Educational CyberPlayGround ®

Collaboration, Sharing and Society,
Teaching, Learning and Technical Considerations

From An Analysis of WebCT, BSCW, and BlackBoard

May,2000 by Paul Pavlik

Introduction BSCW BlackBoard
WebCT General Technical Information Legal/Security
Pedagogical Implications Present and the Future The Competition
Commercial Products The End The Untold Story
The Future Paul Pavlik    

 

Introduction: Top of the Page
The original Internet was designed to be a document, research, chat and mostly textual academic sharing /collaboration environment. As schools all over the world are 'catching up' to this, they must beware of chasing out-moded, ancient, cumbersome, cold-blooded creatures, that are ready to crumble, crash and fall.... or simply wither, and die of old age.

All the Learning Environments (LEs) we examined: BSCW, BB, and WebCt, suffer from one degree to another from being designed on ancient structures/paradigms, according to weird and proprietary interfaces, or just not living up to the promise of the computer systems of FIVE years ago (i.e. multisensory input and output such as MultiMedia/surround sound, voice navigation, text to speech, animations).

As learning systems have barely thought to catch up to five years ago, (they were all designed or thought up prior to wide multi-media and WWW popularity), they are being left further behind by advancements in other, more exciting, technical innovations that may yet bring both information and the means of information cheaply / freely to all and accessible to most . The best example of this 'new' communicator can be seen at Symbian the new prototype wireless handheld device designed to work like Nokia's phones over the open standards European wireless networks.

We might note that this wireless network system as used and implemented by Nokia is being planned for implementation over wide areas of the world presently unavailable to land phone lines - such as Africa, Asia. See: www.wired.com Sept. 1999 issue.


None of the systems we looked at purported any adherence to usability guidelines, accessibility guidelines or regulations such as posted on the WWW consortium www.W3.org May 18, 2000. Thus they are mostly textual and /or static visual support/sharing environments. Before we elaborate on the pedagogical significance of this, we will give a summary of the main focus of the three environments.

BSCW - Top of the Page

A free, basic document, media, email, sharing and support mechanism from Germany. Basic Support for Collaborative Work is developed by the BSCW project group at GMD: BSCW Project, GMD-FIT, D-53754 Sankt Augustin, Germany email: bscw@gmd.de . The main characteristics of BSCW are: a clunky, ancient, cryptic, extremely hard to use, non-standard interface, and no cross-cultural/gender sensitivity of any fashion. This system is an extreme dinosaur just waiting to be petrified in the black ozze of high speed - teen inspired innovation. Suffice it to say that, as a judge for ThinkQuest, www.ThinkQuest.org , last year, I had to evaluate a more robust, user friendly system complied and programmed by three teenagers made from free and open-source materials. It is available for free from the ThinkQuest site. It was found seriously short on the usability scale - but it sure makes BSCW look more than ancient.

BSCW REVIEW

 

  • ree, robust, technically sound ---7
  • cumbersome interface, hard to use, no gender/cross-cultural awareness, inadequate/hard to access manual ------2
  • Ped. features: no MM/accessibility support, manual is very diffucult to follow. ------3
  • tech features: no Linux, wireless, or accessibility implementations -----------2
  • ------------Overall 3.5

    BLACKBOARD Top of the Page

    BB www.blackboard.com is supported in part by Sun Microsystems: www.sun.com May 18, 2000. Sun has usability and interface guidelines researched and published on the Sun web site. BB follows these guidelines remarkable well. It gets high marks for usability (the manual/guide is NOT needed), pleasant interface, non-commercial flak/interference on its website/products. It is designed primarily as a classroom/course/school supplement / resource / document sharing environment. As students can set up email, chat, webpages, etc. it can be used for more elaborate sharing. Courses can be posted/shared and accessed for free from the BB web site. They have a complete range of products and services available all supported and documented well. What BB left out... support for voice, text to speech, dictation, MM, and wireless standards. They are basically 4 yrs or so behind the competition.

