Educational Networking Challenges

Carol Richardson <crichard@ingenia.com>
Ingenia Communications
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Abstract

This paper focuses on general challenges encountered during the development of a national educational network. This is primarily a nontechnical paper, but the issues described will be those that relate to the technology of educational networking.

Introduction

Since 1993, Canada has been working to design and implement a national Internet-based educational network called Canada's SchoolNet. Over the course of the project, challenges created by the technology, by the nature of the Canadian educational system, and by the geography and demography of the country itself have been met with innovative and creative solutions.

This paper addresses the following four educational networking issues:

  1. Access.
  2. Accessibility.
  3. Content Management.
  4. Training and Educational Relevance.

Access issues

The road leading to the Information Highway has been under construction for quite some time. Schools have found in the past that they did not have any vehicle to get there, while others didn't even have change for the bus. In order to build a successful access model, one must first understand the iterative process and its synergistic relation to the technology.

Where can we obtain access?

After first answering the question, "Why do we need access?," schools became interested in where they can obtain access. Educational institutions, in particular colleges and universities, have been privy to the Internet since its infancy. Many have established fully functional network operations with access to the global Internet.

In obtaining buy-in from these institutions, and forming partnerships through one single vision, it was possible to have schools access the institutions' facilites and use the services. Although only text-based, many of the schools found definite advantages to having a plethora of information available at their fingertips.

Throughout the growth of the Internet through its increasing content base and dynamics of technology, schools found it necessary to stay current in parallel with staying within their budgets, the latter of which was not the least bit conforming to the technological needs of the institution. As World Wide Web (WWW) access became increasingly popular, many scurried to obtain access to this multimedia world, which extended past the capabilities of the existing colleges and universities.

In their search for "better" access, many schools budgeted for an adequate computer and a higher-speed modem (14.4 kbaud) to support the technological demands. Even with this effort, only a single connection from the school could be obtained at any one time.

Where do we go from here?

At present, schools are looking to network the computers that they already have, or to establish a network through the procurement of the necessary equipment and resources. Budgets are now beginning to include technological enhancement of school computer and network resources, all within the envelope of preparing students for the high-tech demands of the 21st century.

Dial-up communications have essentially reached their peak with the implementation of 28.8 kbaud modems, since conventional phone lines cannot handle data transfers of much more than this rate before compression. This speed is adequate for one computer, but how about a network in the school? How much bandwidth is enough?

By satisfying the question, "Do we need high bandwidth to run our applications?," a school must then decide how much. ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) is an adequate and relatively inexpensive method of connecting an entire network of computers to the Internet. Moreover, the solution is totally scalable; if you need more bandwidth, you simply order it.

ISDN is not widely available, even though it runs over existing twisted-pair copper wire used in analog telephony applications. This will present problems for rural or remote communities attempting to secure high-bandwidth connectivity.

In some cases, the use of asymmetric solutions such as receive-only satellite dishes (DirecPC) or cable technology is recommended. Relatively affordable, these methods can eventually help keep connectivity costs low, especially when long-distance charges are inherent in dial-up networking.

As a Cadillac solution for many remote and rural schools, two-way satellite feeds are an exceptional method for high-speed access, but they are quite expensive. In some cases, they are the only solution.

Where do we get funding?

Before searching for funding, one must first have a vision and establish a mandate. What are the applications to be developed and used? Who will be involved? How will the project be sustained after funding is no longer available?

With SchoolNet, funding is available for schools through many of the inset programs. In addition, schools should be canvassing the community for buy-in (not necessarily financial). Donations of equipment and, most of all, time are essential to the successful implementation of the project.

Corporate sponsorship is another route on which to venture. By creating a partnership with a local corporate entity, schools can obtain funding in return for creating applications and advertisements through Web pages for the company.

The best way to begin looking for funding is to "find the funding that is searching for projects." In other words, some government agencies have within their mandate to provide funding for schools that can submit a convincing feasibile plan for their project. As a rule of thumb, the best-planned project will usually make the "consideration" pile on the desk of any funding evaluation committee.

In conclusion, it is important to identify the following factors necessary for determining access to the Internet:

  1. Budget.
  2. Partnerships.
  3. Equipment.
  4. Resources.
  5. Sustainability.

The road to the Information Highway is quickly becoming smoother, provided you know in which lane you should travel.

