocol suite in public networking gives a clear focus on how to utilise computer mediated communications for educational and community purposes. It is now obsolete to regard a network as a purely self contained technological entity within one's own organisation. The focus of attention is upon how to connect to the Internet or an Internet interconnected network such as AARNet, and how to present the basic services of the Internet Protocol suite in ways which are useable by educational developers, librarians, open learning coordinators and others whose knowledge relates closely to end user needs. This paper relates aspects of the Internet's technologies to some typical "how to" questions in networking for educational and community purposes, including:
- connecting home users to a local or regional host via their domestic telephone services
- developing connections from small offices, local libraries, telecentres and classrooms
- promoting services which relate to educational and community users
User interfaces for Internet services have improved very rapidly with software developments based on client and server approaches. However, the availability of mature technologies and desirable, cost effective services are not sufficient by themselves to ensure ready adoption. There are barriers, related more to management than technological factors, and this paper discusses some strategies and case studies which may improve local, regional and national use of computer communications for educational and community purposes.
Nevertheless, there is a gap between the availability and readiness of the technologies, and the deployment of applications which meet end user needs. The concept of a "gap" is subjective and depends very much upon the perspectives of the perceiver. For example, a senior manager in a government department may understand computer communications as something to do with looking up financial records on a central mainframe, and thus will not perceive any "gap" at all between the technologies and other activities of the department, such as providing information to the public. A senior research worker in a university may perceive a "gap" between having only a 128 kilobits/second connection to AARNet and a research need for a 10 Megabits/second connection, and thus will not perceive any "gap" at all between the technologies and other activities, such as teaching, or disseminating research results to the public.
The "gap" which is the subject of concern in this paper is that perceived by educational technologists, curriculum developers, librarians, open learning coordinators, teachers and others who have some experience with the Internet, whilst having also close contacts with educational and community purposes which could be served by expanding the public networking aspect of the "Internet revolution". As the Internet continues to expand, having perhaps 20 million users worldwide and doubling every year, it has drawn in many new types of non-technical users who want to apply these technologies to benefit their educational or community clients. One aspect of the "gap" is often a lack of the knowledge and experience which is required in order to promote concepts about public networking persuasively to conservative management hierarchies. If your organisation's computer and network experts say "no, not possible", "won't work", "nothing in it for us", etc, the only counter argument is to be ready with the demonstrations showing that "it is possible", "does work", and "this example relates directly to improving our services", etc.
Thus there can be a high value associated with using network access to gain sufficient knowledge and experience to provide demonstrations of capabilities and services, relating to an organisation's context or client needs. Public networking, connecting to the network, and services from the network are important areas in which questions arise when seeking to relate computer communications to educational and community purposes.
There are significant benefits for Australia in making access to Internet services as widely available as possible. Government, industry, business, schools and individuals can all benefit by having access to the Internet's low-cost, global information resources and communication facilities. Internet access should not be limited to the research and higher education community, and 'compatible use' policies should be discontinued.As ASTEC and other observers have indicated, the Internet has taken up the role of the public network. It is like a public highway on which a wide variety of users and service providers place their data traffic. As with the public highway system, it is evolving into a natural monopoly, although there is vigorous competition layered upon the Internet, just as there is vigorous competition in the markets for motor vehicles, road construction contracts, fuels, driver training, etc, "layered" upon the public highway system. The Internet's expansion into public networking has been accompanied by an analogous diversification and specialisation of the roles "layered" upon it, as one would expect for a public network. In Australia, this now includes a number of small businesses which provide users with fee paying access to the Internet and basic host services, but do not themselves provide any other value added services, and organisations which provide networked information whilst relying upon others to provide access services for obtaining that information.
