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European journal of open, d.European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning A multimedia system for tele-education in Secondary
Mario Allegra1, Giuseppe Chiazzese1, Maria Rita Laganà2 Italian National Research Council-Institute for Educational and Training Technologies, University of Pisa–Department of Computer Science 1Italian National Research Council-Institute for Educational and Training Technologies, Via Ugo LaMalfa,153 - 90100 Palermo - Italy2University of Pisa –Department of Computer Science, Corso Italia 40. 56100 Pisa - Italy AbstractIntroductionMain aims and functionality of the first releaseExperimenting the systemTowards a new co-operative learning environmentConclusionsReferences Abstract
Last year we developed and tried out a system to allow students and teachers, distributed on the Net, tocarry out learning/teaching activities. For this purpose we defined and implemented a new Internetprotocol to support cooperative educational activities and then we developed a system based on it. We haverecently experimented this system creating a virtual classroom with students and teachers from twosecondary school classes, one in Palermo and the other in Pisa.
In this paper we will describe the main considerations arising from this experience and the consequent newfunctionality that we are introducing into the system, to improve the quality and the opportunities forinteraction.
Key words: Tele-learning, network protocol, cooperative learning systems
While new tools allow the space-time barrier to be removed, studies of human interactions are dedicated tomaking the most of opportunities to meet on line without losing usual contacts (we know that a look cansay more than so many words). There are now network services on Internet for creating complexenvironments where interpersonal relationships mingle both between single individuals and betweenindividuals and groups. There remains an interesting open problem as to whether and how telematics canmaintain the usual means of face to face communication and define new ones.
In this study, we are interested in the new opportunities in the educational field. We can see that the mainuse for its economic and cultural impact is distance education aimed at children who for various reasonsare unable to attend their school.
We refer for example to students with long term illnesses or young people who live in remote areas. In Italythere are small islands where travelling is difficult (either for pupils or for teachers) especially in winter orin bad weather. Today the most common solution is to create teaching environments usingteleconferencing systems, where the relationship continues to be that of the teacher giving lessons and thepupils listening and asking questions.
As we have already observed in , there is a loss of immediacy and a weakening of the relationshipstypical of a real class, in which I can prompt, wink, make comments behind the teacher’s back, or put up myhand to speak in a class discussion.
The aim of our work is to define new tools and network services for didactic support , integratingin new applications behavior typical of a real class: the creation, development, correction, suspension andrenewal of a didactic activity, the exchange of opinions with a classmate.
But this is not all. We also want to study and define new methods of giving lessons, exploiting thecharacteristics of the Net .
In the following paragraph, we describe the first system that we implemented and then we discuss its European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning experimental use with two classes in different Italian cities, Pisa and Palermo.
The observations and the results obtained from this experience have led us to the introduction of a newversion of the system, which we describe in paragraph 4. Finally, in our conclusions, we express the hope ofseeing a wide spread use of educational network environments.
Main aims and functionality of the first release
The first prototype developed is the result of a careful analysis of the scholastic activities which take placewithin a class in order to establish a preliminary classification of the functionality to support thedevelopment of cooperative didactic environments . This theoretical classification, connected to aterminology derived from cooperative work , is reflected in the concrete implementation of a networkservice; it allows the start up and the control of a session for cooperative learning activities, by means ofwhich we have developed the first prototype of our on line learning system. A lesson is conducted in a waywhich imitates a traditional lesson in a classroom: students go into the classroom, listen to an explanation,work in groups together with the teacher. Using the definition of a communication protocol cactp(cooperative activity control protocol) whose functionalities follow the classification made previously, astudent/client application and a teacher/server application have been developed.
In this first release of the software the classroom communication takes place through the teacher/serversystem (fig.1).
The teacher uses the server application to communicate with the class and students use a clientapplication; this choice was motivated by the wish to enable the teacher to monitor all the educationalprocesses, without forwarding all the information from the server to an eventual teacher-application.
In order to retain the atmosphere of a real class with its discussions and relationships, the system uses theprotocol functions to activate a synchronous communication session where it is possible to: enter the class,carry out debates, group activities, voting, and the preparation, assignment and evaluation of classwork.
The teacher controls the pupils’ behavior in classroom by the server. S/he starts the on line synchronoussession in which both cooperative and individual activities take place. In the cooperative activities thecontinuation depends on the answer given and, in general, on other pupils’ activities. Individual activitiesare extremely important in a class both because acquisition of knowledge requires personal re-elaboration,after which the comparison with shared knowledge continues, and because the teacher must evaluatehis/her students’ work. The environment therefore depends on the activation of the teacher/serverapplication. Obviously this choice prevents the pupils from communicating in the teacher’s absence andprevents the teacher from leaving the server.
It is therefore possible in the first version of the system to use a "freetime" session where the teacher doenot control class communication and physically leaves his/her place while the server is running. In this waya more complex environment is set up, where cooperative and group activities are possible even when theteacher is not present.
