Internet access for schools via cleo.murdoch.edu.au

Roger Atkinson
Academic Services Unit, Murdoch University

Introduction

"Cleo" is a small Unix computer from Sun Microsystems, with 2.8 GB of disk, 24 MB of memory, and the Internet address cleo.murdoch.edu.au. When I initiated a project on "a host for external student email" in September 1992 within Murdoch University's External Studies Unit (now the Academic Services Unit), I had very little knowledge of how to manage a Unix host and its Internet connection. However, I felt that an opportunity had arisen, to develop a strong user base by providing Internet access via modem connections for external students, internal students, and community users. Users of cleo had to provide their own personal computer and modem and be fairly good at solving technical problems for themselves. Some were expected to contribute expertise in Unix, to help run cleo effectively.

Under these circumstances, the surest way to build a strong user base was to recruit users widely from a number of sectors, not confining ourselves just to external student users. Thus community use of cleo had an initial purpose relating to "viability of user base". This is a sufficient number of users to attract sustained attention to and use of computer mediated communications for education and information purposes.

Purposes of community access for schools

When cleo went live early in March 1993, the project plan provided for "a limited number of community users, perhaps about 20", where "community" meant users other than Murdoch University staff and students. By the end of 1994, "about 20" had become "about 250" including about 85 teachers. The student user base, projected at "about 100" had become "about 500". Our "limited experimental trial" created its own momentum, to become a substantial pilot project for dissemination of the Internet to new groups of users in Western Australia, and a major element in Murdoch University's community service profile.

Community access via cleo was never advertised, but its build up was favoured by informality in its administration, by providing it free, by introducing SLIP (described below), by developing attractive services, and by providing user support, albeit at a very modest level. Community access via cleo attracted users from a wide range of State Government agencies, including the Information Policy Unit and the Department of Commerce and Trade, from schools, and business and industry sectors relevant for Murdoch University's academic profile on the Internet.

School teachers, from both State Government and private sectors, from both secondary and primary levels, constitute the largest group within the community users, with about 85 active teacher users of cleo. We projected use of cleo as a "hands on" professional development activity giving teachers and their schools a very practical and economical basis for developing school based strategies for using the Internet. The principal condition of use is an expectation that users will promote the Internet and information technology within their schools. Users are asked to share with other teachers the information they gain, conduct demonstrations on network services and software tools, and initiate plans for using the Internet to enhance their school's teaching. We asked users to plan ahead for the time when they would obtain their own access via an organisational level Affiliate Membership of AARNet or a commercial provider of Internet access. Community access is intended to stimulate, not undercut the emerging new markets for Internet access.

However, teacher users were not asked to be formally accountable to the University, or to the Academic Services Unit, or to anyone in particular for their Internet access via cleo. Teachers were free to set their own goals and choose their own specialisations. Some have become prolific and thoughtful commentators on regional Internet issues, some have specialised in being information seekers, some are curriculum specialists, some have become expert in hardware and software matters, and some took a brief look and went no further. As this was a "self development" professional development activity and payments were not required during 1993-4, teachers did not need school or organisational level permissions or funding.

Community access to the Internet grew to become something broader than the initial purpose relating to "viability of user base". It accelerated enhancements in our technological infrastructure, facilitated the establishment of attractive new services, and is helping to develop a vision for Internet applications conducted by schools and State Government agencies in Western Australia.

Operating community access

Most of cleo's community users, whether from schools or other sectors, started their Internet access via on the basis of just one telephone call to me. During a typical call the new user gave contact details and an indication of previous experience and equipment availability, and received a login name, initial password and basic instruction in how to connect to cleo and read the new user's first email. The administration was informal, and daunting only in the technical aspect of getting to first base, which was reading your first email from me to obtain "survival advice" and the basic conditions of use statement. The transition to autonomous use of online information had to be made quickly, because project cleo did not have any formal allocation of staffing. However, follow up telephone call help was available, and we provided at no charge quite a number of individual and group induction sessions and demonstrations at Murdoch University, and occasionally at schools and other venues (eg, FISP, 1994; Ed-Net, 1994).