Accessibility

Since its most humble beginnings, the electronic communications medium that is known as the Internet has developed at a rate so rapid that its technological growth is incomparable to any other.

The Internet began in the late 1960s as a United States Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) experiment in computer networking. Network Control Protocol (NCP) developed into TCP/IP, with Decentralization and Dynamic Rerouting as the essential principles.

The networking opportunities of the ARPANet were quickly siezed upon by educators and researchers, leading to the development of NSFNet, connecting many educational institutions with the support of the National Science Foundation (NSFNet).

This led to the development of other regional networks interconnecting millions of users throughout most of the world: the modern-day Internet. The Internet now allows commercial traffic, which accounts for the Internet's dramatic growth through the late 1980s and into the 1990s. Communications services, electronic publishing, commercial activity, and access to numerous electronic resources and services are but a few of the current applications.

In the beginning, Internet communications took the form of basic asynchronous text-based communications. This would include electronic mail and later Gopher. Internet Gopher introduced a distributed document search and retrieval system, with the ability to browse through collections of information and fully indexed databases. The protocol and software follow a client-server model, thus permitting users on a heterogeneous mix of desktop systems to browse, search, and retrieve documents residing on multiple distributed server machines. This made it possible for Internet users to access vast databases with the most basic equipment, such as a 286 computer and 2400 baud modem.

Following on the heels of the growth of Gopherspace came the World Wide Web. In Gopher, data is either a menu, a document, an index or a Telnet connection. In WAIS (Wide Area Information Servers--a networked information retrieval system), everything is an index and everything that is returned from the index is a document. In WWW, everything is (or can be) a hypertext document that may be searchable. In practice, this means that WWW can represent the Gopher (a menu is presented as a list of links, a Gopher document is a hypertext document without links, and searches are the same) and WAIS (a WAIS index appears as a searchable page, returning a document with no links) data models as well as providing extra functionality.

Hypermedia is a superset of hypertext--it is any medium with pointers to other media. This means that browsers might not display a text file, but might display images or sound or animations. Thus the Web has moved beyond text-based media in dramatic fashion, as it is now possible to include combinations of graphics, sound, and video--all hyperlinked and accessible worldwide.

With each rapid technological advance in Internet applications, access to those applications may require a corresponding advance in user technology--faster modems, improved network access, and more powerful computers. This poses a distinct challenge to providers of Internet services who are serving the educational community: ensuring that educational institutions and individuals are not left out of the "information loop" because they do not have the means necessary to access the full gamut of Internet services.

This is one of the important educational networking challenges facing the SchoolNet project. Canada's SchoolNet is an educational initiative supported by a variety of organizations across Canada, including government agencies--provincial, territorial, and federal--as well as industry, educational establishments, and stakeholders. Through the guidance of the SchoolNet National Advisory Board, the Canadian Education Network Coalition, and strong partnerships, SchoolNet helps to facilitate excellence in learning through electronic networking across Canada.

The origins of the SchoolNet project trace back to Carleton University and the National Capital Freenet, where a small group of students (who would later form the nucleus of Ingenia Communications Corporation, an emerging leader in networking technologies) began to organize educational resources using Internet Gopher. These efforts developed into a partnership with Industry Canada and the variety of private and public sector partnerships that followed.

From its humble beginnings on Freenet, after only a few short years SchoolNet has grown exponentially and now offers a multitude of services, including electronic mailing lists ("listservers"), Usenet newsgroups, Gopher, MOO [Multi-user (synchronous) domain, object-oriented], File Transfer Protocol (FTP), and one of the largest educational World Wide Web sites in the world.

Because of its ability to handle a wide range of Internet protocols, as well as its aesthetic appeal and relative ease of use, the Web has emerged as the favored Internet platform. However, unlike the earlier clients such as Internet Gopher, running Web browsers such as Netscape require high-end technologies on the part of the end user--faster modems, better connections, more RAM, and faster processors. Although Canadian schools are working hard to develop public and private sector partnerships to bring these technologies to the classroom, many have yet to access the Internet, and many who have taken the plunge do not have access to high-end equipment. The challenge facing SchoolNet is to ensure that all users have access to as many of the resources as possible.

