International Cooperation Among Institutions of Higher Learning:

An Example of IRC-Based Course Delivery

Gretchen C. Mathis

Polo didatico di ricerca di Crema, facolta' di informatica

In this article I chronicle the effectiveness of distance learning for teaching a course in Italian over the Internet. The course integrated Internet Relay Chat and other tools on UNIX computers, allowing a class to be held simultaneously across the world, with further activity via e-mail.

Since 1992, Maurizio Oliva has been teaching courses in Italian and in Internet Resources at the University of Utah. In the fall of 1992 he designed, in collaboration with Professor Gianni Degli Antoni of the Computer Science Department at the University of Milan, an Internet-based distance education course that focused on the use of emerging Internet resources. The course, conducted by Oliva, was taught from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and taken by Italian students at the University of Milan in Italy.

The purpose of the course, entitled "Risorse in rete per discipline umanistiche e scientifiche" ("Network Resources for the Humanities and the Sciences"), was to explore the tools and services made available by the Internet. All participants in the course had access to a UNIX account. The contents of the course included:

Thirty-nine undergraduate students from Milan, Italy, took part in this course. Also involved were two observers from the Computer Science Department of the University of Milan and one observer from the Instituto di Tecnologie Didattiche e Formative in Palermo, as well as observers in Bologna and Geneva. Fabio Palladini and Giuseppe Baschieri, with the Hypertext User Group (HUG) of the University of Milan, provided the technical support. Communication between the instructor and the HUG group took place in the form of private messages on Inernet Relay Chat (IRC), which is a multichannel multiuser, interactive, synchronous communication tool. This protocol is based on a client-server architecture and is carried world wide through a series of IRC servers.

Each of the participants was a computer science major at the University of Milan and had already acquired a good knowledge of operating systems and programming languages. However, most of them were new to the Internet and very eager to learn about it. Because none of the students had home access to their accounts, they were constrained to work on campus in order to fulfill the course requirements.

The class met on a dedicated channel (minet) of IRC once a week, for two hours (6-8 p.m. in Milan), for a total of seven weeks. All course work was done in a UNIX graphic environment so that the instructor and the students could keep several windows opened at the same time. One window was dedicated to IRC, which allows for real time, interactive communication between the instructor in Utah and the students in Milan. A second window executed the commands given by the instructor, who was able to see exactly what the students saw on their terminals. A third window could be opened by the students in order to provide space for pasting anything that appeared in the first window onto an editor (extracts from the lesson or from their exploration of the network). In addition to having total control over the topic of discussion, the access to the channel, and the student's ability to intervene, the instructor also had the option to exclude any troublemaker from the channel. These commands, as well as many others useful for managing instruction, are regular features of the IRC software.

A second part of the course work, in which the instructor assigned homework via e-mail, was completed by the students on their own time. E-mail and talk were the primary means of communication between the students and the instructor in order to insure an adequate level of individual feedback.

A mailing list of all the participants was set up at the University of Milan in order to make it easier for the students to share relevant information with others.

In designing this course, Oliva and Degli Antoni established the following criteria:

Distance education. The class does not need to be physically based at one single institution. A class taught at one institution can be delivered to students worldwide, if they have access to an account with telnet capabilities. A graphic terminal or a UNIX environment is not necessary. (One of the students successfully took part in the sessions from an alphanumeric terminal).

Goals. The class should provide hands-on knowledge of Internet resources and develop practical skills to access them.

Approaches. In the course, the following approaches were used:

Recommendations. Oliva and Antoni made the following recommendations:

  1. Synchronous interactive communication via the Internet met with some structural constraints. The difference in time made it difficult for both the students and the instructor to be available at the same time. Also, jet lags and server drop outs posed some problems with the speed and reliability of the connection.
  2. Distance education must combine training materials with individual teacher/learner interaction.
  3. When the course focuses on the acquisition of skills, the component of synchronous interactive communication becomes essential in the delivery process.
  4. Dial-in access from an off-campus location is highly recommended for the students.
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