In a world in which the Internet and mobile phone technologies are leveling many communications barriers, in which the difference between work at home and at office is becoming progressively blurred, in which distance is no obstacle for collaboration, school and home still stand as two worlds apart, with distinct and separate uses of the Internet.
The Internet offers a unique opportunity to use new educational materials that can link students' activities in school and at home. On the curriculum side, such materials should extend the demonstration, simulation, and information display capabilities of the teachers while, on the home and personal side, they should provide both individual and cooperative project work proposals for students, exercise and self-assessment tools, optional information and advanced learning ,and leisure resources.
The problem is the scarcity of such materials. Aiming to provide ways to approach such situation, the Argo Project (a US$50 million government-sponsored project that is under way in Catalonia, Spain) is giving priority to the development and trial of new content by educational publishers--usually in partnership with multimedia companies--that could be used by students in the classroom and at home. Such materials and services should facilitate studying at home at any time, providing tools for the intellectual work with information and for personal communication, as well as links to educational coaching and personal support.
The Argo Project is a joint initiative of the Department of Education and of the Commissioner for the Information Society, both of the "Generalitat de Catalunya" (Regional Government of Catalonia). It is run by "Programa d'Informàtica Educativa" (PIE), Information Technology in Education Program, a unit of the Department of Education set up in 1986 with the aim of fostering the full integration of information technology in primary, secondary and vocational education. Since its creation, PIE has been involved in supplying computers, peripherals, and software to schools, in promoting curriculum development and courseware implementation, in developing an in-service extensive teacher training program, and in providing a variety of services: technical and pedagogical support, information and documentation, and telecommunications. PIE emphasizes keeping schools technologically up-to-date and focuses on taking advantage of a range of coordination and support mechanisms to foster the educational integration of ICT.
The Argo Project is a four-year project (1998-2001) for Catalan schools aiming
In this paper we focus on the fourth of those aims: the creation of multimedia educational resources for the Internet, mostly through cooperative projects with the publishers and also with teachers, with the explicit purpose of creating resources that could be used both at school and at home on a commercial basis.
XTEC, acronym of "Xarxa Telemàtica Educativa de Catalunya," or Catalan Educational Telematic Network, is an integral part of the PIE tools and activities that are the central core of the Argo Project. XTEC was set up in 1988 to provide learner-to-learner and learner-to-teacher communications, information provision and conferencing, and data and information access and searching.
Initially implemented in a proprietary operating system, the XTEC server evolved to more open standards and in 1994 adopted the Internet protocols, going public as an Internet service on April 1, 1995. As of January 2000, XTEC serves, mostly by ISDN lines, all the state primary, secondary, and vocational schools of Catalonia (2,000 schools) and gives Internet access to many private schools and other education-related institutions, such as resource centers and support services (almost 2,100 sites). It has 37,000 teachers registered (out of a total number of 67,000), although only 27,000 are active, roughly one-third of the total. Teachers can access the Internet through XTEC, which provides remote access. Students can also access the Internet through XTEC while in schools, and more than 400 schools take advantage of students' e-mail facilities provided by XTEC. Students' home access must be provided by a commercial Internet service provider.
XTEC is currently hosted in a Sun Microsystems Enterprise 10000 mainframe computer, with six system boards and 22 CPUs, 1,000 gigabytes (gb) of disk storage, and 3.5 terabytes of cartridge storage, mostly devoted to back-up procedures and storage of MPEG1 video. The central infrastructure also includes other systems: Enterprise 3000 (XTEC host until early 1999), three Netra T1 units, and a number of smaller computers: Sun Sparc 20, Sparc 5, and Sparc 4.
Solaris 2.7 is the operating system, and Oracle software platforms host most of the relevant services: Oracle 8i database, Oracle InterMedia, application server, video-on-demand server, and advanced queuing. Cisco Systems is the main provider of communication and switching devices (routers, Cisco Catalyst 6500 Series offering scalable switching capacity up to 256 gbps and multilayer switching up to 150 mbps).
In 1999, there were 4,130,000 ISDN and modem connections to the XTEC server, and its website had 98 million requests delivering 850 gb of data, excluding video-on-demand. The video-on-demand service is still not generally available to the users because of bandwidth limitations of the telecommunications operators. The Oracle video-on-demand server, which has the capability of delivering 500 live simultaneous and different video streams of 1.5 mbps, is still largely unused but it is taken into account in content development.
XTEC users interact with an educational portal that is rapidly evolving, implementing new features and work opportunities. To offer a coherent and manageable service it is of utmost importance to internally separate portal services, content management, and applications and services.
By portal services we mean the layer that is directly in contact with the users and that interacts with them: users' registration and management; presentation, including multichannel presentation; personalization of services to users' profiles; search and retrieval facilities; and intercommunication and cooperation services, including e-mail, web services, Internet Relay Chat, and newsgroups among others. Let's devote some attention to two aspects of the XTEC portal that are being implemented: multichannel presentation and searching facilities.
