|Internet based delivery of vocational education and training requires development of new kinds of infrastructures and services. What are these services? What's the best way to obtain them? This article reviews the specialised requirements for college and industry based online courses, with particular reference to "in house" and "outsourced" access to world wide web course servers.|
Online learning has special attractions for work place based training and corporate training. Often an organisation has well developed local and wide area network communications for purposes of its business operations. In such cases online learning may offer good economies and high effectiveness with respect to use of existing workstations, servers and network equipment, whilst existing online documentation may provide reference material for training programs.
However, online learning and Internet based delivery require the development of, or access to, new kinds of infrastructures and services. What are these services? What's the best way to obtain them? This presentation considers these questions, using some Australian and international examples to illustrate the major kinds of options for organisations and businesses.
The popularity and extraordinary growth of the world wide web is one of the principal factors generating interest in online learning, to the extent that "web delivery" or "Internet delivery" are almost synonymous with online learning. However, there are other important associations for online learning. For computer assisted learning, computer managed learning, interactive multimedia, or any use of computers in teaching and learning, the world wide web provides a remarkably effective way to present and manage a student's interactions with computer based resources. For flexible delivery, open learning and distance education, online learning via the web offers a new medium with special capacity for enhancement of communications and improved access to text and multimedia resources, among other features.
Depending upon the context and circumstances, access to a personal computer and the Internet may be provided by the individual student, or by the student's employer or organisation. "Mixed" provisions are common, for example a college may provide on campus laboratories, or an employee may use his or her workstation, whilst home based modem access via a third party Internet Service Provider (ISP) is an optional extra funded by the student . User support and help desk services for students may be an area of ambiguous division between different kinds of staff in a college or business organisation or an ISP or even the computer dealer from which the hardware was purchased. Weaknesses in the area of user support and help desk services may require attention. If a student's access is poor or non-functional, the student cannot participate in the learning activities [2, 3].
Services for online learning, ranging from curriculum development to delivery support, are in most cases built upon existing resources. These may include curriculum development for existing courses, existing materials such as printed manuals or study guides, expertise in instructional designs for self paced study, flexible delivery, etc, and production capabilities in graphics and other media. Usually these kinds of resources are relatively well developed in Australia's colleges of technical and further education ("TAFE"), but for industry based training, "outsourcing" to obtain the resources for these kinds of services is more likely to occur. This may tend to be associated with "outsourcing" to fulfil the technical infrastructure requirement for a web course server, as discussed below.
The re-assuring features about infrastructure and services requirements are that an organisation may have much of it in place already, there are a range of options for covering any gaps which may occur, and as discussed further below, there is plenty of scope for low cost, low risk trials and pilots. The disconcerting feature is that, like a chain, a system of infrastructure and services is only as strong as its weakest link. Trialing, piloting, testing, evaluating and modifying are vital parts of the routine for online course developers.
Kaplan  summarises developments towards a web course server:
There are basically two choices when it comes to software for developing Web courses: (1) component, off-the-shelf software that allows for the creation of audio slide lectures, course materials, discussion forums, animations, synchronous chat groups, quiz creators, e-mail, and so forth, or (2) integrated packages that contain a number of the same features but are lacking in other significant areas.Typically, further development then diverges - some institutions have continued to develop their own "in house" web course server, whilst others have changed over to a purchased, "off the shelf" integrated product. For example, here is a brief listing of current directions for some Australian TAFE authorities and universities, to indicate that diversity is the trend [7, 8]:
|In house||TAFE||NSW, Victoria, Queensland|
|Universities||New South Wales, Griffith, Edith Cowan, Deakin|
|Purchased||TAFE||South Australia (WebCT), Western Australia (WebCT or TopClass), Swinburne (The Learning Manager), Canberra Inst Technology (TechWorks)|
|Universities||Murdoch (WebCT), Curtain (WebCT), U Technology Sydney (Top Class), Flinders (WebCT), New England (WebCT), Canberra (WebCT), U Western Sydney Nepean (TopClass)|
A large number of "off the shelf" integrated products are available . In most cases the producers facilitate low cost, low risk experiments, by permitting free download of demonstration copies for "no obligation", "try before you buy" installations on an organisation's own server. This kind of service, and attractive prices, may be the most critical factor, together with shortages of specialised programmers, in tipping the balance towards purchase instead of in house development, especially for organisations with small to medium sized information technology services units.
Typically, these products are under continuous development, including incorporation of any new feature or improvements implemented by their competitors. Therefore, differentiations between products, in the sense of "which is the best choice", are not readily identifiable. This leads to a re-assuring indication that the question of "which?" is not a critically significant matter. The more critical matters are likely to be skills, commitment and resources in the "people" areas of "going online". For this reason, case studies can be valuable for study, regardless of the specific package used .