Diversification of the Internet is of great importance to educational technologists, curriculum developers, librarians, open learning coordinators and teachers. It means that entry into electronic publishing, the online library, computer conferencing and other aspects of public networking is considerably easier, because it is no longer necessary to "do everything yourself". Consider this example. The Western Australian State Government markets a service named "LAWNET", which gives an electronic publication of the state's laws and statutes. The host computer is not Internet capable and may be accessed only via a small pool of 2400 b/s modems connected to it. A substantial annual subscription fee is charged, plus connect time charges, and users must sign a lengthy legal agreement which prohibits them from copying any item to their own disks. It does not permit public reading in the style we are accustomed to with the traditional public library system, and it does not give users the standard Internet services "anonymous ftp", "gopher" and "World Wide Web" which underpin Internet style electronic publishing. "LAWNET" is an example of the "do everything yourself" approach - incoming phone lines, modem pool, user interface software, administration of user charges, advertising and marketing, etc.
Now contrast "LAWNET" with an Internet, public networking style approach to electronic publication of WA's laws and statutes. An Internet style solution would view it as a standard specialisation within an online library. The basic requirements are an Internet capable host computer with an Internet connection and running the standard servers, ftp, gopher and WWW (software is available from the public domain for Unix). Designers and installers need to cater for only one communications interface, the Internet protocol suite (software from the public domain for Unix) because users look elsewhere in the market place to obtain their own Internet access. Designers and installers need not "do their own" in user interfaces as the standard servers are available. Advertising and marketing are matters which "the network" and the users do for you (if your service is attractive to "the network"). The major part of the overall requirement is probably organising the "electronic shelving" of "electronic books", which is a standard job for a librarian specialising in legal information.
If Government decrees that users should pay for online access to WA's laws and statutes, instead of the "free reading" traditionally associated with the public library system, this would need additional software to record a user's credit card number, issue debit statements electronically to the user's email address, etc (many take the view that it's easier and cheaper to give away the information, and in any event we taxpayers paid - some say very handsomely in the case of WA - for those laws and statutes to be created, so we the public own the intellectual property rights).
The example given above is outlined very briefly, and a considerable amount of detail needs to be understood by developers, designers and installers. However, the task is easier, and the opportunities much more readily accessible, because public networking has arrived on a large scale. We can say confidently that it is now obsolete for information providers to regard a "network" as a purely self contained technological entity within one's own organisation, in isolation from public access networking. Although the Internet's protocols and charges are debated within the data communications industry (for example, Lloyd, 1994; Hackett, 1994, Joseph, 1994; Cranswick, 1993; ASTEC, 1994), its role in public networking is assured by the remarkable growth it has achieved.
Types of connections to AARNet and the Internet may be classified in a number of ways, for example according to the user's context, which may be:
Home users generally are confined to telephone line and modem connections to a local or regional host. It is desirable but not essential that the host be in the same telephone district, because local calls at present are not subject to connect time charges. The network connected host computer may be a university host, or a host run by a private provider of network access, such as Dialix, connect.com.au, Oz-E-Mail, Pegasus, Australian Public Access Networks Association (APANA), or others. The host need not be local, if the provider installs facilities to place the user's traffic on AARNet for transport to a remote host. For example, in some centres the ADEnet Project provides local call access to an AARNet connected terminal server for distance education students, and substitutes AARNet for Telecom's Austpac or STD as the long distance carrier of traffic to a remote host (Atkinson & Castro, 1991; Atkinson, 1992b; Atkinson, 1993c).
Large centre connections to the network and network trunk routes are matters tended by specialists in network installation and management at universities and network affiliate members of AARNet. Typically these are based upon local area networks ("LANs") with Ethernet and TCP/IP protocols extended to individual desktops (Atkinson, 1992a). If these staff are doing their jobs well (as is almost always the case with AARNet members), developers for educational and community purposes can get on with the opportunity without having to create the infrastructure for network connections. If anything, the present day pressures are more typically in the form, "We (the 'network professionals') have given you this new medium, get on with your part of the job, delivering new and improved services to your students and clients", or "Gap between the technologies and end users? Your problem, ... mate".