This approach provided a fast track for teachers who had some previous experience, or were ready to tackle a fast learning curve. The modem logs for cleo reveal remarkably high levels of unpaid, voluntary overtime by teacher users (although few of them would think of their work in such terms). My original notion was that community users would be daytime users of the modem pool, complementing student users who are mainly after hours users. Teacher users in particular upset that simple theory.

We did not provide login names for school students, though a number of young teenagers sought their own free access to the "mother of all bulletin boards" and were referred to private providers. We advised teacher users that classroom activities should be at a "demonstration level" only, avoiding a "production level" dependence upon cleo access, for example becoming committed to weekly or daily class routines. Under our circumstances and regional context, the more appropriate strategy was to aim for Internet dissemination to a larger number of schools, compared with a small number of intensively supported classroom level projects at a very small number of schools. Also, we needed time to upgrade our technological infrastructure, to find ways to increase the dissemination impact within the limits of no formal allocation of staffing for project cleo, to raise funds from sources other than University budget, and to gain internal recognition of cleo's contribution to the University's community service profile.

Technological infrastructure

With a few exceptions, student and community access to cleo is via modem calls only. This factor, together with the shortage of staff resources for user support, directed the initial buildup of cleo's user base mainly towards those persons with some previous experience in using a modem, serial communications software and Unix command line environments. By collaboration with a reasonably large initial group of relatively experienced users, we hoped to find a basis for improvements, in order to facilitate a future phase in which all new users of cleo would be inexperienced beginners, needing a graphical user interface for ease of use. We were also very conscious of the problems facing users who lived outside metropolitan Perth, incurring long distance telephone call charges for modem calls. We hoped that experience with Perth based users, who pay only one local call fee (currently 25 cents) per call with no connect time charge, would produce graphical user interfaces and techniques which remote users could adopt to minimise their long distance call charges.

The leading work on new interfaces for modem users was done by Geoff Rehn, who joined the Academic Services Unit in November 1992, initially to work on a National Priority Reserve Fund project. Geoff obtained and disseminated versions of the public domain email handlers Eudora for Macintosh, and NuPop for DOS and Windows, adapted for serial modem communications, and also worked on news reading utilities for modem users. The breakthrough in obtaining the highest standard of interface for modem users came in mid 1994, when Geoff installed "tia SLIP" on cleo, and prepared cleo's collection of files and scripts for both Windows and Macintosh users (Rehn, 1995). Tia ("The Internet Adaptor") is a server process running on cleo and giving users a SLIP (Serial Line Internet Protocol) interface, which enables their desktop Windows or Macintosh computers to exchange Internet packets with cleo, or via cleo with any Internet accessible service. Our host licence for tia SLIP cost only A$671, which was the only expenditure we made for applications software, all other items being Unix public domain from the Internet.

Thus cleo enables modem users to run a set of public domain Internet software tools which is essentially the same as that run by staff users of the University's Ethernet local area network, and by Unit staff for their office access to cleo using Internet Protocol capable Macintosh and Windows computers. All users, whether LAN and modem connected, can work with graphical interfaces for a range of services, including popular public domain software for the following:

Expansion of capacity to meet rising demand is an ongoing problem. A second disk rated at 1.6 GB was purchased in April 1994, to supplement cleo's first disk rated at 1.2 GB. At present modem pool capacity is very inadequate, following a University imposed restriction which cut cleo back from about 68% of the pool of 18 modems to just 6 modems. Rectifying the modem pool problem, and covering the new expense of international inbound traffic volume charges, is subject to University approval of my proposal for a modest level of user charges for cleo's student and community users. Additional staffing is not available, although cleo user support continues to obtain spinoff benefits from externally funded projects associated with project cleo.

Whilst the infrastructure for cleo operations has become over burdened, the positive perspective upon these problems is that we seem to have found ways to present attractive and popular Internet services built upon a threadbare level of resources. Learning how to do well with little is one of the most important "learning outcomes" from project cleo.