A portal is usually identified as a website, and the browser is considered the tool for accessing it. Although this is true at large, multichannel presentation functionalities, still at an early phase of implementation, will deliver content and services to users according to the characteristics of the requesting device: HTML browser, Wireless Application Protocol WML phones, SMS/Pager, reduced HTML for PDAs, and even digital TV sets. The XTEC portal is moving in this direction by means of the Oracle's "Portal to Go" server technology, which allows XTEC to make content independent of presentation and supports push services.
The XTEC portal search service offers a uniform mechanism to look for every resource of the portal, irrespective of the nature of the resource (content, application, external service). It is based on universal search engine techniques, and it is integrated in all the services of the portal. It is based on XML and Oracle InterMedia and provides a standard application programming interface (API) to be used by external services.
On the content management level, the portal provides support for structured information, text, images, video, and spatial information (in the near future), and any type of data is stored with a homogenous API. The technical platforms are Oracle 8i and Oracle InterMedia: they manage content storage and content loading, parsing, indexing, and metadata, and they support XML and a variety of document formats, allowing for dynamic content integration, as well as Java, Perl, C++, and PL/SQL interfaces.
On the applications and services level, the XTEC portal operates the Oracle Application Server software and the Oracle Integration Server for the integration of external services. Oracle Integration Server is the chosen platform to integrate and transform any type of data, and to integrate both synchronous and asynchronous applications. Its mission is to dialogue with specific educational applications by means of defining and implementing the suitable transformation rules and to bridge to external services. The asynchronous integration platform is based on asynchronous publish and subscribe queuing technology implemented in Oracle 8i Advanced Queuing. The integration server automatically audits, tracks, and correlates every external transaction in a homogenous, scalable, and robust way, thus standardizing and facilitating the implementation of third-party applications.
An important part of the Argo Project is to develop educational content (course materials, lesson plans and activities, reference materials, collaborative projects, interactive Internet-based simulations) and to experiment with and evaluate it, while creating a climate prone to standards setting, on which to build up further collaboration between educational publishers and a sound educational use. This is the "Internet in the Classroom" project, which is the educational content part of the Argo Project. It aims to produce a workable business model for educational materials.
Curriculum modules produced in this project can be envisaged to work in two settings: school and home. School use requires a computer connected to the Internet--in the future, a broadband connection--with output to a big monitor or projector screen. A video camera can also be part of the setup, its utility being either to project images of objects (as a retroprojector of flat and solid objects) or to get general views of the class and organize video conferencing. A few additional PCs connected to the Internet can also be part of the set as "working space" for students. This setting, with just a common interface controlled simply by clicking the mouse, offers a wide variety of texts and images, data, videos (from IP-videos, cable, and DVD as much as from TV), demonstrations, and interactive simulations (Java applets or the like).
In such an environment, it is reasonable to talk about a class where, for instance, a physics teacher can systematically have broadband Internet at his or her disposal as a powerful tool helping to introduce the subject matter to the students. Java applets can graph data obtained by students in the physics lab or they can demonstrate some dynamic properties of bodies in movement, even introducing parameters in the simulations in an interactive way. A downloaded videoclip can illustrate the behavior of a particle in a magnetic field. HTML or XML pages can summarize the concepts that the teacher is explaining. Exercises and proposals can be printed for the students' own work or worked out online. The Net can also deliver additional material and workbooks for those students who are more advanced. Any program, content, workbook, etc., can be accessed from Web address, and the interface is always the same one: the Web browser, although in the future multichannel and personalization facilities will strongly impinge on content delivery. These simple facts are the first principles of a new reality for teachers and students: integrated access to a world full of unlimited resources via one channel made up of the computer and Internet combination.
In this way, every teacher can expand his or her introduction and demonstration, simulation, and information synthesis skills. In short, "Internet in the Classroom" offers the possibility of combining in the day-to-day work in class: a) the most adequate techniques of introduction and interactive simulation by computer; b) any material accessible via Internet; and c) any personal interaction in real time (video conferencing, chats), in an integrated, easy, and cheap way, with the added benefit of the ordinary electronic mail and other services such as distance learning.
On the home front, students' projects and homework can be assigned on a Web page that students have to check in order to perform the project activities or the problem solving. Multiple-choice questionnaires based on the Internet and other assessment materials that will help teachers to track students' progress could be done at home, which is a way of linking the school and home learning. Specific services provided by publishers available at home could greatly enhance the student interest on the materials while giving personalized support.
Based on the above-mentioned hardware and software infrastructures, a specific student-oriented portal and website is being set up as part of the XTEC portal. This portal, named EDU365, is set to offer electronic mail, personal Web pages, chats, curriculum content provided by publishers and teachers, more casual materials provided by the students themselves, employment opportunities, educational and career guidance, Web search and descriptive links about instructional websites, cooperative activities, a "What's on" section, games, and suggestions for free time.
To organize such elements in a logical and functional rather than systems perspective, EDU365 will feature these instruments: a) the Digital Desktop, b) the Intercommunication Tools, and c) a Content Repository --initially a website, but intended to support multichannel presentation in the near future--with distinct thematic sections (as a conceptual classification): c1) Instructive or Curricular, c2) Web Community, c3) Educational and Career Guidance, and c4) Games and Spare Time. Following are comments on each section.