Solutions for network access from small and medium centres, or small offices, local libraries, telecentres and school classrooms occupy a wide spectrum between the home user's telephone line and modem connection, and large centre connections (for example, Le Roux, 1994; Le Roux, 1993; Salamone, 1994). Although technical solutions are available, or may be provided by a number of small businesses which offer Internet networking consultancies, extension into these areas will require a greater input from universities and governments to achieve a reasonable parity of access. Anderson (1993) in Victoria has proposed that Australian public libraries adopt an Internet access role, following examples from the US public library system, but the support of state and local governments as owners of public libraries would be required.
Whilst developers of services need not have "network access" as a central concern, in some circumstances greater attention may be warranted. For example, developers in local telecentres or regional colleges of TAFE may have to extend their efforts into providing network access if there is no other local provider. This applies particularly to the many small centres of population outside Australia's capitals and major regional cities (Atkinson, 1993b). Another area of difficulty, referred to above, is obtaining one's own access to the network in order to develop and conduct the kinds of demonstrations which usually are required to convince a conservative management that a high priority should be accorded to network access for the organisation.
One aspect of activities with cleo.murdoch.edu.au, the network host I manage at Murdoch University, is providing access to the network to persons who otherwise would have to wait some time for their own organisations to provide access. In addition to over 350 student and ADEnet users, cleo carries nearly 100 "community users", drawn mainly from WA State Government agencies, State and private schools in Murdoch's "south of the river" region of Perth, and from some professional and industry link areas that the University wishes to encourage as key specialisations. Community users have free access via modem and receive the same services and user supports as are extended to students and staff, for the period of time expected to be needed for them to "migrate" to their own organisational connection to AARNet and the Internet. For example, one "community" group hosted by cleo is "law librarians", representing most of the large law firms and court libraries in Perth.
With modern software for communications and further investment in the infrastructure for Internet communications, the gap between on campus users and off campus dialup users is narrowing, in access to connections (Atkinson et al, 1993) and in ease of use factors (Atkinson, 1993b; Rehn, 1994; Rehn & Atkinson, 1994).
An important kind of structuring is represented by network information retrieval tools, which have evolved very rapidly on the Internet in the last few years as libraries have seized the opportunities afforded by the capacity to transport whole books across the Internet (Wainwright, 1993). The most prominent retrieval tools, gopher and World Wide Web, employ client - server designs, and are "layered" upon Internet basic services. For example, gopher client software running on the user's Macintosh or Windows PC or Unix host interacts with a host running gopher server software, by requesting the server to obtain and deliver a file by anonymous ftp (Internet file transfer protocol). The file may come from the server's disk or from any anonymous ftp host anywhere on the Internet.
Figure 1. Using Turbogopher, a Macintosh client for gopher servers, to access an instruction file from E Law, Murdoch University's first electronic journal. This screen picture illustrates the "Save as text" command which enables users to write copies to their own disks via TCP/IP protocols.
The user finds the desired information by means of a structured search path (Figure 1), relating to the user's understanding of the subject area and not requiring a knowledge of ftp commands or the physical locations and directory paths involved. Users may issue instructions (Figure 1) such as "Save as text file". For users who do not have an Internet Protocol capable desktop computer, the gopher client for a Unix host provides a reasonably "user friendly" and similarly structured search path in a VT100 emulation. Recent versions of the gopher client for Unix include commands such as "Choose a download method" to accommodate users of modem connections to the host (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Using a gopher client for Unix to access the article shown in Figure 1. This screen picture illustrates the command to download a file to the user's disk, via any one of the popular protocols for modem users. The terminal emulation is VT100.