Another very positive perspective on the technological infrastructure for cleo is that there is nothing unique about it. The strategy for cleo is "standard Internet tools and services". This is applicable in similar ways in other contexts, such as in many of the larger schools, or in the small business sector which has emerged in Perth as retailers of Internet access.

Targeting attractive services

Attractive services attract users, encourage them to learn how to use the technology, and stimulate them to move beyond the "how to use it" level and into applications which relate directly to their professional work. Most of the community users of cleo subscribed to relevant emailing lists as a primary source of network information and peer group interaction. For teacher users of cleo, we recommended the Deakin University list itte@deakin.murdoch.edu.au (Information Technology and Teacher Education), conducted by Chris Bigum.

However, to provide the greatest stimulus within our region, we needed our own listserver. Modem users are particularly appreciative towards emailing lists because in most cases email is easier to use, compared with news group reading. An opportunity arose in May 1994 to use some grant funds for a consultant, Steve Hancock of WA Internet Information Services, to install the listserver majordomo@cleo.murdoch.edu.au. Cleo's majordomo listserver now supports lists for a number of purposes, including several relevant for discussion of issues in Internet access and use by schools.

The lists conducted by majordomo@cleo gave us a way to broaden the basis for community and teacher use of cleo, from being an initial provider of Internet access and experience, towards becoming a forum for discussion and information on Internet issues in our region. This is important as local small businesses have emerged to take up a major role in competitive new markets retailing Internet access. Several of these new proprietors were community users of cleo during the formative stages of their business plans and whilst awaiting the commissioning of their own hosts.

The list eff_one@cleo enables experienced users to provide technical support services for new users and for each other, in a collaborative learning manner. The name eff_one, conceived by ASU staff member Scott Smith, is derived from the wide use of "F1" as the help function key for DOS applications. Eff_one subscribers did most of the work in disseminating Geoff Rehn's implementation of tia SLIP for cleo users. I estimate that eff_one is equivalent to about one full time member of staff (for which I'm most grateful, cleo has no full time staff).

The list internetwa@cleo is a forum for discussion of regional and local issues concerning Internet users in Western Australia. It is provided mainly for organisations and community sectors in Western Australia at present lacking a high level of participation in the Internet. Although originally intended mainly for community users of cleo, about 60% of its 150 subscribers are users of hosts elsewhere in WA. The list asden@cleo, conducted by Scott Smith, provides the "Australian Schools Distance Education Network", and has attracted a national and international subscriber base.

The list echalk@cleo is our forum for teachers in Western Australia to discuss a wide range of school related Internet issues other than technical aspects of Internet use. Echalk's initial subscriber base was teacher users of cleo, now broadening to include many other teachers who are users of other hosts. The "chatter" on echalk and other lists provides a primary input into the strategies we suggest for Western Australian schools to optimise their use of the Internet.

    Date: Wed, 01 Mar 1995 20:22:16 +0800
    To: echalk@cleo.murdoch.edu.au
    From: gecas@cleo.murdoch.edu.au (Vic Gecas)
    Subject: Dirt Track Past Silver City
    Reply-To: echalk@cleo.murdoch.edu.au

    Hi there, it's been awhile...

Thus Vic Gecas started a memorable discussion on echalk (echalk, 1995), stirring it further under the subject line "The Son of Dirt Track II", a parody on the title of a well attended professional development day conducted in Perth (FISP, 1994). "Silver City" is recognisable in our local slang as the WA Department of Education headquarters building. List subscribers do enjoy a good "flame" close to their interests and work, and adding a vital extra dimension to the use of the technology. Sometimes this debate became light hearted:

    Finally if this 6PR [a radio station] chat line stuff is off the 
    mark, just press

         (A)bort, (R)etry, (P)retend this never happened....
though for the most part it centred upon substantial issues such as this:
    Professional Development for my peers to me is one of my more 
    important roles, and the resources and the few skills that I have, I 
    don't sell, I share. 
Who would control "Internet for schools in WA", and all the areas which interact with this issue, such as professional development, curriculum, technological infrastructure and others? Could the Internet accelerate a trend towards devolution of controls from the central authority to schools and teachers?

