Conferencing on the World Wide Web

Research on Applicable Software for the
Canada - EU Exchange Programme
Virtual Seminar and Internet Simulation
Michael W. F. Harvey
07/10/97

 

Contents



 

Introduction

The stated objectives of The Canada - European Community Programme for Cooperation in Higher Education and Training are "to foster durable cooperation and exchanges among a consortium of Canadian and European Union universities, promoting mobility of students and academic staff, and at the same time, considering whether the use of new teaching technologies can increase the effectiveness of such exchanges". To this end there are six principal components of the programme: 1) the physical exchange of students, 2) the physical exchange of faculty, 3) participation in Internet simulations of EU and Canadian decision-making, 4) establishment of a virtual seminar, 5) development of appropriate curriculum materials, 6) evaluation of the desirability of combining exchanges with new teaching technologies as a device to enhance the utility of both.

This report details the research done to find appropriate software to conduct the virtual seminars and the Internet simulations. It also contains the recommendations for choosing the software and a preliminary estimate of the resources needed to implement these two components of the programme.

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Web-Based Conferencing - An Overview

The term "web-based conferencing" tends to be a bit misleading. It may imply that there is a capacity for video and sound to be transferred between users. It also may imply that real-time discussion, or "chatting" may be available. In fact most programs falling under the aegis of "web-based conferencing", as it is currently used, do not have this capability. The defining feature of these programs is that users are able to read text messages in a forum and add messages to that forum. The programs are differentiated by the organization of these messages and the process of accessing them, posting them, and managing them.

The simplest form of internet conferencing is an email listserve. In this format email is sent to a central location and automatically redistributed to all other participants. There is next to no organization and very little capacity for moderator intervention. A listserve is not web-based.

Usenet newsgroups can use the "news reader" function of a web browser for access. These are the next simplest form of internet conferencing. There is no capacity for moderator control and very little organization.

Of the actual web-based conferencing programs, there are two types. The first is known as a tree structure. In a tree structured list there is a top level list of active discussions. Each message in the discussion is followed by a list of replies to that message. Thus, in a tree structure messages are independent and sorted by subject.

The second type is the star structure. The star structure also has a top page of active topics, but within these the discussions are broken down into sub-topics. Inside the sub-topics there is a stream of messages in order of response. Thus, in the star structure messages are not independent and are sorted chronologically.

The difference between the tree structure and the star structure is very important. The tree structure focuses on the importance of each individual message, and the importance of the related replies. The star structure, on the other hand, provides a "real-life" feel to it, as the emphasis is placed on the discussion as opposed to individual messages. In a star structure discussion the messages are presented in a continuous stream on one page. In a tree structure the messages are presented in a list and each exist on separate pages. The advantage of a streamed discussion is that all messages can be viewed at the same time. On the other hand the advantage of the tree structure is that the reader can pick and choose messages to read.

Different programs have different levels of moderator intervention. In some this is limited. In others the moderator has an account that is more powerful than the regular users. He/she is able to control who has access to the messages and/or who can post them. Also he/she can create, edit or remove topics, subtopics, or individual messages.

Web-conferencing programs also differ in the tools that are used for the interface of the web site where the conference is taking place, and the various tools that are available to the moderator and the user. Such tools include bilateral email between participants, text formatting, hypertext links, graphic capability, etc.

In choosing web-conferencing software one must first decide what requirements are and look for a program that meets them. This is opposed to simply getting the most advanced software available. A rule of thumb is that the more advanced the program is, the harder it is to use.

For more information see LaLiberte and Woolley (Appendix A)

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Requirements

The requirements for the virtual seminar are similar to those for the simulation but have a few important differences. For example, with the virtual seminar the format will be a group discussion at all times. On the other hand the simulation will require the capacity for multi-lateral and bi-lateral discussions. It makes sense that the two components use the same program, but the program must be flexible enough to accommodate the needs of the simulation while simple enough to use with the virtual seminar. The requirements that were looked for in the software reviewed were: Top
 

Programs Reviewed

The programs that may be suitable for our needs are:  

1. Ceilidh

This program (pronounced kay-lee) is free and very simple to use. It uses a tree structure of discussion.

Advantages:

Disadvantages: Summary:

While this program is very easy to use, for both moderator and end-user, the tree structure is not the most appropriate for our needs. Flexibility for both user and student is not as great as it could be.

The Ceilidh User's Guide is attached in the Appendix B. It can also be seen at Ceilidh Homepage where an example is available.
 