This challenge has been met with a variety of solutions. For example, while the typical Web resource comprises icons, image maps, and other graphical representations that cannot be seen without a high-end browser and corresponding equipment, there are text-based browsers, such as Lynx, that can view the textual content of Web resources and that require only a basic Internet connection (such as Freenet). The SchoolNet Web is totally accessible to such users, as the Web development team works to ensure that the functionality of the site is not lost to those users who are accessing the site with text-only browsers by including "alt" tags (in Hypertext Markup Language, alt tags present textual representations of graphic data).

For those users who are able to run a graphics-capable Web browser, large images can still pose problems, as they result in longer download times, resulting in frustration and loss of time. SchoolNet has responded to these needs by choosing to use graphics selectively and by limiting the size of the images on the SchoolNet Web.

Tailoring resources to meet the needs of the users has been a key to SchoolNet's success in meeting educational networking challenges. For example, one of the newest additions to SchoolNet, the Special Needs Education Network (SNE), has applied a number of user-friendly principles to ensure that services are developed in an appropriate manner. The SNE (es-en-ee) provides Internet services specific to parents, teachers, schools, and other professionals, individuals, groups, and organizations involved in the education of students with special needs.

In order to meet the needs of this particular community, user surveys were utilized in the preliminary stages of project development. Through these surveys, as well as through constant interaction on listservers and e-mail, it was determined that the vast majority of SNE participants utilized e-mail, listservers, and the Web as their services of choice. It was further determined that users were most interested in site organization (i.e. the ability to find useful resources with minimal effort), although an aesthetically pleasing site is desirable, it should not come at the expense of rapid download times and ease of navigation.

Interaction between the site developer and the user community has remained a constant throughout the growth of the SNE project. Four SNE listservers allow ample opportunities for users to discuss not only topics and issues related to special-needs education, but also the development of the Web site and related services. A number of small experiments that were conducted revealed that hierarchical tables were a favored organizational structure. The information contained in the tables is easily accessed by Lynx (text-only browsers) users, which is, incidentally, the means by which blind and sight-impaired users are able to access Internet information. Although the SNE site may not be setting new technological standards, it has been recognized as one of the leaders in content development and organization, winning a wide variety of accolades from Web site evaluators worldwide.

Key to the success of SchoolNet and projects like the Special Needs Education Network in meeting the challenge of ensuring adequate access for a wide variety of users has been the integration of services--i.e., seeing e-mail, Gopher, mailing lists, newsgroups, and the World Wide Web not as separate protocols, but as different mediums for accessing the resources of the SchoolNet community. Inexperienced and/or low-end users can become full participants in collaborative protocols such as mailing lists and newsgroups, which enable them to access the knowledge base of more experienced/higher-end users.

Although active user collaboration will remain a vital component of information accessibility, technological developments are now enabling a new level of service integration. As the SchoolNet developers continue to explore methods of integrating various SchoolNet Internet protocols, the different Internet media will become increasingly accessible to most users. The technological walls between the content of the SchoolNet Gopher, Web, and MOO, for example, are blurring into one community, which can only lead to stronger and more frequent user collaboration, which will remain fundamental to the success and growth of educational networking initiatives.

Content management

With a resource base as large as SchoolNet's, spread across such diverse protocols as Gopher, mailing lists, newsgroups, the WWW, FTP and CHAT, one of the biggest day-to-day headaches can be simply making sure that it's as easy as possible for users to find the information they're looking for. And sometimes, the users themselves don't know how to describe what they're looking for.

Searching and indexing--finding the haystack, identifying the needle

When users know what they want to find, or think they know, they usually head straight to the search engine. In order to make that trip productive, SchoolNet uses a dual search mechanism: a keyword system, where keywords are selected and entered at the time of resource addition, and a full-text search engine for local content, which is automatically indexed at the time of addition. Both are available from a common search form, which is linked from most appropriate pages on the site.

Although the full-text search provides a much more thorough result, it can also return spurious matches, which are very confusing to a novice user (and very tedious to a seasoned one!). Also, we are limited to searching local content, while keywords are available for every resource, remote or local. This is important, because part of the SchoolNet service is the maintenance of lists of external educational resources. By providing keywords and a database entry for these links, they can easily be found and cross-referenced. For this reason, we recommend use of the keyword search for almost all occasions, and full-text searching only as a last resort.

