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JILT 1997 (1) - Alistair Kelman (2)

Distance Learning at the LSE with Virtual Tutorials

Alistair Kelman

The London School of Economics is currently running a small distance learning experiment amongst a group of postgraduate students in their Computer Security Research Centre. The experiment is a proof of practice to determine how distance learning could be generally deployed at the LSE for short courses and continuous professional education.

For the past three years, as a Visiting Fellow at the LSE, I have taught the postgraduate course "Information Systems and the Law". The course consists of ten to fifteen two hour lectures and tutorials per week spread over two terms. Many problems have arisen in delivering the course owing to the fact that during much of this time I have been a practising intellectual property barrister and also working on European Commission work in Europe and the USA. Lectures have had to be cancelled at short notice and contact with the students has been less than satisfactory.

However during the period there was a growing use of e-mail between the students and me. It was decided in late 1996 to try and develop this further in a structured manner which could be a paradigm for short course and continuous profession educational developments at the LSE.

The Rationale

Students require well prepared course lectures to set them thinking about the issues and the problems. These require a good course book, clear notes and an attractive presentation. However it is not easy or appropriate for course lectures to address topically issues - the purpose is to supply a foundation of knowledge which can be built upon by the students in further reading, tutorials and essays.

Additionally difficulties always arise, when a course is spread over a lengthy period, of students missing lectures. The drop-out/attrition rate for students on a course remains unacceptably high.

Carefully developed distance learning provides a possible solution to all of these problems and work was done in considering the possibility of Virtual Tutorials. The Table set out below shows the features and differences between Virtual Tutorials, Physical Tutorials and Physical Lectures

Features Virtual Tutorials Physical Tutorials Physical Lectures
Responsiveness to Problems and Issues Fast Fast Difficult to alter a structured lecture scheme to cope with news
Running costs Low to Medium Very High for students if students geographically dispersed Very High if students geographically dispersed
Membership Numbers High Constrained by location of meetings High
Active Participation required of students Medium to High If numbers too high in the tutorial this can be quite low Low
Documentation production Analysis of discussions is traceable Depends upon accurate and objective reporting of tutorials - rarely done properly Depends upon lecturer
Ability to deal with multifaceted issues on an ongoing real-time basis Good Good Difficult to Poor
Targeting Favours Computer literate English Speaking students Favours students in a particular location Favours students in a particular location

The LSE prides itself on good personal lecturer/student relationships. Any work being done at the LSE in distance learning has to maintain and develop this tradition. Consequently the pilot project was designed to ensure that these relationships were strengthened

Cost was also a significant feature. The attendance at tutorials was a very significant expense for students in both money and time.

After considerable planning in late 1996 my students were given copies of specially tailored version of a program called Virtual Access from Ashmount Research. Virtual Access is a type of Groupware which has been developed over the past seven years. It enables the students to communicate effectively, sharing ideas and resources, managing projects and tracking progress and keeping everyone up to date on the latest information or policy. And the feature that made this particularly unusual was that all this could take place off-line

Some Background

For the home Internet user most electronic services are purely on-line, real-time systems. In other words, subscribers connect their computers and modems to their phone lines, dial up, and perform all the work they needed to do by typing the correct commands down the line, waiting for a response, typing some more, collecting waiting messages, downloading them - all "live" on-line - with on-line charges and phone charges mounting up all the time. Not only is this expensive, it is also slow.

Virtual Access is a particularly sophisticated type of off-line reader . These allow the students to perform those commands, compose their messages, issue their requests "off-line" - on their own computers, in their own time, without a live connection to the "on-line" system. These commands are all collected into a script. At a time convenient to the student, he/she connects to the remote system, and that script runs through its actions. Messages are posted, requests issued and waiting messages downloaded. Then the connection is terminated as quickly as possible, to minimise service and phone charges. The student then settles down to read through the messages, answering appropriately, at leisure.

The Proposed Working Method

A student enrols on the course and attends all the lectures which are given over a period of three to five days (instead of 10 to 15 weeks). Included within the lectures is an explanation of the electronic conferencing facility and a training session so that the student is familiar with the operation of the system. Considerable time is spent with the students, getting to know them and introducing them to each other. Additionally the lecturer make a personal assessment record on each of the students for the School's records.

Both during the training session and after the lecture course the students participate in the off-line tutorial. This will continue over a period of about three months with the students doing project work and discussing problems interactively with each other and the tutors. It is anticipated that third parties would also join in these discussions when invited - graduates from previous years, research students at the School etc.

At the end of the tutorial period there will be another period of finishing lectures/tutorials with the students attending for one or two days. Included within that period would be an oral examination where the tutor would discuss the student's contributions to the electronic conference discussions. There can also be a written examination (if appropriate) and the award of a certificate.

The fact that the lecturing is for very short periods does mean that the students on these courses need not come to the LSE in London. Instead the course lecturers can travel to local centres and deliver the course there to students in their own countries.

The Current Experiment

This year's class of students still get their course delivered over the 10 to 15 weeks rather than over 3 to 5 days. However a multi-user version of Virtual Access is now running on the LSE computer system in London. This enables the students to work on the off-line system at any time when they are at the LSE. Most of the students have their own computers and personal Internet access from home. All are given Telepathic VA, the customised single user version of Virtual Access, so that they can continue working and participating from home.

Lecturers and educationalists at the LSE who are interested in the experiment can also use the LSE installation or Telepathic VA.

The students download Telepathic VA, the customised single user version of Virtual Access, directly from my Telepathic Web site. Course notes are provided both using Telepathic VA and from the Web site under password control.

The Future

Already from my initial work it is clear that there needs to be a considerable investment by the distance learning lecturers in both the administrative support structure and the course materials produced Proper commercial contracts will have to be negotiated before this system can be used generally in the LSE.

The reaction of the students has been very favourable. "VA Rocks" is one of the comments which appeared early on as the students enjoyed the immediate interaction from the system. The technology is simple and affordable. It shows particular promise in delivering Continuous Professional Education to people who are working and need "refresher" courses.

Up to date information on this experiment together with application forms are available from my Web site .

Date of publication: 28 February 1997

Citation: Kelman A, 'Distance Learning at the LSE with Virtual Tutorials '', IT Review, 1997 (1) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <>

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