Programs Reviewed Contents
 

2. W3 Interactive Talk

This freeware program is not yet quite ready for release. Information on it is limited and an example of it does not exist. The structure is three leveled. At the top level the moderator creates "discussion areas". Within these the users can create topics. Within each topics are messages and proposals, also created by users. Proposals are akin to resolutions in that they are statements up for discussion.

Advantages:

Disadvantages: Summary:

Depending on how this turns out, this may be an option for the future, but there is too little information available on it yet. You can visit the W3 Interactive Talk Home Page
 
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3. Discus

This is another freeware program. It is a star structured program that was originally set up to be used by chemistry classes at Hope College (specific location unknown). It claims to be "a cross between a threaded discussion board and a listserve email system". This program gives the moderators quite a lot of capacity to control all of the activities of the discussion. The structure has a top page with a list of discussions. In each discussion there are lists of sub-topics. In each sub-topic there are streamed messages. The interface is framed and the user has constant access to things like a glossary, a list of instructions, and a table of contents. There is a certain capacity for text formatting and there is also a graphics capability. Instructions for both are omni-present and simple.

Advantages:

Disadvantages: Summary:

This program seems too good to be free. Although it is complicated to set up in the first instance, it seems very easy to use after that. While the moderator must be extensively involved this has advantages. Problems with computer familiarity and HTML ability of the moderator can be circumvented by hiring a student who is familiar with this. The interface is very good and the capability for text formatting, graphics, and bi-lateral email is very nice.

You can visit the Discus Homepage. Examples are given.

Programs Reviewed Contents
 

4. WebCT

WebCT is currently in the process of "beta-testing". Its developers at the University of British Columbia expect it to be ready in August of 1997. It is not free, but does have greater capabilities than all of the programs above. Furthermore, once a licence for WebCT is bought for the server it can be used to host any number of "courses". WebCT was specifically designed to conduct courses over the World Wide Web. Memorial does not currently have a licence for WebCT, but it is considering obtaining one to be used for a number of courses once the product is released.

There are four types of users in WebCT:

WebCT has any number of tools, which can be customized for each course: Advantages: Disadvantages: Summary:

While this program is very powerful, and can do almost whatever we want it to do, it may be more than we need. Furthermore we would have to pay for it. The cost of it is detailed in Appendix B. On the other hand, if Memorial was to purchase a licence for it then it might make sense to use it at that time. It is not perfect for our needs, mainly because the conferencing tools are tree structured. Still, if problems of cost and complexity were overcome and economies of scale were realized by using the program for many courses within the University then this would be a small inconvenience. Furthermore, if we started with WebCT it would be relatively simple to expand the scope of the programme.

You can view the WebCT Home Page

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5. Alta Vista Forum

This program is developed by Digital the same company that developed the Alta Vista search engine that you find on your browser. It is different than any of the above programs in that it does not seem to have been developed with educational applications in mind. Instead this program creates a "summit", which acts as a virtual office building of sorts. Like WebCT many different forums (courses) can exist within one office building.

There are three types of users: an administrator (one central), moderator (one per forum created by administrator), and student (many per forum, created by a process of registration).

A user would access the summit vista page. This is the top-level table of contents for all the resources availiable to users. From there he/she can register. Depending upon how it is set up registration can either be initiated by the user (meaning that anyone can do it, but the administrator will know who had registered) or else the moderator will register all intended users. Once registered the user would log in. This brings him/her to a "My Vista" page which has been automatically created for them.

The resources that the user can access are:

Discussion Forums can be either star structured or tree structured, a feature that is unique among programs reviewed. Within each forum there are a number of topics. These can be created by anyone. Inside of the topics exists either the tree structured or star structured discussions. You can changed from tree structured to star structued by selecting the appropriate button.

Document Forums are set up to share documents. They are arranged in a folder hierarchy. Inside each forum is a list of folders. Each folder can contain subfolders and/or documents. Subfolders can contain their own subfolders. Documents can exist in a number of forms:

By default, only the person who created the document can modify it. On the other hand if a team has been set up then the individual who created the document can change the permissions to allow a team-member to modify it. More on teams later.
 

Newspapers are tools that allow a user to search for and display news articles from a variety of sources such as news feeds and web pages. There are three types of newspapers:

A newspaper consists of sections and topics. Sections are containers for topics. Topics define what news to display. When a newspaper is created, a section named Front Page is automatically created. You can add topics to the Front Page section, and you can add new sections with their own topics. Sections allow you to arrange your news topics into appropriate categories, such as Sports, Internet news, High tech stocks, and so on. Topics are created within each section. For example, in the sports section, you may have topics for soccer or baseball.