Classifying and cross-referencing--a dozen places for everything, and everything in its places

The SchoolNet resource indexing and cross-referencing system is tied very closely to the keyword database used for searching. The indexing system has two tiers of classification: resource type and resource content.

The resource type data is used to determine where in a user's "view" a given resource appears. Fields such as grade level, intended audience (teacher, student, parent, etc.), class of resource (document, discussion group, curricular material, etc.) and a number of other items correlate resources that share a common "level" within the user's view.

As an example, if a user selects "resource type," "audience" and "subject" in that order, what will be presented initially is a list of resource categories, such as:

Each entry would have a paragraph describing the type of resources found within it, as well as the number of resources within that category. In addition, there would be an "All" category, in the event that the user didn't care to pursue further classification of the resources. Selecting an item from the list will take the user to a page where the selected category would be further divided according to "audience":

Following a link would produce a page with yet another subdivision of content, and so on until the user selected "All" or until there were fewer than a given number of items to be selected, at which point they would be listed below the classification section.

This system allows a user to quickly narrow down the resources to those of immediate interest, without requiring the user to determine keywords or overly specific classification information.

Because this layering system is so personal, and so crucial to the usability of the system, the SchoolNet system attempts to provide users with a mechanism for saving their choices. If Netscape Navigator or another cookie-aware browser is used, the system performs that state-saving automatically by creating a cookie with a sufficiently futuristic expiry date. This use of cookies also allows the system to track last-usage information for a user, which permits such niceties as automatically generated "What's new?" pages, as well as notices about major site changes and the like.

Where cookies are not available, it can be possible to encode the user's preferences as a suffix to a CGI URL. The generated URL can then be saved as a bookmark, for ease of access at a later date. This process requires dynamic generation of all pages, and not just those that actually use the information, since the preference data must be embedded in every URL directly. This can cause significant additional load, as well as added programming effort, so the cookie methods are preferable in all situations where they are available. Some commercial application development products, such as Netscape's LiveWire system, provide built-in routines for encoding such information via a number of methods, according to the capabilities of the client. At the time of this writing, the LiveWire product is still in restricted beta testing, but the functionality present is very promising.

The other half of the indexing system, the cross-referencing portion, uses resource content information, as defined by keywords, to link related content across the entire field of resources and locations. Through either dynamically generated pages or pre-generated sets of "related content," the system allows the user to select a "tell me more" feature, which provides a list of other resources that match the keywords of a given document. The larger the number of keywords stored per document, the more accurate that matching becomes, but even in cases of extreme keyword poverty, this system is a very powerful mechanism for browsing a set of resources. Also, this system provides a means of linking content in both languages of Canada, a task that is both very useful and very difficult with traditional search mechanisms. To mangle a quotation, as a user, I may not know what I'm looking for, but I know what I like!

Remote content development--power to the people

Although there is a tremendous amount of content integrated and developed by the SchoolNet support staff on an ongoing basis, the ability for "outside" users such as teachers and students to add and manage their own content is an incredible opportunity to add breadth and depth to the resource base, while fostering a sense of community.

The technical challenges posed by allowing users to modify content on the SchoolNet site, however, are numerous and varied. From issues of system security and reliability to those of proper authentication and authorization to concerns about suitability of content and training of content developers, there are a number of obstacles that must be overcome for this process to be successful. Although an exhaustive discussion of the mechanisms involved is well beyond the scope of this paper (and would perhaps make for an interesting paper of its own), we hope to give a decent overview of the general problems and of the solutions we developed. If you're interested in hearing more about anything in this paper, of course, you're more than welcome to contact the authors.

One of the most significant problems was that of providing tools to maintain content via a WWW interface. Due to security, training and even system load issues, having a large number of external users using traditional Unix development tools was not deemed an acceptable option. Ingenia also has a large body of experience with WWW application design to draw on, so we settled quickly on a WWW-based suite of tools. As we were dealing with a much narrower user base than with the main SchoolNet site, we were better able to take advantage of newer technologies, such as Netscape Navigator's JavaScript and file upload features. This made the development process easier, as there were many fewer compatibility issues to address.