    BB REVIEW

    • free for individual use, highly expensive for institutions, robust, free site access/hosting, tech sound--------- 8
    • extremely easy to use, user guideline implementation, pleasant interface------- 9
    • tech features: no Linux, Mac OS wireless, or accessibility implementations ------5
    • Ped features: MM support via web pages, chat,email---- 7
    • --------Overall - 7


    WebCT Top of the Page

    At the top - woops - bottom - of this chain is WebCt. It is the market leader and more robust LE. It is primarily a DE/WWW course delivery collaboration environment. Free? Sort of. Free to try and make a course. It suffers the same limitations as BB above, but with the added dead weight of over-commercialization. Need we note that WebCT comes from that now -undistinguished corner of North America denoted for its over-commercialization of its operating system and software? We were absolutely flabbergasted at the brazenness of this 'market leader' to have ads, links to e-commmerce sites, publishers, sellers, and more at every opportunity on their web site. The product, meanwhile, was super clumsy to use, had no demonstration available, and is bugg!. It caused my Mac to crash while trying out one course, and other courses were inaccessible via IE (mac). I had to use NN on my Mac. Multiple emails to tech support, customer support went unanswered for days and were not effectively answered in a week's time - or later..

    The usability, and design of the www.webct.com web site seriously, if not fatally, detracts from this product. The lack of timely and effective email support - and a super long and tedious in-extremis manual pounds the nail in this product's coffin.

    WebCT REVIEW

    • Free for individual use, highly expensive for institutions, robust, free site access/hosting tech somewhat sound--------- 7
    • Ease of use: encumbered by over commercialization, glitsy/busy, fancy interface.Manual : A serious impediment both in extreme length and verbose language, and non-standard usages.------- 3
    • Tech features : no Linux, Mac OS, wireless, or accessibility implementations, crashed my Mac, poor email support that borders on the nonexistant or the arrogant -----------3
    • Ped features: static, old-fashioned graphics support; same with email, chat, group rooms -5
    • ----------Overall 4.5


    General Technical Implications
    : Top of the Page

    Being built on old Unix infrastructures or being stuck in the WindowsNT world does not enhance a products usability to a world moving towards and with open standards/source, high usability out of the box, Linux, and so on. We have to ask : If the goal is to have wide and free dissemination of information how can this be separated from the wide and free dissemination of the tools of sharing information?

    Noticeable in its absence was the mention of support of standard icon/hierarchial menu interface such as in the MacIntosh; MacOSX , Unix/Linux server environments. This was especially evident in the BSCW environment.

    Why would one come up with a sharing environment and then make people learn a whole new intellectual paradigm?

    Legal/Security : Top of the Page

    With three times a week pronouncement of new security/virus holes in the Windows platform, the growing threat of hackers, pranksters and malicious cyber criminals, we have to seriously question the implementation of any sharing environment based on the WindowsNT file system. Many businesses / universities in the US are moving to the Linux operating system both on their desktops and as web servers for just this reason - price is right (free) too.
    Source www.informationweek.com Feb 2000.



    Pedagogical Implications : Top of the Page

    Bright, eager, motivated students with supportive families will learn and collaborate, as noted in Scientific American's report on the scholarship winning and SAT high scoring performance of 1st generation Vietnamese students in the US. Sure, the bright and beautiful will make spectacular and exponentially benefiting use of the ecollaboration.

    The promise and appeal of the Internet/DE and CBT is in the advantages/access it CAN give to those learners of a 'different path'. The dyslectic, abused, racial minority, slow reader, poor reader, learning disabled, sight impaired, the handicapped, the ADD/AHD, and isolated in anyway people have the greatest potential to benefit from these LEs, To be able to learn to read without the humiliating oversight of a teacher, parent or peer, to be able to learn at one's own pace, to be able to be, intellectually, in a private and secure space, to have sight, voice and sound entertainment, are the reported benefits from CBT (private Adult Vocational School Document on WBL studies done 1994).

    How do these benefits occur? With lowered stress there is a decrease in the adrenaline level in the brain, More information can get processed. Some abused adult females are literally to scared to learn. See:Garcia, To Scared to Learn, (1999). Certainly in some areas of the world (northern Alberta is just a small example) were racial tensions are high, abuse rate are over 80%, the adult students are 80% Native, female and mostly on welfare/poor, these considerations are paramount.

    Increased learning can take place with CBT/LE in these situation, as more centers of the brain are stimulated, the non-traditional (non-linear logic) areas are used, and tied in. Most poor learners do not know how to make patterns in their brains, how to use different parts of their brain together (my private research in my tutoring). These can be dramatically augmented through proper MM/high tech tools.

    Present and the Future Top of the Page
    With the general availability of robust integrationist packages freeware/shareware/commercial and competing technologies these products we examined will only exist in niche markets.