School based strategies for using the Internet

Community access for teachers met a particular need during 1993-94. In the State Government sector, the Ministry of Education (now the Department of Education) had no plans to become a provider of Internet access for teachers. Similarly, the private school sector in WA had no central provider or plans. Western Australia did not have any centrally organised initiative comparable to efforts in other States, for example the Australian Capital Territory's Education Information Network (Huston, 1994), or efforts in the USA (for example, ISN, 1994).

Teachers who wished to explore the Internet had to obtain their own access. Some teachers were users of school accounts with the South Australian Department of Education host "nexus.edu.au", though nexus had high connect time charges and a narrow range of Internet services. Others experimented at their own expense with the several private providers of Internet access in Perth available at the time. A few gained Internet access via university enrolments in graduate courses in education. Access via cleo, though providing for only a small number, became popular because there were relatively few alternatives at that time.

Echalk@cleo carried much discussion about school based strategies for using the Internet.

    Date: Wed, 8 Mar 95 19:11:42 WST
    To: echalk@cleo.murdoch.edu.au
    From: atkinson@cleo.murdoch.edu.au (Roger Atkinson)
    Subject: Re: Reply to dirt TrackII
    Reply-To: echalk@cleo.murdoch.edu.au

    >In addition I agree with your comments about under resourcing, we 
    >need to ensure that any Internet service made available to schools 
    >has the appropriate resources allocated to it. It has been my 
    >experience that the best time to lobby for resources is at the 
    >initiation stage (ie now). To be successful in this endeavour you 
    >must provide concrete examples of how the project in question is 
    >going to provide benefits to children. In addition it is useful (if 
    >not essential in this current climate) to point out where the cost 
    >savings are going to be so that the source of funds is clearly 
    >identified. ie "We will save $xxxxx from the ????? budget as a 
    >direct result of using the Internet and this money can now be freed 
    >for use in the Internet project"

    I think there are a number of ways to "save $xxxxx from the ????? 
    budget", and that angle must be a part of the Internet push. I would 
    like to see more attention to the Internet as a resource for 
    continuing professional education for teachers (and many other 
    sectors too), as a curriculum resource for teachers, as their on 
    line library, and as a medium for peer group contact. All of these 
    "provide benefits to children".

    In thinking about benefits, not every one of them has to be centred 
    directly upon the classroom, with a login name and password and 
    access for every child. The more benefits you can add, especially 
    the easier ones in terms of resources, training, etc, the better the 
    case for Internet in schools. I've often suggested that a logical 
    sequence for a school with average resources would be to work 
    through an initial phase which concentrates upon developing a 
    strategic plan. A small team of teacher users, covering between them 
    the range of issues, from hardware and software, to Internet access 
    provider options, to networked information technology issues and the 
    library, to staff training, to subject area explorations, and 
    finally to researching classroom based applications. Then a school 
    wide commitment to an Internet plan, integrated with all the other 
    plans one must have these days.

    After that (and only after that) is the scene set for a school to 
    implement some preliminary projects in classroom based applications. 
    This sequence fits in well with the notion of professional continuing 
    education being up front, even if it's only the modest "do it 
    yourself :-)" variety as provided to teacher users of cleo. It also 
    fits in with the notion that evolution of policy should be a dynamic 
    and contributory process with a good balance between the influence of 
    "them" and the influence of "us". Something for which the 'net is 
    uniquely suited.
In the email to echalk@cleo quoted above, I reiterated my suggestions about important stages in making a plan for your own school. Professional development, obtaining support from colleagues and your school, and working in alliance with library based applications are up front in the paths I propose, whilst classroom based applications and projects are further down the track.

Each stage may be used as an opportunity to define and refine the purposes of Internet access. Purposes need to be related to your own school and its context, and accordingly schools are likely to develop different plans to suit individual circumstances. Teachers and school policy makers need to prepare for objections to using the Internet, including concerns about security, fears about pornography, hackers, and criminal activities, questions about costs and equity issues, and questions about "who will arrange all this for us?". I believe that teams of teacher users within each school, with each person undertaking an appropriate specialisation, will provide the soundest basis for tackling these and many other issues in schools use of the Internet.

