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Copyright © 2001, MCB UP Limited
An Advanced School Learning Environment: Internet, Intranets and Extranets at Eltham College, Australia
Eltham College is a large private school with its principal campus located on the northeastern outskirts of the Melbourne suburban sprawl. Some 40km away in the heart of the city CBD is located the city campus, focus of our year nine program at present. College population stands at around 1,250 students, 180 staff and an additional 150 tutors and coaches (in the sport and music areas mainly). The college programme extends from age three to year 12 as well as extending to some 30 university and vocational courses.
To service the college, the main campus supports two libraries, while a small "sub library" operated in the city campus. We have a significant international student population as well as the split campus situation. Additional campuses will open during 2001-2002. This "geographical challenge" then, also had to be built into the equation.
Combining with the physical situation of the college is our philosophy of transparent education, multiple pathways and self-directed education.
Thus our objectives were to:
create a system that effectively managed learning;
create one that allowed and encouraged multiple pathways and self-direction;
build on a known and common platform (thus PC/Windows);
provide a secure network including home and overseas;
build in flexibility to allow for the unknown;
extend classroom into the home;
allow remote access of system from anywhere;
provide a transparent educational community.
To provide an information system in any way sufficient to meet all these various objectives required some intensive thought. A number of possibilities were canvassed and our present system developed. There is much still to develop but our trials and tribulations have taught us a great deal.
Virtual Private Network
In the first instance, we needed a secure environment in which parents, students and staff could communicate freely. A virtual private network (VPN) was finally selected, and as our resources are largely earmarked for our core business teaching an outside company was selected to operate this. Impaq is our business partner in this regard, and although by no means trouble free, we are pleased with developments and its readiness to help. It also offers an intranet solution but this we declined as it did not suit our specific focus.
The VPN facility offers us a very secure operating environment, but as supplied by Impaq, it is routed through Citrix software. This enables students to work remotely, operating on their files as if they were in the classroom, but it is slow. Our current development is sidestepping the Citrix as much as possible with more activity focusing on the intranet. Linking from intranet to the Citrix will only be needed when a file or software package not available on the intranet needs to be used.
This approach is very stable as well as offering the flexibility desired. In contrast to many other independent schools around Melbourne, Eltham is a non-laptop school. This is one of the reasons for our move to connect homes 24 hours a day in addition to our fibre optic school network. A microwave link to our ISP (Impaq) is currently being upgraded from 2mb to 10mb to improve connection times across the network.
One of the more controversial decisions made recently was the compulsory membership of our online community. A number of parents were concerned, as the cost was an additional charge. For the most part, providing parent forums where views could be aired helped overcome any resistance. Currently our largest problem is overcoming the hurdles of low quality home computers, attaching Macintosh equipment to the VPN (Impaq is working on this) and clarifying logons.
Complementing the VPN is a complex intranet/extranet development. Using a management software basis provided by an outside source (CorSkill, Qld) we have established a comprehensive online student management and learning environment. In contrast to our earlier intranet, this new version does much more than provide resources for students and staff. All business forms are now online and automated. Communications to parents, between staff and between students is hosted in the various sections of the net. Depending on who logs on, profiles adjust to provide the information for that individual. Parents have access to their childrens' reports but (obviously) not to those of others. A student may view their own report (including forthcoming assignments or recently corrected ones) but not those of their sibling(s).
Each of the courses taught from age three to year 12 is presented to the view of parents and students together with coursework, requirements, assignments and a schedule for the course. These courses are individualised to the particular teacher so that parents have a fair working knowledge of what their particular student is likely to be doing at any time. In the junior school areas these more formal materials are complemented with interactive learning games, photo galleries and activity reports placed by class teachers, and in some cases, the various administrative assistants responsible for the areas.
In the near future, our new Smartcard application will add attendance records to these pages so that teachers and parents can see whether any student is missing classes, etc. Part of the advantage of all this functionality is that if a student is absent or overseas, it is still possible for them to participate in class work.
Built into the whole process are many different communication vehicles (e-mail is the most common) that allow interaction between parents, students and staff. Discussion groups are built into the software and may be opened in various forms (e.g. moderated, or free, directed or not) at times or to specific target groups at any stage. Strategically located Web cameras allow students and parents to view activities going on during the school day (e.g. Voyager centre).
An important part of the success of the Eltham system has been the placing of an information manager in a co-coordinating/facilitating role. With a background in teaching and library, Eltham's facilitator is also experienced in technologies, and while not system manager (this too is outsourced), he coordinates and manages the whole information process including IT teaching, libraries, parent communications, the VPN and the online courses; now growing in number to include subjects like automotive studies and hospitality.
All too often management of information systems is entirely in the hands of technologists. This has its values, but too often is unable to see the larger learning picture for the machinery. At Eltham we have worked hard to integrate all the aspects of technology, but the learning issue is the guiding principle rather than technology per se.
Naturally the present system needs more fine-tuning. Are these things ever "finished" anyway? While not as teacher friendly as some bulletin board approaches (e.g. Impaq Workbench, Blackboard, etc.) our system provides the flexibility we need, adequate privacy and extensive student learning management. Its integrated approach gives more assured learning outcomes but still effectively manages student progress. By involving all relevant stakeholders, the Eltham approach provides an excellent interactive learning environment.
Arthur Winzenried (http://www.elthamcollege.vic.edu.au) is Facilitator, Information Systems, at Eltham College in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.