Web Based Distance Learning in Educational Organizations

**The most recent version of this article is available at http://horizon.unc.edu/ts/default.asp?show=article&id=916 **

go to previous version

Go to new critical review


The Gartner Group has predicted that "By 2001, more than 75% of traditional colleges and universities will use distance-learning technologies and techniques in one or more `traditional' academic programs" (Zastrocky, 1997). The evidence suggests that we should not be questioning if the transition should take place, but rather what form will this take?

Education and training is the domain where distributed multimedia applications are of great importance. Distributed multimedia applications can facilitate student teacher interaction in terms of conferencing as well as multimedia educational material. Distance learning programs facilitate teaching and learning activities when teachers and students cannot meet at the same place or possibly at the same time. Multimedia is the drawing together of media-rich technologies, which are synthesised into a whole, to create a stimulating means of communication. Distributed multimedia is where the multimedia must traverse a computer network. In this paper, we describe some methods by which distributed multimedia is being introduced into education. 

Web-based Multimedia

Internet or Web-based training has certain advantages that may be suitable for a particular organisation. Web-based training can be accessed by trainees at any location convenient to them. Maintenance of Web-based training programs is simplified as once changes are made on the web server, all trainees immediately access the updated or modified content automatically. Trainees also can specify the subject matter of interest and have it delivered right to their PC. Web Set-Top-Boxes also allow trainees to conduct a training program on a TV without requiring a PC (Dolence, Norris, 1995). The web however, is limited in the quality of the video that it can transmit over the cable (Parr, Curran, 1999). An alternative to video for the Web is Illustrated Audio (IA). In IA, an audio narration is used to explain concepts that are complemented with Graphics (Curran, Parr, 2000).

The University of Ulster’s Internet Technology Group has developed a web based collaborative system – Helpmate (Curran, Devine, 2000), which enables students to work through lab based tutorials with access to a lecturer at a remote location through a web cam, email and a chat room applet. The student also has access to other students through the chat room applet and can browse through the history to check whether questions have been previously answered. Remote control software allows the lecturer to take control of the students machine in order to trouble-shoot problems      

Helpmate does not so much create a new tool but rather intelligently packages an existing set of  communication tools in a user-friendly manner. These tools basically provide access through various media to a lecturer. It also makes attempts to utilise fully the existing knowledge base of the other students through the chat room history and allowing other students to respond to problems.

The basic design of Helpmate is a web page divided into four frames as in Figure 1 . The four frames each contain a communication tool such as: Email/Remote Control Software, Web Publishing, Web Cam and Chat Room. (A commercial company has taken over the project at present and is integrating a whiteboard and a foreign language translator into the product).


Figure 1 : Helpmate - An online Collaboration Environment

A typical session may be where a student logs onto the Helpmate page. They can then use Helpmate in a variety of ways.

·         They can work through the online lesson requesting help;

·         They can email the lecturer about a problem;

·         They can receive help from their friends through the chat room;

·         They can let the lecturer login to their machine, take control of it & attempt to solve problems;

·         They can communicate using the web cam;

·         They can use the whiteboard tool to illustrate ideas when collaborating with others;

Basically, all the lab tutorial notes for the networks module are stored in a common class directory. The students have been given this web page address at the start of term and told to work from these notes for the semester. They are introduced to the web cam and chat board in the first session. They are encouraged to use the facilities when problems arise. The lecturer must be logged on too during the session for the full service to be in operation.

Findings from a Distance Media Toolkit - Helpmate

The absence of adequate keyboarding skills exacerbated the difficulties of email/chat discussions for some, however we found that students had no problem with the concept of chat rooms and quite frequently answered problems posed by their peers.  The overall tendency was for students to use the chat room for communications which were more specifically about that particular tutorial, while email was used for more general course queries that arose during the tutorial. 8% of students found the helpmate environment a distraction and preferred to work from the alternative ‘plain’ html lab tutorial page  whenever they felt under pressure to complete a lab session.

Students felt a range of skills were developed as a result of the project. These included chat room and video conferencing (78%), clearer graphic communication (32%) and patience (12%). Selected results of a survey are displayed in Table 1.


% Students

Found Email Useful


Did not feel information overload


Prefer this environment


Found Chat helpful


Found Video helpful


Amount of time spent learning tools worthwhile


Found experience enjoyable


Felt part of a group


Felt that group collaboration enabled higher quality lab sessions



Table 1 : Student Evaluation Results

A Glimpse of the Future

Wireless WANS

Wireless Wide Area Networks (WWANs), are the wave of the future. Companies such as Waverider, lucent, and Ionic are rolling out wireless wide area networks worldwide at a fraction of the costs involved previously to the remotest places on earth. Think of a wireless WAN as a high-speed cellular telephone grid - but one where you can also be mobile within each grid and across grids.

One such organisation that has taken advantage of Wireless WANs to provide links to remote schools is the 2B1 Foundation, in cooperation with the Fundación Omar Dengo in Costa Rica. Costa Rica is one of the few nations to seriously embrace computers in primary education; one-room rural schools make up 40 percent of the country's primary schools, serving nearly a tenth of the K-6 population (Negroponte, 1998)

In the next five years, Wireless WANs will thus change the balance of access. With very low cost computers and some boldness in education policy, it will be possible to touch the lives of all children, including those in the poorest and most remote regions of the world. The right step to take now is to use whatever means necessary to reach as many one-room rural schools as possible - to learn today about learning tomorrow. These apparently forgotten schools, paradoxically, may provide the best clues for real change in education.