Induction of new users requires a structured approach to overcome the common limitation of shortage of staff for user support and for promotion of network services. With the host cleo.murdoch.edu.au we are introducing a number of measures adapted for the context of distance education and open learning, connections almost entirely by modem calls, and cleo's role as a general purpose host for student access to network services:
Asking experienced users to help new users is a trial which constitutes one component of our work on a 1994 CAUT grant for the project "Collaborative learning through computer conferencing". Preliminary results will be available later this year. We expect that "eff_one@cleo" answered by students will take over gradually from "userhelp@cleo", which is answered by staff. If we do not achieve this transition, expansion of the user base, now nearly 450, will be severely restricted by excessive workloads in providing user support. Cleo is the first Murdoch University host to offer accounts which are for students enrolled in any course, are not deleted at the end of each semester, and give surnames or close approximations to surnames for login names instead of student ID numbers. This liberal approach has attracted many enthusiastic and capable undergraduate users who are prepared to do some "community service" in return for their first full access to network services. Their collective experience covers solutions to a much wider range of user software and hardware problems than is attainable by the staff who operate cleo.
The approach to structuring network services for cleo users is essentially a facilitation of standard Internet services and interfaces. Except for some aspects of the list eff_one@cleo which are for localised user support, the role for cleo is to be a general gateway into Internet style services. We have not adopted a "bulletin board" interface to structure services and potentially limit Internet access, as has been done elsewhere, for example in Edith Cowan University's "Virtual Campus" interface and others such as Deakin University and Monash Gippsland Campus. Apart from the high costs involved in such work, we took the view that broader educational and community purposes would be served better by designing for an "Internet interface", using email, gopher, WWW, listserver and other widely used standard tools.
It is also a good point for initiating discussion on why Australia's federal and state governments are so slow over adopting the Internet into their thinking about national and regional infrastructures. The address "firstname.lastname@example.org" symbolises the way the US federal and state governments have adopted the Internet as the public and educational networking component of the "information superhighway". Why doesn't Australia have a counterpart email address "email@example.com" and comparable initiatives for a "National Information Infrastructure"? There is no clear answer to that question, although quite a number of committees and consultants have made recommendations to governments (for example, ASTEC, 1994, and the lists cited by Atkinson, 1993a; 1993b).
One major gap among the many gaps in Australian federal and state government approaches to networking could be filled quite readily. This is in the area of funding for projects which establish new infrastructure, new providers or new services on the Internet. There is no shortage of good proposals serving educational and community purposes (I've tried hard, to no avail: Atkinson, 1993d; Atkinson et al, 1993). However, the principal agent in this area, the Federal Department of Employment, Education and Training, appears to have lost interest in the "grants and projects" approach to developing key aspects of national infrastructure and has adopted "consultancies and tenders" as its strategy (Atkinson, 1993a).
Under these conditions, the work of relating computer communications technologies to educational and community purposes will have to proceed patiently along the course of small scale case studies, scraping along with "no additional resources" (my co-workers on project cleo are employed on "soft money" which runs out at the end of 1994). Supporters from the community users of cleo are contributing some funds to expand the University's modem pool, and this is likely to become a mandatory trend, not just in the specific area of cleo's activities but very generally in educational and community services from universities and colleges. Conflicts over whether "we taxpayers have paid in advance for these services" will escalate. At least a good row over who pays is an excellent stimulant for user participation in network communications. Fortunately, the host I manage has acquired a second disk rated at 1.4 GB formatted capacity (for less than $2 per megabyte, cheaper than floppies!), and cleo's /usr/spool/mail, /pub, /Lists and other directories will be able to accommodate for another year or two the most attractive aspect of the Internet, which is that every user has a say about anything and everything, anytime, everywhere.
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|Author: Dr Roger Atkinson, Senior Lecturer in Educational Technology|
Academic Services Unit, Murdoch University, Murdoch, WA 6150, Australia.
Phone 08 9360 6840 Fax 08 9310 4929 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please cite as: Atkinson, R. (1994). Relating computer communications technologies to educational and community purposes. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94, 1-8. Canberra: AJET Publications. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/edtech94/ak/atkinson.html