Experimenting the system
From our experiments with the system between the Computer Science Department and the Institute forEducational and Training Technologies, we would like to mention the sessions held during the week ofculture and scientific research in Italy, when we tried out a cooperative teaching network . Two middleschools took part in the experiment, one from Palermo, in the South of Italy, and the other from Pisa, in European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning the North. The educational activities, planned with the teachers, were carried out with the support of thesystem and consisted in a competition aimed at learning vocabulary and proverbs in the local dialects, bothof Sicily and Tuscany.
During these sessions some interesting results emerged. From the learning point of view, we observedstrong motivation. In fact pupils were attracted by the possibility of contacting people who were far away,they were anxious to get to know each other, and they exchanged their best photos, and they told eachother about themselves. Then, during the competition, in which they had to listen and guess a word indialect which was recorded and sent by the network to the remote students, their curiosity was aroused andthey were keen to compete, to guess the words and learn how to pronounce them.
Furthermore, the use of the system has also highlighted some educational needs that have led us to adaptthe architecture of the system in order to add new capabilities. For example some difficulties concerningthe temporal visualization of class dialogs became apparent: the chatting was envisaged according to thetraditional mechanism of temporal visualization of the sentences sent by different users; but in aneducational context, where starting from a teaching cue several dialogs can develop, the time of theresponses can become a determining factor for the evolution of the whole dialog, and cause the student toget lost. When a student was slow in responding, because of personal elaboration ability or speed of typing,other messages appeared on the screen between the question and his/her answer, making it difficult forhim/her and the teacher to follow the dialog. Thus comprehension of the dialogs was complicated in someparts of the communication.
During the sessions we were also aware of the advantage of having more teachers available to coordinateseveral work groups at the same time by the system, and of having the opportunity to save the dialogswhich were begun, in order to restart them later (after a connection problem or in a new session). Besides,the visualization of the pupils involved in the group activities using a simple list created some problems fordistinguishing between pupils in Palermo and in Pisa. In the on line classroom there was an obvious needfor the visualization of desks and student positions.
All these considerations have led us to develop a second version of the system which has enabled us tointegrate the on line activities and the traditional ones more effectively. To achieve this we have defined aclient/server architecture  capable of restoring the learning system in its entirety, in order to resume thelesson from the point at which it was interrupted, and improve synchronous and asynchronousinteractions within the class.
Towards a new co-operative learning environment
The new learning environment (Fig 2), projected according to the client/server model consists of threeapplications: student client, teacher client, and cooperation server, that can be distributed on severalcomputers.
We would emphasize that in this architecture the management of the educational network is more flexibleand modular. In fact the teacher application includes all the activities typical of the teacher, and s/heparticipates in the class by sending requests to the server, in the same way as student clients; the onlydifference lies in the kind of requests they send.
The greater modularity introduces a number of advantages into the system and brings about furtherdevelopment of the protocol methods for the network didactic cooperation. In particular the system has aninternal state. In fact in a real school, the lessons evolve over time: topics studied develop and change inthe course of the weeks thanks to the various contributions of students and teachers; the composition of European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning the work groups remains constant for some activities; each student has his/her own desk.
So, our system must also be capable of remembering information linked to the evolution of the educationalenvironment in order to modify, save and restore a learning context. Besides, by the state of the system, theserver allows anyone who enters the class to understand the current situation of the class to take part in adialog which has already begun, to sit down at his/her desk.
Greater flexibility is introduced by the new teacher/client application, which allows the teacher both to bepresent in the classroom with the students during the lessons and to work on his/her own, so that, forexample, s/he can plan a series of activities and decide how to distribute them the following day.
We are planning to use this new system in specific educational contexts where there is physical separationbetween teachers and students which hinders normal activities in the classroom. In particular we areplanning to experiment the system in cases of learners isolated from their teachers as in the following twocases: schools on small islands near Sicily where teachers sometimes cannot reach their school in badweather or students are forced to stay at home or in hospital for long periods because of illness.
New Information Technologies are being studied today to evaluate their potential in educational contexts.
Current research tries to take the reality of concrete human environments into the virtual reality of the Netand one of the most interesting applications is in the educational field. Here our proposal can be mostnaturally included. We think that new educational environments based on the Net have importantadditional values: classroom walls do not exist, and bad weather and distance do not prevent participantsfrom meeting to get to know each other and grow up together in the culture in which they live, passing it onto successive generations.
Moreover, in our research, the set of methods of the cactp protocol, created ad hoc to set up and controleducational activities , allows the stimulation of cooperative learning, avoiding certain problems due tothe real environment. The first results have been encouraging, but we hope that later ones will be moresignificant, as we improve user interface, add new protocol methods and try out our proposals,demonstrating concretely their effectiveness. Teachers and students’ Net-desks, filled by real teachers andpupils, will allow us to test effectively whether our environment is suitable for retaining and improving thelearning mechanisms typical of a real class.
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