TechWorks describes its relationships with customers such as Qantas, BHP, Centrelink, Air Services Australia (TechWorks, 1999) and a range of vocational training providers as "partnerships". As TechWorks manages the server and server applications for online training (the TechWorks Learning System), there is little impact on the day to day operations of IT personnel. An outsourced online learning system is represented as an opportunity to add value to and enhance productive use of corporate networks which are already in place. The production of online resources, involving a content specialist, writer, instructional designer, programmer and graphic designer, is supported by a TechWorks production team.
More generally, a very wide range of interesting examples [7, 8] are available. Amongst publishers, Harcourt Brace WebCT enables free access to a WebCT site for new adopters of any Harcourt Brace College text. Web services include online multiple choice quizzes for specific text books. McGraw-Hill Learning Architecture offers "...a web-based learning system that combines trusted McGraw-Hill content with innovative Top Class software from WBT Systems." McGraw-Hill's site includes PageOut, providing web space and services which are free for adopters of McGraw-Hill texts.
Many of the world's large corporations are involved in online education and training for staff and customers, for example in information technology these include Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, etc. Some have "outsourced" delivery and other services to educational institutions or other partners, especially in cases where "certification" by the corporation is a highly marketable qualification.
 Atkinson, R. (1997a). Murdoch Online: Preparing an infrastructure for virtual campus operations. In What works and why. Proceedings ASCILITE'97, Curtin University, Perth, 7-10 December, pp42-47. http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/perth97/papers/Atkinson/Atkinson.html
 Atkinson, R. and Brown, A. (1997b). Online units: What infrastructure services are required? In R. Pospisil and L. Willcoxson (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p6-11. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/atkinson.html
 Kaplan, H.(1998). Building your own web course: The case for off-the-shelf component software. CAUSE/EFFECT, 21(4). http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/html/cem9849.html
 Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (1998). Online teaching: Implications for institutional and academic staff development. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (eds), Planning for Progress, Partnership and Profit. Proceedings EdTech'98. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology. http://www.ascilite.org.au/aset-archives/confs/edtech98/pubs/articles/pospisil.html
 Atkinson, R., Brown, A., Pospisil, R. and Rehn, G. (1998). So you want to put your course on the web? In B. Black and N. Stanley (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/atkinson-r.html
 trdev-aus: Online courses. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/trdev-aus/trdev_courses.html
 Online units: Australian examples. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/teach/guide/res/examples/aus-units.html
 Atkinson, R. (1999). Course server software for online teaching. http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/teach/guide/res/examples/course-servers.html
 TechWorks (1999). http://www.techworks.com.au/
 Keough, M. (1998). Successful models for enterprise vocational education: Distributed learning strategies. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (eds), Planning for Progress, Partnership and Profit. Proceedings EdTech'98. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology. http://www.ascilite.org.au/aset-archives/confs/edtech98/pubs/articles/keough.html
 The Training Precinct (1999). http://www.ttp.com.au/
 Harcourt Brace WebCT (1999). http://www.hbcollege.com/webct/
 McGraw-Hill Learning Architecture (1999). http://www.mhla.net/
 Microsoft Training and Certification. http://www.microsoft.com/train_cert/
 Sun Microsystems. http://www.sun.com.au/services/education/education.html
 Cisco Systems Training. http://www.cisco.com/public/Training_root.shtml
 Microsoft Authorised Academic Training Program. http://www.microsoft.com/australia/training/aatp/
 Australian National Training Authority (ANTA). http://www.anta.gov.au/
(More are listed under http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/gen/trdev-aus/trdev_sites_aus.html)
 Wodonga Institute of TAFE (1998). Online Writing. http://www.wodonga.tafe.edu.au/online/onlinew/index_ow.htm
 Wellington Polytechnic. Teaching Techniques for Adult Learning. http://www.wnp.ac.nz/onlinec/introcer/alpha/map.htm
|Author: Dr Roger Atkinson, Teaching and Learning Centre, Murdoch University, Murdoch WA 6150 Australia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: +61 8 9360 6840 Fax: +61 8 9310 4929|
[current June 2009: Email: email@example.com Website: http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/ Tel +61 8 9367 1133]
Please cite as: Atkinson, R. (1999). Going online: Infrastructures and services for Internet delivered vocational education. In Researching Vocational Education and Training, Proceedings Third International Conference, Bolton Institute, UK, 14-16 July. http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/000001047.htm
[also at http://www.roger-atkinson.id.au/pubs/manchester99/atkinson.html]