    The Competition: Top of the Page

     

    • cheap long distance phone calls e.g. $20/month non-prime time across Canada phone all you want long distance service; (super popular).
    • Free chat /voice, file sharing communications available through and with Yahoo, Firetalk, AIM,MS Netmeeting, and others.
    • free email/file sharing through egoups.com.
    • group rooms, MOOS and MUDS and more, that go way beyond the scope of this paper.
    • all the services/technology offered through and with Apple.com and MindLink.com
    • " Colloquia" - (The best overall VLE examined and FREE) from: http://toomol.bangor.ac.uk/ The University of Wales Bangor CeLT Centre for Learning Technology. Manual that is a pleasure? Demo? Downloads? Yes... and next day email replies. If you want an example of what makes a system, manual, and environment easy to use and a pleasure to visit, examine this site..



    Commercial Products: - (Three examples) Top of the Page

    -DreamWeaver/Fireworks Studio augmented with Flash/Shockwave, and Course Builder

    Consider the learning curve, the computer resources used for these LEs. Then consider spending $150 + US on a combo package such as Macromedia's DreamWeaver/Fireworks Studio. Add on Flash/Shockwave, and Course Builder for further features. Not only is this state of the art, complete delivery/collaborative system, but a teen student who is competent in its use, can finish high school and go out and be in business for himself in a few months!! How do I know? In September I tutored via email a dyslectic teen-almost-a-dropout in Great Britain. He is now in webdesign/consulting business for himself! See www.idesign1.com

    Astound www.astound.com has a compelling, easy to use in 10 minute learning curve animation/authoring/multimedia/self-correcting-test program that costs $150 US. They also have 'conference centers' for free that integrate voice/video/chat. There are other such services available for free or at low cost.

    RealAudio RealAudio.com is just another wide, free, robust, MM sharing /collaborative environment.


    The End Top of the Page

    From visiting the main sites for BSCW, WEbCT and BB, one can see the results of non-exposure to such simple things as the MacIntosh, RealAudio, Flash and ShockWave, and tooomanyyoucannotmakeupyourmind free webpage hosting services. We hope that others can see the pedagogical benefits of getting 'up' with current tech standards, and see the benefits of complying with Human User Interface guidelines, usability studies, and become cross-culturally /gender/ handicap sensitive.


    The Untold Story Top of the Page
    None of these products under our scrutiny addressed the problem of community impact. High tech products must and should have widespread community use/implementation/commercial appeal. Otherwise they are dead end dinosaurs, leading users into the tar pits of obscurity and confusion.

    No product website offered any students' comments, recommendations, testimonials etc. None offered evidence of any recent trade/professional awards. (See www.firstclass.com May 12, for a comparison. This is the BEST commercial product we examined.)

    The fact that these systems do not have accessibility features :no text-only-page buttons, Text-to-speech options, embedded voice(see www.conversa.com), easy/voice navigation for the handicapped, means they are non compliance with today's standards. Judging that I had most of these things on my Mac five years ago, how long will it take these other systems to 'catch up'. If these features are five years old (and should have been in place eons ago) what about tomorrow's HandHeld Wireless Standards? What about other standards?

    Are we to say that these systems are OK because they give access to learning and collaboration to mostly English / Main Euro-languages, financially successful - able to afford a computer, rich enough to afford the time to learn how to use the system, and both patient enough and physically capable of communicating in a typewritten format on a glarey screen? Imagine what small percentage of the school (let alone the world's) population that is!

    We all need to co-operate:

    I hate to tell you folks, what is delineated above is the very SMALL minority. Even here - out in the 'sticks' -( I can count the traffic with my hand.) - we have First Nation's students, we have immigrants from all over the world, we have all the challenges of educational systems. We have to take all kinds of accessibility/usefulness into account. We all need to cooperate. Half the kids here cannot do the times tables or write 3 paragraphs.

    A change in technology, but not thinking, will solve that problem?

    The above facts and the fact that none of these systems offer any kind of memory/brain/learning/study skills integration leads me to conclude that their main purpose in life is as tools for teachers and administrators. The $4,000+ price tag on BB and WebCT seems to bear this out.

    The Future? Top of the Page

    What if each student had the perfect computer system and perfect networking? How will they use it? I bet it would be World Wrestling Federation and MP3 files on the top list of things being exchanged. Proof: Look what the number one files being downloaded and exchanged on US university campuses right now!

    What if the teachers have the perfect broadband access? What would they be doing? I bet we would be all to busy trying to learn how to deal with the technical/pollitical/legal aspects of it to be able to use it effectively. Thus the results of the collaboration of the students would be wide-scaled copying, and borrowing. That is what I saw the most of when I was a ThinkQuest cyberjudge.

    We all need better and more seamless access to the means of sharing information and cooperation. It is just part of looking after each other.

    It is a small planet.


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