The general features of the tools allow a registered user (see below) to upload new content, modify existing content by editing it on a HTML form or change the attributes of a given resource or set of resources, such as keywords, language information and access control. Although administrator intervention is still required to create groups of users for controlling access to different sections of the WWW site, the databases will in the near future be linked to the main SchoolNet White Pages, which should make them much simpler to administer.

Once a user has made content changes, the changes are "saved" by automatically submitting an automatically generated log of changes to a system that automatically notifies the content verification personnel. (As you can tell, automation of the process was deemed an important criterion, since reducing the amount of user intervention dramatically reduces support requirements.) The content verification tools provide a means by which SchoolNet staff can quickly view what changes were made, and then allow or disallow integration of those changes. Changes that are permitted are integrated into the database of resources, from which all of the HTML pages, Gopher trees and the like are created. (More about that later.) If changes are not permitted, the reviewer enters a comment explaining why, and then a summary of the accepted or denied items (with the commentary, of course) is mailed to the user.

The use of the keyword cross-referencing system is extremely valuable here, as it allows new content to be automatically linked to existing, related content, and vice versa. Without such a system, the maintainer of the content would need to track additions to the content on or linked to SchoolNet manually, with the obvious costs in terms of time and effort. In the case of the core SchoolNet support team, that content base is enormous, and the time required to keep the link lists current would be (and was, prior to the use of this system) a major limiting factor on the addition of new resources.

Of course, some content providers simply do not have appropriate access for using these tools. In this case, we fall back on the original method of content integration: the provider mails (electronically or postally) the content to the SchoolNet support team, which adds it manually. The SchoolNet team uses tools very similar to those available to the external users, so the task is reasonably automated even in worst-case scenarios.

Content expiry and verification--the white glove test

In order to keep the SchoolNet resource base current and usable, constant verification is required. Links to external sites and internal resources must be frequently tested, lest a user stumble across a broken link and get hopelessly lost. (Given that for many of its users, SchoolNet is the first or only experience they have with the Internet, such confusion is more likely than it may seem.) This is another area where the use of a resource database is invaluable, as it allows a systematic and, more importantly, automated test of all links on the SchoolNet sites.

If (when!) a link is found that is invalid--the host is down for a prolonged period of time, the document can't be found, etc.--it is marked as "inactive," which prevents it from being listed in the WWW pages, and an administrator is notified of the error. This system is greatly preferable to the old method of finding broken links, which usually entailed mail from a user complaining about it!

Even when nothing untoward happens to a resource, there can come a time when it is no longer relevant (as in the case of a contest or conference CFP) or is in need of revision or replacement (such as with a monthly column in an online newsletter). Toward the end of automating this process, we have created a content expiry system that allows content maintainers to define an expiry date for a resource, at which point one or more things can happen: the resource can be marked "inactive," at which point it is no longer visible except to the maintainer, or it can be removed wholesale or the maintainer (and any other designated contact) can be notified that it's time to review the content. This system has proved to be quite effective in keeping the amount of outdated content to a minimum.

Training and educational relevance

The transition from an industrial-based society to the knowledge-based society of the 20th century will affect all aspects of our lives. Canada's ability to emerge as a leader in this new economy will rely heavily on an information-literate populace. It is from within the school system that the future leaders and innovators of the information age are being nurtured. Students who wish to survive in this knowledge-based society must be well versed in the effective and efficient use of information and telecommunications technologies. In many respects, we look toward our educational institutions to provide the necessary skills and knowledge base required for lifelong learning in an information age.

In response to the emerging economy, there is a recognition in the school system that learning too must change. Traditional methods of teaching must also change. Educators are understanding that telecommunications is having a direct impact on how teachers teach and on how students learn. One of the most difficult challenges is that the world of telecommunications and the Internet, in particular, is new. Even to the privileged few who are considered seasoned, it is new. Imagine what this means for teachers who must also face head-on the new social and political challenges that the introduction of telecommunications brings to their classrooms.

It is understandable that some resistance will be experienced by the classroom teacher. Some of the most commonly expressed reasons include:

Programs such as Canada's SchoolNet have created some innovative solutions to introducing teachers, parents and students to the Internet. A basic three step approach has been adopted.