Enriched Multimedia Content

A group of scientists from China published in Nature magazine the results of archaeological digs at a Neolithic site in the Henan Province of China. The site they uncovered was occupied in 7000 to 5700 BC. The highlight of their excavation was the discovery of 6 flutes made from the leg bones of birds. Each flute had between 5 to 8 holes (Sikorski 1999). The flutes were so well preserved that they could actually be played. Not only that, but the scientific paper reporting their discovery also included downloadable sound files of someone playing these ancient instruments. It is an exciting feeling that connects you to an ancient culture in a way that has never been done before in a scientific paper - sound.  One could argue that the journal article would not be complete today without the sound files. Obviously though, this is just the beginning of the use of multimedia in scientific and medical communications.  

Other Work

The Java-Enabled TeleCollaboration System (JETS) is a collaboration system designed for real-time sharing of Java applets (Shirmohammadi, Oliviera, Georganas, 1998). Using any Java-enabled Web browser, multiple users in a telecollaboration session are able to share generic applications in the form of Java applets. JETS is aimed at the sharing of applications rather than the presentation of a tutorial and access in real-time to help in various forms. JETS provides a shared white-board which could be used for requesting help although it was not designed for this purpose.

Web Course Tools (WebCT) (WebCT, 2000) and Blackboard are software for the management of World Wide Web-based (WWW) educational environments. Both of these packages can be used to create entire online courses, or to simply publish materials that supplement existing courses. WebCT and Blackboard provide the bulletin boards, online chat, online quizzes, calendar, self-evaluation, threaded discussions, synchronous communication (real-time chat and whiteboard), assessment tools, and collaborative work groups. WebCT and Blackboard are a ‘total’ solution which can aid greatly in the presentation and management of online course material.

RC (Remote Collaboration) is a tool created at the University of California, Davis, to enhance interaction between humans using Internet connectivity (Blake, 2000). It combines a number of features such as chat; annotatable images; sound messages compressed for transmission; shared viewing of web pages and a collaborative writing tool. RC is in general use each day at Davis to teach particular courses.


Educational organisations have only scratched the surface in utilising multimedia in true online teaching. As the price of hardware continues to decrease, and organisations are able to upgrade, educators will be able to integrate multimedia extensively within their courses. This paper outlined some of the aspects of distributed multimedia in the changing educational environment. We have only touched upon many of the areas and the reader should refer to the references for a more in-depth review of this fascinating technology.


Blake, Robert. RC – Remote Collaboration - computer mediated communication.  University of California, Davis. Language Learning & Technology, Vol. 4, No. 1, May 2000, pp. 120-136

Curran, K., & Devine, B. (1 May, 2000). Helpmate: A Multimedia Web Teaching Framework. First Monday - peer reviewed journal on the Internet.Volume 5, Number 5.

Curran, K., & Parr, G. 'A Paradigm Shift In The Distribution Of Multimedia'. Communications Of The ACM. (To appear in 2000) © Association for Computing Machinery.

Dolence, M. & Norris, D. (1995). Transforming higher education: A Vision for learning in the 21st century. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Society for College and University Planning.

Negroponte, N. (September 1998). One-Room Rural Schools. Wired Magazine.

Parr, G., & Curran, K. (1999). Multiple Multicast Groups For Multimedia On The Internet. Information & Software Technology. Vol 41, pp 91-99. © Copyright Elsevier Science  

Shirmohammadi, S., Oliveira, J.C.  and Georganas, N.D. (1998) Applet-Based Telecollaboration: A Network-centric Approach. IEEE Multimedia Magazine 5 (2), April-June 1998, pp. 64-73.

Sikorski, R. (23 September 1999). Back to the Future. Mednav (http://mednav.com/). 

WebCT - WebCT Clear Leader in Online Learning Programs. The Chronicle of Higher Education,  Nashville, TN, pp. 34, October 11, 2000.

Zastrocky, M. (1997). "Higher education and technology: A Vision for the 21st century," Proceedings of CAUSE in Australia Conference.

Critical Reviews

Critic V

As the reviewers have stated in the earlier version of "Web Based Distance Learning in Educational Organizations," the author is trying to develop too many ideas in a single article. This paper is not publishable in its present form. The authors need to focus on and develop one of the following article ideas:

  1. A case study on Helpmate, An Online Collaboration Environment, from The University of Ulsters Internet Technology Group.
  1. A vision article on Wireless WANs, expanding on the ideas presented in the following sentences: "Wireless Wide Area Networks (WWANs), are the wave of the future. Companies such as Waverider, lucent, and Ionic are rolling out wireless wide area networks worldwide at a fraction of the costs involved previously to the remotest places on earth. Think of a wireless WAN as a high-speed cellular telephone grid - but one where you can also be mobile within each grid and across grids.
  1. A tools(?) article comparing and contrasting WebCT, Blackboard, and other comprehensive instructional management environments.