The Digital Desktop is a set of tools for "intellectual" tasks to support learning and studying in general terms, any kind of procedure for information processing; office programs; numeric, symbolic, and graphical calculator; online spelling checkers and thesaurus; dictionaries and encyclopedias; electronic written-language translators; synthesizers and voice generators; design and drawing programs; music programs; agenda and calendar; and library and information search engines. Some of these tools are provided by software companies, and others are being developed in joint projects with universities.
The Intercommunication Tools are a bundled set of interpersonal communication tools: e-mail/webmail, real-time mail, Web page wizard, chat (text and voice), Web message board, room for collaborative work, and videoconferencing. They constitute an inseparable companion of the Digital Desktop and together should provide students with all the tools they could need for intellectual work, both individual and cooperative.
The Content Repository could be best thought of as a web structured in the four areas mentioned above. The c1) Instructive or Curricular domain will gather and organize everything considered "educational content" and most specifically the professional materials produced by publishers and multimedia companies (see the next section "Involving publishers") that should be accessible both in the classroom and at home. It will include interactive tutorials (for instance on studying techniques, and on methodology and resources for research projects) and video-on-demand learning materials.
The c2) Web Community section will organize and make visible participation and cooperative activities. Their elements are online magazines created by students; user groups catering for different student interests, run both by students and teachers, on issues such as astronomy, programming, ecology, and cartoons, that often already exist; thematic organization of students' websites; and, among others, proposals on educational activities such as pen pals and taking part in online educational projects. European cooperative projects are an important part of the Web community framework.
Educational and Career Guidance is the third area of the Content Repository. It aims to support students' learning and counseling, to provide information on university studies and on vocational education and training--illustrating their goals and requirements--to systematize apprenticeship and employment opportunities, and to offer personalized guidance provided by experts.
Finally, the Spare Time domain will provide fun learning opportunities, leisure activities, and, it is hoped, a formative and intelligent alternative to most video games. First projects in consideration are both synchronous and asynchronous online games, virtual reality and 3-D games, a "What's on" section (concerts, theater, and so forth), scouting centers, youth hostels, work camps, and a Web message board for travel contacts, youth exchange, etc. This area will not be funded by the Argo Project.
The hard fact is that few publishers in Spain are offering specific educational materials on the Internet. Some of them have implemented textbook-like materials in HTML files made public, probably as a result of advertising strategies as much as a will to be seen on the Internet. But, concerning new development projects specific for the Internet, it seems, at present, that many of them are in a wait-and-see stance.
To help overcome this deadlock, to stimulate both the supply and the demand of online educational material, and according to the fourth main goal of the Argo Project, an experimental scheme has been set up. In this scheme, initially funded with US$1 million, some projects presented by a limited number of providers of educational commercial content have been selected and partially funded, establishing the appropriate terms and conditions for the use of the materials being developed under such agreement (see specific details in the next section).
Professionally marketed Internet educational content will then be delivered to schools, being made available to both students and teachers. Teachers should have at their disposal a full range of delivery and presentation hardware and computing tools.
The funding that publishers receive is intended: a) to co-finance the development and testing of the materials, and b) as a three-year license for unlimited use in all schools of Catalonia. Methods of registering and keeping track of used materials are being implemented on the XTEC portal in order to be able to establish consumption and cost, and to bill them when appropriate.
Students at home should enjoy access to the same learning materials and also to complementary or more advanced materials and personalized services, such as additional support, testing, and counseling services. All those home services are expected to be offered by publishers to parents for a fee.
After a public bid of offers, and according to the principles mentioned in the prior section, six main proposals were selected in the last quarter of 1999 for the trial phase of the "Internet in the Classroom" project. Briefly:
A number of smaller projects led by teachers are also on the way, according to the same principles.
Before the advent of the Internet, the development and marketing of learning systems based on stand-alone computers or on local area networks was hindered by lack of educational standards and incompatible proprietary management and delivery tools. To avoid stumbling again in the same problem, an important goal of the Argo Project's "Internet in the Classroom" is to follow from the very beginning the emerging standards related to the management of educational contents, while promoting among publishers the awareness of the need to avoid incompatible Internet-based learning systems, a crucial step in developing the learning market online.
A specific goal of using updated standards, mainly regarding metadata vocabulary and taxonomies, is to be able to pay specific attention to the problems facing minority languages such as Catalan and to cover multilingual and multicultural issues.
An effort is being made to keep up with the state of the art of a handful of standardization projects and task forces, such as ARIADNE, GESTALT, IMS, (IEEE-1484 LTSC, PROMETEUS, and CEN/ISSS, among others. Nevertheless most of these projects seem to be at present in a rather preliminary stage, or at the very least in theoretical terms. So it is currently rather difficult to have a common ground for educational publishers and curriculum developers to build on, although such a system would allow the real exchange of learning resources between learning systems from different vendors. The global panorama remains largely obscure in practical terms.
It is hoped that INET'2000 will shed brighter light on those issues, especially in a moment in which many national and regional educational authorities are undertaking big projects like the Argo Project to integrate ITC in school life, teachers' practice, and students' learning in school and at home.