  1. Learning the basics,
  2. Becoming a user, and
  3. Becoming a content provider

In addition, Industry Canada, the principal sponsor of Canada's SchoolNet, initiated a pilot program this year to encourage and support the teacher in the classroom. The SchoolNet Support Teachers (SST) are new graduate teachers from the Faculty of Education at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. These recent grads were partnered with the school boards in the Ottawa region. The SSTs worked in close collaboration with the teachers in each of the schools in their assigned board. By having direct access to the teacher in the classroom, the SSTs were able to support, assist and train the classroom teacher on Internet-based classroom activities. So successful was the four-month pilot project that it has been extended to the end of the school year, and similar programs are being considered across the country for the 1996-'97 school year.

Anther innovative solution to training the user base has been through online help sections and tutorials. For example, the Help section on SchoolNet provides tips not only on how to navigate the site, but also on how to use the technology and tools to the user's advantage. When developing a program as diverse and complex as Canada's SchoolNet, the quality and equality of educational offerings are taken into consideration. By designing easy-to-use tools with online assistance, users can readily learn at their own pace no matter where they are or how old they may be. These online tools are also supported by a 1-800 line and e-mail gateway. Users of SchoolNet, whether teachers, students, or parents can call in and receive the personalized assistance they require. Questions received from these support systems can vary greatly. Users can call asking for the most basic of information, or queries can be of the most complex. Members of the SchoolNet Support Group are skilled at answering user queries in either of Canada's two official languages.

Teacher-training and professional development opportunities need to be updated. Increasingly we are seeing this happen. In New Brunswick, Premier Frank McKenna has strongly supported educational networking initiatives. Distance learning and the availability of online courses are growing in numbers. The disparities between the regions of Canada are disappearing. Through advancements in teleconferencing software and telecommunications, improvements in educational opportunities in rural and remote areas of Canada have been created. The recent budget tabled by the government of Canada recognizes the importance of attaining higher levels of education and skills for securing Canada's future. To that end, the government is committed to improving access to technology for youth and communities.

The budget stated the following:

"As part of the government's youth and technology initiatives, about $30 million is being reallocated over three years to expand this (SchoolNet) program."

These initiatives, in part, reflect the government's commitment to the economic renewal of rural Canada. The government will address the problems facing rural Canadians in a way that is tailored to their needs. Rural Canada is rich in natural and human resources and faces different challenges than do urban areas. The government will move forward in the coming months to make sure that all Canadians benefit from economic prosperity.

Many fear that this new technology will somehow replace the need for the classroom teacher. Overcoming this fear and misconception is often the biggest hurdle when learning about the Internet and allowing it to take its rightful place in the classroom environment. The role of the classroom teacher will, no doubt, change with the introduction of the Internet in the classroom, but the teacher will not be replaced by the computer. Quite the contrary, the role of the teacher as the control figure has changed to that of a facilitator and learner. In many cases, we see the students teaching the teacher on the use of the technology. This exchange of knowledge and experience can be one of the most rewarding learning experiences for both the teacher and student. We have seen this over and over again. For example, during a recent announcement, three schools from across Canada were linked together via satellite and the Internet. Using the Internet and SchoolNet's applications, the students were able to contribute "live" articles to the inaugural edition of the SchoolNet News covering the local announcement as it happened. For many, both teachers and students, this was their first experience using many of the applications available to them. Teachers need to be guiding the course of technological developments to ensure the educational relevance. In Prince Edward Island, students and teachers are working together to develop a new technology-based curriculum. It also provides us, Ingenia Communications, with the opportunity to work with many knowledgeable students who are in the process of looking for summer employment opportunities. This is a win-win-win situation.

In fact, an innovative solution to training young people on the Internet and preparing them for future employment is through a program that Ingenia has started. Ingenia has a Farm Team. Students will be introduced and exposed to leading-edge Internet technologies and will have the opportunity for one-on-one discussions with application developers and industry experts. Students are provided with on-the-job training and, in return, they demonstrate their skills and potential contribution to the employer.

Through innovative training practices, the use of information technology in the educational environment will enhance the learning experience and provide a more relevant framework for developing the necessary skill sets for success in an information age.

For more information, please contact:

Carol Richardson
Project Manager, Educational Networking
Ingenia Communications
CTTC Bldg, Ste 4200
1125 Colonel By Drive
Ottawa, Ontario
K1S 5R1 Canada
crichard@ingenia.com