Internet futures for Western Australian schools

In discussing school plans for using the Internet, I give little accord to the role of the major central authority for WA schools, the State Government's Department of Education. This derives from an observation, that the WA Department of Education has no Internet "base". No connections to the Internet, no email, ftp, gopher, web or list servers, no provision of an access service for schools, no plans to internetwork its existing computer networks, no reference to the Internet in its publicly profiled development work such as the NFT ("Network Functional Trial"). However, this straight forward observation need not be the basis for an over critical attitude or invidious comparisons with other States and countries. Instead we should see the opportunities for a "school based" approach to set the pace and agenda, which could be a better way after all.

A schools based approach encourages the evolution of policy as a dynamic and contributory process, tapping into the great resources of experience which are accessible to the "hands on, learn from the net" practitioners. A schools based approach can draw upon the rapid emergence of Internet access retailers, which in Perth include iiNet, Highway1, Dialix, Ednet, Wantree, Multiline and others. In the current political climate, "outsourcing" of government services to the business sector is a popular direction. Interaction with the small business sector, and with university collaborators, can provide for faster progress. A schools based approach enables the classroom teachers to "possess" an innovation, a factor which is perhaps more important in the area of technological innovations than in any other area.

The schools based approach, though only beginning in WA, has some notable initial successes. City Beach Senior High School became the first WA school "on the net", with its web server and list "ekids" created by CBSHS teacher Cres Thursby-Pelham. WA's School for Isolated and Distance Education will soon commission its own Internet host.

Nevertheless, roles remain for a wide range of participants from the Federal Government, the State Government, the State's Department of Education, coordinating bodies for schools in the private sector, and from agencies concerned with the special case of rural and remote regions. As funding agencies, they must encourage innovations within a research and development paradigm which does not attempt to over specify the outcomes. As central authorities, they are in the best position to "bulk buy" in the competitive new retail and wholesale markets for Internet access, and to provide the "central pages" for the "online library" aspect of the Internet in our region.

Through cleo's community access program, we have learnt much about the ways by which an Internet infrastructure may be optimised. We are conducting a networked collaborative learning effort, not purporting to be the only way to disseminate the Internet in our region. From that perspective, I believe that access via cleo and the activities of cleo's teacher users have made a modest but thoroughly worthwhile contribution to an improved scenario for Internet in Western Australian schools.

References

echalk (1994). Listserver majordomo@cleo.murdoch.edu.au, archive files echalk.9504pt1 and echalk.9504pt2.

FISP (Flexibility in Schooling Project, Department of Education) (1994). Superhighway or goat track? Online services and the Internet. Professional Development Day for Teachers, by FISP and Academic Services Unit, at Murdoch University, 9 Dec 1994.

Ed-Net (1994). Hitchhiking on the information superhighway: Connecting, using and developing Internet. A seminar by Ed-Net Computer Services at Claremont Campus, Edith Cowan University, 2 Nov 1994.

Huston, Michele (1994). The Australian Capital Territory Education Information Network. ACTEIN Pilot Program Report, Nov 1994. Canberra: ACTEIN (Michele.Huston@anu.edu.au) (http://freenet.actein.edu.au/ or gopher://freenet.actein.edu.au/ )

ISN (Internet School Networking, User Services Area, Internet Engineering Task Force) (1994). Request for Comments: 1578. Answers to Commonly Asked "Primary and Secondary School Internet User" Questions. (FYI RFC 1578, July 15 1994 , rmuir@chs.cusd.claremont.edu)

Rehn, Geoff (1995). Playing with TCP/IP: having fun on the Internet! In R. Oliver and M. Wild (eds), Learning without limits. Proceedings of the Australian Computers in Education Conference 1995, Perth, 10-13 July, Vol.1, 237-246. Perth: ECAWA.


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