There are two main types of topics that you can add:

Keyword search topics use the AltaVista search engine to quickly extract relevant information from your news source(s) using keywords and optional logical expressions. URL topics are a convenient way to display links to other web pages or to display images (for example, a weather map).

Once a newspaper's sections and topics are defined, you can easily browse the news by clicking on a section name. The results of all keyword searches and URL links are displayed for all topics in the section.
 

Calendars: The AltaVista Forum provides a calendar tool that allows you to organize their daily/monthly schedules, request and track meetings and maintain a "to do" list. There are three types of calendars, Summit, Team and Personal (My Vista). Each calendar has similar functions and navigation. Calendars are of marginal importance for our application, although could be used.
 

Teams: The AltaVista Forum provides a special work area in which small teams (approximately 4 to 10 people) can work privately ona focused, often time-limited task. Team members operate in an environment where there is a high level of trust. (Team members can add and delete other members, add and delete each other's documents and discussion notes, change the team-page properties such as the page background, and so forth.) Membership on a team is often cross functional. For example, it could include all of the people who need to publish a marketing
brochure: a marketing person, a writer, an artist, a manager, a representative from the printing company, a product manager, and so forth. Once the task is complete, the team disbands and the team pages can be deleted. Any registered member of a summit can create a team. Members of a team are selected from the summit's registered users, and only team members can access the team area.

Advantages:

 Disadvantages Summary:

This is an extremely powerful program, but at this point there are still a number of unknowns. For example it is not clear if we would have to set up a seperate "summit vista" to isolate our operations from the rest of the operations at Memorial. There are also cost questions. Answers to these questions are forthcoming (i.e. next week) but if everything checks out, then it seems that this program is the most appropriate. You can check out an example at MUN:

http://www.mun.ca:8888/mun/dispatch.cgi
 

Programs Reviewed Contents

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Recommendations

Memorial's Department of Computing and Communication (C&C) has already decided to purchase WebCT and Alta Vista Forum for installation on its server. It is reluctant to install any other programs such as this, unless it is evident that neither of these two programs can perform the tasks that we need it to.

In my opinion, the most appropriate program, is Alta Vista Forum. It is complicated, but makes up for it with its power. Furthermore, the options for document sharing and team formation are very valuable, especially for the simulation. It has the added advantage of being already set up in the MUN server.  If the issues that are unclear at this point about the program can be resolved, then it would be our best choice.

On the other hand, if it is not able to do what we need it to (such as provide isolation from the rest of Memorial) then we have the option of going with either WebCT or Discus.

In my opinion, Discus would be preferable to WebCT. It has what we need for the implementation of the program, but not too much for it to be overly complicated. The Discus program could be set up and running in a very short period of time. If, however, C&C is very concerned about its server resources, then WebCT is probably an appropriate platform as well. Furthermore, while Discus is more appropriate at this time, developing a WebCT platform might be a better long term investment in the programme.

Pending a discussion with C&C early next week (Monday, July 14 or Tuesday, July 15) Alta Vista may be able to be up and running for initial testing the following week. Otherwise we can investigate the Discus or WebCT options. The process of research into this area is not complete, however. I will continue to research WebCT in case we have to go with this program.
 

Resources

Whatever platform is chosen, there would be some need for additional resources if it is to operate smoothly however:

A student to act as the designate of the faculty moderator. The designate will preferably not be a participant, with a working knowledge of both HTML and the European Union. He/she would be needed to work on this fairly consistently. The hours that this student would log would be greater than that of an 80 hour MUCEP position and the skills that he/she would be required to have would justify a greater wage-scale than that of a MUCEP position.

Enchanced Computer Hardware is necessary. While students could use the general computer facilities (such as the T-10 lab at Memorial) the moderator's designate would have to have access to a computer which is powerful enough to handle the web-page manipulation necessary. Currently the Department of Political Science has a 486 with 8M RAM, a P75 with 16M RAM and a P133 with 16M RAM. Each of these computers is in dire need of a larger hard drive. At present there is extremely high demand and this is expected to increase in the fall semester. Short of a new computer the P133 should be given a larger hard drive and perhaps 8 to 16M more RAM. It would be necessary to reserve blocks of time on this computer for the designate.
 
 

Appendix A: Related Literature

 

Appendix B: Documentation on Programs Reviewed

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